U.S. Navy SEAL Teams from Establishment through Operation Urgent Fury: 1962-1983
|Passing on a good history of the early Teams from Dwight Jon Zimmerman. This is the 50th year anniversary of the SEAL Teams from their birth out of the UDT and NCDU of WW2 and Korea era in 1962. Best wishes to the whole Frog family in 2012 — Mark Divine
|SEAL Team TWO shown as they prepare for possible action during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Photo from the Bill Goines Collection|
“To augment present naval capabilities in restricted waters and rivers with particular reference to the conduct and support of paramilitary operations, it is desirable to establish Special Operations teams as a separate component within Underwater Demolition Units One and Two. An appropriate cover name for such units is ‘SEAL’ being a contraction of SEA, AIR, LAND.”
– Vice Adm. Wallace M. Beakley,
Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, June 5, 1961
In January 1962, a new chapter in the history of special operations opened with the establishment of the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Teams ONE and TWO. The 21-year stretch from 1962 to 1983 was a profound one for the new force, one that would see it created from the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) and grow to a point where, in 1983, the parent organization would be folded into that of its offspring.
Throughout this period, SEALs suffered repeated crises of perception by outsiders who controlled their institutional fate. The force labored under the contradiction of being a specialized elite force with “… an all-around universal capability.” This phrase, an excerpt from the U.S. Director, Strategic Plans Division memo dated March 13, 1961, was necessary because, as part of the U.S. Navy, SEALs had to work closely with the Navy’s surface, aviation, and submarine forces. A further complication was the fact that the SEAL program itself was caught squarely in the philosophical cross fire between naval traditionalists and advocates of change during the post-Vietnam War drawdown of the military, with all the budgetary consequences thereof. During their formative years, the Navy leadership seemed perplexed by the SEALs and/or didn’t know what to do with them, a situation that would not change until the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 that reorganized the military and put the U.S. Special Operations Command at the same level as the other unified and specified commands at the time.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy, addressing a joint session of Congress, delivered a speech that most people remember as his challenge to the country to put an American on the moon before the end of the decade. Since forgotten by the public at large was the president’s mandate to the military: “I am directing the secretary of defense to expand rapidly and substantially … the orientation of existing forces for the conduct of … unconventional wars. … In addition, our special forces and unconventional warfare units will be increased and reoriented. …”
The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Adm. Arleigh Burke, in a memo dated July 11, 1960, tasked Vice Adm. Wallace M. Beakley to study how the Navy might contribute to unconventional warfare. Beakley responded to that tasking in a memo dated Aug. 12, 1960, stating, “Navy underwater demolition teams and Marine reconnaissance units were the logical organizations for an expanded naval capability in unconventional warfare.” Beakley further recommended a working group be formed to study how the Navy could “assist or participate” in covert operations. As a result, on Sept. 13, 1960, an Unconventional Activities Working Group was formed. The slow progress became a whirlwind on March 10, 1961, when the Navy’s Unconventional Activities Committee presented a mission statement for the new special operations unit and officially used for the first time the acronym SEAL. On May 13, 1961, Burke received another memo from Beakley going into more detail on the SEAL concept, basically spelling out everything about the new unit and advising that administratively everything was in place and simply waiting for final go-ahead. This memorandum concluded by stating, “If you agree in the foregoing proposals, I will take action to establish a Special Operations Team on each coast.” Burke wasted no time in giving the green light. On June 5, 1961, the CNO issued a letter notifying the commanders in chief U.S. Atlantic, U.S. Pacific, and U.S. Naval Forces Europe about the Navy’s intentions regarding SEAL units.
The letter stated, “It is the Navy’s intention to provide for the waterborne conduct and support of such guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operations as may be directed in the national interest.” It identified missions, tasks, how the SEALs would be organized, trained, what and how they should identify and obtain transport, and that “measures should be taken to ensure that some staff officers receive the Special Operations Teams training for background in connection with the possible use of these units in their respective areas.”
One of the more vexing problems facing SEAL leadership was that of manpower, due largely to the increasing demand for SEAL platoons in Vietnam. Because of this demand, and the need to simultaneously satisfy UDT manpower needs and the expansion of the SEAL Teams, there were an insufficient number of people in the pipeline for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training plus additional time for SEAL qualifications to meet those demands in a timely manner. Retired Cmdr. Franklin Anderson, who would go on to become commanding officer of SEAL Team ONE (1966-1968) recalled, “At that time only two classes of trainees were going through [Coronado] each year, and both [UDT] teams’ manpower was down to about 80 percent.” (Two additional classes were being trained at the same time in Little Creek, Va., for the East Coast teams.) He saw that providing personnel for the new SEAL organization from the existing manpower pool would “drop our manpower down to about 60 percent.” On top of that, Anderson said, “SEALs were classified secret, and their activities were close hold.” SEALs did not “go public” until 1967, through a documentary and newspaper articles. Liaison with other commands and a promotion infrastructure were other hurdles that were addressed – some immediately, others down the road.
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This article first appeared in Navy Seals 50: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Establishment of the U.S. Navy SEALs.