Fifties Frogs Magazine

Vol 6

Pg 1 Cover

The Country’s First Frogman—Draper Kauffman

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The Country's First Frogman — The Draper Kauffman Story is available from the US Naval Institute: 800-233-8764, website:
US Naval Institute, customer service, Operations Center, 2062 Generals Hwy, Annapolis MD 21402-6780. His sister, Elizabeth Kauffman Bush, has turned out a great book about a great Navy hero.


Navy SEAL founder Draper Kauffman knew how to dodge any obstacle. Draper Kauffman turned personal frustration into a winning formula.

His youthful dreams of serving on a battleship were dashed by poor vision. But his fearless spirit took along another winding road in which he became the nation’s first frogman and the father of the SEALs naval special warfare unit.

As a young man Kauffman studied four years at the U.S. Naval Academy only to be denied a commission in 1933 in a belt-tightening move.

It was the Depression. Money was tight. Congress enacted a law that allowed only half the graduates of the Annapolis classes of 1932 and 1933 to win officer commissions.

To make the cut the sight standard for graduating midshipmen was raised from 18/20 to 20/20. Kauffman, the son of a career Navy officer, didn’t make the grade.

The future rear admiral and brother-in-law of President George H. W. Bush could have slipped anonymously back into civilian life. But he was an ardent foe of Hitler, largely due to a visit to Germany in the 1930s where he witnessed the horrors of Nazi rule.

After a stint at the Paris office of a U.S. steamship company, Kauffman volunteered as an ambulance driver for the French army. He joined the American Volunteer Ambulance Service in 1940, just in time to face the German invasion of France.

Determined Fighter

“Draper was a believer. He believed there was right and wrong side to war and that some things were worth fighting for even if it wasn’t in your best self interest to do so” said Kauffman’s sister. Elizabeth Kauffman Bush.

Bush is the author of “America’s First Frogman; The Draper Kauffman Story,” a recently published biography detailing Kauffman’s life. She’s President George H. W. Bush’s sister in law.

“I realize that my contribution is going to be small and unimportant but I know it will be a heck of a lot easier t live with myself if I go,” Kauffman wrote to his father about his plan to drive an ambulance for the French.
Later captured by the Germans and released as the citizen of a neutral nation Kauffman refused to throw in the towel.

He volunteered for fighter duty with the royal air force during the Battle of Britain. His bad eyes kept him out of the cockpit. But he was set on serving—so he joined the royal navy as a bomb disposal expert, defusing German delayed action bombs during the London Blitz.
Kauffman’s naval training had given him a taste for detail and methodical study. Mastering the intricacies of naval gunnery wasn’t all that different from memorizing diagrams of the latest German bomb.

This came in handy in a profession where even a tiny error might kill him. Kauffman got a taste of that when a magnetic mine he was working on near a rail track in Wales exploded and blew him more than 20 feet through the air. But he escaped without a scratch. Kauffman’s courage and skill in defusing bombs drew the notice of the U.S. Navy, which commissioned him a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve in November 1941 after arranging a transfer from British. (Eyesight rules were less demanding in the reserve).

A few weeks later Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The Navy quickly put one of its few seasoned bomb experts to work. Kauffman coolly defused a live 500-pound Japanese bomb that failed to explode when it hit an Army barracks near Pearl Harbor. The act earned him a Navy Cross for heroism.

A short while later Kauffman was overseeing a new bomb disposal school for the navy. In organizing the school Kauffman knew his biggest challenge was selecting the right men to do the job. Bomb disposal was nervy work and he knew only a few could do it. To select the best candidates he stressed looking at the whole person and not just individual skills or traits. Only those who could blend all their talents selflessly for a higher purpose, he argued, would make good bomb disposal experts.


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Draper Kauffman

As the war dragged on Navy brass realized that altogether new approaches to warfare were needed if the Allies were to win.

One of the biggest challenges involved amphibious warfare. After some costly landings in Europe and the Pacific it became clear that underwater mines and other obstacles needed to be cleared if sea-based assaults involving thousands of troops were to succeed.

In June 1943, Kauffman was tapped to establish an underwater demolition school at Fort Pierce, Fl.

He soon had the school churning out scores of graduates dubbed “scouts” and “raiders” who would serve with distinction in the toughest landings of WWII. Bush said her brother “was superb at revolutionizing groups and creating new organizations from scratch.”

She says Kauffman also understood that new groups need plenty of ideas to survive. This was crucial since no nation had tried to hone the work of underwater demolition teams or UDTs into a science as Kauffman was doing.

One of his innovations was “Hell Week.” It was grueling one-week training course that eliminated all but the best volunteers from the Navy’s engineering and construction battalions.

One test involved disarming an explosive from a rubber raft in the surf without getting your feet wet. Though Kauffman wasn’t an especially good swimmer, Bush says, he made clear he was willing to face the same physical risks as his men. Rather than parade around in a dress uniform, he spent most of this training time in swim trunks. “There was nothing he would ask them to do that he wouldn’t do himself,” Bush said, though Kauffman was 10 years older than most of his charges.

Bare Bones Operation

Kauffman’s “frogmen” often had nothing more than a pair of rubber goggles and a few satchel charges to do their work. Scuba tanks and other advanced diving gear weren’t widely used until after the war.

Of the 175 UDT men on Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings in 1944, 31 were killed and 60 were wounded. Kauffman himself led UDT teams under fire during Pacific landings at Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He was awarded his second Navy Cross for heroism during the Saipan campaign.
Kauffman was commissioned an officer in the regular navy at the end of the war after a doctor noted his combat record and made an exception for him to pass an eye exam.

He later commanded destroyers and cruisers and served as Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. After that he oversaw U.S. Naval forces in the Philippines and worked closely with Adm. Elmo Zumwalt to create Navy SEAL units during the Vietnam war. The SEALs engaged in commando-type operations along Vietnamese rivers and beaches.

The UDT teams Kauffman developed were absorbed into the SEAL program in the 1980s. His help in forming SEALS makes Kauffman a founding father of the elite warfare unit.

Editor's Note:

Charlie Heater sent the above news item written by Doug Tsuruoka of the Investor’s Business Daily.

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