Nearly 200 fresh-faced sailors and junior officers showed up on 28 December 1964 in Little Creek, VA for Class 33E of UDTR. Some seriously scary Instructors greeted us. There was towering Chief John Bakelaar, a regal and imperious Chief Bernie Waddell, and the impressively athletic Instructor Newell. But, the one who became most feared (at least by me) was Chief Tom Blais.
He was a soft-spoken sphinx of a man who meted out punishment like he was doing you a favor and his disappointment with you simply saddened him. Since I was the lowest ranking of the 22 officers that showed up for Class 33E, I had no officer duties and given the ratty greens and surveyed foul weather jackets we wore allowed me to blend in with the troops in the back of the pack for a while.
One day Instructor Blais discovered my existence and expressed some serious doubts about my suitability as an officer in the Teams. He promised, “Mr. Draper, I am going to make you my special project.” And, of course, he did. Then and every time there was a lull he would seek me out for extra attention.
One afternoon after we had completed our “preconditioning run” 50 minutes or so up and down the sand dunes, led by Instructor Fraley (whose running shoes seemed to leave no foot prints on Mount Suribachi) we were waiting on the beach for the trucks to take us back to the training area. The Instructors, hating a dull moment, had us in the leaning rest position in loose formation while we waited. Instructor Blais was wandering through the bodies looking for me and in a sing-song voice saying, “Mr. Draper, where are you?” It just struck me as funny and as I tried to hide my laughter, Chief Bakelaar spotted me and said, “Ah, Mr. Draper, laughing in the face of adversity.” Of course, Chief Blaiscame over and messed with me something serious until the trucks arrived.
Perhaps the most vivid memory my classmates and I have of Chief Blais occurred on the 4th day of Hell Week. The evolution that day was the “Laskin Boat Trip”, an innocuous sounding day of paddling and a welcome respite for our sore legs from the previous night’s 18 mile run. The simple objective: paddle from Laskin Road down Lynnhaven Inlet to the bay and then up the coast to the base. It turned out to be a day of misery. We fought a 35-knot head wind in our aerodynamically challenged IBLs (the L is for Large, ten man boats). At times, unable to make any head way against the wind we had to get out and carry the boats. It was so cold the water in our water bottles froze and our pants and boots were caked with ice. By then enough officers had quit so I had my own boat but it was the smurfs and there were only 7 of us. We trailed far behind the other boats when we finally came into view of the bridge. There, lined up on the beach in front of a small bar called the Duck Inn, were all the other boats. Naturally, we pulled in there too. The bar was crammed with our entire class ordering hamburgers, hot chocolate and coffee. I had just wrapped my frozen fingers around a hot cup of coffee when the door to the bar swung open and there silhouetted in the fading light stood Instructor Blais.
It was like Clint Eastwood in one of his cowboy flicks, standing there before shooting up the place. It went dead quiet. In a soft voice, he ordered everyone outside where he individually chewed out each boat officer before he told us to paddle across the wind-torn waves to the other side of Lynnhaven Inlet. After a suitable number of boat push-ups, he led us without breaking stride while we struggled in the soft sand carrying the boats the four miles down the beach to the base. While he was feared by the trainees he was also highly respected and we mourn his passing. He was a man among men. RIP
This article was published in the fall 2014 issue of “The Blast”, the Journal of Naval Special Warfare.