After the Vietnam War, the Army decided it needed more training for all of us “potential POWs.” So they established the SERE course at Camp Mackall outside of Ft. Bragg. SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. The commandant of the course when I was there was one Col. James “Nick” Rowe. Next time you are at a book store, check out the book “Five Years to Freedom.” It was written by Col. Rowe after he spent five years in Vietnamese captivity, and escaped! Anyway the man knew his stuff, so the course is very good. I went through the Instructor’s course in 1984. In February 1989 I was watching CNN when I saw that an American adviser has been gunned down in his car in the Philippines by a communist insurgent. I was crushed to hear that it was Col. Rowe. What a horrible waste of a good man.
I ended up out at the SERE Instructor Course at Camp Mackall in September ’84. Camp Mackall has all of the charm of a POW camp. It was the home of the airborne forces during World War II. The course is 30 days long and culminates in a seven day survival and evasion phase. During the first 20 days you learn SERE skills. For instance, they bring you live chickens, rabbits and even goats to kill and prepare over a fire. The idea is that many soldiers had lived their whole lives up to this point without ever killing anything. You also get trained in procuring food, acquiring water, building shelter, land navigation, First-aid, sentry stalking, escape techniques, evading capture, the Geneva Convention, and so on. Also during this time, we made the gear we would use on the survival phase. For example: we had to make a ruck-sack out of all natural materials that would carry all of our individual gear and a PRC-77 radio. A PRC-77 is about the size of a VCR and twice as heavy. Most of us made our ruck-sacks out of kudzu. If you aren’t familiar with kudzu, it is a non-native vine that is taking over the South. It is a real pest down there but you can weave a pretty good basket out of it and that is how we made our ruck-sacks. We also made flint knives.
On the night that survival phase was to begin, our six man evasion team was given our supply issue and told to report to the main classroom. At the classroom we were told to strip buck naked so the instructors could ensure that we were not trying to smuggle any food, knives, money or anything not in our issue to the field. After that they loaded us on a truck, hauled us out to the North Carolina piedmont forest and dropped us off with instructions to meet our instructor at a specific spot about six miles north. We had maps, compasses, canteens, water purification tablets, flashlights, ponchos, extra socks and one PRC-77 with an extra battery. No food. Our instructor added: “Oh, and by the way, a platoon of the 82nd Airborne Division Recon will be searching for you with a promise of a keg of beer and snacks for each team they catch. If they catch you, you flunk. Good luck.”
As we set off to our rally point with the instructor, it began to rain. It wasn’t a hard rain but when you are “bustin’ brush” the wet vegetation ensures that you will be wet to the core. The thick underbrush also makes it impossible to stay dry. As this was the last week in September, it wasn’t very warm out. To find where we were, find Carthage, NC on a map. Find the Deep River and draw a line straight south from the river about five miles west of Carthage. If you make this line about 20 miles long, you will be at our start point. Over the course of the next four days we would work our way north to the river.
The first night was a fairly uneventful night of movement to our rally point. The overcast skies made it impossible to see anything and the man on point walked into a lot of logs and trees. It was so dark we couldn’t even see the man in front of us. Each man, except the compass man, took his lensatic compass and tied it to his ruck-sack so the tritium dial would show up to the man behind him. We moved fairly consistently and arrived at our rally point a little before dawn.
Two guys set out to find a good hide site for the day and two others went to link up with our instructor. Another soldier and I laid down to rest and wait. I pulled out my pancho and threw it over myself and I laid on the ground in the fetal position. As I laid there I began to get a chill and to shiver uncontrollably. In fact I was shivering so badly that I began to feel like I would vomit. I knew I didn’t want that to happen since I had eaten as much as I could hold before we took off the evening before in anticipation of having to live off of the land for seven days. I sure didn’t want to lose that food by vomiting. After a few minutes I began to feel better and I heard someone coming. The other guy with me, Douglas, was asleep. I stuck my head out to see which of the other two groups was returning when I saw a group of about six soldiers through the trees. Since they had Alice packs and rifles I knew they weren’t from our group; they were the OPFOR!
