In 1966, I was an 18-year-old paratrooper assigned to the 8th Infantry Division (Mechanized) in Wiesbaden, West Germany. I was a rigger, the soldier who packs personnel and cargo parachutes, rigs vehicles and artillery pieces for aerial delivery, and inspects parachutists before a jump. It’s a lot of responsibility. Lives are at stake, and the riggers’ motto is “I WILL BE SURE ALWAYS!”
I volunteered for the Army and then, while in Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, for the riggers. I was thrilled that I would get three extra months of training and another set of wings to wear on my uniform. And one year later, on the bright, clear morning of May 10, 1967, I got the chance to earn German parachutist’s wings. I was on temporary duty with Company D, Seventeenth Infantry (LRP), a long-range reconnaissance patrol unit assigned to V Corps in Frankfurt. This was one assignment I hadn’t volunteered for. I was sent there by my company commander, Cpt. James Kopp. In the span of six weeks, I had stacked up two Article 15’s (nonjudicial punishments), for which I was fined two hundred dollars, placed on KP washing pots, and busted from corporal down to private.
I’ll never know why Captain Kopp kept faith in me. The year before, he had sent me to France to haul cargo parachutes back to Germany, and this time he was sending me to a 170-man company of LRPs as the sole rigger. I would be responsible for every T-10 main and reserve parachute used on their jumps
This Wednesday, the LRPs were jumping at Bad Kreuznach, a small army airfield west of the Rhine River, with German paratroops (Third Fallschirmjäger Regiment). It was my job to distribute the parachutes and to make sure every main and every reserve was properly strapped on and that the reserve ripcord’s two pins were secure, unbent, and not corroded. So that the Germans and Americans could train together, the jump would be from CH-34 Choctaw helicopters. (The Germans had the same chutes and the same helicopters, too, except for the big black “Iron Cross” painted on each side above “HEER,” the word for “Army.”)
Jumping from helicopters is more fun and much faster than from fixed-wing aircraft because you lift off and climb 1,250 feet to jump altitude, straight up from the drop zone. There’s a lot less gagging and puking because you don’t spend hours crammed into a hot fixed-wing aircraft such as a C-130 Hercules, sucking in exhaust fumes through the open jump doors while the pilots log their required formation and low-level flying time.
I always loved jumping—except for the last few feet. No matter how I perfected my parachute landing falls, hitting the ground always hurt. And it hurt especially on moonless nights, when there was no way to see the ground until I slammed into it, or when the field I was supposed to land in turned out to be a paved road. Night jumps offered all kinds of experiences. Landing in a farmer’s field was great if I hit freshly plowed ground, but not so nice when I barely missed the toothed harrow he used to cultivate that field. The dozens of spikes for breaking up the soil could really tenderize a parachutist! Daylight jumps were usually better, except when the wind carried me into rolling hills of vineyards, with no way to maneuver my chute around the vast expanse of five-foot grape stakes jutting into the air. I didn’t often turn to God for help, but a couple of times, looking down at those endless ranks of steel skewers pointing up at me, I figured that a prayer might not hurt my chances. I made it through all my jumps without any lasting injuries—even landed in some great orchards full of tasty peaches and apples.
This particular exercise with the LRPs allowed me to make two jumps and earn German wings—a customary exchange when jumping with foreign troops. After a few minutes, the three American and three German CH-34s returned from the first drop and landed nearby. Each bird was painted olive drab and had four large rotor blades on top, a tail rotor and wheel, and a big door on the starboard side. The first two of sixteen parachutists sat in the open door with their feet hanging out, all the way from the ground up to jump altitude. Since I had just completed the rigger check for the other fifteen men on board, I took a seat in the door as the chopper revved its 1,500-horsepower radial engine. As we ascended, I enjoyed the warm spring air blowing in my face and took in the view, watching the words “Bad Kreuznach” on the roof of the maintenance building grow smaller and smaller.
Once we reached jump altitude, the helicopter slowed to a hover to avoid catching any jumper’s static line or chute on the tail wheel or, worse, sucking it into the tail rotor—a grisly fate for the parachutist along with anyone still aboard the aircraft. Since I was positioned at the door, once I got the hand signal to jump I pushed myself out and fell past the front wheel. Clutching the reserve at my belly as I plunged earthward, I started my count: “One thousand, two thousand, three thousand . . .”
