The “War Story” below appeared in the May 5, 2011 edition of Travel Smart - The Palm Beach Post
republished here with permission from the author - Paul Herrick
Details of a Special Ops Mission (real “Parachute Journalism”)
By PAUL HERRICK
Special to Travel Smart
“Parachute journalism” is a derogatory term for the way some high profile news people instantly show up on the scene of some news worthy event with no particular preparation or qualifications. I think “grand standing” or “show boating” might be synonyms.
So the navy SEALs got Bin Laden. WOW! What a mission.
Whenever I hear about a special operations mission I always hunger for more and more details. And, even though enough went according to plan, it’s fun to play Monday-morning quarterback. I looked up the site of his compound on Google Earth. It’s sufficiently “out in the country” to have plenty of open space around it. I’m wondering why didn’t they parachute in from a high flying aircraft posing as an airliner? My first thoughts were, “With all the noise of a helo insertion, I can’t imagine the stress on the SEALs and helo crews during the 40 minutes it took for the op to be completed.” Then I read that the helicopters were “secret stealth versions with reduced noise and radar signature.” Still, if they had jumped in, the helos (stealth or not) could have been timed to swoop in, pick them up, and leave—two minutes in the target area instead of 40. It seems to me, even with stealth helos, that they were very lucky not to have been engaged by Pakistani troops or jet fighters—especially with all the Pak military compounds nearby. But it’s hard to argue with success. Congratulations SEALs.
Anyway, for those who wonder about the minute-by-minute details of a mission like that, I have included below my observations during a realistic training mission with the army’s 11th Special Forces in September 1978. I had gotten permission from the Dept. of the Army to tag along as a civilian free-lance journalist (I did this for several missions between 1977 and 1981, but this one is most like the Bin Laden mission). I have read many books and articles by civilian journalists who were allowed access to special operations troops, but as far as I know, I’m the only one who was allowed to actually parachute in with them. This mission, a night parachute assault, was known as “Operation Coral.”
At about 9:30 AM on Friday, 9 September 1978, I, with camera and tape recorder, and dressed in borrowed camouflaged BDU’s (battle dress uniform), arrived at the army reserve training center on the campus of the University of Miami. I was met by SFC Mike Coon, my designated contact. He introduced me to Major Tom McCullough, commander of Headquarters Detachment, 3rd SF BN, 11th Special Forces Group (Airborne). I discussed my plans to write about the upcoming mission and signed two waivers releasing the army from responsibility in case of accident.
I then reported to Sgt. Mike Bell for my required parachute refresher training. We went out behind the training center and Mike reviewed with me the five basic jump techniques. These are: 1) Actions of the jumper inside the aircraft, 2) Control of the body from the instant he leaves the aircraft until he receives the parachute opening shock, 3) Control of the parachute during descent, 4) Execution of parachute landing falls (PLFs), and 5) Control of the parachute after landing. We then discussed emergency procedures and I demonstrated front, side, and rear PLFs to Mike’s satisfaction.
After eating lunch, jump manifest roll call was held and we went into isolation at about 1 PM (1300 hours in military speak). There would be no further contacts with the outside world until after the mission was completed. We were locked up in a briefing room with a podium, chalkboard, maps, and aerial photographs. “Target Folders” were handed out to three Green Beret captains by mission commander, Major Larry Lohsen. Each folder contained: a “warning order” for each team leader, a list of team personnel assignments, an operation order, an airborne operations plan, an enemy intelligence report, coordinating instructions, a list of drop zone recognition codes, a list of radio frequencies, a list of code names for the mission participants, a map of the target area, and two aerial photos of the target area.
The briefing started.
Operation Order 2-78 “Operation Coral”
Situation– The forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) is located at AN7379 to BN2227. The forces of ABUCO have invaded the Florida keys, have pushed north, and are now controlling the entire lower half of the Florida peninsula.
During their advance they captured numerous members of the 3rd BN, 11th Special Forces Group that were resisting their advance. An estimated three of these personnel are believed to be held in a small POW camp located at coordinate DE861547.
Mission—To commit one assault team and two support teams to rescue and exfiltrate these POWs and to capture any high ranking enemy personnel. All three teams will be infiltrated by air drop and exfiltrated by helicopter.
Mission Priorities– 1) Rescue, and exfiltrate with, POWs, 2) Capture, and return with, any high ranking enemy personnel present at the camp, 3) Destroy all enemy installations, and 4) Evade enemy support troops and move POWs to exfiltration point for helicopter contact.
