A Naval hero's life

Reviewing AMERICA'S FIRST FROGMAN, The Draper Kauffman Story, by Elizabeth K. Bush.  Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2004.  220 pages, photos, appendices, index.

Elizabeth K. Bush, sister—in—law of former president George H.W. Bush (who wrote the Foreward), has delivered an overdue biography of her brother, Rear Admiral Draper L. Kauffman.  She tells the story well, spicing it with anecdotes, excerpts from Kauffman's letters, while making full use of the admiral's oral history.  Here was a man who packed several adventurous lifetimes into his 66 years. 

Son of career naval officer James L. Kauffman, Draper dutifully entered Annapolis.  Denied a commission due to poor eyesight, he left a nice job with a steamship company in 1940, went to France and joined the American Volunteer Ambulance Corps.  Captured by the Germans 6 weeks later, Kauffman, holder of the Croix de Guerre, was repatriated after spending several months in a POW camp.  Making his way to England, he talked his way into a berth with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, and then volunteered for a bomb disposal unit.  Obviously, his eyesight was good enough for the Brits.  For a year he conducted nerve—wracking de—fusing missions, sustaining injuries but returning to the job.  The last one almost killed him.  He returned to the States in September 1941.  A month later, US Naval Reserve LT Draper Kauffman  was assigned the job of establishing a US Navy Bomb Disposal School. 

Meanwhile, at Pearl Harbor, a 500 lb. unexploded Japanese bomb was discovered just outside Ft. Schofield's ammunition depot.  Kauffman was ordered over there to defuse it.  Though he reported the fuse was a faulty one and there was zero risk involved, he was awarded the Navy Cross.

In May 1943 Kauffman was summoned to the office of the Chief of Naval Operations and told by its Readiness Division's Captain Jeffrey Metzel that he had been selected to establish a combat demolition school to train men to demolish obstacles the Germans would soon be emplacing on Normandy beaches.  Given carte blanche as to location and personnel, Kauffman selected Amphibious Training Base Ft. Pierce, Florida and men from the Bomb and Mine Disposal Schools and Civil Engineer Corps.  But the bulk of the men who constituted Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs) came from the Navy's rugged Construction Battalions, the SeaBees. 

Given the book's title, the fourth chapter, titled 'Setting Up An Underwater Demolition School' is a key one, and a problematical one, since it describes establishment of the Combat Demolition School.  In the history of what is now called naval special warfare there is a well—defined and important difference between the organization, training and tactics of combat demolition units (NCDUs) and the Pacific theater Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs). Each had its own ethos and both were fiercely proud of their units.  Why the author didn't emphasize this crucial difference might be attributable to her UDT—SEAL Museum advisors or her editors, but whatever the case, it is a serious error. 

NCDUs were 6—man units, sometimes augmented as at Normandy, who hit hostile shores in rubber boats, hauled explosives ashore, attached them to obstacles, and demolished them.  Sometimes, as in certain South—West Pacific missions, swimming was an operational element.  It was the capacity of the 7—man rubber boat that determined the size of NCDUs:  6 men (1 officer, 5 enlisted) and a space for explosives.

UDTs were 100—man units who swam into hostile beaches from landing craft that had dropped them off to conduct pre—assault reconnaissance and demolition missions, then swam back out for recovery by those same boats. Swimming, obviously, was a major operational element.  UDTs, nicknamed 'frogmen,' were first organized through the joint initiatives of Pacific theater commander—in—chief Adm. Chester Nimitz and his amphibious chief, Adm. Turner, with provisional UDTs 1 and 2 established December 1943 for participation in the assaults on Kwajalein and Roi—Namur.  The post—operational critique resulted in 100—man, all—Navy teams and the Naval Combat Demolition Training and Experimental base at Maui, Hawaii, established March 1944. (Why it was designated 'Naval Combat Demolition' is strange, since it would train UDTs, whose name was chosen specifically to differentiate it from NCDUs.) Its executive officer, Cmdr. John T. Koehler, devised the UDT organizational and operational plan.  All this had transpired before Lt. Cmdr. Kauffman arrived in Hawaii April 1944 to take command of UDT—5.  Or, Teams 1 through 4 had already been organized.

Given these facts, Draper Kauffman cannot be given the title 'America's First Frogman,' especially since he is already recognized as the 'father of naval combat demolition,' which indeed he was.  He went through the grueling NCDU training, believing as do all true leaders, that you don't ask your men to do something you've not experienced yourself.  Some of the demolitioneers trained at Ft.Pierce would achieve immortality on Omaha and Utah beaches, carrying out missions under deadly, withering fire, helping ensure the success of those crucial landings.  Oddly enough, the author devotes only a few paragraphs in separate chapters to that important event.  She does not mention NCDU participation in the Southern France landings nor in General MacArthur's South—West Pacific campaign. 

As commander of UDT—5, Draper Kauffman earned a second Navy Cross for his participation in the assault landings on Saipan and Tinian.  Relying chiefly on her brother's excellent oral history, the author relates the supremely challenging and dangerous missions Kauffman and his men succeeded in accomplishing, deeds repeated by valiant UDTs who spearheaded amphibious assaults across the Central Pacific all the way to Okinawa.  Plans were being finalized for their participation in the invasion of the Japanese home islands when the bombs hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   

Rear Admiral Draper Kauffman's distinguished career was capped off by his tour as Superintendent of the Naval Academy in the mid—1960s.  He retired in 1973 and died in 1977.  Honoring the memory of this naval hero, the guided missile frigate USS KAUFFMAN was launched in 1986. 

Despite its flaws, this book, written in admirable style, is well worth reading for its narration of the life of this dedicated, patriotic innovator and leader, who established an enduring legacy as the father of naval combat demolition.

John B. Dwyer is a military historian.