Memories of the Wounded Knee Airlift April 17, 1973
By Larry Levin
It was bitterly cold that early April morning in 1973. We had taken off from Rapid City well before dawn. Our original plan was to land in Hot Springs, remove the rear doors from the three big Cherokee aircraft we were flying, and then head for Wounded Knee at tree-top level, ready to air drop two thousand pounds of food and supplies to its heroic defenders.
But we had a lucky break at the Rapid airport. The control tower was still closed in the pre-dawn hours. That meant that no one was watching us closely. On the spur of the moment, as we taxied to the far end of the runway to prepare for takeoff, we decided to remove the rear doors then and there. I ran around to the side of my plane and removed the bolts and then the door itself, throwing it back inside the plane, while the others did the same to their Cherokees. We took off into the clear night air. We had eliminated the need for a potentially risky landing at Hot Springs, which was probably heavily patrolled because of its proximity to the front lines. We were now ready to let the defenders of Wounded Knee know that they were not alone and had not been forgotten.
It had not been easy getting to this point. We had begun talking about a mission to re-supply Wounded Knee almost three weeks ago at our anti-Vietnam office in Boston. While my partner Bill Zimmerman flew to Chicago to begin rounding up the planes, equipment, and supplies we would need, I headed to New York to try and raise the thousands of dollars necessary to fund the operation.
It turned out to be surprisingly easy. There was tremendous support and sympathy for the American Indian Movement . After a few days of morning-to-night telephone work, I hailed a cab on my last day in New York, flashed a roll of hundred dollar bills at the driver, and told him that I was hiring his cab for the entire day. We made dozens of stops at the luxury apartments and offices of well-known celebrities, religious leaders, political activists and journalists.
At each stop, I received an unmarked, untraceable envelope filled with cash. The driver, a young friendly African immigrant, watched in amazement as I counted and sorted the money in the front seat next to him. At the end of the day, when he dropped me at La Guardia Airport for my flight to Chicago, he couldn’t contain his curiosity any longer. Why are people giving you so much money, he asked. Is it drugs? No, I told him. It’s to fight the U.S. government and to help the Native American people. For a moment he looked at me in shock and confusion. Then he smiled, and said “good.” I think that he learned a lot about America that day.
In Chicago, Bill had already made arrangements to rent aircraft and had recruited sympathetic supporters with both flying and parachute rigging experience. Several had learned their skills in Vietnam, and were anxious to put them to use for a cause they finally believed in. Moreover, a group of neighborhood women were spending nights before our departure sewing together parachute deployment bags. These sturdy duffel bags would be filled with food and attached to the parachutes. They would be the lifeline to the people of Wounded Knee.
Our plan was to leave Chicago, hit Wounded Knee the next day, and return within 48 hours. But only a few hundred miles into the flight, we encountered bad weather, forcing us to land in Council Bluffs, Iowa. We spent the night, and woke up to a snow storm. The next day we made it as far as Huron, before engine trouble grounded us yet again. We were now near enough to Wounded Knee to start to worry. Locals eyed us suspiciously. Questions started being asked. Why were eight young men flying fully-loaded planes in formation through South Dakota? We developed a cover story that we were a bunch of rich spoiled Easterners on a big expensive hunting trip “out west.” We were here to spend money and have a good time. Rather than trying to hide our presence, which was impossible anyway, we made ourselves more visible. It worked.
But now a new complication arose. There were reports of shooting at Wounded Knee, and rumors of government forces using anti-aircraft weapons. We were also concerned that we didn’t know enough about the topography at Wounded Knee and the extent of the perimeter controlled by the American Indian movement. We decided to head for Rapid City to find out what we could.
In Rapid we found out what we needed to know and took with us someone who had recently been inside Wounded Knee, and knew the layout of the land. He would be our guide in the lead plane.
With the rear door off and the plane cruising at 155 mph in the darkness over Hot Springs, the wind, the engine noise and the cold were overwhelming. The plane’s external thermometer read 22 degrees, but the wind chill was way below zero. We had more immediate concerns, however. The plan was to swoop over Wounded Knee just as the faint first light of dawn allowed us to identify our target zone around the trading post and the Church … but before it was light enough for government forces to see our darkened planes clearly enough to start shooting. We were also worried that AIM defenders might start shooting at us as well, in the reasonable belief that they were now under government air attack. Our plan was to drop our loads and then head east into the rising sun, eventually splitting off into three directions to confuse pursuit aircraft.
As we began the approach to Wounded Knee, we slowly descended as we passed Manderson. In the back of the plane, our rigger began moving the 250 pound sacks of food closer to the open door, ready to push them out when we reached our destination. Suddenly, our plane jerked upward, pointing almost straight up at the clouds at an absurd angle, and our airspeed decreased dramatically. Two of the duffel bags had fallen out of the plane with the rip cords still attached to the plane’s interior. The plane was literally being pulled down by hundreds of pounds of dead weight hanging out the back! Bill, who was flying, was rapidly losing control as the plane slowed….nearing stall speed.
