Monday, November 12, 2007

Funny SEALs

I know that sounds like a strange title since there is nothing funny about what the SEALs do and especially what they are doing now in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, back in the middle sixties when I served and before the SEALs got involved in Vietnam, things were a little looser. Then too, it takes a special breed of cat to survive BUDS (Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training). No one makes it through Hell Week or the long ordeal it takes to become a SEAL without a thick skin and a healthy sense of humor (and, as you might expect, a few other qualities as well). Of course, SEALs are particularly ruthless with each other. A few examples:

C.B. Thomas, Gunner’s Mate First Class was the oldest guy on our Team. He’d served as a WWII frogman and was still jumping out of airplanes and swimming on underwater night operations in his late forties. Despite being married to a school teacher CB could not read or write. You might well ask how CB managed to pass the written tests to make it to 1st Class PO? Simple. Someone else took the tests for him. Nobody found this to be a problem since CB knew every weapon we had as intimately as his own testicles, was a demon with explosives and a diabolical booby trap expert. However, CB became the butt of many pranks.

It was a tradition in the Teams that if you got promoted or had a birthday, you got thrown in the drink. We had a pond behind our Team compound and a dunk tank for our re-breathers that sufficed. If frozen, we thoughtfully broke the ice first. CB enjoyed several birthdays each year. Even the Skipper participated in this fraud. One morning while we were all standing at morning “quarters” the Captain called CB “front and center”. CB marched to the head of the formation and saluted. The Skipper said, “Happy birthday on behalf of the Team.” CB’s birthday is in July and this was in January. Someone arrived with a cake complete with candles, CB thanked the Captain and as soon as we were dismissed he was carried bodily to the pond.

Because he couldn’t read, CB could not get a driver’s license, so he rode a bicycle to work. He usually leaned it against a shipping container in our compound. One day he came out to hop on his bike and pedal home only to find it welded to the side of the container. Another time it was hanging at the top of the flagpole. When I took over as Platoon Commander of 1st Platoon I inherited CB as my Leading Petty Officer. No one ever had a finer LPO and, in 1st Platoon we did not play many pranks on CB.

I had my own experience with this tradition. The SEALs are unique in the military in that officers and enlisted go through exactly the same training at the same time. It is usually a little rougher on the officers since nearly all the Instructors are enlisted and they can be a bit fussy about who they want to lead them later on in the Teams. As a result and because of the nature of the job, the distinction between officers and enlisted in the SEALs is, well, a little blurred. Anyway, we were on an eight-month Med cruise and I was the APO with 3rd Platoon.

Our ship was tied up in Naples, then one of the filthiest harbors on the planet. We set off one morning on a training run dressed in shorts, tee shirts, boots and soft caps. As we ran down the quay I had forgotten that I had recently been promoted to Ltjg. I recalled this fact when I found myself airborne and heading for the water some 20’ below. As I swam back to the pier through a raft of turds and garbage my Teammates were having a good laugh. After hearty congratulations we continued our run with me a little squishy.

On that same cruise I got a call one day to report to the XO of the ship. This is never a good sign. The XO is second in command on the ship and basically runs everything, including the SEALs that are riding along. When I got to his stateroom he said, “I just got a call from the Commodore. He told me that he observed a group of men lowering a man over the side with a rope tied around his ankles. They were repeatedly dunking the man in the harbor. They were wearing greens.” Now we both knew there were several groups aboard that wore the green fatigue uniforms…. The Marines, CBs and Beach Masters and, of course us. We each knew that none of these other groups would be likely to pull a stunt like that. “You know anything about this?” he asked. I answered honestly that I did not. He said, “OK, dismissed.” And as I turned to go, he added, “And, Mr. D***, tell your men that if they have a mind to do this again to at least have the sense to do it on the side of the ship AWAY from the Flag Ship.” Good guy, the XO.

