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The Frogmen of World War II

An Oral History of the U.S. Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams

About The Book

The exciting story of the Navy's Underwater Demolition Team—also known as the Frogmen of WWII—who were the precursors to today's Navy SEALs, in their own words.

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 revolutionary training and fighting methods would evolve into the modern special forces known as the Navy SEALs.


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 later and the Jap barges left an hour after that.

The Alamo Scouts went inland for their survey, and we went to the beach to do our work. We recorded information concerning the condition of the beach, the terrain leading inland away from the beach, the water depth, coral, surf, and slope. We saw a small island about three miles offshore. It appeared to have a building. Apparently it was subjected to air attacks. That night we rested and napped at a secluded spot just off a jungle trail. The chiggers were worse there than anyplace I had been. They could partly be removed using a knife blade to scrape them off.

The next day we worked gaining similar information on the beach to the east. On June 30 we were scheduled to meet the other team at the place we had left the rubber boats. As we moved along a trail I was in the lead position. I saw a small group of Japanese apparently finishing a meal. We sought cover and were able to alert the Alamo Scouts when they arrived to take cover. After a short break we checked again and the Japs were gone, probably to their barge for the night's travel.

We found our boats and inflated them. After dark we contacted the S-47, and with the help of their sonar man via our radio we made a safe return to the boat. We had showers to get rid of the chiggers, and then a brandy and big steak dinner.

For my work at Sansapor, I was awarded the Bronze Star. The citation:

For meritorious achievement as an Amphibious Scout, during operations against enemy Japanese forces in the Sansapor area of Dutch New Guinea, from June 27 to 30, 1944. When an enemy barge containing six men landed within twenty yards of the party, Coxswain Calvin Worth Byrd coolly and methodically recorded intelligence data. Later when the party retracted for the return to the submarine, he sighted an enemy campfire and by his timely warning, enabled his party to escape detection. His courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

It was signed by James Forrestal, secretary of the Navy, for the President.

On September 15, 1944, we were set to go into Morotai without prior scouting information. Amphibious Scouts were assigned to participate with the initial landing forces in the event our services would be needed for scouting or beach party work.

Lt. Don Root and I were assigned to a LCI (landing craft, infantry), and one practice run was made in the Aitape area. The Army troops had not been in combat and were not familiar with LCIs.

Later, when we reached Morotai, the landing was made without opposition. It was evident that scouting would have been beneficial because of equipment lost and damaged due to coral and mudflats along the chosen beach.

As I went along the beach I was hailed by some old friends from Gulfport, Mississippi. This was a pleasant surprise. We were about ten thousand miles from home and had not seen each other in three or four years.

Morotai was rapidly secured. Our services were not needed, so we were ordered to board an empty LST for transportation back to the USS Blue Ridge.

Dinagat and Homonhon in the Leyte Gulf were our next targets. In late September 1944 meetings were held on the Blue Ridge to plan and organize a mission to set up navigation lights on Dinagat and Homonhon Islands to mark a channel that was clear of mines. The mine swept channel with lights would be ready for use on October 19, 1944 by invasion forces attacking Leyte on the morning of October 20, 1944.

Lt. Don Root and Paul Dougherty and I were assigned to install a light on Dinagat while Lt. Earl Gipe, John Grady, and another enlisted man would install a light on Homonhon. The lights were made by a machine shop on one of the ships in Humboldt Bay. The poles consisted of three-inch pipe joints that could be coupled together. The lights could be screwed to the top of the pole. Lights could be adjusted up or down and from side to side. Power would come from truck batteries. There would be three hundred U.S. 6th Army Rangers involved. One hundred would land on Dinagat with Lt. Root, Dougherty, and me. One hundred would land with Lt. Gipe. The other one hundred Rangers would be in reserve. Three APDs would be used to transport the Rangers and us.

In addition to the three APDs, the convoy would consist of twelve minesweepers, three destroyers, and one seagoing tug. It would be necessary to fuel at sea before arriving at the destination.

Except for some bad weather at sea, everything worked well and we landed on Dinagat about 1100 on 17 October. It was raining. We loaded the light on a medical stretcher for transporting it to Desolation Point. The Rangers arranged to move inland, except for one platoon assigned for our protection.