Enemy Situation– The target POW camp is normally guarded by a force of six to eight enlisted men and one officer. They stand twelve hour tours of duty. The guard is normally changed at 2000 hours and 0800 hours. Some of the guard force is used as a mounted roving patrol on the roads surrounding the camp.
A reaction force is camped two kilometers east of the camp and is composed of approximately sixty infantry armed with light weapons. Intelligence sources suggest that they are not mounted. Their reaction time to the camp is estimated to be ten to fifteen minutes.—–
And so the briefing went–target area weather, terrain features, team call signs, passwords, radio frequencies, emergency procedures, etc. were all discussed.
The bullets would be blanks and the ABUCO invaders would really be members of the 4th Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company of the Marine Reserve. Other than that “Operation Coral” would be as representative as possible of a modern day Special Forces mission. The troopers were taking the briefing seriously, not only because of the simulated combat situation, but also because of the real dangers associated with a night jump and night-long ground operations in the snake and alligator-infested south Florida swamp.
At 1420 hours we broke off the overall briefing and split up into teams. I was assigned to team one, the assault team. Our call sign was “Jiffy” and we were led by Capt. Barry Watson. SFC Coon was the operations sergeant, and the remainder of the team consisted of a heavy weapons specialist, a light weapons specialist, a radio operator, a special forces engineer, a combat engineer, and a medic. The two support teams were similarly composed.
The team members drew weapons and supplies for the mission. These included M-16 automatic rifles, several twenty-round magazines, blank ammunition, two-way backpack radios, C-rations, dummy explosives with live caps, and smoke grenades. Outside a two-and-a-half ton truck was being loaded with main and reserve parachutes.
The three team leaders and Major Lohsen gathered around the maps and photos to plan the tactical assignments for each team while the enlisted men prepared their gear. Clips were loaded with ammo, weapons were taped over to prevent entanglement during parachute deployment and/or clogging with mud on landing. Radios, demo charges, grenades, and first aid equipment were packed in rucksacks to be carried under each jumper’s reserve parachute.
At 1530 each team leader briefed his team on the details of the mission. To minimize dispersal on a pitch-black DZ (drop zone) only one team would jump per pass. That way the three teams would land on top off each other instead of being scattered out over a half mile of swamp. After dropping off our chutes and helmets at a pre-designated assembly area we would form a single-file with team two in the lead, followed by team three, followed by team one. We would move off the DZ toward a shell rock road junction chosen as check point one. From there we would proceed to a rural house selected as check point two. A clump of trees just north of the target would be check point three. Rally points were identified along the way in case we were ambushed in route. Check point three would serve as the mission support site from which Major Lohsen and his area command staff would direct the actual raid. Team two would send out a recon patrol to establish observation on the target while team three would establish observation posts and blocking forces to the north and south of the target.
At 0300 team one and the remainder of team two would move into position just west of the POW camp and launch a combat assault eastward. Team two would sweep completely through the camp eliminating all opposition while team one would stop inside the camp to gather up the POWs, capture enemy officers, and blow up the camp and equipment. Team one would then join up with teams two and three and move out toward the helicopter landing zone (LZ). Team three would lead followed by team one (with POWs and captives), and team two would be rear guard. We would establish a camp in a treed area near the LZ and await helicopter extraction at daybreak.
At 1600 Major Lohsen held an overall review and Q&A session to be sure everyone knew the mission details. Then we stacked our gear outside and the major held the marshalling area control officer (MACO) briefing prior to departing to the airfield. This briefing informed us of the aircraft type, drop time, DZ description, assembly point location, jump altitude, and ground winds. He reviewed the parachutist’s five points of performance, emergency procedures, and tree, wire, and water landing techniques.
By 1730 we were loaded up in the trucks and on our way to the military section of Opa-Locka airport in northern Miami. Everyone was in a jovial mood as we sped up the four-lane highway in the back of the trucks. The young women coming up behind us and passing us in their cars shared the mood. One young beauty who was riding shotgun in a new Jaguar got so carried away with her audience of truck loads of soldiers that she raised her right leg toward the windshield and lifted her skirt all the way to her hips. The man driving decided that this little game had gone far enough, and he accelerated and passed us. The evening was definitely off to a good start.
Upon arrival at the airfield we unloaded and stacked our gear behind a camouflage-painted C-130 from the Dallas-based 136th Tactical Airlift Wing of the Texas Air National Guard. By now it was 1830 and we opened some C-rations for a light supper. I had beef patties and potatoes packed in gravy. I think it might have tasted pretty good if it was hot. It wasn’t hot though.
