POW training – Getting ready for the Vietnam War

Captain John E. Norvell, Urdorn RTAFB, Thailand, 1973

When I selected the F-4 aircraft as my choice to fly, I knew that I had selected SEA – South East Asia – as an assignment.

The F-4 was the workhorse fighter of the Vietnam War and virtually ensured that I would find myself in combat soon.

The training to fly the F-4 was conducted at Luke Air Force Base outside Phoenix, but before we arrived we were sent to Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Washington for two weeks of basic surival training. The training taught the basic skills of how to deal with bailing out over a wilderness area, but since the U.S. was in the middle of a major air war in Vietnam, it also included a mock POW camp to prepare aircrew members for the possibility of capture.

The Training was officially called — SERE – Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape.  Many of the POWs who returned have written in their memoirs  about the techniques that they used to communicate and survive the long, dark days in the Hanoi Hilton.  They learned them in SERE training.

Survival and Evasion and Escape were taught in the wilds of Washington State.  You were taken to the field and trekked for several days while trying to evade a force of instructors.   While in the field you learned  land navigation,  camouflage, communication techniques, and how to improvise needed tools and equipment.  The trek itself was physcially exhausting  and made through old growth and clear cut forested areas, that were very difficult to negotiate. ( I was lucky I attended it in the summer, folks who went in the winter said it was really bad).  At one point on the second or third day when I was exhausted, a fellow captain gave me a pep talk and kept me moving on.  Later we would room together in Thailand during the war, something we never anticipated in the wilds of Washington State.   It was a good lesson to learn that you could not in many instances make it on your own but needed the help of your fellows.

Resistance was taught in a POW camp experience.

The POW camp was pretty grim and lasted three days. To get you ready for it,  you had to negotiate an obstacle course in the dark and then when you were tired and exhausted, you were taken “prisoner”.

Once in the simulated camp  they kept you up all night to wear you down. Depending upon your rank, the degree of training was varied. The more senior men ( majors and Lt Colonels)  were made “prisoner” leaders and held responsible for the men under their command. The pressure that was put on them was very great and we lowly captains were for once glad that we were lowly captains. That is not to say that we got off easy.   For three days we underwent interrogations  and in the process were given the tools to resist under pressure.  Although the code of conduct stated we were to give only name, rank, and service number, that was clearly not going to be the case and the Air Force prepared us for the worse.

The morning of the last day they had everyone line up at dawn and the guards were, of course, yelling and harassing us. They told us that we had performed poorly and were a disgrace and that we had made so many mistakes that we thought that they weren’t going to let us out – it was so grim and we were so beaten down. They made everyone stand at attention and continued to scream and yell at  us for an extended time.

Then when we were really feeling miserable, they ordered us to do an about-face and we thought we were heading back to the compound for more abuse.

And there was the American Flag flying on the pole, high in the morning sun.

It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen; I really can’t even think about it without getting emotional.

It was truly an eye-opening introduction into what might happen if you were captured.

Even today,  I can’t imagine what the men who went through the actual camps experienced, it had to be 1000 times worse than my small introduction to it.  Yet,   this training was  probably was one of the best experiences I have ever had in my life.

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Later, when I flew in Alaska, I met Captain Roger Locher, a brave man who had evaded the North Vietnamese on the ground for 23 days and then was rescued.  SERE  training was put to good use by Roger who had taken its lessons to heart.  His evasion and escape was even more amazing as it had happened very close to Hanoi and his rescue was the deepest inside North Vietnam during the entire War.

If anyone ever  had the “Right Stuff,” it was Roger.

