Water Ballet Off Iwo Jima

By Baxter Abbott Sparks

A Sooner Becomes a Frogman

Joseph L. Artman was born in Hollywood, California, on 1 June 1924 but grew up in Texas and Oklahoma. While attending the University of Oklahoma, the 155-pounder was on the boxing team and, through Naval ROTC instructor Lieutenant Clyde Van Arsdall Jr. (U.S. Naval Academy, class of '34), became interested in the Navy. Graduating from O.U. with a bachelor's degree in business, he was commissioned an ensign in the Naval Reserve.

Joe volunteered for underwater demolitions duty and reported to the Naval Combat Demolition Unit school at Fort Pierce, Florida. "The water was warm there," he recalled, "but the training was tough." It began with "hell week," during which the students were pushed to their physical and mental limits. On the final day of the week the initiates simulated an amphibious landing and made a four-mile march through the woods, while instructors set off live explosives nearby. "We [came] in on the beach with nothing but a compass," Joe said. "They had guys stationed behind trees trying to get us. They made it so realistic, more people were probably injured in training than in combat."

Later, the students learned how to handle the explosives—specifically how to blow up and then remove beach obstructions. The more rigorous training included long runs in loose, deep sand and hours spent paddling rubber boats. Sand fleas, "so thick you could scrape them off in solid clusters," as well as mosquitoes and jellyfish added to the misery. Two-thirds of the school's students dropped out before graduation.

After training as the leader of a six-man Naval Combat Demolition Unit team, Ensign Artman was assigned to an Underwater Demolition Team, UDT-12, when it was formed on 26 September 1944. Thinking back on his team, which was led by Lieutenant Commander E. S. Hochuli and initially consisted of 95 officers and enlisted men, Joe said: "We had lots of tough guys from the Bronx and New Jersey, and lots of college boys like me who didn't worry about anything. We had more pride than the average naval unit, and more respect from other groups."

Additional Training in the Pacific

On 3 October, UDT-12 boarded a troop train bound for the West Coast. The unit later embarked on a transport for Hawaii and on 21 October arrived at Maui for advanced instruction at Maalaea Bay's Naval Combat Demolition Training and Experimental Base.

While their Fort Pierce training had concentrated on demolition, team members soon learned that in the Pacific they would mainly be used for close-in reconnaissance of enemy-controlled beaches. Their intensive training at Maui therefore stressed long-distance and underwater swimming, and working in two-man teams. The UDTs also learned to operate from LCP(R)s (landing craft, personnel, ramped) and APDs—destroyer escorts that had been converted to high-speed transports. Davits on the transports carried four LCP(R)s, which were capable of making 11 knots, two knots faster than the better-known LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle, personnel).

APDs were adapted for demolition-team transport and operations in part because their open fantails had only three to four feet of stern freeboard. UDT platoons could muster there and easily embark into LCP(R)s for transport to their drop-off points. Each landing craft could transport a platoon and its gear—swim fins and masks, belt knives, explosives, compasses, and Plexiglas chart boards and pencils for carefully mapping reefs, shorelines, beach obstacles, and gun emplacements.

During its training at Maui, UDT-12 underwent a reorganization and many personnel changes. Ensign Artman was appointed as an assistant platoon officer, and Commander Hochuli had enough confidence in Joe to put him in charge of the training ship's brandy bar. (After their duties, the swimmers were entitled to two 1??-ounce rations from the bar.) By the time the team finished the advanced school, it consisted of 13 officers and 85 enlisted men.

On 7 January 1945, UDT-12 reported aboard the high-speed transport Bates, which in her earlier incarnation as a destroyer escort (DE-68) had served off Utah Beach during the D-Day landings, and set off for Pearl Harbor. There, explosives, equipment, and provisions were loaded aboard the ship. The Bates then sailed to Ulithi, the assembly point for the invasion of Iwo Jima.

A Daunting Daylight Assignment

At Ulithi, the four Underwater Demolitions Teams—12, 13, 14, and 15—assigned to the Iwo operation conducted intense rehearsals. Their task would be to swim in and reconnoiter the proposed landing beaches two days before the invasion. Aerial photographs had revealed that the preferred beach on the island's southeastern side fell off very sharply into the ocean. If the drop was too steep, the Navy would not be able to beach landing craft, and the boats would swing parallel to the shore and broach.

In addition to determining the slope by taking soundings with lead weights and line, the frogmen were to locate and destroy mines using detonator caps and obtain samples of the beach sand.

