(Excerpted from "The Men From Fort Pierce" by Marvin Cooper. Reprinted with permission of the author.)

On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and commenced an offense in the western Pacific including the invasion of the Philippine Islands. Germany declared war on the United States, and the European War became World War II. The world was divided into two gigantic fighting war machines, the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan and the Allied powers of the British Commonwealth and the United States. Lesser powers throughout the world chose sides to put most of the world at war. The U.S. Pacific Fleet was nearly destroyed in the Pearl Harbor bombing, and Japan appeared in full command of most of the Pacific. The U.S. with its crippled Pacific Fleet could do little as Japan gradually overran the Philippines, took Guam and established bases in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and in other island groups in the western Pacific.

The United States Navy quickly recovered from the disaster at Pearl Harbor. Crippled ships were repaired, new ones built, and transfer of ships from the Atlantic Fleet soon made the Pacific Fleet into a viable combat force. By the first week in February, the Pacific Fleet was striking the Japanese held Marshall and Gilbert island groups. By late April, the U.S. Pacific Fleet engaged a Japanese Fleet in the Coral Sea. The Battle of Coral Sea gave the Japanese a weak victory, but the U.S. Navy had stopped the Japs on their relentless move towards Australia. In June, just six months after Pearl Harbor, an inferior U.S. Fleet defeated the Japanese main fleet at Midway Island, turning away an invasion force and keeping Midway in U.S. hands. The battered but growing U.S. Pacific Fleet had stopped the Japanese southern and eastern advance in the Pacific. That U.S. Pacific Fleet would become by 1945 the strongest and greatest fleet ever assembled.

Looking at a world map that spring of 1942, an allied military planner must have felt discouraged, when he visualized what the Allies faced in the coming years if they were to defeat the Axis powers. Germany and Italy controlled all of non-communist Europe and much of North Africa. In the Pacific, the Japanese were in possession of everything west of the International Date Line and north of the Coral Sea. It must have been apparent that huge sea-to-land operations would have to be used again and again. This meant that amphibious forces would have to be developed far more than could have been visualized in the prewar military. Sea to land operations usually were thought of as fleet landing parties or the landing of a few hundred Marines onto shores that were only mildly hostile or lightly defended.

The Navy in early 1942 started developing the Amphibious Forces into an important arm of the Navy's attack force. America's workers were put to work building airplanes, ships, tanks, vehicles, and landing craft and vessels. Some of these were as follows: Landing Ship Tank (LST), a sea going ship to transport troops, guns, and tanks; Landing Craft Infantry (LCT), a sea going ship to transport assault troops; Assault Transports (APA), sea going, non-beachable ships to transport men, weapons, and small landing craft to invasion areas; Landing Craft Tank (LCT), a ship to shore craft; Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP), the most used ship to shore craft. There were several more types including the truly amphibious tanks and vehicles which operated both in water and on land.

The Navy established several bases along the east and west coasts. These were especially designed to train officers and men to man the above listed landing craft. Coxswains, Gunner's Mates, Signalmen, Radio Men, Motor Machinist Mates, and other rated people were needed. These people were destined to be the Amphibious Forces of the United States Amphibious Forces.

The Amphibious Forces were destined to develop some specialty groups. Three of those groups were the Navy Scouts and Raiders, the Naval Combat Demolition Units, and the Naval Underwater Demolition Teams. This book (The Men From Fort Pierce) is the story of the approximately 3000 men who served in the Naval Combat Demolition Units and the Naval Underwater Demolition Teams.

After the naval battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, the United States started the Solomon Island offensive. This was in the late summer of 1942. Landing craft, mostly Higgins boats, put the Marines ashore on Guadacanal and other islands, and no great difficulties were encountered. The Japanese were there in force, but had never built adequate beach defenses on the many beaches. It took the Marines until January of 1943 to defeat the Japanese on Guadacanal.

In early 1943, the British and American troops joined forces in New Guinea, and the British under General Wingate stopped the Japanese advance in Burma. The Japanese had been stopped before they reached the north shores of Australia, and the long march back towards Japan would soon begin over the thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean.

