It has been just over one year since my best Army/Vietnam buddy died. 
   Don Van Slyke was quite a character, and I’m sure he would say the same about me. We were an odd pair: he was a tall officer who attended a liberal Methodist church and I was a 140 pound, lowly private, Jesus Freak. But together we helped each other emotionally survive intensive artillery training at FT. Sill Oklahoma, and later physically survive Vietnam.


  After my 8 weeks of AIT (advanced individual training) in artillery, I was given the option of most likely being sent to Vietnam after 30 days leave at home, or to enroll in Artillery Combat Leadership School which meant that 6 months later I would DEFINITELY be assigned to a Fire Direction Center in Vietnam.


   I had less than 24 hours to decide. I asked only 2 people for counsel: a phone call to Marine, big brother Gary, and somehow finding Don on that massive Army base. Both immediately said  ACL. 


 Gary said, “Maybe the damn war will be over by then!” (late 1970). Don said, “You don’t want to chance ending up in Vietnam a private, stirring & burning” (human solidwaste disposal).  Go to ACL, and you’ll graduate a sergeant. 


  That settled it for me...for as the Bible says, “Two witnesses confirm a matter”.
  I had no idea of just how miserable I would be for the next 13 weeks, sitting in another classroom, basically rehashing the previous 8 weeks of class, but at a much deeper level, plus lots of advanced math and procedures that will cause an artillery shell to fall where you intend it to. 


 Fouty seven years ago , I would have paid dearly to do something, anythingphysical and outside!


   My heart was extremely warmed when at the end of another endlessly boring class, we were told that tomorrow we were to report to the parking lot, and spend the whole day out in the woods, going through mandatory escape and evasion training.


  We were going to be trucked to the north end of a sparsely “orested, 3 mile long canyon. If anyone made it to the south end not captured by mock enemy soldiers, they would get a special reward.


   I couldn’t have been happier, except for maybe learning that the reward was an early discharge out of the Army, and back to Atlanta and “Mo Nighean Donn” (for all you “Outlander” fans)


 However, just before lights out that night, an ACL classmate said there was an officer waiting outside of my barracks who wished to speak to me. 


  Now an unexpected summons from an officer was about as welcomed as getting a late night telegram in the old days...rarely good news. My knees were knocking as I dressed, checked my appearance in the hall mirror, and went outside. I had been chosen the class 1st Sergeant for the week, so it could be me, or any of my 40 guys who had screwed up any number of things from improperly marching to dozing in class… which would result in my receiving a severe a$$ “chewing’.


  I approached the Lieutenant waiting in the dark and gave a “sharp” salute, only to then hear my buddy Don say, “Avery, we need to talk”.


  Meetings such as this were technically “illegal” by military regulations, and Don could be strongly reprimanded or worse for fraternizing with an enlisted man.
  Don kept the conversation very short. Basically telling me that tomorrow I must hide a razor blade in the top of one of my boots in case I was captured, but mainly to do everything legal not to end up a prisoner!


  It turned out the purpose of the training was not to teach escape and evasion skills, but rather to ensure that all students were captured and taken to a realistic Viet Cong  POW camp where they would be totally humiliated and exposed to near torture. 


   The goal was simply to be given a tiny dose of POW misery, which research had proven was invaluable in increasing survival, IF actually captured in Vietnam. But Don warned me that some of the mock enemy officers that had been chosen for tomorrow, had bad records of grossly overdoing the exercise, bordering on abuse. 


  Don told me that all captured students were going to be placed on the back of a truck and hurriedly driven to the POW camp.  However, 1st their boot laces were sprayed with water and then both boots tied tightly together, making them virtually “untie-able” until they dried: an ingenious form of “leg irons”. 


  The razor blade was to enable me to cut through my boot laces, and quickly jump off the truck, and run back into the woods!


  Even today, law enforcement officials repeat Don’s instructions, “Your best chance of escape is immediatly after capture”.  


  I went to bed not nearly as excited about tomorrow’s romp though the woods as I had been earlier in the day.


 The next day the entire class of 40 was dropped off at the north end of the valley. Instructions were simple: we had 2 hours to travel undetected, 3 miles to the “safe” zone , indicated by a large white sign at the south end. 


  The woods were already filled with enemy soldiers in distinctive uniforms. After 2 hours the exercise would end with any students trying to avoid capture by hiding being swept up and taken prisoner and taken to the POW camp.


  I immediately found the tallest nearby tree (a 20 foot-er is considered “sequoia-like” in Oklahoma) and climbed up and hid behind a thick bunch of leaves. The terrain on the valley floor was flat as a pancake, but quickly rose about 100 ft on both sides to bluffs that were consider out of bounds, preventing anyone from trying to go around the enemy… we must go through enemy territory.


  From my perch I watched as classmate after classmate was captured, and some literally dragged down the narrow dirt road that ran the length of the valley. Don was right, this was rough stuff. The temperature was already in the high 90s, and the infamous dry-heat was being blown on me like a hair dryer. As native Oklahomans say, “Yeah it’s a dry heat…so is an oven”.


  I waited for about an hour, figuring all the good guys were well south of me by then, with the enemy most likely in that area also. As I climbed down from the tree, I remembered a scene from an old cowboy movie, and used my full weight to break off a heavily “leafed” limb. 


  I slowly made my way South a few steps at a time, always standing the tree limb up in front of me. My perch tree had been about half way up the east side of the canyon, so I stayed at that elevation, always moving parallel to the road below. There were mock enemy everywhere along the road, constantly scanning the sides of the valley, and capturing any student who appeared on the road, trying to make a mad dash south to the safe area. 


 As I slowly angled down toward the road, moving only when the bad guys weren’t looking in my direction, I discovered a dry creek bed, about 5 feet below the level of the road, and running south, parallel to the road.
  I knew I had less than 30 minutes left, so I started crawling through the creek bed as quietly as possible. My knees were torn up badly when I heard talk and laughter from about 200 yards to the south. It sounded like one of my class instructors, so I figured they must be close to the safe area if not actually standing in it.
 I figured it was now or never. I was determined that if captured, it was not going to be on my belly in a creek bed.


  Totally exhausted, I crept to the edge of the road then broke for it. 
 As I emerged out of the woods I ran into a group of 5 of the mock enemy. I don’t who was more startled them or me.


 I side- stepped the one closest who tried to grab me, and I then started sprinting down the middle of the dirt road.


  Blessedly, I saw a large white sign less than 100 yards up ahead. I poured on the speed, barely noticing flying past the instructor I had earlier heard talking. I nearly collapsed as I dived for one of the 2 posts supporting the sign.
 I was stilled hugging the post, gasping for air, as I heard my instructor saying, “White, GET UP, you’ve got to get in the cab of the truck, and no matter what ANYONE tells you… don’t get out!”


  I barely remember arriving at the POW camp, still probably in some degree of dehydration.


 I pitifully watched as my classmates were being made to crawl through mud pits, then roll in the dust and back to the pits.


  One guy was hanged by his feet and swung back & forth, his head traveling through a mud pond with each oscillation.


  The truck door opened and my instructor handed me some water, again warning me to stay put. He said, “Congratulations, you are the only one who it made through!”


The next day, another instructor told me how, that when I broke from the woods and ran past the staff, one said, “Was that White?” 
Another had answered, “Yeah that was, OR a damn deer!”     


 Thomas Avery White

Escape and Evasion

Thomas Avery White
Thomas Avery White
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