I’ve written before about my less-than-remarkable Air Force flying career here and here. But I have yet to share a little-known rite of passage through which I was forced to endure. After all the flying and academics and specialization training, there’s one last hoop to jump through. I refer to Survival School.
The objective behind aircrew survival school is to toss a couple of Useful Ideas into your clue-bag as to how, after ejecting or bailing out of your aircraft, you might avoid dying of starvation, septicemia, or enemy bullets. Most of us aviators found the concept valid, but the reality kinda sucked.
So with new wings on our flight-suited chests, off we flew to Spokane, where the Air Force Survival School has long been located and remains today, for intensive training. Now I should point out that those of us assigned to ejection-seat aircraft also attended Water Survival School. That consisted of three days in the Very Pleasant Waters of Biscayne Bay, Florida, including parasailing behind speed boats that people pay big bucks to do in Cancún and Roatán. Also, much drinking at night in bars that had nothing but Jimmy Buffett on their juke boxes. (I may have to do a future post on Water Survival—what a sweet boondoggle.)
Imagine my surprise then, when I went from bobbing around in a raft in the semi-tropics to shivering in some national forest. In early October. For three whole weeks.
We started out with a week or so of lectures and seminars. These consisted mostly of, well, camp craft. We could have gotten a half-dozen merit badges but for the fact we’d all aged out of the Boy Scouts. We did, however, also get instruction in Resistance Training or RT, which involves how to avoid being exploited for intelligence or propaganda when captured. More on RT later.
After we got our merit badges, we were divided into 10-person “crews” and unceremoniously plonked down someplace that appears on maps as “Where God Lost His Shoes.” We were supposed to be there for a week with only ourselves and what we would have if we ejected from our aircraft—our so-called “seat kits.” They also gave us an enlisted survival instructor and a live rabbit. More on the rabbit —whom we named Thumper—later.
We pitched camp with our parachutes and spent our days Doing Survival Stuff. The National Forest Service waived hunting restrictions, allowing us to take any fish and game we could by “primitive means.” This would include three things: 1) snare wire from our seat kits, 2) parachute cord, and/or 3) anything you could have used to abuse Piggy in Lord of the Flies. Pointy sticks, mostly.
It takes some practice to get even passably good at catching things with “primitive means,” which brings me back to Thumper. It’s always a mistake to name your food. However, if you’re hungry enough you will whack, skin, and eat Thumper. Which we did, with some Jerusalem artichokes we dug up and wild grape leaves that taste nothing like grapes.
We soon discovered that squirrels are actually Very Stupid Animals ready to strangle themselves in a wire snare, so we ate several. We also ate a lot of bugs, that being sort of a thing at Survival School. Lessons I learned (and still remember) include: 1) squirrels taste, of course, like chicken thighs, 2) black ants taste like lemon drops, and 3) termites taste like rotten wood. We also managed to net and smoke a bunch of little brook trout that we ate bones and all. And for breakfast, we had energy bars included from our seat kits. These came in both corn and rice flavors, but in reality had a single “flavor”—particle board. You could seriously break your teeth on these things, so we soaked them in hot water and made a kind of sickly-sweet gruel. But hey, calories are calories and we were burning 5,000 a day out there.
One thing I learned to enjoy was Survival Television. This was what we called our campfire. Imagine 10 adults standing around a fire watching until the very last ember died. This sounds really stupid, I know, but we were cold and hungry and there’s a very primal kind of reassurance from a fire. That is, until our instructors told us we couldn’t have any more fires.
On Day 5 in the woods, our instructors handed us maps with X’s on them and told us we had to navigate to that spot before a certain time. Then they abandoned us… and became “enemy aggressors” tasked with capturing us while we did Escape and Evasion. We couldn’t just walk to the X—we had to sneak to the X. Hence, no fires. Which also meant nothing but bugs, cold smoked fish, and particle board to eat.
We survived for three days, including a night move by nothing but starlight. We were airlifted out from our final X and I have ever since always loved the thwap-thwap of an approaching helicopter.
But we weren’t done. We got back to base, had 45-minute showers, burned our underwear, ate pizza delivery, and got a good night’s sleep. The next day, we were marched toward the chow hall in formation. As we loped along, all sorts of fake gunshots and explosions went off and we were “captured” by a bunch of new instructors dressed in East German uniforms, this being 1984. They threw black cloth bags over our heads and marched us off to a prison camp.
The first 24 hours were spent in solitary confinement and interrogation. Now, there was no way they were going to abuse us physically, having just put a million bucks each into training us to fly. So they abused us in other ways. I was in and out of my clothes a half-dozen times, had buckets of ice water thrown on me, was forced to stand in a one-meter square dark cell for hours, was stuffed in one of those little boxes you see in POW movies, and interrogated two or three times. In order to keep us from nodding off—sleep deprivation being the torture of choice—they played really loud sounds. These included distorted Jimmy Hendrix, Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Boots” recorded at 33 RPM and played back at 16 RPM, an old-school telephone ringing for like 30 minutes, and a baby endlessly crying. It was.. not fun.
Having refused to give up any of the zero secrets of which I was in possession, I was then placed with the other 150 people in my class into a Hogan’s Heroes-style prison camp. For whatever reason, I was made the “adjutant” and given a clipboard to always carry. I figured out pretty fast that this gave me free range of the place and I quickly became the main message runner for the camp. One of the guys in my flight, a big bluff Irish guy from Boston named Condon, was our covert Escape Chief and decided the best place for him to meet with people was sitting on the crapper in the multi-holed outhouse latrine. He sat there for hours and I got to go in and out delivering messages. Unsavory, at best.
One of my buddies, who I later flew with in the same squadron (and is now a judge in Michigan), devised a great method of resistance. We were required to bow and say “Guten Tag, Comrade,” whenever a guard came by, being East Germans and all. My buddy decided that we should all bow and say, “Häagen-Dazs, Comrade,” and I spread the word on my rounds as adjutant. If you got called on it by a guard, you fell all over yourself apologizing for your atrocious German. It was genius—and hilarious.
Our prisoner quartermaster was a big Master Sergeant who was a serious chain smoker and had been without a butt for over 24 hours. When tasked with creating a requisition list, it read something like “50 lbs of potatoes, four cases of Spam, and 238,000 packs of cigarettes.” I was in the Commandant’s Office with him when Col Klink gave him a cigarette and lit it for him. Then his Number 2 screamed to stay at attention in the presence of the Commandant. It was painful to watch the poor Sergeant stand for 15 minutes, arms flat against his sides, as the cigarette burned down to his knuckles. That was dirty pool.
We were “liberated” after 48 hours, right in the middle of an indoctrination class in Communist theory. As a political science major, I was sort of getting into it, but was glad to be done with the whole survival hootenanny. The guards shook our hands, told us their real names, and brought out cases of Coke and Washington apples.
Those were really good apples.