Naval Combat Demolition Unit



"The first Naval Combat Demolition Unit started with thirteen volunteers who were near the end of their basic training in the Dynamiting and Demolition School at Camp Perry, Virginia. They were sent to the Naval Amphibious Training Base at Solomons Island, Maryland, in Chesapeake Bay where they were joined by other enlisted demolition men and eight officers. Lieutenant Fred Wise from the SeaBees (Construction Battalions) was designated Officer in Charge.

They were given a quick, intensive course in blowing channels through sandbars with explosive hose, and in working from rubber boats to place explosive charges on underwater obstacles which had been modeled by Army engineers. Then they sailed for the assault on Sicily. Twenty-one men under LT Wise debarked from three attack cargo ships off Scoglitti, Sicily, on the morning of July 10, 1943 and waited patiently for orders that never came. The landing waves either found enough water over the sandbars or used alternative beaches. For the next two days the demolition units did useful work salvaging stranded boats, buoying channels through the sandbars, and surveying the beaches. Then they shipped back to the States.

NCDU 19 men & equip.

Jack Browne underwater breathing apparatus (left)

Munson Lung (right) worn by NCDU-19 personnel


Most of this first group stayed in the Naval Combat Demoltion Units as instructors, proceeding to the Naval Ampibious Training Base in Fort Pierce, Florida for the tougher training which was just getting underway in accordance with a directive from Admiral J. King, who was both Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet, and Chief of Naval Operation. His directive was in two parts: providing men for 'a present urgent requirement' of the Amphibious Forces, Atlantic Fleet; and starting experimental work and training for permanent Naval Demolition Units for assignment to other amphibious forces." (Above info from "Naked Warriors" by CDR Francis Fane ISBN 1-55750-266-8)

Another result of that directive was a telegram sent the same night to Lieutenant Commander Draper L. Kauffman, founder and head of the Navy Bomb Disposal School, recalling him to Washington. LT Kauffman was giving the responsibility for launching the Navy's underwater demolition. Lieutenant Draper L. Kauffman was a remarkable man and uniquely qualified for the job. After graduating from the Naval Academy, his poor eyesight precluded his being commissioned. Frustrated but determined to join the war effort, he donned a French uniform and became a driver in the American Volunteers Ambulance Corps. He was captured by the Germans and spent time in a prison camp but was freed with a handful of other American drivers. Undaunted, Kauffman volunteered for mine disposal with the British Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. His skill and bravery disarming bombs for the British won the attention of U.S. Navy where he was at last commissioned in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1941.

In June of 1943 at Fort Pierce, Florida, the first class arived and assembled for training. The personnel were drawn from three sources, primarily because it was reasonably expected that men from the Construction Battalions, the Bomb Disposal School and the Mine Disposal School would already be familiar with explosives and basic demolitions. The site was chosen because it offered natural swimming beaches and desirable temperatures for year round swimming. Too, it was at a base where demolitions could be carried out and problems could be worked out with the rest of the Amphibious Forces that were already in training at the base.

Early NCDU-2

NCDU-2, 1944, Dillard Williams, Bill Dawson,

Frank Kaine, Jonny Wilhide, Bill Armstong


However, conditions were not as desirable there as they appeared. In the first place there was no training program set up; no one had any idea as to what the mission might be. No one had the slightest knowledge of what sort of obstacles might be encountered, what pattern they might follow or the best method of destroying them, nor the conditions under which demolition personnel might be called on to work. No provision had been made for the construction of obstacles, supplying of explosives, housing for the men or training facilities for the unit. Clothing, obstacles, training, program, facilities and explosives were therefore non-existant, yet the men were there and training did go on. Until steps could be taken to get all of these problems settled, the first class spent from eight to twelve hours per day in physical training and rubber boat drill and primacord knot tying. The heat, sand-flies and mosquitoes, food and living conditions were intolerable.

From this first class came four of the Naval Combat Demolition Units that were the beginning of the demolition force of the Atlantic Theatre. A Naval Combat Demolition Unit was arbitrarily set as one officer and five men, primarily because it was determined in training that the demolition personnel would work as a rubber boat crew and that the number six would be the maximum number of men that could be carried in one boat. Each six-man NCDU was given a number starting with NCDU-1. To encourage unit rivalry, each was given a nickname - Kaine's Killers, Heidemen's Hurricanes, Jeter's Mosquitoes. Training and facilities at Fort Pierce improved by leaps and bounds and consequently the later units which were sent out were very well trained.

In preparation for the Allied assaults at OMAHA Beach and UTAH Beach, the Naval Combat Demolition Units trained in ship salvage, rocket disposal, mine recognition, and the assault demolition practices of the British. Of particular concern was demolition of the obstacle Element "C", or Belgian Gate. Large numbers of this three ton welded steel obstacle had been discovered along the entire coast of France. Inasmuch as this was an entirely new obstacle to the Naval Combat Demoltion Units, considerable time had to be spent in the determination of the best methods for its destruction.

beach obstacles

Beach Obstacles


In June 1944 Naval Combat Demolition Units embarked for the coast of France and the planned assaults on the beaches of OMAHA and UTAH. History has recorded well the assaults on these infamous beaches. The Naval Combat Demolition Units were instrumental in clearing the beaches, making way for the landings of personnel and equipment. On OMAHA beach the method of clearance on the assault phase was accomplished by the use of the two-pound Hanensen pack. Each man was carrying about twenty of these two-pound charges, safety fuse and detonator assemblies, and continued working until the rising tide prevented further clearance. Post assault clearance, i.e. after the tide receded, was accomplished with tank dozers, caterpillar tractors, and salvage explosives. On UTAH beach all obstacles were high and dry on arrival. The intensity of the enemy gunfire was not as severe as that of OMAHA beach nor were the obstacles so thickly patterned. The timing and the execution of the operational plans were much better which accounts for better results. The essential difference in the actual demolition operations was in the fact that electric firing was used instead of safety fuse, giving a much better control in removal of the obstacles.

Casualties on the OMAHA beach for Demolition personnel were 31 killed and 60 wounded, a casualty rate of 52 per cent. Casualties for the Demolition personnel on UTAH beach were 6 dead and 11 wounded. All casualties were the result of enemy action and no casualties resulted from improper handling of the explosives.

The OMAHA unit received one of only three Presidential Unit Citations awarded to the Navy for the Normandy landings and the UTAH demolition units received the only Navy Unit Commendation awarded for the Normandy landing. Navy Crosses were awarded to Ens. William R. Freeman, Gunner's Mate Robert W. Bass, Gunner's Mate John H. Line, Chief Jerry N. Markham, Chief Aviation Ordnanceman Loran E. Barbour, LTJG William M. Jenkins, and Ens. Lawrence S. Karnowski. There were also a number of Silver Stars and Bronze Stars to others who were especially outstanding in a day of widespread heroism.

The NCDU regrouped and Lieutenant Commander Herbert Peterson, in charge of Naval Combat Demolition Force "U", with ten veteran UTAH units, embarked in a Mediterranean-bound convoy for Salerno. Here they trained for the upcoming invasion of Southern France. As these combat demolitioneers proved once again the need for and the success of underwater demolition, the newly organized Underwater Demolition Teams, UDT, were proving their worth in Saipan. Many NCDU men stayed in demolition and got to the Pacific in time for the occupation of Japan, but the end of World War II brought the end of Naval Combat Demolition Units. Many NCDU men brought their experience and expertise to the Underwater Demolition Teams.

To read more about the history of NCDU read Sue Ann Dunford's book "More Than Scuttlebutt".

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