Navy SEAL ProgramUpdated: December 24, 2022
In the 21st century, Navy SEAL operations are not unusual, but in the 1960s, Army Special Forces could have argued that they had a monopoly on certain asymmetrical warfare and counter-guerilla operations. How did the SEALs evolve? They were shaped by groups of service members who all left an indelible mark on what we know as the U.S. Navy SEALs today.
In March 1961, as tensions in Vietnam began to intensify, Admiral Arleigh Burke, the Chief of Naval Operations, recommended the establishment of guerrilla and counter-guerrilla units comprised of sea, air, and land special warfare experts. This is how the acronym SEALs was created.
“Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” – President Harry S. Truman
Army Special Forces Inspire The Creation Of Navy SEALs
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy made a speech to Congress. In it, Kennedy famously committed the country to landing men on the moon. However, he also spoke of his deep respect for Army Special Forces and announced his commitment to spend over $100 million to both strengthen special operations forces and to expand U.S. capabilities in unconventional warfare.
In response, the Navy CNO officially authorized two SEAL Teams in December 1961, and President Kennedy officially established the SEALs in 1962.
Since then, Navy SEALs have enjoyed a history both rich in tradition and shrouded in mystery. However, the SEALs existed in various forms decades prior to their official creation in 1962. In fact, during World War II, several entities contributed to the creation of the Navy SEALs:
- Office of Strategic Services Operational Swimmers
- Naval Combat Demolition Units, or NCDUs
- Underwater Demolition Teams, or UDTs
- Amphibious Scouts and Raiders
Those Responsible For The Evolution Of The Navy SEAL
There have also been a handful of men who helped to both make the history of the SEALs, and to shape them into what they are today. It is important to point out that what follows happened long before the 1960s. However, these people and their efforts were crucial in the evolution of the Navy as it moved toward establishing the SEALs.
Major Christian James Lambertsen, M.D., “Father of the Frogmen”
The Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt through Presidential military order on June 13, 1942. Prior to its formation, intelligence-gathering operations were not conducted in an organized or coordinated manner. Consequently, the OSS was created to both collect and analyze strategic information vital to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and to conduct special operations not assigned to other agencies. The OSS was also a predecessor to the CIA.
During World War II, the OSS organized and conducted espionage activities behind enemy lines for all branches of the U.S. military. Operatives were dropped behind enemy lines to conduct operations and report back with information on enemy troop movements and resources. In order to expand these covert operations to maritime fronts, the OSS needed the means to put operatives into the water.
Dr. Christian J. Lambertsen (May 15, 1917 – Feb. 11, 2011) designed the Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit, or LARU. He also served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.
In 1942, Major Lambertsen demonstrated his LARU rebreathers to both the Navy and the OSS. While the Navy rejected the concept of swimmers using rebreathers, OSS officials saw the practical applications of the rebreather and hired Major Lambertsen to assist with the creation, development, and training of what came to be known as the Operational Swimmer Group.
Major Lambertsen trained swimmers and developed methods of underwater warfare via self-contained diving. Under his direction, swimmers used rebreathers, Swimmer Delivery Vehicles, or SDVs, and additional innovations in flexible swim fins and diving masks to conduct combat swimming operations. Thanks to Major Lambertsen’s LARU and other specialized equipment, the “Frogmen,” as they came to be called, were born.
To this day, the Navy honors Major Lambertsen as the “Father of the Frogmen.”
Phil Hinkle Bucklew, the “Father of Naval Special Warfare”
After America’s entry into World War II, the need for beach reconnaissance forces became imperative. In response, the joint Army and Navy Amphibious Scouts and Raiders were created. The Scouts and Raiders’ primary mission would be two-fold: to scout beaches for amphibious landing, and to guide assault forces to those beaches under cover of darkness. Selected Army and Marine Corps personnel assembled at Amphibious Training Base Little Creek, Virginia, on Aug. 15, 1942 to begin training.
Phil H. Bucklew, (Dec. 18, 1914 – Dec. 30, 1992), was a professional football player who served in the Navy Scouts and Raiders, and later took command of SEAL Team One.
