I was 16 in August 1945 when WWII ended; I had been waiting for my 17th birthday so I could enlist. I was glad the war was over, but I felt I had missed the biggest event of my lifetime. In July 1946 my friend Eddie “CY” Cybulski and I joined the Navy and found ourselves at the U.S. Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Md. As any “Boot” can tell you, we were out in that hot sun, drilling on the grinder 90 percent of the time. Any other activity other than drilling was always welcome.
One day our Chief Petty Officer (CPO) told us to get our bathing suits as we were going for our swimming test. He marched us over to a large drill hall, and I saw the biggest indoor pool I had ever seen. There were two big lifeguards standing at the pool’s edge with long, bamboo poles. I always liked swimming, so this was to be the best day I had spent in Boot Camp since we arrived.
Not everyone felt as I did. When the instructor said everyone was going to jump in the pool, a few guys looked scared to death. He then took the first 10 Boots, lined them up, and said, “Alright now. One at a time, jump in and swim to the other side.” The first guy jumped in, then the second and third until about the fifth recruit stood there, terrified. “Jump in, sailor! We don’t have all day!” The Boot said, “But I can’t swim.” The CPO yelled, “I said jump in, skinhead! The guards with the poles will save you if you can’t make it!” The guy jumped in and was floundering around, going under, when one of the guards stuck his pole in the water. The kid grabbed it for dear life. He was pulled over to a ladder and climbed out, shaking. He was told to stand over to the far side of the pool. We each took our turn, jumping in and swimming to the other side. CY and I had no trouble as well as most of our company. Some were not what you would call good swimmers, but most made it. Some who could not swim didn’t and had to be pulled out with the bamboo poles. When the whole Company had their turn, the group who had to be pulled out before they drowned was then told by the CPO “Every sailor in Uncle Sam’s Navy knows how to swim, and you Boots will come here every day until you can swim across this pool!” The next day when our Company was out on that hot grinder, drilling back and forth, CY said, “You know, Bill, we should have had those guards pull us out of the pool. We would be taking swimming lessons now instead of drilling.” I said, “Now you tell me!” Our CPO saw us talking, so we drilled with our white hats in our mouth for the next half hour.