Survival training in the Nevada desert

Reno bustles in the late 1950s, early 1960s.

Reno bustles in the late 1950s, early 1960s.

From the Reno city limits to the California border 20 miles northwest of the “Biggest Little City in the World,” sagebrush, Peavine Mountain and a few dozen homes or ranches dotted the landscape more than 75 years ago along U.S. Highway 395. Visitors called Reno a quaint little city, known mostly for both its reputation as a “Divorce Capital of the World” and its gambling establishments along Virginia Street, yet for the thousands of residents who called Washoe County home, another enterprise sprung up in the Nevada desert to aid the war effort.

“An abandoned National Guard Base that supported the Army’s Air Service during World War II had been vacant for years,” wrote the late Jim Root, who retired as a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. “A headquarters building, two aircraft hangars, four barracks buildings, a few old Quonset huts, a control tower and a pot-holed runway left over from the years of use by the Army National Guard was all that the old base consisted of — those rundown, dilapidated buildings and acres and acres of open space.”

With the separation of the Air Force from the Army after World War II, the need for a pilot survival school became urgent, especially with the Cold War developing between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact members. The threat of nuclear war heightened in the 1950s and then shadowed by the Vietnam War in the 1960s. The USAF began searching for suitable sites, and the base 10 miles north of Reno appeared to be the best choice.

Gen. Curtis LeMay, the young four-star commander of the Strategic Air Command and a highly decorated World War II aviator, felt the former Army air base — later named Stead Air Force Base after Reno native Lt. Croston Stead, who died in December 1949 when his P-51 Mustang crashed during a training mission at the base — would be an ideal location for pilot aviation training with its wide expanse of sagebrush-covered land.

“It was the center of several hundred square mile area that included all of the various environments that downed airmen might find themselves after an in-flight emergency,” Root stated.

Relocating to the Nevada desert

The base became part of the Air Training Command and the 3635th Combat Crew Training Wing (survival) in September 1954 after the survival school moved from Camp Carson (now Fort Carson) Colorado. From 1960-62, the survival school also trained the Mercury astronauts in a remote area of the Carson Sink northeast of Fallon.

Al Bobst, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant and survival instructor, is chapter president of Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE), an organization that brings together past, present and future survival-school members.

“The (survival) school actually started in Alaska and Canada, and then Colorado Springs,” Bobst explained. “The course was Cold War centric, long-term survival, resistance training targeted to the Russians, something we picked up from the North Koreans.”

Bobst said the instruction was applied for all crews and high-risk isolation personnel during the year, even in snowy conditions.

“The unlucky person came in the winter to Stead,” he said with a laugh. “The curriculum was the same, but the experience was different.”

In 1958, the Air Force relocated its helicopter school from Randolph AFB to Stead and designated it as the 3638th Flying Training Squadron (helicopter). Pilots learned advanced operational techniques and mountain operations in the high-altitude area, and most pilots attended the survival school before heading overseas. Reno soon became an international destination for pilots coming from Japan, Argentina, Pakistan, India, France, Bolivia and Taiwan and an exchange program was implemented with the Royal Air Force from both England and Australia.

Not only did the school train active-duty and foreign pilots, but Bobst said Nevada’s Air Guard pilots also completed the survival school before they were assigned to their unit at the Reno airport. Brig. Gen. William Burks, Nevada’s adjutant general, said the Nevada National Guard has been a part of Stead’s rich history and still maintains an Army Aviation Support Facility at the Stead airport. Burks said the survival school was an integral part of training for pilots who may have faced bailing out of their aircraft into hostile territory.

The 75th anniversary

At a recent ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the former Stead base (Reno-Stead Airport) and the reopening of its main runway, which had been reconstructed, the community and the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority also welcomed back veterans and civilians who served at the base since its inception in 1942 when soldiers first received training in the Army Signal Corps.

“We treasure the airport’s rich military history while also saluting the general aviation and Air Race participants who have flown and competed over the years,” said Marilyn Mora, president and CEO of Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority.