The reconnaissance would be conducted in very cold water. Olympic swimmers like to train in cold water—78 degrees. The ocean around Iwo Jima was 63 to 68 degrees, temperatures in which even well-conditioned swimmers lose coordination and muscle control after an hour. Lacking wetsuits, the Navy frogmen smeared their bodies with axle grease to help ward off the cold.

The swimmers, moreover, would be operating in broad daylight and in plain view of many of the island's defenders. Enemy gun positions were strategically positioned in high spots, rocky ridges, and caves overlooking the invasion beaches and were served by approximately 11 miles of underground tunnels snaking throughout the small island. The Japanese were not "on" Iwo Jima but "in" it, and their 21,000 troops were equipped with more than 400 artillery pieces and antiaircraft guns; 77 heavy, medium, and light mortars; and 33 large naval guns. When asked about the dangers and hazards of swimming in to reconnoiter the island, Joe had the cheerful and laughing response of the cool and classic warrior: "Oh, we thought we were on a lark."

On 10 February, the four teams, under the overall command of Captain B. Hall Hanlon, left Ulitihi for Iwo Jima aboard their respective transports. During the voyage, in addition to daily physical training, the members of UDT-12 studied enlarged photos of the Iwo beaches and posed for platoon photographs on the Bates ' fantail. On the 16th—the same day I reconnected with Joe—they arrived off the island, which U.S. warships and aircraft had begun shelling and bombing.

On 17 February—a clear and beautiful "blue-bird" day—Ensign Artman and more than 120 other frogmen were scheduled to reconnoiter the beaches. In the morning the UDTs would scout the southeastern shore. Each two-man team was assigned a 100-yard section of beach. Two UDT-12 platoons, including Joe's, were assigned Red Beaches 1 and 2. The reconniassance was to kick off at 1100. In the afternoon, the two other UDT-12 platoons would help reconnoiter the secondary landing beaches on the island's western side.

Setting the Stage for the UDTs

The day's operation began with battleships and cruisers bombarding Iwo Jima and minesweepers clearing its nearby waters. At 1020, seven destroyers advanced to about 3,000 yards of the island and opened fire with their 5-inch guns, and about five minutes later the bigger warships pulled back. Then arrived the shallow-draft vessels that were to provide the close-in support for the UDTs—12 LCI(G)s (landing craft, infantry, gunboat). The thin-skinned craft were armed with three 40-mm guns, two 20-mm guns, and multiple 4.5-inch rocket launchers. While five of the LCI(G)s were either held in reserve or uncommitted, seven of them advanced in line abreast and passed through the line of destroyers, each gunboat facing its assigned beach.

A couple thousand yards behind the LCIs, seven LCP(R)s were idling. Each carried a UDT platoon: 10 or 12 swimmers, boat officer and crew, machine gunners, a fire-support officer to be ferried to the gunboat responsible for the platoon's beach, as well as Marine observers. Approximately 500 U.S. Navy ships, from battleships to minesweepers, were quietly in the background watching the LCI-UDT reconnaissance unfold.

Minutes before 1100, while the gunboats were firing their 40-mm and 20-mm guns and nearing the line of departure, 1,000 to 1,200 yards offshore, all hell broke loose. In a huge cacophony of sound, the Japanese defenders opened fire with hundreds of guns and mortars, concentrating on the LCIs. It was the loudest gunfire exchange I heard during my 22 months of Pacific assault operations. From on board the Estes , I could hear shells gouging metal and see pieces of the projectiles flying and ricocheting about.

Iwo Jima's Offshore Ballet

Nevertheless, at 1100 the seven LCP(R)s sped past the line of departure toward the beaches. Joe Artman was in one of them, racing through the shelling. "We went in past seven gunboats giving us fire support," he recalled. "The Japanese thought it was the real invasion." The landing craft quickly dropped off each two-man team 500 yards from shore, with UDT-12's two platoons rolling into the water off Red 1 and 2. All its swimmers were in the water by 1110. With the two-man teams positioned 100 yards apart, line abreast and directly facing the Iwo assault beaches, the frogmen appeared as water-ballet swimmers, with the combat curtain rising on their reconnaissance.

"Scared? Oh hell yes!" exclaimed Joe. The UDT men had expected choppy water, but instead it was calm, with no swells to hide in. To avoid gunfire and mortar rounds, they therefore spent as much time as possible underwater. "We could see firing all around," Joe remembered. "If we went underwater, we could catch bullets in our hands that had gone into the water and were falling. For the Japanese it was like trying to shoot bobbing apples in a tub."

