Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 period and will profile a different ship (or unit) each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, July 3, 2019: The Frogmen of Balikpapan
U.S. National Archives 80-G-274676 via NHHC
Here, on a special WW where we take a break from an actual warship, we see a group of young U.S. Navy Underwater demolition personnel of UDT-18 aboard the fast transport (converted destroyer) USS Kline (APD-120) watching as Army B-25 bombers of the 13th Bomber Command plaster the Operation OBOE 2 invasion beaches off Balikpapan, Borneo circa 3 July 1945– 74 years ago today. They are waiting for orders to leave their boat to clear underwater obstacles to go clear the beach to allow allied Australian troops to land. While the Pacific War would be over in less than two months, these frogmen, many of which are on their first mission, could not know that was looming and they had a Japanese-held beach to clear of obstacles.
According to Lt. JG C.F. Waterman, who took these amazing pictures, “Things looked rather bad at the moment and everyone was thoroughly scared.”
Originally formed in May 1943 as Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDU), teams were created to clear beach obstacles in enemy-held areas. During the Torch Landings in North Africa, a group of Navy salvage personnel with a one-week crash course in demo hit the beaches but it was obvious that a more dedicated force would be needed. That led to LCDR Draper L. Kauffman’s efforts to train teams ready to go ashore to clear a path. By Normandy, 34 NCDU teams would land on D-Day, suffering 53 percent casualties. They would repeat their efforts in the Dragoon Landings in Southern France in August 1944.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific, nine dedicated Underwater Demolition Teams were formed, largely from Seabees with a smattering of Marines, to work across Japanese-held atolls. First hitting Kwajalein on 31 January 1944, the Pacific teams initially were dressed for land combat like many of the NCDU members in Europe, with uniforms, boots, M1 helmets, and small arms in addition to their demo charges.
Underwater demolition team members boarding a landing craft off Saipan. Note belt equipment, life belt equipment, life belt and M-1 carbine of man in right-center. His shirt indicates that he is a member of UDT-6. Photographed by Commander Bonnie Powell. 80-G-274665
This soon changed as men skipped down to their swim trunks and swam on night missions to map the beaches before the landings. This later morphed into standard gear.
A model of the typical late-war 1944-45 UDT swimmer shown at the SEAL/UDT Museum in Ft. Pierce. Note the dive mask, boots for use on coral, swim trunks, emergency life belt, demo bag, fins, and knife. Around his chest is a pencil to use on a board for drawing his section of the beach. Around his right wrist is a plumb for measuring depth and distance. (Photo: Chris Eger)
Across Peleliu, the Philippines, Guam, and Iwo Jima, UDTs left their mark and went in first to guide the landing craft in and make a hole for them to hit the beach if needed.
A UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) explosive charge blows up an underwater obstacle off Agat Beach, Guam, during the invasion of that island, July 1944 80-G-700639
By Okinawa, no less than eight full teams with 1,000 frogmen were utilized. There the nearly naked combat recon swimmers used aluminum paint (yikes!) to camouflage their skin against Japanese snipers– and to help insulate against the chilly Northern Pacific waters which could quickly lead to hypothermia.
Okinawa UDT members daubed aluminum paint on their bodies as camouflage to throw off Japanese marksmen. Photographed on the fantail of a fast transport (APD), circa Spring 1945 80-G-274695
Japanese Army type 93 anti-tank mine in the sand of Tinian Island. This mine was nicknamed a “tape measure” by UDT men due to its shape
A selection of Japanese mines found and defused on Iwo Jima. USMC photo.
Japanese Type 4 anti-landing mines, Iwo Jima island, February 1945, with their horns removed. Buried in the low-tide surf line, party favors like this waited for Allied landing craft across the Pacific
The Balikpapan assault
Balikpapan would be the swan song of WWII frogmen ops with the final UDT demolition operation of the war on 3-4 July 1945, as the swimmers UDT-11 and UDT-18 removed their helmets and slid over the side of their landing craft before paddling to destiny in broad daylight.
Balikpapan Beach Map AWM
Under the watchful eyes of Gen. MacArthur, whose flagship was just offshore, the frogmen, armed just with knives and demo charges, first mapped the beaches and then helped clear them, coming within range of Japanese mortars and small arms.
Balikpapan was to be no walkover, as the roughly 2,000 Japanese regulars there (augmented by 3,000 local Indonesian conscripts) defended the beaches well and, while they did not have Rommel’s Atlantikwall complete with Belgian Gates and Czech Hedgehogs, they did have thousands of punji stakes to impale infantry, mines, fougasse oil traps to burn men alive, wire obstacles, log barriers to hole landing craft, and the like.
