The author of one of the most critical survival guides ever written for pilots and everyday hikers is a Missoula resident who recently celebrated his 100th birthday.
John Craighead and his late twin brother Frank devoted their careers to saving North America’s rivers and the grizzly.
Unbeknownst to most ecologists and military veterans, the twins co-authored the flagship survival guide for pilots during World War II, which helped the Allies win the war.
The Brothers Wild, as the Washington Post termed them in 2007, gained worldwide acclaim as teenage correspondents for National Geographic, when they drove to the Tetons in a battered Chevrolet to photograph the secret life of birds of prey.
Growing up on the wooded banks of the Potomac River near Washington, D.C., the brothers used clothesline and hand-me-down metal spurs from telephone linemen to climb the tallest trees in the forest to study some of nature’s most elusive creatures, such as prairie falcons and sparrow hawks.
At home in the great outdoors, fishing, hiking, rappelling, canoeing and snowshoeing were part of the twins’ daily routine. They gathered edible plants and hunted to survive for weeks on any terrain or climate, be it a bone-dry desert, arctic mountain territory or an uninhabited island.
Meanwhile, as Allied fleets charged toward the Pacific, the majority of pilots and airmen were drowning and dying from crash landings and bailouts over oceans and unfamiliar terrain, with practically zero chance of survival without survival gear, radios and signal mirrors. When the U.S. Navy called the Craigheads in 1942 they were not only looking for expert outdoorsmen, officers also sought instructors with a psychological quality – fearlessness.
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That year the notoriously intrepid twins were recruited as Navy ensigns at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of five elite pre-flight schools where competitive sports and rigorous outdoor training were used to condition fighter pilots before they took to the skies.
Designed by Naval Academy graduates, the 90-day course was widely considered as the toughest physical training program in the world. Using forests and rivers as training laboratories John and his brother, nicknamed "the beavers,” wrote a survival guide titled "How to Survive on Land and Sea" in 1943.
In addition to self-preservation tips to enable downed fliers to eat and drink off the land and trek their way to civilization to rejoin the fight, the manual also provided psychological tactics that helped POWs survive for years in captivity.
Over the decades, "How to Survive on Land and Sea" has been edited and expanded for civilians. It reflects the twins’ experiences in the Pacific and other exotic locales, from an atoll in the Marshall Islands to the snow-capped peaks of Mount Fuji. The one-stop survival manual still guides Boy Scouts, pilots, mariners, soldiers and novice hikers, most of whom never realizing how the book was inspired.
Decades before survival television shows dominated the media, John Craighead was interviewed by producers and writers who aimed to capture his timeless philosophies for survival in the wilderness, according to his son, John, of Missoula.
The U.S. Naval Institute reports that "How to Survive on Land and Sea" is still selling 73 years after it was published. The 90-day Pre-Flight School at Chapel Hill attracted fighter pilots including Red Sox great Ted Williams, future presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush (commissioned as the youngest naval aviator at the time), who was shot down in his Avenger torpedo bomber.
As John celebrated his 100th birthday, joining more than 50,000 centenarians in the United States, and the nation approaches the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it is a time to give thanks for his priceless contribution to the war effort that surely saved thousands of soldiers, airmen, mariners and explorers.