Navy SEAL Hell Week – and the recovery week that follows – marks the middle of the first phase of training. As “tadpoles”, having completed the indescribably difficult Hell Week, we had shrunk our tails and grown tiny front legs. We had been physiologically crushed almost to death by muscle fatigue and days of never-ending sleeplessness and bleakly low temperatures while straining to succeed and survive. So, the week following Hell Week continued gently to give our bodies time to heal. The question of survival was now a distant fear, but many challenges awaited, and the instructors were quick to point that out. Swim times and run times would need to be faster. Academics would get tougher as we learned about diving physiology, weapons operations, demolition characteristics and use, mathematics, first aid, beach reconnaissance, and much more.
0600 PT was mostly stretching and movement of damaged joints and muscles. Toenails needed to re-grow where trench foot had caused them to slough off in wet boots. The severely iron-depleted red blood cells needed to be replaced, bringing healing oxygen to muscles and organs that had forgotten what “normal” was. Monday still came on Monday, and training continued. Pool training was emphasized with and without fins.
Later in the following week, the surface dust and grit were blowing towards our beach formation and stung like tiny darts as the phase officer detailed our next task. The four remaining class officers were being briefed by an instructor who was partly drowned out by the wind and surf. Ten-foot crunching waves were beating and slamming themselves against the beach so hard we could feel the concussion through our rubber booties. Our masks and swim fins needed two hands to prevent them from flopping against us. The surf was too dangerous for the safety boats to launch, and so perhaps the dangerous two-mile swim event might just be canceled. We hoped so.
“Fall out and gather round,” ordered our officer instructor. “There are no safety boats today, so do not lose sight of your swim buddy,” he said.
So much for hope. “This is not a timed event. Get your fins on at the lifeguard tower. Enter by swim pair, at the lifeguard tower. Officers, get your men in the water by squad.”
“Sir, is there a recall signal?” I asked respectfully and privately, walking over to the lieutenant alone. My thoughts were confused. “Perhaps this was a test?” The December water temperature was 54°F. Our wetsuit tops gave some protection and flotation, but I was worried that some swim pairs might not even make it out through the surf. We were talking officer-to-officer. But my only rank display was ENS stenciled on my helmet. His two silver bars seemed to sparkle as bits of the beach sand bounced by. His voice softened a bit.
“No recall signal, and no safety boats due to the surf. This is an easy non-timed event to help your bodies recover and stay in shape. Get your team in the water, sir.”
I paused, still concerned, and hoping for “April fools,” but when no other option presented, I snapped to a tighter attention. “Yes sir,” I said with doubt in my voice.
Nearby, on the cement walk from Ocean Boulevard to the lifeguard tower, stood six curious onlookers. We were alone on the stormy beach, and they had either wandered over from the Hotel del Coronado or had come from the extremely expensive homes that lined the boulevard facing us. They were bundled against the weather, but not moving until the drama on the beach unfolded.
“Guys listen up. Don and I will go first as we are the strongest swimmers. If we get out through the breakers, follow quickly, but stay together. Hold hands if you need to.” I was sure this was going to be exceedingly difficult for all. I had to say something more. This was my class now.
“They did not brief this but look or listen for a recall signal. If it is bad out there, they will likely call us back. So, let’s go.” I saw nods all around. “On me and Don.” I ordered. “Be safe.”
And with that, we all moved towards the deafening roar of waves crashing ahead. I bent to put on my fins, popped my mask in place, tightened the UDT grey life vest straps, and felt for my K-bar knife. It hung off my life vest strapped on the right side. Olive drab duct tape held my MK-13 smoke/ flare tightly to the gray plastic knife sheath. I was ready.
“OK Donnie, let’s do it.” We both waddled backward toward the waves pounding toward us. The first wave hit my calf with an arctic blast of white foam. I was holding Don’s hand tightly as we stumbled carefully through the pushing, pulling, and sucking Pacific surf.
Two feet deep, and our testicles automatically tucked up higher as cold- hearted hands seized our legs and groins. We were both incredibly grateful for the flap of wetsuit rubber that wrapped tightly between our legs. The next wave hit me from behind as the returning water rolled under one of my front fins. Suddenly, I was underwater and pulling Don down with me. He tried to lift me out of the chaos to no avail. So, we both started to swim together with fins kicking through the froth and hitting the rock-hard bottom simultaneously. We rolled to our sides and began side stroking through the now monstrous waves. Holding on was impossible with numb hands.
A ten-foot wave has a ten-foot peak and a ten-foot trough. The result is a twenty-foot rise from trough to peak, and we were now human-powered corks. There was a strong inshore current working against us. Both of us were swimming hard and gasping for air as breaking waves slammed over us without warning. I was swallowing seawater involuntarily, to avoid choking when I looked up to find Don. He had the same issue, but since he was upwind and up-current from me, he was getting it worse than I was—that first blast of wind and water.
I puked. Breakfast came back up mixed with saltwater and stomach acid. Not a lot, but it burned, and it reminded me of the huge portion of bacon, eggs, and cheese, with three large Cokes I had engulfed for breakfast recently. I wondered briefly if sharks were attracted to bacon, eggs, and cheese.
