It was July of 1966, I was touring Vietnam performing for the troops. A chopper had just taken me, June Collins my assistant and Al Ricketts, who was a reporter for the Stars & Stripes Newspaper, to a place called Phanrang. There were about 400 GI's stationed there, most were part of the 101st Airborne. These poor guys were starved for entertainment. They supplied a flatbed truck that we used as our stage along with a p.a. system.
We were supposed to present one show the first day and another show the second day for a different group of guys. Afterwhich, a chopper would come get us and fly us to another location to do the whole thing over again. Did I mention these guys were starved for entertainment? We were a hit! After our first show they invited all of us to the mess hall for a very impromptu party. They took foot lockers and filled them with ice and beer.We spent the next few hours laughing and telling jokes, I did some card tricks, June my assistant danced a bit and we generally had some good old fashioned fun.After downing a few beers and generally cutting up with the GI's, someone asked me if I had ever parachuted. I had made a couple jumps in the past and related the stories.
I was asked if I had ever done a dangerous escape and I relished them with stories of my various straightjacket escapes. "Ever thought of doing that escape out of an airplane?" I had already had a few beers so I said, "sure I've thought of it." My answer really stirred them on and another guy asked, "If we could get a plane, would you do it?". Again, I said, "Sure", but I never in my wildest dreams thought they could get a plane. Afterall, my troupe and I were leaving the next day, there wouldn't be enough time. I also knew I couldn't do it from a chopper because there would be no way to get enough height for a parachute to open. With the alchohol doing my thinking for me, I asked June to get my straightjacket out of our tent. One of the GI's went to find a parachute. The chute fit me fine. Putting the straightjacket on was another story. They were unable to bind my hands properly. I asked June to get the ten foot legnth of chain from our trunk and the GI's used that to help secure me inside the jacket. It was tight! Even though the GI's were excited about the prospect of this dangerous escape, it was geting really late so I retired for the night.
When I woke up, I had a doozy of a hangover. In addition, I discovered that the entire camp was buzzing over this escape idea. What on earth had I gotten myself into? I told them that I frankly didn't think there was enough time to present the escape, even if we had a plane, which we didn't. We had to leave at three that afternoon for another camp. Just about the time I was saying the words, "even if we had a plane", I heard the sound of a small aircraft flying overhead. As it turned out, this plane was carrying vegetables for the encampment and my nightmare was about to come true.
I couldn't believe what was happening. After all the talk about escaping from a plane and being certain that there was no way this group would be able to acquire an aircraft before I left, suddenly a small plane was landing at our encampment. After unloading the contents of the plane, the GIs told the pilot of this proposed stunt and wouldn't you know he agreed to it.
While this was happening, I was reluctantly agreeing to do the stunt with certain conditions. First, I needed someone to jump with me for safety and I needed someone who would jump and photograph the thing. I figured if I was going to possibly die, we might as well have a good record of it. And if I lived, I wanted the photos to exploit the rest of my life.
Quickly, a GI volunteered to jump safety with me. The reporter I was traveling with agreed to photograph the entire thing. It's important to remember that all this took place before before I became known as a daredevil escape artist, so I had more than a few butterflies while all this is going on. The GIs were so gung-ho over the escape idea, I couldn't back down. By 10:30 a.m. everything was ready to go.
The GIs strapped me into the regulation canvas straightjacket. They used the chain and locks to secure the jacket more firmly onto my body along with the parachute. The plane that we were getting into was not equipped to handle four people, so they removed the plane door to make the jump easier. The plane took off, with the pilot, the reporter, my safety jumper and myself all aboard.
One of the things they needed to do to make sure we didn't drift into enemy territory after the jump, was to find which way the wind was blowing. The solution was science at it's best. They would throw rolls of toilet paper out of the plane and watch which way the trail of t.p. was drifting. Here I am, laying on my back, trussed up in a regulation straightjacket and chains with a plane flying in circles while they throw toilet paper out of the plane to find the direction of the wind. The memory gives me chills even now.
It has always been my custom before any escape to say a short prayer. I'm actually into my prayer when I hear the pilot say, "It's time to jump!" Before I can even answer or react, the plane tilts suddenly spilling yours truly right out into the open air. The first thing I notice is that I am not having a sensation of falling, but having parachuted before, I know that I am. Quickly, I began my escape.
I know full well that time is ticking and any miscalculation on my part is going to leave a hole in the earth below me with a big red stain in the center. I wiggle my way free of the restraint and push the jacket down towards my waist. Immediately I reach for the rip cord and pull. I come to a complete stop but not without an incredibly painful sensation against my face. When I pulled the rip cord, the chain which was still on the jacket flew upwards and smacked me right in the face. Now that hurt! It left some pretty nice bruises.
After the initial shock of the chain hitting me, I look to find my cohorts. I see my safety jumper but the reporter is no where to be found. It turned out he was too scared to jump but did take a lot of photos of me as I descended out of the plane. As I'm drifting downwards, I see the area that I was supposed to land in, but I am drifting out to sea!
The sound of gunfire rings out from both sides of the river below me. This is a clear sign that the GIs are thrilled with my escape stunt! I ended up landing on the beach. My safety jumper landed exactly in the designated landing spot, show off. The officers and GIs meet me on the beach and they are extremely excited. I said to one of them, "Wow, everyone actually came out to see me, I could hear them firing their guns from both sides of the river!". The sergeant says, "oh, about those guys on the other side of the river, they're the Viet Cong!"
That's the story of my first big stunt. But more went on in Vietnam...