Mock Prisoners of War Bite the Bullet--and the Mealworm : Survival Exercise Tests Mettle of Cal Poly ROTC Class

Times Staff Writer

It was the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere for a handful of student-soldiers. They had come to battle the elements, and the enemies were upon them: cold, hunger and sleeplessness.

They were college students getting a lesson in life. Nature was the classroom. And the only passing grade was survival.

In the end, all 46 members of the Cal Poly Pomona contingent made it. A third of them got poison oak. One suffered an asthma attack. Another suffered a sprained ankle. But they all survived.

"They really wore us down," said Leslie Sugiki, 24. "They wanted us to try our limit, so they pushed us. The going was hard."

That's just what Army Capt. Larry Vidinha, who headed the camp, expected to hear.

"I wanted them to get a better appreciation for what it is to survive," Vidinha said.

The two-day drill gave the students a chance to use the skills they had learned in a three-unit outdoor survival class taught by Vidinha, assistant professor of military science and training officer in Cal Poly's ROTC program. During the first eight weeks of the 10-week class, the students were taught how to make shelters, prepare food, identify vegetation, start fires and read the topography of the land. The survival trip represented 20% of their grade.

"You get lectured about it, but doing it is something else," said John Boal, 20, of Upland, an electrical engineering major.

Boal, like most of the others, had previous camping experience. But he had never had survival experience. "I always camped out with a sleeping bag," Boal said. "I just wanted to find out if I could do it without."

He found out quickly.

"I didn't get any sleep. It was too cold," Boal said after shivering through the first night, when temperatures dipped into the low 40s. In a wild effort to stay warm, Boal ripped down his shelter--one-half of an Army pup tent--in the middle of the night and rolled up in it and a poncho.

Students were divided into three groups--basic, advanced and super-advanced--according to their previous outdoor experience and class standing. The basic and advanced levels remained in a structured survival setting and were given a little help. The super-advanced group, all ROTC cadets, became prisoners of war in a simulated battle situation and were forced to live off the land and one the run.

There were few comforts. The only sign of civilization in the area was a portable outhouse. The basic group was allowed to use sleeping bags. The advanced group had ponchos and pup tents halves, but they were not allowed to put the halves together and make a full tent. For the super-advanced, except for a few with the presence of mind to grab ponchos when they were being captured, they had only the clothes on their backs, which were light-weight fatigues.

Recreation major Jane Wintermute, 20, of Baldwin Park, said she had no idea what she was getting into when she registered for the survival class. One of the eight students in the basic group, she said she had first thought that the survival trip would be a night in a public park. When she finally heard the truth, she was apprehensive. But she said her doubts subsided once the training began.

"It wasn't half as bad as I expected," Wintermute said.

Group Survival

The basic group survived as a team. Under the supervision of the camp advisers, they learned the necessary skills to survive in the wilderness together. They built a shelter. They started a fire without matches, using a flint and cotton. They also hiked together.

"We really didn't think about what we were doing. It came naturally," said Wintermute.

Some things didn't come naturally to Wintermute, though. As part of the training, the students were supposed to kill and cook rabbits and chickens, which had been brought along. Wintermute slept instead.

"It's hard to look at the poor little things," said Wintermute, who also slept through the eating of the animals. "I know how to do it and could tell people how to do it, but I couldn't."

Ate Ants and Mealworms

Other accounts of survival vary. Some students slept in the warm comfort of an Army sleeping bag. Others spent sleepless nights trying to conserve body heat by huddling together. Some ate the chickens they caught. Others survived on a few spoonfuls of rice and an assortment of edible plants, ants and mealworms. The mealworms also had been brought along as survival rations.

"It's something everybody needs to experience," said Dan Santana, 18, who said he followed a biology major around, and whatever he saw the biology student eat, he ate. Santana was one of the 29 cadets in the super-advanced unit. He said, "If you go through this once in your life relaxed and calm, you'll be ready if it happens to you in a real-life situation. It's good practice."

