How the Navy SEALs Were Born

 In Land, Intelligence, EMEA, Air, Forces & Capabilities

Today’s Navy SEALs (for Sea, Air, and Land spe­cial war­fare experts) have a his­to­ry shroud­ed in secre­cy. Commissioned in 1962, they are the most elite shore-area Special Forces in the world, con­cen­trat­ing on very select and often-clan­des­tine intel­li­gence gath­er­ing and pre­ci­sion strike mis­sions. For over 50 years it was assumed that the origin of the Navy SEALs was the Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs) and Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) of World War II. In real­i­ty, the Navy’s spe­cial war­fare activ­i­ty start­ed in August 1942 with the Amphibious Scouts and Raiders.

The need for U.S. amphibi­ous capa­bil­i­ties arose in the late 1930s when the U.S. mil­i­tary began to antic­i­pate large-scale amphibi­ous land­ings in Europe. With little expe­ri­ence in this area, the mil­i­tary ini­ti­at­ed a series of prac­tice oper­a­tions to assess the fea­si­bil­i­ty of such land­ings. In 1941 they formed a Joint Training Force staffed by the three ser­vices — Army, Navy, and Mar- ines. In March 1942, the JTF estab­lished an Amphibious Boat School at Solomons, Md., to train crews as small craft oper­a­tors. Because par­tic­i­pants had to be phys­i­cal­ly fit, plan­ners looked for per­sons with ath­let­ic back­grounds. All had played col­lege or pro­fes­sion­al sports, mostly foot­ball. The group was headed by boxer Gene Tunney and became known as “Tunney Fish.”

As their expe­ri­ence improved and land­ings seemed achiev­able, plan­ners real­ized that for amphibi­ous war­fare to be suc­cess­ful, attack­ers would need all pos­si­ble infor­ma­tion about the beach-land­ing objec­tives, sub­merged obsta­cles, hydro­graph­ics, and the regions just inland from the beach­es. An Intelligence Section set up under the JTF was given the job of devel­op­ing an amphibi­ous recon­nais­sance capa­bil­i­ty, with its first mis­sion to be in North Africa.

The Father of Naval Special Warfare

Intense train­ing for the new amphibi­ous recon­nais­sance group, called the Amphibious Scout and Raider School (Joint), began in the summer of 1942 at Little Creek, Va. Among the first 10 vol­un­teers was the typ­i­cal 6‑foot‑2, 220-pound Phil Bucklew, who would go on to become known as the “Father of U.S. Naval Special Warfare.”

Next, 40 sailors from the Solomons Boat School were trans­ferred in. They were told that they had just vol­un­teered for the Scouts and Raiders (S&Rs), which no one had ever heard of. In fact, few learned of this secret unit until after the war. The focus of train­ing for the first S&R class was rec­og­niz­ing land­marks and sil­hou­ettes ashore at night (because at that time the Army pre­ferred night land­ings), judg­ing dis­tances, and nav­i­gat­ing in the dark from scout boats. They also had cours­es in sig­nal­ing, com­mu­ni­ca­tions, hand-to-hand combat, and stealth­ily swim­ming to and tra­vers­ing a beach.

The first Allied land­ings in the European Theatre of Operations were on the north­west coast of Africa, Operation Torch. S&R crews were assigned scout boat duties, includ­ing review­ing beach intel­li­gence data, making pre-land­ing recon­nais­sance runs, and guid­ing land­ing craft to the beach­es. Problems there were aplen­ty: fleet com­mu­ni­ca­tions, coor­di­na­tion among ships, missed ren­dezvous points, and timing of scout boat launch­ings. Despite these, the oper­a­tion was con­sid­ered a mil­i­tary suc­cess. Thus con­vinced of the impor­tance of the Scouts and Raiders, the Navy autho­rized their fur­ther devel­op­ment and also rec­om­mend­ed moving the train­ing to a loca­tion with more suit­able weath­er.

The spot picked was at Ft. Pierce, Fla. The S&Rs went there at the same time as the Navy decid­ed to make Ft. Pierce its Amphibious Training Base (ATB). It was thus com­mis­sioned on January 26, 1943.

The S&R School was headed by two naval offi­cers, and staffed by a mix­ture of Navy and Army per­son­nel. They direct­ed rig­or­ous phys­i­cal train­ing, includ­ing self-defense, sea­man­ship, gun­nery, radio oper­a­tions, and beach recon­nais­sance. The men learned the use of .50-cal­iber machine guns oper­at­ed from the land­ing craft. They also became rubber boat experts. Each had to be pre­pared to land spe­cial groups or agents on enemy shores, ren­dezvous with agents or sub­marines, and receive and relay vital intel­li­gence infor­ma­tion.

Intense and Specialized Training

After S&R Class #3 grad­u­at­ed in May 1943 the school was ordered to extend the ini­tial eight-week train­ing to 12 weeks, the extra month to be devot­ed to demo­li­tions train­ing. In addi­tion, ATB Ft. Pierce became the focal point for spe­cial amphibi­ous train­ing for units from the U.S. Army’s Darby’s Ranger Battalions, France’s Free French Forces, and Norway’s Royal Norwegian Air Force. And in July 1943 the new Navy Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs), pre­cur­sor of the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs), arrived and estab­lished their own short­er train­ing pro­gram along­side the S&Rs.

