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Bo's Stories, Page 17

THE FAMILY OF BESSIE EDNA BROWN & THOMAS MONNIE WOODS

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Parachute Riggers School

Naval Air Station

Lakehurst, New Jersey

 

About twenty-five of us left Memphis for Lakehurst.  We traveled first class by train.  Most of the twenty-five were Waves headed for the Aerography (the Navy term for meteorology) School that was also at Lakehurst.  I think six of us were destined for Parachute Riggers School, although I don’t remember a single individual from that train trip.

 

We spent two days and nights on the train before arriving in Newark. There we had to change to a local train for the final run into Lakehurst.  My impression of that part of the country before going there was that it was heavily developed and populated.  Imagine my surprise when I saw the sparsely developed countryside of pine forests as we neared Lakehurst.

 

I was more surprised when I got off the train in Lakehurst.  Talk about a one-horse town…..this was it.  We went into the station that looked like something out of an old movie.  We called the base and they sent a bus for us.  While we waited for the bus, we went out and looked around the town.  That didn’t take long, but we did see a number of old “Hillbillies”, which I found out later were called “Pineies” in those parts because they lived out in the pine thickets.

 

NAS Lakehurst was about three miles from town, and it was another couple of miles from the main gate to the barracks area.  This base was, and I think still is, the home of the blimps (Lighter Than Air or LTA’S in the Navy).  This was the place where the German airship Hindenburg burned in 1935.  During the days of the Hindenburg, airships were filled with hydrogen.  Hydrogen is so flammable that a change was made to the inert gas, helium.  NAS Lakehurst was built as a training base for LTA pilots and was much nicer than most facilities for the “White Hat Sailors” of which I was a member.

 

As we drove into the base, the road ran by the largest single building that I had ever seen.  This was a blimp hangar and it was huge (the Hindenburg burned just outside this hangar).  They told me that it was a mile long, but I don’t think so.  There was a catwalk in the framework under the roof and it was said to be 276’ from it down to the hangar floor.  While I was there one of the national magazines, “Look”, I think, set up and ran an experiment to determine if a thrown baseball would actually curve.

 

They mounted a high-speed camera on the catwalk, brought in a pitcher and catcher and photographed the ball about ten times between the pitcher’s hand and the catcher’s mitt.  They ran the photos and story in the magazine.  They proved that, yes, thrown baseballs do actually curve.  Now with the quality of television cameras and with the ability to run in slow/stop motion, ball movement is clear, but then we didn’t have that.

 

There was a helium storage tank at NAS Lakehurst that fascinated me.  The tank was in two parts.  The lower half was fixed in position, but the upper half moved up and down as the pressure in the tank changed.  There was a liquid seal between the two halves of the tank to keep helium from escaping.  There was a metal frame around the tank which supported rubber tired wheels on opposing sides of the tank.  These tires rolled on the side of the tank and kept it in position.  As the tank warmed up in the sunshine, it would grow and then when the sun went down it would shrink.  A strange sight for a farm boy!

 

There were always blimps coming and going around the base and we became used to them.  But, I never tired of watching them.  It was however, a little disconcerting to look over your shoulder and see one of those huge things about a 100’ off the ground bearing down on you.

 

There were only three barracks buildings, all two-story.  One for the base staff (normally called Ships Company throughout the Navy), one for the Aerography School and one for the Parachute School.  We were given our barracks assignments (called billets) of four men to a room.

 

Each room was about 10’ by 14’.  Just to the left of the door as you went in, there was a lavatory on the wall with a typical medicine cabinet above.   In the center of the room there were two small tables, each with a chair.  On the wall opposite the lavatories was a steam radiator for heat.  There were two small, four-drawer chest-of-drawers and two double bunks.  The head (toilets and showers) was down the passage way (hall) and shared by all the rooms on the floor.

 

Four men shared the medicine cabinet, and lavatory. Two men shared a chair and desk, and each man had 2 drawers in a chest.  This was very nice after having lived in large dormitory style barracks and lived out of a sea bag and a ditty bag.  Under the window was a coiled rope with knots in it for fire escape from the upper floor where I lived.

