Friday, August 14, 2015

U.S. Army Airborne School, Airborne Class 37. 45th Company, Fourth Student Battalion. June 1973


In June 1973  I had just finished my second year at the University of New Mexico, courtesy of the United States Marine Corps.  I was slated to go to Corpus Christi, Texas to the Naval Air Station there, and also to NAS Kingsville and NAS Beeville. I was in the aviation pipeline so my summer active duty was to be spent at Naval Air Stations.

But, there was a tradition in my reserve unit that the Marines all volunteered to go to the Army Airborne School on permissive orders. This meant, basically, that you went TAD but with no additional pay or allowances.

I have always had a fear of heights, which may seem strange in an aviator. The truth is, in an aircraft I never felt it. But I hate ladders and working on the roof to this day.  If I could have weaseled out of going to Benning, I would have.

Our reserve unit was officered by a USMC major, and some Navy Lieutenants. There were some Chiefs there, but the Marines were basically controlled by a First Sergeant. Our First Sergeant was Top Herringer. He was an immensely dignified man, a combat veteran of the Viet Nam War. We went in awe of him.  Most of us were very young, and he kept us out of trouble, or , if somebody got into trouble (fights were common, as we weren't popular on campus) he fixed it with the police. I always felt the police were not averse to seeing some freaks take their lumps, and this may have helped Top Herringer smooth things over.  At any rate, volunteering for jump school went like this.  All the Marines fell in at formation. Top Herringer came out and said "anyone who doesn't want to go to jump school , take one step forward."

It may be that old salts have the moral courage to take that step forward, though I rather doubt it. The Marines attract a certain type of person, and the fear of letting down the side is inculcated in them from the moment they enter the Marine Corps. We were all "boots" and there was no way the most recalcitrant was going to take that step.  So I went to jump school.

Fort Benning is murderously hot and humid in summer. I was coming from Albuquerque, where there is no humidity to speak of. I remember the heat and the way the humidity just drained you. Jump school was intense physically but we were all in top shape. The big fear was getting some minor injury that would fail you out of the class. 

My class book from Jump School.  Graduated 20 June 1973 after 5th Jump.

Back then, jump school was one week of training in mock ups,  one week of training from towers, and the final week consisted of five jumps, the last one being a mass exit in full combat gear. I made three jumps from the C-141 Starlifter, that's the aircraft on the cover of the book, and two from the C-130 Hercules.

This is my class photo for the book.  They took them in a mock up, after a hard days training which is why I look so bedraggled. Nobody wanted to screw around with the picture, we just wanted to shower, eat, and sleep. but it was not optional.

I never saw anyone refuse to jump.  First, you go out at a run right behind the guy in front of you, so it's automatic. Second, no one wants to look like a coward. Third, if you froze in the door the jump masters pushed you out. This was a kindness, because nothing was said or thought about it, but if you came down with the aircraft you might as well be dead. If someone did that, they became a non-entity that people were embarrassed to look at, and were glad when the person was shipped out.

After Benning I never jumped out of an aircraft again.  There are a few people who do that in the Marines, but I never had an MOS, not even a secondary one, that required it and I did not feel badly about the fact. I suppose in retrospect I am glad I went, but I had a lot better time at the Air Stations in Texas, where I got to fly the TA-4 Skyhawk and the S2 Tracker among other aircraft. I was just a trainee in the aircraft then, but it was great. The real pilots were glad to let me motor along on the stick (or yolk)  while they did their stint hauling us around. I already had my civil pilots license by then (thanks to the Navy flight indoctrination program).  A long summer but an interesting one.

One final note. I was entitled to wear the Army Airborne Wings after graduation, and I was always proud to do so. I never considered myself a paratrooper, though.  Although technically the layman might consider a jump school graduate to be a paratrooper, that's not really true.  Paratroopers are highly elite infantry with the capability of being delivered to the combat area by parachute.  A person like me, who was not an infantryman or even a ground combat arms guy, is basically someone who went through the training for jumping, but is by no means entitled to the sobriquet of paratrooper.

I found my old Airborne School book this morning while I was looking for something else, and that's what reminded me of all this.

I have a lot of respect for paratroopers. Here's a link to a scene from "Band of Brothers" that shows why.

