Image copied from a NAVSPECWAR website found HERE
|Pioneering frogmen return to Maui training
By VALERIE MONSON Staff Writer
(Article was copied from a Hawaii online news source. The link is now defunct)
|KIHEI -- Although the mission at Kamaole
was top secret, no one thought the news would stay put for so long.
"Even when we got back home, 95 percent of the people had never heard of us," said Jack Rhodes, 74, who flew in from Alabama for this occasion to remember.
More than 50 years later, a monument was erected Friday so no one will ever forget what was launched from this tranquil shore. As Rhodes and a handful of former comrades gazed out over a familiar sea that was once their cover, those frolicking out of earshot probably had no idea they were playing at a beach that helped turn the tide of World War II. Now recognized only by the scattered remnants of concrete pillars that propped up the old pier at what is now Kamaole Beach Park I, this was the secret experimental training station for members of the underwater demolition teams deployed in the Pacific.
Most of us know them better as "frogmen," the early incarnation of today's Navy SEALs.
But after hearing their harrowing tales of swimming under fire and catching bullets in the water, that description hardly seems adequate.
"Every single one of them was a hero," declared John Kelly of Oahu, the instructor who turned the all-volunteer unit of Navy tadpoles into daring warriors of the deep. "They were the bravest men I knew."
The first group to be fully trained on Maui -- the men who would revolutionize the techniques of scouting in the Pacific and pave the waves for others -- was Underwater Demolition Team 14.
Their jumping off point was Kihei.
"Team 14 was really experimental," said Robert Trafton, 74, of California, who spearheaded the effort to build the monument on his old stomping grounds. "They wanted to see if we could do in six weeks what they'd done in three months."
The underwater demolition teams -- UDTs -- were specifically developed for the war in the Pacific where the Allies were trying to free the various islands that had been conquered by Japan. The Americans had learned the hard way -- with huge numbers of casualties -- that they must figure out a way to scope out the waters and beaches ahead of the main fleet. Their instructions were to gather data about conditions in the ocean and on land or even to ferry in small loads of explosives on their backs to blow up any obstacles.
Similar amphibious demolition units were already being trained in longer, three-month courses in Florida and some would eventually lead the Normandy invasion in Europe.
But by early 1944, the need for such surveillance units in the Pacific was becoming "an emergency," said Trafton. Word went out for Navy volunteers who had participated in at least one major invasion. They were given few specifics -- only that it would involve hazardous duty. Meanwhile, a clandestine training camp was being established at Kamaole.
"And so began the secret mission on Maui," said Cmdr. Walter S. Pullar of the Navy SEALS on Oahu.
A few groups of Florida-prepped reconnaissance swimmers had been sent to Maui to complete their training and head out to action in the Pacific, but it was UDT 14, the group that was activated Sept. 15, 1944, that would permanently leave its mark at Kamaole.
"We might be the only team that was completely trained on Maui," said Trafton.
Realizing the vast differences between conducting missions in the island-filled Pacific and Europe with its long coastline, Team 14 had to perfect negotiating over coral reefs and swimming long distances undetected. To top it off, they had to learn it all in a mere six weeks instead of the usual three months. The grueling workouts sometimes lasted 18 hours a day.
And not everyone arrived looking for adventure.
"I'd heard the training was in Florida and since I'm from Alabama, I thought it would get me close to home," said Rhodes with a laugh. "Then lo and behold, they opened this base up and this is where I wound up. But we were young -- and I had a little of this gung-ho thing."
He needed it. The instructor was a Navy man from Oahu, John Kelly, who got his first surfboard from David Kahanamoku (a brother of Duke), and practically grew up in Hawaiian waters.
"He could swim like nobody else," said Richard Berry, 73, of New Jersey.
Kelly's drills were intense -- you had to run a mile and swim a mile just to earn breakfast -- and sprinkled with bits of wisdom not often taught today.
"He said, `Don't believe those stories you hear about sharks or moray eels,' " remembered Berry. "He said they wouldn't hurt us. He tried to allay our fears."
