Swimming to Survive: Tips from 1944 US War Manual

In 1944, the US War Department released a “Survival Manual” for allied troops. The instructions are as relevant now as they were then.

The “what are the fundamental skills in swimming” is a question that has been asked before. In 1944, the US War Manual was released with tips on how to survive in the water.

US War Department Watermanship.

FM 21-22, a textbook on military watermanship, was produced by the US War Department in 1944. From how to safely evacuate a sinking ship to how to remain alive in a lifeboat, the booklet covers everything a man needs to know to survive at sea. We’ll be presenting numerous portions of the handbook this week; the material is both intriguing historically and helpful in worst-case circumstances. 

War Department Watermanship Manual, FM 21-22, 1944

Vintage WWII illustration.


In any combat circumstance, military watermanship entails taking care of oneself on or in the water. It combines common sense and self-discipline with basic swimming skills and knowledge of the water. It’s possible that you’ll have to go by sea in a variety of vessels. There are several situations in which knowing what to do and how to do it might be the difference between life and death. Panic caused by ignorance is a common cause of death at sea. Those that know what to do and retain their cool have a far easier time staying afloat till picked up.


The manual’s three goals are as follows:

a. To teach you the fundamentals of watermanship so that you can confidently face any situation that may occur.

b. To teach you some of the basic procedures utilized in small landing craft operations.

c. To demonstrate how to swim in tiny lakes or rivers while in battle.

d. The waterproofing of particular pieces of equipment and weaponry is not covered in this document. Existing manuals and publications from the technical services that provide the equipment include this information. The information provided is meant to serve as a guideline rather than a set of hard and fast laws. Methods must be adjusted based on the current scenario.


To a considerable extent, military watermanship training will consist of real practice under a variety of settings. Its goal is to provide you with the information and confidence to adopt adequate safety precautions.



Military swimming entails swimming while fully clothed and equipped in order to get at your destination in good fighting shape. If a soldier is shipwrecked far from shore, he does not attempt to swim to land; instead, he seeks to stay afloat until rescued. As a result, military swimming incorporates the fundamental water abilities that save energy and provide the optimum buoyancy for lengthy periods of time. To avoid observation, strafing, or surface oil or flame, the soldier must know how to leap off a sinking ship and swim under water. As a result, the following things are included in basic military swimming:

a. Immersion and floatation c. Breast stroke and dog paddle. c. Walking on water. d. Stroke to the side. e. The basic back stroke. f. Taking a leap of faith. g. Swimming in the water.

FM 21-20 is the place to go for swimming lessons. If the guy discovers that the scissors kick is more natural and effective than the frog kick, or vice versa, no effort should be made to modify his approach during practice.

How Good of a Swimmer Do You Think You Are?

Note from the editor: This excerpt is from a WWII version of FM 21-20, a physical training handbook. Click here for additional information about FM 21-20’s fascinating history and beginnings, as well as old-school GI exercises for the land. 


a. The swimming exams are used to categorize troops based on their current swimming skills, as well as to encourage and track growth. It should be emphasized that these are the basic requirements. Beyond this minimum, every effort will be taken to increase swimming skill. Soldiers who have passed the A exam should take the Maintenance Check test every three months if possible. If they are unable to pass this check test, they should resume swimming exercise to improve their endurance.

(1) The C (Beginner’s) Test. Jump into the pool from a float or a pool bank. Use any stroke to swim 50 yards. Soldiers who fail this exam are labeled nonswimmers and sent to a novice class.

(2) Intermediate (B) Examination. (a) From a height of ten feet, jump into the water. Swim 100 yards using at least three distinct strokes (back, side, breast, Trudgen crawl, or back crawl), each lasting at least 25 yards. (b) Stay afloat for a minimum of 10 minutes. (c) Swim 30 feet under the surface of the water. This exam is only for swimmers who have passed the Beginner’s Test. Those who pass this exam are called intermediate swimmers and are ready for advanced swimming and lifesaving education. Those who fail are labeled “elementary swimmers,” who need extra instruction and coaching in the foundations of swimming.