I knew I didn’t want to be captured, especially on the first morning. I stayed as still as I could and they passed without detecting us. I was really worried that they would get some of the other four and then throw a dragnet over the area to get the rest of us and I tried to decide what to do. I crawled over and woke up Douglas and we low-crawled down into a little creek bed and waited. Finally the group that was looking for the hide site came back and we quickly told them what had happened. They hadn’t seen the OPFOR so they crawled down in the gully too. After about an hour and a half the last two guys came back. They had seen the OPFOR and had radioed in to call off the linkup with the instructor. We were pretty stressed out because we thought they had been captured. They hadn’t and eventually radioed in and linked-up with the instructor. It’s amazing how tense it gets. It is easy to forget that it is not real.
We moved to our hide site, the instructor inspected it and told us he would link up with us there at 1800 that evening. Since we didn’t know what our next objective location was, there was nothing to do but sleep. Two people had to be awake at all times for security. Douglas and I decided to give up our first sleep period in order to look for some food. We moved cautiously through the woods east from our hide site to a clearing. In the clearing we saw an old abandoned house. We sat just inside the tree line and watched the house for about 30 minutes to ensure that there was no one around. We didn’t want to be caught near a building.
The rules of the course were pretty clear. Everybody started out with 300 points. As the course progressed you would lose points. If we weren’t properly camouflaged we could lose 25 points. If we lost any item in your issue: minus 25 points for each item. If we got caught by the OPFOR under normal circumstances: minus 150 points. If we got caught doing something risky like walking on a road or approaching a farm house: minus 300 points – you’re out. So we were very careful. We could see from our vantage point there were some apple trees near the house. We couldn’t believe our luck. Pretty soon we made a dash across the clearing to the house.
When we got there we could see there were no longer any apples on the tree and the apples on the ground were nothing but a brown, gooey mess. Disappointment! We checked out the house. It was clear by the boarded up windows, the hole in the roof and the overgrown yard that no one had lived there for a while. We tried to find a way in but couldn’t find one. The window above the back porch was open and a tree had grown up next to the porch. We climbed up the tree, onto the roof and in the window. The second floor was little more than a single small room. There were a few cardboard boxes and one had some old clothes in it. It was clear that some animal, probably a raccoon, had been nesting in the box. The clothes were pressed down into a nest and there was a musky odor. The box was full of women’s sweaters. I pulled one out. It was brown, knit and had big buttons on the left side and it smelled. I was so chilled from being wet I just took off my fatigue shirt and put on the sweater. The sleeves ended about four in inches below my elbows but I didn’t care. I put my fatigue shirt back on over it. It felt great!
We climbed down the ladder to the first floor. There was no furniture in the house and the plaster was falling off all around. Douglas brought his flashlight so we were able to see. There were only two rooms and the kitchen never had plumbing. Nevertheless, there were a few shelves in the kitchen. Mostly there was nothing of value but we did find the following items: an old box of Hamburger Helper, a can of pumpkin pie filling, a steak knife and a shaker of Morton salt substitute. We took those items and the other sweaters and headed back to the rest of the group.
When we got back to the hide site the other guys were really pleased about the sweaters. Everybody got one. We decided to hold off on the food. I now rolled up in my pancho and went to sleep. Later, another member of the team came back with about a gallon of walnuts he had found. We divided them up, but somebody put some of that Morton salt substitute on them. That really ruined the flavor. I don’t know if the stuff was bad, or it normally tastes that way but I did my best to wash the stuff off of my share of the walnuts.
When the instructor returned I was docked 25 points for not being properly camouflaged. I had put some soot on my face for camouflage makeup, but the on and off rain all day had washed it off. To make sure that this didn’t happen again, I found some of the inedible purple berries that grew in the area, crushed some and mixed them with soot. I then applied this mixture to my face. I didn’t wash off for the rest of the course. In fact, it didn’t wash off at all and could still be seen in the creases in my face a month later.
