The origins of the Navy SEALs go back to World War II when the United States Navy saw that in order for its troops to successfully land on beaches it needed brave men to reconnoitre the landing beaches, take note of obstacles and defenses, and ultimately guide the landing forces in. As a result the Amphibious Scout and Raider School was established in 1942 by joint- Army and Navy at Fort Pierce, Florida. It was intended to train explosive ordnance disposal personnel and experienced combat swimmers from the Army and Marine Corps, becoming the Naval Combat Demolition Unit, or NCDU.
They were trained by then-Lieutenant Commander Phil H. Bucklew and then later, then-Lieutenant Draper L. Kauffman. The NCDU was first employed in Operation Torch during the invasion of North Africa in 1942. This unit became the ‘first group’ specialized in amphibious raids and tactics in the United States Navy.
By 1943, Kaufman had expanded the Amphibious Scout and Raider School syllabus to include underwater demolition. Following the near-disaster of the landing force on Tarawa during World War II in November 1943, when offshore coral reefs and other obstacles in the surf resulted in many of the Marines drowning, Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner directed the formation of nine Underwater Demolition Teams mostly composed of navy personnel from the Naval Construction Battalions (Seabees). These volunteers were organized into special teams and were tasked with reconnoitering and clearing beach obstacles for troops going ashore during amphibious landings, and evolved into Combat Swimmer Reconnaissance Units, becoming the Navy UDTs.
President John F. Kennedy, aware of the situations in Southeast Asia, recognized the need for unconventional warfare and special operations as a measure against guerrilla warfare. In a speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, Kennedy spoke of his deep respect for the United States Army Special Forces (Green Berets). He announced the government’s plan to put a man on the moon, and, in the same speech, allocated over $100 million toward the strengthening of the special operations forces in order to expand American capabilities in unconventional warfare.
The Navy needed to determine its role within the special operations arena. In March 1961, the Chief of Naval Operations recommended the establishment of guerrilla and counter-guerrilla units. These units would be able to operate from sea, air or land. This was the beginning of the Navy SEALs. Many SEAL members came from the Navy’s UDT units, who had already gained experience in commando warfare in Korea; however, the UDTs were still necessary to the Navy’s amphibious force.
The first two teams were on both US coasts: Team One at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, in San Diego, California and Team Two at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The men of the newly formed SEAL Teams were trained in such unconventional areas as hand-to-hand combat, high-altitude parachuting, demolitions, and foreign languages. Among the varied tools and weapons required by the teams was the M16 assault rifle, a new design that evolved from the AR-15 rifle. The SEALs attended UDT Replacement training and they spent some time training in UDTs. Upon making it to a SEAL team, they would undergo a SEAL Basic Indoctrination (SBI) training class at Camp Kerry in the Cuyamaca Mountains. After SBI training class, they would enter a platoon and conduct platoon training.
The Pacific Command recognized Vietnam as a potential hot spot for conventional forces. At the beginning of 1962, the UDTs started hydrographic surveys and along with other branches of the US Military, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) was formed. In March 1962, SEALs were deployed to South Vietnam as advisers for the purpose of training Army of the Republic of Vietnam commandos in the same methods they were trained themselves.
The Central Intelligence Agency began using SEALs in covert operations in early 1963. The SEALs were involved in the CIA sponsored Phoenix Program where it targeted key North Vietnamese Army personnel and Vietcong sympathizers for capture and assassination.
The SEALs were initially deployed in and around Da Nang, training the South Vietnamese in combat diving, demolitions, and guerrilla/anti-guerrilla tactics. As the war continued, the SEALs found themselves positioned in the Rung Sat Special Zone where they were to disrupt the enemy supply and troop movements and in the Mekong Delta to fulfill riverine operations, fighting on the inland waterways.
Combat with the Viet Cong was direct. Unlike the conventional warfare methods of firing artillery into a coordinate location, the SEALs operated within inches of their targets. Into the late 1960s, the SEALs were successful in a new style of warfare, effective in anti-guerrilla and guerrilla actions. SEALs brought a personal war to the enemy in a previously safe area. In Vietnam, Navy SEAL kill ratio was extraordinary, with over 100 enemy dead for every SEAL casualty. The Viet Cong referred to them as “the men with green faces,” due to the camouflage face paint the SEALs wore during combat missions.
SEALs continued to make forays into North Vietnam and Laos, and covertly into Cambodia, controlled by the Studies and Observations Group. The SEALs from Team Two started a unique deployment of SEAL team members working alone with South Vietnamese Commandos (ARVN). In 1967, a SEAL unit named Detachment Bravo (Det Bravo) was formed to operate these mixed US and ARVN units, which were called South Vietnamese Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs).
At the beginning of 1968, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong orchestrated a major offensive against South Vietnam: the “Tet Offensive.” The North hoped it would prove to be America’s Dien Bien Phu, attempting to break the American public’s desire to continue the war. As propaganda, the Tet Offensive was successful in adding to the American protest of the Vietnam war. However, North Vietnam suffered tremendous casualties, and from a purely military standpoint, the Tet Offensive was a major disaster for the Communists.
By 1970, President Richard Nixon initiated a Plan of Vietnamization, which would remove the US from the Vietnam conflict and return the responsibility of defense back to the South Vietnamese. Conventional forces were being withdrawn; the last SEAL adviser left Vietnam in March 1973 and Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975. The SEALs were among the highest decorated units for their size in the war. SEALs were awarded two Navy Crosses, 42 Silver stars, 402 Bronze Stars, 2 Legions of Merit, 352 Commendation Medals, 3 Presidential Unit Citations and 3 Medals of Honors.
In 2005, the Navy Seals took part in Operation Red Wing, in which 19 Navy SEALs and Nightstalkers died in what was, at the time, the largest single loss of American life in the War in Afganistan (2001-).