(3) Advanced (A) Examination. (a) Swim 220 yards, or for 10 minutes straight, utilizing back, breast, and side (both sides) strokes for at least 50 yards each; or swim for 20 minutes straight. (a) Jump into the water feet first and swim 25 yards underwater, breaking water only twice to breathe. (c) Soak your pants in water and inflate them for more support. (d) In the water, approach a guy of similar stature and show one break or release from either a front or rear head hold. With any carry, tow the guy 25 yards. (e) Swimmers who pass this exam are advanced swimmers who can care for themselves in an emergency.

(4) Test of Expertise (AA). (a) Swim 880 yards or 40 minutes continuously in the pool. (b) Swim 440 yards in a shirt and pants outfit. (c) Swim 50 feet underwater from the surface dive. (d) Demonstrate breaks from both front and rear head holds in deep water. With a cross chest, hair, collar, or wrist carry, a tow man may go 50 yards.

(5) Perform a maintenance check. Every three months, swim 440 yards in 15 minutes. All swimmers who have passed the Advanced Exam should take this test. Those who have not passed the Advanced Test will attempt to pass it again.


Vintage WWII submerging illustration.

1. Raise arms sideward and upward sharply to submerge; remain beneath as long as possible.

Vintage WWII submerging# 2 illustration.

2. To re-ascend, drop your arms sideways and downwards.

a. Immersion. The individual must first be trained to swim in shallow water while keeping his eyes open. He’ll have to learn the hard way that staying underwater is tough due to the buoyancy of air trapped in his chest, which drives him to the surface. He may submerge without effort by exhaling some of the air. Underwater, he learns to expel air via his nose, while above water, he learns to swallow air through his mouth. He gets self-assurance. He is taught how to bob up and down in deeper water. When he wants to go down, he raises his arms suddenly, sideward and upward; when he wants to go up, he lowers his arms abruptly, sideward and below.


c. The ability to float. Floating is the most efficient approach to save energy. Anyone can float, whether they are still or move their arms or legs slightly. The chest is stretched as much as possible to maximize body buoyancy. By drawing up on the stomach muscles after taking a deep breath, you may expand your stomach even more without sucking in air. Swimming is a combination of floatation and certain arm and leg motions that provide propulsion.

Vintage WWII relaxing in water illustration.

Back float is a great way to unwind. To prevent a blast injury in the water, modify the back float by crossing legs, tensing the body, and tightening the anus; float on the very top of the surface.

(1) Float backwards. With legs together or apart and arms stretched to the side or above, this is the most pleasant float. When the legs are together and the arms are at the side, the legs have a propensity to sink and draw the torso down.

Vintage WWII swimming jelly-fish float illustration.

To remove garments, use a jellyfish float.

(2) Jellyfish float in the water. Bending the legs, drawing the knees to the chest, and lowering the head on the chest doubles the body. Knees are clasped in the arms. The body will roll forward in this posture until just the back is visible above water. The jellyfish float is mostly used to remove garments.

Vintage WWII Prone float illustration.

Prone float is the most fundamental posture for all prone swimming; submerge face and open eyes to view under the water, or elevate head high to see above it; arms and legs are extended.

(3) Float prone. All prone swimming strokes begin in this posture. It’s done by laying face down in the water with your arms and legs outstretched. It may be used with the face submerged and eyes open to look under the water, or it can be used with the head raised to view above it.

PRONE STROKES are a kind of pronation.

Vintage WWII swimming do paddle illustration.

The dog paddle is a basic swimming stroke that is used to swim silently. Hands stretch forward and pull back; legs push away from the water; left leg and arm act in tandem with right leg and arm.

a. Paddle with a dog. This is accomplished by utilizing the arms and legs in the same way as when ascending a ladder, starting from the prone-float posture. Reaching forward, the hands, slightly cupped, fingers clasped, thumb along the forefinger, pull on the water. They stretch forward as far as they can without exerting too much effort, then draw back on the water. The legs are folded up and stretched to the back to push back on the water. The left leg and left arm, as well as the right leg and right arm, collaborate. This is a good stroke for quiet swimming since the legs and arms do not break the surface.

Vintage WWII swimming breast stroke illustration.

