Kwajalein ....Roi-Namur....Eniwetok

On November 19, 1943, five thousand United States Marines invaded Tarawa Island in the Gilbert Islands. A few days later over one-half of them were dead. Many of those who had died were killed on the coral reef approach to Tarawa's beaches. The landing craft had lodged on the reef leaving the Marines helpless in a withering Japanese cross fire. Admiral Turner, Commanding Officer of the U. S. Pacific Amphibious Fleet vowed that this would never happen again.

In the early December of 1943, Turner received Admiral Nimitz's approval for a plan to convert already trained Naval Combat Demolition Units into Underwater Demolition Teams. Each of these new teams would consist of (15) 6 man NCDU crews, making the Teams about 90 men and officers each. Whether this formula or ratio was Turner's idea or not has not been confirmed, but his directive through top Navy brass was clear. The new Teams were called Naval Underwater Demolition Teams.

As 1944 approached, the United States forces had nearly conquered the vast Solomon Island area with its many islands. The United States and British forces, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, were beginning to throttle the Japanese on New Guinea. The United States Navy with its Marine Corp was preparing its long march across the western Pacific - destination Japan. With Tarawa and the rest of the Gilbert Islands behind them, the next objective was the Japanese occupied Marshall Island with their three fortified strongholds, Kwajalein, Roi-Namur, and Eniwetok.

Turner's directive initiated two fast moving projects. First and most important in terms of time was the formation of two Underwater Demolition Teams trained for action before the middle of January. Teams that would be in the Marshalls ahead of the invading Marines in late January. The second project was to immediately establish a top secret base in the Hawaiian Islands to train future Underwater Demolition Teams. That base would be the Naval Underwater Demolition Training and Experimental Base on Maui.

The two new Teams for the Marshall Island operation was going to be the problem because of the short time allowed for their development and training. Even if the brass could move enough trained Naval Combat Demolition Units together in the Pacific in the time allowed, there still must be some time to train in their new 90 man formation.

By early December there was a nucleus of men training at Waimanalo, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii. A mixture of Seabees who had experience in coral blasting in the Solomons, Naval Combat Demolition Units from Fort Pierce, a number of men from the Marine Corps, and a few Army men. By the middle of December 1943, there were approximately one-hundred fifty men and officers in that group. They were split into two groups, and were named Underwater Demolition Teams One and Two respectively.

A listing of officers is not available for the Team One roster, but several officers have been identified from other sources as being on Team One's staff. Commander E. D. Brewster (CEC) was made commanding officer of the Team. Ensign Lew Luehrs served as a platoon officer. Luehrs would have one of the longest distinguished records in Underwater Demolition. He was one of the first men to swim a reconnaissance mission when he swam into the beach at Kwajalein. He was later a platoon officer in Team 3, he served with the Experimental Group at Maui testing the early types of shallow water diving equipment, and later was made Executive Officer of Team 18 with duty at Borneo and Tokyo. Carpenter W. L. Gordon, a Seabee Warrant Officer, served as a platoon officer, and he would later serve with Team 3. Team One remained in training at Waimanalo until they left for the Marshall Islands in January. In January 1944, Team One was attached to Task Force 52 under Vice Admiral Turner.

Team Two organized with nearly half of the men being Marine and Army personnel. Lieutenant Tom Crist, a Seabee just in from Canton Island in the Solomons, took over as temporary Commanding Officer of Team Two. About Christmas time of 1943 Team Two moved to San Diego, California. There the Team was attached to Task Force 53 under Rear Admiral Conolly. Lieutenant Commander J. T. Koehler replaced Lieutenant Crist as Commanding Officer, and Crist became the Operations Officer.

In the brief month that these two teams were formed and trained together, it was hoped that they would be prepared to meet the challenge ahead - whatever that would be. The schedule for the Kwajalein and Roi-Namur landings was the last day of January 1944. Eniwetok, farther west in the island group, was scheduled for attack during the middle of February.

Team Two left San Diego with Conolly's fleet before the middle of January. The Team did not have the luxury of the later Teams. Instead of an APD they moved by APA transport.

Team One left the Hawaiian Islands by the middle of January with Admiral Turner's fleet. Before the end of the month, they would be in the Marshalls, and the bombardment force would be striking targets on Kwajelein's and Roi-Namur.