Band of Brothers: The Jump into Normandy


  1. Slightly off topic, but military related. Yesterday while talking with my dad, he told me about the business he started when he was 16 years old. He started raising rabbits and would butcher and package the meat for stores and sell at the farmers market in Los Angeles during WWII. He said the money made from the meat just covered the costs and expenses. He made his profit from selling the rabbit hides to the government which would shred, or cut up the hides and use it to package
    the ammunition for transport. He said he wasn't exactly sure how they ground up
    the hides, as he was required to sell to a broker, and didn't have direct contact with
    the government. I read a lot of retired military blogs, and haven't ever heard of this
    mentioned. Have you? Dad was later drafted and was a electrician in the Pacific
    at the very end of the war. Came back and resumed the rabbit business.

    1. I haven't but I wouldn't be surprised if it happened just that way. I suspect that a finite resource like that would have been used to package fuses for bombs and artillery rounds, anti aircraft gun fuses, tanks shell fuses, etc.

      Maybe someone else coming by here will have more information on that. It's an interesting concept but when I think of it, they didn't use plastic bubbles or Styrofoam back then.

  2. I went thru Airborne school in June, 78. It was hellaciously hot--high 90s and low 100s every day--and we were housed in WW2 vintage barracks without air conditioning so we didn't get good quality sleep and recovery. I grew up in the Deep South but that was the most miserably hot month of my life. But that first jump, then the night jump, are still among the most exhilarating and frightening experiences I've had.

    Two years later, following graduation and completion of Infantry Officers Basic and Ranger School, I became an infantry platoon leader in the 82nd Abn. 3 challenging and enjoyable years!

    Abn School is excellent training. Really teaches you the individual skills. Serving as a paratrooper was another matter altogether. Was lucky to participate in Operation Bright Star '82: we flew from Ft Bragg to Egypt, jumped out, and spent 2 or 3 weeks training there with the Egyptian army. Most of the Task Force flew nonstop in C-141s (rigged with stretchers like hospital flights for sleeping) to a big linkup over the Med. We did an inflight rig (donning chutes while aboard), jumped out at Cairo West airfield, followed by a tactical assembly, LONG tactical road march, and then bivouacking in GP medium tents. That flight and march was the 2nd longest "day" of my life (maybe 42 hours?), only exceeded by the beginning of the long patrol (12 days) in Ranger School (Florida phase) which was 3 days/nights with no sleep.

    BTW, Bright Star was the proving ground that you could fly paratroopers thousand of miles and let them airborne assault. Prior to that, airborne ops always entailed assembling paratroops much closer to the objective.

    1. We didn't do a night jump, an experience I freely admit I can live without!

      I worked with the 82 Airborne as a liaison officer on and off while I was stationed at Camp Lejeune, in 1985-85 while I was waiting for my release from active duty. Fort Bragg wasn't a long road trip and we traded use of exercise areas and did joint operations training with the Army there.

      I remember Bright Star being a big deal, I was stationed in Naples, Italy at the time and didn't have any actual interface with it, but the Marine Corps watched it closely. The thought was that in a big blow up in the Middle East, the Marine Amphibious Unit already in the Med would be first in, and the Paratroops would be the first significant reinforcements to arrive. This was viewed as good and bad. Good because the paratroops were viewed as good soldiers. Bad because they arrive "light." A MAU only had 5 M-60 tanks deployed, and the Middle East was tank country. Even the Germans never figured out a way to drop heavy tanks, and tanks designed for airborne deployment, like the Sheridan, were too lightly gunned and armored to stand up to the T-56 and it's newer variants. So it would have been an interesting experience had the balloon gone up there.

      Airborne school was a good experience, in retrospect, looking back at it 42 years later!

      I wondered how many people there were out there who come by here, having had the same experience. Seems like there would be more than just the two of us. Thanks for the comment, I enjoyed reading it.

    2. Bright Star wasn't long after Sadat was killed, so tensions were high. The Med fleet was flying CAP for us, B-52s lead us in, and I think most of Army forces in Europe were on alert status if SHTF.

      We paratroopers have good strategic mobility, but once our boots hit the ground we only had LPCs (leather personnel carriers) so tactical mobility was limited. We spent a lot of time on executing antiarmor kill zones with TOWs, artillery and gunships. We troopers protected those while they killed the tanks.

      We went to Lejeune for training on their very nice MOUT (Mil Ops in Urban Terr) site; I think they called it Combat City. The dust was impregnated with tear gas and the mosquitoes were the absolute worst.

      Jumped into Bluebird DZ. Small DZ (drop zone), not far from the ocean, had barbed wire and a short runway (for VSTOL?) on it so it made for a tricky jump. One guy broke his back in the trees. I wound up landing on the runway but only scratched my elbow even tho' I was loaded down with a radio and pyrotechnics as a platoon leader.

