Colleen and Gordan Trank and their two grandchildren stood on the deck of the USS Little Rock on Buffalo’s waterfront Thursday afternoon, when eight soldiers dropped out of the sky from two Black Hawk helicopters.
The South Wales family got a lot more than what they paid for when they boarded the Little Rock for the tour.
“I was absolutely amazed,” Colleen Trank said. “My heart is pounding.”
They were among about 15 people taking a tour of the World War II cruiser when the soldiers landed, and like the dozens of other visitors walking around Canalside and the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park, they were surprised. Only the park’s staff knew the exercise was going to take place.
The soldiers were Army Special Forces who have been training in the area for the past two days. The exercise Thursday afternoon was to train for seizing a ship from terrorists.
The two helicopters hovered over the Little Rock, and the eight soldiers quickly rappelled onto the cruiser as Canalside bustled with grandparents, parents and young children walking along the harbor.
Some tourists and visitors pulled out cellphones to take videos of the exercise. Others grabbed a post or secure object so they wouldn’t get knocked over by the helicopters’ backwash.
The soldiers were from West Virginia, and they had stormed Hamburg Town Beach both Wednesday and Thursday mornings, parachuting into the lake and from a higher elevation, to precision landings on the beach.
The soldiers who participated weren’t talking. But the visitors and park personnel were clearly impressed.
“We have various military organizations that come and use the ship for various training exercises,” said Col. Patrick J. Cunningham, the executive director of the Naval and Military Park. “The Special Forces group, it’s the first time they have come here to ask us to participate. They wanted to practice rappelling aboard a ship in case they ever had to rappel aboard a merchant ship that was captured by terrorists or something like that.”
Because of Buffalo’s location on Lake Erie, it’s one of the optimal locations for the military to train in the United States, Cunningham said. And the USS Little Rock was optimal, too, because it is stationary and tied to a pier, said John M. Branning, the superintendent of ships at the park.
Four soldiers propelled out of each helicopter, which hovered 50 feet above the ship’s deck. The helicopters stayed above the ship for a only couple minutes as the armed soldiers rappelled down a rope.
After each soldier reached the deck, he grabbed his weapon from his side and took his position – two soldiers ran to the port side of the ship’s north end and knelt, and two did the same on the starboard side. When all four landed, they gave a thumbs up to the pilot, who then flew away.
The backwash from the helicopters’ spinning rotor blades was so strong that several visitors aboard the ship clung onto its sides.
Gordan Trank, 58, took a video of the exercise on his cell phone as Colleen, 58, put both of her arms around her grandchildren, 7-year-old Kylee Johnson and 6-year-old Zane.
Colleen wiped tears from her eyes when the park’s staff and those taking the tour, clapped after the soldiers landed on deck.
“It touches my heart to see the soldiers do this,” she said. “My brothers were all in the Army … I’m proud of them.”
Her five brothers served in the Vietnam War. Colleen said it was “fabulous” that her grandchildren were able to witness what her brothers – and what those in the military – do for their country.