SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. I lost 16 pounds which I could not afford to lose that week. I was only @ 135 pounds when it started. I don’t recall how many of us were in the class, but I would guess the number was somewhere around twenty. The senior student was a Lieutenant Commander whose name I never knew. There were a couple other junior officers also. I was a First Class Petty Officer among several others in the class. There were two Chief Petty Officers if I recall correctly. The remainder of the sailors were PO2s, PO3s, and a few Airmen. During the classroom portion of the course we had several lectures pertaining to our survival if we were captured by an enemy. We saw two or three movies based upon actual P.O.W. experiences in WWII and Korea. We were fully convinced by those films that anyone could be broken if the enemy concentrated upon him. The point was, that if caught we should put up as much resistance as possible, especially during our first few interrogations. The enemy would most likely concentrate upon the weaker of the prisoners, particularly those who might have the knowledge they desired.
After a half-day of classroom lectures at North Island, California, we were transported to Warner Springs to start the field-training. We were put into an area of @ ½ mile wide by 1 mile long, with “Freedom Village” at the end of the mile. There were high cliffs on the right edge, and a tall barbed wire fence on the left border. The course itself was comprised of thick brush, dense trees, rocky out-croppings, and a few open spots. They told us not to go out of bounds, or we might regret it. To the right of the course you would have had to have been a mountain goat to scale the high cliffs there, so no one did that. I later learned that two of our fellow students crossed over the barbed wire fence to the left. They were immediately arrested by two armed guards who were attached to the California Penal Colony there. No, we were not told about the prison. The guards knew what was occurring, but they acted as if they had captured two runaway prisoners. The navy let them remain in prison custody for a day or so. They learned their lesson.
I was a couple hundred yards down the course when I heard someone coming toward me. I crawled down behind a bunch of rocks covered with thick brush. They had told us in the classroom to NOT respond to any voices that said something like, “Come on out! I see you!” They said that the enemy would say something like that even when they saw no one. They said that in the past, when some instructor said something like that, five or six guys would pop up, thinking they had been spotted. Well, I did not take the bait. I stayed where I was. I heard the voice a couple more times, but remained hidden. Suddenly I felt the rifle butt crash into my ribs. It was then that I knew I had been caught. The instructor tied my thumbs behind me, and they transferred me to the prison camp.
They threw me into the prison compound yard with many others who had been caught. In the end we learned that all but one of our fellow students had been nabbed. There was one CPO who made it through without getting apprehended. Unless he had the training previously, he probably missed out on the true intent of the class. We milled around in the prison yard, not knowing what to do. We had a muster every fifteen minutes or so. I don’t know why I was the one who was picked, but a CPO, who was supposedly one of our fellow prisoners told me that there was an escape tunnel under the toilet in the outhouse. He said that all I had to do was to lift the loose boards in front of the one-holer, and sneak out the tunnel. He said that it had an exit which was about 100 yards outside the prison yard. Well, I went into the outhouse to determine if that was true.
Just as the Chief had said, there were a couple of loose boards in the floor. When I lifted them away, I could see the tunnel entrance. Quickly I scooted into the tunnel, and began to crawl. About ten feet from my entrance I heard something go “speeewww”. Then I could see some kind of fuse being consumed. Soon the tunnel was filled with dense, orange smoke. I was too scared to go on, and too scared to exit, but I could not remain in the terrible smoke. So, I came back into the outhouse. While I had been in the tunnel, I could hear a muster going on outside. When they got to my name, no one answered. I heard voices saying things like “I wonder where that S.O.B. went.” By the time I returned, that particular muster had been completed several minutes before. A few minutes later they held another muster. That time they had one more person than the muster before. One of the instructors said, “I wonder who is here that was not here before.” They looked down the row, and guess what? I was covered from head to toe in a bright orange dye of some kind.
The instructor asked, “Hey you, how did you get all that orange color?” I made the mistake of being a “wiseguy”. I told him that I was Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. That did it for me! They took me to the torture box which was a box just large enough to cram a person into. Since I was not very large, they placed a large wooden spacer atop my back. They closed the lid, and told me that when I was ready to talk, to holler out. I could not move my body, head, legs, or feet. I did have a little freedom to move my hands a sight amount. I had always had claustrophobia, so the confines of the box just about panicked me. The only thing that might have kept me sane was that there was a slight crack between two planks of the box. I could see some of the outside surroundings.
I stayed in the box an hour or so, I think. I could hear what sounded like people being tortured. Every so often someone would come by and ask me if I was ready to talk. I told them no, but if they had blown some cigarette smoke into the box, I would have cracked. As I said, I have claustrophobia, but I was not about to tell them that. They kept me in the box for a while longer, then someone came by and let me out.
I was directed into a small building which was the interrogation center. When I got there, many of my fellow students were already there watching the interrogation of the class’s senior student from the visual side of a one-way mirror. He was the LCDR that I mentioned. They were beating him, spitting on him, calling him names, calling his wife a whore, and all kinds of other things. I did not know how long they had been at the task. I watched it for only about fifteen minutes before they broke him. He started crying, and telling them ANYTHING and EVERYTHING they wanted to know. All of us who were watching felt very sorry for him, but at the same time grateful that it was not one of us. It seemed to me that because of his breakdown, he would probably never go much higher in rank.
I can’t remember much else about the mountain phase of the school. Shortly after that, they took us back to North Island for the water phase which involved swimming tests, grunion hunting, deep-sea helicopter water rescues, and several other activities. That’s another story.