At 9 a.m. on June 14, eight days after the Normandy invasion, Lieutenant Commander Draper Kauffman and his team of combat swimmers sailed in four landing craft toward the calm, turquoise, saltwater lagoon of Saipan. The men wore swimming trunks and were covered in blue paint from head to toe to camouflage themselves in the Saipan Lagoon. Some wore knee pads and baby blue canvas shoes to crawl over the sharp coral reef. Attached to their belts were sheaf knives, as well as small rubber-coated demolition charges for detonating mines.
It was the first large-scale daylight operation by the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT), an elite unit of combat swimmers tasked with reconnoitering enemy Pacific islands and blowing up coastal defenses prior to the Allied landings. To this day, few people know about the unit, in large part because its existence was kept top secret during the war to prevent the Japanese from developing a countermeasure. But the contributions of the UDT have been invaluable. Armed only with swimming trunks, flippers, and scuba masks, the combat swimmers took part in almost every major amphibious assault on the Pacific Theater. GIs admiringly called them “half fish, half nuts”. Decades later, the daring swimmers would give rise to the Navy SEALs.
Prior to the Saipan reconnaissance, Kauffman and other officers had divided the swimmers into “buddy pairs” and instructed them to always work together and to help each other in case of trouble. Each pair carried a reel of fishing line to measure water depth and balsa floats to mark underwater hazards. They had also drawn black lines every twelve inches on their necks, torsos, and legs, and made their bodies yardsticks for shallow-water measurements.
Each UDT swimmer had to be his own engine, ship, skipper and navigator. “There are no markers,” recalls 95-year-old George Morgan, who joined the UDT as a teenager and went on reconnaissance missions in the Pacific Islands after Saipan. “Nobody says, ‘Turn right or turn here.'”
At Saipan, Navy warships conducted a heavy shoreline bombardment to pin the Japanese down during the UDT swim operation. The palm trees that towered over the beach were quickly reduced to stubble, a look dubbed the Spruance Haircut in homage to Fifth Fleet Commander Admiral Raymond Spruance.
Two miles offshore and one mile seaward of the barrier reef, the UDT landing craft turned parallel to the shoreline, then pairs of UDTs began sliding into the water. As they swam inshore, one man in each pair lowered the weighted fishing line to the seabed to record depth readings while his partner swam in a zigzag pattern alongside him, looking for underwater mines, obstructions, or shallow coral heads, and marking them with balsa floats. In the run-up to the mission, there were concerns about man-eating clams and giant sharks in the lagoon, but none were observed.
Kauffman and other officers rode ahead of the swimmers on motorized black rubber rafts called “flying mattresses” and helped coordinate the covering fire. On each raft were an officer and his swimming partner, who shared a radio and binoculars. Kauffman – who suffered from terrible eyesight – wore his Coke glasses taped to his face in case he had to jump in the ocean. (The mate he chose was farsighted but also color blind, leading to a running joke that Kauffman’s mate would describe the coastal objects and Kauffman would tell him the color.)
Waves splashed over the edges of the inflatable boats as they sloshed across the lagoon. Kauffman’s raft was hurtling shoreward as a series of shells splashed just aft. Believing it to be Navy shooting, Kauffman raised the antenna on his cracker box radio and angrily called his senior officer, who was relaying coordinates to the warships from a landing craft.
“Tell those damn ships to take off their shorts!” Kauffmann barked.
“Those aren’t shorts, they’re overs,” his manager replied calmly. “They are not ours.”
“Even as enemy mortar shells rained down around him, Kauffman went about his work calmly.”
As tall columns of water shot up like fire hydrants and bullets raked the surface of the lagoon, swimmers dove underwater to escape. The men realized that enemy bullets were slowing a few meters below the sea surface, allowing swimmers to hold their breath and dive under the sinking guns. (Some swimmers caught the bullets with their fingers and put them in their pockets as souvenirs. Others later punched a hole through the sniper bullets, tied them to strings, and wore them as necklaces.)
Even as enemy shells and bullets lashed the water, Kauffman could see many swimmers heading within fifty yards of the beach. Impressed by their courage, he later said, “Every single man continued his search calmly and slowly, marking his plaque… I wouldn’t have been so amazed if 90 percent of the men did as well, but to have had a cold was 100 percent through.” go down the rain of fire, it was almost unbelievable.”
One man was killed during the morning reconnaissance, a popular officer named Robert Christensen. He had been hit by a Japanese bullet while piloting one of the inflatable boats.
“After every mission, there was always an empty bunk or two,” recalls Morgan, now one of the last surviving veterans of the UDT. “You lived with it, and it was tough.”
Back aboard the transports, the officers gathered the swimmers’ intelligence and depth measurements, and Kauffman’s best draftsman drew up a detailed map of the Saipan Lagoon, copies of which were distributed to the landing troops. The next morning, UDT officers drove ahead of the infantry in small boats to guide them to their assigned landing beaches.
Kauffman led the amphibious tanks in from an open Amtrac. Even as enemy mortar shells rained down all around him, Kauffman went about his work calmly, dropping buoys and anchors to mark a diagonal channel across the reef. Behind him, the long line of tanks rocked along the buoyed underwater path, following Kauffman’s Amtrac like ducklings on a pond.
After leading the tanks ashore, Kauffman was ordered to report to the shore commander, who had an assignment for him. As Kauffman and a UDT lieutenant climbed out of an Amtrac onto the beach, they found themselves in the middle of a bitter firefight. The beach was a cauldron of smoke, white phosphorus, and clouds of exploding sand. Each marine looked like a one-man warrior, armed with a rifle, bayonet, magazine, combat knife, incendiary and phosphorus grenades.
Kauffman and the lieutenant dove into a foxhole in the sand between two sweaty, helmeted Marines. The Marines hardly had to blink to believe what they were seeing: Kauffman shirtless and the lieutenant in bathing trunks and “coral slippers” with scuba masks dangling from their necks.
“For heaven’s sake,” one Marine yelled at the other. “We haven’t even gotten to the beachhead yet, and the goddamn tourists are already here!”
Adapted from Into Enemy Waters: A History of World War II Demolition Divers Who Became Navy SEALs by Andrew Dublins. Copyright © 2022 Andrew Dubbins. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Diversion Books. All rights reserved.
https://www.thedailybeast.com/without-the-heroic-wwii-frogmen-there-would-be-no-navy-seals?source=articles&via=rss Without the heroic frogmen of World War II, there would be no Navy SEALs