The instructor told us what our rally point the next day was and we set out. The trip that night was going to be a little longer, about seven miles. It was still raining on and off and we soon found out our route took us through some very low, marshy areas. These woods were full of blackberry bushes. That may seem like a good thing except that the season for blackberries was past and all that remained were the thorn covered vines. In the Army, these are called “wait-a-minute-vines” because the man on point always says “wait a minute” as he tries to untangle himself. At the end of this evening all of our pants were torn to some degree and our legs we so scratched up it looked like we were attacked by wild cats.
As we moved through the woods that night we took turns on point. When my turn came, we hadn’t moved very far when I stepped off into air. I drooped about five feet down the undercut bank of a stream and landed on my back in about two feet of water. I wasn’t hurt, but if I wasn’t wet before, I sure was now. Since the creek was sheltered from view by the banks, we used our flashlights to cross and fill our canteens. At about 2am we decided to take a break. It was chilly out, so we cuddled up three to a poncho and caught some sleep. The position we were in is often called spoons, and is a traditional cuddling position. We were so cold that we didn’t give a damn and would argue over who got to be in the middle. As we laid there were heard a rustling in the brush near us. Could it be the OPFOR? We heard a low grunting noise and decided it was an animal. One of the guys grabbed is flashlight and shined it toward the noise and we saw that it was a wild hog! Before we could do anything it was gone. We had missed our best chance for a meal we would have. The North Carolina DNR gave the Army special permission for the trainees to kill any game animal as long as we didn’t use a firearm.
We started moving again. It was taking us longer than we thought to move to our rally point and towards dawn we really had to move quickly. Our rally point was just beyond North Carolina State Highway 27 and we had a hard time not being seen crossing the road. There were a lot of cars on a long, straight section of highway. It was very important that we not let any civilians see us because the citizens of Carthage knew about the course and the Special Warfare Center (the JFK Special Warfare Center runs the course) had posted flyers telling about the training and offered a $25.00 reward for information leading to our capture. It was all good fun for these folks and other teams in other classes had been caught this way. We finally got across, but we were late for our linkup with our instructor and all docked 25 points. We also lost 25 points when the hide-site we had selected in a hurry was not acceptable. After our instructor left, we settled in for the day.
On our second day in a hide site it was still drizzling. My skin was so saturated my prune-like fingers had started to peel. My feet were in the same shape. I tried to get some sleep but I couldn’t. The group decided to risk building a fire. We found a place where there was a depression in the ground and gathered as much dry kindling as we could find. Once we got a small fire going it was amazing how much better we all felt.
Here are a few items we were issued to take that I forgot to mention earlier: A canteen cup, mosquito repellent, 10 feet of 550 parachute cord, two fish hooks, a nail, a pencil, a small note pad and pencil and a zip-loc bag. We pulled out the Hamburger Helper and the pumpkin pie filling we found in the abandoned house and prepared for breakfast. The Hamburger Helper was pretty old and was full of bugs. We had eaten plenty of insects in the training part of the course leading up to this point, so we weren’t too bothered by them. We put the Hamburger Helper in two canteen cups with water and let them sit in the fire to warm up. After it was softened, we divided it up and ate it. The pie filling was another problem: we didn’t have a can opener. Someone eventually was able to open the can, however, and we split it’s contents six ways. As you can imagine, this barely put a dent in our hunger and just made us want more.
We spent the rest of the day foraging for food, but didn’t find much. A few walnuts and a handful of grapes was about it. This was about the time a young buck sergeant from 10th Group Special Forces on our team began to recall every great meal he had ever eaten. He would spend the rest of the course describing in great detail things like BBQ ribs, chimichangas, Cajun fried chicken and so forth. He is lucky the rest of us didn’t kill him.