One other tradition which I happily missed involved the removal of all the pubic hair of a Teammate one week or so prior to his upcoming wedding. The idea here is that after a week it would be nice and prickly. Needless to say, no one submitted to this indignity willingly. You might imagine the difficulty of getting a young, tough SEAL’s pants down and holding him long enough to get started. Once the razor got applied in the vicinity of his most cherished equipment, they always stopped struggling. Of course, underwear was never a problem because Real Frogmen don’t wear underwear. This exercise always required consumption of large quantities of beer and rum before getting underway. I recall one particularly raucous party that occurred about a week before Jack Lynch got married. Jack, now the President of the UDT/SEAL Association, was a solid and very muscular young man. The battle to get Jack’s pants down and get started was a memorable affair, nearly destroying the Virginia Beach bachelor pad. There were about a dozen guys walking around the Team for a week with various injuries and bruises. No word on what the bride thought.

We played one of the more memorable pranks on a young officer named Tom Hummer (yeah, really). Tom was a West Coast guy and just your basic hunk…. Tall, blond, well built and very good looking. He was also a very nice guy. Loi and I had the single officers over to the house for a home cooked meal from time to time and Tom was no exception. He knew Loi from that and other social occasions.

Every winter those platoons not deployed somewhere went down to Roosevelt Roads, PR for six weeks of “winter training”. We did a lot of underwater recon and worked with one of the subs fitted out for our operations. On weekends we were free and the bachelor guys used to take the water barge over to St. Thomas to chase the female tourists. Tom had hooked up with a secretary from New York. When we got back to Little Creek and were sitting around the officer’s hut one day he complained he had gotten a letter from his lady friend but that she had written it in shorthand. No problem, says I. Loi knows shorthand and can translate it for you. Agreed. She did and the result did not live up to expectations. It said bland stuff like “glad we met and had such a nice time together, blah, blah”. Several of us decided we could write a much more interesting letter. Oh, was it ever! It started out with “All I can think about is having my legs wrapped around your neck again.” It became more graphic and lurid from there. I typed it and at the bottom added, “Mr. Hummer, if this is your idea of a practical joke, I think it in very poor taste. Lois.”

The next day I gave Tom the sealed envelope and told him Loi seemed upset and would not let me see the letter. We spied on him as he went to his desk and opened the letter. His mouth dropped open and he turned white behind that nice tan. He grabbed his hat and was headed to the parking lot when I stopped him. He said he was headed out to our house to apologize to Loi. Thinking quickly, I told him Loi was sleeping in and he should call later. I then called Loi and told her that when Tom called she should say “Oh, no.” and hang up. Later, when he got set to call we were once again peeking. You could see that he had been planning his apology and was prepared to lay on the charm. When Loi hung up on him he just looked at the phone in disbelief. He then grabbed his hat and headed for the door. I knew it was time to bring this to a close. Tom’s a pretty tough guy and I figured he’d be pissed. Sure enough. When I stopped him and explained the joke the only thing that prevented him from killing me were the twenty witnesses standing around laughing. He vowed to get me back and he sure did.

Tom waited a couple of weeks until I let my guard down. I was driving the first car I’d ever owned, a ’66 Plymouth Barracuda (V-8, four on the floor). My baby. We parked head in toward a chain link fence and one afternoon I jumped in the ‘cuda and backed out smartly. I heard several loud “sprongs”, the unforgettable sound a hand grenade makes when the shoe flies off. I turned around and saw half a dozen white parachute rip cord strings running from the fence to the underside of my car. My initial concern of being blown up was quickly dispelled when colored smoke started billowing out from under my car. Now one smoke grenade puts out an incredible amount of thick brightly colored smoke. Tom had taped six of them to the frame and engine of my car. I foolishly thought for a moment that I could out run the smoke but within moments I was completely engulfed. I bailed out of the car and watched the multi-colored plume rise into the sky. What they thought over at the Base is anybodies guess. Natch, Tom and about two dozen guys emerged laughing their asses off. Tom vowed that we were still not even but, we each got sent in different directions and he never got another chance.

We were young, fit and full of piss and vinegar, doing dangerous things. I guess being a bit boisterous can be expected. One of the great joys of going to the reunions is to get together with these guys I came to know so well and listen to the stories. We laugh and rib each other and the forty years that have passed seem nothing. We forget for a while that we’re old, grey and beat up. The young, hard guys have got the ball now and they are doing a Hell of a job. I’ll bet they’re giving each other shit all the time too.

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