 

When I first reported to the barracks, the clerk miss-spelled my name when it was entered on the roster.  He had me down as Wods, J.L.  I told him about the error and he said he would correct it.  He didn’t.  A few days later old J.L. Wods made the duty roster as a fire watch.   The sorry guy didn’t show up and they came and got me to stand the watch in his place and the Chief Master-at-Arms (CMAA) was irate.  It was a very serious offense to miss a duty assignment.  I said, “Chief, that’s not my name on the duty roster so you shouldn’t expect me to show up.  If that is supposed to be me then get my name right”.  He knew I had a good case so he dropped it.  Of course the clerk knew that I knew, but if he confessed he would be saying that he had failed in his promise to correct the spelling so he laid low.  Guess what?  They never got my name wrong again.

 

A class at PR School had just started when I got there, so I was faced with having to wait until the next one started.  I worked a few days for the Chief Master-at Arms who ran the barracks, doing odd jobs until I was assigned to mess-cooking duty.  In the Army this is called K.P. (kitchen patrol) and is usually assigned by the day.  In the Navy it is typically assigned for three-month periods.  In this case it was for four and one-half months although I didn’t know that at the beginning.

 

I hated the thought of doing mess-cook duty, but it turned out to be a really good assignment.  I moved from the PR Barracks to quarters above the mess hall.  The mess hall, kitchen and associated storage and utility facilities were located on the ground floor in a very nice brick building.  The second floor was a gymnasium with large locker rooms. The locker rooms had been converted to living quarters by putting some bunk beds in the equipment storage rooms.

 

Out one door of my room was the head (showers, lavatories and toilets), and out the other door was the gymnasium floor.  This was really great.  Almost no one used the gym (most didn’t even know about it) but us.  We spent much of our spare time playing basketball.  I had never played before this.  In high school, I was a country boy who had to ride the bus home, so could never stay after school for practice, and was too small anyway for the coach to be interested in me.

 

As a mess-cook, I was assigned to work one of the serving lines.  This was not a bad job, so I was reasonably happy.  The mess-cooks were organized into four groups, each of which was led by a mess-cook “Captain”.  The captain was just another guy of the same rank who through ability to lead or some other manner had gotten the assignment.  The captains were responsible to the Chief Cook who ran the whole mess hall under a Commissary Officer, normally, and in this case, a Lieutenant.

 

At Lakehurst the Chief Cook left the Mess-cook Company completely in the hands of the captains, including the assignment of captains.  That is how I came to be a mess-cook captain my second week as a mess-cook.  Although I worked hard and did what I was told, I got the job because the captain was going back to wherever he came from and he took a liking to me.

 

One morning at breakfast, the captain I was working for, asked me if I would like to be captain.  I thought he was kidding me, but I said sure.  He said, “O.K., its yours tomorrow.  This is my last day”.  And, so it was.  You are probably thinking, why wasn’t there uproar from the other guys about me getting the job?  Well, you have to understand that we were all young, not long out of Boot Camp where we had learned never to question authority.  We had been drilled to just do our jobs, do as we were told and “always obey the last order first”.

 

There were about twenty mess-cooks.  Each line captain had about five men, the kitchen captain had 5 or 6 and the captain of the Chief Petty Officers (CPO) Mess had 2 men helping him serve the Chiefs.  The Chiefs had tables for four with linens and they were served at the table.  They did not have to stand in line and go through cafeteria style as the sailors did.  The CPO mess also fed the Bachelor Officers at this base, but that was not usually the case.

 

The mess cooks in the kitchen did essentially all of the work of preparing the food, including bread and desserts.  They did this under the supervision of 2 or 3 cooks.

 

Every afternoon except Sunday, the two line crews cleaned the tables then moved all of them to one end of the mess hall.  We then scrubbed, squeegeed, and mopped the deck (known in the Navy as a “clamp down”).  We then moved the tables to the clean end and did the rest of the deck (floor).  Once per week, we waxed and buffed the entire deck.  We kept it spotless, the other guys did the same for their areas, and all of us together cleaned our quarters and the gymnasium.

