Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

 I posted this two years ago on this day, but I thought some of you who weren't reading my blog then might like it. I was fortunate enough to spend a fair amount of time with the Admiral when I was a callow youth, dating his daughter, and more after we were married. I remember the first time I met him; I had been ushered into the library at the Superintendents Quarters at the USNA, standing nervously looking around at the floor to near-ceiling bookshelves, the old leather armchairs when he came in. Tall, spare, and with gravitas that simply radiated, gold bars up the sleeves of his uniform, 12 rows of ribbons. I was probably near-incoherent, not in the least by the fact I was an E-2, the next to lowest enlisted rating, he was an Admiral, nearly the highest officer rank. He put me at ease, chatting until his daughter finished getting ready for our dinner date.

Often things written with the subject of Memorial Day tend to be hagiographies of people or generations. They remind us of the shoulders we stand upon, and the sacrifices made on our behalf. This is well and good, and as it should be, we need to be reminded of the ground we walk upon, and how it came to be.

I wonder it this makes us see or perceive people one-dimensionally, and think that we are seeing the person as they were. I suppose there is no harm in this, except it may not encapsulate or show a complete picture. Also, it may turn out that the true picture is not as pretty as it seemed. Or it may show that the individual had facets that didn't fit the mold. Here is someone who I think fits that description.

Draper L. Kauffman, VADM, USN Ret.  (1911-1979)

Draper Kauffman came from a military family, his father rose to Vice Admiral during WW 2. Like his father he attended and graduated from the Naval Academy.  A child of privilege, he attended top boy's prep schools in the east. When he graduated from USNA in 1933 it was the depth of the depression, and the Navy was only commissioning half the class. His eyesight had changed and he needed glasses, for that reason he was not commissioned. 

He had gotten an excellent, free education, and one might have expected him to moved into the business or engineering world, there were still jobs and careers for those with the right skills. Instead, he joined the merchant marine, and traveled extensively to Europe as crew on merchant ships. In the next few years he became convinced that war was coming, and the US should be involved in the events happening in Europe. An unpopular view in this isolationist country. 

When war broke out, he joined the American Ambulance Corps in France, providing medical aid at the front to the French Army. He was captured by the German Army in 1939 and held for two months. They released him after making him sign a pledge to not go England, or to return to the war in Europe. He made his way through Portugal and eventually to England, where he joined the Royal Navy, and was commissioned with the rank of 'Provisional, Temporary, sub-lieutenant", and in later years would rattle off the rank in stories with relish. He was trained in bomb disposal, to help deal with the plethora of unexploded ordinance that was being rained down on England by the Germans.

By 1941 his father, Adm. James Kauffman was convinced that the US would indeed be in the war soon, and he wanted his son in the US Navy. Draper was reluctant to return, and according to the story I was told his father got him back to the states with a ruse about the family, and presented him with two uniforms: a Navy uniform and a brig uniform and told him to choose. 

A book and many articles have been written about his exploits in the war. Starting the UDT program, the precursor to the SEAL teams, landing on Saipan, Tarawa and other Pacific Islands ahead of the first Marines, starting the first military bomb disposal squads in the US, and clearing the harbor in Tokyo bay for the Japanese surrender. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor, awarded twice the Navy Cross, and other medals too numerous to list. In the Navy SEAL Museum in Florida his picture is on the wall, naming him "The Father of Navy Combat Demolition". 

After the war his career took a normal turn, ship and shore commands, but because of his unconventional background, his rise to flag rank was anything but assured. The Navy then, more than any service, was hide-bound and traditional. Flag officers, those of Admiral rank, were men who had blue-water commands (ships, flotillas, etc), and those who went other paths were largely ignored for high rank. 

In 1966, he was appointed Superintendent of the Naval Academy, the top post at the school. Recently promoted to Rear Admiral, he had served as assistant to the Joint Chiefs, and Naval Aide to the SecNav. Incidentally, the latter position was during the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis; his wife, Peggy, said one day he left for his office at the Pentagon and didn't come back for 10 days. 

It was while the head of the Academy that his career and actions took a turn that to me was astounding, and little in his background would have suggested it was coming. By 1966 the US was seeing the turmoil that our racial policies and attitudes had spawned, and the Navy was no exception. The Navy was in fact lagging behind the other main service branches in enlisted and commissioned opportunities for minorities, mainly Blacks. 

Kauffman started a intensive recruitment program aimed at Blacks and minorities, with a mentoring program for those cadets who were admitted. He said later that initially his knowledge of race relations was much more theory than fact, but he knew how to get the help he needed. He awarded his family sword to Tony Watson, who later became one of the first Black Admirals in the Navy (if not the first, I'm not sure). 

In his last command, Commandant Ninth Naval District at Great Lakes near Chicago, then Navy was probably at it's low point as far as modern race relations go. He enlisted the help of a then little-known (outside the Black community) minister named Jesse Jackson to advise him on the problem. If you look at the retirement rate of flag officers during this time, you see a sharp increase in 'early' retirement of flag officers; the moves that Kauffman and a few others were making were not popular with the Navy elite as a whole. 

What is it that let this man, a warrior's warrior, a son of the privileged upper class, make the transition to someone who  literally abandons any hope to higher rank by taking this path? Little in his background would suggest it, yet he had no doubt about what he was doing. I don't know, but I know we were lucky to have him and his kind during this period. 

He and his wife Peggy had three children, Draper Jr., Kelsey and Cary. Cary and I were married in 1968. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to know him, I wish I'd appreciated the chance better back then. 


  1. A most interesting biography. Methinks someone should write the book..... And something also tells me his daughter did him proud....:)

  2. Well, now I know I've been reading your blog for a while, because I do rememeber this!

  3. I was at Great Lakes for Hospital Corps School in 1969. Was he Commandant then?

    I bet he was glad to know you, too, Mike, given your Navy experiences.

    1. No, he was in the PI then, Martha. He got there in 71.

  4. What an extraordinary man, I agree with commenter. There's a book in this for sure!


    1. There is already one, a poorly-written by his sister. Yeah, he deserves a good one, but maybe someday some PhD candidate will 'discover' him.

  5. As you know I read this for the first time several days ago. He truly was a remarkable man. I hope you won't mind if I repeat my first reaction:

    Resolute, conscientious, and even noble would be good descriptors of his character under any circumstances, but considering the intense racism of those times I'm even more impressed at his determination to see people treated fairly.

    1. It's puzzled me too, Susan. It's inexplicable, at least to me. Everything in his background pointed to him being like his peers, but he wasn't.

    2. An amazing story. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Hello there
    Just came over from John's Going Gently blog to boost your page views - and found a thoroughly interesting post to read.
    Being a quarter's brat myself I always wonder about other brats no matter which part of the patch they were living. Where they went to, what they got up, did what to some is an unconvential upbringing stand them in good stead for later life? It's obvious this one 'did real good'
    Take care

  7. And we all know that word should have been - unconventional!