Of the original group of more than 150 volunteers, so many dropped out from exhaustion or other reasons that a few others from Florida had to be summoned to flesh out the four platoons. All together, there were 96 men in Team 14 -- each of them now permanently memorialized in bronze on the monument at Kamaole.
And that causes John Kelly to brag.
"We didn't lose one (enlisted) man," he said. (One officer was killed at Iwo Jima.)
Keep in mind, scuba gear wasn't yet available, so the men had to learn how to breathe underwater for as long as possible. Kelly brought in a pearl diver to give lessons. Contests were held. The record time: 5 minutes and 5 seconds.
Because they had to approach enemy-held islands, usually in daytime, they had to learn how to swim without creating a splash.
"In Florida, they taught them to swim stiff-legged, but they got cramps with those fins on," said Trafton. "We learned to do a sidestroke so you don't splash like you would with the Australian crawl because we didn't want to be detected."
In between perfecting their silent underwater strokes and practicing how to hold their breath, they rehearsed cramming torpedoes through coils of barbed wire like they would often find greeting them on the beach.
Their battle gear was sparse. The men set out in only swim trunks, fins and a mask, while carrying along a hunting knife, a plastic writing slate and pencil to communicate and, at times, mine detonations strapped to their backs in knapsacks.
Kelly said they had their own special way of showing their mettle.
"As soon as you heard the machine guns fire, you would take a deep breath and dive," he said. "The bullets would come at such high speed, they'd hit the water and flatten out. The men would catch them in their hands and later they would drill holes in them and wear them as necklaces. This was how we expressed our fearlessness of the Japanese."
The men of Team 14 were the scouts for three major battles in three months of early 1945: Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines, Okinawa and, the most heart-stopping of them all, Iwo Jima.
"That was the most exciting," said Trafton.
He and his mates were among the initial wave of Americans to touch Iwo Jima, the site of perhaps the most storied struggle in the Pacific. After landing on that overcast day among choppy seas, Trafton said he dug the first foxhole on the beach -- with his bare hands. It came in handy -- he was getting shot at.
While the men approached Iwo Jima as quietly as possible, they hooted and howled between breaths as they aimed for Okinawa. Team 14, which was among 1,000 UDT swimmers launched for the island, was a decoy in this case and, as they made a racket to attract attention, American ships invaded from other points.
For its death-defying efforts and valor in guiding the way, Team 14 was awarded a total of 11 Silver Stars and 81 Bronze Stars along with commendations from the secretary of the Navy, the commander of Amphibious Group 2 and the commander of amphibious forces.
When the war was over, the men returned home where their neighbors had never heard of UDTs. It wasn't until 1951 when Richard Widmark and Dana Andrews starred in the movie "The Frogmen," that Americans became captivated by Hollywood's version of the underwater warriors of World War II. Better still, it was the film that gave the vets a catchy new nickname -- and new respect.
Well, sort of.
When Robert Trafton and his wife, Jean, decided to buy a condo in Kihei years ago, he did not return to an adoring crowd.
"No one knew about us," he said. "I'd go down there (to Kamaole) and tell people what we'd done and they'd just look at me."
Trafton didn't want the accomplishments of Team 14 to just fade away and so, together, they all decided to pitch in for a monument that would forever chronicle their story and freeze their names in bronze. After contacting Maui County officials, Trafton was directed to Sue Kiang, the coordinator for Volunteer Action who he credited Friday with "leading me through the minefields of bureaucracy."
Walker Industries of Kahului built the concrete block for free. Trafton's wife and their daughter, Kathy, both listened to his often winding tales and composed the text for the plaque.
The landmark was unveiled Friday with eight frogmen in attendance -- five from Team 14 and one each from Team 16, 17 and 19. There were speeches, patriotic songs and the showing of the colors. Cmdr. Pullar, the young Navy SEAL, nearly broke down as he praised the aging pioneers before him and told them that some of the tactics they developed 53 years ago were still in use today.
When the ceremony was done and the sandwiches gone, it was the frogmen who were the last to leave. But as they slowly broke up and went their ways, two strangers had already moved over to the monument where they were now engrossed in the tale of the unknown seamen.
And so Maui's frogmen will now live on from the very place where they leaped into history.