There were a few Japs in the area, so we moved slowly and did not make it to Desolation Point before dark. It continued to rain. We spent the night in a small building that had been damaged by a destroyer shelling before we landed. The Ranger platoon set up a perimeter for protection. During the night a weird noise got our attention. It turned out to be a little dog crying for food.

The next morning, October 18, 1944, we continued on to Desolation Point. The platoon of Rangers were soaking wet after spending the night in the rain. The minesweepers were actively engaged in floating mines and exploding them with gunfire. They had done this since the morning of October 17, 1944. The channel was to be close to Dinagat.

Soon after arriving at Desolation Point, we put the light together and had it ready for testing and adjusting that night. There was a small shack on the point. On the walls were charts of American planes, which indicated the Japs had a plane spotter in the area. The view of the ocean from this location was exceptionally good.

Early that night we contacted by radio the Navy captain on a destroyer. He instructed us to turn on the light and then gave us directions to adjust the position to conform with the navigation channel for the ships in the invasion fleet. The light was then turned out and secured for the night.

The Ranger platoon set up a semiperimeter around the land side of the point. Orders for the night were no smoking, no talking, and no walking or other upright movement. Sometime around 2100 or 2200 we heard two shots. According to orders, we remained still.

The next morning we found that one of the Rangers had detected a moving figure and fired the two shots. Both struck and killed the figure, who was a Jap. We assumed he was the plane spotter going to the shack.

On October 19 the minesweepers continued to destroy mines but were close to finishing. During the day a Ranger colonel came by. He was enthusiastic about our mission. He took our names, ranks, and serial numbers, and indicated he would recommend awards for our accomplishments.

Around 2100 on the night of October 19-20, 1944, we turned on Dinagat's Desolation Point light. Sometime around midnight we could hear some of the ships in the invasion fleet as they passed by.

The invasion was a complete success, partly due to the navigation lights that we installed.

The Blue Ridge had moved into Leyte Gulf with the invasion forces. They sent a boat for us on October 24 after the naval battle of Leyte Gulf. Several days later we went back to Hollandia. Leyte was our last mission for the Special Services Unit No. l and the Amphibious Scouts.

First Lieutenant R.B. Firm, USMCR

Life on Fergusson Island was almost idyllic after Guadalcanal. The routine was as follows: eight days in the bivouac area, followed by eight days in the bush. The time in the hinterland was spent in team groups. Two teams would be taken up the coast to set up camps in different spots. In the morning they would try to ambush each other. The afternoons were spent hunting and fishing. The natives who had been assigned to us were at our elbows constantly during this time in the jungle. We were becoming proficient to a much greater degree in pidgin.

The Sixth Army had moved up to Goodenough Island, six miles across the straight from us. We would go over every few days to get a supply of rations from their quartermaster. The PTs would ferry us over, and we did our shopping in a weapons carrier that we kept chained to a tree. We had painted prominently Special Service Unit No. 2 on the sides. This aroused curiosity of some of the Army brass. We told them where we were from. But when they asked us who we were and what we did, we clammed up. An Army colonel came over one day to pay us a visit. He never got past our jetty where Commander Coultas stopped him in his tracks.

The first mission of the group was to Finschhafen in September and rapidly followed by operations to Gasmata, Arawe, and Cape Gloucester.

Lieutenant (jg) Rudy Horak

Dallas, Texas

I graduated from the University of Texas in June 1942 in Austin, Texas. Just before graduation, I joined the Navy V-7 program. In August, I was sent to Notre Dame for a few weeks' indoctrination and then to Columbia University Midshipman School in New York. I graduated there as an ensign, USNR, on December 2, 1942.

Three of us, A. E. Gipe, Donald E. Root, and I, requested and were granted orders to attend the Navy Amphibious School, Destroyer Base, San Diego. In April, after training, we shipped out on the USS Mizar and arrived in Sydney, Australia three weeks later. We practiced landing with the U.S. Marines and the Army's 32nd Division on the beaches northward along the east coast of Australia.

