It was March 26, 1951. I'd been on duty in Korea about seven months. We were scheduled to make a combat jump, my second one since arriving, over the Munsan-Ni Valley.
Each man on the 187th Airborne Regimental combat team sat listening to the drone of our C-119. We were ready to take the plunge from 800 feet up and knew that if anything went wrong we were seconds away from an abrupt death. I was First Sergeant of Headquarters, 3rd Battalion, and last man in line to jump.
At about 9 A.M., the jumpmaster gave his routine commands: "Stand up" (we got up and faced the door).
"Hook up" (we snapped our fastener onto the cable running down the aisle of the plane).
"Sound off for equipment check" (each man checked the man's parachute in front of him and called out "#1 okay," #2 okay...").
"Stand in the door" (the first jumper spun into place in front of the door while each man behind tried to stay as close to the man in front of him as possible).
Then when the green light turned on, the command was given, "Go!" One by one, each jumper leaped from the plane, trying to stay as close to the man in front of him as possible. Our plane was traveling at 120mph and every second lost between jumpers meant about 176 feet of separation between landing sites and comrades.
Finally my turn came. When I spun into place in front of the door, knees flexed to propel myself out, my rifle strapped to my left leg caught on an insert in the doorframe. I tried to jiggle it loose with my left hand, but it didn't budge.
"Oh God, Oh God, Oh God!" I cried.
After a few seconds, I reached over with my right hand to dislodge the rifle, not knowing that this might be a fatal mistake. As I reached over, my right arm crossed over the static line, a cable attached to my parachute and running down the center of the plane (normally your arm is supposed to be under this line). Not recognizing my mistake, I jumped from the plane into the open air.
The deadly cigarette roll
The static line was about 120 feet long, which would mean it takes about a full second for the parachute to extend and billow, giving the jumper what we called an "opening shock." When I received the opening shock, the static line under my arm jerked my body into a horizontal position, sending me into a spin. The folds of my parachute wrapped around me-I was caught in what we called the deadly "cigarette roll."
My emergency chute was strapped to my chest, but the folds of the first parachute were wrapped around the reserve chute rendering it useless. I tried to untangle the folds, but the wind blew them back around me. I knew it would take only about seconds for me, plummeting out of control, to reach the ground. I was helpless.
At some point, I went unconscious. The next thing I remember I was on the hard, bare ground completely paralyzed.
Amazed to be alive!
I was lying face up with the parachute still wrapped around my body. The only thought that raced through my mind was that my neck had been broken.
Some time later, I heard a familiar voice approaching.
"Is there something I can do for you, Sgt. Kirwin?" he said.
The soldier was a member of, I company, my former company, which had jumped just after us. The lead scout had been in the approach march when he had spotted my parachute and recognized me.
I asked him to operate my quick release, a lever that could be turned slightly and pushed down to allow a jumper to climb out of his harness and parachute. He did this and explained that a medic was coming by shortly to help. I never saw that soldier again to thank him. He was killed that day in combat.
I don't recall how long I lay there, but miraculously the feeling began to come back onto my arms and legs.
After a while, I was able to stand up. My rifle had been laying underneath me completely dashed to pieces, I, however, seemed unharmed and collected myself enough to start walking towards where I thought my unit might be. I could see some helicopters landing up ahead so I walked toward them.
At the aid station there, I asked directions and headed off to where my unit was supposed to be. I found the men under heavy mortar fire. We didn't talk much about what had happened. I stayed in Korea about another five months.
When I was relieved from combat, I learned that a Life magazine photographer had snapped my picture, as I was about to jump that day. The photo was published, and several veterans wrote letters in response, saying that my technique was potentially deadly. Most assumed I had died or suffered severe injury.
From many gods to one God
I served in the U.S. Army until retiring as a major in 1961, after serving in both World War II and Korea. Later, I worked in corrections for the sheriff's department of Santa Clara County, California, until retiring in 1978.
I had many gods during the bulk of those years. I was an alcoholic, a heavy smoker, and golfed seven days a week. I went to church but paid no attention. During prayers, I clasped my hands-to practice my golf grip. I never praised or thanked God for my miraculous landing.
That all changed 23 years ago. My wife Dorothy and I visited a Pentecostal church one night where a retired Navy chaplain was preaching. I responded to the gospel and gave my life to Jesus. I've never had a drink or a cigarette since. I started a prison ministry, I'm a Gideon, and I teach Sunday school to 6th-, 7th-,and 8th-graders at Silver Lakes Community Church in Helendale, California.
Also, I finally realized that God had His hand on me throughout my life, especially in Korea. I can't believe I went through life so blinded.
"For He will command His angels concerning you," Psalm 91 says, "to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone."
I hadn't known the Lord then, but He had known me. Despite all that I lacked, He charged to His angels to deliver me from an uninterrupted fall of 800 feet.
Reprinted with permission from Christian Reader, March/April 2001