My chute popped open, and when I looked down past my polished jump boots, I saw another CH-34 swing in directly below me, about three hundred feet off the ground, and start to climb. With only six hundred feet between the chopper and me, I kept thinking, aircraft can’t fly below parachutists! But there it was, coming up at me, and I watched in terror as the four twenty-eight-foot overhead rotors, whirring at five revolutions per second, got closer. I grasped my risers, trying desperately to slip away from the four-ton flying meat grinder. But the T-10 parachute is not very maneuverable—designed that way so that troops can descend in a tight cluster without entangling each other.
Then, while only a few hundred feet below me, the chopper suddenly veered off. A minute later, I hit the ground, so shaken that I didn’t even feel the impact. I gathered up my chute and thought about what had almost happened, but decided not to say anything. After all, I was the new guy, and after just getting busted and getting this big break, I didn’t feel in any position to complain. Besides, I didn’t know whether the chopper was American or German—it was just one big airborne Osterizer to me. But that morning, I felt something die in me: the naive 18-year-old delusion that pilots and officers never made catastrophic mistakes.
* * *
A year later, I was on the other side of the world, atop Dong Re Lao, a mile-high mountain in South Vietnam, also known as “Signal Hill.” I was there as part of Operation Delaware, when two brigades—about 11,000 men and 300 helicopters—from the First Air Cavalry Division assaulted A Shau Valley, on the Laotian border, and fought their way south through the most formidable enemy sanctuary in South Vietnam.
Members of my long-range reconnaissance platoon air-assaulted Signal Hill itself since it provided a strategically vital communications relay site. Because of the high altitude, Sgt. Larry Curtis’s chopper lost lift and crashed during the assault. The impact knocked the crew and remaining LRPs on board unconscious, and Curtis suffered a concussion. The next day, North Vietnamese soldiers made the long, arduous climb up from the valley floor and killed three men from our platoon, wounded several others, and killed a combat engineer. I was on a team that killed one of the enemy snipers when we made a patrol around the peak.
Eight days later, Monday morning, April 29, 1968, Signal Hill was secure, and I was sitting in a muddy bomb crater atop the same mountain with my buddy, Bruce Cain, the medic on our team. I was drinking a hot chocolate, enjoying a brief lull in the constant rain, when an Air Force meteorologist sitting just above us asked if we had any packets of cream.
“Nah, I just put my last ones in this,” I said, nodding at my cup. “But there might be some in the C-rats on top.”
“I already checked,” he said. “Nada.”
“Here, I’ve got a couple,” Cain said, flinging him two packs from his shirt.
“Thanks—can’t stand my coffee black.”
A moment later, the same airman said, “Hey, looks like a Huey’s comin’ in!”
Looking up, I saw a Huey approaching from the east. “Gunship,” I said, “but maybe she’s got some rations on board.”
“I hope,” the airman said, sipping his coffee.
The gunship had two crossed sabers painted in gold across its nose, and a large “X” on the doors, indicating it was a command ship from the First Squadron, Ninth Cavalry, our division’s most elite aviation force.
Since our crater was covered with ponchos tied to sticks, Cain and I set our drinks down so we could hold the ponchos against the rotor wash as the helicopter fast approached our position. As always, when the Huey came close the wind picked up, and our ponchos started to whip in our hands. To protect our eyes from flying debris, we held on to the ponchos and bent our heads. But just as the gunship came directly overhead, it suddenly lost lift and began spinning violently out of control.
“Watch out!” someone yelled.
Instinctively, Cain and I dived to the ground as the tail rotor swung over our heads and sucked the ponchos out of our hands, whipping a snap into my watch and shattering the crystal. With the helicopter falling fast, Cain and I leaped out of the way and started sliding on our bellies down the peak as the main rotor began slicing into fuel cans, ammo crates, bangalore torpedoes, and people.
As the rotors slashed lower and lower, slinging high-velocity projectiles in every direction, the seven-thousand-pound aircraft suddenly transformed from an object of hope to one of terror. Still sliding through mud and debris, I heard the shrill of the engine mixed with screams of “My legs! My legs!”
