The Frogmen of World War II: An Oral History of the U.S. Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams

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9780743482165: The Frogmen of World War II: An Oral History of the U.S. Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams

As countless battlefronts in the Pacific, African, and European theaters called for direct amphibious assaults against islands and beachheads, a small corps of exceptionally skilled fighting men was formed -- the U.S. Navy underwater warriors. Beginning in 1943, these men undertook never-before-attempted missions ranging from eye-to-eye recon of enemy-held positions to staging the demolition of shoreline obstacles and clearing the way for landing craft.
Here, in their own words, are the true stories of these aquatic commandos, whose daring exploits and bravery would pave the way for thousands of American fighting men around the globe -- and whose recolitionary training and fighting methods would evolve into the modern specail forces known as the Navy SEALs.

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About the Author:

Chet Cunningham served in the army in postwar Japan and saw combat in the Korean War. He has written hundreds of westerns and military novels, and more than a dozen military nonfiction titles including the Military Book Club Selection Hell Wouldn't Stop. He has lived in San Diego, California, with his wife, Rose Marie, for more than 40 years.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Naval Special Services Unit No. 1: The First Frogmen

Before the Navy SEALs, there were the Underwater Demolition Teams. Before them came the Scouts & Raiders, and before them were the Navy Combat Demolition Units. But there was another group even before the NCDUs. It was called the Naval Special Services Unit No. 1, also known as the Amphibious Scouts.

A lot of military historians know little about Special Services Unit No. 1 because it was a top-secret group in the U.S. Navy created for a special purpose. Pat and Hank Staudt have done a heroic job of researching the beginnings of the group and much of that work is included here.

Pat and Hank Staudt

Coast watchers in the Pacific Theater had provided much information since their formation on September 8, 1939, but the need in 1942 exceeded their personnel. Most of the first watchers were planters, teachers, missionaries, and prospectors who lived in the affected areas. Soon the need for more extensive reliable intelligence prompted a plan for the formation of a new group. In March 1942 the Allied Intelligence Bureau took over the duties of the coast watchers and renamed them Ferdinand.

The Ferdinands worked in the Solomons and New Britain and were given service ranks for compensation and to protect them from charges of spying if captured. The Ferdinands continued to transmit information by radio through 1942.

Amphibious landing schools and training had begun in the Pacific. In February 1943 the amphibious training command was started in Newcastle, Australia. In April 1943 the First Marine Division began amphibious reconnaissance training in Australia. In May of 1943 Standard Landing Craft Units Nos. 4 and 5 were trained at the amphibious base in San Diego.

But there was still a need for precise and accurate intelligence about landing sites. This meant there was a need for forming a unique, highly skilled, and cohesive force unlike any the military had ever seen before.

The duties these men would be required to perform would be hazardous in the extreme. They required the abilities of men of very differing background, training, and experience to subordinate individual identities and work successfully in unison and covertly to achieve crucial goals.

This group was needed because of the failure of aerial photos and no onsite recon to produce precise intelligence about landing sites.

The Navy brass at last decided: "It follows that amphibious intelligence as complete and accurate knowledge of all sea, land and air factors whether natural or artificial affecting an amphibious landing is required."

Mid-June of 1943 saw whirlwind activity initiated in gathering volunteers from the 7th Amphibious Area. Volunteers were sought with many and varied skills. Included were knowledge of the geography, native customs, and language of the theater; recon experience; small-craft handling; hydrographic knowledge; and the ability to evaluate beach suitability for amphibious craft.

Volunteers came from the landing-craft units at Nelson Bay, Australia. They included Ensigns Alva E. Gipe, Rudolph A. Horak, and Donald E. Root. Also volunteering were BM 2/C Richard Bardy, Jack Brandau, Cox'n Calvin W. Byrd, MB 2/C Paul L. Dougherty, PMH 1/C Milton J. Kolb, MM/lC Bill Luger, Wayne Pettis, RM 2/C Taylor, BM 2/C Robert Thomas, RM 2/C R. Toman, M 2/C Rosaire Trudeau, and MB 1/C Joshua Weintraub.

From ATB Toorbul came Ensigns Henry Staudt, Franklin Meredith, and John C. Goodridge; also, Navy Combat Demolition Unit officers Lt. (jg) Lloyd Anders, Lt. (jg) Hamilton, and "Beach Jumper" Mathews.

There were also contingents from the Marines, from the Army, and from Australia's 9th Army Division.

On July 7, 1943, the commanding officer of the Amphibious 7th Fleet ordered that "there be established a school for Amphibious Scouts in the vicinity of Cairns and that they were to be called SPECIAL SERVICE UNIT 1."

By July 18, 1943, the majority of the group were at Cairns Base and began training in physical education, martial arts, panoramic sketching to identify precise locations, as well as rubber-raft work. There also was jungle survival training, pidgin English, and recognition of underwater coral formations and sea creatures.

