By Chet Bright
Throughout my young career, through all my service aboard a destroyer during World War II and even after I’d joined up again in 1949, I’d always been advised that it was inevitably a stupid thing to volunteer for any job in the military.
But this? This seemed too good to pass up.
I was in San Diego awaiting orders when a chief came and spoke about joining the Underwater Demolition Teams.
UDT had its beginning in Fort Pierce, Florida, during World War II. The Navy knew that the Germans had constructed obstacles on the beaches of Normandy to prevent the landing of Allied troops. Someone had to clear the beach for the invasion and it was going to take experts. The first guys were called Navy Combat Demolition Units. They were to go ashore ahead of the invading forces and do whatever it took to remove any obstacles that might block the Allies’ path and leave them bunched up at the shoreline, helpless targets for German sharpshooters.
The demolition units didn’t swim in those days, but rather worked from small boats. They waded ashore to get to their targets and place their explosives. More than 50 percent of the NCDU troops were casualties at Omaha Beach. After Normandy, the name was changed to Underwater Demolition Teams.
In the Pacific, most of the islands are ringed by coral reefs and, in order to land troops, the teams went in first, blew a path through the reefs and marked the channels they had made. On more than one island, the Marines came ashore and discovered a sign on the beach:
Welcome, U.S. Marines USO three blocks to the left. Signed, UDT
They were known at that time as “frogmen” and were the predecessors to today’s Navy SEALs. How could an outfit like UDT not appeal to any young, red-blooded American male?
I raised my hand and told the chief I wanted in.
I was taken to a beautiful beach on California’s Coronado Strand, where I passed a swimming test, a timed run and an interview. I’d qualified and I was instructed to submit a formal request for UDT duty. I did and my request promptly disappeared into the Navy’s vast paper mill.
Back in San Diego, many months later, I was transferred to the USS Bass, a high-speed destroyer escort that was used for transporting UDTs. I soon realized why the Navy put me on the Bass.
On June 25, 1950, war erupted on the Korean Peninsula.
That day, we loaded the members of UDT-1 and all their equipment aboard. We left within days for Korea. For the second time in less than a decade, I was going to war.
This time it would be a far different experience.
The Bass arrived two weeks later off the east coast of Korea, in what we were told was friendly territory. The team began doing beach reconnaissance, gathering information, which was one of its primary duties.
A few days in, UDT-1 set out to survey a small cove to see if it would be suitable for bringing landing ships to the beach. The team anticipated no problems and the frogmen carried no weapons when they left the boat and went ashore. On the beach, children ran and played in the sand, stopping to beg the Americans for candy or money.
When the children disappeared, one of the Americans realized that something was wrong and yelled, “Hit the water!” A moment later, a half-dozen North Koreans popped up from behind the sand dunes and started firing.
The unarmed frogmen raced for the water and paddled for their boat, which floated nearby. Most of them swam to the sea-facing side of the boat, but one in his haste tried to pull himself aboard on the land side. As his mates were hauling him in, he was shot in the back. Another frogman was still in the water when he was shot in the head.
Marines who made it ashore later discovered that North Korean soldiers had been living there for some time, holding the villagers captive.
I was ordered the next day to report to the commanding officer of UDT-1. It was a hell of a way to get a job. They assigned me a dead man’s bunk and gave me a dead man’s gear.
On a chilly afternoon, the frogmen laid out the bodies of their fallen mates on a cargo hatch on the fantail for transport out of the war zone. Standing there holding my new orders and looking at the fallen frogmen, I wondered if I had made the biggest mistake of my life.
There are very few similarities in the duties of an electrician, my main occupation during World War II, and an underwater explosives expert. When I asked my new commanding officer whether I would get any training, he almost laughed.
“Don’t worry about it,” he told me. “We’ll put you through training when we get back to the States.”
The only diving I’d done had been in a swimming pool and the only experience I had with explosives was helping my dad blow holes in rocks with dynamite when we were building ranch fences back home in West Texas.
War first, train later.