In July 1943, Lt. Commander William F. Coultas came to Port Stephens to interview Navy personnel for the Amphibious Scouts, also called Special Services Unit No. 1. Earl Gipe, Donald G. Root and I volunteered and were selected after the interviews. We were sent to training camp at Cairns, Australia, and trained in all aspects of jungle warfare.

Later we went to a vacated PT boat base on Fergusson Island. Nearby was Goodenough Island, which was a staging area for the 6th Army.

Our scout team went to Cape Gloucester from September 24 to October 6, 1943. Our team included Australian Kirkwall Smith, a radioman, Marine John Bradbeer, 32nd Division Army Lt. Daily Gambill, and two natives, Sabra and Tablo. We paddled our rubber boats shoreward after launching from a PT boat. Japanese armed barges were in the area and we finally got past them and landed. Our two natives panicked and ran into the brush, leaving our boats unattended. They turned over in the surf and dumped all of our food and provisions into the salty water. So we spent the next eleven days without any substantial food. All I had was a banana and a yam. The villages had no food due to our aerial blockade, which kept the Japanese from bringing in supplies.

One day I was cleaning my carbine, had it all taken apart, when I heard a gunshot. Within a minute a native came running up to me saying "Japon he come," in pidgin English. I never had assembled my carbine so fast in my life, and we both were out of there hiding in the brush. Turned out a Japanese patrol came into the native's village demanding food. The chief told them he had no food for his villagers.

Another time I remember during that recon we were given specific orders to stay at our posts during the night. About midnight I saw a figure walking along the beach coming right toward my position. My brain told me it had to be a Jap, so I aimed my carbine and started to pull the trigger. Just then the figure called out my name. It was Lt. Gambill of the 6th Army who had been my tent mate on Fergusson Island. I almost killed my buddy. He didn't say why he left his post. I don't know if I could have lived with myself if I had pulled the trigger that night.

During our scouting, Sabra and I located two entrenched coastal guns guarding Dampier Strait between New Guinea and Cape Gloucester. We took coordinates and pinpointed these guns and relayed the information. Later we found out the Allied bombers neutralized these guns, so our landing forces sailed through the straits uninterrupted during the landing at Borgen Bay.

Our scouting report showed that the southern coast was rocky, the immediate inland terrain densely vegetated, and that a large scale landing there was not feasible. So the powers decided on the northern part of the cape, Borgen Bay, which our team recommended as being more accessible.

On the tenth night on the scouting mission we were supposed to leave, but we had some trouble. The rescue PT boat's radio wasn't working and they couldn't hear us, so it went back to its base. That night the Japs started shelling where they thought we were and we played a deadly game of hide-and-seek. We won. The next night another PT came out, the radios worked, and we got off. I'll never forget the joy of being back aboard a U.S. vessel after thinking that all was lost.

On December 26, 1943, the First Marine Division under General Repertus made a successful landing at Borgen Bay.

Our other scout party, headed by Australian captain John Murphy, was not so lucky at the other end of the island. They were ambushed by a Japanese patrol, captured, interrogated, and tortured, and all of them were shot. Another of our scouting parties headed by Aussie Captain "Blue" Harris was captured in Hollandia. They, too, were killed except for two men who survived and later told what happened.

I spent six weeks in the hospital, and lost thirty five pounds from malaria. Then I was assigned to the Aussie ship Westralia to take pictures of the beaches for Naval Intelligence during the Hollandia landings.

Later, I made the landing at Leyte Gulf, Philippines, on October 22, 1944. It was there that my ship was hit by a Japanese kamikaze. Thirty-five of our scouts were killed and a like number wounded. After twenty-seven months in the southwest Pacific, I was sent back to the U.S.A.

Dr. Bernard C. Wildgen, MD, USNR (MC)

No special training was given me and no medical instructions were provided with the orders I received to join the Special Service Unit No. 1 and the Seventh Amphibious Scouts.

On arrival I found the medical facility to consist of a native-type grass-roofed shack. One medical corpsman was present. I don't remember his name.

Medical supplies were limited. The sole antibiotic was sulfanilamide, tablets and powder. Penicillin was unavailable.

