The United States Navy’s Sea, Air, Land Teams, commonly known as the Navy SEALs, are the U.S. Navy’s principal special operations force and a part of the Naval Special Warfare Command and United States Special Operations Command.
“SEAL” is always capitalized in reference to members of the Naval Special Warfare community. The acronym is derived from their capacity to operate at sea, in the air, and on land. SEALs are male members of the United States Navy. An exchange program with the Coast Guard, which graduated three Coast Guardsmen as SEALs, was suspended in 2011.
The CIA’s highly secretive Special Activities Division (SAD) and more specifically its elite Special Operations Group (SOG) recruits operators from the SEAL Teams. Joint Navy SEALs and CIA operations go back to the famed MACV-SOG during the Vietnam War. This cooperation still exists today and is seen in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The modern-day U.S. Navy SEALs can trace their roots to World War II. The United States Navy recognized the need for the covert reconnaissance of landing beaches and coastal defenses. As a result, the Amphibious Scout and Raider School was established in 1942 at Fort Pierce, Florida. The Scouts and Raiders were formed in September of that year, just nine months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, from the Observer Group, a joint Army-Marine-Navy unit.
Scouts & Raiders
The first group included Phil H. Bucklew, the “Father of Naval Special Warfare,” after whom the Naval Special Warfare Center building is named. Commissioned in October 1942, this group saw combat in November 1942 during Operation Torch on the North African coast. Scouts and Raiders also supported landings in Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, Normandy, and southern France.
A second group of Scouts and Raiders, code-named Special Service Unit No. 1, was established on 7 July 1943, as a joint and combined operations force. The first mission, in September 1943, was at Finschafen on New Guinea. Later operations were at Gasmata, Arawe, Cape Gloucester, and the East and South coast of New Britain, all without any loss of personnel. Conflicts arose over operational matters, and all non-Navy personnel were reassigned. The unit, renamed 7th Amphibious Scouts, received a new mission, to go ashore with the assault boats, buoy channels, erect markers for the incoming craft, handle casualties, take offshore soundings, clear beach obstacles and maintain voice communications linking the troops ashore, incoming boats and nearby ships. The 7th Amphibious Scouts conducted operations in the Pacific for the duration of the conflict, participating in more than 40 landings.
The third Scouts and Raiders organization operated in China. Scouts and Raiders were deployed to fight with the Sino-American Cooperative Organization, or SACO. To help bolster the work of SACO, Admiral Ernest J. King ordered that 120 officers and 900 men be trained for “Amphibious Raider” at the Scout and Raider school at Fort Pierce, Florida. They formed the core of what was envisioned as a “guerrilla amphibious organization of Americans and Chinese operating from coastal waters, lakes and rivers employing small steamboats and sampans.” While most Amphibious Raider forces remained at Camp Knox in Calcutta, three of the groups saw active service. They conducted a survey of the upper Yangtze River in the spring of 1945 and, disguised as coolies, conducted a detailed three-month survey of the Chinese coast from Shanghai to Kitchioh Wan, near Hong Kong.
Naval Combat Demolition Units
Along with the Scouts and Raiders were the Naval Combat Demolition Units. They specialized in demolitions, explosive cable cutting, and commando raiding techniques. On 7 May 1943, Lieutenant Commander Draper L. Kauffman, “The Father of Naval Combat Demolition,” was directed to set up a school and train people to eliminate obstacles on an enemy-held beach prior to an invasion. On 6 June 1943, LCDR Kaufmann established Naval Combat Demolition Unit training at Fort Pierce. By April 1944, a total of 34 NCDUs were deployed to England in preparation for Operation OVERLORD, the amphibious landing at Normandy. On 6 June 1944, in the face of great adversity, the NCDUs at Omaha Beach managed to blow eight complete gaps and two partial gaps in the German defenses. The NCDUs suffered 31 killed and 60 wounded, a casualty rate of 52%. Meanwhile, the NCDUs at Utah Beach met less intense enemy fire. They cleared 700 yards (640 metres) of beach in two hours, another 900 yards (820 metres) by the afternoon.
Casualties at Utah Beach were significantly lighter with six killed and eleven wounded. During Operation OVERLORD, not a single demolitioneer was lost to improper handling of explosives. In August 1944, NCDUs from Utah Beach participated in the landings in southern France, the last amphibious operation in the European Theater of Operations. NCDUs also operated in the Pacific theater. NCDU 2, under LTjg Frank Kaine, after whom the Naval Special Warfare Command building is named, and NCDU 3 under LTjg Lloyd Anderson, formed the nucleus of six NCDUs that served with the Seventh Amphibious Force tasked with clearing boat channels after the landings from Biak to Borneo.
OSS Operational Swimmers
Some of the earliest World War II predecessors of the SEALs were the Operational Swimmers of the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. Many current SEAL missions were first assigned to them. OSS specialized in special operations, dropping operatives behind enemy lines to engage in organized guerrilla warfare as well as to gather information on such things as enemy resources and troop movements. British Combined Operations veteran LCDR Wooley, of the Royal Navy, was placed in charge of the OSS Maritime Unit in June 1943. Their training started in November 1943 at Camp Pendleton, California, moved to Santa Catalina Island, California in January 1944, and finally moved to the warmer waters of The Bahamas in March 1944. Within the U.S. military, they pioneered flexible swimfins and diving masks, closed-circuit diving equipment (under the direction of Dr. Christian J. Lambertsen),the use of Swimmer Delivery Vehicles (a type of submersible), and combat swimming and limpet mine attacks. In May 1944, General Donovan, the head of the OSS, divided the unit into groups. He loaned Group 1, under Lieutenant Choate, to Admiral Nimitz, as a way to introduce the OSS into the Pacific theater. They became part of UDT-10 in July 1944. Five OSS men participated in the very first UDT submarine operation with the USS Burrfish in the Caroline Islands in August 1944.
Underwater Demolition Teams
On 23 November 1943, the U.S. Marine landing on Tarawa Atoll emphasized the need for hydrographic reconnaissance and underwater demolition of obstacles prior to any amphibious landing. Offshore coral reefs and other obstacles in the surf had resulted in many of the Marines drowning or being hit by enemy fire because their landing craft could not reach the beach. After the Tarawa landing, Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner directed the formation of nine Underwater Demolition Teams. 30 officers and 150 enlisted men were moved to the Waimānalo Amphibious Training Base to form the nucleus of a demolition training program. This group became Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) ONE and TWO.
The UDTs saw their first combat on 31 January 1944, during Operation Flintlock in the Marshall Islands. FLINTLOCK became the real catalyst for the UDT training program in the Pacific Theater. In February 1944, the Naval Combat Demolition Training and Experimental Base was established at Kīhei, Maui, next to the Amphibious Base at Kamaole. Eventually, 34 UDT teams were established. Wearing swim suits, fins, and dive masks on combat operations, these “Naked Warriors” saw action across the Pacific in every major amphibious landing including: Eniwetok, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, Angaur, Ulithi, Peleliu, Leyte, Lingayen Gulf, Zambales, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Labuan, Brunei Bay, and on 4 July 1945 at Balikpapan on Borneo, which was the last UDT demolition operation of the war. The rapid demobilization at the conclusion of the war reduced the number of active duty UDTs to two on each coast with a complement of seven officers and 45 enlisted men each.