On Veteran’s Day, we remember those who fought and continue to fight to protect the freedoms of our country. Among the countless heroes, medals, and stories we have heard, we wanted to take a look at those military heroes who come from an aquatic background. Following the stories of some of North America’s bravest men and women as they protect their country on the open water, we can admire their feats of bravery and selflessness.
Veteran’s Day: Ann A. Bernatitus & The Angels of Bataan
On Veteran’s Day, it is a must to remember the medical aid providers of the front lines. The Angels of Bataan as they’re best known were a group of 88 Army nurses and 12 Navy nurses stationed in the Philippines in early December 1941. Navy Nurses in particular were responsible for providing medical aid on hospital ships, often facing dangerous waters, attacks while mid-journey, and the threat of capsizing.
Ann and her fellow Navy nurses were at this location when they heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Despite knowing that the Philippines would most likely be the next target, they immediately reported for duty. When many serious medical cases were transferred to Manila, two Navy nurses accompanied the convoy to continue providing care, one of which was Lt. Bernatitus. When Manila became too dangerous, Ann once again took part in a dangerous journey across war-torn waters to the Bataan Peninsula. This journey was successful amid attacks from Japanese aircraft.
Ann worked on the dangerous front lines of Bataan, assisting surgeons in deadly conditions where she consistently placed her own life at risk. Even when the Hospital she was stationed in was directly hit, Ann alone continued to dedicate herself to saving others, ensuring that as many remaining injured soldiers as possible were transferred to safety. When Bataan fell under the full control of the Japanese Military, she continued to care for others in the confines of the Malinta Tunnel.
Ann was among the last Americans to escape the Bataan Peninsula in the submarine U.S.S. Spearfish. In this way, she became the only Navy nurse stationed in the Philippines to escape the Japanese. For her “excellent service in a time of stress and under such dangerous conditions”, Lt. Ann Bernantitus became the first person in the United States Service to be decorated with the Legion of Merit. Following her service, Ann served as the Assistant Chief Nurse at the Naval Hospital Great Lakes, then as the Chief Nurse of the hospital ship U.S.S. Relief, where she dedicated her service to those wounded for the duration of the Okinawa campaign.
Veteran’s Day: The First USA Military Swim Instructor Taught 2 Million Recruits How to Swim!
Adolph Gustav Keifer was born in Illinois in 1918. He had been swimming from an early age, and at seventeen he went on to represent the United States in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. His Olympic records for the backstroke would stand for 20 years.
His military career began when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1944. When the Navy realized that it was losing many lives to drowning, a need for new guidelines for safety and training were recognized. Kiefer was appointed to a committee to help create these guidelines. He became Officer in Charge of Swimming for the entire U.S. Navy and eventually reached the rank of lieutenant! He trained over thirteen thousand Navy swim instructors to do the “Victory Backstroke”, a term Kiefer came up with himself. In this way, he created a comprehensive program that would effectively teach up to 2 million recruits how to swim. The Victory Backstroke was a simplified version of the modern backstroke that allowed novice swimmers to breathe easily on their backs. The American Red Cross would later add the Victory Backstroke to their swim training protocols.
In 1947, he established Kiefer & Associates, Inc. in Chicago, which has provided swimmers with training, safety and competition equipment. His company was responsible for the development of the nylon tank suit in 1948 and debuted the first nylon swimsuit supplied to the U.S. Olympic Swim Team.
Kiefer subsequently devoted himself to community service, combining swimming and philanthropy in innovative ways. In the 1960s he helped build swimming pools across the inner city of Chicago, providing the facilities needed for thousands of children to learn to swim. Alongside supporting multiple swim-oriented non-profit organizations, and being an “Honour Swimmer” in the International Swimming Hall of Fame, USA Swimming also named Kiefer the “father of American swimming” in recognition of his contributions to American swimming.
Veteran’s Day: The Frogmen of Burma – Underwater Combat Divers
Bruce S. Wright was a Canadian Lieutenant-Commander, as well as a competitive swimmer. He realized that there were no special teams designated for water-related reconnaissance and attack advantage in the military. He recorded his ideas about the strategic potential of strong underwater swimmers and handed them to his supervisor. Before long, he was flown to London to present his ideas to the Chief of Combined Operations, Admiral Mountbatten. Mountbatten liked Wright’s idea and allowed him to make his vision a reality. He was given 55 recruits to train in California, within this new and innovative program.
In this training, they mastered “frogman” skills, underwent commando training, and qualified as parachutists. When the call came, they were ready for action and served with distinction in the Burmese campaign. Although these skills were not adopted as standard right away, Wright’s techniques and ideas were ahead of their time and can be seen as prequels to today’s Navy SEAL Combat Diver training.
The specially trained units became involved in other special groups in the region, such as the “Sea Reconnaissance Unit.” The group of frogmen who spearheaded the British Army’s assaults across the rivers of Burma were the very same who had been trained in California by Lieutenant Wright. He led the unit alongside another Canadian, Flight Lieutenant G.H. Avery, who earned the first Military Cross ever awarded to a frogman for bravery in combat.
On this Veteran’s Day as we commemorate soldiers fighting for freedom on all fronts, including the water, these “frogmen” used their exceptional swimming abilities and placed their lives at risk to help with the war effort in a unique and aquatic way.
Veteran’s Day: James F. Cahill – Introducing Scuba Diving to America
James Cahill was one of the pioneers of scuba diving, essentially creating the sport and industry as well as introducing it in America. He was the first man to scuba dive in American waters, was one of the first Under Water Demolition Team members, and was the co-founder of the NAUI – National Association of Underwater Instructors.
Cahill served in both World War II as well as the Korean War, as a Lieutenant in the United States Navy. He joined one of the first classes of the U.S. Underwater Demolition Team, which preceded the Navy SEALS. He was head of security for the Boston Harbour while serving in the Navy, and continued to assist them even after retirement from his Naval Career. He helped in early underwater investigations, rescue missions, and training sessions. One of many memorable missions saw Cahill placed in charge of the recovery for the Texas Tower 4 collapse, 200 feet below sea level. He coordinated both Navy and New England Divers in the mission, and they collectively made more than 25 dives up to 200 feet!
James took an active lead in developing the scuba diving industry in the United States, both commercial and recreational. He founded the Hui Kai scuba training camp, and then New England Divers Inc. as well, which became the nation’s largest and first chain of commercial scuba diving stores. Overall, James Cahill represents another great veteran with an aquatic background and a love for the water.
Let us know if you have any favourite Veteran’s Day Heroes in the comment section below!