This photo shows the Navy's original frog men, members of an Underwater Demolition Team, returning from a mission in the waters off the western beaches of Iwo Jima, sixty-five years ago.*
A 65th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima occurred a few weeks back. My uncle, Arthur Hettema, took part in it as a Navy swimmer — a member of an Underwater Demolition Team. His rank was Chief Carpenter's Mate which meant he was a SeaBee, part of the US Navy's construction battalions that built airstrips (and much else) on Pacific islands as they were captured from the Japanese.
He turned up in swim trunks in the turbulent waters off Iwo because the Navy needed to expand its elite units of aquatic commandos and most volunteers came, as he did, from among the SeaBees. The wikipedia article on UDTs gives a concise explanation.
The conquest of Iwo Jima is remembered not for any doubt about its outcome but rather for its ferocity. It was a Japanese stronghold, the first of the Home Islands to be taken by American forces during the war. Both sides knew it to be an essential base for the impending invasion of the mainland. The Japanese hoped to kill enough Americans to make military leaders think twice about invading the mainland. The Americans simply knew they had to take the island no matter what.
An anonymous editor of the New York Times summed things in a short front-page article that appeared after the attack had begun:
There are only two things which could have prevented our conquest of this bleak rock, if that was our purpose. One is superior naval power and the other is superior air power. Japan has neither. We have both. Nevertheless, Iwo Jima will not be taken easily. Symbolically it is almost the last useful remnant of Japan's once proud island power in the Pacific. Physically it is a volcanic mountain peak thrust up from the sea, and every crevice in the rocks is packed with enemy troops. Its garrison is said to number 10,000 men, which is a formidable force to defend such a tiny speck of land. Moreover, every beach is commanded by gun-mounted heights which no bombardment from the sea can destroy. The most skillful use of our amphibious technique will be required to overcome these natural obstacles.The UDTs were an essential part of the "amphibious technique" which this author anticipates. The Navy had learned that it could not land invasion forces without first determining the undersea terrain that lay between its ships and the beaches. In attempting landings on other islands, there was great and needless loss of life as landing craft got hung up on reefs and invisible obstacles. At Iwo, the UDTs mapped the seafloor. They explored for explosive devices and were prepared to detonate any that they found. And they emerged on the beaches themselves to obtain sand samples so Naval engineers could determine whether wheeled vehicles would become bogged down. In doing these things they exposed themselves to enemy fire, during their approach in the small fast boats that conveyed them, while at work in the water, and during their return to the ships on which they came.
-- NYT, New York, N.Y. Feb 19, 1945 pg. 1**
They did most of this work on D-Day minus 2: two days before the invasion.
The Navy knew that no bombardment could destroy the enemy positions that covered the beach; nonetheless the island was subjected to massive attacks from airplanes and ships over the days before the invasion began. They brought light ships close to shore on on the morning of D-Day minus 2, when underwater reconnaissance began. These were called LCI(G)s, gunboats that could be used for landing infantry on shore, but they were essentially rocket platforms on this morning. The Japanese were ready for them and, though reluctant to pull back, the heavy damage they took forced them to do so.
1. This photo shows the LCI(G)s moving into position.
2. This shot of LCI(G)s was taken from one of the boats conveying the swimmers toward the shore. The small blobs are LCPLs, small, fast, shallow-draft boats used to convey the swimmers shoreward.
3. This photo shows the an LCI(G) that has taken a shell but not sunk; it has returned to its mother ship with dead and wounded sailors.
4. In the afternoon, destroyers were deployed to provide covering fire. Here, a destroyer is firing at mortar and artillery positions on shore. The destroyers replaced the badly damaged LCI(G)s which were originally scheduled for the task.
5. Another photo of a destroyer shelling the intended landing beaches during the afternoon.
Arthur Hettema was in Platoon 4 of team UDT-15 which was assigned the duty of reconnaissance and underwater demolition in the afternoon. As things turned out, there were no munitions for them to blow up. That circumstance hardly lessened the danger however, for if the Japanese defenders were on guard for the morning excursion, they were ever more so in the afternoon. The risk to the swimmers was increased to the more by the use of destroyers for cover fire rather than the more maneuverable and accurate LCI(G)s. Worse yet, a smokescreen that was to be provided by airplanes never materialize and the group had to make do with less dense smoke from shells fired by the destroyers.
My uncle had been in a forward team on a reserve LCPL in the morning. He described the experience as extremely harrowing: "For one and a half hours, I watched. I was seeing the most nerve-wracking and horrible sight I had ever witnessed. We could see the gunboats getting hit and hear men screaming for doctors. I was completely and absolutely exhausted when I returned to our ship. I couldn't eat a bite of chow."***
As his group prepared to go out that afternoon he said he was extremely agitated, "Outwardly I probably seems cool, calm, and collected, but inwardly I was in turmoil — everything inside me was churning."