One of Joe's most vivid memories of the reconnaissance, however, was that "We froze our tails off. That water was cold." Earlier he had smeared his body with "regular old car grease, but that didn't help for long." (The cold water, combined with hard-rubber swim fins that severely squeezed Joe's feet, would later result in an early onset of crippling arthritis.)

After nearing the shore, the frogmen swam 100 yards along it. All the while they took soundings; searched for mines, gun emplacements, and landmarks; and judged the height of the beach's high sand terraces. They carefully wrote their findings down on their Plexiglas tablets. Some of the men even ventured onto the beach to gather sand. But by the time the swimmers turned to head out to their pick-up points, almost all the LCI(G)s were gone.

The Gunboats' One-sided Battle

When Iwo Jima's commander, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, mistook the reconnaissance for the invasion and ordered his gunners to open fire with even their heaviest weapons, he committed a critical error. U.S. spotters were able to pinpoint the heavily camouflaged guns' locations, and soon U.S. destroyers, cruisers, and battleships joined the eruption of gunfire. The LCI(G)s, however, took a brutal pounding. LCI(G)-450, facing Red 1, was quickly punctured by numerous large-caliber shells, which opened gaping holes in her quarter-inch-thick hull. On fire, she withdrew. Opposite Red 2, LCI(G)-474 was hit even harder and rolled over on her starboard side.

A reserve gunboat, LCI(G)-466, moved in off Red 1, and UDT-12's Ensign Frank Jikka Jr. and three Marine observers were put aboard. A few minutes later, however, Jikka lost both feet when a mortar shell exploded near 466's bridge. One of the Marines was also severely injured. All 12 of the gunboats were damaged, nine being put out of action. It was painful to see the terrible beating the LCIs took, but their sacrifice had caused the Japanese to reveal the locations of their heaviest guns.

The frogmen, meanwhile, swam out to their pick-up points 500 yards offshore. Beginning at 1155, they were swung aboard their landing craft. All but one swimmer made it back. Listed as missing in action, Carpenter's Mate First Class Edward Anderson of UDT-12 was last seen in an area where many mortar rounds were falling.

Later that day, the team's Platoons 3 and 4 were virtually unmolested by Japanese fire when they reconnoitered Brown Beaches 1 and 2 on the island's western side. On board the Bates after each mission, the swimmers were debriefed, and reconnaissance reports including sketches of the beaches were compiled and quickly forwarded up the chain of command. The UDTs were relieved to learn that they would not be swimming back to the island the next day.

More than 200 Sailors and Marines were killed or wounded on the 17th, the great majority being men on the LCI(G)s. Many of the remaining ships served as temporary hospitals for the wounded. My ship, the Estes , took aboard 18 casualties, some of whom died while there and were buried at sea.

The massive bombardment the Navy conducted the next day particularly targeted heavy batteries at the foot of Mount Suribachi. That night, general quarters sounded on board the Bates at about 2150; a bomb dropped by a Japanese plane had hit the USS Blessman (APD-48) and exploded below decks. On board the transport, which carried UDT-15, fires were raging out of control. Although the ship was saved, 42 men—including 16 members of UDT-15—were killed or missing.

On 19 February, Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, the Joint Expeditionary Force commander, gave the order "Land the landing force," and the invasion got under way. Helping guide amphibian tractors carrying Marines of the 27th Regiment to the beach was Joe Artman, who had been assigned to one of the patrol craft. As he recalled:

Because I had been in there two days before, I was assigned to lead the first wave of Marines into Red Beach the day of the invasion. I was kind of proud, then I wondered if this trip was really necessary. We went in about 8:00 a.m., and there was pretty good fire coming in—machine gun, mortar, and rifle. We got within about 40 yards of the beach, stayed there as the landing craft passed, then got the hell out of there.

Clearing the Beaches

As a former beachmaster, I know firsthand that assault beaches are often scenes of confusion, casualties, and death, as landing forces try to gain enough ground to launch their land operations in force. Iwo's southeastern beaches were nightmarish; zeroed-in enemy guns and mortars chopped up men, equipment, and boats. Clearing the beaches of wrecked landing craft, amphibian tractors, and other vehicles became extremely important so that ammunition, personnel, and equipment vital to extending the Marines' toehold on the island could be landed. The beaches' strong surf, high terraces, and large-grained sand in which wheeled vehicles bogged down added to the congestion crisis.

