The Godfather of the Navy SEALs

Get to know Huckberry badass Draper Kauffman – a pioneering underwater demolitions expert who organized the Navy’s first frogman teams
February 23, 2016Words by Joseph Meehan

10 July 1944
Tinian, Mariana Islands, Pacific Ocean
0400 hours

In the black expanse of the nighttime Pacific Ocean, lit only by the dim light of a new moon, six underwater demolition men and six Marine recon specialists, led by commander Draper Kauffman, swam together in the open ocean. Every half hour, on the dot, Kauffman's radio crackling to life: “This is Pinup himself. Is Blow Gun himself there?” Pinup then asked how many blondes had been picked up, and how many brunettes.

Luck had been against the Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) and their Marine accompaniment that night. Finished with beach recon, the soldiers covered up their tracks and swam into open water toward their rubber boat anchored 300 yards from shore. Instead they found only open water; an unexpected current had set their craft afloat. They resigned themselves to swim back. Admiral Hill (Pinup) radioed Kauffman (Blow Gun) to check on the stranded men as they swam. Blondes were swimmers lost with a known fate; brunettes were missing, unknown. 

The career of Draper Kauffman, the godfather of the Navy SEALs, brims with scenes like this one — full of war, high explosives, and underwater stealth missions. But without a doubt, it is primarily marked by his generous courage and uncompromising devotion to his men. 

When Kauffman graduated from the Naval Academy in 1933, he was denied an officer commission due to poor eyesight. Unable to follow in his father's footsteps in the US Navy, he moved first to Berlin in 1939 and proceeded to join the American Volunteer Ambulance Corps in France, where he drove ambulances through warzones. Kauffman was imprisoned during Germany's occupation of France, but he was shortly freed and went straight to England to sign up for the Royal Navy Reserve (RNR). In the RNR he joined a fledgling bomb disposal unit, because, as he wrote in a letter to his father, “If I could be of more use saving property and lives than destroying them, I might feel better about it in the end.”

Back in the US on leave from the RNR, Kauffman was sought out by the Navy for his bomb disposal experience. And so he began staffing, organizing, and running the bomb disposal school, recruiting students for the dangerous work by employing the same logic he himself employed: This work will save lives, not destroy them.

"Hell Week separated the men from the boys,” Kauffman said. “The men had sense enough to quit — leaving us with the boys!”

And so the underwater demolition school was born, out of a staff of experienced officers, two islands off the Florida coast, a Navy construction battalion (or Seabees, as they were called), and Kauffman's leadership.

Kauffman conceived a week-long training course to cull the recruits, which later became known as Hell Week. He went through the first Hell Week himself and barely made it through alive. “Of course the story quickly went around that Hell Week separated the men from the boys,” Kauffman said. “The men had sense enough to quit — leaving us with the boys!” 

The basic training at the underwater demolition school consisted of just that: demolition. Seabees constructed replicas of obstacles seen on Allied intel photographs and then the demolition students would demolish them, tweaking their methods each time to be more effective. They practiced swimming into shore under cover of night, stealthily planting explosives, and performing amphibious reconnaissance. This became the basic method of underwater demolition: brave men, rubber boats, vast amounts of explosives, and not much else. 

Those beaches were blockaded with obstacles meant to maim and destroy both ship and soldier, and Kauffman was tasked with destroying them. 

Just as Kauffman was completing the student selection process he was called for emergency bomb disposal at Pearl Harbor. “My imagination was working overtime the whole way out,” Kauffman said of the plane ride.  At Pearl Harbor he found a 500-pound bomb and got to work. Whispering into his lapel microphone, he described every step of the dismantling process to an enlisted man at a safe distance. After he declared the bomb safe, Kauffman named it Suzabelle and shipped the pieces back to the bomb disposal school. Not only did he get an excellent classroom prop, but he was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism in the face of great personal risk. 

After leading the bomb disposal school for five months, Draper received a new assignment: the United States had officially entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and amphibious assaults were being planned for beaches in both the Pacific and Europe. Those beaches were blockaded with obstacles meant to maim and destroy both ship and soldier, and Kauffman was tasked with destroying them. 

14 June 1944 
Saipan, Mariana Islands, Pacific Ocean
0900 hours

The bright morning sun glinted off the waves as the underwater demolition men swam toward shore in pairs. Heavy gunfire from American ships boomed behind them and whistled overhead; Japanese mortar shells sent coral flying; rifle bullets whizzed by and slammed into the water. Kauffman and his partner split their duties: One man swam straight toward the shore, taking depth soundings every 25 yards, while the other swam underwater in a zigzag pattern, searching for mines and other obstacles. 

After reaching the beach and turning around under the heavy enemy fire, Kauffman, his partner and the other UDT men returned to the landing craft and found that three swimmers were not present; one was reported killed and the other two missing.

But Kauffman grabbed a crew of fresh men to return to the beach and search for the missing men. They couldn’t find them despite their search, but as Kauffman swam back toward the landing craft he looked up to see two new figures on the deck: his missing men! Back on board Draper literally jumped for joy, waving his hands about wildly until sniper fire rang out and reminded him he was in a war zone. Kauffman received a second Navy Cross for his rescue efforts that day. 

Kauffman led his UDT in the successful recon of Tinian shortly thereafter, and the intel his swimmers brought back from the beaches allowed the Marines to land on a beach where they previously thought it impossible. After this mission, he relinquished command of the UDTs and returned to the United States to resume his position as leader of the UDT school. Later in his career, Kauffman returned to the Pacific as commander of five UDTs in the successful amphibious assaults at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. 

While other men were busy shaping the political, cultural and historical landscape of the world, Draper Kauffman forged, sharpened and honed a new way of engaging the enemy: clandestine amphibious warfare. Today the Navy SEALs are a well-known special operations force, but during World War II the UDTs were kept entirely secret from the US public as well as enemy forces for as long as possible. Shortly after Japan's surrender, the Saturday Evening Post ran an article titled “They Hit the Beach in Swim Trunks” that detailed UDT operations throughout the war, finally giving the frogmen, as they were known, the recognition they deserved. 

After World War II Kauffman enjoyed a distinguished career in the Navy which included commanding the USS Gearing, serving as superintendent of the Naval Academy, and advocating for integration in the Navy. Three organizations Kauffman started are still in operation: bomb disposal, UDT/SEALs, and the radiological safety school he started after the end of World War II. The Draper L. Kauffman Naval Special Warfare Operations Facility at Norfolk and the Kauffman Explosive Ordnance Disposal Training Complex at Elgin Air Force Base were both named in his honor, and the guided missile frigate USS Kauffman was named for both him and his father. Kauffman retired in 1973. [H]

As a man prideful of his fortitude, Joseph is most often humbled by his inability to resist a cookie, or three, or twelve. He lives in Oakland, California.


Images ©: 1; Wikipedia. 2; NavSource Online. 3, 6; Navy Seal Museum. 4; Greenwich Time. 5; 7; Defense Media Network. 8; I Kid You Not. 9; Naval History and Heritage Command. 10; Zero Point.

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