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  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.   To prepare for combat, I arrived at Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Washington for two weeks of basic survival 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.  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.  Resistance was taught in a POW camp experience.

The POW training was pretty grim. 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,”

From that moment, we were no longer officers of the United States — we became non-beings: hooded, pushed, man-handled, and with some anxiety awaiting what was to come.  That came quickly as we were ordered to strip, and a flown blown strip search was undertaken as the guards commented on our physical attributes or lack there of.  Humiliation was a powerful weapon and wielded regularly.

In the  camp  they kept you up all night to wear you down.  Wearing you down included interrogations.   Like a real POW camp the interrogators knew your background and used this information against you.  If you were married they told you that your wife would never know what happened to you.  If you were short like me, they called you a dwarf.   Anything that could be used to break you was used.  One thing in particular was very stressful.  You were put into a small box, about 24 inches wide and long and only 3 feet high, I remember I had to be hunched over in it and there was not much room beyond my shoulders on each side.  Now I am not a big man, I top out at about 5 feet 5 inches and I could barely fit in the box.  I cannot imagine how a man over six feet tall fit into this small enclosure.  Once in the box and the door closed it was total darkness and all sense of time was lost.  Even today I do not know how long I was in the box, but after some length of time I was let out for more interrogations.

Depending upon your rank, the degree of stress and severity in the training 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.  They made me a “Camp Guard” with a rifle and I was forced to give orders to the other prisoners.  I assume it was because I had not been willing to give answers during interrogation.  This went on for several hours until I was able to convince them that I was sick.   At the time, I could easily trigger my gag reflect and I started to act if I was convulsing.  It was a good performance and they finally let me alone.   Later in the debrief, the instructor would tell me that this was exactly the kind of thing to do to fool them and 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.

2 Responses to POW training – Getting ready for the Vietnam War

  1. jenorv says:

    Reblogged this on An American Family and commented:

    45 years ago this week I was in the POW camp run by the Air Force, it was an Eye Opener.

  2. A nice reminder of the past, and our need to understand and confront our fear. Although not destined to reach SEA my SERE experience was similar to yours. We graduated from UNT a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving and spent Thanksgiving Day in the mountains outside Fairchild in the survival phase.
    After the obstacle course what I remember the most was the heat and claustrophobia of “the box.” A classmate was short and thin and they apparently didn’t or couldn’t make the box small enough to keep him from turning around. As he did so he made some noise and the guards beat the box asking what was going on. He didn’t answer so they opened the box and was looking at his face instead of the end they expected to see. He was right next to me so I heard them gasp and he said he was in the back room and didn’t hear them knocking. I about busted up laughing…

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