As one gets older—and I wonder if this isn’t more true for writers—the stories we tell, whether spoken or written, take on a special life all their own. I know, for example, that some stories I’ve told and retold over the years have become so much a part of me that I’m no longer sure if the actions described therein are of what I actually did, something I remember another person telling me, or woven of whole cloth.
One of the stories I’ve told over the years has to do with when I was a member of the US Army Special Forces. This was back in the Vietnam era, so many of you will have little or no memory of the times. Note that I’ve told this one so many times, that at least occasionally I’ve wondered if I were making any of it up. But then, I remember the details.
I tell of being chosen, along with 8 or 10 others, for a special training which was mysteriously called SADM. It turns out that SADM (in no way related to Saddam Hussein, as this story far predates him), stands for Special Atomic Demolition Munitions. Yes, dear friends, there was a time, back in the late 1960s that yours truly was a personal atomic power.
We trained for a scant two weeks in carrying, arming and deploying this man-packable atomic bomb, and I was chosen as part of a two-man team to parachute over the North Carolina clay (at night) carrying this device. The other member of the team would act both as guard, and would carry the arming device for the bomb. The detonator and bomb were never carried by the same person.
Try as I might, I cannot remember who my partner was for that particular night jump. I only recall that we knew each other fairly well, and trusted each other to get through the training exercise intact.
As I think back, there must have been more of us carrying a bomb than just me. At least two of us, I’m guessing. As the bombs were real—no mockups for us!—and therefore very expensive, I’m doubting there were more than two for that jump.
Night jumps—also called equipment jumps—were not uncommon, and we always used open fields of hard, red North Carolina clay for drop zones. These DZs were well-tended, but were always surrounded by thick forest, so judging wind speed and direction—a joint effort between the Jump Master and the pilot, was always important. Getting hung up in a tall tree was no fun, and while that never happened to me, several people I knew had to be cut down from trees.
Fifty pounds were considered to be the maximum jump weight for additional equipment (in this case, additional meant aside from your combat pack, weapon, extra ammo, and the like). You might imagine that it was difficult to walk with a heavy bomb attached to your parachute harness, but when it came time to jump, one had to do his best to waddle out to the door, and clear the plane.
The extra weight of the bomb was distributed over the parachute harness, so when the chute opened (these were very low-level jumps—between 400 and 600 feet) you would feel the jerk of the extra weight, but not the strain of it.
Because of the danger of landing ON the bomb, there was a quick-release that let the bomb fall an additional distance on a nylon strap away from the jumper (I for the life of me cannot remember how long the strap was).
We would always land in some wind, so there would be lateral movement as we came down. The bomb would hit first. I was lucky that I landed short of the full length of the nylon strap. This prevented me from being jerked back while still in the air.
Once down, it was my job to get out of my parachute harness, roughly fold up the parachute and stuff it into a bag we carried for the purpose, pick that up and follow the strap to the bomb, Once the bomb was found, I had to remove the strap, and rig the bomb onto a special harness designed to make carrying the thing “easier”.
So much for direct memory of this particular night.
In theory, for a true deployment, we were supposed to jump the bomb in behind “enemy lines”, and carrying the thing to some strategic location, arm the thing and then, as we said back then, “get hat”. (Run like hell.)
Only years later did I wonder if the supposed delay of the arming mechanism would actually work as advertised. It struck me (and I wince to think about it today), that leaving a man-portable atomic weapon alone in the boonies was just inviting someone to come along, disarm and appropriate the thing, creating a whole new kind of (for the time) terrorism. No, I don’t think the timer would have worked. I think the placement team would have been deemed expendable.
But then, I’m a writer.
So, now if you’re wondering if this is a true story or not… or if it is something I heard from others, or just made up… I can understand your doubts. As I read over this I find it a little hard to believe… despite the fact that I lived every moment of it.
Now, to just find a place in a novel to tell the story dramatically.