After eating we lined up behind the trucks to draw our chutes. Each of us hauled off an MC1-1B main and a T-10R reserve. We piled them next to our other equipment and started putting on our war paint. The object was to make our bare skin blend in with the random design of our BDUs. We rubbed on a combination of green camouflage stick and black ink from ordinary typing carbon paper.
SFC Coon and the other jumpmasters met with the crew of the C-130 to discuss take-off and in-flight emergency procedures and details of the airdrop. The Air Guard crew would fly a night, low-level route, which means 1,000 feet above the ground at a speed of 210 knots. This combination of low altitude and high speed is designed to minimize chances of detection and intercept while operating over enemy territory. They would approach the DZ (twenty miles southwest of Miami) from the south, pop up to 1200 feet, slow to 125 knots, and turn on the green (jump) light as they passed over the flares outlining the DZ recognition code block letter.
After the last jumper of team one bailed out they would drop back down, accelerate to 250 knots to escape the area, and make a wide circle back around to repeat the process for the next pass, etc. When the last team was out they would return to Opa-Locka and a warm bed.
We returned to our gear and started chuting up. SFC Bob Murphy and I paired off to use the buddy system for donning our chutes and equipment. When I was all geared up I started helping him. Main chute on his back, his arms through the harness lift webs, buttocks in the saddle, leg straps woven between his legs–up through the harness loops and plugged into the quick release box on his chest, kit bag folded and placed under the box, safety fork inserted in the box, diagonal back straps tight, M-16 slung over his left shoulder muzzle down, reserve snapped D-rings, belly band tight, quick release loop formed, rucksack placed under reserve and snapped to D-rings, canopy releases checked, and reserve ripcord pins checked. We were ready. Then we waited.
It was dark by now and as we lay on the tarmac trying to get comfortable we watched lightning dancing in the western sky. No rain was forecast and the winds were calm so we felt we would not be cancelled due to weather.
At 2025, the word came down to load up. We boarded through the aircraft’s aft ramp in reverse jump order—team three first, then team two, then us. We sat in red nylon webbing troop seats with our backs to the sides of the C-130, half of each team on the left (jumping left door) and half on the right (jumping right door). We fastened our seat belt and the four turbo props came to life. The pilots checked the systems and we lurched sideways in our seats as we started to taxi. At 2045 we roared down the runway and climbed into the night sky. While I tape recorded notes to myself and took flash pictures of the troopers, I thought I sensed somebody singing, “C-one thirty rolling down the strip—Special Forces on a one way trip—Mission unspoken, destination unknown–Special Forces ain’t never coming home”. I knew I’d better get some flash photos now because even the faint red glow of a cigarette could compromise the whole operation after we hit the ground. The raiders, with painted faces and bulging with parachute packs and equipment bundles, tried to get as comfortable as possible. Some tried to talk above the din of the engines, some tried to sleep, and some just sat staring into space. I felt a little sorry for team two’s radio operator. This night, combat equipment jump into the swamp below would be his “cherry” jump, i.e., his first jump after completing jump school at Ft. Benning, GA. I yelled at him across the aisle to get his attention as I took his picture. He faint-heartedly tried to smile but he didn’t quite make it.
Then my own thoughts started to wander. I recalled another dark September night almost exactly nineteen years ago. I was sitting, painted face and all, in another aircraft troop seat. Instead of being in a C-130 1000 feet over south Florida, I was in an H-34 helicopter 8,000 feet over southern Kentucky. Instead of wearing a static line troop chute and carrying a camera and recorder, I was wearing a free fall chute and had a PRC-10 radio and a bag full of tear gas grenades strapped under my reserve. It was a thrilling business then and it’s a thrilling business now. I was about to recapture a special kind of excitement that is hard to come by any other way.
Before too long the red light over the jump door flashed on and brought me back to the present. The Air guard loadmaster held up both hands, fingers outstretched, indicating tem minutes to drop. Mike Coon stood up, talked briefly to the loadmaster, and hooked up his static line to the left anchor cable. Then came the six minute warning. I stuffed my camera and recorder into my left leg cargo pocket, checked the security of the C-rations and camouflage jungle hat in my right leg pocket, and double checked the buttons on the four baggy pockets of my BDU jacket. They were crammed full of used and unused film cartridges and tape cassettes. I didn’t want them scattered out over the swamp when my chute opened. After checking my pistol belt and canteen, I, for about the tenth time, checked my leg strap routing between my legs again. It’s important to get that right.