It was planned to use two new weapons in the Marshall invasions. One of these was the use of modified LCIs, Landing Craft Infantry. These were ocean going vessels that were designed to beach and unload troops. The LCIG was an LCI converted into a gunboat. On the troop deck, racks and racks of rocket launchers were installed. They were designed as close-in firepower support for invading forces, and they were found particularly effective in support of Underwater Demolition swimmers in the later invasions in the Pacific.

The other weapon was the "drone boats". The idea of the drone boats was hatched by someone at Waimanalo. Tom Crist, who furnished much of the information about Teams One and Two for this book, and who now (1993) is about 80 years old, living in Dallas, Texas, trained and experimented with the drone boats before their use at Kwajelein and Roi-Namur. The drone boats were high technology 1943 style, but simply put, they were unmanned boats controlled by radio signals. The drone boats were tested under non-combat conditions, used at both Kwajelein and Roi-Namur, and were considered to have failed in all three instances. The drone boats were ordinary wooden landing craft with special radio controlled equipment for guidance and acceleration. They were loaded with three tons of explosives. Some research listed the explosive as 60% dynamite and another listed it as tetrytol. Of course, dynamite would be illogical because a Japanese sniper could detonate the dynamite with a single rifle bullet, either by chance or by intention. The boats were intended to blast holes or channels through coral reefs without endangering the lives of demolition men required to place the explosive from rubber boats. Any good demolition man should have been skeptical, because explosives will move into the least resistance. Three tons of explosives in a floating boat would lose most of its force moving upward through the air, and furthermore the downward energy would be reduced quickly between the water and the coral.

The Marshall Island operations were code named Operation Flintlock. The Kwajelein Atoll is the largest coral atoll in the world. It is shaped similar to the shape of a handgun with Kwajelein Island on the butt of the gun and Roi-Namur on the hammer. The two islands are about 40 miles apart. The invasion of both islands took place on January 31, 1944. Team One was assigned the beaches of Kwajelein, and Team Two the beaches of Roi-Namur. Kwajelein was the largest of the two islands and most heavily armed by the Japanese. Roi-Namur was really two small islands almost as close as the hyphen in the name.

The Kwajelein operation began in the early morning hours of January 31. Admiral Turner decided to have Underwater Demolition Team One make a daylight reconnaissance of the coral reefs and beaches to determine the high and low tide water depths through the beach approaches and the beach conditions above the high water mark. Team One, using LCVPs, moved toward the beach making depth soundings over the coral approaches. Two battleships and several destroyers pounded the beaches with heavy fire support during the mission. The LCVPs drew some fire but managed to map a wide area of the reef to within 400 yards of the beach.

At that point, swimmers led by Ensign Lew Luehrs, left the LCVPs and swam shoreward over the reef. They covered the entire reef to the surf line checking for the water depth and searching for mines and possible underwater obstacles. They found the beach was clear of mines and manmade obstacles, but found large coral head growths closer to the surf. At low tide a repeat of the disaster at Tarawa could occur. The swimmers report gave the depth of water over the coral heads and recommended the use of amtracks to transport the troops to the beach.

Lew Luehrs lives in Washington state today (1993) and has been a contributor of materials for this manuscript. That short hour-long mission by Team One at Kwajelein made history that day in January of 1943. It was the first Underwater Demolition Team operation and it was the first daylight swimming reconnaissance. The operation was hardly planned and resulted mostly from a last minute directive from Admiral Turner stating simply, we will do it this way. It also was the beginning of a very precise method of operation which would be perfected in the many invasions still to come in the Pacific Theater of War.

On another Kwajelein beach the drone boats were tried for the first time on an enemy beach. They never got to the beach and their explosive cargo was never ignited. The operation was canceled because of technical failures.

Although Team One had no pre-assault demolition operations, after the landings they blasted channels through coral reefs to allow heavy supplies to be transported to shore. They also blasted beach obstacles in a beach clearing operation.

Meanwhile, about 40 miles northwest of Kwajelein the island of Roi-Namur was being attacked by Admiral Conolly's Task Force 53 with Underwater Demolition Team Two assigned to reconnoiter the beaches.

The reconnaissance mission at Roi-Namur was accomplished in the good old Fort Pierce style of "sneak and peek". Team Two rubber boat crews moved over the coral reef to the beaches under the protection of darkness. The crews found the water depth over the reef adequate, and the beaches seemed clear of mines and obstacles. Even though there was some question whether the darkness may have hidden some dangerous details, the Marines had no problems during their late morning landings.