For the complete story of Roger Locher see www. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Locher

 

In Philadelphia

John Norvell (1789-1850) Editor, politician, co-founder of Philadelphia Inquirer, U.S. Senator

John Norvell (1789-1850) Editor, politician, co-founder of Philadelphia Inquirer, U.S. Senator

 

John Norvell had written to Thomas Jefferson in 1807 asking his opinion of a career in the press, which Jefferson felt was a dishonorable profession filled liars and with those he viewed, at times, as enemies.  Norvell, unlike Jefferson, felt that printing and publishing a newspaper was a useful means of entering and advancing in the world. Newspaper editors’ roles in politics afforded them opportunities to be full participants in the public affairs of the community.  Additionally,  they were considered to be professional politicians, not neutral in their opinions, but voices of their party.

Since that letter in 1807,  over the next twelve years, the young John Norvell worked for a variety of newspapers in the outlands of Kentucky and Maryland. But in 1819, it seemed that he had arrived in the big leagues when he joined the Franklin Gazette in Philadelphia. One can almost imagine his excitement in arriving in the city of American Independence. It probably was in many ways similar to the feelings that refugees from Europe must have experience when viewing the Statue of Liberty.  Philadelphia – PHILADELPHIA , no other city in America meant so much to the fledgling United States, and here was young John Norvell, barely 30, in the midst of it all.

It is hard for us today, who live in a highly urbanized America,  to understand what it must have been like to arrive in the city of Philadelphia in 1819. At the time there were five major cities in America: Boston, New York, Savannah, Charleston, and Philadelpia. If they were the jewels in the American scene, Philadelphia was the crown jewel.  It was an important port city, it had already secured itself a place in history as the birthplace of American independence, it had briefly been the nation’s capital before Washington, DC., and it was at this time a leading political center of the nation.   This was the hallowed world of John Adams, Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, the giants of American independence, but it was also,  for a small town boy like Norvell,  a whirl of people, places, and opportunities.

As the name Franklin Gazette might suggest, and the setting could not help to convey, this was a paper with many ties to Benjamin Franklin.  Indeed, his grandson Mr. Richard Bache, the son of Benjamin Franklin Bache published the newspaper and its offices were near the Bank of the United States. Though Bache was a grandson of Benjamin Franklin, his drinking got the better of his editing, and local  party leaders needed someone more reliable to run this important journal.   They most probably had read Norvell’s work with the Baltimore Patriot and he also came, for his work in Kentucky,  with Henry Clay’s recommendation of him  as a good party man. Norvell seemed to be the political professional, the expert in campaigning they needed and he was available. Bache himself noted Norvell’s many years experience in the business. Norvell’s immediate work at the Gazette showed he could take on the party’s political opponents as if he had been doing it for years. Less than a year after moving to the city, Norvell had assumed an important, prominent role in democratic party gatherings

 Below, the Franklin Gazette from January 18, 1823, note John Norvell’s name on left of masthead as publisher.

 

The January 18, 1823 Franklin Gazette, note John Norvell's name on left of masthead.

 

Moving to Philadelphia  was an important step in Norvell’s  fledgling career and along the way he would go on to co-found the Philadelphia Inquirer,  and experience a second tragedy  that would shape  and change his life.

 

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For a detailed look at John Norvell’s early political experience and life see The “Indiscreet Zeal”of John Norvell-.Newspaper Publishing and Politics in the Early American Republic, Jeffrey L. Pasley, Florida State University, a paper presented at the Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting, April 14,1994, Atlanta, Georgia.

With the Buffalo Soldiers

Colonel Stevens Thompson Norvell

 

STEVENS THOMPSON NORVELL (born February 14, 1835 -died August 20, 1911, Ogunquit, Maine of Bright’s Disease) enlisted in the army on January 23, 1858 as a private in Company A 5th Infantry. After the Civil War,  he was assigned to the 10th Cavalry in 1870 and served at Fort Davis from August 1882 to April 1883 in command of Troop M, 10th Cavalry.

Shortly after the Civil War, Congress had authorized the formation of the 9th and 10th Cavalry all black units  called the Buffalo Soldiers.