Mike started issuing jump commands, both verbally and with hand signals. We staggered to our feet as turbulence jostled the aircraft, clipped or snap hooks to the anchor cable, and checked our static lines, chutes, equipment, and, of course, the leg straps again. I was to be number three man out the right door and Capt. Watson was the right door jumpmaster.
Suddenly the plane decelerated and climbed. The loadmasters opened the jump doors and positioned the small jump platforms in the open doorways. Mike Coon and Capt. Watson peered out their respective doors, squinting into the roaring wind while trying to locate the DZ marker flares. Mike backed out of the door, faced us, and pointed to both doorways. The two stick leaders shuffled into the doors and the rest of team one closed up behind them. It would be a “mass exit” which means that Mike would tap out the first man and a half second later Capt. Watson would tap out his first man, and the rest of us would follow the man in front of him at one second intervals (without being tapped by the jumpmaster). The result is that a man leaves the aircraft every half second (and, hopefully doesn’t meet another jumper—and entangle their chutes– under the aircraft) until the whole team is out. Mike would follow his last man and Capt. Watson would follow me to complete team one.
I was close enough to the open door to see the city of Miami shinning like an oasis of light in the middle of a vast black desert. I also saw a transmitting tower (as high as we were) about three miles away. We were now within seconds of jumping and I was really psyched up. I hadn’t made a night jump in eighteen years and I couldn’t wait to launch my body through that open door into the inky night.
The green light shone, the man in the doorway vanished, and another took his place. He, too, disappeared and I moved up to fill the void, left foot on the jump platform, hands outside on the door jambs. I leaped out and snapped into a tight body position, feet together, bent at the waist, hands cupping the ends of my reserve chute. The prop blast hurled me back under the huge tail while I watched the ghostly images of other parachutes materializing in the night sky out behind me. I was plunging toward the black swamp below, counting off seconds, when my chute blossomed and jerked me upright. When I checked my canopy it was evident that I had about four twists in my shroud lines. As I kicked my legs and spread my risers with my hands to untwist, I saw large black forms all around me, and I grabbed the steering toggles to steer clear of the other chutes. I headed for the marker flares and sensed the marsh rushing up to meet me. Just before impact I started a left turn so that I would roll on the right side of my body and not crush the camera and recorder in my left leg pocket. I hit softly in the mud and got to my feet. I’d seen two other chutes land just before I did, and heard the muffled thud of another behind me just as I got up. Team one was down and closely grouped together.
We gathered our chutes and were trudging through intermittent water and mud toward the assembly point when team two jumped. As team one counted noses and team two started filtering in, the C-130 appeared overhead for the last time and filled the sky with what appeared to be huge black dandelion seeds. Team three and the area command staff were floating down to join us. Several of them landed in shallow water and were completely soaked, gear and all. We had two casualties on the jump. One man hit a coral rock and broke open his left knee. The other man jammed his neck during opening shock or a hard landing. The medic attended them while the rest of us replaced our helmets with soft caps and prepared to move out toward the target.
2300—We were on our way to the first check point. Team two was on point and we were rear guard. The night was very dark and we walked single file spaced out three to five meters apart over the marshy terrain. We were moving to the southeast alternating between patches of relatively dry ground with tall grass and areas of shallow water and reeds.
2315—The column stopped and we crouched down to wait. I was too far back from the point man to know why we stopped but I imagine he was checking his map and getting his bearings.
2317—We started again. I was situated between the team leader and the radio operator in the line of march so that I would have a good chance of knowing what was happening.
2325—We stopped again briefly and then started through water up to our knees. I moved my camera from my leg pocket to my chest pocket to keep it dry. I carried the tape recorded in my hand so that I could whisper notes as we went. We emerged from the water back into tall grass and flushed a flock of birds. They weren’t the only ones that were startled.
2350—We passed a rural house and woke up a large dog. I had never realized just how loud a dog’s bark could be.
2405—Our rear guard passed the word that he heard something behind him and he thought we were being followed. We laid an ambush just in case he was right. Half of team one went on ahead while the rest of us lie-in-wait, M-16s at the ready, hidden in the grass by the trail.