It was decided that Team Two would try their drone boats before "H-hour" even though the beaches had been declared clear. It would be a good test run under fire and the exploding drones might cause confusion for the Japanese forces. So, under heavy fire, Lieutenant Tom Crist, the Team Operations Officer in charge of the drones, sent the boats into the smoke shrouded beach. When the drones were very near the beach Crist gave the old Demo "Fire in the Hole" cry. But all were misfires, and the drones seemed out of control. One boat traveled a circular path a short distance from the beach. Radio signals would not control the boats or fire the charges, and Crist had to send men in on other landing craft to board and bring the drones under control.

The drone boats were all under manual control before the first wave of Marines went ashore. What caused the drones to cease responding to radio signals was never known, but it was believed that in the choppy water over the reef the electrical connections had shorted. Three tries and three failures resulted in ending the testing and using drone boats.

Team Two did some post-assault demolition work blasting landing ramps in the coral ledges at the beach line. There was also some assault work with the Marines in blasting heavily fortified blockhouses.

Teams One and Two had made UDT history with many "firsts" at Kwajelein and Roi-Namur. The Army at Kwajelein and the Marines at Roi-Namur had also had successful "firsts", and the disaster of Tarawa had not been repeated and their casualty lists were evidence of that.

By the end of the first week in February, the two eastern strongholds were in U. S. hands, but the third one in the western Marshalls was still waiting. This was Eniwetok, another Marshall Islands atoll which is a couple of hundred miles or more west by northwest of Kwajelein. Team One was assigned the responsibility of the Eniwetok underwater demolition operation. It was decided to use amtracks for the UDT reconnaissance missions and the amtracks carried Marine scouts as well as Team One men.

The water was very clear as the amtracks approached the outer limits of the coral reef leading to the intended invasion beaches. As the amtracks moved slowly shoreward coral heads began appearing under the water. The Japanese began firing at the amtracks and the fleet's bombardment force increases their fire. The radiomen in the amtracks were unable to spot only a general location for the source of enemy fire, so the fleet used a "blanket fire" method in attempting to cover the amtracks and their UDT and Marine scouts.

Where the water over the coral heads became shallow enough to indicate a threat to landing craft, it was decided to mark their location with buoys. The buoys would locate the coral heads for a night underwater demolition operation if necessary. Lew Luehrs led Team One swimmers from the moving amtracks sounding the depth to the coral heads and buoying those that were determined needed removing. A quarter mile wide area of reef was reconnoitered from the deep water to the surf line with all coral heads which seemed hazardous plainly marked with buoys. After the completion of the coral head locations, Luehrs and his swimmers placed different colored side buoys along the quarter mile width of the beach approach area.

It was determined after the full report of the mission was finalized that the coral heads would not be a hazard to LCVPs with the tide level expected during the invasion hours, and a night demolition operation was not required.

The following morning another tradition of Underwater Demolition began. The UDT reconnaissance swimmers led the first wave of landing craft into the beach. Lew Luehrs in command of the wave guide boat noticed that many of the landing craft was moving out of the area marked by buoys. He moved his craft close to the wayward craft and forced them back into the channel area. Luehrs was warranted a Silver Star Medal for his performance that morning, and this was just the beginning of his distinguished service in UDT.

Eniwetok was soon secured by Marines, and the Marshall Islands were now in control of the United States. The first big step across the thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean was now complete and the dreadful casualties of Tarawa were not repeated, and at least some credit must be given to the new Underwater Demolition Teams for that.

There are many atolls in the Marshall Islands and each atoll has many small islands around its lagoon. The research for this manuscript did not reveal any information about any islands other than Kwajelein, Roi-Namur, and Eniwetok that were invaded by U. S. forces, but no doubt there were Japanese on many of the small islands that were overwhelmed easily by landing parties with little or no casualties.

For Teams One and Two their war was over, they were decommissioned. But the war was not over for the men who served with them for they would go into other teams and into the Naval Underwater Demolition Base at Maui as instructors to train other teams. Lieutenant Commander Koehler left immediately for Maui where he joined in the development of the new base. From the Marshall Islands he brought the experience to develop to training program for the new Underwater Demolition Teams - a training in day and night reconnaissance and demolition.

(from THE MEN FROM FORT PIERCE by Marvin Cooper)

See Page 1, UDT Team One and UDT Team TWO for additional history for those Teams.

TEAM ROSTERS - To protect the integrity of the Teams and the privacy of individual frogmen, Team rosters are not made public. If you or your relative was a member of UDT Team Three and you would like further information, we suggest you contact the UDT-SEAL Museum.

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