Glancing back, I saw the helicopter roll, pitch, and yaw, then crash with a burst of sparks shooting from its exhaust, finally coming to a halt on its skids, just above our crater. When its engine stopped, Cain and I crawled back to the top. Upon reaching the helicopter, we found a soldier lying unconscious, trapped beneath a skid, another soldier hit in the chest by a sailing fuel can, and the airman who had just bummed the two cream packs from Cain now shrieking in agony after losing both feet and most of a leg to the main rotor. As we joined the aircrew struggling to free the trapped man, other men applied tourniquets to the dismembered airman as the pilot, a major, stood dazed outside his helicopter, trying to explain what had happened.
After several minutes, we got the trapped soldier freed and laid him alongside the amputee and the other injured soldier, while another Huey flew in to pick up the casualties. When it touched down, Cain and I helped load the injured as another soldier placed the severed leg, still wearing a trouser leg and boot, inside the cargo bay. He murmured, “You never know—maybe they can still sew it back on.”
Two days later, on Wednesday, May 1, my commanding officer, Cpt. Michael Gooding, gave orders that I attend the U.S. Army’s Fifth Special Forces Recondo School in Nha Trang—a big, modern base way down south, near Cam Ranh Bay. Why he picked me at that time, I never learned. But just after I gathered my gear, my assistant team leader, Bob Whitten, walked over, lit up a Pall Mall, and said, “Well, Ankony, I don’t know how you pulled it with Gooding, but you’re one lucky bastard to be gettin’ outta here!”
“Damned if I know, Bob,” I said, giving him a backslap and a grin, “but I’ll try not to miss you too bad!”
Unbuttoning his shirt pocket, Whitten pulled out a note written on the cardboard lid of a C-ration. He said, “Mail this as a postcard when you get back to Evans.” It was addressed to his fiancée, Anna, letting her know he was okay and would be home in three months.  I boarded a Huey for Camp Evans; and as we lifted off, I waved to Whitten and the rest of the team, content to let the battle of A Shau finish up without me.
I completed Recondo School and returned to my unit a month later and was made a sergeant and team leader. By then, I was well aware that helicopters could be our salvation or our worst nightmare.The nightmare happened Friday morning, August 30, 1968, on my twenty-second and last patrol. We were patrolling in really dense, short vegetation when a Cobra gunship flew over our 2,000-by-2,000-meter area of operations. From the way it banked after flying over us, I got the sinking feeling that they had mistaken my five-man team for the enemy.
Had the pilot and the weapons systems officer checked their maps, they would have seen that a recon team was in the area. But they were flying at nearly 150 miles per hour—too fast for terrain identification using small-scale aviation maps, which show a large area but not much detail. So they seized the opportunity and fired four rockets at us.
The Cobra was operating as part of a hunter-killer team. It was the killer, and the hunter, a light observation helicopter (LOH), hadn’t seen us. By this point, all we could hear after the explosions was a ringing in our ears, and a whirlwind of rotors as the LOH circled low and fast while the Cobra swung up and around for the kill. But when the LOH pilot saw the smoke we popped, he realized we were friendlies—just as the Cobra dropped into a steep dive to fire its remaining seventy-two rockets, each packing a ten-pound warhead; a minigun that fired a hundred rounds a second; and an automatic grenade launcher that kicked out five high-explosive rounds a second.
With no time for radio communications, the LOH pilot flew directly into the Cobra’s path to stop it from firing. The LOH pilot and Tony Griffith, my front scout who popped the smoke, had just saved our lives. I thanked Tony later, but when the LOH pilot landed in the spot cleared by the Cobra’s rockets, I was still numb from the concussions and forgot to thank him.
Mistakes happen, but luck was on our side. I just wish it had been for all my brothers in arms.
1. Sgt. Larry Curtis lost an eye, and two team members were killed in action, on Wednesday, May 29, 1968, when a grenade they were rigging as a booby trap on an enemy trail accidently exploded.
2. Sgt. Bob Whitten and another team member were killed in action Wednesday, May 8, 1968, seven days after he handed me the card to mail to his fiancée, when members of the North Vietnamese Army attacked his long-range reconnaissance team’s position. All surviving team members were wounded, so an infantry platoon was sent, but they became pinned and lost three men and several wounded. An infantry company eventually rescued the platoon and the team, losing another man.
3. Sgt. Tony Griffith was killed and two team members were wounded in action near the Cambodian border Wednesday morning, February 5, 1969, when members of the North Vietnamese Army attacked his long-range reconnaissance team’s position.