Ten years ago El Dorado High Schooler Shane Douglas was barely keeping his nose above the water line. His grades were mediocre, his friends questionable. The teen’s internal compass was, by his own account, AWOL.
These days he can be found way under water as one of the elite U.S. Navy Rescue Swimmers. His continuing education grades are top notch, his buddies are the nation’s cream of the crop and his focus is extraordinary.
It’s been almost 10 years since he joined the Navy. Along the way he has rescued submariners, retrieved sunken history, saved lives, led landing missions and lunched on-board with a former U.S. president and first lady.
Douglas’ commendations, awards and citations would fill a scrapbook. These official documents laud a sailor who is modest and unassuming, who gives 100 percent, is mission oriented, looks out for others and, not surprisingly, has accelerated through the Navy to the recently awarded rank of Chief Petty Officer, E7.
What makes that last achievement so notable is this — he will celebrate his 10th anniversary in the Navy next February, making him one of the youngest CPOs in U.S. Naval history.
So, what happened?
“It was just a natural fit. My father Doug, brothers Chris and Mike, Uncle Louie and both his sons, plus my grandfather Louis Odel Douglas were all sailors, so it seemed like a good place to park myself for a few years, for some self-discovery maybe.”
Self discovery. That might qualify as one of the great understatements of our time.
“I liked the Navy immediately,” said the Camino native. “Especially sea duty.”
In Douglas’s second year he volunteered for the Navy’s famous Swim and Rescue School in Jacksonville, Fla.
“Every large boat has to have two rescue swimmers on board at all times. One of our divers left active duty suddenly and the opportunity was made available to me. It sounded really good, as I’d grown up swimming in the American River and in lakes in Pollock Pines.”
Four days later the sailor found himself in one of the Navy’s toughest schools, where 50 percent of enrolled students wash out. Four grueling weeks later Douglas graduated near the top of his class.
As a Boatswain’s Mate, he drives and maintains a variety of Navy boats, frequently delivering assets and weaponry to tactical points in very dangerous places. As a senior non-commissioned officer he commands a platoon of 40 sailors. As a qualified Navy Rescue Swimmer he stands ready 24/7.
In 2004 he worked with National Geographic on his ship, the USS Grasp, a deep water salvage and recovery ship, to raise parts of the sunken Civil War vessel known as the Monitor. The first metal clad warship in history, the undefeatable Monitor sank in an 1862 storm off the coast of North Carolina.
The salvage techniques were eye-opening to the young sailor.
“I was a mudpup then, getting ready for swim school. It was amazing work, I took it in like a sponge,” he recalled. It wouldn’t be his last memorable on-board experience.
In May of 2005, a friendly submarine sank in the Mediterranean Sea. Douglas and the USS Grasp quickly became part of the largest submarine rescue operation in history, drawing resources from 21 NATO countries.
An underwater rescue chamber was employed to bring the crew up, in all a 33-day feat which involved many divers and rescue swimmers.
For live training, Douglas was invited to ride the rescue chamber down to the stricken sub, where the grateful sailors were saved through a hook-up with the escape hatch. More lessons learned.
A Navy career typically includes five years sea duty followed by three years shore duty. For Douglas, serving on a ship is fulfilling. He quotes an old naval proverb with a smile. “Sailors belong on ships and ships belong at sea.”
When shore duty cycled up, Douglas requested assignment as instructor in his alma mater Swim and Rescue School, and it was granted.
“One of the transforming experiences of my life,” he reflected.
“He’s a natural instructor,” said his dad, Doug. “Maybe he’ll finally go in that direction.”
Currently the chief petty officer is in San Diego, where his mission involves supporting the Navy’s fabled Construction Battalion (Seabees ), in advance of a Marine deployment.
CB sailors design bases, create infrastructure and build facilities, including floating piers, usually from scratch and often in remote areas. They are also ambassadors of goodwill, helping many countries develop civil engineering projects such as water purification, electricity generation, buildings, roads and bridges.
Seabees usually rely on large cargo aircraft to bring in the construction equipment and materials needed for a given project. The big stuff, the armor, artillery, missile batteries and Humvees are borne to the zone by giant boats which drop anchor a few miles out to sea. These massive crafts also carry full Marine regiments.
Chief Douglas will move those vehicles and containers down a huge ramp onto his own floating platform, then reload the goods for the landing.
The Marines go ashore in different boats.
Dock Landing Ships, known as LSDs, are Douglas’ normal boat deployment. To support the Seabees’ amphibious landing, he welcomes the opportunity to temporarily leave his LSD duties in order to drive the supply boats from platform to shore, and learn firsthand the challenges Seabees routinely face before and after landing.
Sometimes it takes many round trips to complete one offloading mission.
Ship to shore logistics are fundamental to naval success. It is well known that amphibious vehicles are essential to executing the global war on terror.
According to numerous Internet sites, today’s amphibious tanks drive off the lowered well deck of LSDs, right into the water and “swim” through the sea onto shore where they operate as land combat vehicles.
“Supporting special operations requires precise and timely movement of fire power from ship to shore,” Douglas explained. “That’s the LSD’s responsibility.”
Training other navies is part of the U.S. Navy’s mission. “We trained the Iraqi Navy how to guard oil platforms, and handle weapons, assaults, piracy and prisoners.”
In one instance an Iraqi fast boat, docked in the well deck of his LSD, broke loose during rough seas. Its fuel tank was crushed, spilling a full load of thick black oil into the 15 feet of trapped water. To open the well deck door would have produced an environmental disaster as unrefined Iraqi oil is grimy and considered toxic.
About 2 a.m. Douglas was awakened and told to report to the well deck in full diving gear. The commander handed him straps and shackles and described the mission. Guided by a single chemical light which barely pierced the inky reservoir, Douglas dove to the bottom where he discovered the lethal boat laying sideways and shifting violently with each roll of the LSD.
Everything was pitch black, save the flashlight’s illumination. The dive expert found the bow of the capsized craft, and on the next rocking motion, swam under the bow with the strap and attached the shackle. Timing the next deadly roll perfectly, he swam back again.
Then he performed the same maneuver to connect the stern shackle. He entered the capsized craft and began bailing the toxic liquid until the pump broke. He finished the job using a bucket.
The intrepid diver reemerged four hours after the mission began. The noxious soup had dissolved much of his diving suit and left a rash on his exposed skin, which disappeared in a week. The stricken boat was eventually repaired.
For this action Douglas was awarded his second Navy Achievement Medal, but he doesn’t reflect on his own peril or accomplishment.
“We saved the Iraqi Navy a $100,000,” he said.
He has served two tours of duty off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden performing armed board and search operations in the hunt for pirates.
He has been to almost every Mediterranean country and sailed through the Suez Canal several times.
When former President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush visited Douglas’ ship, the USS Ashland in 2008, the young diver was selected as an escort. They had lunch together.
“It was an unbelievable day,” he remembered. “He actually reenlisted a couple of our sailors. It was a great honor I’ll remember forever.”
The chief’s next 10 years can take one of several paths but for certain it will happen in the Navy.
“My job is to do things right. Life happens on its own terms. Goodness knows I could never have planned this incredible journey.”
“Maybe he didn’t plan it,” smiled his father with more than a trace of pride, “but he certainly was ready.”
Chief Douglas’ parents Doug and Colleen still live in Camino.