The increasing number of troops forced the additional construction of buildings to accommodate the soldiers. In 1943, the Air Transport Command assumed command of the base until its deactivation two years later.

Many of the former students and instructors attending the anniversary ceremony are now in their mid-to-late 80s. Tex Tankersley was a young airman who came from Texas to attend the survival training. He stayed and became an instructor.

“We had quite a few people at the instructors’ school,” he recalled. “Unfortunately, those days are long-timed passed and a lot of them are no longer with us.”

The process to become an instructor was intense. Tankersley said airmen who were interested in becoming an instructor signed up, and out of 60 who expressed interest, 32 airmen came to Nevada, and half became instructors.

Tankersley said the old Stead AFB was a different place in the 1950s with no houses but wide open for their survival training.

“We did a lot of training in what was a dry lake, which for some reason is called Swan Lake,” he said, grinning. “The Air Force survival school was a squadron in that sense. We had one jet plane (T-37) out here that we used for training and a C-47 (transport plane) used for pilot pickups instead of helicopters.”

Tankersley said the pilots who had been dropped off in the desert for their training had to create a remote airstrip so the plane could land and pick them up for the return trip to the base.

Training the four seasons

“I remember a few winters shoveling snow,” Tankersley said, pointing to his waist to show the snow’s depth.

Training was year-around and done in all types of weather.

When his four-year enlistment ended, Tankersley decided to leave the military but stayed in the Reno area, later working for the Washoe County Health Department. He said many instructors and other military personnel didn’t care for the regimentation, so they traded in their uniforms for civilian wear.

Robert Bingham was another survival school instructor when he served at Stead from 1955-1959.

“Stead was a lot different then, a pie in the middle of the desert,” recalled Bingham, who now lives in Sanger, Calif. “Nothing but desert between the highway and the base … it was a lot different.”

Now, Bingham is amazed with the many changes that have occurred over the decades. Thousands of homes dot the adjacent valleys and the former Air Force base, while distribution centers, businesses and strip malls line the boulevards in Lemmon and Golden valleys. A gauntlet of homes and businesses line Stead Boulevard from U.S. Highway 395 to the former base that closed in 1966.

Bingham spent four years (1955-1958) as instructor and remembers the old, white open-bay barracks that were home for many airmen who passed through Stead.

Bruce Smith of Minden attended the ceremony to reconnect with longtime friends. He served at the Stead AFB as a survival instructor and later as an interrogator.

“We taught resistance, but most of the pilots were good about it,” Smith said of the instruction. “They wanted to learn. We were just getting ready for the next war.”

Smith said the pilots appreciated the training.

“If they hadn’t trained or someone in their (prisoner of war) camp hadn’t been through the training, they never would have made it,” he pointed out.

Additional stories of survival cover the walls of the Freedom Flight Terminal located near the Stead tower and operation center. Conrad “Dale” Neese said about every three to four weeks, a new group would undergo the required training that also included time spent in the Sierra Nevada.

“(The training) required going into the mountains with one pound of beef carcass and to survive for nine days off the land,” Neese wrote. “They were broken up into small groups. Some of the stories we heard of them killing snakes, lizards, rabbits and whatever and eating them to survive.”

Retired Col. David Pinsky went through the survival course after his commissioning as a second lieutenant in 1961. He flew 614 combat missions in Vietnam as a forward air controller, served in the F-106 program for seven years, three years on the NATO staff in Europe and three years at Air Force headquarters and on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. He later became wing commander of the Air Force’s only SR-71 and U-2 equipped wing, the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, at Beale AFB, California, from 1983-87.

“We go out for our week in the field of escape and evasion with snow on the ground,” he wrote, adding students would escape and evade their adversary and once caught, they were put into a “POW” camp. When Pinsky arrived at Stead, he told of meeting a bartender, who proceeded to ask questions about his involvement in the survival school. The conversation came back to haunt him.

“During interrogation in ‘POW’ camp, the same bartender is the ‘interrogator’ and uses all the info I gave him in the bar against me,” Pinsky wrote.

