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. On 15 August 1942, to meet the need for a beach reconnaissance force, selected Navy and Army personnel began joint training 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 Captain Phil H. Bucklew—known as the “Father of Naval Special Warfare”—who saw action during the invasion of North Africa, Salerno, Sicily, Anzio, Normandy, and southern France. A second group of scouts and raiders, code-named Special Service Unit #1, was established on 7 July 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, Admiral Ernest J. King ordered 120 officers and 900 men be trained for “Amphibious Roger” at Fort Pierce, Florida.
During World War II, combat demolition units were formed as well. Lieutenant Commander Draper L. Kauffman—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.
On 25 June 1950, the North Korean army invaded South Korea marking 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.
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 (Sea, Air, Land) Teams ONE and TWO. Their mission was to conduct counter guerilla warfare and clandestine operations in riverine and maritime environments.
During the Vietnam War, SEAL involvement began immediately and was advisory in nature. SEALs 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. Post-Vietnam operations included Urgent Fury (Grenada 1983); Earnest Will (Persian Gulf 1987–1990); Just Cause (Panama 1989–1990) and Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Additionally, SEALs conducted operations in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, and Liberia.
In response to the terrorists attacks on 11 September 2001, naval special warfare forces had boots on the ground in Afghanistan by October. The first military flag officer to set foot in Afghanistan was a Navy SEAL in charge of special operations for U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). During Operation Enduring Freedom, SEALs carried out more than 75 special reconnaissance and direct action missions. SEALs operated in the Philippines and the Horn of Africa as well. On 2 May 2011, SEAL Team SIX raided an al-Qaeda compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, killing the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks—Osama bin Laden.
Operation Iraqi Freedom was the largest SEAL deployment in its history. SEALs were instrumental in numerous special reconnaissance and direct action missions to include the security of oil infrastructures and off shore gas and oil terminals; waterway clearance operations that enabled humanitarian aid; capture or kill high value targets; and raids on suspected chemical, biological and radiological sites.