Learning how to lead

Complete Officer Corps of Underwater Demolition Team 30 (UDT 30) at Fort Pierce, Fla., in the summer of 1945. Ensign Jack Ramsay, age 20, is second from the left in the middle row. Courtesy of Andy Coccari

After Pearl Harbor, I wanted to get into the war. But on December 7th, 1941, I was just 16. I was young for my school years, so at that time I was a senior in high school. I went through my freshman year at St. Joseph's University and I joined the Navy when I was 17. This was 1943.

Despite having only one year of college, the Navy sent me to its officer training program, which usually required two years of college. I went to Villanova in what was called a V-12 program. I was there for a full academic year and that summer I was assigned to midshipmen's school at Columbia University. I got my commission as an ensign in December 1944.

It was clear to many of us that the war was winding down but I still wanted to get involved. So I volunteered for underwater demolition training. This group was known as the UDTs and did pre-invasion work of clearing out obstacles on the beach so that the landing crafts could come in unobstructed. I thought this route would be a quick way into some action.

After two months of training in Fort Pierce, Fla., I was assigned to a team, UDT 30. In the summer of 1945, all the teams were called to Coronado, Calif., to rehearse for the invasion of Japan.

All of the men in these groups were quite young. I was just 20 myself. I was a platoon officer and I had 20 men in my platoon. There were five platoons in each team, giving each team 100 men.

We were primed and ready. We left San Diego on destroyer transports, presumably to rendezvous somewhere and begin the invasion. But on our way there, on Aug. 6, 1945, they dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, which put the invasion on hold and eventually canceled it. They sent us back to San Diego and soon the unit was dispersed.

I was reassigned to a refrigerated cargo ship in the Marshall Islands, first at Enewetak and then at Kwajalein. The ship was about 150 feet long and was used mainly for inter-island cargo transport, mostly food for the other ships in the various harbors.

There were just three officers and 25 enlisted men on this ship. When I arrived, the captain had been there for a couple of years and he was able to put in for his separation. That moved me up to executive officer. Then another young man was assigned to the ship, my superior left and I was made captain of the ship. I was still a very young guy.

Shortly after that, in 1946, we got our orders to bring the ship back to San Francisco. The war had ended and the Navy was bringing vessels back and either junking them or selling them. I got in a convoy and took the ship to San Francisco and decommissioned it. I then got discharged and went home.

That was the extent of my service time. It was about three years of my life but it wasn't what I wanted. It was a chance to learn about accepting frustration in life because I was very disappointed. I wanted to be involved in the war.

The training, however, was a great experience. It was terrific. I learned quite a bit during that time.

It was very demanding physically, mentally and emotionally. You had to be in top physical condition. In the training program, you would start the day on a small boat by being taken out to a mile marker and dumped off to swim to the beach. Every day. Of course, there was competition on how quickly you could get to the beach. The motto was, "Don't be last." And, of course, try to be first.

The swim was followed by a lot of physical activity in the morning. And then in the afternoon, you worked on explosives and how to use the various devices that were in use at the time. Then you would practice invasions. The Sea Bees were there also and they built obstacles similar to what the Japanese were building in the Pacific. Then we'd go out and blow them out and they'd start in again making new obstacles. We'd repeat this process to drill all the procedures into us.

You were in the water for all of this, so you had to be in great shape. You had to do reconnaissance of the area to see what explosives you would need, then estimate how much you'd need and make your plans. At night, you'd go in and blow it all up. And then repeat that, day after day.

Today we are aware of what the Navy Seals do and our unit was an antecedent. They subjected us to a lot of stress to see if we could take it. What we were doing was covert, obviously. They couldn't see us coming. And we did not have air tanks at that time. You had swim trunks, swim fins and a face mask. You carried a knife in your belt but that was it.

You needed great stamina, as you'd be underwater a lot of the time. You'd come up for a quick breath and go back down. No stroke broke the surface of the water. Everything was breaststroke and the typical frog kick or something similar.

One of the first things we newbies did at training camp in Fort Pierce was sit on the beach and have an experienced group come in to the beach as they would for a reconnaissance. You'd see small boats bring them in, make a flank turn and run parallel with the beach. The boats were dropping swimmers but you never saw them. You'd be looking at least for a head and you'd say, "There's one! Oh, maybe not. It's gone. There's one. Oh, it's gone." And keep looking. They'd hide behind waves and do other things and suddenly they would be at the beach, walking out of the water and it was the first time we'd seen them. That was an encouraging lesson because we saw that if you did it properly, you could avoid detection.

So, I took a measure of pride when the Navy Seals were the ones that got Osama bin Laden. I feel like I am a part of them. And they are still out there now doing great work for this country.

During that time, I learned how important physical conditioning is. I learned how to focus on an objective in spite of all kinds of hazards. I learned how to deal with stress, too. If you make a wrong move with explosives, it could be deadly. If you're there when they blow up the beach, you get blown up too. So you need to get your job done correctly ... then pull the fuse with enough lag time for you to clear the area completely and get picked up by the small boats.

I also learned that my connection with my team members was best handled by being in there with them. We did a lot of physical stuff. They'd play tackle football on the beach in their free time. I played with them. I wanted to be a physical leader of the group and to make sure everyone was focused on the job by being right there. To take charge and be in the pack, leading them in what we had to do. Not to be a leader from afar. I carried that principle through in all of my coaching.

I stayed in contact with many of my men over the years and would see them occasionally. I was close friends with my assistant platoon leader Wade Haggard for years and years. He lived in Seattle and we'd get together when my NBA travels took me there. He passed away a few years ago.

One night at a game in Los Angeles, someone tapped me on the shoulder while the players were warming up. I turned around and the man stuck a picture of our platoon in front of me. He said, "Do you recognize any of these guys?" I looked at him and said, "I remember you, Jacobson!" It was Alvin Jacobson and he laughed and laughed. We had a nice visit.

Bob McKay, another platoon member, ended up in the guard force at Attica Prison. When I was coaching in Buffalo, he got in touch with me and asked if I could bring the team to Attica to practice or have a scrimmage. And we did that for a couple of years. Bob and I were able to get together and talk about old times. It was fun and I was happy to do it.

So while I did learn a lot and my Navy experience was an important part of my life, I still regret that I missed out on the big action. I'm still disappointed about that. We felt like we had prepared for the biggest game of our lives and it was canceled.