Underwater Demolition Teams [UDT] at Saipan

Cdr. Draper L. Kauffman was the innovative commander of the first UDT teams. Here his father, Rear Adm. James L. Kauffman, presents him with a gold star in lieu of his second Navy Cross, for action in the Marianas.

The Navy’s first frogmen, the swimmers of the Underwater Demolition Teams, reconnoitered lagoons and blew out reefs to clear the way for Turner’s assault troops and supply train.

Though the Navy had been wargaming a Central Pacific offensive for decades, the globe-spanning ambition of U.S. Army airpower ensured the fleet would come to the Marianas. With Henry “Hap” Arnold, Curtis LeMay, and Paul Tibbets, among others, eager to strike at the heart of Japan, Douglas MacArthur finally had to cease protesting the Navy’s choice of trans-Pacific routes. The Central Pacific drive acquired an irreversible momentum as the carriers of Raymond A. Spruance’s Fifth Fleet, under Marc A. Mitscher, and Richmond Kelly Turner’s amphibious forces delivered this conquest. The powerful triad of naval power, amphibious heavy lift, and strategic air forces opened an air corridor to Japan that would culminate in history’s first uses of atomic weapons. The war would have endured beyond 1945 had Saipan, Tinian, and Guam not been taken

The UDT were among several wrinkles that Turner and Holland Smith, Turner’s corps commander on Saipan,  had in store for D Day, set to roll less than twenty-four hours hence. Some were technical: ranks of LCI gunboats, advancing ahead of the amtracs, firing rockets in swarms. Some were organizational: a new way to organize the Marine divisions and their weapons, based on the concept of the battalion landing team. This was an eleven-hundred-man unit, two or three of them to every regiment, whose nucleus was a regular infantry battalion, muscled up with additional integrated elements: an artillery battery, an amphibious assault vehicle platoon, a combat engineer platoon, a light armored reconnaissance company, a tank platoon, a reconnaissance platoon, and other units as a mission might require. Other wrinkles were tactical. Turner had an entire transport division set aside, carrying a whole Marine regiment, to execute a false landing off Tanapag, the large harbor town north of Garapan. With the feint, he hoped to freeze Japanese forces in place well up the coast from the actual assault area. During planning, the Marines sprang a little surprise of their own. It was intended to deceive the U.S. Navy.

Holland Smith’s chief of staff, Brigadier General Graves Erskine, proposed the idea of embarking a battalion of Marines in rubber boats and, in dark of night, towing them with landing craft to the beach on the north coast of Magicienne Bay, on the side of the island opposite where the main landings would take place. Lieutenant Colonel Wood B. Kyle’s First Battalion of the Second Regiment (1/2) would go in light and mobile. Carrying no weapons heavier than their rifles and a few 60 mm mortars, they would move rapidly inland from Laulau before dawn and assault Saipan’s highest peak, Mount Tapotchau, three times the height of Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi. The 1/2 would take it, and then hold on against the inevitable counterattacks, resupplied by parachute drop, until units of the Second and Fourth Marine divisions had fought their way to the top of the island.

“This was the song and dance I gave,” Erskine said. The audacious administrative caper was calculated to appeal to Spruance and Turner, for the fast conquest of key objectives was always a priority, promising as it did to free the Navy from the dangerous, exposed job of supporting a ground operation. Erskine knew his proposal would never survive review by his higher headquarters, but the plan was not essential. What mattered were its men. “I wanted at least one extra reinforced battalion, but the Navy claimed they were short of ships.”

Holland Smith was in on the gambit. During discussion, he played the role of skeptic and inquisitor with zeal and zest, claiming that he agonized through many sleepless nights over the tactical problem of putting the 1/2 up the heavily defended mountain before reluctantly canceling the mission—but not until the Navy had assigned additional shipping for a Marine Corps brainstorm it decided it liked.

And so, just as Erskine had calculated all along, Colonel Kyle’s battalion was thrown into the general reserve, right where Smith and Erskine had wanted it all along. The shipping stayed, too. Erskine would call it “a beautiful maneuver,” adding, “In our planning we had to do a lot of things like that, in order to get what we really felt we needed to carry out the operation.” The Marine Corps had built a maverick reputation on the battles it fought in the halls of the Pentagon against the Navy’s perceived quest to sideline and humiliate it in various ways. At Saipan, the Marines had a last laugh. They hadn’t won a “special operations” victory so efficiently since Lieutenant O’Bannon roamed the Barbary Coast.

