Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Skills Inspiration from a Real Life Worst Case Survival Guide

I can't explain it: whenever I pick up big 'ol book on wilderness skills or survival I feel buzz of excitement. Perhaps it's the fixer in me that is eager to synthesize and deploy this new found knowledge. Or maybe I got a kick out of reading these types of book as a kid and this is just a burst of nostalgia. Whatever it is, I love me a survival manual.

Mind you, these texts are often limited in value. The textual descriptions, vague line art, and random pictures often leave a lot to be desired. Ultimately, there's no substitute for experience; even if that experience is in your backyard. Still, these manuals do serve one notable purpose: they offer inspiration for which skills one should investigate and master.

Kicking around on the web, I came across one of these references I hadn't seen before. AF Handbook 10-644 - Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE). This is apparently the Air Force's manual for their SERE program; the course pilots takes to be prepared for ejecting over enemy territory.


The SERE course is legendary stuff and covers everything from basic wilderness survival to evading the enemy to dealing with be a prisoner of war. To even get a glimpse into this world is a treat.

The range of topics covered is impressive. From nuts and bolts of survival to higher level topics such as understanding weather and various types of insulation; from surviving an avalanche to making landfall in raft; the book tries to cover it all. 

Sprinkled throughout the text are accounts of soldiers who deployed  the documented techniques. Consider this tidbit from page 621.

Colonels John Dramesi, a USAF F-105 pilot shot down in April 1967, and Edwin Atterberry, a USAF RF-4C pilot shot down in August 1967, used a disguise as the main focus of their escape attempt from the “Hanoi Hilton”. They used a combination of ground iodine pills and redbrick dust to match the average skin color of the North Vietnamese. Sandals modeled after the shoes of the North Vietnamese peasant. They gathered bits of cloth and string and made white “surgical” masks to disguise facial features. Using thread pulled from towels and needles made of copper wire, they fixed their black prison clothes to look like peasant dress. Out of strips of rice-straw pulled from sleeping mats, the IP wove two conical hats. Originally they had camouflage nets made from three blankets with clumps of rice-straw from brooms sew on them, but were forced to turn them over to the rest of their cell mates, so they used mosquito netting with clumps woven into them. The IP also stole a burlap bag, two baskets, and a carrying pole as props to look like traveling peasants. The Colonels moved through the populated area of Cu Luc North Vietnam without raising suspicion, coming within a yard of policemen and others during their disguised evasion movement. They greeted those that walked with simple nods, while any locals who attempted to talk to them were ignored as the pair cong forward at a constant rate. While their disguised allowed them to get out Hanoi, unfortunately they did not travel far enough before going to a hold-up site and were subsequently captured.

The manual delivers mightily on the inspiration front. Below are 20 skills that I logged as worthy of future investigation and I'm sure I could find more.

If you're looking for a worst case survival guide, AF Handbook 10-644 is where it's at. Master the skills in there and you'll be ready for anything.

  1. Identifying and using 12 common medicinal plants. (page 87)
  2. Crafting an improvised sleeping bag. (page 199)
  3. Crafting improvised footwear, specifically the curiously named Hudson Bay Duffel Bag. (page 192)
  4. Using quartz or pyrite as a spark generator. (page 229)
  5. Using clouds for weather prediction. (page 101)
  6. Using sandstone and other found rocks as an improvised knife sharpener. (page 241)
  7. Learning two common hand sewing stitches. (page 253)
  8. Using the SODIS method of water purification. (page 293)
  9. Understanding improvised methods for determining your current latitude and longitude. (page 410)
  10. Navigating at night using stars. (page 415)
  11. Using an improvised trail marking scheme. (page 430)
  12. Crafting a field expedient oven for baking. (page 365)
  13. Using field expedient methods for preserving food. (page 367)
  14. Constructing an improvised raft. (page 500)
  15. Learning the evasion checklist. (page 530)
  16. Urban navigation: identifying navigational clues from landmarks and local history. (page 623)
  17. Urban navigation: determine direction from weather effects on buildings and infrastructure. (page 625)
  18. Preparing a personal survival kit. (page 278)
  19. Constructing an improvised backpack. (page 450)
  20. Learning basic rock climbing technique and holds. (page 462)

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