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It was one thing to survive an air crash in Vietnam. We pilots also had to know how to evade being captured by the enemy.

Escape and Evasion at ‘Mother Rucker’: A Pilot’s Story

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by Hooligan

I wasn’t sure the man was real. Was he a hunter? The hunted? Out there in the woods, I was starving and on the brink of hallucination, so it could have been Bigfoot himself, for all I knew.

When a man gets desperate, the thought of a good rabbit stew will motivate him to great lengths – such as, to evade capture in Army Flight School. That’s how it was in 1969, when I got to the Escape and Evasion portion at Mother Rucker – otherwise known as Fort Rucker, Alabama. 

The war was raging, and I was set to be a Huey pilot in Vietnam. This is the badass helicopter that did it all, as long as it stayed in the air. If this (or any other aircraft) ever hit the ground, the pilot’s job was to evade capture, and to stay alive long enough to be picked up by friendly forces. The training for this was not so friendly, as we shall see.

I had made it all the way to the last big test, Escape and Evasion (E&E). It was a tense time for me, as I was down to my last Pink Slip. 

The dreaded document was a pink piece of paper listing a major failure or screwup by the candidate. This could be on a procedure, a written test, or on something that just pissed off your instructor on a bad day. Three of these would get you recycled two weeks back to another class and a whole new group of people who weren’t your buddies and would avoid you like the bad luck you were – because you screwed up. I had already racked up one for a failed navigation test and another because I “forgot” a rule in instrument flying. If I failed E&E, I would hit the recycle track as fast as you could drop out of the sky with a dead engine.  

Our E&E school was geared toward jungle survival. It had a “VC” village set up in the swamps of Alabama. It was not a welcoming environment. 

As part of this, we went out in the “jungle” for three days without food, but still took classes from our well fed instructors. There were also demonstrations of what would happen to us if we got caught by the NVA or the VC.

The first day out in the jungle, they stripped us all to our shorts. There I was, hungry but not alone, surrounded by my classmates. I got called up to be the first man to get the torture. They stuffed me in a pit that was too small to do anything but try not to die. I couldn’t kneel or stand up. They put boards with a head hole on top of the pit. A BIG, hulking sergeant stood on the boards to hold me in place, and they water boarded me. I don’t remember what they wanted me to confess to, but apparently I didn’t confess, since I passed that part. They let me out, and the next man took my place for his turn to be tortured.

When everyone was done going through this, they brought us over to the hut with the electric generator. They showed us how they would wire our genitals and shock us. They let us experience what it was like to have our arms tied behind our backs, and be lifted up with ropes. 

Time has faded what I remember of the lesser tortures, but as a whole, they made it easy for me to decide I would do everything possible to keep my bird in the air. And if I couldn’t do that, I was not going to get caught by the enemy.  

We hadn’t been fed in more than two days, and hunger was getting to be a big thing. The instructors were kind enough to serve us fire-cooked snake and fried beetles. I was hungry enough to eat anything. Well, almost anything. I couldn’t do the beetles.  Guys were eating them and laughing. There were little beetle legs stuck in their teeth. The snake tasted like chicken, and of course we only got one piece each. But here’s where the carrot came in amid all these beatings with sticks. We were promised a field-cooked, fresh rabbit stew if we finished the evasion part of the course.

Game on.

We were put in groups of five or six. Each candidate was given a map, while one in the group got a flashlight, and one a compass. To make things more interesting, some Army enlisted men were brought in to play enemy NVA/VC. They were supposed to hunt for us, capture us, and bring us back to the prison camp for torture and interrogation.  

It was late afternoon, and we were sent on our way in waves of hapless candidates. Off we went, acting like it was going to be a walk in the park.  We were sooo wrong.

In the woods we came across a road and another group of evaders. We stood and talked for a minute. Then we heard truck engines.  

We scattered. My teammates went Who Knows Where, while I hid under a fallen old mossy tree. It had a small nook that opened into a cave where I could hunker down.