As the sun rose on June 14, D Day minus one, Draper Kauffman and his two Underwater Demolition Teams left their cramped crew spaces in the APDs Gilmer and Brooks and began their part in the action, piling into four landing craft that came alongside the ships. Each of the thirty-six-foot-long LCPRs took sixteen swimmers, each assigned to survey the approach to a particular beach. The Japanese had not reckoned with a volume of preparatory fires reaching such a crescendo. Nor were they expecting to discover, as day broke, swimmers sidestroking toward them, led by officers embarked in flagships no more glorious than a motorized black mattress, puttering in via an electric motor toward the well-defended shore.

Kauffman and his teams were minimally equipped as usual, wearing trunks, swim shoes, a face mask, and a sheath knife. They didn’t have fins or snorkels. Each pair carried a buoy, a reel, a Plexiglas slate, and a grease pencil as well. Though they had trained in the use of oxygen–beryllium chloride rebreathers, they didn’t carry those, either. The gear was cumbersome. Most of Kauffman’s team leaders decided to toss their bulky radios, too, in favor of a faster swim. And so they crossed the reef and entered the lagoon using a basic sidestroke known as the “invasion crawl.” It was less exhausting than an overhand crawl and produced minimal splash.

Kauffman was resigned to the idea that their chances of coming through unbloodied were poor. Team Five, under Kauffman, would reconnoiter the Red and Green beaches; UDT 7, under the command of Lieutenant Richard F. Burke, would take Blue and Yellow. Quietly estimating that his casualties would run as high as fifty percent, he kept his third team, UDT 6, in reserve, prepared for the worst.

As the LCPRs approached the reef, Japanese fire splashed around them. The frogmen began rolling over the gunwales into the water, one pair every twenty-five yards. Each duo dropped a red buoy, anchoring it to the point marking the seaward origin of their route, in order to orient them for the return. When enemy shell splashes began walking in toward the buoys, the Team Seven exec, Sidney Robbins, instructed the crews to stop placing them. He also decided then and there to abandon the use of the string reconnaissance technique that Kauffman had taught them. This was not going to be easy, he thought. The less they carried, the greater their chance of surviving the gauntlet ahead. Shortly after 8:30, Kauffman and his buddy, a frogman named Page, switched on their small outboard electric motor and began their puttering daylight run toward the beach.

The motorized mattresses were humble flagships, but Kauffman wanted his team leaders to keep some semblance of awareness and potential control over their eight dispersed swimming pairs. Kauffman was soon to consider them “the dumbest idea I’d had in a long time. They were the most magnificent targets.” In briefings, he had heard about the large sharks and man-eating giant clams known to be in the area. But he had advised his men to take no precautions against them, because greater threats loomed: Japanese coastal guns, beach pillboxes, and mortars, for starters.

A low ceiling of gun smoke hung over the strand as the bombardment continued. Just inland of the Red beaches, oil storage tanks were burning fiercely. The California’s neutralization fire was meant to keep enemy gunners from shooting at the UDT, and also to interdict Japanese troop movements down from Garapan. But even after rehearsing with real live ships at Kaho’olawe, Kauffman wasn’t prepared for this. When he saw splashes in the lagoon landing perilously close to his men, both ahead of and behind them, he thought the Navy needed work on its marksmanship. He radioed his executive officer, Johnny DeBold, and said, “Blow Pistol, this is Blow Gun. For God’s sake tell the support ships they’re firing short.”

Slowly and calmly DeBold answered, “Skipper, those aren’t shorts, they’re overs. They’re not ours!”

Kauffman’s reply fell flatly from his mouth. “Oh.”

The UDT commander’s many gifts did not include sharp eyesight. He was significantly shortsighted, in fact, so his buddy Page served as his seeing eye. But Page was color-blind. As they motored in, Page told Kauffman what he was looking at and Kauffman told him what color it was. That became the running joke, at any rate, but it was true. To Kauffman’s amazement, all of his men closed to within fifty yards of the beach, and most went in even nearer than that, under continued heavy fire.

On the Indianapolis, on station more than a mile west of Afetna Point in order to cover the lagoon reconnaissance, Raymond Spruance was serenely watching his flagship’s secondary battery pound the Blue beaches when incoming return fire began landing nearby. As large splashes rose close aboard, Captain E. R. Johnson maneuvered sharply back and forth, keeping broadside to his enemy while trying to anticipate the fall of shot. But the Birmingham, astern Spruance’s flagship, seemed to command greater interest from the shore gunners. Her ample battery of fast-firing six- inch/47s probably marked her as the greater threat. As she eased along at five knots, plunging fire straddled her like a pair of calipers two hundred yards off both beams. Two more shells followed quickly, raising splashes just twenty-five yards to port. Captain Thomas B. Inglis backed his engines, then increased his RPMs, backing faster, just then to be straddled seventy-five yards dead ahead, and then again still closer off the starboard bow. Noticing a shore battery on the heights above Garapan—three-inch guns, he thought—the captain ordered his gunnery officer to bring the secondary battery to bear. The first salvo produced a spout of white and yellow smoke that marked a direct hit. But the torrent of incoming fire continued. Japanese ordnance whistled through the cruiser’s masts, over, astern, ahead, and to port. Shells pierced the large square bedspring of her air-search radar antenna. Inglis thought it was mortar fire until one shell burst close enough aboard to throw hot fragments into one of his 40 mm mounts, wounding two crewmen and starting a small fire. Remnants of the shell’s base plate, found aboard, had rotating bands, indicating it had been fired by a heavy antiaircraft gun. He felt like a ball tumbling around war’s roulette wheel, not yet settling in a pocket painted red.

