“To augment present naval capabilities in restricted waters and rivers with particular reference to the conduct and support of paramilitary operations, it is desirable to establish Special Operations teams as a separate component within Underwater Demolition Units One and Two. An appropriate cover name for such units is ‘SEAL’ being a contraction of SEA, AIR, LAND.”
– Vice Adm. Wallace M. Beakley,
Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, June 5, 1961
In January 1962, a new chapter in the history of special operations opened with the establishment of the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Teams ONE and TWO. The 21-year stretch from 1962 to 1983 was a profound one for the new force, one that would see it created from the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) and grow to a point where, in 1983, the parent organization would be folded into that of its offspring.
Throughout this period, SEALs suffered repeated crises of perception by outsiders who controlled their institutional fate. The force labored under the contradiction of being a specialized elite force with “… an all-around universal capability.” This phrase, an excerpt from the U.S. Director, Strategic Plans Division memo dated March 13, 1961, was necessary because, as part of the U.S. Navy, SEALs had to work closely with the Navy’s surface, aviation, and submarine forces. A further complication was the fact that the SEAL program itself was caught squarely in the philosophical cross fire between naval traditionalists and advocates of change during the post-Vietnam War drawdown of the military, with all the budgetary consequences thereof. During their formative years, the Navy leadership seemed perplexed by the SEALs and/or didn’t know what to do with them, a situation that would not change until the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 that reorganized the military and put the U.S. Special Operations Command at the same level as the other unified and specified commands at the time.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy, addressing a joint session of Congress, delivered a speech that most people remember as his challenge to the country to put an American on the moon before the end of the decade. Since forgotten by the public at large was the president’s mandate to the military: “I am directing the secretary of defense to expand rapidly and substantially … the orientation of existing forces for the conduct of … unconventional wars. … In addition, our special forces and unconventional warfare units will be increased and reoriented. …”
The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Adm. Arleigh Burke, in a memo dated July 11, 1960, tasked Vice Adm. Wallace M. Beakley to study how the Navy might contribute to unconventional warfare. Beakley responded to that tasking in a memo dated Aug. 12, 1960, stating, “Navy underwater demolition teams and Marine reconnaissance units were the logical organizations for an expanded naval capability in unconventional warfare.” Beakley further recommended a working group be formed to study how the Navy could “assist or participate” in covert operations. As a result, on Sept. 13, 1960, an Unconventional Activities Working Group was formed. The slow progress became a whirlwind on March 10, 1961, when the Navy’s Unconventional Activities Committee presented a mission statement for the new special operations unit and officially used for the first time the acronym SEAL. On May 13, 1961, Burke received another memo from Beakley going into more detail on the SEAL concept, basically spelling out everything about the new unit and advising that administratively everything was in place and simply waiting for final go-ahead. This memorandum concluded by stating, “If you agree in the foregoing proposals, I will take action to establish a Special Operations Team on each coast.” Burke wasted no time in giving the green light. On June 5, 1961, the CNO issued a letter notifying the commanders in chief U.S. Atlantic, U.S. Pacific, and U.S. Naval Forces Europe about the Navy’s intentions regarding SEAL units.
The letter stated, “It is the Navy’s intention to provide for the waterborne conduct and support of such guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operations as may be directed in the national interest.” It identified missions, tasks, how the SEALs would be organized, trained, what and how they should identify and obtain transport, and that “measures should be taken to ensure that some staff officers receive the Special Operations Teams training for background in connection with the possible use of these units in their respective areas.”
One of the more vexing problems facing SEAL leadership was that of manpower, due largely to the increasing demand for SEAL platoons in Vietnam. Because of this demand, and the need to simultaneously satisfy UDT manpower needs and the expansion of the SEAL Teams, there were an insufficient number of people in the pipeline for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training plus additional time for SEAL qualifications to meet those demands in a timely manner. Retired Cmdr. Franklin Anderson, who would go on to become commanding officer of SEAL Team ONE (1966-1968) recalled, “At that time only two classes of trainees were going through [Coronado] each year, and both [UDT] teams’ manpower was down to about 80 percent.” (Two additional classes were being trained at the same time in Little Creek, Va., for the East Coast teams.) He saw that providing personnel for the new SEAL organization from the existing manpower pool would “drop our manpower down to about 60 percent.” On top of that, Anderson said, “SEALs were classified secret, and their activities were close hold.” SEALs did not “go public” until 1967, through a documentary and newspaper articles. Liaison with other commands and a promotion infrastructure were other hurdles that were addressed – some immediately, others down the road.