Breast stroke is trustworthy in all kinds of water and in all conditions. It’s possible to have your head lifted or immersed. Begin with a prone float. c. Horizontally pull arms to sides. Begin to pull in your legs once your arms have reached shoulder level. Arms and hands are clasped together under the chest; legs are in a deep knee bend with knees parted. c. Arms lunge forward under water and end as in a; legs are lashed out to side straddle hop and then returned to starting position.

b. A breast stroke is a kind of stroke that is performed on the breasts Like the dog paddle, the breast stroke is a very simple and relaxed stroke. It may be done in calm or rough water and should be done with the head lifted high for optimum observation. It’s also utilized for swimming underwater. When carrying equipment on the back, this is an excellent stroke to utilize. The breast stroke may be used to drive debris and thin surface oil and flame away by splashing with hands and arms on the forward movement. See FM 21-20 for further information on this and other strokes not discussed in depth.



Vintage WWII swimming treading water illustration.

While swimming, keep an eye on what’s going on by treading water. As though scaling a ladder, stand erect and move your feet while pushing down on the water with your hands.

Standing erect in the water with the feet going through the movements of ascending a ladder is known as treading water. It should be enough to keep the head out of the water. The hands may be used to press down on the water if desired. When pausing to watch, treading water is incredibly beneficial.

SIDE STROKE is a kind of stroke that occurs on the side of the body

Vintage WWII swimming side stroke illustration.

1. Lie on your side with one hand lower than the other and do a deep knee bend with your legs together.

Vintage WWII swimming side stroke# 2 illustration.

2. Push your legs backwards and apart, then completely stretch them. At the same moment, extend your lower arm forward and upward as your upper hand descends and backwards across your body.

Vintage WWII swimming side stroke# 3 illustration.

3. Pull lower arm back against chest and propel upper arm forward until you reach position 1. Legs are brought back to a deep knee bend.

The side stroke may be done on either side, making it particularly beneficial if one of your arms is handicapped. This stroke may be used to pull an item or another individual above water or to transport equipment above water.

Vintage WWII carry machine gun illustration.

To carry a machine gun, use a one-arm side stroke. Strong swimmers may employ this approach for short distances.

If a piece of equipment is too heavy for one man to carry, two men may carry it with their free arms by performing the side stroke.


Vintage WWII swimming back stroke illustration.

To transport items, use the backstroke. It relaxes the swimmer and allows them to breathe normally again. To make progress, use an inverted frog or scissors kick; a pushing action of the arm from shoulder level toward the legs also helps. Underwater, all motions take place. This is how strong swimmers can navigate short distances with equipment.

The back float is used to create the basic back stroke, which is a relaxed stroke. The inverted frog kick, also known as the scissors kick, is performed by the legs. Arms are lifted shoulder height with elbows straight, then carried to the side, forcing water towards the feet. Arm movements may be ignored when the arms are incapacitated or when it is required to carry items above water (as shown).


Vintage WWII jumping from ship illustration.

While leaping, the left hand pinches the nose while the right hand holds the left shoulder, or vice versa. The body is calm, straight, and the feet are close together.

Jumping into the water is better and safer for military swimming than diving. It’s preferable to risk injuring one’s head and face by diving into unknown depths or into debris. It is simpler to examine the surface when leaping, for example, to find lifeboats on the sea. Before leaping, take off your helmet. The left hand pinches the nostrils together while the right hand holds the left shoulder, or vice versa, while leaping. The arm across the chest shields the face from water contact. The head is held up straight. The legs are together and the body is calm and straight. Jumping should begin at roughly 3 feet and be progressively raised to 25 feet (the normal height of a vessel’s deck from the sea) throughout training. When the soldier has mastered leaping, he should practice doing it while clothed from different heights.



Underwater swimming is done with either the dog paddle or the breast stroke, with the latter being preferable. To look ahead or to observe the water’s surface, the head is lifted high. Swimming under water is utilized to get away from oil, surface flames, or debris.


Vintage WWII diving from ship illustration.

Use a shallow dive in deep water that is foreign to you. When you push off with your feet, arch your body by rising your head and chest and throwing your arms high; when you strike the water, your body skims over the surface.

Men who have mastered basic military swimming while clothed should study diving principles, particularly surface and shallow diving. When rescuing things that have sunk in water no deeper than 10 feet, surface diving comes in handy. Ducking the head, rolling forward and downward, pushing backward with the arms and hands, and kicking with the legs are all part of the move. Legs should be bent and knees kept near to the chest while using it to go beneath surface oil or flames. The legs may be burnt or smeared with oil if they are stretched before being totally immersed.

