Apr 16

Swimming Goes to War

Tuesday, April 16, 2019 12:01 AM

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World War II saw a great leap forward in military technology from things like sonar to jet aircraft. However, one basic human activity became “weaponized” and a very valuable addition to the U.S. Navy’s arsenal. Swimming grew from simple physical training and life saving into a war-fighting skill designed to overcome German and Japanese beach defenses and insure success in numerous amphibious invasions around the world. A major center for preparing such combat swimmers for action was the Amphibious Training Base in sunny Fort Pierce, Florida.[i] Here the Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs), later organized into larger Underwater Demolition Teams, mastered the aquatic adroitness to accomplish their missions on watery battlegrounds.[ii]

In the 23 March 1945 base newspaper, The Mock-Up, NCDU swimming instructor Robert L. Haines penned an article about Navy swimming and how it was helping to win the war and save American lives. At age 23 Haines was a veteran lifeguard from Atlantic Beach, New Jersey and credited with some 1,500 surf rescues. He held the pre-war National Lifeguard Championship award for the 500-yard competition in boat and swimming rescues, as well as speed records for the half-mile swim and the 150-meter medley. Haines shared his talents at four Navy bases during the war, training hundreds of sailors and future “frogmen”

Frogman TM1 SS Earl J. Crowley, a member of the underwater photography team, swims under the Arctic ice in the first views made of the underside of the North Pole, 1960. (NHHC)

Frogman TM1 SS Earl J. Crowley, swims under the Arctic ice, 1960. (NHHC)

Swimming, and especially combat and survival swimming, is rightly now a “must” in military training, and will be increasingly popular as a sport and recreation when it comes home from battle.

Not only is swimming a necessity to those forced into the sea from sinking ships, but combat swimming is a strike force used today on many of our fighting fronts.

Changed to meet necessary conditions, the wartime aquatics of today are adapted to long strenuous swims, to silent, inconspicuous methods. To storm a beach by day or surprising it at night by swimming with clothes and packs and to working under on the water in tropical and arctic water.

The combat swimmer of today is a more efficient battle adjunct than ever as a result of modern developments. Now in use are swimming masks, flippers, diving devices, special suits for swimming in icy water and others which must remain unmentioned till the end of the war.

Marines wade ashore on a Tinian Beach, July-August 1944. (NHHC)

Marines wade ashore on a Tinian Beach, July-August 1944. (NHHC)

In the invasions of Europe, and landings in the South Pacific, Scouts and Raiders in swimming roles, did amazingly efficient reconnaissance work and the Naval Combat Demolition teams made history in Italy, Normandy, southern France.[iii] These men swimming, carrying their explosives with them to eliminate the various obstacles and traps in the water and on the beach, clearing the way for actual landings.

Vitally important in training for this type of work is a comprehensive swimming program revolutionary from the conventional peace-time course. It teaches sound and inconspicuous strokes, methods of forward motion when the hands are restricted, the best strokes to use when carrying packs, landing on a strange beach, when there is danger from explosion, when the sea is calm or rough and when there is danger from predatory fish.

The men are also taught how to run in the water, travel against a heavy undertow, offset, or wind, and other essentials necessary to enable the men to work in the water or to land on or evacuate a beach in the safest and most expedited manner.

Underwater Demolition Team Frogmen swim ashore from a LCVP in Wonsan harbor, while on a mission to destroy a North Korean minefield, 26 October 1950. (NHHC)

Underwater Demolition Team Frogmen swim ashore from a LCVP in Wonsan harbor, while on a mission to destroy a North Korean minefield, 26 October 1950. (NHHC)

Although swimming has risen to a position of actual combat use, that alone is just part of the story. Reports coming in from all parts of the world stress more and more how swimming is saving countless lives of American fighting men. Countless fliers, forced down at sea, owe their lives to training received in pre-flight pools, and thousands of Navy, Army, Marine, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine men saved at sea stress the importance of Abandon Ship Drills, flotation of gear classes, and lectures and pictures on survival at sea given the men of the armed forces.

Case studies show how men trained in warfare aquatics have, due to lack of fear as a result of that knowledge, been able to work more efficiently until time to enter the water, then to facilitate a calm handling and even when wounded, save lives of others.”

Learning to swim is no longer an elaborate drawn-out process; it is a simplified condensed program designed to teach practical warfare aquatics to a large group of men. Swimming has gone to war not only with its recreational value as a great conditioner and life saver, but as an offensive weapon in our fighting machine When hostilities cease, many thrilling stories of our fighting swimmers will be told but in battles won and lives saved they will be forever legend.

Recruits at Naval Recruit Training at Naval Station Great Lakes participate in physical fitness test (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Recruits at Naval Recruit Training at Naval Station Great Lakes participate in physical fitness test (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

[i] For more on the training at the Fort Pierce naval base see Robert A. Taylor, World War II in Fort Pierce (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Press, 1999).

[ii] Robert A. Taylor, “The Frogmen in Florida: U.S. Navy Combat Demolition Training in Fort Pierce, 1943-1946,” Florida Historical Quarterly 75 No. 3 (Winter 1997), 289-302.

[iii] For more on the joint Army-Navy Scouts and Raiders see John B. Dwyer, Scouts and Raiders: The Navy’s First Special Warfare Commandos (Westport. Ct.: Praeger, 1993); for the NCDU’s see Francis D. Fane and Don Moore, The Naked Warriors: The Story of the U.S. Navy’s Frogmen (Reprint edition, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.