 

There were several perks that went with being a line captain.  One, the captain was an observer and supervisor, not usually a worker.  However, I frequently did lend a hand when it was needed, as I believe every supervisor should.  The best perk to me was being able to sleep in, every other morning.  Let me explain that.  Our Chief Cook, or his relief, came on duty at 4:30 every morning.  A fresh pot of coffee had to be ready when he got there, so that meant that someone had to get up and make it.  To share the burden and get a benefit, the two line captains alternated.  One got up and made the coffee, then supervised the serving of breakfast while the other line captain slept in.

 

When I say fresh coffee, I mean it was fresh.  We ground coffee beans every morning just before making the coffee.  We had two large urns, I guess about 20 gallons each.  We made them full every morning before breakfast and then made more as needed.  The Chief Cook had me put a handful of salt in the basket with the coffee grounds, saying that kept the coffee from being bitter.  I don’t know if it did or not.

 

Friday was always inspection day…..not only here, but  throughout the Navy.  This fact drove the menu.  On Thursday nights we had cold cuts (sliced luncheon meats, cheese, bread and canned fruit).  The kitchen prepared baked beans and cornbread for Friday breakfast.  The reason being that they were easy to prepare and easy to clean up after to get ready for inspection.

 

I fell into a routine and everything went smoothly until I got cross ways with the Marines.  All Navy bases and most all ships at sea have a contingent of Marines for security duty.  At Lakehurst they manned the gates, the brig (jail) and supervised prisoners.  The marines on the main gate had a Buck Sergeant (a “three striper” and the lowest sergeant and, some say, the lowest form of life) who supervised them.  He was a real cocky guy (seems most marines are, particularly Sergeants) and had received special privileges from the line captain before me.

 

If there is one thing that I detest, it is that some people get unearned privileges over others and I determined to stop it.  Privileges because of rank, standing, contributions or knowledge are fine, but others I object to.  Mainly what the Sergeant was getting was extra rations of milk and desserts.  The Commissary Officer along with the Chief Cook told us how much we were to serve to each person.  They did this to stay within budget for expenditures for food.  They said one-half pint of milk and one serving of dessert per man per meal.  I told my guys to abide by that…..no exceptions.

 

When the Sergeant insisted on more he was referred to me.  I told him sorry, but those were the rules. He said he would talk to the Chief Cook and I told him to have at it, but I didn’t think he would.  I don’t guess he ever did, but a day or two later he walked by me and said, “don’t ever leave the base”.  He said that if I did they were going to “get” me.  Now I would be afraid, but then I wasn’t.  It was a bluff, for I left the base many times, but was never accosted.

 

I remained a mess-cook for four and one-half months and then moved back to the PR barracks and started school.  I had some interesting classmates.  One of them was an Aviation Machinist Mate First Class by the name of C.R. Thomas from NAS Olathe, Kansas.  Thomas made his rank in the Naval Reserve and got an assignment as a “Station Keeper” there.  They had a billet for a Parachute Rigger First Class, but in order for Thomas to switch ratings, he had to attend Parachute School.

 

It is hard for me to judge ages from this perspective, but I guess Thomas was about thirty-five.  He was a jolly guy and we became very good friends.  He was full of fun and mischief and everyone liked him.  He was also full of tobacco.  He chewed a plug of “Days Work” chewing tobacco every day.  He would go to class with a wad in his jaw and by the time the two-hour class was over, all he would have left, if anything, was a coarse stem or two.  He was not a spitter (it wouldn’t have been allowed anyway).  He swallowed the tobacco and the juice.  I told him what I liked best about him was, he didn’t have any worms.  Thomas was probably the oldest student ever to make a parachute jump at the school.

 

I had a black classmate too.  That was pretty unusual because the Navy was still largely segregated, although President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948.  Prior to that, all blacks in the Navy were cooks or stewards, although they did stand duty watches and sometimes serve as gunners and lookouts during combat.  My black classmate was a nice guy.  His name was Ragsdale and he was a Coast Guardsman from Floyd Bennet Field in New York.  His class standing was good enough to get him in the first load of jumpers on jump day, so he was either number 8 or 9 in the class.  I remember looking at him in the plane just before we jumped and I remember how wide his eyes were.  He really looked scared.

 

Just before Christmas in 1949, I met Harold Gene Williams, my friend from home, in New York City. At the time, he was stationed at New London, Connecticut.  We wrote to one another and agreed to meet at Grand Central Station at 4:00 P.M. on Friday.  I hitched a ride over to Toms River, went to the bus station and bought a ticket to New York City.  This was my first trip up there.  They had a lunch counter in the station and I went over and bought a cup of coffee.