Atabrin, the antimalarial, was dispensed daily to the troops. This held the disease in check nicely -- if it was taken daily. It was not curative for Plasmodium vivax malaria, for which quinine was needed but was not available for our unit.

Commander Coultas warned us regarding hookworm infestation and the necessity of wearing shoes to avoid contamination of the feet. I do not remember any such cases in the unit.

One Australian from Melbourne, First Lt. Allen Lylne, AIF, developed extensive skin ulcers of the forearm. Warm compresses and sulfa powder brought no improvement. He was examined by an Australian from Goodenough Island. That doctor recommended a popular treatment: "Leave the tropics." He was sent back to Melbourne.

When I was starting to cut away the bandage dressing on Lylne's arm, the Australian doctor asked me to stop. Then he unwrapped the purulent dressing. He would have it washed and sterilized, then use it again. We didn't have this degree of supply shortage in our unit.

I had the good fortune to serve on the USS Fulton for six weeks with a group of older doctors. One was an accomplished dermatologist who taught recognition and treatment of skin disorders of the tropics. This served me well for the Fergusson and Milne Bay areas.

One stubborn problem was the fungus infection of the external ear canal. Local swelling would completely close the ear canal orifice. Warm, hypertonic compresses were required to reduce the tissue fluid, then allow medication to enter the ear canal where it was effective. A number of men had this problem, some with a tendency to recur.

In Brisbane I found and purchased a medical text of tropical diseases, authored by an Australian physician. This was an aid in understanding malaria, dengue, hookworms, and yaws.

Dengue was not a problem in the New Guinea area. I had treated such patients in Nouméa, New Caledonia. These patients were quite ill during the course of the disease; however the mortality rate is almost zero.

Yaws, a spiroaste disease, was present in the natives. One large, strong black who was the "property" of an Australian plantation owner was left in my care because he had a large skin ulcer on his leg. The U.S. Army hospital on Goodenough Island did the laboratory work to determine the diagnosis of yaws. He was started in treatment, with favorable results.

About hygiene: The bathing facility consisted of a dammed-up stream, producing a pool possibly three feet deep. We would enter this and scrub with soap and rinse with the stream. This was probably a mosquito paradise. The water was refreshing, whereas the seawater left one sticky.

The toilet facility was a tent that contained two or three stools. Each consisted of two gasoline barrels with the ends removed. Deep holes were dug to stack two barrels end on end, with the upper barrel extending chair height above ground level. The seat was made of boards with the customary hole.

A daily event was when the New Guinea blacks would pour a cup of aviation gasoline into each of these holes and then cast a lighted match into the barrels. The resulting explosion and flame eruption was often heard throughout the camp. This eliminated the fly population and gave the men a necessary fast sprint out of the tent.

Things were changing. On October 1, 1943, Admiral Daniel E. Barbey ordered a new kind of beach party be formed and trained at the Milne Bay area. Their job would be to go ashore with the assault boats, put in buoys, fix channels, erect markers for incoming craft, handle casualties, take offshore soundings, blow up beach obstacles, and maintain voice communications between troops ashore and incoming boats and nearby ships. It was to be a new type of beach party to include machinist's mates, pharmacist's mates, boatswain's mates, NCDU (Naval Combat Demolition Unit) men, scouts, and beach masters. Beach Party No. 1 served at Arawe in December 1943.

Special Service Unit No. 1, Navy 323, was a highly classified unit of the Amphibious Scouts that trained and operated with select volunteer officer and men from different services. They overcame extreme obstacles and provided the intelligence that contributed to the successful assaults of the first phase of the road to Tokyo.

About this time the unit began to wither. The Australians requested their personnel be returned. The other men from the Army and Marines returned to their outfits. In late December 1943, the remaining officers and men of Special Services Unit No. 1 were returned to their respective services. The U.S. Navy men went on to a continuation of their duties as the 7th Amphibious Scouts, where many of them continued operations to the end of the war.

Copyright © 2005 by Chet Cunningham

About The Author

Photo Credit: Screen Arts

Chet Cunningham served in the army in post-war 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 forty years.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Pocket Books (November 1, 2007)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416595809

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