Beach invasion spikes Posts were sunk in the sand, 2 feet and interlocked with barbed wire. Balikpapan, Borneo, 4 July 1945
Off-shore log barricade on the beach at Balikpapan, Borneo.
Underwater demolition swimmers, awaiting the signal to enter the water, watch American planes strafe the invasion beach, 3 July 1945. 80-G-274677
An underwater demolition swimmer checks his swim fins and face mask, during UDT operations at Balikpapan, 3 July 1945. The name on his trunks is “Hopper”. Photographed by Lieutenant Junior Grade C.F. Waters. Note tattoos. 80-G-274693
The above frogman, William DeWolf Hopper Jr., served with the Navy as a volunteer with the Office of Strategic Services in addition to his UDT work. As a member of UDT 10, he participated in operations on Peleliu, Anguar Island, and the Occupation of Ulithi in addition to the Invasion of Leyte, earning a Bronze Star. Originally from New York, Hopper reluctantly returned to California after the war and went on to have a career in Hollywood in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Although he is best known for his role in the series Perry Mason as PI Paul Drake, his other credits include the series Gunsmoke and the movie Rebel Without a Cause. William Hopper passed in 1970 at the age of 55.
An underwater demolition team’s LCPR leaves its fast transport (APD), towing a rubber boat, 3 July 1945. This shows the way the rubber boat is positioned for UDT swimmer discharge and pickups in a method still used 75 years later. The machine guns of the LCPR are the only direct support the swimmers had– and they were typically out of range by the time the swimmers closed with the beach. Photographed by Lieutenant Junior Grade C.F. Waters. 80-G-274700
UDT swimmers prepare to recover their gear and swim towards their objective area, after being dropped off by a landing craft. The photograph released circa 31 August 1945. It may have been taken during the Balikpapan Invasion that July. 80-G-274690
Underwater demolition swimmer prepares for pickup after he had completed his work off the Balikpapan beaches, 3 July 1945. A pickup boat is a rubber raft towed alongside a powerboat. Photographed by Lieutenant Junior Grade C.F. Waters. 80-G-274701
Recovery of a UDT swimmer, using a rubber raft towed alongside a powerboat. Note swimmer’s life belt, sheath knife, beach markers, and other equipment. The photo released on 31 August 1945. It may have been taken during the Balikpapan operation early in July. 80-G-274683
Underwater demolition team swimmers wait in the rain to be taken aboard their fast transport, off Balikpapan, 3 July 1945. The swab mounted on the stern of their LCP(R) means “Clean sweep, day’s work done”. They are watching casualties going aboard from another LCP(R). The boat is from USS KLINE (APD-120). Photographed by Lieutenant Junior Grade C.F. Waterman. 80-G-274686
Amazingly, the UDT teams at Balikpapan only suffered one, non-fatal, injury.
Underwater demolition swimmer, SF1c John Regan gets a drink and smoke after setting charges off Balikpapan, circa early July 1945. Note his sheath knife 80-G-274698
Ensign S.E. Lanier holds the nose of a Japanese 37mm shell which hit but did not pierce, his helmet. Photographed released 31 August 1945. It may have been taken during the Balikpapan Invasion, early that July. 80-G-274691
Underwater demolition swimmers, MoM2c G.J. Bender, rests on board his UDT fast transport after working near the invasion beach, 3 July 1945. He is covered with oil, which was thick on the water near the beach. Note the boots. Photographed by Lieutenant Junior Grade C.F. Waterman. 80-G-274678
With the path cleared by UDT-18, 7th Australian Division troops come ashore from landing craft during landing near Balikpapan oil fields in Borneo. Some 33,000-strong combined Australian and Royal Netherlands (KNIL) troops would land in OBOE 2, the largest ever amphibious assault by Australian forces.
As for our frogmen, it was expected that if they would have hit the beaches at Honshu in late 1945, a mission they were detailed to until the A-bombs intervened, the men of UDT-18 would have suffered 100 percent casualties.
As it was, their unit was disestablished 3 November 1945, at Coronado.
At the SEAL/UDT Museum in Fort Pierce, where NCDU’s and UDTs were formed and trained in WWII, they have a massive 7-foot long model of the old USS Kline on display and a statue of an era frogman dedicated to the “naked warriors” of Balikpapan and all the other beaches in which their brothers landed.
USS Kline (APD-120) at Seal Museum Fort Pierce (Chris Eger)
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