Having served in the Naval Reserve from 1930 to 1934, Bucklew volunteered for active duty on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. While in training at Naval Station Norfolk, he helped organize and train the first service members to specialize in amphibious raids and tactics. After graduation, Bucklew was commissioned as an ensign, and then joined the Navy Scouts and Raiders. Bucklew and his unit served during several missions:
Operation Torch, November 1942
Bucklew’s unit participated in the invasion of North Africa.
Operation Husky, July 1943
Bucklew commanded a scout boat during landings on Sicily and was awarded his first Navy Cross for his actions.
Operation Avalanche, September 1943
Bucklew’s unit participated in the landings at Salerno, Italy, and he was awarded the Silver Star for his actions.
Preparation for Operation Overlord, January 1944
Bucklew’s unit transferred to England to support the amphibious assault. He and fellow Scouts and Raiders officer Grant Andreasen scouted Omaha Beach. The two swam ashore under cover of darkness to collect sand samples needed for analysis by mission planners to determine whether the sand would support heavy vehicles.
At a later date, they were kayaked within 300 yards of the beach, then swam the rest of the way in the dark. They hid in the water and reconnoitered sentry patrol times, then went ashore to collect more sand samples and gather intelligence.
Operation Overlord, D-Day, June 6, 1944
Bucklew commanded a scout boat that led the first wave of tank-carrying landing craft with DD tanks to Omaha Beach. At sea, he had to contend with both heavy surf and enemy fire. Bucklew remained on station as a guide boat throughout the day.
He directed assault waves, launched supporting fire against German positions, and rescued many soldiers from drowning. To do this, he laid down in the bow of his boat and used his own strength to pull men from the water. Bucklew was awarded a second Navy Cross for his actions.
After World War II, Bucklew attended Columbia University and completed his Ed.D., and later took command of SEAL Team One.
During the early months of Vietnam, Bucklew submitted a report on Vietcong troop and supply movement. In it, he predicted the Vietcong would use intercoastal waterways and rivers to move supplies and personnel. Initially dismissed, Bucklew’s report was later cited to support increased use of Navy SEALs in direct action missions.
Known as the “Father of U.S. Naval Special Warfare,” the Phil Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California is named in his honor.
Rear Admiral Draper Laurence Kauffman, “The Father of Naval Combat Demolition”
In early 1942, as the Navy planned amphibious landings, it became increasingly necessary to destroy submerged obstacles, whether natural or man-made. Later that year, a group of Navy salvage personnel received a brief and concentrated course on demolitions, explosive cable cutting and commando raiding techniques.
During Operation Torch, while the new Navy Scouts and Raiders unit went on its first deployment, this unit cut the cable and net barrier across a river. This allowed Army Rangers to land upstream and capture an airfield.
During preparations for Operation Overlord, gathered intelligence indicated that Axis powers had placed extensive underwater obstacles near the beaches at Normandy. In response, the decision was made to create Naval Combat Demolition Units, or NCDUs. These units would be dedicated to the removal of amphibious obstacles in preparation for amphibious assaults.
Rear Admiral Draper L. Kauffman (Aug. 4, 1911 – Aug. 18, 1979) was an American underwater demolition expert who organized both the Naval Bomb Disposal School at the Washington Navy Yard and the first U.S. Navy Demolition Teams during World War II.
Although Kauffman graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1933, he was ineligible for a commission in the Navy due to his poor eyesight. Instead, he opted to spend time as a volunteer for various organizations in Europe from 1940 to 1941. Kauffman’s career progressed upon his return to the U.S.
Kauffman received a commission with the Naval Reserve one month before Pearl Harbor. After the attack, he was rushed to Hawaii to disarm a Japanese bomb, the first of its kind to be recovered intact for study. As a result, LCDR Kauffman was awarded the Navy Cross.
LCDR Kauffman was assigned the task of organizing a U.S. Naval Bomb Disposal School at the Washington Navy Yard. He also assisted with establishing the U.S. Army Bomb Disposal School at Aberdeen, Maryland.
May 7, 1943
CNO and Admiral Ernest J. King, selected LCDR Kauffman to set up a school and train service members to become NCDU personnel. One month later, on June 6, 1943, LCDR Kaufmann established Naval Combat Demolition Unit training at Ft. Pierce, Florida.