During the interrogation, Pinsky said he tried to hold out as long as possible but nothing worked until an interrogator told him that in the real world, his enemies would’ve beaten the information out of him.

“I then got put into a small cell, so small all I could do was sit with my knees up under my chin. I heard a fellow student ‘POW’ go bananas over the small space he was in. He begged to be taken out. He was, he washed out and lost his pilot’s wings.”

Pinsky remained vigilant and determined to “wait it out” in his little cell. From the small window, he could see the nightly glare from Reno.

“I learned a lot at Stead Survival School and learned that I certainly didn’t want to get captured. I was shot down twice but fortunately did not fall into enemy hands either time.”

Astronauts and the desert

Root said Stead AFB added another type of training to its curriculum in the early 1960s when NASA sought the development of a desert survival program for its Mercury and Gemini astronauts.

“Realizing that if the capsules missed the planned re-entry position, they would land in one of the great desert areas of the world — the Gobi, Sahara, Mongolian or Saudi Arabian deserts. It was important that these ‘spacemen’ know how to stay alive until recovered,” Root recalled in his manuscript.

Root said the astronauts spent two days with their instructors at Stead and then rode in a helicopter to area east of Reno in the Carson Sink, a playa in the northeastern portion of the Carson Desert currently fed by drainage from the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District’s canals. According to Root, the astronauts were abandoned in the desert with a mockup of the Mercury capsule and a parachute attached to it. He said instructors primarily taught the astronauts logistics over three days and nights.

“The objective was for them to practice a survival scenario in case they were stranded after a landing gone awry,” he explained in his writings. “They took to their desert-adventure with gusto, some fashioning clothes out of their parachutes prior to being ‘rescued’ in their grimy splendor.”

NASA astronauts from the Mercury and Gemini groups who came to “desert-trained” in Northern Nevada included Allen Shepard, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, John Young, Jim McDivitt, Ed White, Pete Conrad, Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan, Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell.

“Here again, we learned how to protect ourselves from the sun: how to utilize the limited water supply, and to build clothing and shelter from our parachutes,” Slayton wrote in his report. “There is a remote possibility that we could impact in the west African desert, should our orbital insertion be somewhat under speed and our retrorockets not have adequate thrust. This possibility is very remote, but it is an indication of our attempt to train for any possibility, no matter how remote.”

Bobst said the astronauts experienced a wide range of survival training in addition to the desert training. He said they undertook specific, climate-related training in Alaska, Panama and Ecuador and had to show proficiency in water, mountain and jungle survival.

Goodbye Reno

The Department of Defense decided in 1964 to relocate the survival school to Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Washington, and the helicopter school to Sheppard AFB north of Wichita Falls, Texas. A special attachment between the Stead AFB and Reno had developed for three decades since the first students arrived in the early 1950s. The community opened its arms and hearts for the hundreds of pilots and other military personnel who successfully passed their survival or helicopter courses in the Nevada desert and Sierra Nevada. The military spouses worked in local businesses, the children attended Washoe County schools and the families would sightsee around the area, many of whom returned to Reno after their enlistment ended.

“Many an instructor found ‘the love of his life,’ a bride from the Reno, Sparks or Carson City area,” Root recalled. “And the single aircrew students who rotated in and out of the school over the years usually had little difficulty in finding never-married or recently divorced young ladies to accompany them to the free graduation parties offered by Harold’s Club and a few others.

“From the very beginning of the survival school’s existence at Stead, that very first Armed Forces Day, the bond between the Air Force and civilian population of Reno, Nevada had grown stronger and stronger.”

By mid-1966, silence fell on Stead AFB for the first time since the end of World War II, yet the Cold War against the Soviet Union as well as the Vietnam War still raged thousands of miles overseas from Reno. The survival school was no more, and Root said it was a sad day for both the military and civilian communities: “Survival Instructors would march no more in Reno parades … the officers, NCOs and ‘airmen” of Stead would miss Reno — and Reno, after 15 years together with the survival school, would miss Stead AFB.”

Sources: Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority; Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE); Retired Master Sgt. Jim Root manuscript chapter


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