Forty Degrees Below by John L. Neel

It was too warm in the C141 Starlifter.   In-flight rigging is always a pain but made even worse when the Air Force refuses to turn down the heat, We were sweating, a bad thing since we were jumping into below-freezing weather.

We had been briefed personally by the Battalion Commander on the mission and its importance to relations with the Canadians.   We would be training with the Canadian Commandos for twenty-eight days, 80 miles north of North Bay, just shy of the Arctic Circle.   The temperature was minus forty in Petawawa, Ontario and Anzio Drop Zone was covered in three-feet of snow.   I remember him saying, “Don't worry, you'll work up a sweat coming off the drop zone.”

He was a damn liar, and the Scouts, most being from the South, were too ignorant to question him.

Mitch and I were Jumpmasters.   He was the Primary JM and I was his assistant JM.   We would dispatch the bird full of the platoon and then jump ourselves.   Because of the “sweat” we would “work up” as we moved through the snow, we decided that we'd wear, black boots, field pants, wool shirts under field jackets, and black gloves.

Our special issue of American arctic gear, VB Boots, Over Whites, Watch Caps, Arctic Parkers and liners, and our Trigger Finger Mitts, were packed, neatly away in our Alice packs and rigged to lower.   Mitch and I both carried our PRC-77 Radios as well as all of the other gear required of us by standard operating procedures and our jobs as Scout Squad Leaders.   I didn't weigh it, but my ruck had to have weighed 130 to 140 pounds.

We could hardly stand when the time came for the Twenty Minute time warning.

At six-minutes out, the Air Force opened the jump doors.   All of the heat in the cargo compartment was immediately sucked out of the bird.   Mitch and I took control of the bird, stood up and hooked up the Scouts and began our door checks, a very regimented series of safety checks, which includes, literally, hanging out of the door of the aircraft, looking for other aircraft, ground timing markers, and the drop zone.   I was immediately frozen Numb.

After a tough struggle to pull myself and my ruck back in the door, I turned toward Mitch to confirm the upcoming one minute time marker and warning.   Mitch mouthed one word to me, “Fuck.” He and I knew this was going to be a pain festival.   We had never felt cold like this; we're both from Alabama.

Perhaps not as cold as Mitch and I, but still freezing, the boys did a great job exiting the bird when the green light came on.   I exited after my stick, hoping Mitch's stick went as well and that he wouldn't have to racetrack.   I had a perfect canopy, which was good since my hands were so frozen that I don't think I could have deployed my reserve, even though we had reversed our rip-cord grips for easier access.

I took a quick look around and I had my own air, no fellow jumpers close, then looked over and saw Mitch, descending not far from me.   I began preparing to land, looking for my lowering line quick release straps to lower my Ruck.   I tried to pull them but couldn't grip the nylon with my frozen hands and gloves.   I grabbed the right strap, wedging it between both hands, and managed to release it.   Now my ruck was dangling from my harness by one strap at a leg-breaking angle and the other strap was nowhere to be seen or found.

I continued to dig for it until I noticed the ground rapidly approaching and running away behind me.   I tried to pull my risers to slow my lateral drift, but I couldn't grip them.   The only thing left to do was put my feet and knees together and hope for the best.

When I hit the snow, I tumbled head over ruck, ruck over feet, and feet over head, embedding myself in the snow, completely entangled in my suspension lines, and held in place by a constant wind in a full canopy.   I was so ensnared that, had my hands not been frozen, I couldn't reach for my knife.

I thought, “if I collapse my canopy, maybe that will release the pressure and I can get out of this.” Working my hands up to my left canopy release, I used both hands to release the clip, then threaded my thumb through the loop, and pulled hard with both hands.

Now, I was stretched out like a Saxon peasant on a Norman rack, worse off than before.

I began yelling for Mitch to save me, convinced that they might find me out on the drop zone the next morning, dead and frozen.   Shortly, I heard a crunching sound coming from behind me.   It was Mitch.

“Whadda you Want Boy? I'm too cold for your nonsense!” Cold as he was, he was having a great laugh at my predicament.   He collapsed my canopy and began hacking at my suspension lines with his huge Bowie knife.   Once I could move, he went off to recover his kit while I got my shit together, packed my chute, donned my ruck, and prepared to move out.

I waited on him since I was between him and the turn-in point.   We could see it off in the distance, about a thousand meters away, smoke belching out of the chimney.   It had to be warm there! While I waited, I was able, somehow, to get my Arctic Parka out of my ruck and on.   Mitch did the same before joining me.

We began our movement to Warmth.

Not covered in our briefings, was the fact that the day before, the sun had come out long enough to put a top crust on the snow so thick there would be no trudging through it.   It was thick enough, in some spots, to support the weight of your average paratrooper, his heavy ruck with a parachute and M1950 weapons case on top of it.   In some places, it wasn't.   The movement to the assembly area became a constant struggle of climbing out of a hole, putting on our rucks, throwing our chutes over our head, taking a few steps, and then crashing in the snow.   Over and Over, and Over.

After a while, after almost breaking our necks as the Reserve and Main went a different direction then our neck, head, and helmet, we figured out that if we drug our chutes, we could mostly stay on top of the snow.   We threaded our M1950 leg strap through the kit bag handle and tied that to our weapon's sling, and that made all the difference.

Still, the going was slow and we were still freezing.   At forty below, you do not work up a sweat.   If you do, you're dead.   At forty below, you are just Cold!

For the next two hours, Mitch and I kept each other going.   First I would Quit.   Exhausted, delirious.   He would get me back on my feet.   Then it was his turn.   Once, his voice began training off to my right.   I looked up, checked the smoke to confirm I was going the right way, then asked where he was going.   “I'm headed South where it is warm!” To this day, he claims he was kidding or playing a joke on me.   That's Bull Shit! There was no kidding that day; this was survival.

When we finally closed in, we found the Platoon in varying states of disrepair.   Most of us had second-degree frostbite.   Two had to be taken to the hospital with third-degree on their fingers and toes.   Many had to be picked up by the Canooks with snowmobiles, starting from the leading edge of the DZ opposite us.   Mitch and I were among the few who walked all the way in and had walked the farthest.

The Canadians couldn't believe we jumped; they weren't that stupid.   They did a great job figuring out we were in trouble and came to our rescue.

For the balance of the exercise, they split us up with their companies and platoons.   They issued us their equipment and trained us in their ways.   I firmly believe that we would not have survived there as an American unit with the kit we brought.   Hell, we didn't even have tents or stoves.

By the time we jumped into the exercise, we were trained on the use of their kit and tactics.   We jumped, this time, with snowshoes, which made all the difference.   One night, north of North Bay, the temperature dropped to minus eighty below, but we were in our Canadian tent, below the snow line, in our wonderful Canadian sleeping bags, on our Canadian air mattresses, happy as could be.   On the return jump before going home, with snowshoes, I was the first into the turn-in point, beating even the Canadians.   What a difference.

The three jumps qualified us for Canadian wings and them for ours, so we held an exchange ceremony and then went home.   We air-landed at Pope in 28-degree weather and it felt warm.   We went through US Customs (it seems they lost a Sten Gun while we were there) on Green Ramp in shirt sleeves, happy to be home, and me swearing I would never, ever go back to Canada.

Two weeks later, we jumped into Panama, 85-degrees, 100% humidity.   I, like almost every Scout, passed out on the drop zone.   They found me in a ditch along the centerline road, my ruck still on, my M203 in hand, and my main and reserve around my neck, helmet on, chinstrap down.

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