 

While I was drinking my coffee, a man on the next stool asked me where I was going and I told him.  He told me that he and his mother-in-law would be leaving for New York City in a few minutes, and why didn’t I ride with them.  I told him I already had a ticket, but he told me to cash it in.  Well I didn’t cash it in, I still have it in some of my things here, but I did ride with them.

 

He had brought his wife down to stay at one of the resort hotels (a spa if you will) for a couple of weeks.  She and her mother were at the hotel, and this guy had to go by and pick up the mother.  So that is what we did.  I waited in the car while he went into the hotel, said good-bye to his wife and got the mother.  We had a very nice visit.  I don’t think they had ever met a farm boy from the South, and they seemed very interested.   They asked me many questions.  I enjoyed it.

 

We drove up and took a ferry across from Jersey to NYC.  This was a very large ferry and took probably 30 minutes or more going across.  We went in near the Battery where Wall Street is located.  We drove off the ferry and they dropped me at the very door of Grand Central Station about 3:30 P.M.  I looked around a few minutes and then went to an information desk and asked them to page Harold Gene, which they did, and in a couple minutes I saw him headed my way.

 

We went to the YMCA and got rooms, then did the town.  I don’t think we slept more than a couple hours that night (much of New York never sleeps).  On Saturday we went to CBS at Radio City and they gave us tickets to several TV shows and also provided us with details on how to get to the various places.  The shows were being broadcast live from various spots in the city.  I had never seen television at that time.  There was a TV set in the recreation room in our barracks, but it broke before I got there.

 

I enjoyed the shows very much.  I remember one was put on in a room about 20-feet square.  The set was over in one corner and 10 or 15 of us sat on folding metal chairs in the opposite corner watching the show.  This one was the Mohawk Carpet Show.  I have no idea who the people were that starred in the show, but there was a performer who sang the song “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow”.

 

There was a dummy wall across the corner, with a window and during the song a guy on a stepladder behind the wall was pouring fake snowflakes out of a bucket and they were drifting down outside the window.  The wall hid the ladder and the camera angle cut out the upper part of the wall.  We could see the picture on a monitor and it looked very real.

 

We had to take the subway to the 49th St. Theater to see a TV show called “We The People”.  I think Garry Moore who later emceed the show “What’s My Line” was the emcee of this variety show.  Harold Gene had brought a friend with him from his submarine, and the three of us were talking and waiting on the subway when the train pulled in to the dock and the doors opened.

 

Harold Gene had his back to the car, but he turned and stepped on just as I said, “That’s not our train”.  Too late!  The doors closed and he was gone.  His friend and I caught the right train and went to the theater.  About half way through the program, Harold Gene came in.  The train that he caught was an “Express” train to Queens, so he had to go all the way out to Queens before he could catch a train back.

 

The next day we went out to the Statue of Liberty and toured it, then went to the Empire State Building and went up to the observation deck (did you see “Sleepless in Seattle”?).  We also went to Rockefeller Center and watched the people ice-skating.  It was a memorable weekend that came to an end too soon and we had to return to duty. It was to be several months before I actually saw a TV show on a TV set.

 

         Back at the Parachute Riggers school things were going along great.  I was enjoying the course and looking forward to the day we would make our jump.

 

The Commander of the Parachute Riggers School was a Lieutenant whose name escapes me. We dubbed him “Sam Spade”.  At that time there was a popular radio show by that name, starring the deep voiced Howard Duff as a Private Eye.

 

Our Sam Spade was always harping about security and keeping accurate logs.  Every fourth day (we were divided into four duty sections, hence every fourth day, each section would have the duty) we had to stand watches (fire and security) in all of the buildings.  Sam wanted us to be sure and record every detail of every event that occurred on our watches.

