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The Forerunners: World War II Frogmen

by Dick Couch

Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese naval power was crippled at the Battle of Midway, and Japan’s advance in the Pacific was finally checked in land and sea actions around Guadalcanal. Then U.S. forces began the long drive across the Pacific to the Japanese home islands. This was to be an island-hopping campaign, and the first of those islands was Tarawa Atoll’s Betio.

With insufficient hydrological data, the Marines went ashore in the early-morning hours of 20 November 1943. Many drowned under the weight of their gear as their landing craft beached on underwater reefs well offshore; many more were gunned down as they waded the shallow stretches between reefs and beach. More than 1,000 Marines died on Tarawa and more than 2,000 others were wounded.

Amphibious operations are by their very nature risky and costly, but hydrographic intelligence could reduce risk and save lives. Men were needed to go in ahead of invasion forces to survey landing beaches. There was a war on; those men had to be found and quickly trained for that important task. The Navy turned to a maverick naval officer named Draper Kauffman. He proved to be the perfect man for the job. The story of the Navy frogman, and by extension, the Navy SEAL, can be distilled from the life of the charismatic Kauffman.

He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1933, but because of poor vision was unable to pass the commissioning physical. So he entered the ambulance service in France just in time to see its army overrun by the Germans in 1940. After a brief stint as a POW he went to England where he promptly joined the Royal Navy. Midway through his training to become a British naval officer he volunteered for ordnance-disposal work. Soon Sub-Lieutenant Kauffman was crawling through the rubble of London, defusing unexploded bombs. At the time, he was the only American serving in the Royal Navy, and few in Britain served in a more dangerous calling.

A month before America entered the war, Kauffman was repatriated and commissioned in the U.S. Navy. In the summer of 1943, in anticipation of the Pacific amphibious campaign, the Navy tasked Kauffman with solving the problem of removing obstacles from landing beaches. “Get together some men and train them to get rid of those (beach) obstacles,” he was told. “Your orders will allow you to go anywhere you think best to set up a training base. You can have anyone you ask for, in or out of the naval service. This is an emergency and we don’t have much time.” Kauffman chose Fort Pierce, Florida, as his base.

Fort Pierce in the summer of 1943 was a mosquito-infested mangrove swamp. The new all-volunteer group was called the Naval Combat Demolition Unit (NCDU). The training headquarters was set up in an abandoned casino. Another unit based at Fort Pierce was a veteran naval amphibious outfit simply called the Scouts and Raiders. Their training called for an intensive eight-week physical training regimen. Kauffman asked the Scouts and Raiders if they could compress the highlights of their program into a single week. It quickly became known as Hell Week. Kauffman and the assigned officers went through the first Hell Week with their enlisted trainees. That established a precedent that continues to this day; officers and enlisted men suffer and train side by side during the arduous week. Those who survived Hell Week were then trained in demolitions, beach reconnaissance, and hydrographic survey work. Then, as now, they trained in boat crews of six to eight men with an officer in charge. The crews of frogmen worked as teams during training and in combat, just as SEALs do today.

Kauffman also set the tone for a special bond between officers and enlisted men. Beginning with the first class, he brought the volunteers into a room, officers on one side and the enlisted men on the other. To the enlisted he said, “I will do everything in my power to see that no officer graduates from this school under whom I would not be happy to go into combat.” To the officers, he said, “I will do everything in my power to see that no enlisted man graduates from this school whom I would not want to lead in combat.” The officers and enlisted men then shared and shared alike in the miseries of Fort Pierce and NCDU training.

The NCDUs evolved into the underwater demolition teams, or UDTs, but the mission of clearing landing beaches remained essentially the same. NCDUs suffered a 52-percent casualty rate on Omaha Beach. The three-dozen odd men who graduated from Kauffman’s initial training grew exponentially: Two years later, on the eve of the Japanese surrender, the Navy counted more than 5,000 men in the UDTs—3,000 of them poised for the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

At the end of the war, U.S. forces were dramatically drawn down. By 1948 there were four teams numbering just over 200 officers and men. These four teams were the available UDT personnel going into the Korean War. Korea was a confined, regional engagement with none of the massive amphibious operations of World War II. At the Inchon landing in 1950 there were no beach obstacles, as the North Koreans believed the 30-foot tides there would make a landing impossible, but the UDTs served in a reconnaissance role and as wave guides to help steer landing craft to the beach.

A new requirement imposed on the UDTs in Korea that had not been part of their World War II tasks was the onshore raid. UDT elements would paddle ashore in rubber boats loaded with explosives and conduct raids on North Korean rail lines, bridges, and tunnels. Those missions were the first over-the-beach operations, a staple of today’s SEAL mission requirements. Many of the procedures developed by those amphibious frogmen laid the groundwork for future littoral-centric SEAL operations.