FASTER WASN’T NECESSARILY BETTER
By Richard Nickelson
© 2003 Richard G. Nickelson
- HOOYAH! Jump From Jet Boat –
During World War II, when members of the U.S. Navy’s, Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDU’s) conducted reconnaissance missions and/or planted explosives on enemy held beaches, they encountered a serious problem when they swam out to sea for recovery or extraction. As the pick-up boat slowed to allow the swimmers to climb aboard, the boat, the crew, and the swimmers were exposed to shelling and small arms fire from the enemy who still controlled the beach. The pick-up boat and occupants were literally sitting ducks and easy prey for enemy sharp shooters. It didn’t take long to realize that “a new recovery system had to be devised”, one that would allow the pick-up boat to extract swimmers from the water without forcing the boat to slow down or stop.
It didn’t take long for someone to come up with a solution. Basically, three components were needed to make this new pick-up possible and two of those components already existed. The first was the Landing Craft Personal Recovery (LCPR) or pick-up boat. The second component was the Inflatable Boat Small (IBS). The idea was to lash or secure the IBS to the port side of the LCPR. The port side of the boat always faces seaward during swimmer recovery. The third component of the equation was a new item called a pick-up sling. It would be the responsibility of one of the stronger Team members, kneeling inside the IBS, to snare each swimmer with this sling and pull him into the IBS.
With the new recovery system in place, the swimmers would swim out to the predetermined recovery area when their mission was complete. Once there, they would form a straight line horizontal to the beach, allowing a 25-foot separation between swimmers. The pick-up or sling man would then take up his position in the IBS. As the pick-up boat made its run down the line of swimmers; the sling man would pull the swimmers, one at a time, into the IBS. The swimmers would then scramble over the gunnel and into the LCPR.
To accomplish the actual swimmer pick-up, the man assigned this job uses a sling that is made of rubber, approximately the same diameter as a garden hose, and roughly three feet in circumference. As the boat makes its way down the line of swimmers, each swimmer holds up his arm, bent at the elbow, and is snared by the pick-up man who then pulls the swimmer into the IBS. In order to bring his body as far out of the water as possible, as the boat approaches, it is important for each swimmer to kick his legs as hard as he can. The swim fins propel the swimmer upward and, the further out of the water, the easier it is for the sling man to pull the swimmer into the IBS.
The most important aspect of the pick-up falls directly on the shoulders of the boat coxswain. A pick-up is only successful if all swimmers are snared on the first pass. If a swimmer is missed and the boat has to make a second run, the odds of losing the boat and all members of the operation, to enemy fire, is greatly enhanced. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the boat coxswain to maneuver the boat down the pick-up line, close enough to the swimmers so they may be snared, and at a speed that will allow each swimmer to be pulled into the IBS before the boat reaches the next swimmer. Timing, speed, and boat location are critical to the success of this operation.
So successful was this method of swimmer recovery during World War II, it was still being taught in Basic Underwater Demolition Seal (BUDS) when I went through training in 1962. As simple as it may sound, this is by no means an easy task for the swimmer, sling man, or boat coxswain to master. When we first learned this technique, many a trainee returned from these training exercises with black and blue bruises, covering the entire inside of his arm, caused by the impact of the pick-up sling.
While this had been an effective means of swimmer recovery, when using the slower, flat-bottomed boat, called Landing Craft Personal Recovery (LCPR), times were changing. During the early 1960’s, new boats were making their way into the Teams. In 1963 we received much faster jet boats and with these new boats came the requirement to identify and implement a new swimmer recovery methodology. The hulls of these boats were constructed of fiberglass and each boat was powered by two turbo jet engines. They could travel at speeds well in excess of 40 knots, easily three times faster than anything we had previously seen. These boats could sleep two crew members, had a small head forward, and an enclosed swimmer compartment that could accommodate as many as twenty swimmers, if an operation required a large contingent of operatives.