 

It came to pass that I had the “Mid-watch” (midnight to four am, or in Navy time, 0000 (same as 2400) to 0400 on New Years Day, 1950 in our school building.  That is no way to start a year, but it could have been much worse.  The plan was for the man on watch to continuously walk throughout the building, repeating the tour every few minutes.  On this night when I went through the sewing room a mouse scurried across the floor.   He was quick, but not quick enough because I put my foot down on him.  I wrote in the duty log, “Discovered an intruder in the sewing room at 0017 and dispatched him with a size 9 1/2 boot.  Flushed same down toilet.  Subject was a gray, medium sized, mouse”.  I never had any feedback, so I guess Sam liked it.

 

If you didn’t have a car, there was only one good way to get around in that part of New Jersey in those days and that was to hitchhike.  My friends and I did quite a lot of it.  We went to Toms River, the closest sizable town, Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Pleasant Point and New York City.  I liked New Jersey but could never reconcile it with my expectations of what it would be like.

 

My friend James Taylor was two classes ahead of me and I saw little of him, but we did manage to pal around together some.  On Halloween 1949 James’ kid brother and some more boys were soaping the window of a store.   The owner fired some shots at them and killed James’ brother.  This happened in New Mexico. He flew home for a few days, came back and finished school and shipped out.

        

I made other friends.  One was a guy named Frank Morgan from Carthage, Missouri.  Frank was a cocky guy and he decided he would delay opening his parachute when he jumped.  One thing the instructors really stressed was to follow the instructions verbatim.  As a member of the United States Navy we were government property and doing anything to jeopardize that property was a serious offense.  Disobeying a direct order was a court-martial offense.  Nevertheless, Frank was determined.  He swore me to secrecy.

 

The reason for him choosing to do this was Mary Redfern.  Mary was the first peacetime Wave to attempt to become a Parachute Rigger and would be the first Wave to actually make a jump…..if she jumped!  Mary was in Frank’s class and was scheduled to jump in the second load.  Frank didn’t like her and figured that she would chicken out after seeing him do a “swan dive”.  They made an aluminum and foam rubber chest protector for Mary to protect her breasts (she was a stout woman) from the parachute harness straps when the chute opened.  I guess it worked O.K.

 

Of course I knew Frank’s jump number and that he was in the first load.  As an underclassman I was on the jump field waiting on the jumpers to come down and I was watching for Frank to come out of the plane.  One of the senior officers at the school was always on the field with a megaphone so that he could talk to the jumpers while they were coming down (I never heard him while I was in the air when I jumped).

 

I saw Frank jump out of the plane and true to his word he didn’t pull the ripcord.  He plummeted like a rock, straight at the ground.  The officer with the megaphone was yelling, “Pull that ripcord, pull that ripcord”.  Still Frank kept falling.  Only I knew this was a planned event and I was scared.  I thought something was wrong and he wasn’t going to open his chute at all.  Finally, though, we saw the chute pop out and he began drifting down.  He was so low when his chute opened that he didn’t drift far enough and he missed the field.

 

Several of us ran toward where Frank came down and found him about a hundred yards out in the pine timber.  His parachute canopy came down over the top of a small pine tree and that left Frank hanging a few feet in the air.  He didn’t get a scratch and was grinning like a cat when I got to him.  We helped him down out of the tree and retrieved the parachute.

 

Meanwhile, back at the base the second load of jumpers loaded up and headed for the jump field.  They had seen Frank plummet behind the trees out of their field of vision and still didn’t know if he fell straight to the ground or got his chute open.  I was told later there were some white faces and scared sailors, but no one chickened out.  Mary Redfern did jump and made history as the first woman Navy Parachute Rigger to make a jump.

 

Next day the school Commander had Frank on the carpet.  Frank told him that he must have blacked out when he jumped and came to just in time to open the chute before hitting the ground.  There was no way to tell if this was the truth, so they took no action against Frank.

 

Parachute Riggers School was divided into several sections, or shops we called them.  They were: Sewing, Survival Equipment (Life Rafts, Life Jackets, First Aid Equipment), Oxygen Systems, Parachutes and Jump Training.

 

One of the most important things that I learned in the Navy schools was how to learn.  Our instructors were outstanding and the lesson plans were very good.  They trimmed out most of the fat and just gave us the meat of the courses.  Also they taught us how to take “good” notes.  To be sure that we did that, no pens were allowed in school.  All notes had to be taken in pencil.  Each Monday we had to turn in a copy of our notes written in ink for review and grading.  The theory being, and I think it was a fact, that once you heard something once and wrote it down twice, you would remember a good deal of it.

