THE GOLDEN OAR
For: B.T. Russell, Bos’n Mate Senior Chief
Class – 29, UDT-12, SEAL TEAM 1, SADM
United States Navy: Underwater Demolition Team Training
Class – 29, Coronado/San Clemente Island, California 1962
The black sky was torn by a mass of stars except on the northwestern horizon where starlight was smudged out by dark-grey and purple clouds that had been piling up since just after sunset. The air and sea temperatures were both in the low fifties, and down to 47 degrees a few feet below surface. We punched our 7-man rubber boats through the rising surf lines at northwest harbor on San Clemente Island, the cold water cutting through our thin issue of clothing like a saw. We—were the 45 men who wanted to be Frogmen who had thus far prevailed out of about 380 who had mustered 6 months ago.
Our objective tonight was to perform an inland demolition raid on the western side of the island. The only explosives would be a 2-lb block of C-4 plastic already at the target, provided by our instructors, including a double-underwater-waterproof-firing-assembly that we had constructed under close supervision.
We paddled around the northwestern tip of the island into the full force of the Pacific, her long rolling swells being pushed by a storm hundreds of miles away. We plowed ahead, rising on the heavy crests then falling away like driftwood down into the troughs of luminous black liquid, then rising up again to the crest. Icy breezes swept across the wave faces, whipping up little ripples and white caps feathering and glowing, splashing like needles across the gunnels and whispering dire warnings to sailors who had left the safety of their ships and entered the sea. Out beyond the horizon, high winds and seas were gathering their fury beneath the grumbling clouds, flashing and looking for us.
We hurried along to our rendezvous with a rocky beach, our existence purchased with each breath and one oar stroke at a time.
Nearing the rendezvous point we took our bearing from a faint light signal sent by the friendly agent on the beach, who was flashing “ALPHA” 3-times every 30 seconds, unseen by any eyes on land. At 500-yards off the beach, three swimmer scouts with their boots tied off to their inflatable life jackets straps on the right, a K-Bar knife on the left, and a .45 caliber grease gun each, donned their hard rubber duck-feet and slipped from the boats into the swell. The showing of fins, bobbing of heads or splashing was forbidden. Keeping discipline with leg kicks, arm strokes and fins beneath surface, the swimmers vanished on their journey into the void, invisible.
The surge had quietly shoved us into the near-shore area with 30 or 40 feet of water beneath the skeg. There with our paddles we held position in low profile atop the swells, listening to a booming surf and breathing the pungent odor of cold, rotting kelp that was laying up on the berm scarp and rocks, too many rocks. About 300-yards on the port flank, the silhouette of a rocky jut loomed in the starlight, It’s jagged face twisting down in anger about its endless death in an ancient grinding sea. We checked our drift into the shadows of the jut, and took cognizance of a fact—We had never seen the surf this big or ominous. It would be another twenty minutes at least, before the swimmer scouts identified the target and returned to the beach with the friendly agent to signal us in. The breeze and spray had picked up, biting our soaked clothing.
Suddenly the night turned into glaring daylight. Three parachute flares went off overhead in succession. Headlights from the instructors’ jeeps and troop carriers were turning on from tin the backshore. Hand held flashlights were bouncing around as instructors ran down the rocky berm to the surf line. Bull horns were roaring – the swimmer scouts were in trouble. They had illegally worn too much clothing to protect themselves from the cold water and floundered: A dumb and unforgivable act at this stage of training. They were exhausted, their strong legs with the big fins failing them as they gulped for air, trapped in the rip and backwash, being carried toward the jut, helpless in layers of water logged clothing. Inflatable life jackets kept them from drowning but restricted their movements to flailing. A couple of instructors were in the water, struggling with a tow-line to save the three culprits,which they did and hustled them overland, back to our base area at Northwest Harbor. They immediately packed their gear and were hauled over to the Seabees’ compound: and by 0800 hours the next morning were aboard “The Great Silver Bird” on their way back to the amphibious base at Coronado, and out of Class-29.
The Boats were ordered ashore. Ens. Marty McNair kept his boat leaning-to at sea, counting wave sets. The other boats went for it and caught a wild ride to the beach, getting tumbled head over heels and crunched. Then men were scattered like rag dolls across the rocks, the back wash pulling some of them and their capsized boats back into the pounding surf. The instructors were further outraged by our fear and confusion, our miserable incompetence. With vehicle lights still on and more parachute flares glaring, the bullhorns roared us into order: cold water and heavy seas or not, after all of our training and extreme conditioning, there was no excuse for this ongoing disgusting failure.
Seas were rising. We wouldn’t be returning to Northwest Harbor by boat, but go overland in troop carriers. Craig Marley had been conked on the head in the rocks. Doc Couvillion had secured him for the evening. Tomorrow would be a long day, including a 4-mile open sea swim, one of the few times we would be permitted to wear our scrappy wet suit tops, hand-me-downs from the big team.
I had been stroke-oar in Mr. Boyd’s crew. Tony Escotter was port forward, and several months later would be best man at my wedding to Joyce in TiJuana. Don Arsenault advised me to slow down and think it over. Tony was killed at Taiwan on a night dive using closed-circuit O2 gear. Big Dave Bodkin of Class-28, brought his body up from a dark sea. B.T. Russell was their boat Cox’sn. I still have Tony’sTeam-12 Zippo lighter, given to Joyce and me by his widow Linda after his death.
Most of Class-29 made at least one tour to Vietnam in a UDT or SEAL Unit. Some were wounded, some killed and some died in training accidents: Tony Escotter UDT-12, killed on O2 gear, Taiwan 1963; R.J. Coates UDT-11 died on a training run, Olongapo, Phillippines 1964; David Devine Class – 28/29, UDT-11/SEAL-1 KIA at Ham Loung River, Ken Hoa Province – Vietnam 1968; Frank Bomar Class – 29-31 UDT-11, SEAL 1 – PRU Advisor, KIA at Ben-Tre Vietnam 1970; Randy Sheridan UDT-11/SEAL-1 PRU Advisor, wounded Vietnam 1969; Brian Rand UDt-12/SEAL-1 PRU Advisor wounded Vietnam 1968.
But one of the moments I will never forget – The fragile rubber boat and 7 pairs of terrified eyes in the night time, being thrown by a huge wave towards a rocky beach. Yet they landed snugly guided by Marty McNair’s Golden Oar.
Painted from memory, Elko Nevada 1995. Refurbished 2014, Monroe Ohio, 24” x 36” hand painted acrylics on linen.
P.S. Two weeks later on our graduation night at another beach, this exercise would be launched from the open bows of an LST (Landing Ship Tank) about 1/2 –mile off-shore. Five of our rubber boats (Inflatable Boat Small – IBS) would each be hauling – two, 20-lb haversaks of C-4. The 6th boat of Ens. Sawyer would bring the firing assembly. The target was a 3,000-lb stack of old TNT and C-3 haversaks, secured on a plateau about ¼ mile up the trail from the beach. This prize had been given to us by the armory for disposal. The detonation of that stack was horrific. The shock waves reached our bones offshore, back aboard the LST from where we could observe our handiwork – A huge Red-Orange mushroom shaped cloud went flaming into the nighttime sky with fiery streamers arching out from the base, and dozens of small fires fanning across the nearby hillsides where brush and rocks had been ignited or vaporized by the heat. Class-29-R’s (42 Men) who had just become Junior Frogmen and LST Sailors, all gave Rebel Yells and War-Hoops, Clamping each other on the back. After everybody settled down, a class-mate from Texas named Ken Yoakum with a strong country accent said. “Hit wuz Lahke an act of Gawd!”.