      Went back to Lejeune a few years ago for my nephew's graduation. Mosquitoes are still terrible. Uncle Sam buys swampland for USMC and remote pine forests and deserts for the Army.

      PS I remember the instructors at Abn Sch griefing (sic) the USMC LT we had in our class: "Are the usmucks (USMC) still looking for a few good men? Seems after a couple decades they'd have found a few by now."

      PPS Enjoy your blog

    3. I know LZ Blue Bird. That runway was for the Harriers, the VSTOL fighter bombers we obtained from the British by was of license. Lejeune had nice beaches, but the woods were pestilential in the extreme. I spent a lot of time in LZ Goose because we constantly ran exercises out of there. The watchword seemed to be "No POV in the field" so no one could escape to go home for the night.

      I know different units at Lejeune used to send scrounging expeditions to the property disposal lot at Bragg. The Army was very rich, and threw away things that were better than our issue equipment. For instance, a sleeping bag with a tear in it would be sent to the disposal lot, where our guys would get it, sew it up, and issue it. Generator parts, mount out boxes, slash wire, field desks, lockers and cabinets, I saw all that coming back on trucks having been salvaged over at Bragg. The Marines are always poor, and always live hand to mouth.

      The chaffing back and forth between different services has been going on at least since the days of the Spartans. It's part of the game and usually taken in good spirits. The Navy rides the Marines like that. I was bitten by the "sea bat" on my first deployment aboard a Navy vessel. They announce over the 1 MC system that a rare "sea bat" has accidentally landed on the ship, and has been trapped under a bucket on the weather deck by the bosun's mates. People who have never seen a sea bat are allowed to come up, one at a time to see it. You have to lift the bucket rim just a little , so the sea bat can't escape while you peer at it. When you bend over to do so, you receive a thunderous swat with a broom on the rear end.

      Of course, having been "bitten" by the sea bat, the victim is anxious for others to enjoy the same experience. He goes back down to the berthing spaces and assures his buddies that the sea bat is a wondrous creature indeed, and no one should miss this opportunity of seeing one.

  3. I went in July 2009. Thankfully I was well acclimatized from just finishing IOBC a couple blocks up the street. We signed in on a Friday and wasted 3 hours to fill out 3 pieces of paper with data they surely already had. That started with standing in a formation between the buildings for maybe 45 minutes. Some kids from West Point were bussed down. One fell out just from standing there during the formation!

    The general format of ground, tower and jump weeks hasn't changed.

    The night jump was really cool, so peaceful. Well till I misjudged the height by 40-50 feet went to lower my ruck and it hit the ground then busted my butt pretty good.

    1. I'm glad I was spared that. I always loved flying at night, but coming down in a parachute would have had me worried. I can think of all kinds of unpleasant possibilities, especially if there were no moon. Depth perception must be skewed for a parachutist at night, so I'm not surprised that happened to you. Sounds like your course was more comprehensive than the one I went to.

    2. Day jumps were at 750 feet; night jumps at 1000 to give you more time to react. Moonless, cloudy nights with a light rain can be tricky to judge the ground. Drop your ruck too early and you tend to start swinging too much. After about 30 jumps, most at night, you kinda picked up an internal clock that let you know when you were getting close. When your ruck hit you had a good second to relax for the impact.

    3. I looked in my class book. There was a little log in there to record your jumps. All of mine were from 1200 feet, I'm pretty sure to give a tyro more time to fix the problem if something went wrong.

      750 feet seems mighty low to me. I know the lower you are dropped, the less "scatter" of a unit, and the less time ill disposed people on the ground have to shoot at you. But that's low! I'm glad I never had to do that.

    4. Not sure about the Abn School jumps, but at Ft Bragg I know the daylight jumps were 750 and 1,000 for night. A friend of mine was in the Rangers and jumped into Grenada--only 500 feet with no reserve--on a for-real combat jump at night.

    5. I'm sure you are right about your altitudes. What I meant was, I would have been a little apprehensive myself at having to jump at that altitude. Not much time to think or act if something goes wrong.

  4. I could never jump! I'm so afraid of heights like that. I can ride in a plane, and climb trails, but free falling nope. I know that the parachute will allow you to land gracefully, but what if it didn't open up? I'd think about that, and freak out!