 

The instructors coached us on how to take good notes and how to study.  Too bad they don’t do that in public schools.  I think the real key to learning is paying close attention in class and jotting down key words, statements and facts.  Many students try to write down everything.  Everything is already in the textbook, why write all of it down.  Just write enough to help you remember the rest. Some students are so busy writing notes that they stop paying attention.  In a fast paced course it is very difficult to catch up once you fall behind.

 

They taught us how to use and repair sewing machines and oxygen equipment.  Also how to care for, repair, pack and use liferafts, lifejackets and parachutes.  Then when all of that was done, we had to inspect and pack two parachutes, then go up in an airplane and jump out using the chutes we had packed.  Believe me, when you know that you must pack the parachute that will bring you down safely when you jump out of an airplane, you will pay close attention to the instructions.

 

While I was in school I had a really bad case of “athlete’s foot”.  This was the bane of sailors then and it probably still is.  Mine was bad enough that I went to sick call at thirteen hundred (1:00 PM).  The Dr. checked my feet and another sailor’s feet with the same problem.  He told the Hospital Corpsman to have us soak our feet in Potassium Permanganate solution.  I was very familiar with this remedy since we used it at home for poison ivy rashes.

 

The Corpsman took us down to the basement and gave each of us a large pan.  He told us to fill the pan with hot water and put in a measure of the crystals, stir it up and then soak our feet in it.  He told us when the water got cold to fix a fresh hot solution and repeat it until he came back for us.  Well, he didn’t come back but another Corpsman found us about two or three hours later.  By then our feet were purple and shriveled.  He wanted to know what in the world we thought we were doing and we told him, “Exactly what we were told to do”.

 

The Corpsman took us up to see the Doctor and as the kids say today, he almost had a cow.  He was very concerned and had us come back for a checkup weekly for the next two or three weeks.   My feet peeled off and kept peeling for quite a while, but apparently there was no permanent damage.  I’ll tell you one thing.  I didn’t have athletes foot for months after that.

 

We had snow several times that winter of 1949 and once we had a pretty heavy one.  It so happened that we had our annual full dress inspection scheduled for 0900 (9:00 AM) on the Saturday morning following this heavy snow.   Visibility was very low that morning with a fog hanging over the base and the temperature was down close to zero.  There was no wind at all and there was an eerie look and feel to the world. It was surreal. Admiral Harold Martin, Commander Naval Air Technical Training Command (NATTC), who later became Navy Chief-of-Staff and hob-nobbed with the President, conducted the inspection and he made pretty short work of it.  The uniform was dress blues with wool jersey under the blouse, peacoats and gloves, dress shoes with rubber slipovers.  I was very glad when the inspection was over and we got in out of the snow and cold.

 

We completed the sixteen-week course about the second week in February 1950 and then began waiting for a suitable “jump” day.  For safety reasons, the Command would not allow jumps to be made when the wind velocity was above 10 knots, which is about 11.4 mph.  There were a number of anemometers (this instrument has cups designed to catch the wind and spin the instrument) located around NAS, and the first thing every morning was to check the wind velocity.  After seeing them on a regular basis you can just about tell the velocity by how fast they are spinning, although they are connected to a read-out unit on the ground.

        

It seemed that early every morning the winds would be calm, but then would speed up and the jump would be canceled.  We spent our days doing “exaggerated” calisthenics that is, doing running, jumping, tumbling, and all the standard exercises.  All of these were done at a fast and strenuous pace.  We were hard and ready, with our parachutes packed, waiting to jump.

 

Each of us was issued a pair of “Paratrooper” boots and a football helmet for training and for the jump.  All of our training was with this gear, plus a “Chest” pack.  The parachutes that we had packed for ourselves consisted of the main pack, a 32 foot (diameter of the canopy) chute carried on the back and a 28 foot chute in a smaller pack that was carried on the chest.  For the jump, the main chute would be used, if for some reason it didn’t fully open (about 5-10 % didn’t), then the chest pack was opened.

