Bert Thomas was Tacoma’s Babe Ruth of open water swimming, making two cold water distance swims in the mid 1950’s that still seem humanly impossible today. On July 8th, 1955, on his fifth attempt in the 45 degree waters, Bert crossed the Straits of Juan De Fuca from Port Angeles to Victoria. He was the first person to make the extreme swim of 18.3 miles and he did it without a wetsuit in a little over 11 hours and twenty minutes.
Bert was an awkward hero, a top heavy ex-marine frogman who weighed 275 pounds, was bald before he turned 30 and had a bad habit of wearing loud plaids to overcome his shyness. At 11:30 in the morning on May 14, 1956 he plunged into the 46 degree sound at Fauntleroy Cove for the longest swim of his life, from West Seattle to Tacoma. His wife Marion and daughter Sharon followed along in an escort vessel, as Bert relentlessly churned away with a steady side stroke and powerful leg kick. The tide turned against him just as the sun set and then about 10;30 he cleared Dash Point and began a second fight against the outflow of the Puyallup River as he crossed Commencement Bay. Every hour he pulled up, treading water so Marion could feed him warm soup through a tube. Then she passed him a lit cigarette that he smoked on his back before rolling back into his slow determined side stoke. In the cold water darkness Bert no doubt recalled his first February attempt at the swim that lasted less than 2 hours. In April just a month before Bert had failed at a second attempt after 9 hours in the water coming up just 6 miles short.
Now he could see the lights of Tacoma and bonfires burning on the beach near Old Town Dock and finally, at 3:05 a.m. on May 15th Bert Thomas’ feet touched the sandy bottom near the modern day Chinese Reconciliation Park. It had taken him 15 hours and 23 minutes to reach Tacoma, a distance of just under 20 miles. A crowd of 5000 people were there to witness the end of the swim and the singer Helen O’Connell, who happened to be in town, was there to give him a victory kiss. Bert went on to swim the English Channel the next year and then come home to enjoy his local celebrity status. People recognized him out at the B&I Circus and kids asked for his autograph at the new Cheney Stadium in the early 1960’s. He was like ET. Bert Thomas died of a heart attack in 1972. He was only 46 years old.

Written by tacomahistory

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

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