Shortly after nine, the California stood in Japanese crosshairs with a bit less luck. Salvos from 105 mm howitzers or large mortar tubes landed a pebble’s toss off the port side, and others off the port bow; several more passed close overhead. Then she took a direct hit. Falling nearly vertically, the shell hit the main battery fire-control platform, killing one man and wounding nine. It was well that the California was more than three times the Birmingham’s size, but the damage was substantial nonetheless. Her forward search and gunnery radars were knocked out of action, and for fifteen long minutes the main battery sat mute while control was switched to other stations.

On the bridge of the Birmingham, Captain Inglis took a moment to admire the courage of the UDT as they methodically sounded the lagoon. “This was all close under the gunfire of the Japanese, and within easy range of their machine guns emplaced on the beach itself. Therefore, their work was about as hazardous as anything that can be imagined.” As splashes played among the frogmen and their landing craft, the Birmingham’s spotters found a battery just north of Charan Kanoa’s sugar mill and took it under fire. A huge explosion marked its destruction, part and parcel of the detonation of a neighboring ammo dump. Closer to the water, Japanese soldiers could be seen moving among several gun positions. The crews of Kauffman’s LCPRs, using the two .30-caliber machine guns mounted on either side of the forward ramp, laid suppressive fire close over the heads of the swimmers. But there was little to be done against gunners they could not see.

The volume of incoming fire persuaded Kauffman to abandon his floating mattress experiment. The writing was on the wall for that oddball scheme as soon as he realized the morning naval bombardment hadn’t helped him much. Kelly Turner, to his chagrin, would find his instructions to his fire-support ships—target the beachfront first, then walk fire slowly inland—largely unexecuted. The first salvos started too far inland to neutralize the waterfront defenses. The commanding officer of the California, Captain Henry Poynter Burnett, had not been properly briefed, for he was under the misapprehension that Kauffman’s men would actually land. “Due to faulty communications, this ship was not so informed and considerable protection of their activities thus was unfortunately lost,” he admitted. As the salvos plowed farther inland, Japanese snipers and machine gunners near the beach were left unhindered. Larger guns located on Afetna Point, jutting through the surf between Green Beaches Two and Three, could enfilade the entire landing area, to the north and south. Somehow surviving an early-morning plastering by Oldendorf’s fire-support ships, Japanese crews located there kept their sights on Kauffman all morning long. So the UDT commander and his guide, Page, opted to ditch their awkward floating command post three hundred yards out. “We anchored it there and swam in because it would have been ridiculous to take the mattress in any further,” Kauffman said.

Lacking direct radio contact with the bombardment ships, the frogmen were poorly prepared to deal with surprises. Sid Robbins of Team Seven was startled to find that mortar teams had made a firing position out of a cluster of a dozen Japanese barges moored to the pier at Blue Beach One. Because of the intensity of the barrage that came down upon them, Robbins’s swimmers weren’t able to reconnoiter Yellow Beach One at all. After several attempts, this detachment returned to the Brooks with casualties that seemed light under the circumstances: just two men seriously injured.

Kauffman was mystified by the absence of airpower supporting him. Just after sunrise, the Wasp had sent a large strike with the ostensible mission of covering the UDTs, but the air coordinator routed them to other targets, and it was wise that he did, for Oldendorf’s heavies were in full voice then. The Avengers of Torpedo Fourteen hit gun positions around Aslito Field and tried to burn nearby sugarcane fields with phosphorus incendiaries. The remaining Helldivers, joined by Hellcats, attacked targets on Nafutan Point, where photo interpreters noticed six-inch shore batteries, the largest on the island.

At ten o’clock, a large flight of Hellcats was scheduled to sweep the full two-mile length of the four landing beaches. The mission would likely have scattered, killed, or suppressed most of the enemy soldiers working the waterfront and filled the gap in the pattern of supporting naval gunfire close to the water. But to Kauffman’s chagrin, the fighters never appeared. Their no-show likely had to do with confusion arising from the fact that Turner’s commander of support aircraft, Captain Richard F. Whitehead, had not yet arrived as of D Day minus one. He would not join Turner on the Rocky Mount until the day of the landings. That left an air support coordinator in the Tennessee to make sure the mission was carried out. But the battleship had a long list of scheduled fires to manage, and the air mission seemed to give way to other priorities on a day that was loaded with them.

