June 2024

The Fraternity of Arms, the Airborne Brotherhood

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

You’ve boarded your flight and finally settle down in your seat. It’s an economy ticket, so you’re wedged between two other passengers. You’re tired. You had a pre-dawn wake-up. You have a lot of gear. It’s another scorching summer day in Georgia. The air-conditioning isn’t working. The heat and still air conspire like a drug. Your eyelids weigh a ton. You drowse off to sleep.

Far off in your master-control mind, you know the plane finished its taxi and has begun accelerating down the tarmac. Your lizard brain registers the fluctuation in gravity of takeoff, but you’re already dreaming….

A gravelly voice rips you out of your idyll: Stand up!

Damn, you were just about to kiss her.

A steady roar replaces the basso hum inside the cabin: someone opened the doors behind the wings on both sides of the aircraft!

You go to stand up, but you get nowhere. The passenger next to you grabs your shirt sleeve as you heave forward with everything you’ve got to get to your feet. Your “carry-on bags” have been strapped to your back, belly, and below your knees and armpit the whole time—that is, your parachute, your reserve chute, your rucksack, and your rifle bag. The helmet atop your noggin doesn’t help either.

Another holler pierces the din: Hook up!

Reaching up, you attach a spring-loaded clip at the end of a yellow nylon strap—called a static line—to a steel cable running overhead and parallel to the floor. The strap connects the deployment bag on your back (with the parachute inside) to the plane. You and your fellow passengers look like rush-hour commuters on a standing-room-only New York City subway.

That harsh voice makes your eardrums flutter: Stand by for equipment check!

Starting at the back of the plane, each passenger checks his or her gear and that of the passenger in front of them. The inspection has reached you when you receive a swift pat on the ass; you do the same and return the favor to the passenger in front of you.

That voice booms again: Sound off for equipment check!

In a series of different registers, you can hear OK! making its way towards you until it’s your turn to yell it too.

Now the harsh voice calls out: Stand-by!

All eyes fix on a red light illuminated alongside the open cabin door; when it goes out and the green one above it goes on, it’s time to exit the aircraft.

The jumpmaster, whose thunderous voice has called out all these instructions, announces: One minute!

He tells the lead parachutist to stand in the door.

And then it’s showtime; simultaneously grabbing the first jumper’s static line, the jumpmaster yells Go!

The lead jumper vanishes out the door.

Everyone shuffles toward the door, holding their static line in one hand and sliding it along the cable overhead while keeping their other hand over the handle of their reserve chute. In a matter of seconds, the crowded C-130 empties. You approach the door, thrust your static line to the jumpmaster, and leap while counting aloud: One thousand! Two thousand! Three thousand! Four thousand!

You catch a blast of the engine’s intense heat for a second, then there’s a sudden jolt and a tug that makes you feel like you’re flying back up towards the plane. It’s incredibly quiet now, positively peaceful. No, you haven’t died; your parachute deployed, you’re under canopy.

Time to go to work.


* * * * *

After years of watching and re-watching Band of Brothers, the 10-episode HBO miniseries produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg in 2001, I finally read the book. Published in 1992, Band of Brothers is a history of the men of E (“Easy”) Company of the 101st Airborne Division’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment who fought in World War II by acclaimed military historian Stephen E. Ambrose.


The title, of course, comes from the famous Crispin’s Day speech by the protagonist of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Authors have been mining old Willie’s phrases for titles for a long time, but none could be more apt.

I’ve read a lot of military history books, especially on World War II; Band of Brothers stands alongside E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed as one of the very best. In fact, it’s a national treasure. Along with Ambrose’s fine writing, the book preserves precious firsthand accounts. Here’s my highest praise: Band of Brothers is to American military history what Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times is to baseball—a priceless trove of rare experience told by the men who lived it.

Ambrose was conducting interviews as part of an oral history project for the National D-Day Museum when he happened upon an Easy Company reunion at a New Orleans hotel. He struck gold. As the book’s subtitle mentions, Easy Company fought all the way from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest—the D-Day jump, Operation Market Garden in Holland (the largest airborne operation of the war), the siege at Bastogne, the invasion of Germany, the liberation of the Kaufering concentration camp, the capture of Kehlsteinhaus at Berchtesgaden, and the occupation of Germany.

But even before the crucible of combat, the unit’s astonishing resilience was forged at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, where the core members, particularly non -commissioned officers (sergeants), went through an especially rigorous paratrooper basic training, which included preliminary airborne training. Then, at Fort Benning (now called Fort Moore), the men earned the coveted Parachutist Badge (“jump wings”) by completing the recently created US Army Airborne School. The title of the first chapter of Band of Brothers says a lot: “We Wanted Those Wings.”


Paradoxical as it sounds, there’s a fraternity of arms. When not pitted against one another, soldiers of all stripes and nationalities avidly share a kinship. So many times I’ve asked or been asked “were you in the military?” and a hearty handshake and cordial conversation followed. But there’s something about being airborne that fosters even deeper esprit de corps. Easy Company was an infantry unit like hundreds of others in the American army, but only an elite few could jump out of perfectly good aircraft to arrive on the battlefield. Out of the entire Allied army, only a relative handful of men wore jump wings on their uniforms.

Part of the esprit de corps enjoyed by “airborne-qualified personnel” is the specialized training itself, those three weeks of jump school culminating in five parachute jumps, including one drop at night. Then there’s the battle doctrine of airborne units: by design, paratroopers fight surrounded, having jumped in behind enemy lines to secure key bridges, crossroads, airfields, or other vital objectives. That swagger can be heard in what a 101st Airborne medic said besieged at Bastogne, a line Ambrose uses as title of Chapter 11: “They Got Us Surrounded—the Poor Bastards.”

I completed Airborne School in October 1989. My close college friend and fellow second lieutenant, Patrick Frank, pinned on my jump wings. (I’m happy to report that as of this writing—35 years later—Pat still serves our country as a Lieutenant General at US Army’s Central Command.)


I made two more jumps in US Army Ranger School, my seventh and last from a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter in the Mountain Phase in Dahlonega, Georgia. To jump a Blackhawk, you sit on the floor with your feet dangling in the breeze (there’s a sturdy waist-level safety strap slung across the doorway to prevent you from falling out.) The steel anchor cable to which you hook up is bolted to the floor. When it’s time, the jumpmaster removes the safety strap then taps each jumper on the shoulder while yelling “Go!” You slide your fanny off the edge of the helicopter’s floor and you’re on your way—all very civilized. Flying over the densely forested North Georgia Mountains with the seven other Ranger students of my squad, we spotted our tiny drop zone (DZ), a cow pasture and corn field carved out of the woods. The helicopter’s ability to hover upwind of the DZ enables such a precise insertion.

Like all great books, Band of Brothers made me re-appreciate reality, in this case the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of the magnificent men of E Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. It also made me appreciate the televised mini-series’ incredible fidelity to even minor details in the book. (An additional treasure of the television series are the filmed interviews with the actual men of Easy Company at the start of each episode.) And reading Band of Brothers has reawakened my pride in being a member of an elite fraternity, the Airborne Infantry. However much my peacetime service pales in comparison to the combat these men endured, being airborne means being a part of a tradition and a brotherhood. I treasure those hearty handshakes and cordial conversations.


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. After college, he served four years on active duty as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Ireland’s University of Dublin, Trinity College. His poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2024 Patrick Walsh
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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