6. Underwater Demolition Team swimmers smear themselves with grease to protect against the cold water.
7. The small, fast, low-draft boats that carried the swimmers also carried rubber boats. They used the latter in picking up swimmers at the end of a mission. The rubber boat would be dragged behind the LCR and a sailor would hold a loop rope out over the water. Swimmers would space themselves so that they could be brought aboard the rubber boat one after the other at high speed, by putting their arm through the loop and swinging up and over the side.
In the morning the boats carrying the swimmers had been shelled continuously, so much so that, according to one account, spray had soaked everyone and twice the boats had been lifted out of the water by concussion.
Surprisingly, the enemy fire turned out to be less withering in the afternoon. The covering fire of the destroyers plus some smoke laid down by planes that had finally arrived reduced the quantity and accuracy of mortar and artillery fire from the defenders. Where the LCI(G)s had earlier failed for the most part even to get in position to fire their rockets, the destroyers were able to bombard the shore with impunity. One swimmer reported that the fire from the destroyers smothered the beach — it was just a sheet of fire; and the noise was deafening. Nonetheless, there was constant machine gun fire from beach emplacements: "All the time around us the machine gun fire kept us ducking. You pop your head up and they would miss you on the left. It got to be a little game — which way were you going to surface."
8. This photo shows an LCPR moving into position to drop swimmers.
9. It's a little hard to make out what's going on here. The small blob is an LCPR. The smoke comes from the destroyers' heavy shelling of the beaches.
To keep from getting shot, the swimmers were careful to emerge only in the troughs of waves, never at their peaks. They swam in pairs. They dove to look for electric cables attached to mines. Periodically one would take a sounding (with a three fathom lead line) and give his results to the other who would write it on a plexiglass slate. They noted where the guns were placed on the beach. They measured the height of the sand and the height of the breakers. They went all the way to shore and collected sand samples from the surface of the beach.
10. This shows a wrecked Japanese freighter from which Japanese snipers and machine gun teams fired on the boats and swimmers.
11. Here is an LCPR in the rendezvous area getting ready to collect swimmers. You can also see a destroyer that's part of the group shelling the beach. Mount Suribachi is in the upper right corner.
Notice the distance to the beach. The swimmers had a long way to go to get to the reconnaissance area and back again. Imagine what it must have been like to do that much swimming and also carry out a difficult mission while under enemy fire.
12. In this shot LCPRs are waiting to pick up swimmers. You can again see how far they stood off shore.
13. My uncle and his partner Halvor Ravanholt, were the last pair to be dropped. They were also the last to be picked up. Having completed their mission and returned to the pick up point, they saw the boat pick up the other pairs but race by without seeing them. My uncle said: "We didn't panic, just hoped and prayed. The boat officer ordered the coxwain to make one more pass. This time they did see us and at full speed approached us. The sailor in the rubber boat held out the rope-ring, which we put our arm through and they pulled us aboard. We crawled to the bottom of the craft, hastily put on our metal helmets, and downed a two-ounce bottle of brandy."
I'm repeating this shot to show the way the rubber raft was used in collecting swimmers.
14. This shows one group of swimmers on its way back to the home ship. They put on long johns and foul-weather gear after being picked up. The water was about 67 deg. f., not too cold, but they were exhausted and strung out; the gear wasn't a luxury but a necessity.
15. Their job done, the UDTs could take it easy while the invasion proceeded. This shows the first landings on D-Day itself.
16. This shows the first flag raising on Mount Suribachi on D-Day plus 5, 23 Feb. 1945.
17. Map of Iwo used by US military war planners
Unfortunately, the UDTs' period of relaxation was brief. On the day after their reconnaissance, D-Day minus 1, their home ship, the destroyer escort USS Blessman was hit in its mess hall by a large bomb dropped from a Japanese plane — the type known as a Betty. The explosion killed 40, including 15 men of the UDT. Uncle Arthur wrote about this tragedy in a newspaper article that appeared a few weeks after the 40th anniversary of the battle. Here's the account:
Bombed at SeaAnother account says that Uncle Art helped put out the fires caused by the bomb and, especially, to keep the flames away from the ship's ammunition. He said "As we fought to bring it under control, the 20mm and 40mm ammunition in the storage rooms on the main deck got so hot they kept exploding." He then volunteered to help bring up and throw overboard the heavy explosives from the hold. About this he said "Believe me, it was some job to get the men to go down belowdecks." About the service for the dead, he said "No tears were held back. We all grieved deeply for our lost buddies."
Arthur Hettema 3095 Windmill Village
Punta Gorda, Fla. 33950
On Feb. 19, 1945, the USS Blessman, an attack personal destroyer, was being towed by a salvage tug on our way back to Saipan.**** We could still hear the bombardment of Iwo Jima where we had been in the pre-assault attack on the western and eastern beaches. The night before, we frogmen, after clearing the approaches to the beaches, making sure there were no mines, reefs or obstacles that would prevent the Marines from reaching the beach to be invaded, were in a happy mood.