He began yelling “cut, cut” but the rigger sat frozen in fear in the back. I got up from the co-pilot’s seat and slipped and slid my way to the back of the steeply angled plane, trying to avoid sliding through the open rear door. The air speed kept going down… the plane now felt like it was suspended, hardly moving. I reached up for a knife taped over the door and pushed it into the rigger’s hand, screaming at him to cut the cord. Finally, he did.
I went back to my seat. Bill and I looked at each other in relief. We were now only a few miles from Wounded Knee as we caught up to the two other planes and re-established our formation. We still had more than four hundred pounds of food on board, even though we had lost one parachute. We descended to tree-top level, less than 100 feet above the ground, as the sky began to lighten. Suddenly, the indistinct shape of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church became visible, next to the mass grave of the 1890 massacre victims. We were almost there.
As we increased our altitude to 500 feet for the drop, I saw the whole panorama of Wounded Knee open up before me — the hard metallic shapes of armored personnel carriers and military vehicles totally surrounding the village. There were roadblocks on all approaches to the village, and satellite bunkers, communication outposts, and sandbagged trenches everywhere. Bill Zimmerman later wrote that it looked as if we had flown out of the United States and into a war zone, and we had. I saw no people, no movement. But as we were approaching the government’s outer lines, I looked straight down. There, standing next to an APC set back from the front lines, was a solitary soldier. He was shaking his fist at us, dressed only in white T-shirt and underwear, obviously unexpectedly awakened. Our surprise tactic had worked!
One after another, at exactly 5:06 am, the three planes spent 40 seconds over Wounded Knee. The people in the village, hearing a rumor that a plane would try to land to re-supply them, had kept a smoky fire burning to help us with wind direction. Ten giant, colorful parachutes were released, one after the other, each balancing hundreds of pounds of supplies. The first plane went around for a second pass. Then each plane descended back to 100 feet, gunned their engines, and sped into the sun.
As we made our escape, I noticed that Bill was acting more tense, instead of relieved. He indicated that I should look outside, toward the back of the plane. To my horror, I saw that part of the horizontal tail fin had been sheared off, leaving exposed metal and wires. A 200-pound bag of food had apparently crashed into it earlier. Now I noticed that Bill was having a lot of trouble controlling the plane, his control wheel twisted far to the left just to keep the plane level. Even the remaining surface of the tail had been rippled and bent by the lost duffel bags. But the plane had kept flying for the five minutes or so since the accident. The choice now was between an immediate landing with certain arrest, or the risk of flying further away, and escape.
We decided to risk getting as far away as possible. Fortunately, it was an overcast morning, and the air was very calm. We flew slow and easy. As we approached South Dakota’s border with Nebraska, the sun came out and the plane began violently shaking. We saw a small airport directly ahead of us and landed there, barely able to move the controls. The airport manager came out and looked at the damage to the tail. He said that we must have hit an eagle, and we agreed. He said the damage was so bad that he couldn’t believe that we were flying, and that we were very, very lucky. We left the plane, got a ride to Sioux City airport, and flew back to Chicago. The next day the plane was impounded by the FBI.
Meanwhile, back at Wounded Knee, the defenders immediately realized that these planes were on THEIR side. As the parachutes opened up, one after the other, and floated gently down to earth, Indians emerged from what seemed like every ravine and hiding place. Jim Stewart, the pilot of the plane that made the second pass, remembers seeing more than 50 defenders flowing in streams toward the landing parachutes, collapsing the huge canopies and detaching the duffel bags from the cargo netting. There was a scene of wild and exuberant pandemonium. A moment earlier, Wounded Knee had looked empty and deserted; now it was alive and beating with energy, as people happily and frantically chased after the supplies.
It was quite an aerial show. Of the ten cargo nets, one was lost during the accident in my plane, another never made it out of the lead plane, and one crashed into the ground when the parachute didn’t fully open. Seven reached the besieged Indians — over 1,500 pounds of food. Our drop had taken place on the 50th day of the occupation of Wounded Knee.
Included with every parachute was a “Manifesto” that we had written. Dennis Banks later said, “We read that message, and I think that everybody was crying afterwards, everybody. We realized that people out there were really working for us, that the Great Spirt was with us. The food came to us from the sky and we knew that the Great Spirit was with us.”
The message read, in part, “To the Independent Oglala Nation and their friends at Wounded Knee: Your struggle for freedom and justice is our struggle. Our hearts are with you.
“To the people of America: The delivery of these packages of food to the courageous people in Wounded Knee is being carried out by a number of Americans who have worked, and continue to work, to end American aggression in Indochina. Our brothers and sisters at Wounded Knee have shown us once again that no matter what the setbacks, just struggles are not stopped by any president or any policy.”
Originally published February 17, 1998 on this site: