(RA5C Vigilante on the ground at Sanford Florida where Dan trained in 1965)
Winter survival school in 1965 for naval aviators in my class flying the RA5C at Sanford Florida occurred in October in Brunswick, Maine. The first day we attended an orientation session in a classroom with reading materials and lectures on survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE). The camp trainers issued us a winter jacket, green fatigues, canteen, hunting knife, cap, and gloves. They divided us into teams. A military truck dropped us deep in a forest. They provided a contour map to assist our goal to go to checkpoints that led to a simulated concentration camp. The military personnel assigned to the SERE training placed “Russian” enemy soldiers in the forest who wandered through the area to capture us.
To reduce personal injuries, if they sighted us and said, “You're caught,” we had to surrender without physical conflict. Four teams made up our survival class, which included about one hundred men. The information taught us what to eat in the wild and what to avoid; it warned that after they captured us they would subject us to interrogation and physical abuse. They warned that if we struck any trainer we would fail the course. Such a foolish move in a real camp would end in death or serious injury. They chose an extremely cold day to begin. Snow covered the ground. A strong wind blew through the trees knocking snow and ice around. Once I entered the forest with my assigned team, we gathered briefly to discuss how we would try to reach our goals. We walked for miles before we encountered the enemy dressed in Russian uniforms. I hid and watched as an enemy soldier caught a team member. He took the canteen from our man, opened the top, and poured half the water on his head. It ran down his neck and wet his body.
The enemy soldier laughed, got our man’s name, and shouted, “You’re captured. I won’t take you to the concentration camp for interrogation on the first day. Tell your companions they must let us capture them, or the same thing will happen to them. Tomorrow if you’re caught we’ll take you to the concentration camp.”
I stayed out of sight in the brush. After that enemy soldier left, we moved through the forest. As I slowly passed a pine tree, I saw an enemy waiting behind another pine a few feet away. He wore a black Russian uniform, dark overcoat, large boots, and black furry hat with ear flaps buttoned. He grabbed me by my overcoat, “You’re captured. Give me your canteen.” I reluctantly gave him my canteen and prepared for the worst.
“Splush” went the water as it drizzled down my neck and under my overcoat drenching my army green fatigue shirt, my trousers, and underclothes. I began shivering from a blast of cold wind. I wanted to tear him apart for his unprovoked sadism. He had captured me. Why do this to your own military in the name of training? He seemed to enjoy gratuitous sadism. He left me and went harassing and capturing others with the same treatment. Determined not to allow any of these bullies catch me again, I moved silently and slowly from tree to tree. Since I was a fast runner, I decided if another enemy appeared I would use my speed to avoid him.
A few times some of us ran to get through an open portion of the forest so we could hide in trees, foliage, and shrubbery. Soon it got dark. Our group completed a few miles of progress toward a checkpoint each had to achieve by the next day. The cold started to increase as the night progressed. Feeling worn out from expending so much energy, I sweated profusely from running, dodging, and hiding from the enemy.
We met in small groups to form a circle around some tall pine trees. Each of us picked a tree to sleep under as the training course suggested. A large tree with lots of loose leaves around it seemed to provide protection from the elements and a primitive bed. I climbed in my sleeping bag, using my overcoat as a cover, and slept on my poncho. Shivering, I glanced up and saw over-hanging branches with snow on the ends. The closer I moved to the trunk, the more protection and warmth I found. After drinking from my canteen, having an energy bar, and chewing on some nuts, I fell asleep.
In the middle of the night, something awakened me causing me to pick up my sleeping bag and look around. I saw a pair of tiny eyes looking at me. A field mouse had crawled into my sleeping area. He chose a spot near my feet just outside my sleeping bag, under my overcoat. I felt he had as much right to the warmth as I did and allowed him to join me as I chuckled to myself. Who would ever believe I spent the night with a field mouse under a tree in a snowy Maine forest?
The next day we moved further along to our goal. As we progressed, the enemy loudly announced a capture when they caught another trainee. After awhile one of the Russians loudly proclaimed, “We are taking you Yankee pigs to a concentration camp as prisoners of war where you will rot.”
I remained silent hidden in the underbrush sweating, tired, and scratched from racing by trees with hanging branches and sharp twigs. Time seemed to slow down under such pressure. Hours later, I realized that eventually these brutal enemy soldiers would herd us like cattle into the camp. A loud siren wailed and a voice from a loud speaker informed us if they hadn’t captured us, to turn ourselves over to the guards at the concentration camp. Hungry, tired, and angry, I decided the camp provided an opportunity to show them I had what it took to survive and help my team.
I joined the other team members outside the concentration camp where the SERE instructors lectured us about the way anyone caught by an enemy should act to have a chance to survive in a war. The written materials contained a list of things to do and to avoid; such as acting violent—they would kill anyone who did, and it would cause harm to others. The enemy had weapons. As a prisoner of war (POW), each of us needed to use our knowledge to escape if we could, but while in captivity to keep together, protect each other, and stay healthy.