With this new boat, swimmer recovery took on a whole new meaning. When the boat made its first pass, two small swimmer recovery pods, connected by a long strand of nylon rope, would be dropped by the jet boat near the swimmers. Each pod was made of fiberglass and looked like the front section of a small rowboat that had been cut in half. The aft section of each pod was open and the pod was lined with a thin piece of foam rubber. Inside and along each side of the pod were three hand cutouts, one for each swimmer to hold onto, so he wouldn’t slip out the back of the pod during recovery. Each pod was built to accommodate six swimmers. The swimmers would first swim each recovery pod in opposite directions until the nylon rope that connected them became taut. With this accomplished, the swimmers would pull themselves into the pod, grab on tightly to their respective hand hold, then wait for the pick-up boat to make its second pass and winch them in.
The bow of the jet boat was equipped with a slightly bowed metal bar that extended down into the water. As the jet boat passed between the two pods, the nylon rope would pass up and over this piece of bowed metal and into a winch that was mounted on the bow of the boat. The two pods would then come together and be winched to the aft section of the boat. To complete the recovery operation, the swimmers would simply climb from the pod and enter the swimmer compartment. On paper, this is how it was intended to happen; but we were in for quite a surprise when we first attempted to implement this new method of swimmer recovery.
I don’t remember who coined the phrase, “peas in a
pod”, but that was the name attached to this new swimmer recovery technique;
the swimmers were the peas. After a short stint in the classroom, we climbed
aboard the new jet boats and headed to the
It was decided that the jet boat would slow down to half speed for the next try, but even at 20 knots, it was impossible for the swimmers to hold on. At 20 knots, we did remain in the pod for several seconds, and then experienced another anomaly. As the jet boat snatched the nylon line, the weight of the swimmers prevented the pods from moving forward until the nylon rope stretched to its limit and became taut. At that point we were treated to a sling shot ride that had to be similar to being catapulted from an aircraft carrier. Again, as the pods lurched forward, all of the swimmers were ejected out the back of the pod before anyone realized what had happened. After several more unsuccessful attempts we returned to the Team compound knowing that, like anything new, this was a learning experience and it could take a while to figure out the right way to tame this beast.
Back in the compound someone came up with the idea of adding a piece of looped nylon rope, that each swimmer could stick his hand through, and greatly enhance his chances of holding on. Drilling holes, near the existing swimmer handholds, and adding six looped pieces of nylon rope would accomplish this. Though we didn’t know it at the time, this would create even more serious consequences.
The next day we were back in the ocean, confident that this newly added piece of nylon rope would solve the problem. For the first pass, only two swimmers would be in each of the pods and the jet boat would attempt the pick-up at half speed. The boat made its pass and even with two swimmers the nylon rope that separated the pods, had to stretch to its limit before the pods would once again lurch toward the pick-up boat. This time however, the nylon rope wrapped around the hand of one of the swimmers, stretched so tightly that when he was expelled out of the back of the pod he left most of the skin from his hand, still inside the pod, attached to the nylon rope. What had happened to the swimmer is similar to what happens when you apply the Chinese finger trap. In case you are not familiar with this device, I will explain. It is slightly larger in circumference than your index finger, roughly four inches long, and made of woven bamboo. When you insert a finger from each hand, into the device and pull outward, the bamboo stretches tightly around each finger. The harder you pull, the tighter the finger trap holds onto your fingers. You can’t remove your fingers until you relax and push your fingers inward; this expands the size of the trap and allows you to gently remove one finger at a time. Apparently the nylon rope wrapped so tightly around the swimmers hand, that it reacted in a similar way as the Chinese finger trap. Something had to give and in this case it was the skin attached to the swimmers hand. Luckily his hand hadn’t been severed. As for the other three swimmers, they suffered bruises and lacerations to the back of their hands, but noting more serious. However, they too were expelled from their pods.
There would be a simple solution to this problem and it certainly wasn’t the nylon hand loop. Through trial and error it was determined that the pick-up could be accomplished, if the jet boat slowed to 15 knots when it reached the nylon line that separated the two pods. The boat would maintain this speed until the two pods came together and the winching process had begun. This transpired within a 15 to 20 second time frame so it was determined that by doing this, little would be jeopardized. Once the winching process was successfully under way, the boat could then accelerate to full throttle without loosing any of the swimmers. In the Teams, few challenges would be met and resolved without personal sacrifice and this had been no exception. For every problem encountered in Teams there was a solution and in this case, faster wasn’t necessarily better.