The non-military students and less advanced cadets were allowed to eat until midnight Friday, but for the super-advanced cadets, survival training began six hours earlier when their bus was ambushed and they were captured by a band of Central American guerrillas played by fourth-year military science students from Cal Poly. The blindfolded and handcuffed captives were marched more than two miles to a mock POW camp.

While in prison camp, the cadets were pushed to the edge of exhaustion by their captors. They were yelled at, doused with helmets of water, put through a series of calisthenics and interrogated. Finally, about 1 a.m., they escaped.

Instincts and Training

Then, the fun began. For the next day and half, still thinly clad and with little food, the cadets roamed the 20-square-mile training area in the northeast sector of the Marine base. For survival they had to depend on their instincts and training.

Their mission was to make it back to "friendly lines" 10 miles away across ridges and ravines to the spot where the other students were camped. And they had to make it without being recaptured by the Black Berets, a specialized ROTC force, carrying M-16 and M-60 rifles loaded with blanks.

They were hunted. They were hungry. They were exhausted. But they finally reached their goal about 2 p.m. Sunday.

"They just tired us out. They wanted us to know what it was like to be a prisoner of war. They wanted to break us down," said Santana.

Little Sleep, Few Calories

Most of the super-advanced cadets survived the weekend on a few hours of sleep and fewer than 300 calories each. Most of the food was given to them by the three ROTC upperclassmen--cadet officers--who carried raw potatoes, a portion of rice and some mealworms. Some of the cadets refused to eat the worms, but others accepted them as a survival challenge. The three cadet officers, who helped in the escape, carried radios as a safety precaution and traveled with the cadets to observe their performance.

For the cadets, it was not only a lesson in survival, it was also a lesson in leadership and teamwork.

"There was a great unity. Everybody was pushing for each other. Everybody was in a frame of mind that we were gonna do it," said Sugiki, an escapee who was forced to leave the survival training after suffering an asthma attack the first night.

Said prisoner-of-war Santana, a mechanical engineering major and first-year ROTC student: "We were really working as a team. There was a lot of caring and emotion. Either you make it as a team, or you don't make it at all. That's what's so good about a team, everybody helps each other out."

'Cravings for a Coke'

But Jennifer Fryer, 20, a foods and nutrition major, had to survive more than the hunger pangs, lack of sleep and "cravings for a Coke." She was the only woman cadet in the super-advanced group.

"It was a challenge being a female with the men," she said. "It's as if I had to gain their respect. Because I was a woman, they didn't want to give me the credit that I could do it. I felt tension."

But after a few hours and miles, she said, the tension subsided.

"Once the guys saw me do the things they were doing, they treated me like one of them," Fryer said. "The guys treated me like one of the guys."

A Proven Survivor

Vu Tran, 19, just wanted to be treated like any other survivor in the advanced group. Instead, he became a soldier.

Mistakenly taken prisoner with the super-advanced cadets, Tran and another student spent their survival training playing soldier.

"It was great," said Tran, an electrical engineering major. "I thought we were on the wrong bus. I was confused. But we kept quiet to see what would happen."

Surviving was nothing new for Tran. A Vietnamese refugee, Tran and his father escaped from Vietnam in 1979, on their third attempt.

They escaped aboard his father's fishing boat crowded with about 40 other refugees. They survived the ravages of the open sea and an attack by modern-day pirates, who took everything of worth. After drifting for two weeks, they were rescued off the Indonesian coast. Their food and water had run out two days earlier.

So unlike the other cadets, Tran, who only last month was reunited with his mother, brother and sister for the first time since his flight from Southeast Asia, knew what it was like to go without. But even he found it to be a demanding experience.

"I didn't think I would make it through it all," said Tran, who sprained his ankle during the mock escape and flight to friendly lines. "I didn't think I would make it over the last mountain." But he did.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World