What is a Navy SEAL? A Brief Overview


What is a Navy SEAL team’s mission?

U.S. Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, Land) provide maritime special operations forces to conduct full spectrum operations unilaterally or with partners, to support national objectives. That is a broad definition for a group of warriors who work with incredible precision. A lot of people think they know the Navy SEALs, but here is an overview of who they are and what they've done.

What is a Navy SEAL team’s history in World War II?

Today’s Naval Special Warfare operators can trace their origins to the scouts and raiders, naval combat demolition units, Office of Strategic Services operational swimmers, underwater demolition teams, and motor torpedo boat squadrons of World War II. While none of those early organizations have survived to present, their pioneering efforts in unconventional warfare are mirrored in the missions and professionalism of the present naval special warfare warriors.

To meet the need for a beach reconnaissance force, selected Army and Navy personnel assembled at Amphibious Training Base, Little Creek, in August 1942 to begin Amphibious Scouts and Raiders (Joint) training. The Scouts and Raiders mission was to identify and reconnoiter the objective beach, maintain a position on the designated beach prior to a landing and guide the assault waves to the landing beach.

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, the first allied landings in the European theater, 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 1, was established in July 1943, as a joint and combined operations force. The first mission, in September 1943, was in New Guinea. However, conflicts arose over operational matters, and all non-Navy personnel were reassigned. The unit was renamed the 7th Amphibious Scouts and received new missions. They would, for example, go ashore with the assault boats, but also erect markers for incoming craft, handle casualties, take offshore soundings, blow up 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 Scout and Raiders organization operated in China. Scouts and Raiders were deployed to fight with the Sino-American Cooperation Organization, or SACO. To help bolster the work of SACO, Adm. Ernest J. King ordered 120 officers and 900 men be trained for “Amphibious Roger” at the Scout and Ranger school in 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 steamers and sampans.”

Plans for a massive Allied invasion of Europe had begun and intelligence indicated that the Germans were placing extensive underwater obstacles on the beaches at Normandy. In May 1943, Lt. Cdr. 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. By April 1944, a total of 34 demolition units were deployed to England in preparation for Operation Overlord, the amphibious landing at Normandy.

On D-Day, Naval Combat Demolition Units at Omaha Beach managed to blow eight complete gaps and two partial gaps in the German defenses. The demolition units suffered 31 killed and 60 wounded, a casualty rate of 52 percent. Meanwhile, the demo units at Utah Beach met less intense enemy fire. They cleared 700 yards of beach in two hours, another 900 yards by the afternoon. Casualties at Utah Beach were significantly lighter with six killed and 11 wounded. Demolition units also operated in the Pacific theater.

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.

Their training started in November 1943 at Camp Pendleton. Within the U.S. military, they pioneered flexible swim fins and facemasks, closed-circuit diving equipment, the use of swimmer submersibles, and combat swimming and limpet mine attacks.

In Nov. 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. After Tarawa, 30 officers and 150 enlisted men were moved to Waimanalo Amphibious Training Base to form the nucleus of a demolition training program. The teams saw their first combat in Jan. 1944 in the Marshall Islands.

What is a Navy SEAL team’s history in the Korean War?

The Korean War began on June 25, 1950 when the North Korean army invaded South Korea. Beginning with a detachment of 11 personnel from an underwater demolition team (UDT), UDT participation expanded to three teams with a combined strength of 300 men.

As part of the Special Operations Group, UDTs successfully conducted demolition raids on railroad tunnels and bridges along the Korean coast. On Sept. 15, 1950, UDTs supported Operation Chromite, the amphibious landing at Inchon. UDT 1 and 3 provided personnel who went in ahead of the landing craft, scouting mud flats, marking low points in the channel, clearing fouled propellers, and searching for mines.

What is a Navy SEAL team’s history in Vietnam?

Responding to President John F. Kennedy’s desire for the services to develop an unconventional warfare capability, the U.S. Navy established SEAL Teams One and Two in Jan. 1962. Formed entirely with personnel from UDTs, the SEALs mission was to conduct counter guerilla warfare and clandestine operations in maritime and riverine environments.

SEAL involvement in Vietnam began immediately and was advisory in nature. SEAL advisers instructed the Vietnamese in clandestine maritime operations. SEALs also began a UDT style training course for the Biet Hai Commandos, the Junk Force Commando platoons in Danang.

In Feb. 1966, a small SEAL Team One detachment arrived in Vietnam to conduct direct-action missions. Operating out of Nha Be, in the Rung Sat Special Zone, this detachment signaled the beginning of a SEAL presence that would eventually include eight SEAL platoons in country on a continuing basis. Additionally, SEALs served as advisers for Provincial Reconnaissance Units and the Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia, the Vietnamese SEALs. The SEALs were also involved in the Phoenix Program.

What is a Navy SEAL team’s history post-Vietnam War?

Post-Vietnam War SEAL operations include Urgent Fury in Grenada (1983); Earnest Will in the Persian Gulf (1987-1990); Just Cause in Panama (1989-1990); and Desert Shield/Storm in the Persian Gulf (1990-1991). SEALs also operated in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, and Liberia.

What is a Navy SEAL team’s involvement in response to 9/11?

The SEALs have been heavily engaged in what became known as the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Most notably, the SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011.

What is a Navy SEAL today?

As the operational tempo and deployments for the GWOT have slowed, the Navy SEALs are evolving and likely training to face their next adversary.

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