Anyone who has ever trained for war has thought about being captured by the enemy, and the scenario usually resembles the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster like "Behind Enemy Lines."
You're alone, far from friendly forces and enemy patrols are hunting you.
Retired Army Col. Silas Crase didn't have to imagine this; he lived it.
On Oct. 27, 1944, the young ball turret gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress was on a bombing raid over the Nazi Blechhammer oil refineries in Germany. Heavy anti-aircraft fire filled the air.
"It was like flying through a black blanket in the sky," said Crase, now 85.
His plane was hit several times, forcing Crase and his fellow crew members to bail out at 25,000 feet. Upon landing, Crase realized he had become separated from the rest of the crew.
All he had was a small escape kit, but the handful of survival items helped him evade the enemy and find safety with a group of partisan fighters.
The equipment that Crase and others like him carried hasn't changed much over the decades. Now known as escape and evasion kits, they usually include items such as a small compass, signaling device and a knife.
Aviators are issued these kits, but many military personnel fashion their own.
Military Times asked readers to name the most important item in their E&E kits.
For Crase, it was a luminous compass and a knife that helped him start his journey to safety.
"I had decided if and when a bailout arose, I would travel only at night," he said. "The first night of total darkness I traveled with several collisions with trees. I knew I needed to have some type of ‘radar,' so the first to be used was my knife. I cut two solid small limbs to a walking cane height smoothing the ends for good grasping. The next night with the two canes, I navigated a great deal better and easier."
Crase moved the canes back and forth in front of him.
"Soon I realized my tapping the trees would give me away in a totally silent area. The next day I cut some pine foliage, [attaching it] to the ends of each cane using thread from my small sewing kit, thus almost eliminating the tapping," he said.
"I set an eastward direction and ... the luminous compass guided me to a partisan group. I remained with them until late June 1945 and then, with a deaf/mute passport, traveled to Prague, and the American ambassador gave me safe passage to Pilsen and return to Allied hands," Crase said.
Keeping a sharp edge
Washington Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Travis Jones, a former instructor at the Air Force's Survival School, which provides survival, evasion, resistance and escape training, also rated a knife as a key item in his E&E kit.
The Swiss Army knife's "saw, blades and awl are essential in shelter craft, fire craft, food procurement, basic weapon creation, trap construction, carving navigation aids and harvesting plant items for camouflage," said Jones, who serves as unit training manager with the 256th Combat Communications Squadron at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash.
Jones also carries a metal match, or fire steel, and cotton balls coated in a small amount of petroleum jelly for starting fires.
"Thankfully, I've only ever had to use the items in training, but I know that they will be right there if I ever need them. Whether I'm deployed or out hiking with my family, I'll always have shelter, fire, food and a way to signal for help all kept on my belt," he said.
Marine Staff Sgt. Brandon Fuller said iodine tablets or a small container of iodine would be his top pick.
"Iodine will keep my water drinkable so I don't get sick and my wounds clean so I don't get serious infections that can kill me," said Fuller, data network chief for Marine Corps Mobilization Command in Kansas City, Mo. "I wanted to say my knife, but I can make weapons. Poncho for shelter, but I can make that, too. Waterproof matches — I can make a [fire] without them; besides if I am hiding, why would I want a fire to let everyone know where I am? Plus, I can stay warm in countless other ways. Not only am I a Marine, but I am a Boy Scout and a Boy Scout Master. Survival is my life."
Army Reserve Sgt. Stephen Alder said a survival mirror can be quite handy.
"I keep one edge sharpened for cutting and when I need to, break off a piece for a fishing lure," he said.
In addition, Adler uses a mirror and light reflection to "start fires using refraction through water. Yes, it does take practice and a loooong time."
Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael Edwards, an explosive ordnance disposal craftsman at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., said he won't leave home without his 1-quart canteen cup.
"The cup has uses from purifying water to digging" said Edwards, who is stationed at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. "Inside this, I place several smaller useful items."
To Air Force Tech. Sgt. Thomas Conrad, the choice is easy — "550 cord, hands down."
This strong nylon cord used in parachute suspension lines helped the Security Forces member catch dinner for him and his friends after they lost their food while hiking in the Rocky Mountains, he said.
"We had set our bags down while bouldering and one of them slipped through the cracks," said Conrad, who is stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. "The most important one, to be exact. Our food supply was gone, but thanks to SERE training, I made 20 snares in the surrounding woods."
After about four hours, one of his snares had trapped a rabbit that kept them from going hungry.