Military Aviation

Tomcat Down in Iraq, Part II: Prisoner Of War

“I thought about my family a lot. I felt that if I was reduced to counting the bricks in the cell, I would have lost control,” Lieutenant Larry Slade, former VF-103 F-14A(Plus) Tomcat RIO

While Lieutenant Jones struggled to survive in the desert, his RIO, Lieutenant Larry Slade, had already been picked up. By nightfall, the young aviator was in Iraqi hands. Six weeks as a Prisoner Of War (POW) is not anywhere as long as the six years many American crewmen spent in North Vietnamese prisons, but to Larry Slade, each week must have seemed like a year, as he recall in the book Gulf Air War Debrief.

The airplane had departed controlled flight pretty violently and entered a flat spin. At 24,000 or 26,000 ft I reached for the secondary ejection handle with my right hand. I couldn’t talk to my pilot since his oxygen mask had come off. I couldn’t tell whether he was trying to get the plane under control and I told myself I would give him until 15,000 ft before ejecting us.

“I held on to the handle, but I was also bent out of position, though not as much as he was. I looked at my altimeter and the last thing I saw was 10,200 ft. I began to pull the handle as the canopy blew off. I felt the seat go up the rails. I recall everything clearly, especially deciding to pull the handle. I don’t remember actually pulling it, though.

“The ejection was fairly easy, but the air was very cold. I felt the seat fall off and my chute deploy. I saw Devon’s parachute, and I could see it was fully deployed. I pulled out my radio and called the AWACS.

 “‘Mayday, mayday! Slate 46 is down!’

“I thought I heard them reply but it was tough to tell with my helmet on. I restowed the radio. I lost sight of my pilot quickly as went into the clouds, but I saw the explosion as our plane hit the ground.

“The fire from our plane helped me guess how far it was to the ground, and I began preparing for my landing. I had used my four-line release to steer away from the crash site. I got ready to make my best eight-point roll, but I hit too fast and sat on my rear – hard.

“I gathered up my parachute -which had different colored panels, orange, white, brown, green – and wrapped it under the light brown panel. The wreck burned all morning. I never saw my pilot. I made another call on the radio. This time, I know I didn’t get a reply, because I took my helmet off.

“I placed the wreck to my rear and struck out. I needed to get as far away from the crash site as possible. I estimated I landed five to 10 miles away from the plane, because of the winds. I walked for 2 1/2 hours, using my radio every hour, without a reply. The terrain was very dry and flat, and I came to a small, round knoll. Dawn was breaking and I needed to find some place to hide. I tried to use my survival knife to dig in but the land was too hard, too rocky. So, I just dusted myself up to try to blend in a little.

“At about 1030, a white Datsun pickup truck came around the knoll. It was probably bad luck because I don’t think they were looking for me; they were just driving by. Two men stopped and got out. One had a 12-gauge shotgun, the other, an AK-47. The man with the AK-47 was in a very shabby uniform, like he had gotten it from an army surplus store. No insignia. The other man was a Bedouin in a black covering, not in the service. Maybe they were just friends driving around.

“They approached me, but it never crossed my mind to pull out my pistol. T was obviously had. They made me strip off all my gear. It was very cold and I was shivering and shaking by this time.

“They bound my hands, but were very polite. They put me between them in the pickup and took me to their tent – where they fed me. That was a surprise.

 “When we finished, we got in the truck again and drove to Baghdad, about 3 1/2 hours away. I didn’t know we were going to Baghdad. Through sign language and pidgin English, they asked me if I wanted to go to either Saudi Arabia or Baghdad. Of course, I told them Saudi Arabia, choosing the northern-most town I could recall.

“The Bedouin indicated he understood and that they would take me to the town in Saudi Arabia. I thought, ‘perhaps, perhaps’. I tried not to get my hopes up and watched how much time it took. If it took three hours, it would be Baghdad; eight, Saudi Arabia. Sure enough, 31/2 hours later, we pulled into an army  camp, and I knew it wasn’t Saudi Arabia.

“For the rest of the day, I was shuttled to six different camps, blindfolded and handcuffed. I never saw them. My captors would throw me in the truck and drive me to the different places, usually 45 minutes apart. They’d take me out and ask me questions, very haphazardly, nothing very organized. It was clear these were not real interrogations. I was obviously a subject of interest and was probably working my way up to the main camp.

“People came out to see me, take pictures of me and poke at my gear. There was a lot of animosity, especially from the bystanders. They’d pick on me, kick me, and if they spoke English they’d say things like, ‘You kill our children.’ I did have a core of people and they didn’t let things get out of control.

“I spent that night in Baghdad, beginning three days of hardcore interrogation. Then I was shuttled off to a prison, the first one, actually. At that point, they took my blindfold off, after three days. I was in a cell by myself, but I could communicate with other prisoners.