The Navy then set up an advanced S&R train­ing base at Port aux Poules, Tunisia, with the Army and Navy Torch vet­er­ans and others from Ft. Pierce. One group decamped in Malta to train with the British 4 Commando and other Allied coun­ter­part units, work­ing on night exer­cis­es, launch­ing kayaks from the decks of sub­marines and pad­dling them in to recon­noi­ter target beach­es. At Port aux Poules the S&Rs trained with the 1st and 4th Darby’s Ranger Battalions. There and at Bizerte, Tunisia, they improved their beach recon­nais­sance effec­tive­ness and began using swim­mer Scouts. These wound up guid­ing Darby’s Ranger Battalions into land­ings at Gela and Licata on Sicily.

Following suc­cess­ful land­ings at Salerno, the S&Rs moved up the boot of Italy with the Allied forces for the next objec­tive at Anzio. Advance intel­li­gence data from aerial photos and sub­ma­rine periscope obser­va­tions were good, but more detailed data was needed to verify the infor­ma­tion con­cern­ing prob­a­ble shoals and sand­bars. S&Rs used PT boats and kayaks to check them out. Three weeks later they suc­cess­ful­ly guided Army Rangers ashore.

Since late 1943, the Allied amphibi­ous forces had been gear­ing up for Operation Overlord, the inva­sion at Normandy. Sixteen Amphibious Bases and Landing Craft & Repair Bases were set up along England’s south­ern coast. In December 1943, sev­er­al S&R offi­cers, includ­ing Lieutentant Phil Bucklew, one of the first 10 vol­un­teers for Scouts and Raiders train­ing at Little Creek, arrived at Falmouth to begin plan­ning for recon­nais­sance of the Normandy land­ing sites.

At the Advanced Amphibious Training Base at Fowey, England, the S&R crews were called on to help train NCDUs in under­wa­ter obsta­cle loca­tion and to work with heavy demo­li­tions to blow up the repli­cas of beach obsta­cles used by the Germans.

The first crit­i­cal task under­tak­en by the S&R team was to cross the Channel and clan­des­tine­ly obtain sam­ples of sand from the pro­posed land­ing beach­es. The rise and fall of the tide there cre­at­ed up to a hun­dred feet in width of loose bottom at low tide. Analyzed sam­ples would deter­mine if mat­ting or other mate­ri­als would be required for get­ting tanks and other heavy vehi­cles onto the beach­es. A number of these cross­ings were made, often taking heavy fire from shore. Arriving in small land­ing craft or kayaks, the teams some­times lay in the water in the surf, timing the German sen­tries along the beach, so they could crawl ashore to com­plete their tasks.

Heavy Casualties for the NCDUs

On June 5, Scout boats were the first to be launched across the Channel. They nav­i­gat­ed to loca­tions a few hun­dred yards off­shore to guide the first waves of the land­ing forces. NCDUs went in to clear obsta­cles. The S&R scout boats were now equipped with .50-cal­iber machine guns mount­ed amid­ships, giving them an oppor­tu­ni­ty to cover the shore­lines as the land­ings began. The NCDUs took heavy casu­al­ties before they could clear the obsta­cles. The scout boats shut­tled back and forth, under heavy fire, trying to rescue the sur­vivors.

The S&R teams con­tin­ued to get a broad­en­ing range of assign­ments. They trained French Commandos for amphibi­ous land­ings on Elba, Italy, scout­ed poten­tial beach­es for land­ing sites, and escort­ed the land­ing par­ties ashore. They con­duct­ed night oper­a­tions on the Yugoslav Adriatic coast to rescue airmen who had been assist­ed by par­ti­sans in evad­ing the Germans. Another mis­sion was land­ing a force of com­man­dos and par­ti­sans, plus a con­tin­gent of Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Special Reconnaissance per­son­nel, on the island of Solta, Yugoslavia.

The next big land­ing, named Anvil-Dragoon, was planned in south­ern France for August 15. As with pre­vi­ous oper­a­tions, this one expand­ed the S&R expe­ri­ence and appli­ca­tions. S&Rs trained and escort­ed Army Devil’s Brigade troops ashore at Levant and Port Cross Islands to take out German 6‑inch gun bat­ter­ies that com­mand­ed the Anvil-Dragoon beach­es. S&Rs led sev­er­al French com­man­do forces ashore to block roads to and from the beach­es. They then direct­ed in the land­ing waves of the full beach assaults. Following Anvil-Dragoon, the Mediterranean S&R crews were ordered back to ATB Ft. Pierce, some to be reas­signed to the Far East.

In April 1944 a new “Transport Doctrine, Amphibious Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet” called for 125 offi­cers and reduced crews to ful­fill a Transport Scout Intelligence func­tion. This changed the S&R crew’s roles from the European oper­a­tions of scout boat func­tions. Classes #6 through #8 trained offi­cers and men for the new mis­sion. Class #8 was all offi­cers, one of which was Ensign Richard Lyon who, after his ser­vice with the S&Rs in WWII, went on to become Rear Admiral Lyon, the first des­ig­nat­ed Special Warfare flag offi­cer (Admiral, SEAL Teams) in U.S. his­to­ry. The Class #8 grad­u­ates were sent to Advanced Naval Intelligence School in New York City, then to the Amphibious Training Base in Coronado, Calif., for fur­ther demo­li­tions train­ing.

National Interest source|articles

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