2425—Nobody came to our surprise party. We moved out again and in ten minutes we were challenged by the password sign. We gave the countersign and rejoined the rest of the assault team. Team two sent out its recon patrol to locate and observe the target. We moved off the trail and lay down in the tall grass awaiting the patrol’s radio call. The mosquitoes literally ate us alive and we heard the bellowing of a bull alligator during the next hour as we patiently waited. I amused myself during that time recalling wildlife features I had read, like, “The reason coral snakes are seldom seen is because they sleep in the daytime and hunt at night”, and, “Contrary to popular opinion, cotton mouth moccasins do bite underwater also”, and “Crocodiles are much more dangerous than alligators, but the only place they may be found in this country is southeastern Florida.” There were a couple of times when I said to myself, “Herrick, what the hell are you doing here, anyway?”
0140—We were on the move again. We were getting close to the POW camp now and we had to run for the weeds as an enemy mounted patrol went by on an all terrain cycle and a two-and-a-half truck.
0210—We hit another shell rock road and double timed along it to cover as much distance as possible before the enemy patrol returned.
0220—We crouched and waited off the road as the patrol passed again.
0225—We were now about 500 meters north of the camp and we could see lights and hear talking. We headed through a patch of elephant ears to get into position west of the target.
0245—We were in position and started moving slowly eastward through the dense foliage toward the camp. This was definitely machete country but we couldn’t use one because of the noise. The brush was so dense and dark at times that we had to hang onto each other to keep from being separated. It took about 45 minutes to cover the last 100 meters to the target.
0330—CONTACT—Shots fired up ahead and we started running toward the camp. Our body’s adrenal glands had forgotten that this was just a training exercise. The Marines were firing automatic weapons and the Green Berets switched their M-16s to “rock and roll” (full automatic) and were returning fire at a cyclic rate of about 800 rounds per minute. Rocket and mortar flares lit up the area like daytime and as I reached the camp “all hell was breaking loose”. The Green Berets overpowered the out numbered Marines and went about the business of locating and treating the previously wounded POWs. They all wore tags to tell the medics what their problem was. One was blinded in both eyes, one was an amputee, and one had a thigh wound. We led and carried them out of the camp while the two engineers proceeded to “blow up” the camp’s vehicles and equipment.
0345—We regrouped with teams two and three on the east side of the camp just in time to meet the enemy reaction force arriving from their near by billets. They swept through us with jeep mounted machine guns while we hit the deck in the grass and returned the fire with M-16s. A wild and frantic fire fight ensued for about ten minutes. Everyone was screaming like a bunch of Indians in a cowboy movie, and the night was lit up by automatic weapons fire and rocket flares. I was concerned that somebody would be run over by the jeeps roaring around in the tall grass. We made our getaway through the swamp where the jeeps couldn’t run.
0405—We headed toward the LZ for our rendezvous with the helos. The Marines ambushed us and we had another violent firefight. I’m pretty sure that was the result of collusion between the Marine and Special Forces higher-ups. There is no way that they could have done that without knowing ahead of time where we would be and when we would be there. It was “good training” for the Green Berets, though. We were still wading through water about half the time and it became clear to me that I wasn’t used to this (I was a forty year old desk-bound engineer at the time). The combination of being up almost 24 hours and trudging for miles through the everglades swamp at night was taking its toll.
0500—We were finally there. We set up camp, ate some C-rations (they seemed to improve overnight), and waited until first light.
0700—The distinctive wop-wop-wop of the Huey helicopters could be heard in the distance. Then, in the dawning sky to the east they came into view. What a welcome sight they were. Capt. Watson called them on the radio and marked our position with a red smoke grenade. They swooped in on us like a swarm of locusts and filled our fatigued senses with swirling winds and ear-splitting noise. We scrambled aboard and they left as quickly as they had come. I sat half asleep peering at the passing countryside as we wop-wopped our way back to Opa-Locka airport. The others seemed just as pooped as I was. We had put in a full day’s work and the sun hadn’t even broken the horizon yet.
My thoughts again drifted back nineteen years to my first dawn helicopter extraction after a night jump and raid. At my radio call, an H-34 had dipped down and plucked us out of the midst of angry, tear gas choking pursuers from the 101st Airborne. No question about it. This was an exciting business then and its an exciting business now.
Chuck Joslin - in September 1978, I was the 3rd Battalion Commo Chief. Unfortunately, this meant frequently not being able to participate in airborne ops like this one. We were usually back at the armory or at a field location setting up long range Morse Code or burst commo with either 11th Group HQ or other elements of the 3rd Battalion around the SE U.S.