Pensacola and Jungle Survival

After the discipline and rigors of the Naval Academy, training in jet aircraft gave the word freedom a new dimension: we sped in the air and on highways, trying to catch up with the world we had left behind. A month after graduation from the Academy, I received orders to Pensacola Naval Air Station. Excited about the thought of learning how to fly Navy jet aircraft and Pre-flight school, I eagerly awaited my first assignment on my drive from Fernandina Beach, Florida after a short visit with Mom and Ruthie.   In the muggy heat of July I arrived at the gate in my white Corvette convertible. A marine guard in white gloves, white cap, black visor, light blue trousers with red stripe down the middle, dark blue dress jacket with a white webbed belt, gun in holster, and white leggings leading to spit-shined black shoes asked for my identification. After viewing my I.D., he snapped to attention, clicked his heals and gave me my first salute as a naval officer. Just then a navy jet zoomed overhead with a booming blast of power, turned and sparkled in the sunlight as she sped away on a training mission. A rush of adrenaline filled me with expectation that naval aviation would be thrilling. However, those too often mean personalities at the Naval Academy had worn off much of the Annapolis polish. The harassment I received from an upper classman in revenge for what my brother may have done to him still gnawed at me. He had driven me into the hospital with mono and ruined my chance to start for the Plebe football team at quarterback. The harassment I received from southern upper classmen about my support for civil rights lingered in my mind. But, nothing compared to the sadistic baseball coach I had who deliberately made it his mission to humiliate and frustrate me until I decided to quit. Naval Aviation should have eliminated any malicious personalities from this elite branch of the naval establishment. Entrusting men to multi-million dollar jet aircraft would surely mean they were leaders that would be professional in every sense of the word.           They assigned me a class number, an officer’s barracks, and then, unlike at the Academy, I was free. Training began the next day. Physical fitness, obstacle course, jungle survival, aviation science, navigation, and training flights determined if we had the “right stuff” to fill the shoes of a naval aviator. Flying in a two-seater jet (Northrup T-38 Talon) after first learning in a two-seater prop (T-28 North American Trojan) two months after sitting in training classes, I was a jelly fish turned into a shark. Suddenly zooming in a sleek steel bullet-like airframe, rolling and diving at supersonic speed, the Navy had elevated us to a world we could only imagine. Before takeoff our pilot instructor showed us how to “pre-flight” the plane. We checked all functioning parts to maintain safety. Once he flew the plane with me in the back seat and showed me how to escape from an attack by another aircraft by a tricky aerobatic maneuver that churned my stomach. Diving from high altitude, he did practice bombing runs racing at low altitude at a target then pulling up, teaching me to experience G-force, which increases the weight of one’s head from ten pounds exponentially, depending on the thrust of the aircraft. We felt strong forces; enough for someone to realize a weakness. My pilot did some barrel rolls, and finished with a few landings and takeoffs. Some learned they couldn’t handle jet flight when airsickness was a clue. He was skilled, knowledgeable, an expert, and a leader. The Dilbert Dunker was quite an adventure for those who got disoriented or couldn't swim well. I had been a lifeguard, so I had an advantage. The Dunker is designed like an aircraft on two tracks with an aviator strapped into a mock cockpit with hands on the throttle and stick inside that is lifted in a cart-cockpit a few meters out of the water. The cart would then come crashing into the water, flip up-side-down, and the candidate would have to orient himself with water in his sinuses and escape from the pilot seat. You had to unhook your safety belt, swim down to clear the aircraft, and then swim to safety. A lifeguard was on duty to save those who could not perform. Failure to successfully complete the exercise flunked the student and every class had a few who failed. Many will tell you that, although the experience was a challenge, if they were to go down in an aircraft they would be grateful they had the training.        Jungle survival training in Pre-flight school ranked high on “unique adventures.” We wore tall waterproofed jungle boots heavily covered with polish and Marine green fatigues made of a strong fabric. We had a backpack, first aid kit, water purifying iodine mixture, canteen, hunting knife, rifle, helmet, contour maps, a compass, and poncho. They bused us to the Okefenokee Swamp between Southwestern Georgia and Northwestern Florida. Marine guides counseled us on survival during a trek on a god-awful hot muggy day. The sweat poured off my face, thirst nearly overwhelmed me, as I followed our trainer into a dense jungle with about twenty-five classmates. He pointed out what to avoid for our safety and identified poisonous leaves and wildlife. We stumbled onto a number of coral snakes during the arduous excursion. “Avoid any contact with that critter as it ranks as the most poisonous snake in the United States.” When we reached a point of extreme thirst, he stopped at a muddy creek. The water resembled slimy brown soup. “Fill up your canteens, pour the water through a denim cloth to filter it, and remove any impurities. Add iodine tablets using one per quart of relatively clear water. Use two tablets in cloudy water. You can survive on it.” As bad as it tasted, my mouth was so dry, I longed for anything wet. Still I thought I might throw up from the smell and texture. I used the process a few more times when my thirst grew unbearable in the one hundred degree temperature and murky humidity.               Soon we noticed a clearing where squirrels scampered in the trees branches and wild pigs with horns raced ahead of us. The trainer said, “You couldn’t run fast enough to catch wild pigs but you could capture squirrels.” Some of the students bagged squirrels. When they removed the hair and tried to cut the meat from the bones, hardly anything remained to eat. The trainer showed us how to make a fire and wrap the small amount of meat on a stick to cook it over flames. Successful jungle survival also required us to learn where to find edible berries and fruits. I decided to test my speed to prove the trainer wrong and lit out after a wild pig chasing him for at least a hundred yards. Through the dense humid jungle dodging trees and rocks, I raced and then dove a few times barely missing him each time and came back to the group exhausted from the chase. The trainer laughed, “Look how much energy one man expended trying to do the impossible. If you have a gun with ammunition, you have a chance to get a wild pig. But then you just might have given away your position to the enemy. You need a thoughtful plan so the group survives with as much safety and edible food as possible without allowing the enemy to discover your location. Knowledgeable natives have no problem surviving in the jungle. It provides anyone with plenty of edible food if you take the time to study the subject. Natives make slender spears, rock slings, or blow guns with poison darts to catch game. Each makeshift weapon has the virtue of being silent.” After sixteen hours buses took us back to our bachelor barracks where we fell asleep exhausted from one of the most practical training missions the Navy offered.

Related Images:

This entry was posted in Memoir "All the Difference", Non-Fiction, Pictures, Science, Writings and tagged , , , , by Daniel C. Lavery. Bookmark the permalink.

About Daniel C. Lavery

Dan’s writing shows his transformation from a child to an athlete and a Duke pre-ministerial student where he began to question ancient and arbitrary dogma. He graduated from Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and a ship to Vietnam, fell in love, turned peace activist and a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW. His memoir, "All the Difference," describes the experiences, some humorous and others deadly, that changed his consciousness from a pawn to an advocate crusading for justice against some of the most powerful forces in America.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box