About August 28, Special Services Unit No. 1 moved to a new base at Fergusson Island off in the D'Entrecasteaux Islands, New Guinea. More men joined the teams there, including Lt. Bernard C. Wildgen, USNRMC Ensign David De Windt, and Ensign Morris B. Tichener.

Coxswain Calvin Byrd (deceased)

Corinth, Mississippi

In November 1942, I was assigned to Unit No. 5 of the Amphibious Landing Forces at the destroyer base in San Diego, where we practiced landing daily in the surf at the Silver Strand near Coronado. We used personnel craft.

This training continued there and at Camp Pendleton near Oceanside until April 30, 1943. On May 1, Unit No. 5 was sent to Treasure Island Naval Base, San Francisco, for transport to the Southeast Pacific Command.

Before leaving San Diego, we were ordered to go to the U.S. Marine base there and pick up the following supplies: a 1903 rifle, high-top Marine shoes, khaki pants and shirts, socks, and a camouflage poncho. We had to carry all that plus our regular seabag. By the time the two hundred of us were ready to board the ship, Bosn's Mate First Class Griggs walked around calling out: "Do not forget to bring your poncho." That was funny, because many of us guys had already forgotten our ponchos somewhere. I never saw anyone wearing one.

The USS Mizar took us directly to Sydney, Australia. From there we moved to the Newcastle area. The main purpose there was to train troops in beach landings.

While I was there, Commander Coultas came to ask for volunteers for a new unit named Special Service Unit No. 1. I was interviewed for this service and volunteered sometime around June 30, 1943.

Unfortunate events occurred in the Solomon Islands and other areas during amphibious landings, due to lack of intelligence regarding excessive coral off the beaches and the existence of swampy land behind the beaches. Lives were lost and equipment lost due to these unknown hazards. It would be our job to gather this type of intelligence.

About forty men were selected for Unit No. 1: eight or ten Australians, two or three Marine Corps officers, two or three U.S. Army officers, and the balance being Navy officers and enlisted men. We all were transferred to Cairns, Australia.

At Cairns the base for Unit No. l was set up across the inlet from the town of Cairns and a little east toward the ocean. Training consisted of martial arts taught by one of the Aussie officers, methods of drawing or sketching landscapes in order to identify locations, and survival on food provided by jungle plants and animals. We also learned basic words of pidgin English taught by Aborigines in case we needed to talk with New Guinea natives. We made trips to the Great Barrier Reef to observe coral formations and the tropical sea creatures. We did a lot of physical exercises and swimming.

From there we went to Fergusson Island. It had been a PT boat base abandoned only a few days before we moved in. The U.S. Army had a base on Goodenough Island, six or eight miles to the west. There was a wharf we used to dock our two LCP (landing craft, personnel) boats.

Our base was on a beautiful lagoon, and there were some palm frond buildings that had been a religious mission before our LCP boats landed.

Commander Coultas and staff arranged for the natives to build a mess hall/meeting room, medical house, storage room, radio shack, and sleeping rooms. We were amazed how quickly the natives did this using logs, palm fronds, and vines.

Lessons were given in the use of rubber boats for landing from PT boats and submarines. We practiced landing on beaches in the surf, pulling boats ashore, deflating them so they could be hidden in the jungle and later inflating them with a small cylinder of compressed air for the return after the mission was completed.

We made many trips into the jungle for stays of two or three days or more. We landed at night along the coast. We had classes on what intelligence was likely to be gathered.

We played physical fitness exercises such as five-mile fast marches. We learned to communicate with the natives. We had target practice with our carbines and .45 pistols.

Some nights we could see flashes of antiaircraft fire to the east, probably from Woodlark Island. One night coming back to base, we shut down our LCP's engine when a Japanese plane flew over so he would not see the wake of our moving boat.

In October of 1943 one of our teams made a mission to the Finschhafen, New Guinea, area. The team had three Australians and our Lt. (jg) Hank Staudt. One of the Aussies was "Blue" Harris, who had been one of the first coast watchers.

In late November 1943 we moved from Fergusson Island to Milne Bay. Some of us were given recreation -- R & R -- leave to Australia. When we returned, most of the Special Service Unit No. 1 trainees had been reassigned to other duties. John Grady and I remained in the unit along with Lt. Root and Lt. Gipe. We were then assigned to the staff on the USS Blue Ridge, Admiral Barbey's flagship. Lt. Root and I became a team, as did Lt. Gibe and John Grady.

Around February 1944 the Army First Cavalry Division invaded the Admiralty Islands. Lt. Root and I were given the assignment to move from our base and take the USS Oyster Bay, a PT boat tender, and then to board one of the PT boats for transport to Bat Island, in the Purdy Group. There we were to perform surveillance and to gather tidal information to be used in the proposed invasion of Aitape, New Guinea. Near the Admiralty Islands we transferred to a PT boat for the final leg of the journey.