It was just getting dark, so I could still see my map. I knew which way to head. I still waited. To my surprise, I heard one guy right next to me, shuffling the leaves like he was digging for something. I hadn’t noticed him before, and I wasn’t sure he was real. Was he a hunter? The hunted? Hey, I was starving and on the brink of hallucination, so it could have been Bigfoot himself, for all I knew. The digging turned into rustling. He moved away and into the night. It was a man. One of my teammates.

I waited to see if I heard my teammate get caught. No noise. I seized my moment.  I cut out and headed in the direction the map had told me to. 

By now it was ink-black dark. No stars. I didn’t have the flashlight or compass. I headed in the direction I thought best, as there was no Moon for guidance. 

I was on a hillside with a road running through it. I heard three guys walking and talking. I hid behind a small pine tree, and let them pass. I threw a rock after them but got no reaction. 

I heard something else.

I could hear guys screaming, Help! 

I saw bonfires, with guys waiting to get captured, tortured, and then put back out to try and finish the course in the alloted time. I was having none of that.  

On the top of a hill I climbed a tree. I got my bearings by hearing and seeing a heliport with a running Huey off in the distance, quite a ways away. As anyone who has heard that sound knows, there is nothing like the beat of a Huey in flight – but this one on the ground gave me a burst of hope. I imagined myself eating that rabbit stew. I wondered if it would have vegetables, and would it be thick, like gravy with big chunks of rabbit, or would it be more like a clear broth with tidbits floating inside.

It got darker, which I didn’t think was possible. I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face. My hat got whipped off by a branch. There was no way I was going to find it in the dark. Well, let them write me up for being out of uniform for no hat. At least I wasn’t captured. 

I shimmied down the trunk. A short time later I was pushing through the vines and brush and the next thing I knew I was falling – but not for long.  A big log caught me in the stomach. I ended up hanging like a piece of limp spaghetti on the log over a stream. 

I hung there for a minute, trying to assess. I thought all my ribs must be broken. I was hurting, but it felt like my ribs were intact. I carefully got up on the log to straddle it. I reached up over my head to the lip of the bank I had just fallen from. It was about seven feet above me. Again, I pictured that rabbit stew. I had to have some! The thought of it gave me the impulse to heave, scramble, and climb my way onto that bank.

A bit later the Moon came out. It was a very wonderful sight. I still love the Moon to this day!  

I came across a stream with a lot of footprints around it, so I knew I was in the Ballpark. 

The only problem now was that a huge hay field stretched out in front of me, and I was running out of time. I decided to take the field, low down, and duck if I saw danger. I walked. All of a sudden, lo and behold, there was the end of a runway. I had made it!

The Huey was still way off in the distance, but in line with my destination.  

I was greeted by fellow classmates. And then, the big payoff: the instructors gave me a massive bowl of rabbit stew. It was filled with bite size morsels of rabbit, and little bits of carrot and celery. The meat fell apart at the touch of my spoon. The broth was infused with herbs, onion, and garlic. I felt like I was at a gourmet restaurant in the finest 5-Star restaurant run by the world’s best chef.  It was the most delicious bowl of Rabbit Stew I have ever eaten.

To top it off: no Pink Slip! I made it through E&E and thereby, through Army Flight School. Next stop: graduation!

This victory story has an epilogue.

I got back to the barracks that night, and took off my pants. To my horror I had more than 50 ticks embedded in me from waist to ankles. Yes, the ticks were there, too. I ran to the latrine, and filled up the soapstone sink with the hottest water I could bear. I doused the ticks in this semi-boiling bath.

The ticks came off, half cooked. I still get the willies when I think of it. 

The E&E course was a tough one, for sure. That was a good thing. It stuck with me, and with all of us. Later, when we went to Vietnam, the course was always in the backs of our minds. We knew that if we got captured, rabbit stew was the least of our hopes. 

This is dedicated to those instructors who went above and beyond to help give us pilots the skills that would keep us alive behind enemy lines. 

Hooligan was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

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