The Buffalo soldiers were responsible for escorting settlers, cattle herds, and railroad crews. The units also conducted campaigns against Native American tribes on a western frontier that extended from Montana in the Northwest to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in the Southwest. Throughout the era of the Indian Wars, approximately twenty percent of the U.S. Cavalry troopers were African American, and they fought in over 177 engagements. Their combat prowess, bravery, tenaciousness, and looks on the battlefield, inspired the Native Americans to call them Buffalo Soldiers. Many believe the name symbolized the Native American’s respect for the Buffalo Soldiers’ bravery and valor. African American regiments had difficulty finding white officers to serve in their units, yet there was a core group of officers who willingly served with these regiments for the majority of their career. Stevens T. Norvell was such an officer.

In 1871, he transferred to the Cavalry branch, joining the 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment as commander of Company M. During his tenure with the 10th Cavalry, he spent years leading his company against the Indian threat in the southwest, participating in several actions before finally being promoted to major in March of 1890.

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, the 10th Cavalry was deployed to Cuba where, as commander of the 1st Squadron of the 10th Cavalry, Major Norvell led his four companies of African American cavalrymen up San Juan Hill, where he earned a commendation. He was 64 years old at the time. He commanded a unit of the 10th Cavalry at the battles of La Guasima, San Juan, and subsequent actions leading to the surrender of Santiago. After the historic battle for San Juan Hill, Lieutenant Colonel Norvell was placed in command of the 9th Cavalry Regiment.

He wrote the following report while in Cuba during the Spanish American War:

“…We had a very heavy jungle to march through, besides the river (San Juan) to cross, and during our progress many men were killed and wounded.

The troops became separated from one another, though the general line was pretty well preserved. The works of the enemy were carried in succession by the troops and the Spaniards were steadily driven back toward the town to their last ditches. We now found ourselves about half a mile from the city, but the troops being by this time nearly exhausted, here intrenched themselves for the night under a heavy fire. By dark this line was occupied by all the troops engaged during the day.

July 2 we changed our position to about 600 yards to the right, and were under a heavy fire during the whole day until dark, when we were again changed to about half a mile to the right and a little nearer to the works of the enemy.

July 3 and until noon we were engaged with the enemy. At noon firing was suspended on both sides by reason of a flag of truce being sent forward, presumably to give notice of the bombardment of the city. The conduct of the officers and enlisted men of my squadron was simply superb.”

Five members of the 10th Cavalry earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions in Cuba:
Edward L. Baker, Jr. Sergeant Major, 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment at Santiago. He was later a captain in the U.S. Army.
Dennis Bell Corporal, Troop H, 10th Cavalry Regiment during “the rescue” at the conclusion of the Battle of Tayacoba.
Fitz Lee Private, Troop M, 10th Cavalry Regiment during “the rescue” at the conclusion of the Battle of Tayacoba.
William H. Thompkins Private, Troop G, 10th Cavalry Regiment during “the rescue” at the conclusion of the Battle of Tayacoba.
George H. Wanton Private, Troop M, 10th Cavalry Regiment during “the rescue” at the conclusion of the Battle of Tayacoba. He was later a Master Sergeant in the U.S. Army.

 

Photo of the 10th Cavalry with Teddy Roosevelt in the center. Public Domain Library of Congress

Photo of the 10th Cavalry with Teddy Roosevelt in the center.
Public Domain Library of Congress

Top Cover for America

F-4 Phantom Landing in Alaska

 

From 1974-1978 I flew intercepts of Soviet bombers off the coast of Alaska in the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter. The F-4 was the mainstay of the Vietnam War and I had arrived in Alaska fresh from a combat tour in Thailand, where I flew missions over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  Flying in Alaska was very different, but more on that later .

The importance of Alaska to the defense of America, dated back to when the U.S. Army Air Corps sent Billy Mitchell there in 1901 to supervise the construction of the Washington- Alaska telegraph system. From this Mitchell came to appreciate strategic importance of the territory. Over the 73 years since Mitchell, there had been a major buildup of military forces in the state.   The Cold War engaged America and the U.S.S.R. around the world.  They met also at the top of America.