Capt. Phil Bucklew, who had served in the Scouts and Raiders during World War II, became the first Commander, Naval Operations Support Group Pacific, which included SEAL Team ONE, UDT-11, UDT-12, BJU-1 (Beach Jumpers Unit), and BSU-1 (Boat Support Unit). SEAL Team ONE had as its first commanding officer Lt. David Del Giudice, and was stationed in Coronado, Calif. SEAL Team TWO’s first commanding officer was Lt. John F. Callahan, and the team was stationed in Little Creek.
On Dec. 27, 1962, Rear Adm. Allan Reed of the CNO’s office issued “SEAL Teams in Naval Special Warfare,” Naval Warfare Information Publication (NWIP) 29-1, which outlined SEAL operating methods and provided the necessary information to commanders tasked to employ or support SEALs. NWIP 29-1 summarized SEAL doctrine and listed in broad terms the types of missions that since have become well known to the general public: reconnaissance, interdiction, sabotage and demolition, and training and advising. In addition, SEALs were tasked with developing weapon and transport systems and if necessary customizing them for their specific mission needs. That included the application of specialized underwater breathing apparatuses, transport vehicles (both underwater and surface), parachutes, and other systems. Examples of surface boats used by SEALs in the Vietnam War include the Light SEAL Support Craft (LSSC), the Medium SEAL Support Craft (MSSC), and the SEAL Team Assault Boat (STAB).
Missions were assigned soon after the teams became operational. The most significant of these was the Jan. 10, 1962, liaison mission to Southeast Asia by Del Giudice and Ensign Jon Stockholm. Del Giudice later said, “Our task was to establish liaison with the MAAG [Military Assistance Advisory Group Vietnam – the predecessor to Military Assistance Command Vietnam, or MACV] and to determine specific requirements for involvement in Vietnam.” Upon their return in February, they made a series of briefings. Based upon the information in those briefings, in March 1962, the first of a series of SEAL Team ONE personnel was deployed to South Vietnam to train their South Vietnamese military counterparts in clandestine maritime operations. The following month, a SEAL Team ONE detachment, including two members of SEAL Team TWO, was deployed to Vietnam to train Biet Hai Junk Force commandos.
From 1962 to 1964, SEALs focused on training South Vietnamese commandos and UDT personnel in guerrilla operations targeting sites in North Vietnam as part of Operation Plan 34A, or OP 34A, based in Da Nang and under CIA command. Because Americans were prohibited from accompanying the teams into North Vietnamese territory, SEAL Team advisors had to remain south of the 17th parallel, at which time the South Vietnamese naval commandos would continue missions northward on their own. As such, the advisors would accompany the guerrillas as far as the mission launch point, where the guerrillas would continue missions on their own. As the tempo of OP 34A missions increased, they were coordinated with the Navy’s DeSoto missions designed to gather electronic intelligence of North Vietnamese communications and radar installations. One OP 34A mission, on July 31, led to North Vietnamese patrol boat attacks on the USS Maddox on Aug. 2 and a possible second attack on Maddox and C. Turner Joy two days later. The North Vietnamese response was later misrepresented as “unprovoked attacks” by the Lyndon Johnson administration in what came to be known as the Tonkin Gulf incident that led to massive American military expansion in South Vietnam.
In 1964, command of OP 34A and of the SEALs was transferred to the U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Studies and Observation Group (USMACV SOG), which was the Vietnam War’s joint unconventional warfare task force (JUWTF), responsible for planning and executing a variety of covert, deniable special activities and operations throughout the Southeast Asia theater. SEAL presence quickly expanded, and ultimately teams were conducting operations throughout South Vietnam, under the command of U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam. Their missions ran the gamut from reconnaissance patrols, to direct action missions with specific objectives, to Operation Bright Light POW rescue missions, Phoenix Program missions against Viet Cong cadres, and more. Three standout missions, conducted late in the war in 1972, resulted in three SEALs being awarded the Medal of Honor. The first was awarded to Lt. j.g. Joseph R. “Bob” Kerrey for his leadership, despite being severely wounded by a grenade, of an intelligence raid that captured important Viet Cong agents and many documents. Lt. Thomas R. Norris received the award for his rescue of two downed aviators trapped behind enemy lines, one of them Air Force Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton – BAT 21. Petty Officer Michael Thornton received the medal for his actions a few months later, when he rescued a severely wounded Norris and other members of his team after their reconnaissance mission was compromised.
By 1968, OP 34A had been discontinued and SEAL missions started shifting south. During OP 34A, detachments from SEAL Team ONE were usually comprised of one officer and six enlisted men. For other missions in South Vietnam, staffing increased to two officers and 12 enlisted men. Platoons from Team ONE were initially assigned to clear out the Rung Sat Special Zone, a Viet Cong stronghold just seven miles south of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital. On Aug. 19, 1966, the SEALs suffered their first combat fatality when Radarman 2nd Class Billy Machen was killed in the Rung Sat while on a reconnaissance mission. Nevertheless, Viet Cong activity in the region was dramatically reduced by SEAL operations.