Beginning on D+1, UDT-12 spent four to six hours a day clearing broken and shot-up boats and vehicles from the beaches while dodging enemy fire. "We were ferried back and forth to the Bates for food and rest," Joe recalled. When they could, the swimmers used 20-pound bags of Tetratol to blow up wrecks. But the beaches were often too crowded with Marines for demolition work, and the frogmen used LCP(R)s or LCIs to tow the wrecks out to deep water. In any case, much of their time was spent in the cold water. Just as when they conducted their reconnaissance, Joe and his teammates would stay underwater as much as possible so as to avoid incoming rounds. "Six or eight feet of water is as good as a foxhole," he said. They also had to stay alert to avoid the propellers of coming and going boats.

On D+3, when a large, two-horned mine was spotted floating free near the USS Texas (BB-35) and a swimmer was ordered to detonate it, Joe Artman got the assignment. When he dove off the Texas into the ocean, his audience was virtually the entire crew of the battleship as well as Sailors on nearby vessels. "Despite an hour's searching in the cold water, praying the mine won't hit me unexpectedly, [it] was never seen again," Joe said.

Finally, on the evening of D+9 the beaches were deemed sufficiently clear of wreckage, and the four UDT teams were released from the Iwo Jima operation. In all, UDT-12 removed more than 100 damaged or destroyed landing craft from the beaches.

UDT-12 later participated in the Okinawa campaign. After reconnoitering nearby islands, the team staged a demonstration reconnaissance and demolition job along Okinawa's southern coast to divert the enemy's attention from the main landing beaches. The team's home, the Bates , survived several unsuccessful kamikaze attacks during the campaign.

For Joe Artman and his teammates, the war ended as they were about to begin training for the invasion of Japan. After the war, Joe worked for Texaco for 35 years before retiring to El Paso, Texas. He passed away at age 81 on 24 January 2006, and until late in life Joe vividly remembered his cold, scary swim off Iwo Jima.



Action Report, Underwater Demolitions Team Twelve, Iwo Jima, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.

Joseph H. Alexander, Storm Landings: Epic Amphibious Battles in the Central Pacific (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997).

Joseph L. Artman, interviews with the author.

Robert A. Aurthur, The Third Marine Division (Washington, DC: Infantry Journal Press, 1948).

LT COL Whitman S. Bartley, USMC, Iwo Jima: Amphibious Epic (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, 1954).

Dick Camp, Iwo Jima Recon: The U.S. Navy at War, February 17, 1945 (St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2007).

Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, vols. 1, 2 (Washington, DC: U.S. Navy, Naval History Division, 1959, 1963).

El Paso Herald-Post , El Paso, TX, "Frogman invaded Iwo Jima 2 days before Marines," 17 Feb. 1995.

A History of UDT 12 WWII, compiled by the Historical Archives of the Navy UDT-Seal Museum, Fort Pierce, FL, 2005.

Jeter A. Isley and Philip A. Crowl, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War: Its Theory and Its Practice in the Pacific (Princeton, NJ: University Press, 1951).

Samuel Eliot Morison, Victory in the Pacific, Vol. 14, History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960).

The Norman Transcript, Norman, OK, Joseph L. Artman biography, n.d.; obituary, n.d., http://www.normantranscript.com/obituaries/local_story_026002946/resourc... .

Mr. Sparks is the former owner of The Petroleum Engineer Publishing Company. He writes from Dallas, Texas.


The Navy's First Frogman

Rear Admiral Draper L. Kauffman, considered by many UDT men—as well as present-day Navy SEALs—the "granddaddy" of naval combat demolitions, initially lost out on a naval career because of poor eyesight. The son of a vice admiral, Kauffman graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1933 but failed the precommissioning vision test.

Instead of serving in the Navy, he worked for the U.S. Lines Steamship Company until 1940, when he volunteered as an ambulance driver in France. Captured by the Germans that summer, he spent two months in a POW camp before being released. He subsequently served as a bomb and mine disposal officer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.

While on leave in Washington in November 1941, Kauffman was persuaded to transfer to the U.S. Navy by Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance Rear Admiral William Blandy, who was seeking an officer to organize a bomb-disposal school. Kauffman kept his British Navy rank of lieutenant when he entered the Naval Reserve.

