Robert D. Russell, SA


by R.D. Russell


Note: Originally published in “To Be Someone Special – The Story of UDTra Class 29” by RD Russell


On December 7, 1941, my parents were listening to their battery powered radio way out in the middle of nowhere in Colorado. The announcer was telling the world about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the world war that was in the immediate future. Mom and Pop, being good patriotic Americans, knew that they should do their share as to making future citizens to replace the ones that wouldn’t be coming back, so they went into production just as soon as the radio broadcast was over. Twenty years and nine months later I was a member of Class 29.


Prior to UDTRA was Boot Camp. I had joined the Navy to fly airplanes. At that time if you had a college degree or had completed two years of college and passed a test you went straight to Pensacola. If you had less than two complete years but passed the test you went to Boot Camp then to Pensacola. I was in the last group which meant that I belonged to a Boot Camp Company but never attended any classes. My days were spent being a go-fer, supposedly getting on-the-job training as to being an officer.


I did however attend a lecture that was being given to all Boots, and the Big Bad dude giving the lecture was Maxie Stephenson. He stood up on the stage in his starched greens and told us he wasn’t interested in making men out of us but if any of us were already men he was willing to talk. Of course, everyone in the place grabbed an application; it was the macho thing to do.


By the time the swim trials started several days later fear and good sense had overcome the majority of the applicants and they were no-shows. There were enough left to still crowd all the decks around the pool. Down at the far end of the pool an applicant was standing with an olive drab shit can over his head and the other applicants were ordered to walk by and slap the side of the can. George Layton was under the can making a grand entrance into Naval Special Warfare.


George had done something or other to upset Filmore who was giving the swim tests and so Filmore was using a waste paper basket to retain George’s attention. I got to know George after the swim test, during our remaining time as Boots.


Cigarettes were always a major concern in Boot Camp because you were only allowed to have 2 cigarettes on you and then only in certain areas. George walked around with both shirt pockets full because of his ability to ‘convince’ other Boots to give him their cigarettes.


Layton was a riot to be around whether in Boot Camp or later in the Teams where I was privileged to hear him argue his case in the Rung Sat that the Gook’s ear went to the sharpest knife, not the fastest gun, or having him borrow my bedroom for a little ménage-a-trois with a seven foot long snake being number three to him and his girlfriend’s one and two.


My future officer’s career was becoming more unsavory with every passing day of Boot Camp. Layton and Hile got their orders to UDTRA but I was sent to a Naval purgatory called the Out Going Unit or OGU. Good old OGU was full of every kind of failure that you could imagine. These were the people that the Navy was sending home with a nice separation check for cutting their hair off and other suffered indignities. So it came to be that my first command was 60 of these folk. I answered to a Petty Officer first class but how my company of homeward bound former sailors was run was supposed to be up to me. I even had an XO. The situation totally went to Hell when the PO1 decided that any of my people who soiled their beds at night would wear those soiled bed sheets (fart sacks) tied around their waists for doing number one, tied around their necks if they did number two.


I rebelled saying it was non-productive. We were already getting these people up every two hours and forcing them to use the head. The idea was also not to my liking because I was the one that had to tie these ‘punishment ribbons’ on the poor folks who had to wear them ‘til after evening chow. Perhaps, too, I was starting to get a conscience and I knew this was not what should be done to anyone regardless of the circumstances. The final blow came when someone from back home turned up in my pee and poop company. He had been raised as a foster child and had dropped out of school at the age of 17 to join the Navy and see the world, but now he was on his way out with a ‘convenience of the service’ discharge. I went before my boss and told him that I was resigning my phony commission and that I wanted orders to UDTRA.


Five days before Class 29 started I checked in to the Boots Barracks on the Naval Amphib Base for what was to become the adventure of my life. The officers were going through their pre-training phase, learning how to steer an IBS and such while us enlisted were painting buildings, except for Layton who was cleaning bilges over at the Beach Masters. George had managed to get himself some more special treatment.


Training started with the assignment of boat crews. Edmiston, Taylor, Dulin, Jones, Kruger, and myself were issued Mr. White as our boat officer which pleased us no end because he had such a totally bitchin’ car. The fact that he could read big surf better than anyone else, even the instructors, was an additional asset.


Thus began a time of getting to know each other and the infamous IBS. We all learned to give way when Mr. Wootten was about to lap you in the swimming pool. The future minister always said, “Excuse me,” when he kicked you but it still felt like a Mike boat had run you over. We all wondered what Mr. Wootten’s speed secret was when he swam, but it wasn’t ‘til we were in the Teams that we found out. After finishing Jump School at Ft. Benning you changed from boon dockers foot wear to spit shined jump boots. The supply folks could not find a pair of boots big enough to fit Mr. Wootten. It seems that Woots was born with swim fins masquerading at feet.