Our instructor arrived at about 1700, which was an hour before planned. He inspected how well we sterilized our hide site and told us where to be the next morning: another seven mile hump. When he left, we realized there was about an hour of daylight left. If we got moving, we might be able to accomplish half our movement in that single hour! It was so much easier to move when you could see where you were going. In the dark, we might spend half an hour fighting through a brier thicket that, had we known how, we could have walked around in five minutes.
We took off at a trot. We really wanted to get as much of the movement done before dark as possible. It wasn’t a very tactical way of doing things since it would be easy for the OPFOR to spot us and we might even run right into them. Nevertheless, moving through the North Carolina forest in the night was so exhausting that we were willing to risk it. As we jogged along, one guy on our team kept falling to the rear. He was a sergeant from the 82nd Airborne Air Defense Artillery. My team leader from Division Recon got behind him and “encouraged” him to speed up. When it got dark we took a break in a swampy area. That evening it was my turn to carry the radio and the team leader came over to where I was sitting next to a tree and asked me for it. I didn’t ask any questions and handed it over. I heard him make a radio call in and contact the TOC (tactical operations center). He said we had an individual who wanted to quit and he requested a truck to a road near our position to pick him up. I was stunned.
To quit the course was to receive a “lack of motivation discharge”. To leave a military school under these conditions is considered a great dishonor. Furthermore, you could never return to the course and your commander would be unlikely to send you to many other schools in the future. This individual had just made a career decision. We made sure that we exchanged any damaged gear we had and he gave his canteen to another team member who had lost his. Then two guys took him up to the road to wait for the truck. It didn’t take very long for the truck to arrive. Trouble came with it. The OPFOR had monitored our radio call and had followed the truck to the pick-up point. The two guys told the guy who had quit to hold his position in the woods for ten minutes and they beat feet back to our position. We quietly put some distance between us ant the truck. We could hear the OPFOR in the woods behind us and we knew they would have NODS (night observation devices). We found a thicket and laid low for a couple of hours. When they were gone we started moving again.
We were on high ground now so the moving was a lot easier. The problem now was that we hadn’t had the opportunity to fill our canteens for 24 hours and we were thirsty. There was no water anywhere in this area. As we walked through an open area we heard little pop pop pop noises beneath our feet. May pops! May pops are little cucumber looking things that are hollow so they pop when you step on them. The outside is edible but flavorless, the inside is a juicy pulp that is like a watery jelly or jam. The great thing about them is that you can even find them in the dark by stepping on them. We were able to eat our fill and they were juicy enough to quench our thirst somewhat too. We arrived at our hide site pretty early; about 0300. It had started to rain hard again so we set up two of our ponchos like funnels to catch the rain and funnel it into canteens. We finally got some water. The five of us got some sleep under the other three ponchos.
At 0600 it was time to link up with our instructor. A team member and I went out to the linkup point: a narrow dirt road. When we got down there we saw him standing in the road and the two of us just walked out of the woods to meet him. For this we were each docked 25 points. We didn’t overwatch the position and signal him in the planned manner. We just got lazy I guess. He inspected our site and took off.
It finally stopped raining. By this time I was really hungry. We took turns foraging for food all day. We did pretty good and found some soybeans, field corn and a couple of ears of popcorn. One guy found a box turtle. We started a small fire and put some water in canteen cups and boiled the beans and corn. Somebody else cut the turtle into little pieces and put it in the cups too. What we ended up with was a kind of turtle flavored corn and bean soup. It was probably awful, but it tasted good to me. I got about a half a canteen cup. The funny thing was, I was stuffed. I guess my stomach had shrunk enough that even a small amount of food filled me up. Next we tried to pop the popcorn without much success. We probably each got about a dozen pieces of popped corn each. To this day, that popcorn seems like the most delicious food I ever had. I still have the canteen cup and the little burnt corn marks in the bottom are visible still.