    1. Alissa, you could do it. By the time you get to the jumps, you'd be acting automatically. I'm sure , with the number of women in the service now, and the military occupational specialties open to them, that lots of women must go through jump school these days. Besides, anyone with the courage to be a working mom and wife can handle a jump! ;-)

    2. I am also scared of heights, but jumping is very different--you're supposed to jump and it's not falling. As the Abn School instructors said repeatedly, "It's the best thing you'll ever do with your pants on!"

      We were told the odds of canopy failure were 1 in 24,000, so the odds of both failing were 1/.5billion. I jumped 65 times in 3 years in Egypt, Panama, Alaska and most of the southeastern states. Walked away from every one so they were "good" jumps. We had a few killed in California because of windshear. They got slammed into the ground, stunned or killed by impact, and were then dragged across the high desert because they weren't conscious to release their chutes. That's why we got the extra $110/month for hazard pay.

    3. My Abn School class had some women, a few quite petite. I remember one of our day jumps it was hot and the rising air was enough to keep some of the women suspended for a while. I think I timed one that took almost 15 minutes to fall 1000 feet. The big guys, anyone over 225#, hit like a bag of rocks.

    4. I think it's like anything else. There's a certain element of fate involved. And most people, when it comes to something dangerous, have this little voice inside that assures them "it" only happens to other people. 65 jumps was a lot. I still see Army Rangers parachuting from helicopters periodically around here, because they have a training LZ in the national forest, and there's a ranger base in Lumpkin County, Ga.

    5. There were no women going through jump school in my day. There have been a lot of changes. I know the French dropped female nurses into Dien Bien Phu during the siege without any problems, other than the fact that they couldn't get them out once artillery closed the airfield.

      Today women are so integrated into units that I guess airborne outfits will have plenty of jump qualified females.

  5. I went to Air Assault school and was later stationed on Ft. Benning where I was on a wait list for Airborne school. While on the wait list, one of my good friends got into Airborne school and on his 5th jump got his feet caught in the risers and bent his knees backwards... which dampened my enthusiasm quite a bit, I can tell you. I never did move up the list far enough to get into Airborne school. Paratroopers would call you a "5 jump chump", but even worse, they'd call me a "xxxx leg". (fill the x's with any curseword that comes to mind)

    1. I well remember the "leg" epitaph, something we didn't have in the Marine Corps. The closest I can remember to it is the habit of ground Marines calling Wing Marines "Wing Wipers." The main issue being that the life of an Air Wing Marine was so much more comfortable and safer than that of a "Grunt".

      I just kind of blanked out accidents. I knew they happened but I also knew it could never happen to me. Older and wiser now, though.

    2. Yeah, we paratroopers referred to NAPs (non-Airborne personnel) as "dirty, nasty legs." My father was a 22-year 11B, retired MSgt, with two combat tours in Korea and one in Viet Nam. I tried busting his chops about being a "leg" and he put me in my place with something like "Boy, I've broken in more lieutenants than you've seen in your lifetime."

    3. I think all old hands have some rejoinder they use to keep younger men in their place. I recall being told on the U.S.S. Manitowac, after a polite disagreement with a Navy Chief about keeping mount out boxes with batteries in them , in the back of an embarked Deuce and a half, "Lieutenant, with all due respect, I've got more time on the crapper than you have at sea." I saw his point and we took the box below decks.

    4. I remember one of my platoon sergeants had a great line: "I've got more time in a T-10 than you've got in a T-shirt. (T-10s are the original round 'chutes that weren't steerable). He was generous with this retort to the instructors when our platoon went to Air Assault School at Ft Campbell, KY.
      FYI, the 101st Abn Div (now Air Assault, meaning helicopters) has long had a rivalry with the 82nd, hence we referred to them as the Puking Buzzards, rather than their preferred Screaming Eagles.

    5. The T-10 is what we used when I went through jump school. I'm not sure when they were phased out.

      A certain amount of rivalry is not a bad thing for military units, it helps build what the french call espirit de corps. Sometimes that will get you through demanding situations.

  6. Harry,

    As a kid I always wanted to be a paratrooper, specifically the 101st. Probably because of "a bridge to far". But Other plans took over and I ended up in Medellin during the cartel wars of 88.

    The closest I ever got to playing soldier was while in education. The military provided educator tours, so I visited Benning years ago and got to take a week long tour. Fascinating place. Four years ago I took a ride with the Marines attached to the blue Angels. Got to take a ride in the C-130 "fat albert". I can't describe the g-forces experienced while doing simulated combat take offs and landings. I handled it OK, but the cute news reporter next to me threw up. Those Marine aviators are nuts.