Kauffman’s losses were light under the circumstances. Six men from Team Five were injured—internal damage from hydraulic concussion. Only one frogman was killed. This was Robert Christensen, a first-class petty officer who was one of the best-liked men on the team. He was shot in the head while helping Ensign Bill Running supervise his platoon from their floating mattress. Team Seven had five wounded, but they, too, lost only one man, Albert G. Weidner. He was the coxswain on Lieutenant Burke’s own LCPR, blown from the wheel when the boat took a direct hit after dropping off its swimmers at the reef. Burke escaped serious injury, but a Navy crewman from the Brooks was killed as well.

At 11:30, the Birmingham, her barrels radiating hot as a forge, checked fire after dealing more than thirteen hundred six-inch rounds and nearly twelve hundred five-inch rounds into Saipan. Around this same time, Kauffman ordered all his swimmers back to the reef, where their landing craft would be waiting for them. It proved to be an unpopular order, for two of his men were unaccounted for. But with mortars dropping around his boats, he had no wish to lose any of his critical information on the reef and the lagoon. Team Seven had lost one of its landing craft already, and Admirals Turner and Hill, as well as General Smith and his division and regimental commanders, were counting on a complete report. The Gilmer and Brooks poured smoke onto the water as the frogmen climbed aboard their LCPRs. The Tennessee, California, Indianapolis, and Birmingham threw their final salvos, then hauled clear to recover their planes and prepare for what was sure to be an even harder trial the next morning, when four Marine regiments would storm ashore.

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Kelly Turner continued to doubt the wisdom of allowing the amtracs to ride inland, and he worried, too, about the chances of getting tanks over the reef and through the lagoon. That was until the leadership of UDT 7 appeared on the Rocky Mount and presented him and General Smith with the fruits of their morning of work. Draper Kauffman reported to Rear Admiral Harry Hill, Turner’s deputy, and the commanding general of the Second Marine Division, Tommy Watson.

Kauffman brought good news. There was about two feet of water over the reef, and the depth of the lagoon did not surpass eight feet. He reported that the reef was flat enough to be passable by amtracs and DUKWs, and that while stores of barbed wire, concrete, and posts on the beach suggested the Japanese had had plans, no man-made obstacles or mines were in the lagoon. Equally valuable, Team Seven had located off Blue Beach One a natural channel large enough for LSTs. Little work was needed to make it serviceable, aside from marking it with buoys. Blasting such a route through the reef after the landings would have been difficult given that the dense, sand-cemented coral polyps did not seem likely to disintegrate into a smooth ramp but to fracture into a mess of boulders and craters needing further demolition.

The UDT also found that the route the Marines had planned to use for their waterproofed tanks, set to paddle ashore following the assault waves, would lead them to disaster. It was potholed, and the water was too deep for these jury-rigged amphibs, which were never designed to swim and drowned out easily. Kauffman believed he had found a better way, a smooth path that crossed the lagoon in front of Red Beach Three diagonally onto Green Two. The Marines didn’t know what to make of Kauffman, with his professorial airs, thick glasses, and careful manner of speech. “He had none of the rough, tough appearance of an Underwater Demolition Team man,” said Colonel Robert E. Hogaboom, General Smith’s operations officer. “But there was no question about his competence and his willingness and his courage.” Kauffman passed along the positions of enemy guns and snipers, and he marked the nest of mortar barges for special attention by Oldendorf’s fire-support group.

That night Kauffman had his handiest draftsmen make charts based on the lagoon soundings. When the invasion force arrived before the next sunrise, the commanders of the amtrac and tank battalions and transport groups would have hand-drawn maps delivered to them.

During the evening, Admiral Hill summoned Kauffman to see General Watson. The Second Marine Division boss asked, “What in the hell is this I hear about your changing the route for my tanks?” He had wanted them to swim in across Red Two.

“General, they’ll never get through there,” Kauffman said, showing him his charts.

“Well, all right. But, young man, you’re going to lead that first tank in, and you’d better be damned sure that every one of them gets in safely, without drowning out.”

And now, considering Kauffman’s report and his calm, overriding confidence, Kelly Turner began to think that the idea of sending twenty thousand Marines ashore in these newfangled swamp buggies might just work out after all.

1 thought on “Underwater Demolition Teams [UDT] at Saipan

  1. My husband was with USN UDT-5 Korea and Vietnam. He’d like to find any of his comrades. He’s 85 yrs young and quite proud of his USN UDT-5 service time but doesn’t talk about his maneuvers.
    Garl E. “Bud” Spaulding
    Email: [email protected]

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