The Navy SEALs
The serious development of the U.S. military's ability to combat the worldwide increase in Communist-supported guerrilla warfare began in the late 1950s during the Eisenhower administration. De velopment of these capabilities was slow and consisted of little more than studies and discussions among high-level military officers, politicians, and political appointees. It was not until the 1960s and the Kennedy administration that the development of these capabilities was pushed forward. Under President Kennedy, the military received the stimulus necessary to actively create unconventional warfare units.
On 11 July 1960, Admiral Arleigh Burke, the Chief of Naval Operations, directed Deputy CNO (Fleet ops and readiness) Admiral Wallace Beakley to study possible contributions by the Navy to unconventional warfare. Admiral Beakley responded to the CNO's directive by August 12 and included his suggestion that, because of their extensive training in small-unit actions of this type, the Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams and Marine reconnaissance units were the logical organizations for expanding the Navy's capability in unconventional warfare.
Four weeks after Admiral Beakley's response to the CNO, the Unconventional Activities Working Group was established within the Office of the CNO under the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (plans and policy). The group was to consider "naval unconventional activity methods, techniques, and concepts which may be employed effectively against Sino-Soviet interests under conditions of cold war." This group was later succeeded by the Unconventional Activities Committee, which turned in the final report.
The year 1961 brought a large number of changes for the world in general and the United States military in particular. President Eisenhower was replaced by a new, young President who thought differently than others had and had experienced war in a very up-close and personal way. There was also a serious threat to world peace in the form of the Soviet Union, which was aggressively seeking to export its style of Communism to the rest of the world.
On 6 January 1961, Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union, publicly announced that his country would "support just wars of liberation and popular uprisings ... wholeheartedly and without reservations." The developing struggle in Vietnam was mentioned as an example of such a just war. A few weeks later, on 29 January, John E Kennedy became the thirty-fifth President of the United States. At the age of forty-three he was also the youngest person ever to hold that office.
Admiral Burke maintained his advocacy of unconventional warfare in a response to Admiral John Sides (CINCPACFLT). In correspondence, Admiral Burke stated that unconventional warfare did constitute a proper mission for the Navy. In another memo issued in early February, he again suggested that the Navy "do as much as we can in guerrilla warfare ... even if it is not our primary business." Burke proposed emphasizing UDT groups, escape and survival training, and the creation of a nucleus of young naval officers trained by the Army in guerrilla warfare. At that time the Army Special Forces at Fort Bragg were the only experienced guerrilla warfare group in the U.S. military.
President Kennedy met with the joint Chiefs of Staff on 23 February. The President stressed the importance of guerrilla and counter-guerrilla warfare responses to Communist actions. He wanted present capabilities increased and new counterguerrilla warfare concepts established and put into place as quickly as was practicable. On March 10, Rear Admiral William Gentner Jr., the director of the Strategic Plans Division, approved the preliminary recommendations of the Unconventional Activities Committee. The recommendations were to involve the Navy more directly in the lower levels (direct action) of counterguerrilla actions.
Specific proposals of the group included the recommendation that new units be established, one for the Atlantic and another for the Pacific command. The proposed units would be known by the acronym SEAL, "a contraction of SEA, AIR, LAND ... indicating an all-around, universal capability." Initially, the units would consist of 20 to 24 officers and 50 to 75 men. Each detachment would have a three-faceted mission: 1.) develop a specialized Navy capability in guerrilla/counterguerrilla operations to include training of selected personnel in a wide variety of skills; 2.) development of doctrinal tactics, and 3.) development of special support equipment. It was during that March 10 meeting that the name SEALs was used for the first time. The acronym was coined in Admiral Gentner's office. It is not known if the term originated with the admiral himself or one of his staff.
President Kennedy continued a CIA-run operation against the Communist government of Cuba that had begun during the Eisenhower administration. The CIA had been arming and training Cuban exiles to return to Cuba and lead a revolt to oust Fidel Castro. This would have removed a major Soviet-backed Communist threat from U.S. shores and Caribbean waters. Some of the personnel the CIA used as trainers had been recruited from UDT 21. From 17 to 19 April 1961, the Bay of Pigs operation took place as Cuban expatriates tried to take back their country from Fidel Castro and his Communist regime. Without proper support from U.S. military and clandestine forces, the Cuban invaders were stopped almost at the shoreline of the Bay of Pigs. The invasion was a complete failure.
