6. Whaleboat Races
The way the CC selected 12 men for the whaleboat team was to have the company do push-ups on the quarterdeck, as many as each man could do. Somewhere between 40 and 50 push-ups there were 12 of us still going. I felt good about making the cut, but realized later that a lot of guys deliberately fell short because they had no interest in taking on extra strain and abuse. I would soon come to regret that I had yielded to a competitive impulse.
Rowing a Navy whaleboat at the best speed you can manage requires a lot of stamina, which we had no chance to develop before our first race. After a few practice runs that barely let us become familiar with the broad-beamed whaleboat (designed to stay afloat in heavy seas, not to go fast) and adjust to our fellow rowers, we had to go against three or four boats rowed by other companies.
The difficult thing about team rowing is that everyone must move in unison. No matter how much you’re hurting, you can’t stop rowing until everyone stops. If you do, you will get hit in the back by the oar behind you and you’ll hit the rower in front of you with your oar. He will feel no sympathy for your pain.
The race was only over a few hundred yards, but it seemed to me more like a mile. After the first couple hundred yards my forearms began to ache and soon were hurting so much it took all my effort to hold back the tears. But I couldn’t stop rowing.
When we finally crossed the finish line – not first – we soon had to row back to where we started. I think we raced three or four times over a two-week period without scoring any wins. The CC let us know he wasn’t pleased with our performance.
One of the prods the CC used to get our “utmost effort,” as called for by the sign at R&O, was to threaten those he thought were not trying hard enough with being sent across the waterway where we raced whaleboats to the Marine Corps boot camp. We knew Marine boot camp was more rigorous than Navy boot camp and the CC regaled us with tales of hospital wards filled with Marine recruits and some guys killing themselves because they couldn’t endure the rigors of boot camp. We didn’t really believe him and were quite sure he couldn’t legally send us over to the Marines for a week or two, but we weren’t absolutely sure. So, nobody wanted to put it to the test.
Even without winning any whaleboat races, Company 309 still won a red star as the top company at Recruit Training Command each of our last four weeks, the best it was possible to do. Each red star was sewn onto our company flag (the second-best companies got white stars), so by graduation we were a “four red star” company and a lock for Brigade Company. It had been some time since a company graduated with four red stars. This earned us lots of official praise at graduation (and the resentment of the other graduating companies).
Personal satisfaction was the only reward we recruits got for our hard work and accomplishments. No entry was made in our service records so the day after graduation it wouldn’t have made a difference to our standing in the Navy if we had been the lowest-rated company. For our company commander, however, it was different. We learned near the end that we were his fourth recruit company and each had been a Brigade Company. But we were the only one to earn four red stars. This kind of record would be duly noted in his performance evaluation and possibly earn him a commendation.
To his credit, the CC did thank us for our efforts when he walked through our ranks as we waited in dress uniform for the bus to take us away from NTC San Diego. He shook every hand, wished us well and, for one of the few times in ten weeks, talked to us as if we were actual human beings.