From the summer of 1970 through the summer of 1971, I served as the aide de camp for the Assistant Division Commander (Maneuver) of the 3rd Infantry Division. My boss’ job put us in constant contact with various units of the German military, one of which was the 1st German Airborne Brigade. My boss wore Belgian parachute wings so I paid attention to the jump wings of the other European countries. On one occasion I found myself in brief conversation with my boss’ counterpart, the commanding general of the German airborne unit. When I admired his jump wings, I was immediately invited to jump with his brigade during an upcoming training exercise in the Black Forest.
I was instructed to report at dawn to a checkpoint in the woods in the middle of nowhere in southern Germany. I didn’t speak German, but I found the first checkpoint and kept getting waived from one checkpoint to another. I finally got to a clearing with a runway and several French Nord Atlases all buttoned up and idling, ready to take off.
Even though I had on a class A uniform, it was clear through signals that they were waiting for me, and I was about to jump in a matter of minutes.
I parked my VW, stripped and put on fatigues and boots as fast as I’d ever done it in my life.
The door to one of the aircraft opened and I got on. When I looked around inside the dark aircraft, all I could see was a bunch of guys who looked like 6’5” Dolph Lundgren.
I figured out that particular look must have been a unit requirement! Only one guy spoke English, a red-headed Command Sergeant Major named Fritz Janke. He was barking orders in clipped German, but when he opened his mouth to speak to me, he spoke English like a backwoods chicken farmer from Alabama. I spent the next four days camping with the Germans and made five jumps with them. These guys were the hardest-drinking bunch I’d ever seen in my life. I had previously thought that distinction belonged to my cadet company, E-3. Each night we had a roast pig which we cut off pieces and ate with bread. Both during and after dinner, there were endless rounds of toasts, each one ending with German for “Luck going up.” I was more interested in “Luck coming down,” but that wasn’t the toast. Each toast included one shot of schnapps and a glass of pilsner. At the conclusion of the toasts, there were guys who were sufficiently unconscious that open heart surgery could have been performed on them and they wouldn’t have known it was happening! In spite of their condition, they were ready to jump at 5 AM!
It turned out that Fritz had been a 17-year-old private in the Waffen SS in WWII and had been captured at Bastogne. After he was captured, he told me that all members of the SS were separated and shipped back to Alabama as POWs. According to him, he escaped 25 times but there was no place for him to go. He said that he spent the remainder of the war picking cotton and collecting eggs in southern Alabama and that was how he acquired his accent. Being raised as a Florida Gator in SEC country, I immediately said, “Sergeant Major, that was your punishment. All those Alabama chicken farmers were stuck just like you and couldn’t get out, either. If they’d been able to, they’d all have been in Florida!” He didn’t get the joke, and I never had time to explain it.
Over the five days I was there, I became friends with a German 1st Lieutenant named Martin Roessler. On the last day, he needed one more jump to earn a bronze wreath around his wings, and I needed one more to qualify. Unfortunately, on the last day a 20-knot wind blew up and the jump was cancelled. An American general officer had showed up in his helicopter, and I pleaded with his aide to let us both jump from his aircraft. We only needed one jump, and if it went badly, we’d have time to recover in the hospital. Fortunately, we were appealing to a general who would have done the same thing himself, so Fritz took us up for our last jump out of a Huey. The last jump for both Martin and me was like jumping from the back of a deuce and a half – going 25 mph through an open field.
The field was soft, we both survived, and it made for good stories being told to this day.