Hank Weldon (center, with arms on shipmate's shoulders) with his crew for training on Catalina Island in 1944.
The full crew of UDT teams that trained on Catalina in WWII.
By DAN KIDDER
The United States Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) teams are a fighting force that has seen action in six major conflicts, been the subject of a handful of movies and has even been featured in a line of video games.
From the beginning, the heroes who have served their country in the field of special operations and unconventional warfare have been trained to be an elite force that finds a way to complete the mission and get home, no matter what.
Valley Center resident Hank Weldon knows what those beginnings were like.
Weldon was one of nearly 40 sailors selected to take part in the U.S. Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT), which were formed in 1943 under the direction of Rear Admiral Richard K. Turner, and eventually came to be recognized as the beginning of the SEAL teams.
Weldon, who will turn 88 in May, recalls that he didn’t exactly know what he was getting into at the time.
“I was one of a hundred and eighty recruits, and after we had graduated, there was an Army Master Sergeant and General [William Joseph “Wild Bill”] Donovan came through looking for swimmers,” he says. “Well, I had been a lifeguard at a country club back home in Tulsa, and when they said it’s for a swim team, I had to go and open my mouth.”
General Donovan was the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during WWII, the forerunner of today’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The team Donovan was putting together was to train for reconnaissance, underwater demolition, infiltrating and exfiltrating by sea and intelligence gathering.
“They had us doing things like diving down ten feet and bringing a manhole cover back up, just to show what we could do in the water,” Weldon says. “After I graduated, they picked out four of us and told us, ‘Here’s your orders, get your rig and get moving.’”
The unit did a bit of traveling before settling in to its new home, and Weldon says that they were still in the dark about what, exactly, they were training for.
“At first we trained with an Army Ranger battalion at Camp Pendleton,” he says. “Then we trained with the OSS at a yacht club in San Clemente, then we went back down the coast to Pendleton. Nobody knew what we were doing.”
The training intensified when the unit went to Catalina Island, and Weldon remembers stealth being of the utmost importance
“We got a rubber raft with a car battery and a motor with a small propeller to haul our demolition equipment,” he says. “When we got to White’s Cove [on Catalina Island], we trained with the OSS. There were about thirty or forty of us, in big part there were ex-lifeguards and guys from the Coast Guard. For practice, they gave us a bunch of dummy TNT at high tide, dropped us off about a half-mile offshore and told us to plant it all along the coast while our COs [commanding officers] kept watch. One of the COs said he thought he saw something, but they didn’t see us. When daylight came, the tide went out and all you could see was the dummy TNT all along the shore.”
The Navy UDT squads served in 12 different missions, mostly in the Pacific Theater of WWII. Weldon and his team were nearly deployed to China during the war, but, as he recalls, “MacArthur wouldn’t let Donovan into the Pacific.”
The team did see action in the Battle of Peleliu, a fight for control of a small, Japanese-held island in the South Pacific that had the highest casualty rate of any battle in the Pacific during the war. The UDT squads went in ahead of the Marines to clear the beach of obstacles, and despite the battle’s high death toll, Weldon remembers every one of his shipmates making it through unscathed.
Both of Weldon’s older brothers also served in the war. His oldest brother, Robert, was a B26 bomber pilot in Europe who flew more than 60 missions. His brother William was a Navy pilot who escaped death twice; the first time, he saw a kamikaze pilot hit his landing ship just before he came in, and a few days later, he had just taken off from a different ship when it got hit by a kamikaze.
After the war, Weldon served in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for 28 years and was a part of the original metro unit of the force. He was even involved in the police efforts to quell the Watts Riots in 1965.
“I worked with this hotshot lieutenant, and when the riots started, he told me to grab my shotgun and come with him,” he recalls. “We headed to 103rd Street, where it was just getting started, and I noticed these jokers running back and forth from the gas station across the street. So I went over and told the owner to shut the station down. He didn’t want to, so I cranked off a shot in the air, pointed my shotgun at the nearest pump, and told him he had thirty seconds to shut it down. When I went back to the lieutenant, he asked what I was up to. I told him, ‘You don’t want to know.’”
Weldon later worked as a jail supervisor in Los Angeles and had to oversee the incarceration of Charles Manson. He also worked in the records bureau of the LAPD and was a part of the initial electronic transfer of fingerprints.
Weldon originally moved to Valley Center in 1967. Today, Weldon and his wife, Donna, live in Skyline Ranch. Throughout his life, he has been an offensive lineman at Villanova University, an oil rigger, an underwater demolition expert, a police officer, a jail supervisor and an amateur woodcarver.
To this day, Weldon says that one of the most important things he’s learned in his life is to follow the Golden Rule.
“I think it’s important to treat everybody else the way you want to be treated,” he says. “When I was in the Navy, we had a yeoman who we all knew was, you know, a homosexual, and it didn’t bother us. Well, we had shore leave once, and a few other guys were giving this guy a hard time. I went up there and grabbed them and told them, ‘You’re going to start running as soon as I let loose, and you’re going to keep running until I can’t see you anymore, got it? You don’t bother one of our shipmates.’ They took off running. At one of our reunions back awhile, it turns out this yeoman paid for a big part of it because he wanted it to be something special for all of us.”
Weldon (left) with shipmate Leonard Barnhill on shore leave in Hollywood.
Weldon (left) with Wright Travis, who later was the best man at his wedding.
Weldon doing some laundry on Catalina...
...and the caption on the back of the laundry photo.
Another shot of the UDT sailors on Catalina.
Weldon received this special coin from the SEAL Association.
Weldon's green beret.
A motorcycle carved by Weldon.
Some more of Weldon's wood carvings.