58 years ago, 4 September 1962. I was assigned to the 43rd Company, 4th Student Battalion, the Student Brigade, for my Basic Airborne Course, aka “Jump School.” I had volunteered to train to jump out of perfectly good airplanes, in flight. It was hot as hell, as well as very humid.
During the first two weeks at jump school roughly half of the men quit or were drummed out due to physical reasons. Harassment and tough physical regimens, especially running and pushups, during the first two weeks were the normal reasons for quitting. All running was done in formation and in step, with cadence being counted by your “Black Hat.” During our entire time at jump school we did not receive a single pass.
Once training began each recruit was assigned a number, which was displayed prominently on the front and rear of the helmet, written on tape. Throughout jump school the recruit was identified and yelled (screamed) at by his number only, regardless of rank. If a Drill Sergeant (also known as a “Black Hat” due to the black baseball caps they wore) yelled your number, you had better respond immediately. My number was 348.
The Soviet Union had agreed to send arms to Cuba, believing that the United States intended to attack Cuba. Routine surveillance flights by American aircraft discovered missile sites being built on Cuban soil, as well as Soviet Ilyushin IL-28 tactical strike medium bombers parked on tarmacs, with a range of about 1,000 miles, and capable of delivering atomic bombs. Tensions between Cuba and the United States increased in magnitude.
The Cold War was getting much closer to American territory. There was a lot of fear that communist guns and weapons in Cuba were way to close to our shores. On 4 September, President Kennedy announced publicly that we would not tolerate offensive weapons being placed on Cuban soil.
The first official week (Ground Week) didn’t begin until Tuesday, 4 September (due to the 3rd being Labor Day), more than a week after arrival at Benning. The first week consisted of a lot of physical training to get us in shape and weed out the recruits who couldn’t make the grade physically, in addition to being instructed in individual airborne skills, to prepare us to make a parachute jump, and to land safely.
The classes consisted of a mix of Army, Navy and Air Force personnel, including officers. The Air Force personnel were mostly Air Commando recruits, while the Navy men were mostly SEALs. Trainee officers were treated the same as enlisted. That was true for us trainees also. We talked to them as equals, not even calling them “sir.”
During training, the day always began with a very stringent personal inspection by the Black Hats. Their inspections were the definition of picky. The inspections included personal cleanliness, neatness and cleanliness of uniform, spit-shined boots, recent haircut, and clean shaven.
It was amazing how many “gigs” (mistakes) the Drill Sergeants could find. One of their favorites was to gig a recruit for needing a haircut. A very short crew cut was required. To pass inspection it was wise to have a haircut twice a week. Some recruits decided the easy way out was to shave their heads. Not smart! If the head was shaved, it had better be shaved EVERY morning, because ANY stubble was a gig.
Another favorite ploy was for the Black Hat to ask a recruit to undo his belt buckle. He would then thoroughly inspect the belt buckle to make sure the INSIDE of the damn thing was spotlessly shiny. I have no idea, to this day, why a belt buckle had to be flawlessly shiny on the inside.
One poor recruit in our class pulled the all-time idiotic stunt. Before jump school he had a jump-wings tattoo placed prominently on his arm for everyone to see. Jump wings were only awarded after graduation from jump school. The Black Hats harassed that poor recruit so much that he quit. He didn’t even last a week. Need I say, he didn’t earn his wings?
The first virtue in a soldier is endurance of fatigue; courage is only the second virtue. —Napoleon Bonaparte.
Pushups were a fact of life at Ft. Benning. It seemed every time you took a breath you were told to “DROP, GIVE ME TEN.” It began in the morning, before breakfast. All movement at jump school was done at double-time (running). Jump School had its special type of double-time, called the “airborne shuffle.” In other words, running. All standing was to be at a rigid attention or parade rest. After inspection, we were double-timed to the mess hall for breakfast.
A short while after breakfast we were again put in formation, followed by being double-timed to our physical training area. Once there, we began an hour of very intense physical training, which included push-ups, squat jumps, sit-ups, pull-ups, deep knee bends, squat thrusts, followed by a three-mile run, all done while sporting combat boots.
