Combat Condoms and Rubber Fins: The Underwater Demolition Teams of WWII
"At the rate World War II veterans are dying — an average of 234 a day — it is estimated that all of them will be deceased by 2036," writes journalist Andrew Dubbins. That is why, on August 15, 2020 — coincidentally the 75th anniversary of the Japanese surrender — Dubbins felt privileged to shake the hand of 93-year-old George Morgan, one of the first members of the Underwater Demolition Teams, the forerunner of the U.S. Navy SEALs. What began as a handshake spawned into a friendship, and lastly a book as a tribute to Morgan, one of the last surviving frogman of the war.
Dubbins recently spoke to HistoryNet about his latest work, "Into Enemy Waters," and why these unsung heroes of World War II deserve their time in the sun.
How was your experience meeting and interviewing 95-year-old George Morgan,
one of the last surviving veterans of the UDTs?
Well, it was such a privilege to get to meet him. I had listened to his oral history, which was recorded by the National World War II Museum, and I knew just listening to that that he was just a really deep, intelligent man — he broke into tears recalling some of the more difficult memories of his combat experience.
Going back to the fear, with the underwater demolition teams, you can kind of glamorize it, you know? They're fighting underwater. You think about James Bond or something, but when you're talking to real guys who did this, it comes up over and over again, the terror — being the first swimming into those beaches. It still haunts him. He still gets nightmares and has a difficult time recalling some of those memories. He told me, “I still fret about it, I remember things that I've been trying to forget for decades.”
George Morgan (U.S. Navy)
It was a really difficult, tall task, especially for a 17-year-old. The responsibility he had … it was highly technical work, and there's a very small margin for error. He's just an incredible man and beyond just the war, hearing stories about growing up in the Great Depression, he witnessed so much of history and true to the Greatest Generation, he was so humble and self- effacing. He kind of almost couldn't believe that I was that intrigued and asking about his family and growing up. He wouldn't even consider himself a hero, but I do.
For me as an historian, being in the presence of these veterans is slightly
awe-inspiring, even nerve-wracking at times. How important was it for you to seek out and chronicle an untold story from World War II?
You're absolutely right about feeling nervous. It’s a responsibility to tell somebody’s story honestly and to get it right. And I felt the responsibility, too, in that the demolition men of World War II haven't really had their stories told in a big way because they were a top-secret unit.
During World War II, they missed out on the publicity that Marines got, for example, on Iwo Jima. When they came home, there was an article in The Saturday Evening Post called “They Hit the Beach In Swim Trunks.” But that was one article. The war was over and people were moving on. There have been a couple histories more so in the context of the rise of the Navy SEALs, but the World War II demolition men, I think, still really haven't had their do. So, to answer your question, I felt that responsibility to tell their story and to honor their heroism.
Can you speak about the origins of the Navy Seals and how it came out of
the UDTs? What did the training look like back in the 1940s?
Fort Pierce, Florida, was kind of the original training camp for these demolition men and where Hell Week was born. The first week of their training was swimming in rough ocean, running on the soft sand and wading through the mangrove swamps. This also included demolition exercises to test if they’d flinch and could handle explosive. They called it Hell Week even back then, which the Navy SEALs have now inherited.
George was so funny. He said, “Well, you know, they call it Hell Week, but those guys are so much tougher and lift weights. We were a bunch of skinny kids off the street. I'd never lifted a weight in my life.”
Trainees launch a seven-man rubber boats during night maneuvers of the graduating class, at the Amphibious Training Base, Fort Pierce, Florida, May 1944. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
It's all the more impressive that they weren't these hardened warriors. They were just kids who'd grown up during the Great Depression. The training was so experimental, it was all new.
The demolition units borrowed some tactics from the Army engineers, and then that evolved into the UDTs after the invasion of Europe. Pioneering combat swimming had almost practically never been done in history. So they were using fishing reels to measure the ocean depth and painting lines on their bodies for measuring the water depth in the shallows. Just crazy, experimental tactics.
They really needed a lot of ingenuity. And I always I think it's neat that they're all coming out of the Great Depression. So, like Mr. Morgan, they knew how to kind of make things work. They could think on their feet. It was really the perfect generation of men to be pioneering this unit.
One anecdote that sticks out to me is that they were using condoms to waterproof the fuses. They just grabbed a bunch of condoms from the supply base. It's just bizarre. None of this had been done before.
An underwater demolition swimmer checks his swim fins and face mask, during UDT operations at Balikpapan, July 1945. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
They developed a reputation as being a little bit roguish within the Navy — a little rebellious by growing long beards, wearing swim trunks all day standing on the deck shirtless, as opposed to the Navy's being very buttoned-up.
I have an incident my book where [UDT members] walk by [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur landing in the Philippines and have no idea who the guy is, saying, “We've been here for a week. Who is this guy?” Like, “Welcome. Join us.” So they have that attitude, although when I talked to George about that he said he didn't feel that at all. He they were respectful of their officers, so I try not to make too much of that. But it definitely led to that culture and the Navy SEALs and that ethos — you know, they're the top-trained men in the Navy and they've been through hell, so they have that elite swagger to some respect.
I've been fortunate to have some Navy SEALs read my book, and they’d say, “We still practice a lot of this,” and “We still use that swimming technique.” They call themselves the teams in honor of the UDT, and while the Navy SEALs drew from a lot of different places, not just the UDTs, there's definitely a through line to the UDTs
Was there any kind of friction between the Marines and Navy? Interservice
No, no rivalry. In fact, the Marines who joined the UDTs were offered extreme pay and, so the story goes, Draper Kauffman [father of the UDTs] brought in a couple teams and said, “You know, I'm leaving this up to you.” And they said, “We don't want the extreme pay. We don't want it unless the Marines get it.” They had seen the Marines in action on Iwo Jima and they thought, “They’re risking as much or even more than us.” After that the Marines just loved the UDTs.
Into Enemy Waters
by Andrew Dubbins, Diversion Books, August 23, 2022
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Was there a particular moment in George Morgan's account that stuck out to
Oh, yeah. [George] was talking about Okinawa and clearing the sharpened stakes that had been lodged into the coral reef. And he said, “We used way more demolition than we needed to,” which was a common thing among the UDT — they weren't experts in demolition. They had some training, but they always overdid it, because they didn't want to have to come back.
He recalled that the explosion was huge. I thought, “Oh, after seeing that explosion did you clap and cheer and high five as you sped home in the landing craft?”
“Well, I flinched. I was startled,” he responded.
It was my glamorized view of it all, but for a teenager, a 17-year-old, it's terrifying. So just those little surprises between your preconception of an event and somebody who actually lived through it.
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