One of the final hurdles we officer candidates had to overcome before becoming 2nd lieutenants in March of 1967, was the Escape and Evasion Course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, set up in the Wichita Mountains. We were divided up into teams of five candidates, each with a team leader, who was given a compass and a map of the area. I was not that person.
We carried nothing with us except the uniforms on our backs and a canteen of water. We had been informed that there were “aggressor forces” in the area, whose mission it was to capture us. Our orders were to avoid capture and to rendezvous at the “partisan point” indicated on the map– where we would be given food and further instructions about the location of the next checkpoint. Sounded simple enough to me.
We arrived by truck, late in the afternoon to begin our ordeal. We were dropped off in an open staging area at the foot of one of the mountains. No sooner had we jumped off the back of the truck, and our boots hit the ground, than we heard machine-gun fire, so we quickly scattered and ran toward the nearest cover, a rocky and brushy area about 50 yards away. I managed to arrive under the shelter of some gnarled trees, along with two others from my team, neither of whom was the team leader with the compass and map. Fortunately, one of the candidates I was with had looked at the map with the team leader, and had a “vague notion” of where the partisan point was.
We set out and followed a stream which was nestled between some big weathered rocks. We hadn’t gone more than a few hundred yards when we were loudly ordered to “Halt!” by a member of the “aggressor” forces, wearing a green armband and a strange-looking helmet. He was pointing a rifle at us. He had already captured two other members of our team. They stood next to him with their hands in the air.
We were immediately ordered to sit down on the ground and tie our bootlaces together. This was so we would not be able to run away. It did not occur to me to run away at this point, as the prospect of being free, but alone, in the wilderness seemed worse somehow than being taken prisoner with the others. “ At least I’ll have some company”, I thought.
We were forced to slowly walk, as best we could, with our laces tied together, for about fifteen minutes, until we came into a densely wooded area. As we got deeper and deeper into the woods, I began to hear voices. They were not happy voices. One of the voices was loud and demanding and all the other voices were subdued and miserable. Soon the source of the voices became quite obvious.
We were approaching what quickly became apparent was a mock prisoner-of-war camp surrounded by barbed wire. It reminded me of the way Hell was described in Dante’s Inferno, a cheap paperback version of which I had read in the bathroom at my friend Hughie Fillingim’s house many years before.
There were many different levels of suffering. Over here, there were a bunch of “prisoner” candidates crawling on their stomachs under the weight of a telephone pole. They did not look happy to see us and barely looked up as we passed by on our way into the camp. Off to my right, someone was inserting a large ugly-looking snake head-first through a three inch hole cut face- high into a metal wall locker which had been buried in the earth like a coffin, except that it was only 2 feet deep. Terrible, muffled, desperate, insane screams and pleads to stop were emanating from inside the makeshift coffin. Someone, seemingly, a black guy, based on the sound of his voice, was locked inside, and banging his fists against the sides of the makeshift coffin. Everyone knows that black people are “terrified of snakes”.
I was starting to think that this was unlike other war games I had experienced in basic training. Whoever was running this place was a “RSM”, a Real Sick Mother. We shuffled past several of our captured “contemporaries” whose mud-soaked, but uniformed bodies were wrapped around vertical wooden “Indian Poles”. These future battery commanders and leaders of men were forced to sit cross-legged, “Indian-style”, with large wooden poles, ten inches in diameter, between their legs, the weight of their own bodies cutting off the circulation of blood to their legs. One aggressor had his boot with the full weight of his body pressing on one of my contemporary’s knees, that just wouldn’t seem to go down the way he wanted it to. The candidate was screaming, “You’re breaking my leg!!” I want out of this fucking army, I don’t give a shit about OCS anymore!” I believed him.
We were led into a barbed wire “POW Camp” and initially to the edge a very large pit filled with mud. It was roughly about twelve by fifteen feet and around three feet deep judging by the slop-encrusted bodies of my contemporaries, who were submerged up to their noses in it. The tops of several helmetless heads completely covered with muck protruded from the pit and several sets of eyes –their faces unrecognizable– silently watched me as I was led into a nearby wire pen, and brought before an “interrogator” seated at a small table in a chair with another chair directly across from him. I was ordered to sit down in the chair– an old wooden school desk to which someone had attached some kind of metal plates to the armrest part and to the slats across the back. There was a leather strap on the armrest and another one across my lap and one for each leg. One of the “aggressors” stood alongside it with a field telephone—the type with a hand crank on it. Wires ran from the telephone to the metal plates on the chair. I immediately realized it was some sort of electrical “torture” device. The assistant reached behind me, pulled up my shirt and forcefully pushed my back in the chair so that bare skin was firmly against the metal plate. Then he strapped my right arm to the armrest and my legs to the legs of the chair. The “interrogator” eyed me with an air of disinterest, a bored, detached look in his vacant eyes.
Anyone who has ever watched a war movie knows that when you are interrogated by the “enemy”, the only information you can give them is your name, rank and service number. I think the interrogator must have seen the same movie I did, because he started with those first three questions, which I dutifully answered.
I had been asked my name many times before, and felt confident that my answer was correct. When he asked me my rank, I responded “officer candidate”. He seemed surprised by that, but satisfied. Then came my opportunity to rattle off my service number. “US 5-3-4-1-7- 8-4-8.” Not exactly a math problem, but I got it right. Three out of three! I was feeling quite proud of myself.
Then he asked me, “What unit are you with?” I knew this was one of those questions that I was not allowed to give an answer to, so I didn’t respond. I just sat there. He repeated the question, slightly louder this time, as if I hadn’t heard it the first time around. I still didn’t answer. So he looked up at his assistant who was standing next to me with the field telephone in his hand. The man gave the crank a few turns.
It was a strange sensation. Not horribly painful. I wouldn’t describe it as a tickling feeling exactly, unless the hand doing the tickling was a metal glove with sharp claws that seemed to be digging at the flesh of my back and arm. At any rate it was only for two or three seconds. My reaction to the sudden shock surprised me—it was loud laughter.
Then he asked another question: “Who is your unit commander?” Another one which I was not allowed to answer, and he knew it as well as I did. This guy was clearly just going through the motions. This time, rather than sit there in silence waiting for the next jolt, I think I probably tried to postpone the inevitable electric shock by ten seconds or so, by rattling off something to do with “the Code of the Geneva Convention or the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” preventing me from answering his question. He rudely did not wait for me to complete my answer and the next thing I knew I was on the receiving end of a slightly longer dose of electricity delivered to my back and arm. Once again, all I could do was laugh. But slightly longer this time and with noticeably less conviction. Although, really, there was nothing remotely funny about it.
He asked me another question, I think it had something to do with the size of my unit. I thought of saying something like “ten inches”, like Candidate Curley would have done, but thought better of it. I simply remained silent. His assistant used the field telephone to ring me up again, but this time, there was nobody home. It wasn’t funny anymore. Not one Goddamned bit funny. I gritted my teeth, grimaced and when he stopped, a few seconds later, I just looked at him. I didn’t bother to laugh. Clearly I was now much less amused than before, and this time I really, really wanted it to stop. I didn’t think I was going to be able to stand it if they did that again. Fortunately, they unstrapped me and someone led me to a long barbed wire tunnel about two feet high and told me to crawl through it to the end. I was in no position to argue. I didn’t care where it led, as long as it led away.
I got down on my belly and started to crawl in the dirt. I had no idea what was waiting for me at the other end.