 

We did not use static lines like you see the Paratroops use in the movies.  That is where you hook a line to a cable in the plane and when you jump out, the line opens your pack and pulls the chute out.  Our procedure was called “Free Falling”, that is, you ran and jumped out the hatch of the plane and counted “one and two and pull” and pulled the handle (“ripcord”) that opened your pack.  We packed a small spring-loaded pilot chute (about 18” in diameter) just inside the cover and we put bongee cords around the pack to jerk the flaps out of the way when the pins were pulled.  When the rip-cord was pulled the flaps jerked back and the pilot chute sprang out, catching the wind and dragging the canopy out behind as you fell.

 

On jump days, school was let out and all the under-classmen were bused out to the jump site to act as ground crew.  We would help the guys deflate their canopies and get out of their harnesses when they landed.  Then we would load the chutes into a truck while the jumpers enjoyed the after-glow of a successful jump.  So, all of us had been through jump days and knew what it was like except for the actual jump

 

I suppose there were 10 or 15 instructors at the school.  I never had a picture of all the school-staff and can’t remember how many there were.  On jump days most of these guys would jump multiple times.  We had one instructor who had been unlucky enough to have two streamers in a row.  A streamer is a chute that comes out of the pack but doesn’t inflate.  When that happens you pop the reserve chute and usually the other canopy will inflate before the jumper reaches the ground.  This guy….and I don’t remember his name….was nervous about jumping again, but he was determined to do it.  I was on the field when he jumped and sure enough he had another streamer and for some reason was late getting his reserve chute open and he was near the ground before it inflated.  I was the first one to reach him and he was clearly shaken.  As a matter of fact he was shaking like a dog and I think he retired from jumping after that episode.

 

There was a Chief Parachute Rigger there by the name of Burns.  I didn’t know him well, but I was told he had taken a laxative the day before and when he jumped he had an accident in his pants which were tucked into his paratrooper boots.  He never lived it down the rest of his time in the Navy.  I was to see him again in Barbers Point in 1951 or 1952 and a couple years later at Moffett Field. In 1994 I talked with him at the Parachute Riggers reunion at NAS Memphis, Tennessee.  I didn’t mention the “incident”.

 

After what seemed forever: March 1, 1950 dawned, chilly, clear and almost no wind.  A beautiful day and the jump was a go.  We were very excited.  Our jump position was determined by our class standing.  I was number 7, which meant I would be in the first load of the morning.  Our class jumped in four loads.  The jump field was only five miles away, so a load would jump and then the plane would return to the base to pick up the next load.  Everyone had jumped by noon.  On jump day some of the instructors (most) would jump two or three times.

 

The plane we used for jumping was a Navy R4D, more commonly known as the Air Force/Commercial C-47.  Our plane was specially rigged for jumping with the hatch (there are no doors in the Navy) not open, but removed completely.  There were seats for twelve jumpers and a wide center aisle.

 

There was always a senior Parachute Rigger on the plane who was the “Jump Master”.  He stood just behind the open cabin hatch and called the shots.  He was in charge of the jump once the pilot got us to the right spot to exit the plane.

 

The first load always put out two “Spot Jumpers” (instructors) to check the wind drift calculations that had been made.  They were targeted to hit the center of a cleared circle on the ground that was 4000 feet in diameter.  The pilot would circle after they jumped so the Jumpmaster could see where they landed and adjust the jump spot accordingly.

 

On the following pass over the field the rest of the load was led out the hatch by another instructor, half of the student jumpers, another instructor, then more students followed by a final instructor.  The instructors were to set the pace and instill confidence in the students (they also kept the students moving, not giving them time to “chicken” out).

 

When the plane neared the jump spot the pilot flipped a switch which turned the cabin signal light from red to yellow.  When this happened the Jump Master held his hand up and said, “Coming on range” and the jumpers all stood up, as trained, in the proper order, and in single file facing the hatch at the rear of the cabin.  When the yellow light changed to green, the “Jump Master” dropped his hand and said, “Go”, and the instructor leading the line headed for the hatch.  The other two instructors also began moving, so if you were a student sandwiched in between them, you had to go too.  We were told the “Jump Master” would push anyone out who tried to stop at the hatch.  I don’t know if that ever actually happened.

