What if we stole the bell before Hell Week? When a Basic Underwater Demolition/ SEAL (BUD/S) trainee has had enough, he is supposed to ring a bell to signal he’s quitting. More students drop out of training during Hell Week than any other time, but my class was determined not to lose a single classmate during the infamous week.
In our barracks on the beach of Coronado, California, our class met in the lounge, and we hatched a plan to steal the bell. We elected one of our ninjas to do the deed, and then he was to hand it off to the guy voted least likely to quit Hell Week, who would stash it somewhere and not tell a soul where it was. We were always looking for a competitive edge—playing the game in a way that favored us. It was important to think ahead as to what the consequences of such actions might be, but it was also important to play the game with guts.
That evening, some of us slept while others remained awake in their beds. Wearing my Battle Dress Uniform (BDUs) and combat boots in preparation for Hell Week, I slept soundly in my rack. I awoke to the sound of a metal click in the head (restroom). My room was black, except for the sudden flash of an M60 machine gun blasting from inside the head. The noise assaulted my ears. I saw my classmates crawling out the door, so I crawled out with them.
“Move, move, move!” an instructor yelled.
Outside on the grinder (an asphalt area used for exercise, drills, and other activities), artillery simulators exploded in the night air—an incoming shriek followed by a boom. More machine guns rattled off, a fog machine pumped a blanket of mist over the ground, and green ChemLights decorated the outer perimeter. Then water hoses sprayed us as a swarm of instructors descended. An instructor blew his whistle. Tweet—whistle drill. We dove to the ground, crossed our legs, covered our ears with our hands, and opened our mouths as if preparing for an explosion to ensure legs wouldn’t be torn off and our ears wouldn’t rupture. I could smell cordite in the air. I loved the odor. To me, it smelled like excitement. This was Breakout, the beginning of Hell Week.
Tweet, tweet. We low-crawled to the sound of the whistle. Tweet, tweet, tweet. We stood
The whistle drills continued between the explosions and the chatter of machine guns. Each time the whistle blew twice I crawled toward the sound, the asphalt rubbing the skin off my knees and elbows. Of the three whistle sounds, I quickly learned to hate the double tweet more than a single or triple. Finally the whistle blew three times and we stood up.
Instructor Blah stood on a platform, calmly speaking into the bullhorn. “Get in formation!” We hurried into a formation of boat crews.
“On your backs! On your feet! On your stomachs!” The commands were too fast, nearly
impossible to follow.
“You people are not working together! Drop and push ’em out!” We did push-ups.
“Give me a muster, Mr. Mark,” Instructor Blah said.
The artillery simulators and machine guns filled the air with thunder.
“Boat leaders report!” shouted our class officer, Mr. Mark.
With the sounds of the shooting, artillery, and screaming, it was challenging for us to communicate. My boat crew and I counted off and reported to our boat leader. He and the other boat leaders reported to Mr. Mark. “All present, sir!”
“Any day now, Mr. Mark,” Instructor Blah said.
“All present…” Mr. Mark reported.
Instructor Blah raised his eyebrows. “All present?”
“Yes. All present, Instructor Blah.”
“Drop!” Blah said in the megaphone.
We all dropped to the push-up position.
“You people have given me a false muster!” Instructor Blah’s voice kept the same monotone. “One of your men is missing!”
Not moving from the push-up position, Mr. Mark said, “Boat leaders, give me a muster!”
The explosions and machine gun fire became louder. Maintaining the pushup position, my boat leader walked on his hands to each of us to make sure all of us were present.
One of the other boat crew leaders reported, “Seaman Nelson is missing, sir!”
Mr. Mark reported, “Seaman Nelson is missing, Instructor Blah.”
“First you told me, all present! Now you tell me, Seaman Nelson is missing! Which is it?”
“Seaman Nelson is missing, sir!” Ensign Mark said.
Three instructors brought out Seaman Nelson, took off his blindfold, gag, and plasticuffs. Seaman Nelson returned to his boat crew. “The instructors kidnapped me,” he said. In all the noise and confusion of Breakout, no one had noticed he’d been missing.