After our instructor came and did his daily inspection, we set off on our nightly movement. It hadn’t rained all day, but the sky continued to look like it might. After a while I looked up and saw stars. I was never so glad to see clear skies in all my life. For the most part we were able to keep to high ground so the movement was easier. We were even starting to dry out for the first time in days. At one point we came to an abandoned paved road. It was all cracked and broken and weeds and small trees grew for the cracks. You could still see the painted center line. This was a great find because the road was going the same direction we were and it was easy to travel and fairly safe since vehicles couldn’t travel on it. We were able to follow the road for about a mile.
Finding water was still a challenge. We finally became so desperate we went up to a poultry farming operation and got water from a faucet on the side of a pole barn. This was the only time we approached an inhabited area. We looked inside the barn and could see thousands of tiny baby chickens in cages. The cages were heated by devices that looked like satellite dishes but with a gas flame in the middle. We immediately launched into a debate as to whether we should eat some of the little yellow fuzz-balls. One side argued that they would never miss a few and that we could skewer them on sticks and cook them over the cage heaters. The other side objected that in a real evasion situation we would most likely be in a third-world nation and that the owners of chickens would know them all on a first name basis. If any turned up missing, they would alert the authorities. They also argued that we were expressly forbidden to steal anything in the course and that we would feel better about success if we didn’t cheat. This side won out and we left without eating any chickens. Later at the edge a field we found a watermelon about the size of a football in some tall weeds. We ate the whole thing; rind and all.
Our rally point was on the banks of the Deep River. Around dawn we arrived at the river about a half mile upstream of our rally point. We paralleled the river until we came to smaller feeder creek that poured into the river. The creek was about 12 feet across and, because we were at the point where it joined the Deep River, about eight feet deep. Since we were dry for the first time in days, none of us wanted to swim the creek. Our map showed a bridge about 200 meters up the creek from our position. We decided to try to cross it. We moved quietly up to the bridge in the early morning twilight. When we got close enough to see it we were badly disappointed. There was an OPFOR gun-jeep parked on the bridge with two soldiers sitting in it chatting. We moved back down-stream. We searched for a way to cross. Douglas tried to wade in one spot that seemed shallow but dropped off into a hole. He swam across.
We finally found a log that was sticking out from the far bank at about a 45 degree angle. We decided to try to pull it down to our level. We hooked all of our belts together and lassoed the log. Four of us began to pull on the belts to try to pull the log down to a level position. Unfortunately, instead of pulling down the log in one piece, a four foot piece of the end broke off and came down and hit me square on the head. The blow knocked me to the ground and everyone gathered around to ask me if I was okay. I said I was. One of my team members said “No you’re not! You need medical attention.” I said I didn’t but he told me he had a plan and to shut up. He got on the radio, called the TOC and told them what happened. He said I should be looked at by a medic to make sure I didn’t have a concussion. I was starting to get pretty mad because I was afraid they would take me out of the course. When the guy on the radio told them to send an ambulance to the bridge and told them about the gun-jeep I figured it out.
The TOC told the OPFOR command to radio the gun jeep to move. When the ambulance arrived my whole team escorted me to the bridge. They, of course, took the opportunity to cross the bridge. The medic checked me out and said I was okay to continue. As he checked me out I couldn’t take my eyes off of an open box of donuts in the back of the ambulance. It was almost painful to see them and not be able to have one. I met up with the rest of my team and we moved to the rally point dry as a bone.
After we crossed the bridge and linked up with our instructor on the banks of the Deep River, it was time to split up. For the next three days we would be alone. The idea was that we would now be trained in solitary survival. They placed us along the river and told us our boundaries. When they came back, we would be tested on several items these were:
* Make an equipment cache
* Build a baited snare
* Build a fixed hanging snare
* Build a treadle snare
* Make a field expedient spear
* Make a weighted club
* Make a clandestine fishing rig
* Map the area
* Build a one match fire
After we split up, I decided to catch up on some sleep. I laid down in a thicket with my head at the base of a large hardwood tree and went to sleep. After about three hours I woke up because I heard a knocking sound very close to me. I didn’t move but simply opened my eyes. There above me about three feet from my face was a pileated woodpecker. It was BIG. It looked as big as a chicken. They are fairly rare and I had never seen one close up so I just laid there and looked at it while it pecked at the tree. I was amazed that it didn’t even know I was there.
