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Vietnam Experience Reshaped Prisoner Survival Training

January 23, 1991

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ There’s no escaping the lessons of Vietnam at a Navy school where many of the fliers assigned to Operation Desert Storm learned about surviving as a prisoner of war.

Courses at the survival school were revamped in the late ’70s to reflect the experience of survivors of the ″Hanoi Hilton,″ said retired Navy Capt. William Stark, who was among several former POWs involved in the project.

Located on 1,200 acres near the northeastern San Diego County community of Warner Springs, the Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape center gives military personnel a taste of the psychological and physical hardship they may face as POWs.

″What we tried to do was to fold into the survival curriculum the lessons we had learned in Vietnam,″ Stark said. ″It’s as realistic as we could make it, within certain constraints.″

Rising up from a barren landscape are bunkers, barbed wire and guard towers. The compound’s ″guards″ are dressed in enemy uniforms and grill ″prisoners″ using techniques employed by North Vietnamese or North Korean captors.

″The most artificial thing about it is there’s a scheduled end, but even with that some of the young men were so emotionally impacted they were taken out of the program,″ Stark said.

″This sort of weeds out in advance anyone who isn’t going to hack it in what can be a very hostile environment,″ he said.

The Navy won’t disclose specifics about the survival training, which all fliers receive. Another major Navy survival school is in Maine.

Cmdr. Jim Mitchell, a Navy spokesman in Washington, said disclosure of specific survival training techniques could possibly be of use to Iraqi authorities who claim to have taken more than 20 allied prisoners in the week- old Persian Gulf war.

Stark, a POW for six years after his F-4 Phantom fighter bomber was shot down near Hanoi in 1967, said it’s too early to tell if modern survival training adequately prepared today’s fliers.

″In all of this, we were just kind of whistling in the wind because we didn’t know where the next captivity situation would arise,″ Stark said.

But he said it’s apparent the Iraqis are employing the same type of abuse and exploitation propaganda tactics used on POWs in North Vietnam.

Iraq has paraded captured airmen on television; some badly bruised about the face, and, in stilted language, criticizing the war against Iraq.

The POW experience in Vietnam and the tortuous 11-month internment in North Korea endured by the 83 crewmembers of the intelligence ship Pueblo led to changes in the U.S. Code of Conduct.

Previously, the code read that prisoners were ″bound to give only name, rank, service number and date of birth.″

Under the new language, a prisoner is to evade ″to the utmost of my ability″ answering questions beyond name, rank, date of birth and service number.

Mitchell said that the code was changed because military officials realized that prisoners, in addition to enduring physical abuse, were plagued by guilt for giving information that didn’t necessarily have any strategic value.

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