THE SWIM THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN

by Richard Nickelson

                                    © 2002 Richard G. Nickelson

 

 

(These excerpts from author Nick Nickelson's upcoming book are posted with his permission)

 

The final three weeks of BUDS Training are spent at San Clemente, an Island in the Pacific Ocean one hundred Kilometers north west of San Diego. The Island, controlled by the Navy, is isolated and therefore a perfect location for pulling together all that had been previously taught in BUDS. Civilians were prohibited and the only living creatures, I can remember seeing on the Island, were wild goats.  This was a place where Naval Air practiced live bomb runs and where we were able to fire weapons, use all types of explosives, blow obstacles, and literally raise hell without worrying about killing someone other than ourselves.

 

Now, most people think the hardest part of training is Hell Week but they are sadly mistaken. San Clemente is Hell times Three Weeks. During this final phase of training you are given three problems a day and each must be successfully completed in a prescribed time frame as determined by the Instructors. Problems consist of loading and blowing obstacles, sneak and peek operations, land navigation, up to fifteen-mile swims and the list goes on and on.  Now if you fail to complete, say the morning problem, to the Instructor’s satisfaction, then you must repeat that problem in the afternoon. That then pushes the afternoon problem to night and the night to late night and so on and so on.  Although you don’t know it at the time, it is literally impossible to finish a problem to the instructor’s satisfaction but that is the way they had planned it. By day two we were backed up and by week two we were doing problems one after another twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and we were still unable to catch up. This is not unlike Hell Week, except for the fact that Hell Week lasted only one week.

 

By the end of the second week everyone was exhausted.  Even this near the completion of training, men were still quitting the program.  Hard as that was to imagine, some just couldn’t take any more and that was what the Instructors had intended to find out. To quit now is one thing, but to quit in combat could cost lives and that is unacceptable.

 

One night, toward the end of week three, we were ordered to report to a beach that was located near our compound. It was raining, windy and cold, a truly miserable night for trainees but one made to order for the Instructors. We had been staging for a makeup problem, so wondered why the sudden change.  One of the Instructors ordered us to form a straight line and to remove all of our clothing.  We looked at each other then did what we had been told.  The Instructor then said he would return shortly, ordered us to stand at attention and left.  Ten, then fifteen minutes went by, still no Instructor and by this time we were all freezing. Finally, after twenty minutes, two Instructors returned and told us that there had been a change in plans.

 

For several minutes the Instructors paraded around forty half frozen trainees, then ordered us to swim naked around a small island, that rests in the water, about a half-mile off shore. It wasn’t really an Island but rather a large rock and a prominent landmark of San Clemente, commonly referred to as “Bird Shit Rock”. The rock is inhabited by birds and the bird droppings, over time, have turned it white, thus giving it the name. Now, try to imagine forty men, shivering and trying to comprehend what had been ordered.  Some actually broke down and cried, two decided they had endured enough and quit the program, and the rest awaited the order to proceed.

 

In an exercise of this nature, the Instructor translates orders by means of a whistle.  One blast from the whistle means go, two means stop, and three means return to the beach.  We stood in disbelief as we heard the shrill sound of the whistle. Could this really be happening? Then once again a single blast from the whistle and the Instructor shouting; “What are you waiting for ladies?”  We knew now that it was for real and we all started moving toward the water and the mile swim.  When everyone was in the water we heard two blasts from the whistle and stopped, all of us treading water and waiting for the single blast, which would mean we were to start again.  What we heard next was one the sweetest sounds I can remember hearing during those three weeks at San Clemente, three blasts from the whistle.  That meant for us to return to the beach, could it be, and then three blasts once more.  We returned not knowing what would happen next. Would the Instructors line us up again and send us back into the water? Just what the plan was, we simply didn’t know.

 

The Instructors then told us we had two minutes to get dressed and said if we took one second longer we would complete the swim in our clothes. Now dressed and still wondering what was happening, the Instructors had us assemble in front of a wooden framed structure covered by a tent that was used as our mess hall.  We were ordered to stand there, at attention, as the Instructors walked around back.  Suddenly the door swung open and as our eyes adjusted to the light, spread out before us was a meal fit for a king.  We were then ordered to enter and enjoy.  In utter disbelief we stood there. This was unlike anything that had happened to us during training and we weren’t sure what to do.  We soon found out that the gesture was real and we went in and enjoyed one of the best and most appreciated meals that I had ever eaten.  We had passed yet another test; yes we would have made the swim, the Instructors didn’t question that. This reward was given, not for passing this test alone, but for passing all the other tests given throughout training.

 

During training, when a person quits the program he is immediately distanced from other classmates, never to be seen again. He is then reassigned to the regular Navy and another fleet assignment.  Now as I sat in the warm mess hall, I couldn’t help but think about the two men who had dropped out of training only hours earlier.  I wondered what they would have thought had they known that they would forever be remembered for refusing to make, “The swim that didn’t happen”. As for BUDS Class-28, my class, we would soon complete training and take our place in the Teams.

 

Some time later, R.D. Russell, a friend and graduate of BUDS Class-29, stated that while concluding their training at San Clemente Island, his class had been placed in the same quandary, regarding the swim, as had Class-28. Class-29 marched to the waters edge and like Class-28 they were recalled at the last moment and fed a great meal. Someone in the next class, Class-30 had  found out what had happened to Classes-28/29 and prepared his classmates for what was to come.  They entered the water knowing they would soon hear three blasts from the whistle, return to the beach, and reap the reward of a hot meal that awaited them. However, for Class-30 there was a problem, their logic was flawed. The Instructors knew that the students had been informed about what had happened with classes 28 & 29, so guess what?  Right, no three blasts on the whistle, Class-30 did make the swim around Bird Shit Rock .  The lesson for future trainees, don't try to second-guess what awaits you in training, you will always be wrong. Most importantly don’t try to second-guess the Instructors; they will always surprise you.

 

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