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Frogmen in Paradise
The history of the Underwater Demolition Team
People visit Sub Base, St. Thomas today to visit shops or to pay their bills at the WAPA building. The incredible history, the footsteps that have passed over the same ground and the history made there decades ago may not even enter their minds. Well, let us take you on a little journey back to the 1940s and 50s.
During World War II a few intrepid Navy sailors left the relative safety of their steel ships. They had an “extra hazardous duty” assignment and entered the seas to wage a dangerous, more personal war on the enemy. Then called the Navy Underwater Demolition Team (the UDT) they were based in St. Thomas and were the precursor to the present day and more well-known Navy SEALs (SEa Air and Land).
The original purpose of these teams was to survey beaches and the waters just offshore, locating reefs, rocks, and shoals and to map conditions in landing zones in order to then use explosives to demolish any underwater obstacles planted by the enemy. The teams employed the Navy's elite combat swimmers to breach the cables and nets protecting enemy harbors, to plant mines on enemy ships and to locate and mark mines for clearing by minesweepers. These dangerous tasks were performed with little more than a pair of tan trunks and a set of rubber fins. It was, after all, well before the invention of what we now know as scuba diving.
The known as Sub Base in St. Thomas is so called because it served as a Navy submarine base during WWII. As early as 1947, Lieutenant Commander Doug Fane helped to establish the area as an important UDT training facility.
Under Lt. Cmdr. Fane’s command, UDT divers practiced free-diving operations aboard the USS Quillback and developed the diver lockout technique (where men would enter and exit while underwater) from submarines, the use of diver transport vehicles, closed circuit building systems, underwater navigation techniques and other innovations. The clear, calm, waters of St. Thomas with minimal currents was ideal for UDT divers practice.
At the same time, Dr. Christian J. Lambertsen, who specialized in diver diseases, had developed the radical Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit (LARU) but had been turned away by maritime corporations who deemed his radically new oxygen “rebreather” too dangerous for their projects. Lieutenant Commander Fane saw its covert ops potential though, as the rebreather prevented air bubbles from reaching the surface. So in February of 1948 the two teamed up and essentially pioneered scuba equipment in our waters. They demonstrated how the new equipment provided a necessary enhancement to the UDT tasks when, using equipment, they performed a successful lockout and re-entry from USS Grouper. The equipment was approved and following this, men from UDT-2 and UDT-4 began intensive training that they simply called "Submersible Operations," with submarines both underway and stationary on the ocean floor.
They also used a British designed submersible called the Sleeping Beauty, which had been used by the OSS Maritime Unit during WWII, and this was the first time a submersible had been launched and recovered from a US submarine.
Still needing to persuade people of the value of this equipment, in 1948 Lt. Cmdr. Fane also recruited a reserve Lieutenant Commander with a substantial background in underwater photography, something rare for that period. He was the highly-respected Fennimore Johnson and with his half-ton of underwater photo equipment he filmed and photographed these first UDT underwater operations aboard Quillback with the men using LARU and the Sleeping Beauty. These valuable visual aids significantly assisted the development of the UDT techniques for the future.
Archivist Holly Mengel has worked with Johnson’s historical files, which are now housed at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. “The Fennimore Johnson collection is extraordinary,” she said. Unfortunately they wouldn’t send us photo scans, but one can imagine how cutting-edge this photography would have been both for the classifed subject matter and for the difficulty of the work itself.
From 1948 until 1966, the Atlantic Fleet UDTs used Sub Base routinely for their annual winter training between January and April. The teams’ lives were centered there. Living conditions for the UDT men were primitive, with barracks-style double bunks set up in a warehouse setting. Many of the operations were performed out for CONEX boxes (shipping containers), much like they would be if the men were aboard ship.
Upon arrival in early January, team members cleared beach areas and hotel building sites as part of the demolition training. During the 1950's and early 1960's almost all UDT submarine operations were conducted aboard Sea Lion, which had been specially modified to conduct swimmer operations and designated for amphibious use.
A typical training class would consist of 20-25 students, with test and evaluation staff also present. They also practiced nighttime underwater “sneak attacks” on the vessels tied up at the base. The teams also frequented Lindberg Bay for compass swims and deeper waters south of St. Thomas for night dives.