Instructor Blah calmly said, “No SEAL has ever been kept as a prisoner of war. But you left Seaman Nelson behind, didn’t you? Push ’em out!”
We did push-ups until our arms gave out. Then we did calisthenics. During the jumping jacks, the Senior Chief SEAL sprayed a water hose inches from my face, directly up my nose.
I counted off as best I could. “One, two, three, one! One, two, three, two!” My words became more and more gargled, and I gagged a couple of times. I was happy to be out of the push-up position and delighted not to be doing whistle drills, but I hid my emotions. No pain, no joy. Eventually, Senior Chief became bored and moved on to harass someone else.
Tweet. Prostrated body, crossed legs, covered ears, opened mouths.
Tweet, tweet. Low-crawl. Tweet, tweet. Low-crawl. Our bloody knees and elbows dragged across the merciless blacktop. As we neared the beach, I sped up so I could crawl on the soft sand instead of the asphalt. When I realized where we were headed—the cold ocean—I slowed down, not in a hurry to get wet. I had to be careful not to go too slow and receive special attention from the instructors. Stay with the group.
We moved farther and farther from the chaotic sounds of instructors shouting, machine guns shooting, and artillery shells exploding behind us. Most of the instructors had faded away, and only a handful remained.
Hell Week had barely begun, and we already appeared ragged, like hunted animals scraping to survive. We crawled on our hands and knees until we eventually reached the water line.
Instructor Blah held the megaphone up to his lips. “Prepare for surf torture!”
“Hooyah!” we shouted in unison. I don’t know where the sudden burst of spirit came from, but it lifted us. We formed a line, facing the instructors, and we locked arms.
“You have something that belongs to the instructors, and we want it back!” Instructor Blah said.
At that moment, we were the proudest we’d ever been as a class. The instructors thought they could break us, but we believed they couldn’t. We were in control. We had something they wanted, and they weren’t going to get it. “Hooyah!”
“Take three steps backwards and sit down!”
“Hooyah!” Our voices shouted louder than ever. Arms locked, we sat down in frigid water up to our necks, but the water didn’t seem so cold. We were fighting back.
“You give us the bell, and the instructors will take it easier on you! You don’t give us the bell, and this is going to be the worst Hell Week ever!”
We remained defiant. “Hooyah!” Waves of water crashed over us.
“You have stolen government property! That’s a federal offense!” The more Instructor Blah asked for the bell, the more our spirits shot into outer space.
“Hooyah!” we called out, as if flipping our middle fingers. Some of us were laughing.
“You will all end up in the brig if you don’t return our bell!”
Sitting there in the water, my classmates and I responded by breaking out in song to the
tune of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
Take me out to the surf zone,
Take me out to the sea,
Make me do push-ups and jumping jacks,
I don’t care if I never get back,
For it’s root, root, root for the SEAL Teams,
If we don’t pass, it’s a shame,
For it’s one, two, three rings you’re out
Of the old BUD/S game!
“Hooyah!” we shouted merrily.
The instructors quietly conferred with one another as we sat in water up to our chests. Each successive wave hammered us, sapping the warmth from our bodies and push-pulling at our locked arms. Our butts scraped forward and back across broken seashells and rocks. We started to shiver, and our arms began to weaken.
“If you quit now, you can have a blanket and a hot cup of cocoa…with marshmallows,” Instructor Blah said calmly in the megaphone.
I retreated into my own private world of cold and pain. The hush among my classmates told me that they were doing the same. We shorter guys sat deeper in the water than the others. Petty Officer Lin, a Ranger veteran who’d fought in Grenada, who had completed half of Hell Week in an earlier class, shivered more than anyone.
The waves began to break our human chain. Soon, most of us were separated. I knew this couldn’t go on forever. I knew the instructors had carefully calculated the air temperature, water temperature, and wind speed, so they knew the maximum amount of time they could expose us to the cold without killing us. Physically, I could survive this. I just had to endure the pain mentally.
The instructors wanted their bell, and we weren’t going to give it to them. The battle of wills had only just begun...
You can read the rest of my story here in Navy SEAL Training Class 144: My BUD/S Journal