 

When we got to the plane that morning, we found a photographer and newsman from “The Philadelphia Inquirer”, the area daily newspaper.  They formed us up (Navy lingo for getting us into orderly ranks) for a picture that was in the paper the next day.  I have a copy here someplace.  We got onto the plane and found a TV camera from a Philadelphia station set up just behind the hatch facing forward (front is always forward in the Navy).  I had never been up in a plane before that morning, so I was excited about that.  To tell the truth, I was at the same time extremely exhilarated and scared to death.  It was kind of unreal, and I asked myself, “Am I really here about to do this foolish, dangerous thing, or is it merely a dream”?  I’m sure many people have had this same feeling when faced with new, exciting and dangerous things.

 

All went according to plan.  The two Spot Jumpers stood right in the open hatch as we “came on range” and when the Jump Master said, “Go”, they just kind of disappeared, like a trick shot in a movie.  One moment they were there and the next they were gone.  I felt a little twinge in my gut and the hair stood up on the nape of my neck.  We circled around and flew back across the field.  Our altitude was 2600 feet and the yellow light came on.  We heard, “Coming on range”, then stood and faced the rear.  The green light came on and we heard, “Go”.  We started toward the hatch in a trot.  My mind said stop, but my feet kept churning.  I ran right at the TV camera and just before I got to it the guy in front of me made a right turn and disappeared.  I would like to see the video to see if it revealed the terror that was in me at that moment.  I too, veered right and felt the blast of cold air, and then I was clear.  I had no sensation of falling and was just floating like a feather.

 

We had been drilled and drilled about counting “One and two and pull”.  And when you said pull, you pulled the ripcord.  I forgot all about counting, but I rolled and when I saw the plane going away from me I knew it was time and I pulled the handle (you jump with the handle of the ripcord in your hand).

 

When your chute opens, you experience a tremendous shock.  After all, you are falling at a pretty good speed (a falling body will reach a speed of 120 mph in about 30 seconds) and all of a sudden you not only stop, but you actually reverse directions as you bounce.  I was amazed at the clarity of everything.  The sun was shining, the air was crisp and cold and it seemed so quiet.  I know it wasn’t, but it seemed to be.  An amazing and exciting experience that I will never forget.  I just sat back in my harness and enjoyed the ride down.

 

A Navy SNJ (the “Texan” single engine trainer) came screaming by with a photographer in the passenger seat taking pictures.  The only bad thing that happened was that a fellow jumper swung into my canopy and got tangled in it.  I heard him yell and was looking up at him when I hit the ground.  No damage done except I hit my knee on a rock when I landed and cut a small gash in it, but it wasn’t very bad.  I think there was only one rock on the whole field and I hit it.

 

About half of the people who jump are just immensely glad it is over and done with.  The other half, want to go right back up and do it again.  I was in the second group, but I never did it again.  The elation lasted for several days while we reviewed our options for duty assignments.  My class standing was 7 out of 29, so I was in good shape to get NAS Corpus Christi which I wanted.

 

There was another thing for me to consider at that time.  The Congress had severely cut military appropriations for 1950 and the Navy had just announced that all pay grades below E-5 would lose their family allotments.  Those people caught by that order had the option of applying for immediate discharge.  Upon completion of Parachute Riggers School, I was promoted to Airman, which is pay grade E-3.  But, I would still lose the allotment to Mama.  After some soul searching, I decided to accept the discharge.  I applied for it and was processed out of the Navy on March 16, 1950, just two weeks and two days following my parachute jump.

 

Men I remember from Lakehurst:

 

Burns, PRC. Instructor

Cappocia, AA (Airman Apprentice)

Hutchinson, PR2, Instructor

Khun, AA

McCall, Harold, AA

Morgan, Frank, AA

Morrisey, Warrant Officer

Offenhauser, PR1, Instructor

Parrottee, George F., AA

Ragsdale, AA

Redfern, Mary, AA (First woman to complete PR School

and make a parachute jump.)

Seiple, AA

Taylor, James F., AA

Thomas, C.R., AD1 (Aviation Machinist Mate)

 

The following day, I packed my gear, caught a ride out to the main highway to Philadelphia and thumbed a ride to Camden, New Jersey, which is just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.  I took the subway from there to Penn Station in Philly and bought a train ticket home.  Two days later I was back home with my family.

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