The Misadventures of the Frogmen
At the beginning of our involvement, most of the American forces were far from combat ready and the South Korean military was ill-equipped. The North Koreans were advancing south and General Douglas MacArthur needed a way to slow them down. Frogmen knew explosives and knew how to use them, so we became one of the keys to his new strategy.
I found myself dropping off high-speed boats and swimming onto strange beaches under the cover of night to destroy bridges and tunnels on the highways and train lines the communists might use to push farther into the South. This was the first time UDT had gone so far inland, something that would be far more common in future fights under the Navy SEAL designation. But in Korea, we were learning as we went.
The screw-ups make the best stories, and we had our share of stories. When you plan on blowing up something the size of a bridge or a tunnel, you have to pack a lot of explosives and you have to carry them on your back. If things go bad, it’s hard to defend yourself if you’re loaded down with two 60-pound packs of TNT. We decided it would be great to have a security boat with a squad of armed troops go ahead of the boats that brought us and the explosives. Once the security troops had set up a perimeter, they would signal and we could come in and prepare to make things go boom.
We requested, and received, a squad of Marines. The guys we got were straight out of boot camp with not a bit of combat experience. The target of the first raid was a highway bridge near the beach. Our loaded rubber boats waited outside the surf line as the security boat landed and the green Marines began setting up the perimeter. Then things went bad.
The North Koreans opened up with three locked-in machine guns, spraying the entire area and hitting one of the explosives boats. We had been taught that the safest place to be at a time like this was in the water. I bailed out, along with the others, and we swam out to sea toward a tow boat that was waiting for us.
The Marines crawled into a dry creek bed, in the process managing to clog their weapons so thoroughly with sand that most of them were useless. With few rifles still operational, the Marines held the North Koreans at bay.
A sergeant, who had been wounded, told the men to take off their combat boots, crawl to the water and start swimming. Most of them were more afraid of the dark water than they were of the North Koreans, so they hesitated. Two guys who were fair swimmers decided to give it a try. They crawled to the water’s edge and paddled into the darkness.
Meanwhile, the frogs made it back to the ship and devised a plan to help the Marines. We sent one rubber boat with a four-man crew led by Fred “Tiz” Morrison, the only black man in UDT at that time and already a living legend. He was known as “Super Frog.”
The Marines were unbelievably lucky. With only the moon for illumination, they managed to swim into view of Tiz and his crew. The two Marines were pulled aboard and led the boat back to the dry creek bed, where the other Marines were barely holding off the enemy.
With the arrival of frogmen, the rest of the Marines hit the water and grabbed on to a line tossed from the boat. They held on as Tiz’s crew towed them through the surf to the safety of the ship.
With everyone back on board and the ship getting underway, I could hear the North Koreans firing at ghosts on the beach. More likely, they were shooting at each other.
While we spent some time ashore, reducing bridges and tunnels to rubble, the heart of UDT was always in the water. We lived for that and we were damn good at it. And the North Koreans kept us busy.
A big part of our job was neutralizing the egg-shaped mines that floated around the Korean Peninsula. The North Koreans released more floating mines than you could count. They were everywhere.
Our method of disposal was to swim over to a mine, place a pack of explosives and blow it up from a safe distance. Of course, when there were too many to deal with one by one, which was often, we’d sit in a boat and fire at them with rifles until they detonated.
We worked in open boats, wearing only our rubber exposer suits with diving underwear beneath. Few places on Earth are as cold as Korea in the winter. In the rain and sleet and snow, in sub-freezing temperatures, ice formed on the outside of our suits. We had to keep moving and keep breaking off the ice before it had time to thicken.
In late 1950, the Navy ordered a team of frogmen and a squadron of minesweepers to clear Wonsan Harbor of mines. Reconnaissance showed us their locations, moored below the surface of the water. Snow covered the ground and the icy water was bone-chilling. We marked the mines—about 4 feet tall and 3 ½ feet wide—with small surface markers, then detached them from their mooring cables, towed them out of the area and exploded them with gunfire. We cleared the entire harbor and the minesweepers had not arrived.