At 9:20, a Japanese bomber dropped two bombs, one just missing and the other penetrating the boat deck before exploding on the deck below. The ship caught on fire and, with both engine rooms knocked out, there was no power to operate the fire pumps. We were able to contact the U.S. Gilmore, our command ship, and it came with hoses to put out the fire in about three hours.
With the salvage tug towing us at no more than 6 knots, we were concerned that a sub could overtake us. The enemy had a submarine base only 100 miles away.
The next day, I, with several other volunteers, took ponchos and waded into the troop compartment, where we recovered the bodies of 40 men. We buried two at a time the next morning as the captain read the burial passage. Everyone had tears running down their cheeks, with the loss of their close friends.
We made coffee that morning over a trash can that hung at the fantail of the ship. One of the Seabees, a sheet-metal worker, made a stove of a big metal locker and we were able to cook meals. We started at 5 in the morning and made large quantities of scrambled eggs. For the evening meal, we made a stew with meat, potatoes, onions and carrots. We were outside all the time, sleeping on the deck, so our appetites were still good.
In the evening, we blacked out at 7, as usual, and sitting around on the deck, we listened to the supply officer play on his flute the sweetest music you ever heard. It was more or less a sleepless night: We were still nervous and jumpy from the bomb hit we took. We kept the 8-inch LeRoix pumps going and, with 40 feet of the starboard side torn out, we reached Saipan in six days.
We could buy beer there for 10 cents a bottle and, for a small amount, we could order a steak dinner.
-- Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Sunday, April 14, 1985
Uncle Art had other adventures and close calls while swimming for the Navy. In one of them he came in contact with an enormous man o' war jellyfish in heavy surf on a UDT mission. Half his body was paralyzed by the poison stingers. He could barely stay afloat. He and his partner had become separated and there was no one to help. He could not swim to the rendezvous location. It was night and his only hope of recovery was to use his emergency flashlight to signal the pickup boat. By a miracle this worked. At considerable risk, the boat left the rendezvous location and approached the beach to come pick him up. He said it took a long time before he felt normal again.
First flag raising slide show, National Museum of the Marine Corps
second flag raising
Iwo Jima Recon: The U.S. Navy at War, February 17, 1945 by Dick Camp (MBI Publishing Company, 2007)
Blessman US Navy, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships
Diving in the U.S. Navy: A Brief History, US Navy, Naval Historical Center
Flags of Our Fathers Clint Eastwood's 2006 film which follows the men who raised the famous flag and its companion Letters from Iwo Jima Clint Eastwood's Oscar winning film of the same year
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*Unless otherwise noted, all photos come from Naval collections of the US National Archives. Many photos are displayed a less than full size; click for full view.
**The wikipedia article on the battle confirms what this editor writes but corrects the size of the Japanese garrison. It was actually between 18,061 and 18,591 men, with exactly 216 of these taken prisoner. The author of the wikipedia article says the rest were either killed or missing.
***This and other quotes are from Dick Camp's book, Iwo Jima Recon: The U.S. Navy at War, February 17, 1945.
****Uncle Art misremembered the date and he was probably wrong about the salvage tug too. Another account says
The following day [i.e., 18 Feb], she headed for a screening station. While she was en route, however, an enemy bomber, identified as a "Betty," came in at 2121, very low over the port quarter, strafing, and scored a direct bomb hit in the high-speed transport's starboard mess hall, above her number one engine room. A second bomb hit her stack, glanced off, and splashed close aboard without exploding. Fire broke out immediately in the mess hall, galley, and troop quarters on the main deck; and the ship lost all power. Heavy smoke forced the abandonment of the number two fire and engine rooms, while a 500-gallon-per-minute portable pump was demolished and all other such pumps were rendered inoperable by the shock. This damage reduced Blessman's crew to bucket brigades and the use of helmets to keep the blaze from spreading. Her sailors jettisoned topside ammunition aft, and attempted to clear ammunition from clipping rooms and bedding from troop quarters to halt the fire's spread. At 2250, antiaircraft and small arms ammunition began exploding, forcing the evacuation of wounded to the bow and stern. Meanwhile, bucket brigades kept the fire from spreading to the superstructure deck, confining the blaze to the enclosed spaces on the main deck.And another:
That evening [18 Feb.] we had been steaming at flank speed from the vicinity of Iwo Jima to the outer screening area. With the usual efficiency with which anything connected with UDT15 functions, the BLESSMAN, APD 48 found itself able to take the place of another ship that had engine trouble. While speeding at 22 knots, the BLESSMAN left a wake that could be seen for miles and one which was seen by a member of the opposition. A twin engine Betty with numerous five hundred pound bombs came in on our wake, swung to the left when he saw us and then made a 180 degree turn coming back in our beam, dropping one bomb of the five hundred pound variety. It went through the top port PR, several pieces of pipe, down through the overhead of the starboard mess hall and exploded when it struck the deck of the same. A second bomb creased one of our boat davits but failed to explode until it hit the water. When we got topside we saw that the starboard mess hall had been opened up just like a matchbox with a huge exploding firecracker. The midsection of the ship was engulfed in flame and the smell of burning flesh was everywhere.