After it flew away, I got up and stashed my gear. I started scouting around my area. There wasn’t much there. I found some walnuts and some muscatel grapes, but very few. It would be all the food I would find during this period. By now I was extremely hungry. It is hard to remember the order of events during the period I spent alone. I know I built all of my snares, tried to fish with a bent safety pin for a hook, but didn’t catch anything. Nothing ever seemed to come near my snares. The only game I saw in the area was some squirrels. I spent one whole afternoon throwing rocks at them with no success in hitting one. I found a brick that was the kind that has three holes in it. I broke it in half through the middle hole and slid a stick through the other hole and pounded it down tight. This was my weighted club. I still remember being very hungry, very tired and very depressed during this period. One time I found a few more grapes and when I went to pick them a bee stung me on my finger. It hurt and I was more depressed. I really didn’t want to be out there anymore. I wanted the course to end. I could hear cattle bellowing way off in the distance somewhere and it made me homesick. I hated this time.
On the third morning I was ready for grading and I hoped the instructor would come early. He didn’t show up until 1600. I remember looking at my watch every 15 minutes or so; truly believing that an hour or two had passed. There was nothing to do but sit. By this time I was very weak. I didn’t even feel very hungry anymore. On top of all that, it was my birthday.
What happened next was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I saw two soldiers coming through the woods. I hid myself behind a tree because at first I didn’t know if they were OPFOR. When I saw they were the instructor and the course executive officer I still didn’t move. I was thinking about the points I had lost for improper linkup a couple of days before. When they were about five yards away they called out my name. I stepped out from behind a tree right in front of them and said “Here I am.” They looked directly at me and said “Where?” I’m not kidding. They were 15 feet away from me, there was no real brush between us and it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon on a sunny day and they couldn’t see me. I was right in front of them! I was amazed and said “I’m right here, can’t you see me?” Suddenly they looked shocked and said “Oh, there you are!” Apparently spending this much time in the woods this close to a state of nature makes you blend in somehow. I’m not trying to imply anything mystical but I guess I was “one with the forest”. I suppose that is why the woodpecker didn’t know I was there either.
Everything passed except that the string broke on my treadle snare when it was tripped and my one match went out before I could touch it to tinder. I lost 50 points. The executive officer was a good friend and we still keep in touch to this day. He knew it was my birthday so he brought me a cupcake with one candle on it. He showed it to me, said “happy birthday” and then said “oops, I forgot you can’t have anything to eat.” He popped it in his mouth and ate the whole thing in one bite. He thought it was funny, I thought it was torture. When we recall it today we laugh but it wasn’t funny then.
Later that evening I linked up with the rest of my evasion team and set out for the final linkup the next morning. Everybody said the birthday-boy should take point. What a great bunch of friends. It was only two miles away. Nevertheless, it took us all night to make that movement. We were so weak that we could only move a few hundred yards without stopping to rest. We finally made the link up, got in trucks and made the ride back to Camp Mackall. We were really excited because we knew we had passed one of the most difficult training courses in the US military.
When we got back the first thing they did was weigh us in. I had gone out seven days before weighing 180 pounds. I was now down to 159. The next thing was mail call. One of the guys’ wife sent him a box of cookies and he passed them out. When I took a bite there was an explosion of flavor in my mouth, it was amazing. I thought I could taste every ingredient. I’ll never forget the almost orgasmic sensation of eating that cookie. Then they herded us into the mess hall and fed us some bland food and we all ate for a while then went outside and puked. After that we went back in and ate some more. I ate and ate and ate for the next week. It still took me three months to put back on the 21 pounds I had lost in 7 days. When I got back to Bragg, one guy I knew pretty well didn’t even recognize me and introduced himself to me. It was weird.