Secretary of Defense McNamara met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and civilian heads of the military services on 21 April, only a few days after the Bay of Pigs debacle. The meeting was to discuss the implica tions of the Cuban situation. During the meeting, McNamara suggested that "what is required is a new idea on counteraggression [guerrilla warfare] of the type we are seeing around the world."
Within a day or two of this statement, President Kennedy directed General Taylor of the Army to head the Cuban Study Group, which included Admiral Burke, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and CIA Director Allen Dulles. The objective of the group was to determine what lessons were to be learned from the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Additionally, the group was to explore ways the United States could strengthen its capabilities in military, paramilitary, guerrilla, and antiguerrilla activities without going on to an active war standing.
By the end of April, the CNO's office had begun to seriously consider the direct participation of the Navy in guerrilla and counter-guerrilla warfare and the creation of units specially trained and suited to that type of conflict. The first week of May Admiral Burke issued a directive calling for an increase in the training of naval personnel in guerrilla warfare. The directive also announced an appraisal of the Navy's equipment to determine what would be suited to operations to be conducted in the swamps and rivers of South Vietnam.
In mid-May, Admiral Beakley reiterated the 10 March proposal by the Strategic Plans Division that the Special Operations Teams (SEALs) be established as separate components of the Atlantic and Pacific UDT commands. The SEAL mission statement was enlarged to include greater emphasis on conducting actual combat operations rather than training and support for them. Admiral Arleigh Burke decided to retire from active duty in the summer of 1961 prior to the implementation of his idea for the SEAL teams. His successor as CNO, Admiral George Anderson Jr., was not the proponent of unconventional warfare that Admiral Burke had been.
On 1 August 1961, Admiral George Anderson Jr. was sworn in as the new Chief of Naval Operations. He replaced Admiral Arleigh Burke, who had held the office for six years. By the end of August, Admiral Anderson was questioning the creation of the new SEAL Teams. Studying the plan for their creation with the intention of curtailing the program, Admiral Anderson felt that the manning requirements (20 officers and 100 men total) for the new Teams could not be immediately met. Encouragement was given by the CNO's office to "enhance and augment present naval support capabilities in the area of paramilitary operations by developing the existing capabilities within the Underwater Demolition Teams for demolition, sabotage and other clandestine activities..."
In the fall of 1961, tensions between the Soviets and the United States increased rapidly with the Berlin Crisis in East Germany. The building of the Berlin Wall and additional actions by the Soviets and the Soviet-backed East German government distracted the Kennedy administration from Southeast Asia. This too retarded the establishment of the Navy SEAL teams.
During that time, specialized training for naval officers in unconventional warfare was not being well implemented. At the end of October, only four Navy officers, two from Underwater Demolition Team 21, were attending courses in unconventional warfare at the Army's Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg.
The push to create the SEAL Teams was now getting more emphasis from the CNO's office. On 13 November, a letter was written at the CNO's office outlining the size and organization of the two proposed SEAL Teams. A month later, on 11 December 1961, Admiral George W Anderson Jr. signed CNO Speedletter Serial # 697P30. The letter activated SEAL Teams One and Two and UDT 22 on 1 January 1962. The document also contained the intended mission statement for the SEALs as well as a description of their organization, command, and logistical support.
The official date of the commissioning of SEAL Teams One and Two is 1 January 1962. On 8 January, SEAL Team One, at NAB Coronado, California, and SEAL Team Two, at NAB Little Creek, Virginia, mustered for the first time at 1300 hours local time.
The official commissioning date for the two Teams was eight days earlier, but there were no main actions until the first muster. This has caused some confusion as to the actual date of the SEALs commissioning. The date of 1 January is the official paperwork date. The 8 January date was the practical day that work actually began.
Lieutenant David Del Guidice was put in command of SEAL Team One and took its personnel as volunteers from UDTs 11 and 12. Lieutenant John E Callahan was put in command of SEAL Team Two, which took the majority of its personnel from the ranks of UDT 21.