When I arrived in 1974, the Air Force had Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, and Eielson in Fairbanks. Several remote air stations also served as forward operating bases including King Salmon on the Kenai Peninsula and Galena on the Yukon River, which surrounded the base and flooded sometimes causing evacuations.

Galena AB on the Yukon River

Aircrews sat air defense alert at the three bases ( Eielson, King Salmon, and Galena) Our home base was Elmendorf with crews rotating to the three facilities on a weekly basis where they sat alert twenty-four hours a day.

Flying in Alaska was a different challenge where cold was a deadly killer. To prepare for our missions there, all aviators attended Arctic Survival outside Fairbanks in the interior. There the days were even shorter and survival training entailed three days living in the bush. My training took place in December when the average temperature was about 35-50 below zero. I quickly learned what it was like to be on the planet Mercury with one side of me facing a fire – warm and the other side away freezing. We built snow shelters, which basically entailed covering boughs of fir trees with snow, and cocooning oneself inside a snow coffin. In the interior – not for the claustrophobic – the temperature rose to about 25-30 F from your body heat.

About twice a month the average crew member could expect to “sit” alert at one of the three remote sites for a week at a time.  There were always 6 aircraft on alert — two at each site. Alert could be very boring as the air crews could not leave the facility and were expected to launch within 5 minutes of receiving a scramble order. To wile away the time, crews watched movies, many, many movies. There was also some old TV on the AFRN network, Kung Fu, M*A*S*H*, Sanford and Son,  and other gems from the 1970s, and for the new guys – a proper initiation.

The new guys were always called FNGs – the F is self explanatory (every Air Force flying unit used this term to refer to new members). They were subjected to the type of military hazing that has gone on since time immemorial. In our case, it was not uncommon to put eggs in the boots of a sleeping FNG and then blow the scramble Klaxon. Boots could also be hidden, tied together in knots, or if he left is flight suit unguarded it could be tied in knots as well. If he left his ditty bag of toiletries out, red pepper might be added to the toothpaste. All this was done to test not only his to test mettle but to see how he fit into the squadon pecking order.  Make no misake every flying unit had and has a pecking order — Tom Wolfe talked about it in “The Right Stuff.”

Air Force F-4 E Phantom II Aircraft near Mt. McKinley

Above, 4 F-4s fly near Mt. McKinley about 1977

In Anchorage,  the summer days went from about 3:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. when dusk would begin to fall. Summer flying was the best. Our training missions were often conducted near Denali National Park. One summer we were flying a four-ship formation near Mt. McKinley, when we flew over the summit there was a climbing party on the peak. They were very excited to see us and waved, probably thinking the Air Force had scrambled our flights to honor their arrival on the summit. It was a nice thought but we were running air intercept training to prepare for the Russians who tested our defenses off the Alaskan coasts.

In 1976, ten soviet aircraft were intercepted alone.  An average flying year in Alaska could total as many as 5,000 sorties.  It was challenging and probably the best flying I ever engaged in.  My departure in 1978 would end my time in the Phantom as I headed off to teach at the Air Force Academy, but that is a story for another time.

Bats… a bit of personal history

Bats

Recently, we came home from our choir practice and noticed the cat wasn’t at the door begging to be fed, as usual. We walked in and called and called him and finally he showed up. I was in the kitchen and my wife Bonnie started shrieking – we got a bat in the house!

The bat was flying around and around in our dining room — I am sure it had a four foot wing span and had yellow eyes. It had YELLOW EYES!!!

So what to do?

Miss Bonnie said, “Let’s try to herd him out of the house!” So we closed off the doors to the dining room and got in position – actually I got in position, she disappeared.

Armed with the throw off the chair I attempted to swing it at him and try to get him to fly into the living room and out the front door. Think about that one! Well it made sense at the time.