SEAL Team ONE’s success in the Rung Sat caused a demand for SEAL operations elsewhere, and soon platoons were sent farther south to the Mekong Delta, one of the great rice growing regions of the world and a longtime Communist stronghold that would see some of the most intense combat activity in the war. Eventually the demand for SEAL missions outstripped SEAL Team ONE’s ability to fulfill them, and platoons from SEAL Team TWO were deployed to South Vietnam.
Bucklew, as Commander Naval Operations Support Group, Pacific, made a concerted effort to ensure that qualified special operations officers were on the staffs of the other commands to provide assistance and planning for SEAL operations. Del Giudice, since promoted to 0-5 commander and assigned as officer in charge of Naval Special Warfare Group, Vietnam, was responsible for coordinating UDT and SEAL operations in Vietnam. In addition, SEAL Capt. Wendell “Wendy” Webber was on the staff of Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. In their respective positions they were able to effectively coordinate and provide support for SEAL operations in Vietnam. Del Giudice’s assistant officer in charge for part of this time was Lt. Cmdr. George Worthington. Unlike conventional forces, who were always assigned missions, Worthington, who would retire with the rank of rear admiral, said that once SEAL platoons were deployed to an area, “The SEALs made up their own operations.”
Retired Rear Adm. Ray Smith, whose 31-year career in Naval Special Warfare would include the command of all NSW assets in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, was a UDT platoon commander in Vietnam. He confirmed Worthington’s recollection, stating, “In Vietnam, the SEALs would be assigned an area and then be in charge of that area.”
One such force in the delta was X-Ray Platoon, SEAL Team ONE, which arrived in the region in October 1970, where it was stationed in Ben Tre City. Clinton Majors was a petty officer in X-Ray Platoon. He recalled, “Our mission was to disrupt the existing Viet Cong infrastructure; to halt the continuance and growth of the Viet Cong … The war in Vietnam was a business, and we approached it that way. … To survive you had to act like a Viet Cong, think like one, look like one.”That part was important because, though they didn’t know it at the time, they were targeted. “They were in the eye of the storm,” Del Giudice said. Part of the reason for that was the fact that their area of operations was both the communists’ breadbasket and an important source of revenue. Control of the region, or more importantly loss of control, would have an enormous impact on their prosecution of the war. There was a political reason, as well; Ben Tre was where the Viet Cong movement was formed in 1959. Despite the platoon’s success in disrupting Viet Cong operations – capturing prisoners and more than 100 pounds of documents and destroying numerous enemy caches, bunkers, weapons factories, and other sites – during its deployment, X-Ray Platoon found itself encountering an unusually high number of ambushes. Ultimately the unit suffered 100 percent casualties, with four members killed. The unit’s last mission was on March 4, 1971. In it, the platoon’s commander, Lt. Mike Collins, was killed, and a number of others were severely wounded. Following this action, the decision was made to rotate the platoon back to the States. An investigation later revealed that its missions had been compromised; one of its South Vietnamese commandos was actually a Communist agent.
Overall the SEALs chalked up a great record of success, as exemplified by the facts that the Viet Cong offered cash bounties for the killing of a SEAL, and that the SEALs were given by the Viet Cong the respectful sobriquet “The Men with Green Faces.” Vice Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Vietnam and the Naval Advisory Group, Vietnam, was so impressed with SEAL successes that he wanted “hundreds” of SEALs in Vietnam.
In 1970, Zumwalt would become the youngest officer to become Chief of Naval Operations. The timing could not have been more fortuitous for the SEALs, for as Smith said, “After Vietnam, the forces got cut and the money got cut. Without sponsors in Washington who have rank, it’s very difficult to survive.” The SEALs came closest to being budgeted away in 1973-1974. By this time, Del Giudice was in Washington, as Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) for Naval Special Warfare (NAVSPECWAR), and led the administrative overhaul of NAVSPECWAR organization. His work and that of his staff was rewarded, for Worthington noted, “Happily, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt directed that the Naval Special Warfare Groups remain as major commands … the rest survived therefrom.”
On Nov. 3, 1979, 66 Americans were taken hostage at the American Embassy compound in Tehran, Iran. The yearlong hostage crisis, and its failed rescue mission, Operation Eagle Claw, would mark the end of President Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the beginning of a new chapter in SEAL history: the creation of SEAL Team SIX, which was founded on Oct. 1, 1980.
