RICHARD G. “NICK” NICKELSON
Richard G. "Nick" Nickelson 1963
Nick Nickelson (left) w/ R.D. Russell 1998
A TIME OF REFLECTION
Story by Richard G. “Nick” Nickelson
© 2003 Richard G. Nickelson
At the time it seemed like nothing more than an average couple of days spent as a member of UDT-12.
The couple of days I refer to happened during an operation that would qualify UDT-12 as combat ready, for a two-year period, and is highly important in the eyes of top Navy brass. The Marines conduct beach landings after UDT has performed reconnaissance of all landing beaches, the inland area surrounding those beaches, and cleared any obstacles that may have been placed to prevent the Marines from coming ashore.
Along with members of the six swim teams I boarded the submarine, U.S.S. Perch, and headed for a pre-determined drop location four miles off shore from the designated beaches we were to reconnoiter. The Perch was one of the few remaining World War II diesel submarines still in commission and was primarily used by
The principal purpose of the lockout chamber is to provide a mechanism for the submarines crew to escape to the surface in case of an emergency underwater. The chamber is cylindrical in shape with three hatches, one on top, one on the side, one on the bottom, and can easily accommodate two swimmers at one time. The swimmers enter the chamber thru the bottom hatch, close and flood the chamber, turn the flood valve off when the water level reaches the top of the side hatch, then open the side hatch and swim up a line (rope) tied to the periscope. A second line is attached to the periscope with twelve spaced knots, one for each swimmer. As each swimmer reaches the surface he then takes his place in line, holding onto one of the knots, while waiting for the remainder of the swimmers to complete their lockout procedure. During this lockout period, the submarine is traveling at roughly one to two knots, or just above stall speed. This enables the six swim teams to remain together until the submarines skipper dips the periscope three times, the predetermined signal for the swimmers to drop off. With that completed it is then time to make preparations for the four mile swim to shore.
The night was particularly cold and dark. It was indeed perfect weather for this type of an operation. A storm had brought both wind and rain and that would mean that anyone patrolling the beaches would be cold and not as attentive to their duties as they otherwise might be. Each swimmer wore a wetsuit top and wetsuit bottoms cutoff just above the knee to prevent chafing. A k-bar knife, mask, UDT fins, life vest, and plastic slate, (to write down pertinent data found during the reconnaissance), comprised the basic gear. There would be no food but that wouldn t present a problem because if all went well we would be back aboard the Perch the following night at twenty hundred hours or
It would be important to orient ourselves, prior to starting the swim to shore, because we were to rendezvous with the submarine at roughly the same location the following evening. The trick to getting the proper bearings is to line-up two permanent and recognizable lights on shore, place one behind the other, and keep them properly aligned during the entire swim to the beach. By doing this you would then have a reference the following evening when swimming back to the submarine. This is extremely important if you want to be picked up by the submarine. Missing your pick-up location would mean another swim back to the beach and possibly jeopardizing the entire operation. A four mile swim takes approximately two hours, so leaving the beach at eighteen hundred hours, six p.m., would put us back at the submarine right on time. The swim to the beach did in fact take two hours so it was agreed that we would rendezvous at the same location, as we had landed, and depart at eighteen hundred hours the following evening.
At that point my swim buddy and I headed to a spot just off the open beach and changed into our camouflage shirt and pants. They were wet and did little to keep out the cold. The wind howled and blew the rain so hard it felt like pin pricks to the exposed skin. It remained like this for the next six hours.
Now everyone has experienced being cold and can tell you a story about their coldest moment. But, to someone in the Teams, cold is when your testicles retract back into your stomach. In the Teams and during training you experience this condition often enough that you learn to live with it. It is just part of the job. The hours crept by slowly as Charlie and I lay there in the mud, shivering and doing what little we could to fend off the cold.
I should tell you about Charlie before we go much further. His real name is Hal Tune but we gave him the nick name Charlie Tuna, yes, because he could swim like a fish. I liked to operate with Charlie because he always gave one hundred percent and never complained no matter how difficult the situation. I was a runner and Charlie a swimmer so we complemented each other and made a good team. One thing I should make clear is that every man in the Teams shared one common trait, each was an operator, otherwise he wouldn t be in the Teams. This was a special fraternity of brothers and between these men, bonds were forged that can never be broken.
By dawn the skies had started to clear and I must admit, the prospects of a warm sun gave us both something to look forward to and a reason to be happy. Our night had been spent, huddled in a washed out ravine, several hundred yards off of the beach, so it was important for us to move further from the beach and into the hinterland where shrubs and overgrowth could provide some coverage.
On the beach and the surrounding area were marines, acting as the opposing enemy forces, whose job it was to repel this operation and find us at all cost. We moved slowly thru the brush and then thru a drainage ditch under a freeway that ran parallel to the beach we were to reconnoiter. It wasn t until ten hundred hours, or ten a.m., that the warmth of the sun wore thru the cold of the previous night making it possible for us to confront the job that we had been inserted to do. By mid afternoon we had performed a reconnaissance of our assigned area and settled in until it was time to return to the staging area and the swim back to the submarine.