After several minutes of “Lets watch the old guy swing a sheet in the air over and over,and perhaps have a heart attack” I was finally able to knock the bat down mid-flight (Please hold your applause).

This was fine, but then I didn’t know where the bat went. Miss Bonnie showed up at this point and told me next time to try to get him to land in the cat’s basket so we could carry it out and dump it. She is always very helpful at times like this.

Well, we tip-toed around and looked in the corner where he disappeared – No Bat.

Finally we found him clinging to the dining room drapes – I guess he was tired of playing “Lets dodge the sheet in the air.”

I sneaked up on him and grabbed him with the sheet (you can applaud now) and we hustled him out the front door and released him into the night where he belonged.

In the past nearly 20 years that is the third bat we have had in the house – ah the joys of living in a rural area!

Post Script

Further investigation the next morning seemed to indicate that he came in the window where we have an air conditioner in our bedroom. Our intrepid feline hunter seemed to confirm this as he smelled the drapes around the window and seemed very interested in the area – almost saying “Where did he go, where did he go.”

From the Halls of Montezuma….

Captain Freeman Norvell in the uniform of the First Michigan Cavalry.

Captain Freeman Norvell in the uniform of the First Michigan Cavalry.

Mary Irene Norvell Fisher Masse, writing in her memoirs in 1960,  commented about  her grandmother Mary Dean Redfield Norvell this way:  She had married young, the son [Freeman Norvell] of wealthy and prominent people.   My grandmother had  riches, a social position and the early loss of her husband…. She  blamed the war for bringing about the early death of her husband and the changes to her life.

The War had changed their life — a very telling phrase, but what did it mean.

His obituary only made it more tantalizing:  “Colonel Freeman W. Norvell, a well-known Michigan officer in the War of Rebellion and the Mexican War, died this afternoon.  He had been in poor health for nervous disorders for some time….”

My search to discover the whole story began in 1968 when I was a young lieutenant living in Washington D.C.  In the evenings I would go down to the National Archives to look at the military records of the members of my family.  I knew that my great-grandfather Freeman Norvell (1827-1881)  and his five brothers had fought in the Civil War, but didn’t know many of the details. In the yellowed pages of the files the story of Freeman Norvell came to light.   Freeman had resigned from the Command of the 5th Michigan Cavalry  for  drunkenness while on duty in 1863.

The file contained letters written about the incident both from his superiors and the men who served with him.  I was taken back.  Not the kind of news one expects to find, especially when the family never talked about it. My father, himself a career military man, did not know about it and when I told my elderly aunts, they refused to discuss their grandfather.   And so the story ended.  When others could talk of the valor of their family in the war, my story was one that I often did not share.

Then a turning point came about ten years ago. Googling various members of my family I discovered that there was a great deal more to Freeman’s story. Not only had Freeman served in the Civil War, but he was a Marine Lieutenant during the Mexican War.  He served in the Mexican War, with Co. A, Marine Battalion in 1847.  He was breveted 1st Lieutenant for the storming of Chapultepec and capture of Mexico City, and appointed Adjutant, November 1, 1847.  He remained in Mexico until 1848.  During the 1850s, he was first posted to a series of ships and then to the Brooklyn Naval Yard.  He  had been citied for his bravery and actions at Chapultepec and meritorious service. Something did not fit.  How did that square with the man who was drunk in the Civil War.

Yet it would be made clearer that the one did affect the other. An incident provided a clue:  In 1855, he was tried by court-martial for drunkenness. Found guilty of the charge, Norvell was dismissed from the Corps on June 23, 1855. Having flown in Vietnam, I knew many men who used alcohol to deal with the stress that they were under.

Perhaps Freeman carried a burden from the Mexican War that he found it hard to deal with. A letter from the 5th Michigan Cavalry surgeon provided the last piece of the puzzle:   On Dec. 31st,  [1862] Col Norvell while returning from drill on the evening of Dec. 30, fell sick and arriving at his tent was prostrated with sheer nervous exhaustion….

