Never Take Life For Granted

Fort Pierce, Florida: National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum

By: Gene Cahill (UDT-SEAL Association BOD Member)

The routine of daily life is sometime taken for granted. Never again will I assume the usual to take place. I am Chief Petty Officer Eugene
A. Cahill, U.S. Navy Platoon Chief, Underwater Demolition Teams.

On the morning of March 28, 1968, my unit was engaged in parachute training. Our aircraft was flying 1500 feet, and 110 knots above Salerno, Italy at 12 noon.

It was another routine training parachute jump, and I was looking forward to the end, because my unit was packing up and getting ready for a return to the states, from a six-month deployment. I had written my wife and four children the night before and relayed the news and anticipated arrival date. I was the Jumpmaster for the first group of jumpers, and I was breaking in a Lieutenant Junior Grade as Jumpmaster for another group of jumpers. I gave the prejump briefing; covering all the safety precautions and emergency procedures in case one of the jumpers had trouble. Just prior to exiting the aircraft, I asked the LTJG if he had his knife, (a required piece of equipment for all UDT jumpers). His reply was, “I forgot to bring it.” Before leaving the aircraft I said “Here take mine, I won’t need it.”

The several minutes that followed, passed like several hours. I was the first jumper in a six-man stick. Immediately after jumping, five other men hit me on the way out. My parachute had deployed and was wrapped around the tail section of the plane. I was hanging by my neck about 25-feet behind the plane. The shroud lines of the parachute were wrapped around my neck. One man knocked my helmet off with his foot. One kicked me in the jaw and neck and another kicked me in the knee.

I was bleeding from my mouth and neck. I was near strangulation from the tangled shroud lines around my neck, and the weight of my body was pulling them tighter and tighter.

Somehow, I remained conscious throughout this ordeal. Shifting my position slightly, I was finally able to assess my precarious situation. I signaled the aircraft that I was conscious, using the standard signals (left hand on head, right hand on reserve parachute handle).

The aircraft circled the airport for almost ten minutes; weaving and dipping, trying to shake me free. This did not work.

At this point, I was trailing the aircraft lying on my back. I instinctively reached for the one necessity in this situation; my knife. I had to get my shroud lines free from my neck. It was not there! Then I remembered, “Here take mine, I won’t need it,” as I had said to the other Jumpmaster before leaving the plane. My knife was in his possession, and it was the one thing that could help most.

I finally managed to free the lines from my neck by rolling and pulling myself toward the aircraft. The rushing wind from the plane’s speed made breathing difficult. Pulling my body toward the plane was like doing a chin up with lead shoes on.

Then it was time for a new maneuver. I reached across my chest and pulled the canopy release and was free from the plane, and my parachute. I started to tumble through the air. I remembered that while I was tumbling through the air, that my watch band had become uncoupled and that I reached over and recouped it.

I went into a free-fall position, parallel to the earth in order to get somewhat stable before pulling my reserve. When I became stable, I was coming down with my back to the ground. I pulled the reserve chute. The small pilot chute came out and blew apart, because of the force from the 120 miles per hour speed at which I was falling. Instinctively, I reached in and pulled the main reserve out and threw it into the wind.

My falling motion was slowed by a jarring jolt. Looking down, I estimated that I was between 300 and 400 feet from the ground. This was later confirmed by the jumpers who were already on the ground. I was directly over a highway with railroad tracks and high-tension wires running along both sides.

I was trying to maneuver and, next thing I knew, I had fallen and landed in a courtyard about two feet from the side of a building. My first impulse was to silently thank God for helping me to remember what Airborne training had taught me.

I then looked around and about 150 Italians were crowded around me, all excited and all trying to help me. I had made a nice soft standup landing.

My men arrived along with the Italian Police, and sped me away to an aid station. A doctor immediately insisted I should drink some wine, which I refused. The last thing in the world I wanted was a drink. They then washed my burns, applied sulfur medication to my cuts, and transported me back to the airport.

Soon our C-117 Aircraft returned to pick us up. It had flown to its home base at Naples and landed to remove my parachute from its tail section. We then flew back to Naples, and I was taken to the Naval Hospital by ambulance.

When the ambulance finally arrived at the hospital, I walked inside and the Corpsman asked, “What happened to you Chief?’ I replied, “I had a fall, but I’m Okay.” The Corpsman started to check my cuts and bums and ask me to fill in an accident report and write a brief summary of what had happened. After reading what happened the Corpsman and two other doctors rushed in to check me over. Although I had no broken bones, I did have multiple contusions. Due to the vast swelling in my neck area from cuts and bums from the shroud line, I was unable to eat for three days. Aside from some scars around my neck, which [make me] look like I had been lynched, I have fully recovered and resumed normal jumping with the Teams.

Investigations never determined exactly how or why my parachute became hung up on the plane’s tail section. It was one of those freak accidents, which requires one to utilize all past experiences and, to recall in an instant, all the instructions that one has been taught, and very possibly to create a few new ones.

Needless to say, I am lucky and very thankful to be alive.

Story Source: The BLAST 3d quarter 1997 Vol. 29 No.3
The BLAST is printed quarterly by the UDT-SEAL Association
https://www.udtseal.org/

Photo Credit: Fort Pierce, Florida: National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum
By Ebyabe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12232913

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