When Pitch Black Gets Darker

One of the most impactful memories from my time in the SEAL Teams didn’t occur in a country halfway around the world. It was in the San Francisco Bay in 1999.

I was a Platoon Commander at SEAL Team One and was told the Commanding Officer wanted to see me ASAP! That usually is not good. As I proceeded to his office, I racked my brain as to who might have screwed up and what that screw-up might be. I arrived to a “Close the door and take a seat, Lieutenant.” 

My platoon had just completed a very arduous three-week block of dive training with foreign instructors sharing the latest techniques. We were literally under water more than above during this training.

So, long story short, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Grey, was retiring after 30+ years of service and wanted to go out with a bang (bad word) in style. 

For his retirement, he wanted to make a full-scale amphibious assault on the city of San Francisco to include multiple naval vessels in the bay and vehicles patrolling through the streets. So my Commanding Officer said, “You and seven of your best divers, stop shaving, and get up to San Francisco. And the FBI will be looking for you, so stay low.” 

Well… the smile on my face said it all. We were tasked with challenging the security/vulnerability of naval ships docked at the San Francisco Piers by conducting four separate ship attacks (diving and placing fake mines on the ships’ hulls) over a four-night span. My team had just become “terrorists.” 

Three days later, the eight of us (four dive pairs… we always dive in pairs) were in the back of a dark van we rented with signs on the outside reading, “FREDDY’S FRESH SEAFOOD” (incognito), heading to start the first of four dives. The doors opened and in the dark of night we hopped out and dropped through the middle of an unoccupied pier, plunging 25 feet into the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay. Our target ship was more than 1,000 yards/two piers to the east. 

Now, understand that diving is very challenging. But when you add 52-degree water temps, four inches of visibility and heavy currents, it takes things to a whole new level. As my dive buddy and I proceeded to the target, I felt a significant bump on my right side. Only problem… my dive buddy was traveling on my left side. 

This was one of those moments where I said to myself, “Well, if this is how I’m going… being eaten… I hope you’re hungry!” 

All I could do was focus on my dive and continue on. I never got bumped again. The ship “attack” was a success with all four dive pairs placing their mines on the target vessel. This success continued for the next two dives. We were three for three with just one more dive to go. 

It was the morning before our final dive when I got word that the Admiral in charge of the naval ships we had been “sinking” the previous three nights was NOT HAPPY. Three of his ships were theoretically at the bottom of the San Francisco Bay.

So, to try to “save face,” he ordered our final target to depart from its pier side mooring and set anchor in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Understand that this type of diving, given the conditions, is incredibly difficult when your target is in a fixed position at a pier. 

“Incredibly difficult” turns into “almost impossible” when that target is swaying around in the middle of a bay that boasts over three-knot currents. And if that’s not hard enough, there would be several small boats buzzing around the ship, looking for us. I guess the Admiral was a little ticked off. 

Given the fact that a three-knot current is over two knots faster than we can swim, the only option was to try to place ourselves “upstream” from the ship and let the current carry us to the target. 

We enlisted help from a crusty old veteran sailor in the area who owned a sailboat. Hiding below deck, “Popeye” (his nickname) sailed past the patrol boats buzzing around to a point that I best guessed would place us in the current approximately 900 yards upstream from our target.

Waiting until several of these pesky patrol boats passed, the eight of us quickly entered the cold, dark, shark-infested water of the San Francisco Bay. I’ll never forget the sensation of free falling once we were submerged. 

My dive buddy and I were about 15 feet below the surface, vertical, being carried by the current as if we had just hopped out of a plane. I kept my compass on bearing and my eyes on my watch, “guestimating” how long it would take until we would be under the target ship. That’s when something happened that will forever remain in my memory. 

Pitch black became darker. We were under the shadow of the ship. I grabbed my dive buddy’s arm and kicked like hell up toward the shadow above. CONTACT! We were on the belly of the ship. 

Hands trying to grab at the slick hull, kicking as hard as we could, we were still being whisked away. With only a few more seconds remaining before we were no longer under the ship, we abruptly came to a stop. My dive buddy had managed to get two of his fingers in a discharge hole. He was a hell of a rock climber (thank God). 

With him anchoring us, I climbed up his body and secured myself on the rudder. We placed both mines on the ship and with a squeeze of the arm, just let loose and enjoyed the rest of our free fall away from our target.

We were the only dive pair to place our mines on the ship that night. That said, my little band of “terrorists” produced 100 percent success, having “sunk” four ships in four consecutive nights.  It will forever remain one of the most satisfying memories of my life. (Sorry, Admiral!)


Cade Courtley
Former Navy SEAL / 4Patriots Contributor


  • Kent Beebe - February 12, 2020

    Being a certified SCUBA diver for fifty years this year, and having dives on several Great Lakes shipwrecks, I can appreciate the planning and execution of these dives.

  • Rob Haverberg - February 10, 2020

    Guys like you with stories of adventure and courage are what makes America great. Most people don’t understand half of those difficult conditions that you faced and you make it sound like fun. —- You are the Man !!! Thanks I enjoyed the article. American Pride !!!

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