During later years, the teams even practiced parachuting and their demolition work took place on Buck Island, seven miles southeast of Charlotte Amalie. Norman Marsh, of 1958 UDT-21 recalls that a favorite daily regimen was “to free dive off the end of the pier [at Sub Base] and show the instructors a handful of bottom sand.”
Eyewitness accounts from the early years are obviously a little tricky to come by at this date. There are, however, men dotted around the US who are united by astounding memories, each with fascinating stories to impart. They contribute to the online magazine Fifties Frogs and were more than happy to elaborate on what life was really like here in those days as pioneering frogmen.
During 1960 and 1961, Bill Myers, UDT-21 recalls, “Team members operated the Silver Bullet bar on the base for team members and visiting naval vessel personnel. Once a week we also had outdoor movie showings which were open to the public and projected on the end of one of the base buildings.” Myers also remembered that one of the barracks was transformed into the Gramboko Hotel by a well-known local lady. So while training was sometimes grueling, the frogmen had good times too. “The Gate was [also] a favorite for team members, they had steel pan music nightly. The St. Thomas Club was another late night stop,” Myers explained. Yes, we’re getting the picture! Why hasn’t a movie been made about this yet?
Dante Stephensen entered the service in 1953, first serving in the National Guard then serving in UDT-21 and SEAL Team 2. Stephenson said he remembers meeting former USVI governor Ralph Moses Paiewonsky. He did, in fact, date the governor’s daughter. Stephensen saw tragedy first hand on April 20, 1963 when a 10-foot shark attacked and killed their team member, John Gibson, who was swimming at Magens Bay without swim mask or flippers. “I organized and led the group’s mission that set the traps and captured the shark the next day. Our doctor found Gibson’s hand and some body parts in the shark’s stomach, which helped relax locals,” he said (presumably because the shark had been caught). This was apparently the very first authenticated shark attack in the Virgin Islands.
“A St. Thomas deployment tour was an unforgettable experience!” Larry Bailey, UDT-21 commented. “The teams worked and swam their butts off, but night time was something else. The stewardesses from the continent showed up in St. Thomas in enough numbers to tempt team guys. A number of marriages were made and a few were broken up down there.” Tom Hawkins, UDT team member in the later 1960s added, “Much to the chagrin of their wives, the men thoroughly anticipated and enjoyed their winter deployments to St. Thomas, returning with a golden tan to the envy of all.”
Bailey added a side note: “Each year when the teams redeployed to Norfolk, many, many gallons of tax-free liquor were stowed in CONEX boxes and brought back for use by team guys, especially at the annual Christmas parties. The last redeployment, in 1966, saw the biggest haul. Several CONEX boxes were filled with barrels of Cruzan rum and case after case of other liquors. If we had been caught by US Customs many folks would have suffered, including the team commanding officers!” But we’re sure the parties were a blast!
The Sub Base was turned over to the territorial government at the end of 1966, due to the growing use of nuclear submarines in the Navy and the phasing out of the diesel submarines, but also, Bailey explained, “largely as the result of a poor political situation caused by the detonation of a large amount of demolitions on a pristine coral reef at the west end of St. Thomas.” The owner of the property adjacent to the reef was a Mr. Corning (of Corning Glass Co.). His wife gathered a basket of dead tropical fish and dumped them on the desk of the Lieutenant Commander who had been sent over from Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico to be the administrative commander of the Sub Base in St. Thomas. The Commander retired around the time the base was handed over, and was apparently given a position in the Paiewonsky administration as a reward for his part in getting the Navy to give the base to St. Thomas.
As military training goes, this certainly would have been a plum assignment. The Navy’s best, brightest and bravest men testing out exotic new technologies and elite techniques in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. St. Thomas was a hot spot with calypso and tourism exploding. What energy! These days the Navy SEALs get a lot of recognition for the daring things that they accomplish, but the UDT was there (here!) first and that important history shouldn’t be forgotten.
The Underwater Demolition Badge is an obsolete badge of the US Navy, created during WWII. It was originally worn as a patch on the upper sleeve of a Navy uniform. As the UDT began to be phased into the Navy SEALs, the Underwater Demolition Badge was used as a template for the current-day SEAL Badge.