While taking part in a training course for a special mission, I understood that I would be attending SERE school at some point during the six-month course, though I didn’t really know when. Our SERE training was split into an administrative phase of classroom training, followed by a no-notice internment phase in a prisoner-of-war camp… but when?
Of the few rumored details of events while in captivity that were thrown out there for me to dispel or believe was the notion that there would be a constant barrage of ear-splitting music and other audio annoyances designed to wear down prisoners over time, lowering their ability to “resist.” Of the the various speculated details, I chose that one to embrace.
I recall in James Rowe’s book “Five Years to Freedom” how he had managed to stash away a piece of rubber from a tire during one of the bouts when he was punished by the North Vietnamese, his mosquito net removed for several nights. As the dusk settled and the vermin descended, James produced and ignited the rubber, generating a noxious black smoke that drove away the mosquitoes. James held them at arm’s length for several minutes until the rubber was burned, whereupon the mosquitos proceeded to swarm on him and mercilessly bite him for the rest of the night.
What’s the point you ask? As James put it, it was a small victory, ever so small, but he had robbed his enemy of their control of his discomfort, if even for just several minutes. Even a small victory such as that afforded him a much-needed charge of resilient energy. To me, that was the most memorable passage in his book, and I understood what he meant.
I knew I would hate the loud audio barrage, and I set out to orchestrate my small victory. I got pairs of earplugs, the soft, spongy, yellow kind, and, popping out several loops of thread from the cuffs of my combat blouses, compressed the earplugs and pushed them into the holes in the cuffs. Then I sewed them back up. If my blouses were not taken from me, this might work. I imagined our uniforms could be taken from us entirely and we’d be issued a separate uniform in prison, but I would have to deal with it if/when the time came.
I became caught up in the dynamics of the SMU training course. Mission after mission came and went. In the woods of North Carolina, we found ourselves on a patrol for a few days and nights searching for pilots who had ejected from their burning aircraft over “enemy territory.” This was a combat patrol like any other, with strict tactical discipline at all times, very little food, and almost no sleep. We found our pilots, and began an 18-mile march out of “bad-guy” country back to our home base.
We broke our march for rest at a small lake several miles from our compound to await transportation that would take us back home. A box cargo truck arrived on time and target, and we piled in. This is great, I thought, this hump will finally be over. The ride was somewhat longer than expected, and I found the pressure on my bladder was more than I could stand. I emptied the contents of my least-full canteen onto the floor of the truck.
“Hey don’t dump that in here, man!” one of my buds snipped.
“Really? Do you want to know what your alternative is?” I asked.
We came to a halt, the rolling rear door of the truck flew open, and bursts of automatic fire ripped through the air. Men in nondescript uniforms screamed and clawed at us, roughly pulling us off the truck. This was it; this was captivity, and the POW phase of SERE had begun.
Night was falling and we were forced to lie face-down in the dirt. Our hands were bound behind us and hoods placed over our heads. My hood was tight and made my breathing labored. I could feel oxygen deprivation-inspired panic trying to creep over me as I took a chance and turned onto my side. The enemy guards spat questions and commands at us in phony accents. I felt my clothes being stripped from my body until I was nude, and I was commanded to sit on the ground.
The ground in this case was a cold, concrete slab. It was winter, I was naked, and now sitting on a concrete slab. I shivered. Finally I heard, “Stand up, criminal!”
Was he talking to me?
“I said stand up!”
I was jerked up onto my feet. At that moment, I sensed that something was attached to my buttock; I reached with my hand and brushed off what turned out to be dry winter leaves from oak trees.
“What is that…what did you take from your rectum, criminal?!” the guard shrieked.
“Sir, it’s just some leaves that were stuck to my ass.”
“And so what else do you have in your rectum, criminal?”
“(Sighs and rolls eyes)…just the leaves, sir.”
I was allowed to recover my pile of clothes minus my boots. I was led into a building and stuffed into a wooden box. The door to the box was closed and latched shut.
“Take off your hood, criminal,” the guard barked.
I pulled the hood and saw inches from my head a square hole in the top of the box just big enough to poke my head through, which I didn’t dare at the moment.
“Place the hood on the top of the box, criminal.”
Now the guard covered the square hole with the hood. I began the unspeakably awkward challenge of getting my clothes back on in a box too small to change your mind in. I found that if I wedged my butt into one corner, I could just barely lock my leg out straight in the diagonally opposite corner. I pitied one of our class officers, Major Ben S., a man well over six feet tall.
And so it began, the audio stimulation. Piped through loudspeakers at tinnitus levels came recordings of morbid music, screams, babies crying…all measure of unbearable loudness. I bit at the thread on the seams of my blouse cuff until I popped the seam and extracted the ear plugs. WONDERFUL EAR PLUGS! I put them in and the fevered pitch of the shrill cacophony went dull. Of course it didn’t go away altogether, but this was my James Rowe victory, to be sure.
Even with my clothes on, I continued to shiver. I chanced to poke my head through the top hole of my box, just enough to clear my eyes and have a peek. I was in a room with two other boxes at either side of me, both with hoods covering the head hole. The door began to open and I sank back down.
“Do you wish water?” I heard.
Was he talking to me? The hood swept aside and a sour face filled the hole on top.
“Criminal, do you wish water?” it shouted.
“Yes sir, I do, thank you.” I responded.
When I looked up at him, I had made sure to not turn my head to either side, revealing my yellow ear plugs. As the door hasp rattled, I quickly pulled the plugs out and pushed them in a corner. The door opened briefly to allow the guard to push in a can of hot water. I got it: This was water for the sake of thirst, and the temperature was intended to keep our internal thermostats up. Every few hours, we were given a can of hot water. All that hot-water drinking quickly inflated my bladder, though, and I was eventually compelled to urinate in a number 10 soup can that was provided in a corner of my “cell.”
“Do you wish food?” the guard would ask from time to time. Despite my affirmative responses, the guard would laugh and walk away, never to impart food. It was a game.
After an indeterminate number of hours in the box trying to stave off the torment of the raucous tirade of noise emanating from the speakers, my door latch once again began to rattle. I plucked my plugs and corner-stashed them.
“Get out, criminal!”
I crawled out and stood long enough for the guard to cover my head with the hood. I was being led through the building and finally forced to make an awkward climb up some wooden stairs to an interrogation room.
I was put in a chair and my hood removed. The room was large. I sat at a small field table with a video camera on a tripod pointed at me. I momentarily combed my fingers through my hair for the sake of the shoot. My interrogator sat across from me, staring grumpily at the documents to his front. Behind him was a small window high up on the wall, which gave way to a blacked-out room.
“State your rank and full name, criminal.” the interrogator hissed.
“What about my serial number?” I joked.
“Get to your feet, criminal!” the guard growled as he groped at my lapel. Gripping me by the lapels, he slammed me hard against the plywood wall. The wall buckled in, easily absorbing the shock of my body, leading me to believe this room was quickly and temporarily constructed for this event.
“Criminal do you think this is a game?” the guard queried as he delivered several hook punches to my gut, dumping me onto the wood floor. Lesson learned: No attempts at humor with your interrogator, even if it is just a game.
Feature image courtesy of the Dept. of Defense