Learning to Survive! Strategic Air Command Survival School

             Shhhhhhhh! Quiet!! See him there? Down by the road! My two companions froze as we strained to see. It was nearly midnight with only a sliver of moon lighting the hills. Then we smelled that unmistakable odor of tobacco, and knew there was at least one man down there trying hard to stay warm, awake and alert. We had to sneak around the hilltop if we wanted to evade.  Quiet, we don’t want him to hear us. It was fairly easy for both he and us to hide in the shadows of the large mature trees as we slipped away. This HIM  was one of THOSE whom we were trying to keep from finding US, here in the woods in the middle of the night. He was the cat in this “cat and mouse” game we were playing. You may have guessed, we were undergoing SURVIVAL TRAINING and this was our E & E (escape and evasion) training.

We were in the woods near Stead AFB at Reno, Nevada in the middle of a fall night in 1954. SAC (Strategic Air Command) was shifting into a more active war time posture. I was the aircraft commander of a B-36 crew stationed at Fairchild AFB, Washington. As a crew we did everything as one. We flew together, took time off, and underwent ground training together. Our job was to be ready to “put the bomb in the barrel” if need be.

The nuclear age was still an infant. SAC had the only capability to “deliver” the weapons capable of such tremendous devastation and since it was the combat crews who would pull the pin, responsibility was intense. Crews had to be highly trained as well as completely capable, motivated and dependable. If our country’s survival was put to the test we had to be able to deliver. Much would depend on our efforts.

It was a given that some crews may not return if sent to do this mission. So a variety of  training was the order of the day. The  work  week was always six and one half days, interspersed  with operations, inspections, etc, which often stretched  a duty week into 12-15 days or more.

SAC directed survival training for all combat crews. Even if a plane was lost perhaps some  crew members could survive in the hostile territory where every one you encountered would be the enemy. You had to move without making human contact. Depending on your companions, while encouraging their will to keep going, could make the difference between going home or having the Chaplain deliver a flag to your wife.

So this is what we were doing that night in the ponderosa pine forests surrounding this Nevada base. We had finished our classroom training, had learned  to build a lean-to using small trees, how to make a bed of pine boughs, how to keep a fire going in the snow, how to skin a porcupine and how to live on Air Force survival rations. And hopefully had learned to maintain our morale to stay confident that WE COULD DO IT, WE COULD SURVIVE, WE COULD LIVE OFF THE LAND AND WE WOULD ESCAPE!

One much used survival ration was pemmican, a bar about five inches long, three inches wide and about one inch thick. Each bar must have contained 40,000 calories, since it provided enough energy for several days. You could eat it cold or warm, cooked or uncooked. It was a great ration and worked well as long as you started using it slowly. But by eating it quickly on an empty stomach disaster could result. Some would gag when eating it cold. After eating one  bar  your upper digestive tract was so “grease coated” you could eat a pine cone without it sticking on the way down. But your stomach often rebelled causing much discomfort. And it could exit your body in a series of forceful explosions. It was powerful stuff.

Our first day in the woods we learned to set up and disguise our camp. We slept under pine bough shelters in the rain and learned to use a compass. Instructors pointed out that when traveling you don’t think of a destination miles away. You must be concerned with only going to the top of that next large hill, then another half mile or so. That way  you  kept from walking in a circle, which lost persons are apt to do. We had practice runs, where we went from point to point. When you got to point “A.” a “hidden” envelope with instructions on your next check point needed to be found.

But now it was our final exam. The biggie! It was a night exercise consisting of several miles with four to six check-in points. Along this path, we would encounter “the enemy”- instructors whose job was to intercept and  tag us. If you were tagged, you failed this part of the training and could be required to retake it. We split into two or three men teams, (possible to travel more quietly that way), and started out. You carried your gear in a field-made back pack leaving nothing to show we had been there.

My team was on its second or third leg when we spotted the sentry. We were being so very careful when we spotted HIM.  We tried slipping around the hill to evade and ran into more of THEM who were coming up the hill. Everyone was on his own when capture was imminent so you did what you thought best. One buddy tried standing behind a large tree. I spotted a large log, and lay down on the up hill side, pulling some sticks over me. I lay quietly, trying to be a second log. I could see them coming up the hill flashing their lights. Being hit with the flashlight beam was being tagged. I was able to evade for possibly another three or four minutes when the flashlight hit me square on. I was captured, my evasion attempt failed.

Of course the “enemy” had the advantage. They saw other crews do this, and knowing the terrain made it easy to figure out where we would be. (But couldn’t a real enemy know the same about their area?) Being caught, as was most of my crew, we thought we’d return to our camp in the woods and start over. But no, the trucks took us to the main base. We wondered why.

On base we learned a world crisis had developed. (Not unusual in those days). President Eisenhower had ordered SAC on a higher alert status and all crews were needed to man their aircraft. So we returned to Fairchild. There we loaded our B-36 for a possible mission and waited by our aircraft for several days. Later, when things cooled, the alert was cancelled.  We off-loaded our weapons and returned to the normal awareness of  knowing another “crisis” could be coming at any time.

So went the daily lives of  most SAC Combat Crew members during  the early days of the cold war.

Francis H. Potter

Col. USAF Ret.

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