main story image for facebook sharing

History and Heritage

Navy SEAL History Part One

A Glance at the Origins of Naval Special Warfare

The evolutionary history of SEALs began during World War II at Amphibious Training Base (ATB), Little Creek, Virginia, in late August 1942, with two special-mission units, Amphibious Scouts and Raiders (S&R) (Joint) and Special Mission Demolition Unit.


S&R was composed of Sailors hailing from the boat pool at ATB, Solomons, Maryland, and Army 3rd and 9th Infantry Divisions. S&R was a team of men who were trained to reconnoiter prospective landing beaches and lead assault forces to the correct beaches in utter darkness and were the first to demonstrate legacy capabilities that are still demonstrated by SEALs today.

Special Mission Naval Demolition Unit was made up of Navy salvage divers brought in from Hawaii to complete a crash course in demolitions, commando tactics, cable cutting and rubber boat training. Both teams served in Operation Torch, removing the cabled boom blocking the Wadi Sebou River to allow USS Dallas (DD-199) to proceed up the river and train her guns on the Port Lyautey airdrome for attack and providing vital reconnaissance.

By May 6, 1943, the chief of naval operations directed the "Naval Demolition Project." The directive outlined a two-phase project which would include the initial plans for the future Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDU).

Photo Collage


Setting the Foundation for NCDU

Plans for a massive cross-channel invasion of Europe begun, and intelligence indicated that the Germans were placing extensive underwater obstacles on the beaches of Normandy. In May 1943, Lt. Cmdr. Draper Kauffman was directed to set up a school and train people to eliminate obstacles on an enemy-held beach prior to an invasion.

On June 6, 1943, the NCDU training school was established in Fort Pierce, Florida, and organized by Kauffman. Kauffman gathered volunteers from the Bomb and Mine Disposal School in Washington, and the Civil Engineering Corps and Naval Construction Corps (Seabees) School in Camp Peary, Williamsburg, Virginia, to fill in the first training classes.

To this day, Kauffman is given credit for establishing the infamous "Hell Week," a period of intense instruction that remains a fundamental component in modern-day Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training program. By the end of training, there was an overall attrition rate of 65-75%, much like it remains today in BUD/S.

Each NCDU was comprised of one officer and five enlisted Sailors to make up a single boat crew. The first NCDU class graduated September 1943, after several months of arduous training focusing primarily on demolition of submerged beach obstacles, much like the ones present on the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day invasion. By April 1944, a total of 34 NCDUs arrived in England in preparation for the amphibious landing at Normandy -- Operation Overlord.

Operation Overlord

On June 6, 1944, the NCDUs at Omaha Beach penetrated some of the Germans' defenses, blowing up eight complete gaps and two partial gaps in German defenses. Meanwhile, at Utah Beach, 700 yards of beach was cleared in two hours and another 900 yards by the afternoon. A total of 37 men were killed and 71 wounded, a casualty rate of 52% making D-Day the bloodiest single day in the history of Naval Special Warfare. However, none of the casualties were lost due to improper handling of explosives, an important fact in Navy SEAL history.

The NCDUs at Omaha Beach were later awarded a Presidential Unit Citation: one of only three presented for military actions at Normandy. The men at Utah Beach were recipients of the only Navy Unit Commendation awarded for actions on that day.

NCDU men were engaged in combat only once more in Europe -- at the invasion of Southern France in August 1944. Operation Dragoon consisted of several of the NCDUs from Utah Beach who were augmented with new units from Fort Pierce to participate in the last 240 amphibious assaults of the war in Europe. NCDU men contributed greatly to the war in Europe and their efforts are often overshadowed by the Pacific Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs).

Photo Collage


MacArthur's Frogmen

Meanwhile, in the Pacific campaign, many of the early Fort Pierce-trained NCDUs were deployed. These NCDU men are often referred to as "frogmen" by some authors and historians. However, according to the Navy SEAL museum, in those early days, swimming was only a test and a method of physical training. The men at the time wore full combat dress, and were taught to operate stealthily at night and during pre-dawn hours by wading in surf and carrying explosives to obstacles from rubber boats.

The NCDUs were also known as "MacArthur's Frogmen." NCDU-1 went to Alaska in August 1943 to participate in the struggle over the Aleutian Islands, which were then part of the Alaska territory. However, they never saw combat as the Japanese had already departed the islands, leaving NCDU-1 to later be transferred to Waimanalo, Territory of Hawaii to be embedded with the provisional UDT-1.

NCDU-2, 3, 19, 20, 21 and 24 went to the Southwest Pacific and remained together for the war's duration. Lt. j.g. Frank Kaine was the leader of this group. NCDU-4 and 5 also went to the Southwest Pacific. NCDU-4 and 5 were the first men to be committed to battle in the Pacific, when they operated with the 4th U.S. Marines at Green Island and Emirau Island in the Bismarck Archipelago of the South Pacific at New Guinea. These men eventually returned to Hawaii and assigned duty with the UDTs as well.