On arrival at Bat Island it was just after dark. We were challenged by someone onshore and found that it was a U.S. Army unit that had landed the day before. They said they almost opened fire on us. They said an Aussie team was located on the south shore of the island.

We spent the rest of the night with the soldiers. The next morning we moved to the north shore to set up tidal recordings. Our location had been a copra shed owned by some Australian and abandoned after the war started. We also found on the island huge hogs that fed off coconuts and birds.

We set a stake marked for tidal readings in a location partially sheltered from big waves. Readings were taken once an hour, but that was later changed to once every two hours. Tidal changes were small at Bat Island.

We learned by radio that several Aussies had become seriously ill and a seaplane from Manus Island had picked them up. Doctors found the illness to be typhus fever caused by ticks.

Later it was decided to evacuate the island because of the sickness. Before we left, we all met at the original landing site. The Aussies had volunteered to kill and dress out and barbecue one of the hogs. It worked, but the meat was almost too fat and greasy to eat.

We had been there sixteen days when an Australian corvette picked us up and took us back to Manus Island.

Word came to us that an Aussie team led by "Blue" Harris was detected and eliminated by Japanese in the Hollandia area.

At times John Grady and I were assigned to the staff on the USS Henry T. Allen. It and other ships were moored to buoys anchored in Humboldt Bay. The buoys were equipped with telephone lines the ships could tap into.

Lt. Root and I were assigned to scout Biak Island. An Army Alamo Scout team was also assigned. We would use two PT boats. We would have to refuel at Wakde because of the distance from the PT base near Hollandia. A problem was that Wakde was not yet secure and fighting was still going on. Shortly after we tied up there at a small pier, a rifle shot came our way, causing us to seek cover, which delayed our departure.

Lt. Dove and his Alamo team were in one PT and Lt. Root and I and two Alamo Scouts were in the other. After refueling, we left for Biak. The seas became rough, and about midnight our PT hit a log, which disabled one of our propellers. Due to rough seas, we couldn't transfer to the other PT. Our mission was canceled and we returned to Hollandia. Later, Lt. Gipe and John Grady went into Biak with the invasion forces. They told us we were fortunate not to have landed on the Biak beaches, which were heavily occupied. The stop at Wakde was my first time to observe a mop-up operation and to see the corpses of the enemy.

In late May we learned that the USS Blue Ridge, where we were assigned, was taking a trip to Sydney, Australia. As we sailed through the Coral Sea we heard about the invasion of France. Shortly after that we learned that Lt. Root and I were ordered to return to the Army G-2 base near Finschhafen, New Guinea. We were all packed, and when the ship hit Sydney, a Navy auto picked us up and took us directly to the airport. We went on a commercial flight to Brisbane. Then we caught a military mail plane and flew to Port Moresby. From there we flew on to Finschhafen and met with the Alamo Scout team at the Army G-2 headquarters.

There we learned about the Sansapor mission, where we would be inserted by a submarine, the USS S-47 based at Manus harbor in the Admiralty Islands. Two Javanese scouts would accompany us for translation if needed.

After several meetings we left for Manus harbor and met with the submarine people. For several days we practiced and became familiar with the men and the facilities. All extra torpedoes had been removed forward to provide space for the enlisted scouts to sleep on cots.

Compressed air was available for inflating our rubber boats. The distance the main deck was above sea level could be regulated to ease boarding and unloading our rubber boats. The crew of the S-47 was great and treated us like celebrities.

The trip from Manus to Sansapor was about 1,100 miles. We ran submerged during the day and on the surface at night. We arrived off Sansapor during daylight on June 27, 1944. The captain raised the periscope so we could view the coast and locate the river mouth we were to enter that night. Photos were taken via the periscope for us to study. The coast and silhouette of the background also helped.

That night we prepared to go ashore. The sub's sonar man reported heavy Japanese barge traffic moving along the coast. The S-47 crew members were to inform us by radio when to proceed or to stop in order to prevent detection. This worked well, so we avoided the barges and landed on the beach about 0100.

But we had missed the river mouth by five hundred yards. We had to drag our rubber boats through the surf to the river. The waves kept driving the boats back onshore and we had to drag them off again. We were tired when we got to the river mouth and could board the boats again.

Both teams proceeded up the river to a suitable place to unload and deflate and hide the boats. Then we waited for daylight to go to our objective. I went to sleep and an Alamo Scout woke me, saying I was snoring too loud and that a Japanese barge had landed near us. We saw the Japanese camouflage their barge with limbs and palm fronds. It was evident that our planes raided them during the day. This forced them to operate at night for resupply.

We decided to lay low until the Japs left, then continue our mission. It was important that we not be detected. Our planes appeared about 1000 and fired on several locations, but they didn't see the Jap barge. The planes left an hour...

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Cunningham, Chet
Published by Pocket Star (2005)
ISBN 10: 0743482166 ISBN 13: 9780743482165
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