The next morning, we were back in the water at 5 a.m., checking to see if we had missed anything. To our astonishment, we found the harbor full of new mines. The enemy had slipped in with fishing boats and replaced them during the night. By noon, the wind was howling, creating white caps and 4-foot swells that made our job much harder.
Early in the afternoon, we were recalled to the boat. We cheered when we saw the minesweepers arriving, but our enthusiasm was short-lived. The lead sweeper exploded in a geyser of spray. Then a second minesweeper exploded. Enemy shore batteries opened up on the sinking ships as we raced across the harbor to rescue the crew members.
U.S. destroyers fired on the shore batteries, silencing them. After dragging the crew members out of the water, some dead and some wounded, we slipped back into the frigid water and cleared all the mines again in our low-tech way.
We patrolled all night with silent underwater exhaust, and caught three enemy fishing boats trying to re-mine the harbor. This time the enemy boats were sent to the bottom in blazing flashes of machine gun fire.
The following morning, our troops stormed ashore, only to find that a South Korean unit advancing on land had taken the port the day before.
The operation had cost 12 lives on the two minesweepers and the frogs risked our own lives for many miserable hours in the frigid water.
As much as we tried, we could never get all the mines. There was always the fear of one more floating out there, waiting to explode, to kill. On one occasion, we had no sooner dropped our anchor than I heard a lookout screaming that a mine was floating toward us.
I looked to the water and held my breath. The mine was powerful enough to sink our ship and most any other in the fleet. It struck the bow and eased along the starboard side, feet from me, bouncing repeatedly—bump, bump, bump. Then it just floated away.
It was a dud.
Raising the Dead
One the mantras of the American military is “no man left behind.” This includes the dead. Especially the dead.
If a man gives his life for his country, his fellow service members will do everything in their power to recover the body and return it to American soil. The nation owes that to him. And it owes it to that man’s wife or his children or his mother, to bring the fallen hero home so they might be able to say a final goodbye. It is a good and noble concept, but it is not always easy. Death in war comes violently and unpredictably. When death came in the water, they called UDT.
The plane crashes were the worst and as the war dragged on, more and more planes went down, ending up scattered and broken at the bottom of the Yellow Sea or the Sea of Japan, or some other river or tributary. The dead were there, too, and it was our job to get them out.
We’d arrive by boat if the crash site was nearby, or by plane if it wasn’t. The work was miserable and morbid and cold. Most often in the aftermath of crashes, we weren’t so much raising bodies from the water as retrieving body parts—an arm, a leg, a torso.
As team members were diving on one crash site, one of our guys became disoriented in the dark water. He was relieved to see a hand reaching out to him and thought his dive partner was offering assistance. He grabbed the hand, but realized it was attached only to a severed arm. Startled, he kept his grip and brought the arm to the surface. That was the job.
The arm might well have been the only piece of that serviceman that could be located, but it went home. And that man’s family got a casket and a funeral and closure.
The end of World War II came suddenly and decisively and joyously. The enemy surrendered and the Allied forces won. All of America celebrated and most of the world joined in. There was drinking and dancing, shouting in the streets. I will never forget that day.
Korea was nothing like that.
By 1952, all the politicians and military leaders were looking for a way to end the war, but the peace talks dragged on and on. It was a slow, brutal process until July 1953, when an armistice agreement was signed. There were no celebrations, no ticker tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes in New York.
Since early 1951, we’d settled into a routine in which our team, UDT-1, rotated every three months with UDT-3. We’d spend three months in Korea and then return to our home base in California for three months to decompress and train.
We’d rotated in and out of Korea so many times during the war that by the time it ended I don’t remember any homecoming at all. At some point, we rotated home and never went back.
—This story is excerpted from “Bluejacket: A Sailor’s Life,” the autobiography of retired Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Chet Bright and co-written with Derek Turner, his grandson and a former senior editor of On Patrol magazine. For more information, visit www.BluejacketBook.com.