The squat jumps, deep knee bends, and squat thrusts were especially murderous on my bad right knee. Each repetition of those exercises was excruciating. Because of the heat and humidity, we were constantly reminded to stay hydrated and ingest a lot of salt, to replace the salt that left our body when we sweated, which we did a lot. Almost everywhere we went were drinking fountains and salt pill dispensers. We were constantly admonished to take our salt pills. It seems incongruous to me now. Every time I see a doctor now, I’m reminded to drastically reduce my salt intake. I sure wish they’d get their stories straight. Sheesh!
All exercises had to be done to the instructor’s count, and PERFECTLY. If a Black Hat caught you doing a single push-up incorrectly, he would “invite” you to do the push-ups again, and again, just to make sure you were proficient at doing your push-ups. We wore no shirts. When we were not exercising, we would have to stand at attention. Any twitch, usually brought on by the Georgia state bird—the gnat, brought on the dreaded . . . you guessed it, . . . “DROP, GIVE ME TEN” (or twenty-two, depending on the week of training), and you immediately assumed the prone position and began pushing the state of Georgia away from you, perfectly, time after time. Once a Black Hat got you for one thing, you were one of his favorite targets for the remainder of the day.
During running (of which there was a lot) anyone who got out of step while running was yelled at, and told to “DROP, GIVE ME TEN.” That meant the offender was to get out of formation, drop to the ground and push the state of Georgia away from himself 10 times. In other words, do 10 push-ups.
While the offender did the 10 push-ups, the other recruits had to run (in step and formation) around the offender until he completed his 10 push-ups. Because that caused the group to have to run longer, and further, offenders were not especially appreciated by the rest of the group. Repeat offenders were especially disliked.
The SEALs really earned our ire, because they purposely got out of step, and when they were told to “DROP, GIVE ME TEN” they would immediately yell “which arm, sergeant” and proceed to knock out 10 one-armed push-ups. Each running formation was followed by an ambulance, picking up men as they fell, passed out from the heat or suffering from sunstroke.
Much of the time running included chants done to the tempo of the run. A couple examples were:
- “Airborne, airborne, have you heard? We’re gonna jump from a big iron bird.”
- “If I die on the old drop zone
Box me up and send me home.”
- “Stand up! Hook up! Stand in the door!
Stood up, then collapsed on the floor.”
- “GI bowl and GI gravy
Gee I wish I’d gone in the Navy.”
- “There’s no use in going home
‘Straight leg’s’ got my gal and gone.”
- “Airborne, Airborne, where you been?
Ran ‘round the post and goin’ again.
- Where you goin’ when you get back
Off the tower with full field pack.”
I began very inauspiciously. The first day (Tuesday), during physical training in the early morning, I passed out. I was fortunate. We had just finished the last exercise when I dropped. Had it happened earlier, I probably would have been set back a week. It was a monumental struggle just to stand up, followed by swaying on my feet while standing. At least I wasn’t alone. Three other trainees were taken to the hospital after passing out from heat and sunstroke. Ten trainees quit that same day. From then on, I made it a point to down plenty of salt tablets.
As usual, the second day’s training began with physical training. I received a physical training gig. Four PT gigs in any one week was rumored to be reason enough to be recycled, being set back and repeating the entire week again. I had been screwing around before PT, knocking off about 50 push-ups within about fifteen minutes before the beginning of PT. I was able to knock out the four-count push-up, plus some other exercises, including having to drop and do push-ups for a screw-up, but when it came to the eight-count push-up (which included deep knee bends), I didn’t perform them correctly. In addition, my right knee was in some major pain.
I didn’t have much free time during the evening hours once training began. We had only three hours free by the time dinner and mail call were over with. I kept busy those three hours by washing my fatigues that I wore that day (a nightly ritual), showering the stench off the body, spit-shining my boots, and polishing my brass (belt buckle, including the inside of it, and belt tip). That left little time for writing letters.
From my Book #1, of my four-book set of SLURP SENDS!, #1 (“SLURP SENDS! On Becoming a Green Beret Book 1”) & #2 (SLURP SENDS! Experiences of an A-Team Green Beret Book 2”) are already available on Amazon. Books #3, SLURP SENDS! Experiences of a Green Beret In Vietnam Book 3,” and #4 “SLURP SENDS! A Green Beret’s Experiences In Vietnam Book 4,” will be available soon.
PHOTO: Me, and my numbered helmet (my photo)