Birth of the UDTs

On November 22, 1943, during the Tarawa landing at the Gilbert Islands, a chain of 16 atolls and coral islands in the South Pacific Ocean, a submerged reef caused amphibious landing craft to founder far offshore, resulting in the loss of hundreds of Marines from enemy fire and drowning. After the terrible loss, Adm. Richmond K. Turner, commander of the 5th amphibious force, directed that 30 officers and 150 enlisted men be moved to Waimanalo ATB to be trained on reconnaissance and demolition training. It was at that moment that the UDTs of the Pacific were born.

UDT-1 and UDT-2 were comprised of about 14 officers and 70 enlisted men each. They saw their first action on January 31, 1944, in the attacks on Kwajalein and Roy-Namur during Operation Flintlock in the Marshall Islands. Between December 1944 and August 1945, UDTs saw action in every corner of the Pacific in every major amphibious landing: including Eniwetok, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, Anguar, Ulithi, Pelilui, Leyte, Lingayen Gulf, Zambales, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Labuan, Brunei Bay and Borneo. In honor of their dedication and bravery, a memorial is being built at Bellows Air Force Station near the original Waimanalo ATB.

Overall, 30 UDTs were organized during World War II. UDT-1 and UDT-2 were disbanded almost as quickly as they were formed, as there were at most 28 teams at one time. Four 50-man teams were established during the post-war period. UDT-1 and UDT-3 were homeported in Coronado, California, and UDT-2 and UDT-4 were sent to Little Creek, Virginia. All were organized under Amphibious Forces Pacific and Atlantic respectively.

Development of OSS

Undoubtedly, the most influential World War II legacy unit that would affect the capabilities of UDT, and subsequently the SEALs, was a joint-service maritime component of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

January 20, 1943, a maritime section was established within the special operations branch of OSS, with responsibilities of planning covert infiltration operations from the sea. On June 10, 1943, the special operations branch was reorganized and the Maritime Unit (MU) was established with branch status. Its responsibilities included: planning and coordinating the clandestine infiltration of agents, supplying resistance groups, engaging in maritime sabotage and developing special equipment for operations from the sea.

Photo Collage


Height of the Korean War

UDTs would be called on again in 1950 during the height of the Korean War. On September 15, 1950, UDT-1 and UDT-3 provided personnel who went ahead of landing craft and scouted mud flats, marking low points in the channel, clearing fouled propellers and searching for land mines. On October 12, 1950, two U.S. minesweepers hit mines and were sank. Fortunately, UDTs rescued 25 Sailors. The following day, William Giannotti conducted the first U.S. combat operation using an "aqualung." For the remainder of the war, UDTs conducted beach and river reconnaissance, infiltrated guerillas behind the lines from sea and continued mine sweeping operations. The last operation the UDTs participated in was Operation Fishnet, which was responsible for crippling North Korea's food supplies by destroying fishing nets.

The Korean War substantially changed UDT operational doctrine -- giving the men vastly expanded mission capabilities. In addition to their traditional roles established during World War II, including amphibious reconnaissance, and mine and obstacle clearance, the UDTs saw their mission expand to include stealthy infiltration from sea, and conduct raids and attack enemy shipping, port and harbor facilities; clearance of ordnance from the high seas; intelligence gathering; and the covering of the withdrawal of friendly forces.

Photo Collage


Forming the Navy SEALs

Even though UDTs saw success in Korea, they realized there would be no change of status in response to Cold War realities. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Arleigh A. Burke, however, directed his staff to organize new or existing Navy units for smaller conflicts. In early 1960, because of crisis in Laos and Cuba, alongside increasing insurgency in South Vietnam, Burke directed his staff to prepare options with respect to unconventional warfare.

More concrete steps were taken in 1961 when the acronym "SEAL" had emerged in outline form by March 10. By May 3, Burke signed a memorandum to his staff stipulating that, "We should have a record of all Naval personnel, particularly officers, who have been especially trained in guerilla warfare, UDT, psychological warfare, and what the Army calls "Special Forces Training ... I know this is going to be difficult, but we are going to have to take over such operations as river patrol in the Saigon Delta, in the Mekong River, and other areas. Our people will have to know thoroughly how to fit and live in guerilla conditions."

Adm. Wallace M. Beakley, strategic plans division, assistant chief of naval operations for fleet operations and readiness, addressed a memo to the CNO that proposed a concept of operations, including detailed mission and task statements for SEAL teams. He wrote, "If you agree in the foregoing proposals, I will take action to establish a special operations team on each coast."

Thus, finally, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress in regard to "Urgent National Needs" and said:

"I am directing the secretary of defense to expand rapidly and substantially, in cooperation with our allies, the orientation of existing forces for the conduct of non-nuclear war, paramilitary operations, and sub-limited or unconventional wars. In addition, our Special Forces and unconventional warfare units will be increased and reoriented. Throughout the services, new emphasis must be placed on the special skills and languages, which are required to work with local populations."

While organizing didn't officially begin until November 1961, two SEAL teams were officially authorized by December 1961, and both units were formally established in January 1962. Their mission: conduct unconventional warfare, counter-guerrilla warfare and clandestine operations. It was at that moment, the Navy SEALs as we know them, were born.