    I'm putting in for Camp Pendelton this year... --Troy

    1. A Bridge Too Far came out when I was in college. Didn't have a car at that point, so my buddies and I would ride the bus out to the theater to see it, then have to walk the 7 miles back to campus. We saw it a bunch of times anyway. Very motivating.

      It's a lot easier to get sick as a passenger in an aircraft than as aircrew, because the passengers have nothing to do that can distract them. I hope she had a barf bag, the crew chief will not have been pleased at all if she didn't.

      Pendleton is a nice place. My two brothers were West Coast Marines, operating out of California or Okinawa. I was an East Coast Marine, operating out of North Carolina, in the Med, and in Okinawa. Among other places. Like your experiences during the Cartel Wars, I found some places far more congenial than others.

      When I went to Okinawa I stopped off for a week's leave at Camp Pendleton with my youngest brother who was stationed there at the time. It was really nice, the beaches were great.

  7. Hey Harry,


    I was in first grade back in '73 I think.

    Back in the early 70's did you guys have a problem with 'freaks streaking' on campus Harry. My father was a faculty member at UTEP, University of Texas at El Paso and I remember see lots of streakers, stark naked running around campus on the news all the time.
    I also remember going to a track and field event and another streaker running amok and everyone laughing including my dad.

    We took a field trip in a VW microbus to Chaco Canyon about that time, myself, my dad and a bunch of hippe's, freaks. I bet the freaks were smoking weed at Chaco Canyon in one of the Kiva's.
    My dad was a pretty straight. He was in the Navy during the Korean war and was more interested in research than socializing, drinking or anything else. In the early to mid 70's I went to a great many Indian dances on reservations that are now blocked to whites and I saw dances and that now are only for tribal members. I have been to every pueblo in New Mexico I think and on tribal lands in Arizona. I have been in hogons and on sheep ranches in Arizona. I also spent a lot of time in Santa Fe and some time in Albuqueque. A few times in the early 70's, I went with my dad to the bookstore at University of New Mexico looking for research books. I really think Harry at that point we may have been a few miles apart.

    Every now and then I get on youtube and watch movie clips of Easy Rider because large parts of the film were filmed in New Mexico in 1970, when nothing was there and the state was almost all rural. The people were poor by todays standards but they were able to eat and actually most lived very well as people would have lived 'off the grid' for centuries.
    I don't mean to go off on a tangent on all this, but it reminds me that my mother grew up on a ranch in South Eastern New Mexico with no electricity, no heat half the time, and sometimes no running water. My mother survived the ranch life and got a bachelors degree and later a masters degree.

    As a kid I remember New Mexico being a magical place where there was very little infrastructure and everyone seemed a lot happier than they are now. New Mexico had more New Mexicans (mixture of white Spainards, Mexican American and Indian.
    Now New Mexico is high end white people and lots and lots of illegal Mexican, Mexicans. The culture was more refined and food more refined than in Mexico. Speaking of which at a local grocery store, they are selling 'green chili peppers from Hatch New Mexico down here in South Texas.

    1. CC, I remember the streaking phenomenon, but I was a lot more interested in being sure I didn't get beaten up if a bunch of them caught me alone. Some of them, the one's passing through, were just hippies and no problem. But the ones who were actually students from back east, and were into the "no war" thing, were dangerous. They were a cowardly bunch and would only attack you if they way outnumbered you, (kind of like some other's I can think of today) but they were damned dangerous in packs. There were some enlisted Marines and sailors in my reserve unit, going to UNM on commissioning programs like NESEP (Naval Enlisted Scientific Education Program) and those guys the freaks didn't mess with, not more than once. But we 17 and 18 year olds were fair game.

      New Mexico was a wonderful place and I loved it. When I got out of the service I tried to find some work out there but couldn't, or I would have moved there.

      I've been to Chaco, a very strange place especially at night under a full moon. You had some good experiences, your dad did right by you.

  8. Wow. A C-141. Those are all completely gone now, and only a couple in museums haven't been reduced to scrap. Just in case you weren't feeling old yet. Heh.

    1. Almost all the aircraft in use in the 1970's are gone now. Not a single one of the Navy ships I served on are left. They're been scrapped or sold off to third world countries. I can remember going out to Kirtland AFB with a bunch of my friends, to see an F-14 that was on the flight line. None of us had seen one before. It was parked next to three F-100's that were being operated by the New Mexico Air National Guard.