Hey, Chief. I’m scared!
I can’t swim! You might think when an eighteen-year-old joins the Navy, he already knows how to swim. Oceans are pretty wide and deep, so a non-swimming landlubber wouldn’t stand a chance if his ship suddenly took a dive.
As a Naval Reservist and college student, I served several eight-week summer active duty assignments as a drill and athletic instructor at a Naval Air Station boot camp. My responsibilities were for platoons of 30 recruits.
They were newly-enrolled as Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) candidates. To complete their college freshman year, they had to attend the same recruit training as required of full-time sailors.
These teens were in good physical shape, so in the first week, there were no problems. It was easy to get them to run, drill, do the obstacle course and meet other physical requirements. However, when we got to the on-base swimming pool, I was in for a surprise.
I lined them up for a basic abandon ship instructions. One by one, they’d climb the ladder on the 12-foot-high diving board fully dressed, and jump off into the deep water below. Then they’d swim the 25 yards to the shallow end of the pool. Some panicked, and shamefully confessed they couldn’t swim.
I shouldn’t have been too surprised. Many were inner-city kids, and had reached their teens without any pool, lake and ocean experiences. I could’ve sent the non-swimmers to the locker room to sit while I worked with the others. I could also recommend that they flunk out of the ROTC program.
I explained to them that future Navy officers who couldn’t swim would be useless baggage in a real-life abandon ship emergency. However, I said I’d work with them and promised they’d all be efficient swimmers before their eight-week boot camp was completed.
I scheduled the non-swimmers to spend an extra hour daily with me in the pool. They also had to be at the pool all day Sundays, when the other boots had liberty to go home or into the city.
We started with basics in the shallow end. I didn’t push them in or force any other drastic sink or swim routine. They did practice arm strokes, kicks and endurance tests with heads under water. Gradually, they could take several unassisted swim strokes.
We moved to the deeper parts of the pool as they began swimming eight-stroke widths, then 20-stroke lengths. They surprised themselves (but not me) with their quick ability to swim.
By graduation day, every ROTC student in my company was an accomplished swimmer, as well as qualified in abandon ship drill. Many went on active duty as Navy officers after college graduation. For many years, I received thank-you letters from my former non-swimming boots.