In order to fill his first training classes, he assembled volunteers from the Bomb Disposal School, the Civil Engineering Corps, and the Naval Construction Corps School at Camp Peary. LCDR Kauffman was also credited with the institution of the infamous “Hell Week,” a period of intense physical and psychological training that resulted in an overall attrition rate of between 65% and 75%.
34 NCDUs were then deployed to England in preparation for Operation Overlord.
The Pacific Theater required a vastly different kind of maritime reconnaissance. Prior to the Battle of Tarawa in November 1943, aerial reconnaissance had incorrectly shown coral reefs to be submerged deep enough to allow Naval amphibious landing craft to float over them. In reality, Sailors and Marines had to abandon coral-damaged craft in chest deep water 1,000 yards from shore. This effectively rendered them sitting ducks for Japanese gunners.
In response, Rear Admiral Kelley Turner, Commander of the V Amphibious Corps, or VAC, directed the creation of a reconnaissance and demolition training program at Waimanalo ATB, and ordered the training and formation of nine Underwater Demolition Teams, or UDTs, to be deployed in the Pacific Theater.
Most of the instructors and trainees were graduates of either the LCDR Kauffman’s Ft. Pierce NCDU school or Scouts and Raiders schools, or were Seabees, Marines, and Army soldiers. In April 1944, LCDR Kauffman was ordered to the Pacific Fleet Naval Combat Demolition Training and Experimental Base, Maui, Hawaii, and served in several capacities: as commanding officer of Underwater Demolition Team 5, or UDT 5; as senior staff officer, Underwater Demolition Teams, Amphibious Forces, Pacific Fleet; and as Underwater Demolition Training Officer, Amphibious Training Command, Pacific Fleet. He also led UDT 5 on missions:
Kauffman lead his team in a daylight reconnaissance of fortified enemy beaches under heavy fire during the invasion of Saipan. He then led a night reconnaissance of heavily defended beaches at Tinian island. He received a second Navy Cross.
Kauffman led UDT 5 during the assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. At Iwo Jima, with his ship heavily damaged and on fire, he directed fire control efforts as ammunition exploded.
Rising to the rank of Rear Admiral, Kauffman is considered the “Father of Naval Combat Demolition.” The U.S. Naval Bomb Disposal School at the Washington Navy Yard, which Kauffman helped establish, is one of the forefathers to the Explosive Ordnance Disposal School, or NAVSCOLEOD, at the Kauffman Training Facility at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Launched in 1987, the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate Kauffman (FFG-59) was named in honor of both Kauffman and his father, Vice Admiral James L. Kauffman.
He was also honored for his roles as the founder of both U.S. Naval Bomb Disposal and the UDTs through the creation of the Kauffman EOD Training Complex at Eglin AFB, Florida, and the Draper L. Kauffman Naval Special Warfare Operations Facility in Norfolk, Virginia.
Finally, the foundations of instruction Kauffman created remain a fundamental component in the modern-day Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training program.
Without the contributions of individuals who made history and not “the other way around,” and those entities that had their roots in World War II, the Navy SEALs might be a vastly different organization today.
Joining The Navy SEALs Today
Today, entry into the Navy SEALs is extremely difficult. Before acceptance into Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, or BUD/S training, prospective candidates must pass rigorous mental and physical requirements.
Tests may include pre-enlistment medical screenings and cognitive testing. Candidates must then attain a SEAL contract by passing the grueling SEAL Physical Screening Test. Attrition is high, and while those who receive passing scores may then be admitted into training to become Navy SEALs, it may take a total of over two and one half years to complete all necessary Navy SEAL training before he or she can deploy.
The official site of the U.S. Navy discusses SEAL training realistically and without hesitation:
“SEAL training has been described as ‘brutal’, preparing you for the extreme physical and mental challenges of SEAL missions.” Navy.mil says all SEAL hopefuls should expect:
- Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL BUD/S School
- Parachute Jump School
- SEAL Qualification Training
- 18 months of pre-deployment training
- Specialized training
SEAL training is also available for those with college degrees and who are interested in becoming officers.