Thirty-seven men and officers of the initial complement for SEAL Team Two were at the 1300 muster on 8 January. The balance of the ten officers and fifty enlisted men would arrive over the next several months as they completed training or were released from previous commands.
Lieutenant Roy Boehm was the officer-in-charge of SEAL Team Two prior to its commissioning and was responsible for selecting the initial complement of men and setting up their training and equipment. He was given the assignment to make the first SEAL Team and has earned the name "First SEAL."
The Vietnam War was to prove to be the crucible that would test the SEAL Team concept. All that had gone before with the UDTs, the actions in Korea, WWII, the Scouts and Raiders, and finally the NCDUs on Normandy Beach laid the groundwork for the SEALs.
Vietnam would prove what they had become, the finest unconventional fighting force of the United States military. Every skill the SEALs had would be tested to the utmost in the rivers, streams, and canals of a small country at the outermost edge of the Southeast Asian mainland. They would soon prove worthy of the legend that grew up around their actions during seven years of active combat.
It takes over 30 months to train a Navy SEAL to the point at which he will be ready for deployment. The SEALs that emerge are ready to handle pretty much any task they could be called on to perform, including diving, combat swimming, navigation, demolitions, weapons, and parachuting. The training pushes them to the limit both mentally and physically in order to weed out those who may not be able to successfully complete the demanding missions and operations with which SEALs are faced.
Turns out, even being in a fake POW camp is a nightmare After nearly a year out east, I returned to California in January of 1994 with orders to report to HS-10, the helicopter training squadron in San Diego where I would spend six months learning the ropes before finally deploying as part of an operational squadron. But there were a few more hurdles to clear first, and the toughest of these was what came next. Before you can become a pilot, rescue swimmer, or any other job where there is significant risk of capture, you need two things. You have to have secret clearance, and you have to go to survival school.
The term "boot camp" was first used by the Marines back in World War II, the term boot being slang for "recruit." Those of us who showed up for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Training (SERE) that January may have already been through many months of training, but we were clearly still green, still boots-and survival school was boot camp on steroids. Based on the experiences of U.S. and allied soldiers as prisoners of war, the program's aim is to equip its trainees with both the skills and the grit to survive with dignity in the most hostile conditions of captivity. It was far and away the most intense training I'd encountered so far.
We mustered at the SERE school building at Naval Air Station North Island, on the northern end of the Coronado peninsula, where we were scheduled for a week of classroom training, followed by a week of field work. We spent that first week covering history and background, including lessons learned from World War II and Vietnam. We learned such things as how to tell a captor just enough to stay alive-but not enough to give away secrets. The week went by fast, which suited us fine: we were looking forward to getting into the field. That day came soon enough. We were all lined up and checked head to toe for smuggled food items before heading out. We had been warned not to try and sneak any food into our clothes or boots, but as I would learn again and again during my time in the Navy, there's always one in every bunch. Sure enough, a few guys got caught with a variety of ridiculous food items stashed on their person. I had to give it to them for trying.
After inspection, we drove about 90 minutes to the northeast, heading into the mountains of Warner Springs, California, where we were broken into groups of six and then into two-man evasion teams. I was paired up with a big Recon Marine. These are special ops guys, similar in many ways to SEALs, including some who specialize in deep reconnaissance and others, called black ops, who focus more on direct action missions. I didn't know if this guy was black ops or not, but regardless, as survival and evasion partners go I figured I could do a lot worse. Then we were set loose in the wild with nothing but the clothes on our backs, simulating the experience of being on the move behind enemy lines. We spent the next three days learning basic survival and evasion skills, including trapping, tracking, and land navigation. We ate everything we could get our hands on, which wasn't much. Survival school classes had been going out to this same spot for years, and practically everything that qualified as edible plant or animal had long ago been snatched up and eaten. Soon we were wolfing anything that wasn't tied down, including bugs, some scruffy plants, and one lucky rabbit. By day two, we were starving.
The nights were rough. Our first day out my partner and I built a shelter in preparation for the cold mountain night, but we way overbuilt. Being manly men, we wanted a nice roomy set-up so we would each have our space and wouldn't have to sleep so close that we would touch each other. Having since experienced that kind of cold a number of times, both in training in the States and thousands of feet above sea level in the wilds of northern Afghanistan, let me tell you: all that manly bullshit goes right out the window and you are more than happy to be nut to butt with anyone who has a pulse and warm blood coursing through his veins. After waking up the fourth time, chilled to the core and teeth chattering, my Marine buddy and I grunted a few words of manliness and then nestled up to each other like a scene right out of Brokeback Mountain.
