After my graduation from navigator training in July 1972, I went almost immediately to basic survival training. When I got the F-4 aircraft assignment, I knew that this 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. We were taken to the field and trekked for several days while trying to evade a force of instructors. While in the field we learned camouflage, communication techniques, and how to improvise needed tools and equipment. We learned to build a shelter from a parachute, what types of plants could be eaten, and how to purify water.
In particular, one memory of the trek comes back nearly 50 years later: we stood on a ridge line looking over a valley in front of us. We needed to cross this area, where many fir trees filled the valley. Our goal was to get to the ridge in the distance where we would meet with our instructors who was acting as partisans. They would lead us to our campsite for the night. While we were on the ridge it was pretty clear where we needed to go, but once we began to descend, we lost our visual references.
Now we had to reply on newly acquired skills in compass reading, interpreting a topographical map, and land navigation. As we slogged through the brush and over rocks and other obstacles, the heat and bugs added to our misery. As the day progressed, we went through old growth and clear cut forested areas. These became more and more difficult to negotiate. Late in the day, though mostly dumb luck we made it to the rendezvous point. We were exhausted. The trek had taken a great deal out of us – it was a good introduction to what a real survival ordeal would be like should we be shot down over SEA.
The trek also served another purpose: it taught us that if we were to survive we had to learn to trust our fellow team mates. That was brought home to me in a very intense manner. In the Washington wilds in August, we experienced a very hot, miserable and demanding environment. After two days in the wilds, I was ready to SIE. I had never been through anything so intense and being a small man, it hit me hard. I was teamed with my friend Lt Ed, who had been in my nav class at Mather. I can honestly say Ed kept me going. He gave me pep talks when I was ready to hang it all up. Without Ed pushing, cajoling me, and helping me when I needed it, I don’t think I would have made it. Later after I was married in late August, the first night of our honeymoon, my wife looked at me and was stunned to see all the bruises and black and blue marks on my legs. These were the souvenirs of my time in the wilds of Washington. I would have other souvenirs, I gained during the resistance portion of my training: numbness in several of my toes having been put in stress positions in the POW camp experience.
POW training had not always been conducted at Fairchild. Early training was done at Stead Air Force Base in Nevada. Those who went through that program said that Fairchild was a piece of cake, compared to survival and POW training in the desert. In fact, there was a story circulating that a student had died at Stead and this had prompted changes to the program. Now there were always stories like that being shared. Someone knew someone who was there and he swore that it was the truth. Sadly, it was true. Stead was a definition of grim and those who went through it never forgot it.
That said, no matter where you went though it, the POW training was pretty grim. To get ready for it, we had to negotiate an obstacle course in the dark. We had first encountered this course in day light where we learned how to get under barbed wire, cross and climb over pits and deal with a wide variety of things that we might encounter. My friend Donald and I decided to try to stick together and help each other. We had this theory that if we worked together we would not be so tired at the end.
This plan fell apart quickly and we got separated almost immediately in the dark. Overhead there were shots fired and explosions to distract us. And it worked. After about two hours I finally made it across the course. I don’t know what happened to Donald. I was then tired, exhausted, and taken “prisoner,” From that moment, I was no longer an officer of the United States — I became a non-being: hooded, pushed, man-handled, and isolated from my compatriots.
Alone in my cell, I anxiously wondered about what was to come. The answer came quickly as I was ordered to strip. A full blown strip search was undertaken as the guards commented on my male physical attributes. Or as they said lack thereof, which they were quick to point out to me. Humiliation was a powerful weapon and wielded regularly.
In the camp they kept me up all night to wear me down. I was put in a small cell with a window in the door and told that I was not to sleep. Periodically, the guards would come by and check each room to make sure that we were standing up and awake. It was in some ways easy to sneak a bit of rest as I could hear them coming and when they checked my cell I was always standing up. That said I got virtually no sleep that night.
In the morning, I joined my squad of prisoners. 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 camp 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 soon put me 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 I lost all all sense of time. Even today I do not know how long I was in the box, but after some length of time I was let out for an interrogation session.
They took me to a room with a desk. Two men sat there and began to question me. Like a real POW camp the interrogators knew my background and used this information against me. They knew I was not married, so they told me my parents would never know what happened to me. As I was short they said that it was funny that the “Americans” would have dwarfs in their military. This gave them a good laugh. Anything that could be used to break you was used.
The Geneva Convention stated that all I had to tell them was my name, rank, and serial number. When I did answer this way, this made them angry. They said I was not a prisoner of war, but an American war criminal and then they left the room. I could see there was a large mirror in front of me and assumed I was being watched. At this point, I adjusted my glasses with my middle finger. That really ticked them off. That ended the interrogation. I went back to my cell wondering what would happen. It didn’t take long to find out.
As the result of my one-finger exercise, they made me a “Camp Guard” with a rifle and I was forced to give orders to the other prisoners. My guard duty went on for what seemed like 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 as if I were 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. He also cautioned us about pissing off our captors through stupid and futile gestures.
Once freed from guarding my fellow prisoners, I was sent back to my squad. We had been told that prisoners often were fed a mix of fish heads and rice by the North Vietnamese. “Dinner’ came, as it was, a disgusting mix of rice and something that looked like fish parts. In addition, it was extremely salty and impossible to eat. So we headed into a long night huddled in our shelter.
The morning of the last day, everyone lined up at dawn. The guards yelled and harassed us. They told us that we had performed poorly and we had made many mistakes. All this time, we stood at attention. We were so tired that some men passed out. The guards continued to scream and yell at us for an extended time. They told us we had not exhibited the right attitude. We were a disgrace and we needed more “education.” We thought that they weren’t going to let us out – it was so grim and we were so beaten down. They ordered us to do an about-face to head back to the compound.
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.
As Old Glory flew above us, we returned to our rooms –not prisoners– but American fighting men. Most Americans will never experience what the POWs in SEA went through. We had a small sample to prepare us for combat.
We had been given a great gift.