From a running start, the shallow dive may be performed. It entails diving forward while just above the water’s surface, arching the body by elevating the head and chest and tossing the arms forward, so that when the body strikes the water, it skims over the surface rather than sinking. The shallow dive is beneficial in shallow water or unknown depths, especially when swiftly crossing a body of water, such as while fleeing an enemy beach. It’s simple to get into any vigorous swimming stroke from the shallow dive.


Look ahead to check direction, took behind for oncoming waves Illustration.

1. Check your direction and glance behind you for impending waves.

Vintage WWII Bob under breaking wave; do not fight undertow illustration.

2. Bob beneath a breaking wave; do not battle the undertow – it only occurs a short distance below the surface, and wave movement will carry the swimmer farther than the undertow would.

Break through surface and repeat 1 and 2.

3. Break through the surface and repeat steps 1 and 2 once again.

a. Go surfing. Every soldier should know how to defend himself against surf, current, undertow, and tidal rip in the event of a shipwreck close shore or the need to swim to shore from a landing craft sunk or beached on a sand bar offshore. When approaching a coast, he should use the breast stroke or dog paddle to assess the beach’s conditions (rock, sand), the surf’s force, the undertow, the tidal rip, and any existing currents.

(1) The breaking of waves on a beach is known as surf. The powerful current under the surface that sets seaward after a wave has gone over is known as undertow. When an outgoing tide resists and slips beneath an oncoming tide, a tidal rip occurs. A frothy water line is generally used to identify the line of opposition. Only inside the first line of breakers is there any undertow; a vigorous push on the bottom with the feet will propel the swimmer to the surface soon after being rolled, allowing him to compose himself and attempt again. There is nothing to be afraid of.


(2) Difficulty may also be caused by an outgoing tide leaving a body of water between the beach and a sand bar. The trapped water may carve a passage through the sand bar, generating a strong outgoing current along the route and for a distance beyond the sand bar, with relatively calm water on either side. After inspecting the beach, the swimmer should swim in the opposite direction of the landing area, or, if a current occurs, to a position where the landing spot may be reached by swimming diagonally across the current. If at all feasible, he should remove the life preserver and any other means of support and discard them. The weak swimmer may cling to them, but he or she must constantly be prepared to let go.

(3) Before swimming to shore, keep in mind how any marine animal would swim through the waves. For example, the seal vanishes beyond the line surf and returns on the beach. It takes use of the calm water underneath the surf’s crashing waves. Its example should be followed by the landing soldier, who should duck beneath crashing waves. He should paddle with the breast stroke, side stroke, or dog paddle, looking behind him to observe the waves and ahead to assess the direction.

He should dip under the breaking waves, then surface and swim toward the coast, keeping an eye out for the next oncoming wave. He should avoid fighting undertow and keep in mind that it only exists for a short distance under the surface. He must be calm and save his energy. The swimmer will be propelled forward by the wave rather than being dragged back by the undertow. He should be able to swim effortlessly until the next wave arrives, then ride the forward surge that follows the breaker in. If he can comfortably stand on the bottom, he should pay closer attention to the waves. They come in various sizes. He should move toward shore with the tiny ones, supporting his feet against the returning undertow, then go under the huge ones. Even if he is just moving a few steps at a time, he must constantly remain patient.

b. A rocky beach. The swimmer must avoid being struck by a breaking wave while landing on a rocky coast. The risk is that he will be thrown into the rocks by a wave. Before the wave breaks, he must bob under it and cling to the bottom if at all possible. Normally, the bottom is tranquil.

c. Flows of information. He should avoid swimming against the tide since it would tire him. Instead, he should swim diagonally across its pull with a vigorous stroke and without fear. The influence will be mitigated in the not-too-distant future. Then, at a different place, he should continue swimming toward the beach.

c. A poor swimmer. Until rescue comes, the frail swimmer must stand outside a breaking surf with his life preserver. If no help is available, he must swim down the coast, outside the surf and against the tide, seeking for an entry to a river or harbor, a long jetty, or a place where the waves only break when they are near to shore.


Complete the Series

Abandoning Ship Surviving Aboard a Life Raft How to Climb Down a Ship’s Ropes and Cargo Nets


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