A scared bunny and his appetite for ants; Downed US pilot in tears as he tells his story of survival behind the lines

Click to follow
SCOTT O'GRADY said yesterday he was a "scared little bunny" as he hid from Bosnian Serb troops for six days, eating grass and ants and wringing out his wet socks for something to drink. The US pilot told a press conference: "Most of the time my face was in the dirt, just praying that no one would see me."

As for the ants: "Food aversion isn't a problem when you're hungry; you'll eat anything." The problem was catching them: "Boy they scamper really quickly and it's hard to get them."

O'Grady, 29, struggled to contain his emotions during his appearance at Aviano US air force base in Italy before flying home to the US. At one stage he broke down and wept, asking: "Can I have some tissues, please?"

The worst part of his ordeal, he said, was the first day. "It was when I was on the ground and everybody was walking around me. They were shooting their rifles and to me they weren't just shooting at bunny rabbits. I never even saw a squirrel out there. I think they thought they saw something that was me and they were trying to kill me," he said.

When the Serb missile had hit his F-16C on 2 June, he recalled: "I saw the cockpit disintegrate ... I saw this beautiful gold handle between my legs, the ejection handle, the most glorious sight. God let me see it and I grabbed it with my left hand."

He was amazed not to be captured on landing. "I was in the parachute for an extremely long time," he said. "Everyone on the ground could see me. There was even a military truck sitting, waiting for me." When he hit the ground he had just three minutes to get away before the Bosnian Serb troops reached the scene. He dashed into a clump of bushes and hid. "I got into the heart of it, lay down. I was hoping they wouldn't see the metal clips of the harness." Asked how the troops failed to spot him, he said it was divine intervention.

"I just reverted to the training I got at survival school," O'Grady said. The recipe for survival was "trying to find a place to hide, to not give away your position, not doing anything at daytime. Trying to use the night- time if you're going to make noise." During the day, as he lay face down, he would cover his ears with his green survival gloves so the flesh would not show and give him away.

He would move around only at night, ranging at most one mile from where he landed. In all the six days, he never slept for more than a half-hour at one time. Two cows with tinkling bells grazed near his hiding place, and he nicknamed them Leroy and Alfred. One day they came perilously close to him, he said, and he was afraid he was about to be discovered by the farmer who tended them.

Hunger and thirst were problems. "I was really thirsty. It was hard to eat because my mouth was so dry. I ate some leaves," he said. One night he prayed for rain, to soak the yellow sponge in his survival pack, he recalled. "God delivered."

Asked about his health, he said he said he did not realise how many aches and pains he had until after his rescue. He insisted he was no hero. "Everyone is saying 'you're a hero, you're a hero'. All I was was a scared little bunny rabbit trying to survive. The guys who rescued me were the heroes."

The tears came when a tape was played of the radio exchange with a US plane which led to his recovery. The pilot overhead, seeking O'Grady, who was identified as Basher 52, could be heard saying "Basher 52, Basher 11 on Alpha, say again." The response came from an emotional O'Grady on the ground: "I'm alive, I'm alive."

As Captain O'Grady spoke, the diplomacy surrounding the Bosnian conflict continued. In Paris, John Major and Jacques Chirac stressed the closeness of co-operation between the two countries on Bosnia, and the French President declared that the new Rapid Reaction Force would "ensure that UN troops should never be put in a humiliating position".

In Sarajevo, meanwhile, the UN mission was ordered to seek a return to the position before Nato air strikes, at least in the short term.

Reports, pages 18-19