Bad memories! Those two helicopters that collided 3/30/23, killing 9 crew members, while involved with 101st Airborne Division war games, at Fort Campbell, brought back visions of the first mass training fatalities suffered by the division at Fort Campbell.
Operation Eagle Wing. April 24, 1958.
I was there.
I was there, just one of many, on the DZ Drop Zone, knocking down chutes, billowed with the gushing wind storm, dragging troopers, who were fighting to free themselves from the hell ride across the hard ground.
Many men were saved from harm by our actions. But still, 5 troopers were killed that day. A sixth man died in the hospital the next day. Another 150 or so were severely injured. Some so bad they had to be medically discharged.
This tragedy occurred only three years after the 101st was moved to Campbell; but there were already two other incidents before, before Eagle Wing involving the Screaming Eagles in their new home. Injuries but no fatalities.
The first was during a multi plane drop, a plane hit an air pocket, dipped, and cut the chutes of some of the troopers that just jumped from the plane ahead. Some injuries, but thanks to the training of Parachute Landing Falls in jump school, no deaths. The second, the pilot missed the DZ and some troopers were deposited over a barracks area. Quite a few of the injuries sustained were the results of falling off the roofs they landed on. Some lucky ones fell off the roof of the hospital and didn’t have far to go to be taken care of.
In the years since Eagle Wing, the 101 Division has had an unseemly amount of disasters involving air craft. In 1996, a helicopter crashed between the barracks and 6 were killed. Between 1988 and 2015, there were 36 Fort Campbell soldiers killed in helicopter incidents.
On 11/12/85, a plane carrying troopers back to Campbell from training exercises in Egypt, crashed in Newfoundland, crashed killing all 258 aboard. The worst air crash in Canadian history.
Injuries and deaths in military training, wartime or peacetime, is an elephant in the room when one raises their hand to take the oath. It is just as much a part military life as are ill-fitting uniforms. But it seems that the 101st has gotten more than it’s share as regards air maneuvers.
The 82nd Airborne suffered a Screaming Eagle type fate in 1981, in a prelim to Gallant Eagle Operation, in the Mohave Desert. Once again, the canopy hawk assumed the disguise of the a killing wind, gusts up to 40 mph, causing the death of 4 troopers, and 156 serious injuries. It was the largest mass-training accident in the history of the 82nd; but one could argue that it occurred in a joint exercise with the Screaming Eagles, their hex rubbed off on the All American Division.
During my years at Fort Bragg the most publicized injury was that of Padre Jello, the Division’s Catholic chaplain, on his 54th jump. He landed on the side of a highway ditch. One leg higher than the other. The lower leg snapped on impact. Shows the man upstairs shows no preference as regards troopers.
The lone training death was gruesome. Some members of my outfit, Signal Battalion, and two infantry line companys, were slated to jump on the beach in Panama and work into the jungle. About 15 minutes from hooking-up, the jump-master went to the plane’s open door and looked at the ocean. The plane hit a pocket, tipped slightly and the jump-master fell out. His main chute was not hooked up.
He did as he was trained to do. He popped his reserve chute and floated down. When he got to less than 100 feet from landing, he popped his release and fell free from his chute. Had he fell into the water still attached to his chute, he could have been drowned by the chute filling with water. The pilot radioed for a rescue helicopter.
The copter reached the scene of the fall in minutes. There was no one to be rescued…just a group of sharks swimming in a pool of red in the ocean below.
The trooper had done just as he had been trained to do. And the sharks did as they were born to do.
Operation Eagle Wing
Brigadier General William Westmoreland had recently taken over command of the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell. Prior, Westmoreland had risen from a major to a general in the 82nd Airborne Division. His first initiative at Campbell was to have war games at Campbell commencing with a mass division jump followed by the division splitting in two and let the game began.
Most of my outfit, 82nd Signal Battalion were flown across the mountain to Fort Campbell. We were loaded into a C 130, at 0600, along with our signal equipment, two jeeps, and two deuce-and-half trucks. No parachutes for us or the equipment.
The journey started with a bang as soon as the plane hit high altitude. While we had been waiting for take off, several of the troopers decided to get comfortable and inflated their air mattresses, stretched out and fell asleep. They awoke in a hurry when the change in air pressure caused their mattresses to explode. The rest of us jumped a foot when the explosions happened. Several of the sleepers were sent airborne, actually flung higher than the trucks. What an omen for the days ahead.