SEAL Team SIX was commanded by Cmdr. Richard Marcinko, who organized it to be the maritime component to the National Mission Force.
Unlike other SEAL Teams that were trained to work in small teams up to platoon size, SEAL Team SIX was trained to work in larger assault units of 30 to 40 men in coordination with similar-sized units. Marcinko, during his three-year tenure, succeeded in his goal of building SEAL Team SIX to naval operational task level capability for counterterrorist assignment. In July 1983, he was succeeded by Capt. Robert Gormly.
By the early 1980s, the distinction between UDTs and SEALs had blurred to the point that a number of senior commanders began calling for the two forces to be combined. Foremost among them working to make the change was Rear Adm. Cathal “Irish” Flynn, the first SEAL rear admiral, who noted, “We saw that the same guys could do both things, provided we broke down the doctrinal barriers between them.” Flynn led a storied career in the SEALs. Serving two tours of duty in Vietnam, he was part of the advisory group in OP 34A, officer in command of Detachment Golf, executive officer of SEAL Team ONE, and commanding officer UDT-12. Eventually he would become deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations. In early 1983, the four UDTs were formally integrated into the SEALs and the number of SEAL Teams was increased to a total of six. SEAL Team THREE was established later, on Oct. 1, 1983, in Coronado, Calif.
In 1974, the British Caribbean island of Grenada was granted independence. In 1979, the pro-Communist government led by Maurice Bishop came to power and actively sought aid from Cuba and the Soviet Union. This was still the time of the Cold War, and the Ronald Reagan administration became alarmed when Cuba sent crews to the island to construct a 9,000-foot-long runway capable of accommodating Soviet strategic bombers.
On Oct. 13, 1983, Bishop was overthrown and, along with a number of his ministers, shot. This second coup resulted in an even stronger pro-Communist government. Trapped on the island were about 1,000 American citizens, of whom about 600 were medical students. President Reagan authorized Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada. This was a joint operation under overall command of the Navy. Included in the land attack element were SEAL Team FOUR and SEAL Team SIX. The SEAL Teams were tasked with four missions: reconnaissance of the Salines airfield prior to a parachute assault; beach reconnaissance near Pearls Airport; the capture of the important Beauséjour radio station and the prevention of it broadcasting until relieved by the landing force; and the seizure of Government House, the residence of the British Governor General Sir Paul Scoon, his rescue from house arrest, and defense of the residence until reinforcements arrived.
Amphibious assaults are the most complex of military operations and any glitch can have enormous ripple effects. Operation Urgent Fury was planned in less than 10 days. Though ultimately successful, a number of mishaps, some of them deadly, occurred as a result of the hasty cobbling together of plans. SEAL Team SIX was disestablished in 1987.
H-Hour for Urgent Fury was 0500 Oct. 25. SEAL Team SIX successfully reached Government House and managed to free Scoon and fend off attacks until reinforcements arrived on Oct. 26. The Point Salines mission, however, was a failure. Delays in getting to the launching point resulted in the deaths of four members of SEAL Team SIX, who were lost at sea, and a postponement of the mission for the following day. The second attempt was almost as bad. The SEAL boats got swamped, and their radios were wrecked by seawater; ultimately the Rangers had to land on the airfield blind. The beach reconnaissance mission near Pearls Airport, however, was a success, and the Marines landed there without any major problems. By the time the SEALs reached the radio station and took control, surprise was lost. An alert Grenadian commander in nearby Fort Frederick organized a reaction force around a Soviet-built BTR-60 armored personnel carrier and, faced with a superior force, the SEALs were forced to destroy the transmitter and retreat back to the sea.
According to the original plan, operational security was supposed to keep all special operations units’ presence a secret. But delays and accidents compromised security, and well before the operation had concluded, the world knew which special operations units were involved.
Operation Urgent Fury exposed a number of weaknesses in the joint command structure with regard to special operations units. The lessons learned from the operation would help build the case for an independent Special Operations Command in charge of all the different special operations units and at the same level as that of the service branches, which was achieved in 1987.
Meanwhile, SEALs returned to work on their training regimen. As Worthington observed, “In much of what SEALs do it’s learn as you go. Adaptability is the name of the game. … And the wars of the future will be heavy SOF.”
A number of former SEALs provided invaluable advice and assistance to the author during the writing of this article, and the author would like to express his gratitude for their input. Some have requested that they remain anonymous. Those who allowed their names to be listed, in alphabetical order, are: Franklin Anderson, Joe DeFloria, Clint Majors, Ray Smith, and George Worthington.
This article first appeared in Navy Seals 50: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Establishment of the U.S. Navy SEALs.