To understand the role of U.S. Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, Land) in Vietnam, it is necessary to go back into the Naval special warfare community’s history and share what led them to deploy into Southeast Asia in 1962. The journey to Vietnam for the SEALs was long and arduous.
Navy Special Warfare 1940s
According to the U.S. Navy, the origins of naval special warfare trace its roots to scouts and raiders, naval combat demolition units, swimmers, underwater demolition teams, and motor torpedo boat squadrons of World War II. In 1942, to meet the need for a beach reconnaissance force, Navy and Army personnel trained at Amphibious Training Base, Little Creek, Virginia. Scouts and raiders were trained to identify and reconnoiter the objective beach, maintain a position on a designated beach prior to a landing, and guide the assault to the landing beach.
The first group of trained operators included Capt. Phil H. Bucklew, also known as the “Father of Naval Special Warfare.” Bucklew saw action during the invasion of North Africa, Salerno, Sicily, Anzio, Normandy, and France. A second group of scouts and raiders, code-named Special Service Unit #1, was established in 1943 as a joint and combined operations force.
Their first mission was on New Guinea. Later operations included Gasmata, Arawe, Cape Gloucester and New Britain. Conflicts arose over operational matters, and all non-Navy personnel were reassigned. The unit was renamed the 7th Amphibious Scouts, and they conducted operations in the Pacific for the duration of the war, participating in more than 40 landings. A third team was formed, and they operated mostly in China. To bolster operational ranks, a little more than 1,000 mean were trained for “Amphibious Roger” at Fort Pierce, Florida.
During World War II, combat demolition units were formed as well. Lieutenant Commander Draper L. Kauffman, also known as the “Father of Naval Combat Demolition,” established a school to train people to eliminate obstacles on an enemy-held beach prior to an invasion. Combat demolition units operated extensively throughout the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.
Some of the earliest World War II predecessors of the SEALs were operational swimmers of the Office of Strategic Services. Dressed in swimsuits, fins and facemasks, they formed underwater demolition teams (UDT) who participated in every major amphibious landing in the Pacific. At the conclusion of the war, rapid demobilization reduced the number of active-duty UDTs to two on each coast.
Navy Special Warfare 1950s
In 1950, when the North Korean army invaded South Korea and sparked the beginning of the Korean War, one of the remaining UDTs expanded to three teams with a combined strength of 300 men. As part of a Special Operations Group, UDTs conducted demolition raids on railroad tunnels and bridges along the Korean coast. The “frogmen,” as they became to be known, also participated in the amphibious landing at Inchon, mine-clearing operations in Wonsan Harbor, and Operation Fishnet.
Navy SEALs Vietnam
In January 1962, in response to President John F. Kennedy’s desire for the services to develop unconventional warfare, the U.S. Navy established SEAL Teams One and Two. Their mission of the Navy SEALs Vietnam was to conduct counter guerilla warfare and clandestine operations in riverine and maritime environments.
Navy SEALs Vietnam involvement began immediately and was advisory in nature. Navy SEALs Vietnam instructed the Vietnamese to their tactics by conducting a training course for the Biet Hai commandos.
In February 1966, a small SEAL Team One detachment arrived in Vietnam to conduct direct-action missions. Eventually, eight SEAL platoons would have a presence in the country on a continuous basis as Navy SEALs Vietnam.
In August 1966, Radarman Second Class Billy Machen, SEAL Team 1, was killed in action during a reconnaissance patrol; the first Navy SEALs Vietnam combat casualty in Vietnam.
SEALs who served as Navy SEALs Vietnam in the early years state that their missions were ordinarily short. Teams would go out in the afternoon or after dark and return by morning. Navy SEALs Vietnam would travel by helicopter, boat, or on foot. Some say they made contact and engaged the enemy 10 to 20 percent of the time.
There were normally 14 men in a SEAL platoon consisting of two officers, a chief, and a leading petty officer. For the most part, Navy SEALs Vietnam said that there was a SEAL squad out on patrol looking for the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army every night. They averaged about 100 patrols during their combat tours.
SEALs were also used to gather intelligence. Navy SEALs Vietnam did not seek traditional, conventional combat. They were more focused on surgical strikes and intelligence collection. Navy SEALs Vietnam focused on gathering intelligence on the location, resources, movement, and leadership of enemy forces.
The SEALs were good at capturing or killing enemy leaders, retrieving battle plans, political intelligence, and gathering HUMINT (human intelligence). During the Tet Offensive in 1968, a 60-man South Vietnamese Provincial Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) led by a SEAL officer killed 20 Viet Cong soldiers and captured 23. Not long after that, SEALs detained an enemy guerrilla which enabled the unit to ambush and kill the enemy guerilla’s battalion deputy commander, a company commander, and three other officers. The operation detected and prevented an enemy attack on Binh Thuy, headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s River Patrol Force.
In another operation in 1968, SEALs collected information from an enemy defector and they identified more than 100 communists who had infiltrated U.S. combat units and agencies.
The most notable SEAL mission in Vietnam, however, is their involvement in the CIA’s Phoenix Program. During those years, SEALs teamed up with PRUs to capture or kill members of the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI). Those were people who were identified as enemy military leaders, political operatives, intelligence agents, tax collectors, and other key enemy personnel.
Exploiting information from a variety of sources to include prisoners, enemy soldiers, and villagers, SEALs achieved success in the counterinsurgency operations.
During the Phoenix Program, the SEALs captured nearly 30,000 VCI and Phoenix forces, which included SEALs, killed more than 20,000 communists who fought to resist capture. A notable operation from Phoenix was an attempt to capture several communist leaders located on an island.
In March 1969, Lieutenant (j.g.) Joseph “Bob” Kerrey and a squad of SEALs approached the VC camp. Detected by the enemy, a fight ensued. Kerrey was wounded, but his team killed seven enemy and captured others.
The intelligence gathered from that mission was significant and included documents that listed communist agents. Kerrey was awarded the Medal of Honor, the first of only three SEALs recognized with the Medal of Honor during the war. Kerrey later became governor of Nebraska and also a senator.
By war’s end, the Navy awarded SEAL Team One and Two five Presidential Unit Citations. The SEALs had directly killed or captured 4,000 enemy leaders and troops. Forty-eight SEALs made the ultimate sacrifice.