After three days of this, we were ready to get on with the evasion-and-captivity portion of training, which included an evasion exercise lasting about twenty-four hours, leading directly into the simulated POW camp portion of the training, which would be three days long. During the evasion exercise, which simulated the circumstances of a downed aviator, we would be out in the woods attempting to evade capture by the enemy, who would actively hunt us down. The rules of this exercise were pretty simple: don't get caught. If we did, we would win a prize: extra POW time. When the time was up, they would sound a loud siren, at which point those of us who had made it to the time threshold without being caught would walk to the nearest road and turn ourselves in. The "turn yourself in" part sounded crazy to me, but what the hell. It was their rules. My Marine buddy and I did very well at the evasion exercise-so well, in fact, that by the time they sounded the siren the next afternoon, we had cleared way to the south and we were completely out of earshot. We eventually realized we had gone way out of bounds and the time limit must have expired by now, so we found a road and started walking north toward the exercise boundary. Soon we were picked up by a truck full of foreign-looking men who looked quite pissed off. Hoods were yanked on over our heads and we were smacked around for a while. Good times. Later we learned that these guys had been out looking for us for almost four hours and were none too happy about it.
Once we reached camp, our hoods were removed and we were marched into a processing area, where we were each given our own war criminal number. I remember my number to this day: I was no longer Brandon Webb, I was now War Criminal 53. There were two rules here and we learned them pretty fast. "Grab your rags!" was the first. The second was, "Eyes to ground, whore dog!" Grab your rags: that was intended to remind us to grab the sides of our pants (which did indeed resemble rags at this point) so the guards could see our hands at all times. Eyes to ground: that one was to ensure that none of us war criminals would look around and gain any increased awareness of our surroundings-awareness that we might be able to use later to our advantage. I decided to test out this second rule. Quietly, carefully, without moving my head or neck, I rolled my eyes just a few degrees to steal a glance around. Whack!-my head rocked back from a swift backhand to my face. I could feel my jaw crack. I was a fast learner, or at least not the slowest: I tried it once more, and after the second numbing smack across the face figured they were enforcing the rules pretty well. From that point on I grabbed my rags and kept my eyes to ground. I did not look around. (Okay, I did-but I was a lot more careful about not getting caught doing it.)
Once we were given our new rags and number, we were all asked very nicely what we preferred for dinner. "War Criminal 53! You want the chicken or the fish?" Both sounded damn good to me-but I suspected it was a trick question and that what they really wanted was our signatures. We had to sign for our choice of dinner in the ledger, and they had instructed us to use our real names. I'd heard enough stories to realize that they could use this against us in any sort of future propaganda campaign. I may have been a prisoner in their camp, but I wasn't about to roll over. I wrote my choice in the ledger (I chose fish) and signed it without using my name, writing simply, "Fuck you-sincerely."
In the spring of 2000 our 18-month work-up concluded with an Operational Readiness Exam (ORE), conducted off San Clemente Island, in which a small group of us simulated a covert tagging and tracking op on an enemy vessel. There were some tricky issues with water currents on the way back in, and things got sketchy. By the time we got back to rendezvous with our vessel I had run out of air and had a headache. But we passed the exercise. GOLF platoon was certified and operationally ready to rotate overseas to serve in an alert status, which the platoon would do after a little down time. Before it did, though, something unexpected happened that changed the course of my career in the Navy.
One day shortly after our ORE, Glen and I were called in to see our OIC, McNary. When we entered his office we found Tom B., our platoon Leading Petty Officer, and Chief Dan there with him. Clearly something was up, something big, but we had no idea what. Were we in some sort of trouble? "Listen," said McNary, "you guys have done a really great job here, and we're short-handed on snipers right now. We want to offer you the opportunity to go to sniper school."
