A 45-year Navy career and two stints on ‘Survivor’ means name recognition for Boesch
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 4, 2010
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Several of the chief petty officers eating lunch together on Wednesday already knew of Rudy Boesch, the retired Navy SEAL and two-time alumnus of the TV reality show “Survivor.”
One recalled how Boesch drank unpurified water during “Survivor: All-Stars” and then explained to a concerned competitor that what he drank during two combat tours in Vietnam was a lot worse.
“If I’m not still standing at noon, don’t drink it,” Boesch told the others on the show.
Boesch’s peers at the Chief Petty Officers’ Club on Wednesday said they found his reality-show exploits in 2000 and again in 2004 interesting. But in their eyes, his Navy career dwarfs anything he did on television. Boesch stopped by Yokosuka last week to sign autographs and swap stories with sailors.
Boesch, a retired master chief petty officer, was a special warfare operator before the title existed. He served from 1945 until 1990.
To put that in perspective, Boesch enlisted one month before the World War II Allied victory in Europe and retired the day before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
“He’s a living part of our history,” said Chief Petty Officer Rory Collins, of Santa Fe, N.M. “Forty-five years of service is something to look up to, and I think it inspires the rest of us in this room.”
If Boesch had it his way, he’d still be wearing a uniform.
“I asked the Secretary of the Navy about it a few years back, and he just smiled at me,” said Boesch, 82, in an interview with Stars and Stripes. “Yeah, I wish was still doing it.”
Boesch went to boot camp as a 17-year-old and volunteered for what was described to him only as “secret and hazardous” duty. He was sent to Fort Pierce, Fla., to join the Amphibious Scouts and Raiders, a group organized to assist Chinese fighters in a planned assault, that never materialized, on the Japanese mainland.
In 1951, Boesch completed Underwater Demolition Teams training. That group formed the building blocks of another elite unit that Boesch would be among the first 50 to pioneer — the Navy SEALs.
Boesch went on to set physical and operational standards for the SEALs and earned a Bronze Star while in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970. He retired as the top enlisted adviser to Special Operations Command.
He said the Navy has changed since he retired in two noticeable ways: Everything is far more computerized, and there are a lot more women in uniform.
“It’s just a matter of time until there are women SEALs,” Boesch said. “There are a few women who could probably pass the test. Not many, though.”
About 10 years after retiring, while reading a newspaper at home in Virginia Beach, Va., Boesch saw an advertisement about a challenge.
He barely noticed the part about the money and certainly had no conception of the spotlight he was about to enter following the rise of “Survivor” to the top of the TV ratings in 2000.
After a lifetime spent under the shroud of special operations, everyone suddenly knew who he was.
Shouts of “Hey, Rudy!” came from everywhere. He began hearing it while on vacation in Wyoming. He’d continue hearing it at promotional appearances. He even heard it on a New York City street from a sewer worker who popped out of a manhole to greet him.
Around that time, while he was sitting on a bench in Central Park, a stranger walked up to Boesch.
“ ‘I’ve just gotta shake your hand,’ ” Boesch recalled the stranger saying. “My wife told me it was Donald Trump. I didn’t know the guy.”
Boesch still gets recognized in public, but he said he doesn’t mind it at all. He’d happily sign up for another show for another chance to better his third-place finish during the first season of “Survivor.”
In the meantime, Boesch spends most of his time in Virginia Beach, where he still works out regularly with SEALs at the nearby Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base.
Occasionally, he travels abroad to places like Yokosuka, where his words had an unexpected impact on at least one fellow chief Wednesday.
Chief Petty Officer Gonzales, of Kenedy, Texas, always figured he’d hang up his khakis at the 20-year mark. After listening for a while to Boesch talk about what the Navy meant to him — even after all that TV exposure — Gonzales wasn’t so sure.
“It makes me rethink what I want to do,” Gonzales said. “He reminds you of how good you have it here.”