Although now a very-well known special operations unit, the Navy SEALs were born just before and came off age during the Vietnam War. Their forefathers, the Underwater Demolition Teams, had already established themselves as a fine special operations force during World War Two and grew closer to the SEALs we know today in Korea.
Editor’s Note: While intended as standalone articles, this is the third installment into a series delving into the history of the U.S. Navy SEALs. You can read the previous articles about the SEALs in World War II here and in the Korean War here.
The Vietnam War created the opportunity and conditions for the U.S. military to use special operations at an unprecedented level up to that point in time. Although the World Wars and Korea had seen special operations with increased frequency as the years passed, none of these conflicts had the special operations structure and mindset that existed in Vietnam. For example, Recon Marines, Army Green Berets, Air Commandos, and finally Navy SEALs all didn’t exist in the earlier conflicts.
Underwater Demolition Teams: The End of an Era
It’s important to highlight that the SEAL Teams weren’t created as a result of the Vietnam War but due to other strategic reasons. President John F. Kennedy established the SEAL Teams in January 1962, at least a few years before the U.S. military deployed significant forces in southeast Asia.
The Korean War saw a strategic shift within Naval Special Warfare. The Underwater Demolition Teams, which was the sole special operations unit to survive the end of World War 2, pivoted from conducting just hydrographic reconnaissance and beach-clearing operations to direct action, strategic reconnaissance, and unconventional warfare.
Commanders tasked Underwater Demolition Teams frogmen with a lot more, and it paid off as the frogmen performed very well in a variety of missions, including targeting North Korean fishing operations, destroying transportation infrastructure, and conducting daring direct action raids in enemy harbors.
Following the end of the Korean War, the Navy sought to keep—and even expand—a special operations capability. In the late 1950s, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke directed the creation of a special operations unit or the expansion of an existing one that would be able to conduct unconventional warfare and other special operations in a Cold War environment and specifically targeting the Soviets and Chinese. The struggle with the Soviets required special operations units that would be able to perform commando tasks during a full-blown conflict, as had happened during World War Two, or that would be able to perform in proxy or low-intensity conflicts that ended up characterizing much of the Cold War.
But Adm. Burke was seeing further in the future when he said:
“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.”
Navy planners studied the problem and concluded that expanding the Underwater Demolition Teams to conduct additional special operations mission sets, such as unconventional warfare, direct action, strategic reconnaissance, and foreign internal defense, would frustrate their main, doctrinal mission set of hydrographic reconnaissance and beach clearing. That, they feared, would create larger issues for the Navy’s and Marine Corps’ amphibious forces as the Underwater Demolition Teams were the crucial link that enabled large amphibious landings.
So, the Navy decided to keep the Underwater Demolition Teams focused on their main mission and create an additional special operations unit to perform the duties that Underwater Demolition Teams frogmen had successfully performed in the Korean War, as well as new mission sets as needs arose.
Navy planners thought that the designation should reflect the new unit’s wide global focus and its expertise in all existing domains of war (sea, air, land). And so, in 1962, the Navy SEALs (SEa, Air, and Land) were born.
The Men with the Green Faces: Navy SEAL Teams
Created in the prologue of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the Navy SEAL teams had lots of work ahead of them.
Initially, the Navy established only two teams (SEAL Team One and SEAL Team Two). UDT and SEAL frogmen operated very closely and came from the same grueling selection and training process, the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. Indeed, the first SEAL teams were manned by UDT frogmen. Each SEAL Team had approximately 75 to 100 officers and enlisted sailors, but the establishment of the SEALs remained classified for some years.
SEAL operations worked around the concept of the platoon. Composed of 12 frogmen—nowadays there are 16 operators in every SEAL platoon—each SEAL platoon operated mostly autonomously from other units. They developed and executed their own target packages. There were no more than six SEAL platoons in-country at any given time, and deployments usually lasted for six months.
However, SEAL platoons worked closely with and benefited greatly from the Navy’s Mobile Support Team (MST), a precursor to today’s Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC). These brown water, or riverine, sailors operated three kinds of boats (Light SEAL Support Craft, Medium SEAL Support Craft, and Heavy SEAL Support Craft) depending on the mission. If a SEAL platoon was looking to clandestinely infiltrate a suspected Viet Cong village and capture some high-value targets, then the Light SEAL Support Craft might be the right choice. But if a SEAL platoon was looking to ambush an incoming Viet Cong resupply convoy on a river, then the Heavy SEAL Support Craft might serve them better, thanks to its increased firepower.
In addition to direct action and unconventional warfare, Navy SEALs focused on foreign internal defense (FID) and the training and advising of partner forces. SEAL operators trained the South Vietnamese LDDN (SEAL) frogmen and operated with them for the duration of the war.
Underwater Demolition Teams also deployed to Vietnam and conducted similar operations as the SEALs—thus somewhat negating the independent rationale that had created the SEALs in the first place.
SEAL and Underwater Demolition Teams frogmen used to paint their faces green with camouflage cream, thus prompting their enemies to name them “the men with the green faces.”
Navy SEAL operators also contributed to the maritime component of the secretive Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG). The newly established SEAL Teams quickly earned a reputation for solid special operations capabilities and bravery. During the conflict, three SEALs earned the Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in combat. Interestingly, and in a perverse twist of fate, one of them, Mike Thorton, earned the Medal of Honor while saving, Tom Norris, one of the other three SEAL recipients. Bob Kerry was the third frogman to get the award.
Following the Vietnam War, the SEAL Teams steadily expanded with the addition of new units, while the Underwater Demolition Teams gradually faded in the twilight.