“In retrospect, I was shot down on the fourth day of the war and they had already had a few prisoners – a couple of Tornado crews, an A-6 crew and a Marine OV-10 crew. They already had an idea about how they wanted the prisoners to flow to the upper echelon, basically a bounty setup. The government would pay captors money when they brought a prisoner in, quickly, and relatively unharmed,  although the captors could hit us a little.

“We POWs compared stones. Everyone was taken to this interrogation center eventually, after the first series of interrogations.”

 What had gone through Lieutenant Slade’s mind after he landed? What were his chances of evading?

“I made a decision. It was better to be captured than to die in the desert from thirst. We had water bottles, of course, but we had also been told not to try to navigate in the desert, especially that far in-country.

“I relied heavily on my SERE training. At one point, they asked me if I wanted to go to the bathroom, which was the first time they had asked me, instead of my asking them. They took me outside the building – which I thought was odd since there were bathrooms inside. I was still blindfolded. As I started to urinate, it sounded strange, like on cloth. I thought I had an American flag under me and that I could also hear the hum of a camera. That’s a type of situation we hear about in SERE training. I wanted to slap myself for being that dumb. I had visions of that picture on a Newsweek cover. I stopped. I could never tell if that is what had happened. No one could tell me. Frankly, I’m glad not to know for sure.”

Lieutenant Slade and his fellow POWs were on the receiving end of allied bombing raids. They had front-row seats.

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“I know for sure I was in Baghdad, in different prisons. The first prison was going to be permanent, but 11 days after my capture, all the allied prisoners were turned over to – and this is pure conjecture – the Ba’ath party, instead of the Iraqi army. Our jailers were dressed in civilian clothes. On the night of 23 January, our prison was bombed and we were moved to a civilian jail.

“We stayed in the jail until the end of February, then moved to another army prison. Our care was much better there. The bombing had stopped by then, and we began to think that maybe we could see the end of it all.

“The vast majority of the POWs were together by 23 February, at this one prison. During one raid, there were four separate, immense explosions. I’m guessing 2,000-lb bombs. I’m a fighter guy, of course. The explosions took down two entire wings of the four-storey building. That really angered the guards.

“The first bomb hit and the guards took off, headed for the basement. That was an incredible night. I really thought it was over. After they were sort the raid was over, the guards came back upstairs. They had no intention of pulling us out of our cells to shelter us. If we died by our own bombs, so what.”

During one raid, Lieutenant Jeff Zaun, an A-6 BN from VA-35 who, together with his pilot, Lieutenant Robert Wetzel, had been shot down on the second night of the war, found himself free.

“His window was blown out and he climbed outside the building. He got back in, though, and came down our corridor. The building was in shambles, but miraculously, none of the allied prisoners was hurt. All the tiles, the ceiling and windows were blown out.

“Just as he re-entered the building, so did the Iraqis, and they were angry about the bombing. They showed up with other army guys with AK-47s and rifles. I heard Jeff (Lieutenant Zaun) screaming, ‘Prisoner, prisoner, prisoner!’ I heard the AK-47s’ breeches being cocked, and thought, `Oh, boy!’ But they just took him away, as they did all of us.”

Lieutenant Slade discusses the interrogations he experienced at the hands of his Iraqi jailers.

“I had a total of six interrogations, some of what we called soft-sell where they just asked me questions, or took an I’m-a-pilot-too tack. I had no idea if he was, although he sounded like he might have been.

“Then there were the hard-sells, where they pounded on me. For the most part they didn’t use any classic torture methods. They just beat me up, tied my hands behind my back and double-blindfolded me to the point where I couldn’t even blink.

“They beat us even when we answered their questions. It was confusing. I held out as long as I could until I said, ‘OK, here’s the answer.’ Then, they beat me anyway.

“After a hard-sell session, the next interrogation would probably be a soft-sell. `If you have a problem answering this question, remember your last session.’ Of course, we could remember very well.

“I answered questions just to make the beatings stop, even though the answers were complete garbage. Some I didn’t know the answer to, and I’d tell them, then I’d make up something. I could hear them writing it down. I thought, ‘You idiots!’ It was an exercise in patience for me, taking things one day at a time. Some time toward the end of February, they banged me up against the wall and broke my seventh vertebra.”

Lieutenant Slade was blindfolded and never saw his interrogators, probably so that he could not identify them later, or perhaps because the Iraqis understand how terrifying it is to lose one’s sight.

“February was tough. I played lots of mental games. The days were extremely long. I went over calculus problems and engineering. Or I’d think about my hobbies, my motorcycle, or building the ideal house. Whatever it took to get through.

“I thought about my family a lot. I felt that if I was reduced to counting the bricks in the cell, I would have lost control.”

Lieutenant Larry Slade

Photo credit: PH2 Bruce Trombecky, PH2 William Shayka and Lt. Cmdr. Dave Parsons / U.S. Navy

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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