The school graded us on our leadership ability to resist providing any useful information to the enemy and always pursue a way to escape. We were to encourage our men to build unity no matter what treatment we received. We needed to maintain high spirits and energize the exhausted captives. If caught, we knew to give only name, rank, date of birth, and serial number. by the enemy guards, screamed at, and separated into various places. They had a black box they threatened to put anyone in who failed to follow instructions.
Once I entered the concentration camp, I saw trainees assaulted. When they started to abuse one of our men by knocking him to the ground, I ran to him and picked him up. “I’ll write a report on your abuse when American forces rescue us,” I informed the guard. “You have violated the Geneva Convention on abuse of prisoners.”
“So you think the US will investigate me and rescue you?” he said grabbing me by the over coat. “You’re a capitalist fool and will pay for your disrespect of the Russian Army.”
“Come here. We’ll teach this one to talk back to us,” he said to his compatriots. “Let's put him in the Black Box.” Two large enemy guards ran up to me, yanked me around, and dragged me to a black box about eight feet by three feet. Two of them threw me into it bruising my arms, knees, and shoulders.
“You’ll never see daylight again, Yankee,” one said starting to close the lid.
“We’re free men in America! Our friends will rescue us,” I yelled before they closed the box.
They slammed the lid down. A clicking sound of a chained padlock meant they locked me in. In complete darkness, cramped into a narrow space, I could not turn around. The hard boards underneath me caused my back to ache after a few minutes. I smelled an odor of sweat from the many trainees who had experienced the box. I heard a lot of commotion outside as they yelled at other trainees and tried to justify their Communist beliefs as Russian guards. “Your form of government allows the rich to exploit the weak, and the minorities. You’re greedy capitalists. We’ll crush you.”
As time wore on, the box became hot. I found it hard to breathe, and felt like a caged animal. My body ached from the way my arms, legs, and shoulders squeezed against each other. Extremely thirsty, sweating profusely, I realized what a horrible torture awaited any prisoner who remained in the black box for any significant time. My sense of time dulled. Eventually, I heard some noise on the doors that sounded like someone unlocked the box. Someone opened the prison where I had languished for only about an hour. As I crawled out with help from trainees, I saw the guards taking other members of our survival team for interrogation.
They made us do calisthenics, push-ups, sit-ups, and run in place yelling, “Get those knees up, Pigs.”
“Come with me, Yankee, for questioning,” one of them said as he came up to me. The hulking specimen of a guard resembled a wrestler. He took me to an intelligence officer at a desk who wore a uniform with ribbons, medals, and decorations. “How many men are in your group?” said the high ranking officer in a simulated Russian accent.
I gave him my name, rank, birth and serial number. “You’re a stupid American whose country mighty Russia will destroy,” he bellowed in frustration. “Take him back to interrogation,” he said to the guard. Two helmeted brutish Russian guards led me to another building. They walked me to a hallway where I could see a series of rooms with a thick plastic window about my height in each doorway. They pushed open a door to a cell with canvas padding on all walls and the floor.
A giant of a muscular man with a blond crew cut stood in front of me. He looked like a linebacker on a pro football team. “Yankee pig officer, enter my room of pain,” he spouted in a phony Russian accent. I entered walking up to him. “Tell me what group you’re from or I’ll hurt you,” he commanded.
“My name is Daniel Crim Lavery.” I continued with birth, rank, and serial number. He grabbed me by the overcoat, and threw me as hard as he could against the padded wall behind him. I hit the wall flat so as not to hurt myself and laughed at him.
“You think it’s funny? Wait till you see what I do next, Capitalist Pig.”
He threw me around the room about ten times, but I always bounced back facing him with a stance showing I had prepared for this drill.
“You think you’re tough pig, but I’ll crush you and your kind,” he said smirking and walked up to me, made an awful growling noise, and hacking as if he had something he was trying to get out of his throat. He spit a wad of slimy white saliva in my face. I started to wipe it off and he hocked another big wad onto my left eye. Again, I started to wipe that slime off when he spit all over my forehead and nose. By this time he had really pissed me off. Knowing I could hurt him, but would not try, I took a fighting stance.
“You’re a coward,” I shouted glaring angrily at him.
He looked for just a moment surprised, “Are you going to hit me?” he asked. I stared at him with anger written all over me and held my stance as if to challenge him to abuse me again, but said nothing. Walking arrogantly up to me, he spit four more times rapidly in my face. Wiping it off I remained prepared for any physical assault.
“Take the worthless Yankee bastard out of my sight,” he told the guards who took me to the main yard. At the end of three days, I endured much. It made me reflect on our precious freedoms as no other exercise had ever done before.
(Dan entering the back seat of the RA5C for training at the Sanford Naval Air Station in Florida 1965)