Our first full day at Campbell was a day long instruction lesson by the umpires as to what our duties would be during the war games. We would not jump with the division, but would get to the DZ earlier so our communications would be ready prior to the mass jump.
Our Commanding Officer, (aka – CO, aka – the Old Man), told us to get a good nights sleep. Some would drive the equipment to the DZ, the rest of us would jump in. When we woke, we could hear the wind howling outside. The Old Man announced our jump was off. But we would still travel, by trucks, to the DZ and set up our equipment. He was certain that if the wind kept up, the division jump would be aborted; but it would be great training for us to set up in such adverse conditions.
And talk about a struggle. It took forever to get something set up and in a second the wind blew it down. The brass and politicians were already going in the bleachers to watch the drop, by the time we were ready to roll. Since the biggies were there, we knew the planes would fly over shortly. Fly over, see the red flare signaling ‘no go’, and go back to the air field.
We heard the roar of the planes over the roar of the wind. We settled back and waited for the red flare that would signal no-go.The planes flew closer to the DZ. Then a flare shot up…a ‘green-to-go’ signal.
Almost to a man, Signal Battalion shouted, ‘What the…’
We ran out on the DZ as soon as troopers hit the ground. Disaster! Chaos! What a mess! How could they allowed the jump in this wind???
William Westmoreland was one of the youngest to receive that fourth star. He was also very ambitious and hungry for that big number five star. While this well publicized full division jump would not get it for him, but it would raise his esteem toward his goal. Several years later, he would hit the wall for his failure as Commander in Chief of in the-never-should-have-been-involved conflict, the civil war in Viet Nam.
He might have skated on his lack of safety for his men at Fort Campbell; but we that were there would never forgive him for what happened, thanks to his ego and ambition. But that day, he was also a hero. He was one of the first to jump. One of the first to land. And one of the first to knock down chutes. And he did not stop until the job was finished. He busted ass out there. I know. Many times, when I was knocking down wind blown silk, I seen him doing the same, close by.
When everything was under control everybody got the night off. No war games for at least five days. Some of us in Signal Battalion grabbed a cold cut sandwich in our mess hall and ate it on the bus heading into Clarksville. The town was filled with GI’s. It was oh so very silent. We found a bar with some empty tables and went in. The bar was also silent. There was some whispered conversation, but no loud talk.
A very pregnant waitress was loading an order of beers on her serving trey. Four men in 101st fatigues, entered. They walked right to the waitress. She gave them a big smile.
‘What a terrible thing,’ she said. ‘I was sleeping all day and didn’t hear about it until I got to work.’ She wasn’t talking loud but we could hear her. ‘So happy to see you are safe’.
Then she stopped. The smile disappeared. ‘Where’s Jay? Where the hell is Jay? Where’s my husband?’
One of the soldiers said something softly. She dropped the trey and the metal and glass hitting the floor sounded like a bomb had exploded.
Someone behind us hollered, ‘F#@# and he threw a glass on the floor. Others followed suit. The waitress was crying in the arms of the soldier who broke the news to her.
My friends and I set half emptied beer glasses down. We left the bar and the town and the mourning people to their sorrow.
At breakfast the next morning, the Old Man said we were free for the next 5 days. He gave us passes to go anywhere, just so we were back by 0600 the coming Monday. Be ready to continue Eagle Wing.
Bobby Ford and myself thumbed our way down to Nashville. We got back to Campbell with a few hours to spare. The Old Man addressed us at breakfast.
The bad news was we had only three hours to pack and get everything to the plane. The good news was we were going back home to Ft Bragg. Eagle Wing was no longer a war game. Just a field exercise. The umpires were no longer needed, and no longer need our Signal Battalion.
‘The next meal you’ll be eating will be supper, men. And that will be the last meal until after we complete our jump, mid-morning tomorrow.’ He paused expecting to some reaction from us. The only noise was the sounds of hungry men eating.
You get bucked off a horse, you got to get back right back on. We had been thrown by the Canopy Hawk, we had to overcome our fear as soon as possible.
The butterflies in my stomach settled down as soon as I cleared the plane, and looked up to behold that silk canopy in full bloom. It was one jump I will always remember. I had saw the worse and now this jump was one of the best. Floating along on a sunlit morning, with just a wisp of a breeze that didn’t bring fear, but the aroma of the new spring greenery. Silent. Peaceful. A chapel in the sky.
This is my favorite blog post about jumping in wartime
And here’s my favorite about jumping in peacetime
And that’s a wrap