Military Book Reviews

Into Enemy Waters: A World War II Story of the Demolition Divers Who Became the Navy SEALs

Into Enemy Waters: A World War II Story of the Demolition Divers Who Became the Navy SEALs by (Diversion Books, 2022, 352 pages)

With echoes of Unbroken; the derring-do and bravado of The Right Stuff; and the battle-forged camaraderie of Band of Brothers, this is the World War II story of 95-year-old veteran George Morgan and the Underwater Demolition Teams. Forerunners of the Navy SEALs, the elite unit was given nearly impossible pre-invasion missions from D-Day to the most crucial landings in the Pacific Theater. Into Enemy Waters details the origins and heroic missions of World War II’s most elite and daring unit of warriors, told through the eyes of one of its last living members, 95-year-old George Morgan.

Morgan was just a wiry, 17-year-old lifeguard from New Jersey when he joined the Navy’s new combat demolition unit, tasked to blow up enemy coastal defenses ahead of landings by Allied forces. His first assignment: Omaha Beach on D-Day. When he returned stateside, Morgan learned that his service was only beginning. Outfitted with swim trunks, a dive mask, and fins, he was sent to Hawaii and then on to deployments in the Pacific as a member of the elite and pioneering Underwater Demolition Teams. GIs called them “half fish, half nuts.” Today, we call them frogmen—and Navy SEALS. Led by maverick Naval Reserve Officer Draper Kauffman, Morgan would spend the fierce final year of the war swimming up to enemy controlled beaches to gather intel and detonate underwater barriers. He’d have to master the sea, muster superhuman grit, and overcome the demons of Omaha Beach. Moving closer to Japan, the enemy’s island defenses were growing more elaborate and its soldiers more fanatical. From the black sand beaches of Iwo Jima to the shark infested reefs of Okinawa, to the cold seas of Tokyo Bay, teenaged George Morgan was there before most, fighting for his life. And for all of us.


Overview

Imagine it is June 6th, 1944. The Allied invasion of Nazi occupied Europe has just begun and you are in a landing craft about to arrive at Omaha Beach. You are in one of the first waves of attack at Normandy, France, during World War II. Your mission is to destroy obstacles that were placed in the water so the landing craft behind you can make it to the beach. To accomplish this task, the only piece of equipment they have issued to you is a knife. 

While this sounds like the plot of a movie or video game, it is the true story of George Morgan, who was a seventeen-year-old lifeguard from Lyndhurst, New Jersey. He enlisted in the Navy as soon as he was old enough and was assigned to an Underwater Demolition Team (UDT), a precursor to the Navy SEALs. 

Andrew Dubbins wrote Into Enemy Waters: A World War II Story of the Demolition Divers Who Became the Navy SEALs so one of last surviving members of the UDT, 95-year-old George Morgan, can tell his version of the heroic stories from WWII. Dubbins introduces Draper Kauffman, an officer who joined the navy through an unusual route, established the UDT training pipeline, and led the UDT community throughout WWII. The book follows Morgan and Kauffman from D-Day to the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific Theater as they trained and executed missions to support the amphibious landings at places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa.   

 The heart of the book comes from the many interviews Dubbins conducts with Morgan over several months in 2020 and 2021. Dubbins states he tried to convey Morgan’s story as authentically as possible. You might question how accurate Morgan’s memories were so long after the fact, but Dubbins provides over thirty pages of source notes showing his commitment to research and accuracy.  

The author breaks into the story a few times to share notes about his discussions with Morgan, especially to explain how hard it was to talk about the death and destruction he experienced as a teen. Dubbins shares his concerns with telling the story of a humble veteran who is proud of his service but still troubled by those memories (and likely dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)). 

Takeaways

Dubbins does a fantastic job sharing George Morgan’s story and conveying the emotions Morgan experienced, from the nervous time waiting before a mission to the dogged determination to succeed while scouting or destroying obstacles. Weaving the story of Draper Kauffman into the narrative allows the reader to see some of the bigger picture of the war and get a broader perspective on the men who served in the UDTs. Kauffman is a great role model for leaders as he regularly puts himself in harm’s way enabling his teams to complete their missions successfully. This support gave George Morgan and his team members the confidence to do their jobs; often while under fire from the enemy. This is a fascinating and accessible look at the Underwater Demolition Teams and their dangerous missions from a first-hand perspective.


Stephen Lepper retired from the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. He lives with his family in central Massachusetts and is always on the lookout for what to read next. You can connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephen-lepper

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