During the latter part of the afternoon we had a run-in with a marine patrol but were able to elude them. We then moved out to the area where we had buried our swim gear earlier that morning. I should say where Charlie had buried his swim gear while I had camouflaged mine near a tree. The spot we had chosen to hide our gear was the same spot that the Marines later chose, as a dumpsite, to dispose of empty sea-ration cans and all their trash. It turned out that this decision led to the Marines finding my swim gear but not Charlie’s. For me that was bad news. In the Teams there is a saying, In UDT you must learn from the mistakes of others because you won t live long enough to make them all yourself . This was a big mistake and for me it would mean that a very important decision was looming on the horizon.
We made our way back to the staging area and by eighteen hundred hours all six-swim teams had reported in. Their missions successfully completed, all were now geared-up and ready to start the two-hour swim back to the submarine. But now a decision had to be made, due to the fact I had no swim gear. I could either make the two-hour swim, without the protection of a wetsuit, or surrender to the opposing forces. Now, for those of you who have braved the Pacific Ocean, in mid November, I think you might agree that the wise decision would have been to turn myself in. I would have then spent the next three to four days as a prisoner but after all, this wasn t a real wartime situation. The worst thing that I would have to face was the disgrace of putting myself into this situation to begin with. Without giving it much thought, I chose option one and the swim. This would later turn out to be a near fatal decision, though I didn t know it at the time. To make the swim more bearable for me, Charlie, who I mentioned was a strong swimmer gave me his swim fins and wet suit bottoms. Jim Foley, from one of the other swim teams and also a strong swimmer, gave me his life vest and a thicker, reversible t-shirt, known in the Teams as a blue and gold . With that we started our two-hour swim to the waiting arms of the U.S.S. Perch.
The night was cold and the weather had started to turn bad once again as a light rain began to fall. The initial impact of the cold water, as I slipped under a wave, caused me to bite my tongue. It s always a shock to the system when your upper torso and cold water first make contact. With the initial shock behind me I joined the other swimmers and we swam out about five or six hundred yards. At this point we reoriented ourselves by lining-up the two permanent lights we had used to guide us the night before. With that accomplished, we reestablished and set our bearings then started what would turn out to be the most difficult part of the mission.
The first hour of the swim was uncomfortable but bearable. The previous nights swim, cold night spent in the mud and rain, then gathering reconnaissance data during the day had exacted a toll on all twelve men although none complained. After all, if everything went according to plan we would be back on board the U.S.S. Perch in about an hour. The second hour was more difficult for me. The cold water was starting to take its toll, but I knew that soon this operation would be concluded so I ignored the pain. In the Teams you learn to live with pain and I know some who live by the axiom if it doesn t hurt, you aren t trying hard enough. By twenty hundred hours we had made it to what we felt was our predetermined rendezvous point. The two lights on the beach were still in alignment and we had been swimming for two hours. Now it was a simple matter of waiting for the submarine to locate us.
President Kennedy had a wooden plaque on his desk with the inscription, Oh God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small. I was soon to realize just how small and insignificant twelve men are, floating in the Pacific Ocean, in the dark of night, looking for and hoping to find a boat. Two hours turned into three and by now hypothermia had started taking control. I no longer felt the cold and started slipping in and out of consciousness. I would have visions of things past and things yet to come but during all of this I cannot remember feeling fear. I could function at some level but I remember Charlie, or one of the other Team members, pulling the toggle to inflate my life jacket so I wouldn t slip under.
By twenty-two hundred hours, or ten p.m., we had been in the water four hours and were concerned that we would soon have to make the decision to swim back to the beach. Each swimmer carried a flare, one end for night and the other end for day, so we started setting off flares, each at five-minute intervals. After the night flares had been exhausted and the submarine had yet to find us, we started setting off the smoke, or day end of the flare and shining a flashlight on the smoke. We hopped this would alert the submarine to our location although this seemed like a real long shot. I remember being told that it had been decided that we would return to the beach when I heard loud shouting and saw the submarine slowly approaching, it was twenty-three hundred hours.
The submarine had surfaced to pick us up and I remember being pulled onto the deck but nothing after that. Two hours later when I regained consciousness I found myself in the engine room, the warmest place on the boat, snuggling up to one of the diesel engines. The other swim teams and Charlie had reported all details garnered from the reconnaissance, which was then forwarded to Command Operations. Our mission now complete we remained aboard the submarine and returned to our homeport, Coronado, California.
In a debriefing, our Commanding Officer, Captain Robinson, gave rave reviews to the six swim teams for both the pertinent reconnaissance data gathered and for an unwavering commitment to duty. There wasn t a man who hadn t been pushed to his limit by this operation, but there wasn t a man to ever complain of that night or what might have happened if the swim back to the beach would have been required. Five hours in the frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean, on a stormy November night, seems like a noble feat and one worthy of praise. But I feel that way now because I am nearly sixty years old and realize that this is a situation not many have faced, or at least faced and lived to tell about. As for the time that it happened, well like thousands of unrecorded accomplishments that could and should be attributed to members of the Underwater Demolition/