Pre Hell Week training was a blur of PT, run, swim, and paddle the boat. One trainee that looked like his head was going to explode after every run was Barney. Barney was a chain smoking ‘old guy’ off an LSD who arrived at the Phib base one day before training started. At the start of training Barney ran the 300 yards in 71 seconds, coming in dead last. At the end of training Barney ran the same 300 yards in 44 seconds. That is nothing short of incredible.


Hell Week was everything it was reported to be. Trainees so wasted that they went to sleep face down in their food tray at the chow hall. The mud flats were fun and games the first time but by the second time everyone had open festering wounds that burned like bee stings when the cold, soupy crap that passed for mud covered very inch of your body. On Thursday there were 75 zombies staggering around with rubber boats on their heads, 150 eye lids had broken glass embedded in them, 150 feet had marched barefoot over rusty razor blades, and 75 crotches resembled raw hamburger.


On one of those Hell nights my boat crew was portaging our IBS behind the Pistol Range when we ran into some piles of broken concrete. The three paddlers/portagers on each side went down like dominoes. Mr. White was under the stern of the IBS and he didn’t know all six of us had gone down. He kept right on going, scooting the bow of the boat on the wet sand, holding up the stern with his head!


Shortly thereafter we launched out to sea just south of the Hotel Del rocks. The tide was way out and we were joking about the nonexistent surf and about how the other boat crews were having hallucinations but we were just fine. Then when we looked to sea we thought we were hallucinating. A humongous wave was roaring straight at us and we just ignored it. Must be one of those spooky things the other crews were seeing.


It was for sure real and it for damn sure flipped us; so much for staying dry that night. After a lifetime or two, Hell Week ended and since my right foot was the size of a football due to some weird infection, and Devine’s butt looked like a Nestle’s Crunch bar with the crunchies picked out, they sent us both to sick bay. While the rest of the class celebrated completing Hell Week that weekend, Skinner and I were soaking in tubs of hot disinfectant…total bummer.


Later during the week following Hell Week Taylor and I went out for a victory dinner in Coronado. He insisted upon buying me steak and mushrooms. Coming off a cattle ranch, steak was the last thing I wanted. To make matter worse, Taylor also insisted that the steaks be cooked rare. Where I come from you cooked steak in a skillet and it crunched when you ate it. Rare meat was what you put on the trigger of predator traps. So there I was eating coyote bait and toad stools and calling it a celebration.


Things got serious after Hell Week. Before and during Hell Week the trainee had to quit in order to leave; after Hell Week you could be dropped and a lot of men were. Between Hell Week and San Clemente you learned diving, explosives, and all that secret stuff we still can’t talk about.


Once at San Clemente total and complete Frogman reality set in. The water was cold to the point of being numbing. The instructors became unpleasable, screaming, never satisfied tyrants. Screw up and you were on the ‘Big Iron Bird’ headed back to the mainland. We lost a bunch more classmates at San Clemente due to their inability to function in a combat situation.


I have a favorite memory of San Clemente. There was a dry night problem where they took us by truck a goodly distance from camp and we were to sneak and peek our way back. Tony Cannon was my ‘swim buddy’ that night. After being dropped in a bunch, Tony and I sat down to let the crowd thin out before starting our trek back to camp. Sit turned to lay down and lay down turned into going to sleep. We both woke with the realization that we had just done a no-no.


Off we went running, stumbling, falling, cussing each other for letting this happen, making more noise than a couple of Brahma bulls with tin cans tied to their tails. Our navigation was dead on. We came back exactly on camp with the only problem being there was an airport between us and the huts and Mr. Sudduth had sworn to drop anyone he caught crossing the runway. We were told to go around either end but don’t you dare cut across. Tony and I decided the key word was ‘caught.’ If Mr. Sudduth didn’t catch us we could still make it back to camp on time. First we sneaked across the taxiway and nothing happened so Tony zipped across the runway. I waited a bit, looked and listened, and took off after him.


That was when all Hell broke loose. Up ‘til then the runway lights were very dim; they became super bright. The stillness of the night was torn apart by the shrieking engines of the Star Ship Enterprise as it prepared to make a touch and go. I was caught in its landing lights like a deer on the highway. My legs wouldn’t move and the edge of the runway was now on the horizon. That was how it seemed at the time anyway. I went by Tony at warp 6 and kept right on going off the edge of the cliff above the camp, my legs still churning away just like in the coyote and road runner cartoons. Cannon and I made it into camp and since nothing was said I assume no one but us ever knew of our little transgression.


It has been almost 40 years since we were all alive and together on San Clemente and since then I have seen heroic deeds accomplished by some of our classmates. I saw Craig Marley pull five sailors out of big surf when two landing craft flipped at the same time. I saw Barney save the life of an Admiral that just had to go on ops with us. I saw Kibler rescue an unconscious SEAL officer and swim him off a hostile beach in Viet Nam. Class 29 never lacked for hard charging water warriors. Kelley, Rand, Russell B.T., and Wardrobe are highly decorated Vietnam combat veterans.


To all of Class 29, it was both a privilege and an honor to go through training with you.




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