Of Parachutes and `Prison Camps'

A new generation of pilots faces the possibility of being taken prisoner. Since the outbreak of war, 17 coalition aircraft have been downed in the Persian Gulf, and 25 airmen are missing or captured. One veteran pilot recalls his training.

THE Navy A-7 fighter-bomber was dropping like a stone as the aviator moved quickly through the emergency checklist. When it became clear the failed engine would not ``relight,'' and as the altimeter rapidly unwound through safe bailout level, the young lieutenant reached for the handle above his helmet and pulled. In automatic sequence the Plexiglas canopy blew off the crippled jet, a rocket blasted the seat out of the aircraft, nitrogen bottles inflated small bladders which pushed the pilot out of the free falling seat, and the parachute opened - all within 2-1/2 seconds. Now the problem for the pilot - this was his first parachute drop - was to land unharmed, then get to a spot where a rescue helicopter could land.

As he came down over tawny hills - noticing how the warm morning stillness and bird song contrasted with the violent life-or-death situation that had preceded it - a large tree loomed below him. Pulling one of the risers, he swung to the side, relaxed, and tumbled as he hit the ground. Gathering his chute, he waved an OK to the squadron mate who thundered by just above the trees. He then headed to the rescue spot and popped a smoke flare to indicate wind direction for the approaching helo pilot.

I thought of this experience - which took place 20 years ago but is as clear in slow-motion detail as if it had happened yesterday - as I read of the American fliers shot down over Iraq. In my own case, the emergency bailout came after a combat tour in Vietnam and was over relatively friendlier territory in California. (I say ``relatively'' friendlier because, had I ``punched out'' over Berkeley in those days, I might well have been taken prisoner.)

The shock of bailout from a high-performance military aircraft is not something that can be fully simulated. In training, pilots feel the force of ejection in a device that surpasses the most demonic of carnival rides. They learn how to tuck and roll when they land. And in the case of naval aviators, they practice releasing themselves from a parachute harness while being dragged through ocean waters. Fledgling carrier pilots also must escape without panicking from the infamous ``Dilbert Dunker'' - a mock cockpit that smashes into a pool of water, then flips upside down and sinks to the bottom with the victim tightly strapped in.

But the first real-life ejection comes, if it does, in an emergency. Training and self-discipline are put to the full test, especially for those taken prisoner.

Military air crews go through rigorous training at one of several SERE schools around the country. SERE stands for survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. In my case there were two sessions: one in the jungles of northern Florida and another in the desert of southern California.

The first part of the session deals with learning to find and prepare food in the wild with little more than parachute shrouds and a sturdy knife for equipment. After eating nothing but prickly pear cactus and bugs for nearly a week, our group was given a few live rabbits and pigeons and a handful of wild rice. After the meal, little was left but fur and feathers.

Grubby and bearded, famished and dehydrated, we were finally trucked to an evasion course area of scrub brush and rocks and turned loose with maps and compasses.

Those captured along the way by ``enemy'' instructors with blazing AK-47s, red stars on their caps, strange uniforms, and thick accents were bound, blindfolded, and thrown into the back of a truck for a lurching ride to the POW compound. Those who made it to the end of the course were rewarded with a drink of water, then bound, blindfolded, and thrown into the same truck. The prison camp was straight out of ``The Bridge On the River Kwai,'' with machine-gun posts and barbed wire and little shelter from a blistering sun.

Weakened and apprehensive, we were stripped, given prison uniforms, and generally knocked around by the guards, who played their roles with a glee that seemed to border on the sadistic (perhaps because we were officers and they were mostly enlisted men).

One by one, we were taken into darkened rooms where interrogators alternately cajoled and berated us, trying to get more information than name, rank, service number, and date of birth.

We were then dragged out and thrown into a black box, which was stifling and terrifying for anyone with claustrophobic tendencies. Throughout this period, those who seemed particularly vulnerable were singled out for extra pummeling, threats, and insults. What was tested here was not only those individuals' mental toughness but the ability of others to hold fast when striking back would have been fatal, preserving strength to quietly comfort comrades later and perhaps plot an escape.

After a day or two in the compound the ``exercise'' was over, the instructors began speaking clear English, and we were ushered out for showers and hot meals and the trip back to our squadrons, where we ultimately departed for the combat zone in Southeast Asia. Most would make it back unscathed. Some didn't. All had learned hard lessons at SERE school.

There were more than 600 US prisoners held by the North Vietnamese. Isolation and extreme physical abuse were not uncommon. Many were forced to give more information than they wanted and make statements against the United States. The harshness of the treatment was confirmed when one naval aviator - Lt. Comdr. Dick Stratton - blinked in Morse code the letters T-O-R-T-U-R-E while mouthing before TV cameras the message his captors had commanded.

Today, pilots and other potential POWs are told to withstand as much pressure as possible before giving more than name, rank, service number, and date of birth, then not to feel guilty about succumbing to abuse. Take what you can and live to resist another day, stay close to your comrades, and keep the faith. Sadly, another generation of pilots is facing this challenge over Iraq today.

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