I Always Liked the Water
By Steve Karoly
After enlisting in the Seabees, George Schmitt took "the normal routes from Peary to Endicott to Davisville" for training.
In early 1943, the Seabees had two boot camps: Camp Allen in the Norfolk area and Camp Peary in Williamsburg. Both camps were located in Virginia.
Seabee boot camp shifted three times during World War II. When George enlisted in January, Camp Allen was slowly being closed; more and more new recruits were being sent to Camp Peary. Ultimately, Camp Peary was itself closed in 1944 and all Seabee boots went to Camp Endicott in Davisville, Rhode Island.
George started his short Seabee career at Camp Peary: "I don't remember if I was in the first [formation] of the 69th NCB which was decommissioned before it got out of Camp Peary. After about eight weeks, the contingent I was in was bundled off to Camp Endicott."
The 69th NCB was commissioned on February 8, 1943 under command of Lcdr. Joseph P. Rigo, CEC, USNR. The first compliment (or "first formation" as George calls it) to bear the identity of the 69th Battalion arrived at Camp Peary mid-December in 1942. Just as they were settling down into battalion life, two companies were detached and sent overseas. Soon the remainder of the enlisted men were send to the replacement pool. They would be sent to other units as fillers.
But the battalion, staffed only with officers for six weeks, remained in commission. While the officers trained, a new, younger compliment of Seabee boots trained. Then on March 23, 1943, George and about 1,000 other Seabees were transferred to the 69th NCB.
The 69th was ready to move to Camp Endicott and complete its training.
Next came specialized training. Seabees were trained to drive bulldozers, build piers, operated generators and string electrical line. Under the watchful eye of Marine drill sergeants, they learned to defend themselves using rifles, machine guns and mortars. And they practiced amphibious landings and jungle patrols.
Eight weeks later the battalion was ready to answer the call.
George became a diver. "I always liked the water and was an AAU (American Athletic Union) swimmer." He said he got into diving because "the 25 foot diving tank fascinated" him. "We were given a chance to enroll in a school of our choice; I chose diving. They had a very good program."
Eight hours a day in the classroom can bore even the most motivated student. "As any young buck, the theory was a big pain," said George. "We only wanted to get to diving."
But the theory was important. Instruction encompassed all phases of construction diving: They learned how to take care of their gear, how to dress a diver and how to be a tender during a dive. There were drills to accustom the men to adverse conditions such as deep mud and strong currents. The students learned emergency first aid and artificial resuscitation. And, of course, they learned to handle tools, weld and rig objects underwater.
Ultimately, George's class did get into the water. "We spent about a week in the tank and then went out on the diving barge. The first dive was about 25 feet."
Soon, George and his class were immersed in the water. They were taken out into the harbor onto a pontoon barge. George remembers a diving locker (it was actually a shack) on the barge. There they learned hard suit diving (Scuba diving was in it's infancy in 1943).
However, not all went well. George remembers one student who did not make it: "I can remember one six foot, pencil-shaped Texan who was about to make his first dive. He was completely dressed except for the helmet. He was shaking so badly, the whole suit was shaking. This left him open to all sorts of barbs.
"The instructor put the helmet on him and locked it in place. The face mask was still open. Just before closing the mask, the instructor told him, 'It's just like closing the lid on your coffin.'
"With that statement, he slammed the face mask into place and wrenched it secure with the wing nuts. Well the kid went over the side and wasn't in the water for a minute when he started yelling, 'More air.' He opened the control valve all the way and closed the chin bottom valve (the suit exhaust valve) which inflated him like a balloon. He popped up from the bottom and cleared the surface about 4 feet.
"He looked like a stuffed doll because he was spread eagle. He flopped back on the surface and was pulled to the barge as fast as possible. The suit could have ruptured and caused him real harm.
"That was the end of his diving career."
Although the story is humorous today, I can imagine the pain and fright the experience caused the tall Texan some fifty-three years ago. Humiliated and rejected, I am sure that frightful day still stands out in his mind.
George graduated and became a certified diver. But in the next two years he would do little diving for the battalion. He only remembers one or two important dives. "Most of my diving was done in the states. What little I did do in Europe, doesn't amount to a hill of beans." More on one of his dives later.
In the next two years he would be a clerk, a carpenter, a rigger and a signalman, but rarely a diver.