After setting up the disposal school at the Washington Navy Yard, Lieutenant Commander Kauffman organized and served as the first commander of the Naval Combat Demolition Unit, Naval Amphibious Training Base, Fort Pierce, Florida. He was responsible for establishing the school's rigorous training course, including its infamous "hell week." As Kauffman explained in his U.S. Naval Institute oral history:

I contracted with the Scouts and Raiders organization, which was also training at Fort Pierce . . . to compress their eight-week physical conditioning course into one week for us. . . . I realized that with a very, very rough physical introduction like this I would have to take it myself or I'd never get away with it, and I darned near died during it. I've never had such a miserable week, and this same rough week exists in modern training.

In April 1944, Kauffman was given command of Underwater Demolitions Team 5 and transferred to the Naval Combat Demolition Training and Experimental Base on Maui, where he also would be the training officer. During the Marianas campaign, he led his team on reconnaissances of Saipan and Tinian while also serving as overall commander of the UDT force.

During the campaign, Kauffman was involved in a revealing incident that raised the UDTs' image in the eyes of the Marines. One day, he was called over to the flagship and informed that advance approval had arrived for UDT personnel to receive pay and a half. Commander Kauffman, who was against the idea, asked permission to get the opinion of his Navy swimmers. After asking Teams 5 and 7, Kauffman recalled:

They stated unanimously, and that was, they had it in writing, "We want hazardous-duty pay when Marine infantrymen get it." I took this over to the flagship, showed it to the admiral, and he said, "You say this is unanimous?"

"Yes, sir."

He said, "Well the first person I'm going to make sure sees this is [Marine] General Holland Smith." From that moment on, the UDTs could do no wrong in the eyes of the Marines.

For the February Iwo operations, Captain B. Hall "Red" Hanlon commanded four UDTs—12, 13, 14, and 15. Serving as his chief staff officer, Kauffman was on board the center LCI(G) when the Japanese guns opened up during the UDTs' 17 February reconnaissance. Within ten minutes, the craft was hit and sinking, and the commander transferred to a second gunboat. It too was hit, and Kauffman's radioman killed. The commander transferred again, this time to a destroyer. In Kauffman's estimation the reconnaissance nevertheless went very well. He later participated in Okinawa UDT operations.

After the war, Kauffman transferred to the regular Navy and served as radiological safety operations officer for the 1946 Operation Crossroads atomic tests. He then organized the U.S. Navy Radiological Safety School. He went on to serve in and command surface ships and serve as superintendent of the Naval Academy. Rear Admiral Kauffman passed away on 18 August 1979.

For more information about Admiral Kauffman's fascinating career, see America's First Frogman , by Elizabeth Kauffman Bush (Naval Institute Press, 2004).




Alongside a Warrior on D-1

Over the years, the Navy has received some criticism concerning its preinvasion bombardment of Iwo Jima. While Vice Admiral Richmond K. Turner, the Joint Expeditionary Force commander, had said three days of shelling was sufficient for the operation, the Marine commanders argued for a ten-day bombardment. The dispute became acrimonious, and during one meeting to discuss extending the shelling, Turner interrupted Rear Admiral William Blandy, head of the Amphibious Support Force, by angrily throwing a pencil against the wall. Fifth Fleet commander Admiral Raymond Spruance eventually decided the issue in Turner's favor.

When the bombardment came to pass, I was serving under the officer in charge of carrying it out—Admiral Blandy. I was a junior officer of the deck in his flagship, the USS Estes (AGC-12).

"Spike" Blandy was a true warrior. During the heavy shelling on 18 August, the day before the invasion, I was on the admiral's flag bridge. He kept urging the battleships Tennessee (BB-43) and Idaho (BB-42) closer to 550-foot Mount Suribachi. Blandy finally spoke to his signalman, "Make . . . battleships 42 and 43 fall in astern AGC-12." The admiral then personally conned the thin-skinned Estes in a tight circle and led the two battleships as close to Suribachi as the vessels' big guns could elevate for effective fire on visible targets. He then ordered, "Send to the two battleships: Drop anchor and fire for effect."

That night, Admiral Blandy; Marine Lieutenant Colonel Donald Weller, the V Amphibious Corps' naval gunfire officer; and their staffs carefully studied ships' firing reports and aircraft reconnaissance photos. Weller later recalled that "Finally, about midnight, I cranked out a dispatch to [invasion commander Lieutenant General Holland] Smith which said that the landing could be made, the casualties would be heavy, but we could do it."

— Baxter Abbott Sparks


Mr. Sparks is the former owner of The Petroleum Engineer Publishing Company. He writes from Dallas, Texas.

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