It was at last clear to me for the first time since 1968 that he had used  alcohol for self medication to deal with stress.  And the phrase from his obituary:  ” He had been in poor health from nervous disorders.”    Nervous disorders and stress coupled with alcohol use meant one thing to me Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Freeman carried the ghosts of Mexico with him and the stress that he felt could only be deal with by drinking.      According to the Department of Veterans Affairs: “PTSD and alcohol use problems are often found together.  People with PTSD are more likely than others with the same sort of background to have drinking problems. PTSD would not have been diagnosed in the 19th century.

That might be the end of the story, but  he did not give up after losing his command. In February 1863 he rejoined the Army in the U.S. Volunteers  and was with Slocum’s Corps during the terrific Battle of Gettysburg on Culp’s Hill on July 1863.   In 1864, he resigned his commission and returned home.  There were no further incidents. In the end, my great grandfather carried a burden that he took to his grave. He was a flawed individual who put his life on the line three times for his county. And that is his legacy not the negative times he experienced.

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For a complete account of the career of Freeman Norvell see my article on Colonel Freeman Norvell, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Hills of Gettysburg, “Military Collector & Historian” Vol 66, No 2, Summer 2014,  it details his service as a Marine Lt in the Mexican War, and subsequent problems with alcohol abuse and  PTSD in the Civil War.

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See A Civil War Mother for a discussion of all the Norvell Brothers in the Civil War

http://jenorv66.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/a-civil-war-mother/

4th of July

When I was younger in upstate New York, the 4th of July and the Field Days were big occasions and as such merited a parade.

At first I decorated my bike and rode in the parade. Later, when I was a Boy Scout I always marched in these parades, some years carrying the US flag, other just in the ranks. As marchers we were a motley crew, all different shapes and sizes, some with uniforms, most without and seldom in step; which now strikes me as also true of the adult leaders, who were a mix of fathers, town adults, and senior scouts. Still, we seemed to fit in nicely with the rest of the parade.

The parade usually formed the school, marched down Cayuga Street, around the town square and sometimes down Fulton Street or back up Auburn Street to the school. The Hannibal Central School band led the parade. George Tripp, the director, had molded the varying degrees of talent, found in our small, rural school, into a remarkably good marching ensemble. Following the band came the scouts, some floats pulled by tractors, some kids on colorfully decorated bicycles that invariably won the rider honorable mention. Finally, the town firetrucks brought up the rear blowing their sirens, as the firemen threw out candy to the kids along the curbs.

One year, 1960, the parade marked the centennial of the founding of Hannibal and was particularly a big deal with two or three times the usual number of participants from all over the area. The Hannibal Centennial was not only celebrated with a parade, but also with fireworks. The Field Days always ended with a big fireworks display, that we watched from home as we lived on the top of the Oswego Street hill. There were usually no fireworks in Hannibal on the 4th, so this was a special event, most years the ones from Fair Haven cleared the horizon so that we sat in the back yard and watched them. Finally, a time capsule was buried in the town square to be opened in 100 years. Alas, now most of the beautiful, old square is gone, as the streets were widened and the time capsule is probably buried under pavement.

These events seemed to bring out everybody, which surprised me as every parade was always the same. I was a teenager and found this amusing. People would come early to get a seat, often bringing lawn chairs or sitting on the top of cars. I couldn’t understand why, as the parade would last all of five minutes. Now I realize that these events were the cement that held our small town together. People came not only to watch the parade or the band concerts and plays at the school, but also to see each other and be seen– to gossip, to talk, to inquire about family and friends, and to let their neighbors know that they care about them.

A Bicentennial Dog in Alaska 1976

Later during the Bicentennial Celebrations in 1976, we were actively involved in celebrating the United States 200th Birthday in Anchorage Alaska. Even our dog Niki was part of the celebration, and we helped to build the Air Force Base’s float, perhaps a skill I learned as a kid decorating my bike 20 years earlier in those long gone days in our small town.