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Underwater combat school in Keys marks 50 years

Apr. 13, 2014 - 01:28PM   |  
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KEY WEST, FLA. — An underwater combat training school in Key West is marking its 50th anniversary.

The Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School boasts a $10 million complex with a modern training pool and 50-foot dive tower, as well as boats especially designed for special operations forces.

The school is taught by Green Berets and sometimes hosts students from the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines, as well as military academy cadets and troops from other countries.

Residents know students are in town by spotting the circling C-130 airplane dropping finned-divers by parachute into the Fleming Key Basin. Less visible are the night operations, the torturous pool training, the hours of classroom work and other tasks that make the school one of the toughest gut-checks in the military, instructors and command staff said.

Combat divers are very aggressive and efficient and I’ve been very impressed,” Army Special Forces Col. Alan Shumate tells The Key West Citizen. “They stand out. Our dive school breeds a more intense commando.”

Shumate is a graduate and his father, Special Forces Sgt. Maj. Walter Shumate, helped scout the area on Fleming Key for the dive school.

The dive school’s history is enmeshed in the Navy’s history in Key West.

The Naval School of Underwater Swimmers operated from 1954 to 1974. By 1961, Green Berets who had been training at the Navy swimmers’ school set up their own course for instructors, and that led to a cross-training program with the Navy Underwater Demolition Teams, the precursor to the SEAL teams.

Three years later, then-Capt. Ola Mize was tasked with spearheading the Army’s own underwater operations course. Mize, a Medal of Honor recipient for his actions in the Korean War, tasked Walter Shumate and others to find a suitable location in Key West for the Army’s own school.

The Army permanently assigned training cadre in Key West in 1974, and the school as it is today began to take shape. By 1989, the unit in Key West officially became what it is today: C Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne).

About one in three students fails the course.

“When you’re going through the Special Forces qualification selection or Ranger School and you get tired, you can stop and take a knee,” school commander Maj. Samuel Kline said. “In the water, you can’t do that. You still have to perform and you have to perform under duress competently, because your life is directly at risk.”

Kline added, “We don’t look to weed out candidates. We’re dedicated to producing quality combat divers. The majority who don’t make it through, I believe, come ill-prepared mentally and physically for what we do here.”

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