I was not planning to become a sniper. In fact, the thought had never occurred to me. Of course we all knew the SEALs had snipers, and we all knew how difficult a course it was. The whole thing seemed fascinating … but I'd never for an instant considered that I might become one of those guys. All my life, I'd loved being in the water, and all my life I'd wanted to be a pilot. But a sniper? Not a chance. And now here it was, being offered to us on a plate. We were stunned; we were thrilled. And we were terrified. It was unheard of for a new guy to get a sniper billet. There were some seriously seasoned guys on the team who had waited years to get a slot; that's how hard they were to get. We knew it was a fiendishly difficult school to pass, and that the last thing anyone wanted was some wet-behind-the-ears new guy in there, because he'd just fuck it up and wash out. We also knew that everyone would be watching us, including our entire platoon, hell, our entire team, and that they would all be counting on us. If we washed out we would be letting them down. If we said yes, we would spend the next three months under excruciating pressure. We didn't hesitate for a second.
There are some pretty difficult schools and training courses in the United States military, but none has quite the reputation of SEAL sniper training. It is one of the toughest programs anywhere on the planet. Even when compared to my combat tours in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, I count my time in sniper school as one of the most intense grueling experiences of my life. The SEAL sniper course is three months of twelve-plus-hour days, seven days a week. Ironically, it is not all that demanding physically. After going through the brutality of BUD/S and some of the programs in SEAL Tactical Training, there was nothing in the sniper course that posed any real physical challenge. But it is extremely challenging mentally.
First and foremost? Intellectual capacity. When people ask what it takes to become a Navy SEAL sniper, that's my first answer. Don't get me wrong: you have to be physically tough. Our training demands that every graduate be one of a unique breed, willing to snake his way through treacherous urban war-zone terrain or crawl the hot desert floor for hours, slow as a snail and often through his own bodily waste, sometimes withstanding days on end of unendurable physical hardship, to set up on his target. Still, the physical ability is maybe ten percent of it. Most of it is mental.
Sniper school is one of the very few courses a SEAL will not be looked down upon for failing to complete. It's an unwritten rule that you don't give guys a hard time for washing out of sniper school. Because the course is known for its insane difficulty, just being selected or volunteering to go automatically elicits respect in the teams. The students who entered the course were already the cream of the crop, but the attrition rate was still vicious. When I took the sniper course in the spring of 2000, we classed up with twenty-six guys at the start. Three months of continuous training later, only twelve of us would graduate.
A few weeks after our conversation in Lt. McNary's office, Glen and I, along with two dozen others, mustered at the SEAL Team 5 quarterdeck in Coronado for our initial sniper school in-briefing. Though this would later change, at the time the different SEAL teams would rotate as course host, and it happened to be Team 5's turn. They told us that there were two principle parts to the sniper training. First came the shooting phase, which would focus on learning our weapons, advanced ballistics, and of course the actual marksmanship training, during which we would work in pairs taking turns as shooter or spotter. Second was the stalking phase, where we would be trained in the arts of stealth and concealment.
We would be conducting the shooting phase at the Coalinga range, a private inland facility about a hundred miles northwest of Bakersfield, where we would camp out, receive all our instruction, and do all our shooting. In the event we survived the shooting phase, we would then go on to the stalking phase, concluding with our graded final training exercise (FTX) out in the California desert near Niland. Being from Team 3, which at the time had charge over the desert theater of operations, Glen and I were already quite familiar with the challenges of operating in that ungodly terrain and how fucking miserable it could be there. We took comfort in the idea that this prior knowledge might give us some small advantage in the final phase. Assuming we made it that far.
We were led to the team armory, where we each checked out the suite of weapons we would be working with over the next few months. We each got a sniper M14 (a sniper version of the M4), a Remington .308 bolt gun, a Remington .300 Win Mag, and a .50 cal, along with scopes and ammo. Once we had our weapons, we mustered back in the Team 5 area to meet our instructor cadre.
From day one in SEAL training, trainees are taught the importance of teamwork. Focus is not on the individual. The fact that the SEALs have never left another SEAL behind on a mission is a testament to this belief system. Throughout their training, they learn more and more why teamwork is necessary in the type of work they will soon be entering: SEALs are performing tasks that may not be possible for a single man to accomplish, but can be possible for a team composed of men who have the same training and skills. Their success depends on what they can do together as a team.
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