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 – over the years the Air Force had used different locations for this training, Stead AFB in Nevada was used for a time.  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 training was pretty grim and lasted three days- about  40 hours were devoted to the camp experience. 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.   We underwent intense interrogations and were put into small tight  boxes and other stressful posiitions.   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.


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



About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, Family History, Fighter Aircraft, POW training, Vietnam War, Washington State POW Camp and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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