The first major amphibious operation was launched in November of 1942 when 400,000 men were landed from 890 ships on to the coast of North Africa. This was the mightiest water-borne effort up to that time in history. This landing was against very little resistance because the British Army was already fighting the Germans and the landing was some distance from the existing front lines. But from this the military minds realized that in the future there would be operations against beaches that would be fortified and well defended.

Thought started to be given to the necessity of removing fortifications in the water and on the beaches. In other words, military strategists realized that mines and obstacles in the waters off shore of a landing beach could contain hidden fortifications that could prove disastrous to landing craft, troops, and the entire military operation.

There was no great effort to solve what appeared to be a possible problem and in the earlier invasions no great problems seem to exist. Then on November 20, 1943, the United States began their operations in the Gilbert Islands, and their long march to Tokyo began. This was the Invasion of Tarawa just west of the International Date Line and north of the equator in the Gilbert Islands. Many of the landing craft hit the submerged coral reefs and became stranded in a crossfire from Japanese fortifications. Many troops were killed and the need for a pre-assault force to reconnoiter and remove hidden underwater obstacles became obvious.

By the time of the Tarawa disaster, a Lieutenant Commander Draper Kaufman had already envisioned the need for pre-assault units to prepare the beaches before the invasions. He had organized the Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDU) and had them in training at Fort Pierce, Florida. Admiral Turner, as a result of Tarawa, ordered a directive to organize the six-man NCDU crews into teams of about 100 men and officers to carry out pre-assault missions to clear the beaches ahead of landing parties in the Pacific. The Underwater Demolitions Teams were born from his directive. The research for this manuscript never uncovered who named the groups UDT.

Several naval officers have received credit for their foresight in establishing the Underwater Demolition Teams. Admiral Kelly Turner, Commander E.D. Brewster, and Commander J.T. Koehler were all instrumental in its development, but the one man who stands out as the man with the "hands on" building of NCDU and UDT has to be Lieutenant Commander Draper Kauffman. Kauffman had in early 1943 established his 6-man rubber boat crews and had them trained for demolition operations. The following paragraph is the obituary of Kauffman as written in the Los Angeles Times following his death in 1979.

"The Admiral who gained distinction in World War II wearing swimming trunks and riding a rubber raft has died while on a tour of Hungary. Rear Admiral Draper L. Kauffman known as the father of Underwater Demolition Teams was on tour in Budapest with members of a Naval Academy alumni group. He was 68. Kauffman was a member of the academy's class of 1933 but did not receive a commission because of poor eyesight. When World War II began in Europe, he resigned his job with United Steamship Lines to become an ambulance driver in Paris. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940 but escaped two months later, making his way to England through Spain and Portugal. He then volunteered for the British Royal Navy serving until he was finally offered a commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve in November of 1941, one month before Pearl Harbor. His first major assignment was to disassemble an unexploded 500-pound bomb which had fallen at Schofield Barracks during the Japanese attack. His success won him the Navy Cross. He set up the Navy's first bomb disposal school, and in 1944, led Navy frogmen in the landing operations at Saipan and Tinian Islands. Some 12 years after graduating from Annapolis, he was accepted into the regular Navy and in 1965 became the 44th Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. Services will be held Friday at the Academy."

The development of NCDU and UDT can best be illustrated in the way the training was developed at the three major bases for the demolition trainees during the years 1943 through 1945. Each base was well known for the rigorous training which each provided, and yet each base had training which was uniquely different from the others. However, at each base there was one basic concept that was adhered to, and that was that each man volunteered into Demolition and he could volunteer out as well. This privilege offered to the trainee along with the very rugged and dangerous training resulted in a very high "drop out" rate.

LT William L. “Bert” Hawks, UDT 2, UDT 3, and CO of UDT 14

For a well-written, firsthand account of combat action by UDT 12’s Ensign Frank Jirka, click here.

For Ensign Frank Jirka’s personal photographs of UDT 12 officers and men, click here.

UDT 14 William Harrison's cousin has a website with photos and roster of UDT 14.


WWII Underwater Demolition Team Histories


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