Former 'Screaming Eagle' paratrooper remembers post's final jump school class
December 28, 2011
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (Dec. 22, 2011) -- From its inception in 1942 to Bastogne to Vietnam to Iraq and on to current Afghanistan deployments and redeployments, the 101st Airborne Division's Screaming Eagle patch has become a symbol of freedom.
In fact, it was "Old Abe" and the rich history of the 101st that caused Michael McKee, a former Marine reservist and Notre Dame Reserve Officer Training Cadet to ask for Fort Campbell as his duty station.
He was lucky enough to have been part of the final jump class at the Fort Campbell Airborne School before it moved to Fort Benning, Ga.
McKee started his military career in the Marine Corps Reserve before entering the University of Notre Dame ROTC in 1956, where he eventually commanded the drill team his junior year.
Furthermore, McKee was sent to summer camp at Fort Riley, Kan., just before his senior year and was chosen top cadet, which allowed him to hold the duty of brigade commander when he returned to South Bend, Ind.
McKee said becoming brigade commander allowed him to become a Distinguished Military Graduate, which allows future officers a regular commission -- just like that of a West Point graduate.
"That gave me the opportunity to choose my branch and first duty station," said McKee. "I chose infantry and the 101st Airborne Division."
McKee said that choice was easy for him because he grew up reading about the Normandy and Holland jumps and the Bastogne, France, defense.
"I was enthralled by those stories and being a World War II brat born in 1938. I'd always heard about the Screaming Eagles," added McKee. "However, what sealed the deal for me mentally was reading in Life magazine about an accident where high winds dragged a bunch of paratroopers from the 502nd Infantry Regiment."
McKee said after reading that story, he saw it as a calling and a challenge to become part of the division.
"Those guys looked pretty tough in those pictures, so that's when I decided I just had to be a part of the 101st," he stated. "So, I got my commission in 1960, but the Army decided to put me on excess leave and send me to Columbia University to get my master's degree in sociology."
McKee immediately headed out for New York City.
"However, there was a little event in 1961 called 'The Berlin Crisis' where the Soviets started putting up the wall," he added. "All military personnel who were on excess leave where called back to active duty and ordered to report to their first duty station."
"Now, remember, I hadn't been through infantry training yet, but the Army sent me straight to Fort Campbell," said McKee. "All of a sudden, without any infantry training outside of what I learned in the Marine Corps, I found myself at Fort Campbell as a platoon leader with Charlie Company, 502nd Infantry Regiment, and I wasn't Airborne qualified."
McKee said he was quickly entered into the pre-jump school class to bring him up to speed. He added he and his future jump mates used to get really excited seeing the C-119's fly overhead.
"We did have one of the jump school instructors, a senior parachutist, come over at lunch and talk to us about jump school, on occasion," he added. "Of course, we had a thousand questions for him."
With all questions answered, McKee's curiosity quickly turned into reality -- getting through Fort Campbell's last jump school class with the winter solstice just a couple of weeks away.
"We trained a lot in the beginning learning about the basics of jumping and about parachutes themselves," said McKee. "Of course, we did a lot of hanging in the straps to get the idea of what it felt like to be suspended."
McKee said the most interesting part of Fort Campbell's jump school was the 34-foot tower used to train future paratroopers.
"Believe it or not, that tower actually weeded a few guys out," said McKee. "Then it wasn't long before our focus was turned to the C-119's."
The plane they once dreamed of jumping out of all of a sudden started causing a bit of angst.
"I'll never forget our first jump because we wondered if the C-119 would even clear the fence at the end of Fort Campbell's then very small airfield," said McKee. "Those planes were noisy and for us novices who'd not yet jumped, a bit scary."
McKee said the day of their first jump was beautiful and went off without a hitch.
"We went from chaos to peace within seconds," laughed McKee. "That's from the time you jump until your chute opens."
McKee and his jumpmates got in three more jumps before bad weather postponed their fifth and final jump. Anxiety began to set in for McKee and his fellow Soldiers who saw their jump wings in jeopardy.
"A few days later, the wind died down just enough for us to try the fifth jump. Now mind you, it was still snowing," McKee said. "But, when we got to the Yamato DZ (drop zone) they stood us up, we hooked up and then we shuffled out the door in the snow."
McKee said they were so close to Christmas that when they assembled on the DZ they were immediately put into a formation to be awarded their jump wings.
"It wasn't very ceremonious and they basically came up to us, slapped us on the back of the helmet, shook our hands, told us congratulations and pinned our wings on us," he said. "Then everyone quickly dispersed for Christmas."
McKee said had it not been for a stellar group of noncommissioned officers among the cadre, they might well have been recycled.
"Fort Campbell's Airborne school had excellent cadre," he said. "One sergeant was one of the top judo masters in the world and our sergeant major was the legendary Pappy Norris."
McKee went on to Infantry and Ranger School at Fort Benning before returning to Fort Campbell as a platoon leader and later company commander with the 502nd Infantry Battle Group [Regiment].