We were going nowhere fast. There was no chance we were going to complete two miles today. But we were going to try. I could still see the lifeguard tower on shore aligned with us. We had made no progress in over twenty minutes of swimming.
Randy and Rosy were hundreds of yards back from our launch point. The inshore current was much stronger than anyone had expected. Both swimmers were still trying to learn how to use the World War II era UDT “Duck Feet” fins we had been issued. They were light brown, thick, and heavy. Randy had never used fins in his life before BUD/S. He enjoyed swimming in the Missouri river back home, but as a wrestler, with not a hint of body fat to start, he lacked some of the natural floatation and insulation that fat provided. Rosy had lost the last of his baby fat finally. They both now looked like poster models for SEAL recruiting ads.
Rosy shouted to Randy, “This current is too strong. We need to get farther out to sea, I think.”
“Worth a try,” Randy responded encouragingly, but out of breath.
Fins were still not his best friend. Both needed some encouragement, as they knew this was going to be one more test for both. Randy had failed to pass both fin swims in First Phase, due to leg cramps while learning to use fins. He had been brought before a retention board where he had been given a final chance. Pass the swim test or find another profession. Rosy was his swim buddy because he had also failed to pass the one-mile swim. Rosy and Randy had been practicing sidestroke and breaststroke with fins in the NAB pool during First Phase. This was their chance to prove what they had learned. So, they changed the angle of their swim to 45 degrees out to sea. One hour later, they were finally making progress. Two hours later, a Coast Guard helicopter flew by over the inshore waves, low and fast, in the stormy weather. They both thought the same thing: I wonder what they are doing out here in this weather?
“I think I saw a flare,” Don shouted through the surf and wind noise. I looked toward the tower at the beach launch point. We both slowed our swim pace, and then we both saw it. Someone was throwing a MK-13 flare in the air.
We were slowing our swim pace now as we worked our way back toward the beach. A few swim pairs were already assembled at the tower. They had either not made it out at all or had washed up further down from our starting point.
One by one, the swim pairs straggled back to the starting point and stood there shivering in the wind, as we counted heads. One pair was unaccounted for. Randy and Rosy were our weakest swimmers, and we all knew that they had not yet passed their one-mile timed swim. They had been allowed to go on anyway but had been warned that they would need to pass soon, or face being dropped. They were nowhere in sight.
We were thinking the worst. Or weighing that possibility at the very least. Randy and Rosy drowned?
The instructors ordered us to move down-current along the beach towards the North Island rock jetty looking for them (or their bodies).
“Surely, they would have inflated their life jackets?” It was time for another semi-respectful chat with the lieutenant.
“Sir, the class is out looking. I hope you realize that both these men are married. If I must speak to their wives tonight, you and I are going to have another very unpleasant conversation.”
His eyes widened a bit, and I knew he saw what I meant. The choices he had made today would put his career at risk. He nodded and turned away to do what needed to be done if rescue was possible.
Back at the BUD/S area, a truck slid into the front lot, and the driver sprinted to the commander’s office. Things happened fast after that. Coast Guard Air Sea Rescue was notified, and helicopters were launched to search the area. Instructors hopped in cars and came to help look. Others stayed along the sand berms behind the training area and quietly hoped for the best. A few prayed. I paced back and forth along our search area and worried that I would not see Randy or Rosy again. I was angry at that possibility.
Time dragged on and hope for the best was getting difficult.
Five and a half hours after the recall signal was thrown into the air, they were found. Randy and Rosy, exhausted and almost hypothermic from exposure, crawled out of the surf zone at the designated finish point. They were very proud of themselves. They had accomplished the improbable and had no idea if they were first or last. The only thing they had been sure of was that they were not going to quit. An instructor standing on the berm had already learned that these were the worst fin swimmers in the class and was sure that someone’s career was over. He had to look twice, and then again, before he realized what he saw. Everyone else was looking north where the bodies would likely be found. He had the quarterdeck watch and could not leave, so there he stood, watching the wind and waves when they straggled in.
“Holy shit!” he hooted as he ran down the berm to help. “Are you our missing swimmers?!”
Confused but immensely proud of what they knew they had accomplished, they looked at each other then back at the man. “Hooyah, Instructor. I guess we were last in again, huh?”
“Well Gents, you sure did scare the crap out of a lot of men today, but I think you will be pleased to learn that, as the only finishers of the swim, you win. And most likely, you just passed your First Phase swim test.”
About that same time, two other instructors came over to see what was going on at the beach. They were almost in awe now, after assuming the worst. They ran down to help and literally picked up the two swimmers, with rock hard, unfeeling legs, and carried them up the sandy dunes to the grinder where they were directed to the First Phase officer’s office. The coffee was hot, and a small crowd gathered to hear their story again and again.
ENS Randy Albracht went on to serve thirty years with the SEAL Teams retiring as a Captain (SEAL), and Rosy Rosenzweig, after completing our Hell Week was rolled back to the later Class 82, due to slower run times. He would finish proudly with that class and serve twenty-two years retiring as a Chief Petty Officer (SEAL) respected by all who would serve with him.
They had done the unbelievable together, and their friendship is still going strong 45 years later.