Today’s Navy SEALs (for Sea, Air, and Land special warfare experts) have a history shrouded in secrecy. Commissioned in 1962, they are the most elite shore-area Special Forces in the world, concentrating on very select and often-clandestine intelligence gathering and precision strike missions. For over 50 years it was assumed that the origin of the Navy SEALs was the Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs) and Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) of World War II. In reality, the Navy’s special warfare activity started in August 1942 with the Amphibious Scouts and Raiders.
The need for U.S. amphibious capabilities arose in the late 1930s when the U.S. military began to anticipate large-scale amphibious landings in Europe. With little experience in this area, the military initiated a series of practice operations to assess the feasibility of such landings. In 1941 they formed a Joint Training Force staffed by the three services—Army, Navy, and Mar- ines. In March 1942, the JTF established an Amphibious Boat School at Solomons, Md., to train crews as small craft operators. Because participants had to be physically fit, planners looked for persons with athletic backgrounds. All had played college or professional sports, mostly football. The group was headed by boxer Gene Tunney and became known as “Tunney Fish.”
As their experience improved and landings seemed achievable, planners realized that for amphibious warfare to be successful, attackers would need all possible information about the beach-landing objectives, submerged obstacles, hydrographics, and the regions just inland from the beaches. An Intelligence Section set up under the JTF was given the job of developing an amphibious reconnaissance capability, with its first mission to be in North Africa.
The Father of Naval Special Warfare
Intense training for the new amphibious reconnaissance group, called the Amphibious Scout and Raider School (Joint), began in the summer of 1942 at Little Creek, Va. Among the first 10 volunteers was the typical 6-foot-2, 220-pound Phil Bucklew, who would go on to become known as the “Father of U.S. Naval Special Warfare.”
Next, 40 sailors from the Solomons Boat School were transferred in. They were told that they had just volunteered for the Scouts and Raiders (S&Rs), which no one had ever heard of. In fact, few learned of this secret unit until after the war. The focus of training for the first S&R class was recognizing landmarks and silhouettes ashore at night (because at that time the Army preferred night landings), judging distances, and navigating in the dark from scout boats. They also had courses in signaling, communications, hand-to-hand combat, and stealthily swimming to and traversing a beach.
The first Allied landings in the European Theatre of Operations were on the northwest coast of Africa, Operation Torch. S&R crews were assigned scout boat duties, including reviewing beach intelligence data, making pre-landing reconnaissance runs, and guiding landing craft to the beaches. Problems there were aplenty: fleet communications, coordination among ships, missed rendezvous points, and timing of scout boat launchings. Despite these, the operation was considered a military success. Thus convinced of the importance of the Scouts and Raiders, the Navy authorized their further development and also recommended moving the training to a location with more suitable weather.
The spot picked was at Ft. Pierce, Fla. The S&Rs went there at the same time as the Navy decided to make Ft. Pierce its Amphibious Training Base (ATB). It was thus commissioned on January 26, 1943.
The S&R School was headed by two naval officers, and staffed by a mixture of Navy and Army personnel. They directed rigorous physical training, including self-defense, seamanship, gunnery, radio operations, and beach reconnaissance. The men learned the use of .50-caliber machine guns operated from the landing craft. They also became rubber boat experts. Each had to be prepared to land special groups or agents on enemy shores, rendezvous with agents or submarines, and receive and relay vital intelligence information.
Intense and Specialized Training
After S&R Class #3 graduated in May 1943 the school was ordered to extend the initial eight-week training to 12 weeks, the extra month to be devoted to demolitions training. In addition, ATB Ft. Pierce became the focal point for special amphibious training for units from the U.S. Army’s Darby’s Ranger Battalions, France’s Free French Forces, and Norway’s Royal Norwegian Air Force. And in July 1943 the new Navy Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs), precursor of the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs), arrived and established their own shorter training program alongside the S&Rs.
The Navy then set up an advanced S&R training base at Port aux Poules, Tunisia, with the Army and Navy Torch veterans and others from Ft. Pierce. One group decamped in Malta to train with the British 4 Commando and other Allied counterpart units, working on night exercises, launching kayaks from the decks of submarines and paddling them in to reconnoiter target beaches. At Port aux Poules the S&Rs trained with the 1st and 4th Darby’s Ranger Battalions. There and at Bizerte, Tunisia, they improved their beach reconnaissance effectiveness and began using swimmer Scouts. These wound up guiding Darby’s Ranger Battalions into landings at Gela and Licata on Sicily.
Following successful landings at Salerno, the S&Rs moved up the boot of Italy with the Allied forces for the next objective at Anzio. Advance intelligence data from aerial photos and submarine periscope observations were good, but more detailed data was needed to verify the information concerning probable shoals and sandbars. S&Rs used PT boats and kayaks to check them out. Three weeks later they successfully guided Army Rangers ashore.
Since late 1943, the Allied amphibious forces had been gearing up for Operation Overlord, the invasion at Normandy. Sixteen Amphibious Bases and Landing Craft & Repair Bases were set up along England’s southern coast. In December 1943, several S&R officers, including Lieutentant Phil Bucklew, one of the first 10 volunteers for Scouts and Raiders training at Little Creek, arrived at Falmouth to begin planning for reconnaissance of the Normandy landing sites.
At the Advanced Amphibious Training Base at Fowey, England, the S&R crews were called on to help train NCDUs in underwater obstacle location and to work with heavy demolitions to blow up the replicas of beach obstacles used by the Germans.
The first critical task undertaken by the S&R team was to cross the Channel and clandestinely obtain samples of sand from the proposed landing beaches. The rise and fall of the tide there created up to a hundred feet in width of loose bottom at low tide. Analyzed samples would determine if matting or other materials would be required for getting tanks and other heavy vehicles onto the beaches. A number of these crossings were made, often taking heavy fire from shore. Arriving in small landing craft or kayaks, the teams sometimes lay in the water in the surf, timing the German sentries along the beach, so they could crawl ashore to complete their tasks.
Heavy Casualties for the NCDUs
On June 5, Scout boats were the first to be launched across the Channel. They navigated to locations a few hundred yards offshore to guide the first waves of the landing forces. NCDUs went in to clear obstacles. The S&R scout boats were now equipped with .50-caliber machine guns mounted amidships, giving them an opportunity to cover the shorelines as the landings began. The NCDUs took heavy casualties before they could clear the obstacles. The scout boats shuttled back and forth, under heavy fire, trying to rescue the survivors.
The S&R teams continued to get a broadening range of assignments. They trained French Commandos for amphibious landings on Elba, Italy, scouted potential beaches for landing sites, and escorted the landing parties ashore. They conducted night operations on the Yugoslav Adriatic coast to rescue airmen who had been assisted by partisans in evading the Germans. Another mission was landing a force of commandos and partisans, plus a contingent of Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Special Reconnaissance personnel, on the island of Solta, Yugoslavia.
The next big landing, named Anvil-Dragoon, was planned in southern France for August 15. As with previous operations, this one expanded the S&R experience and applications. S&Rs trained and escorted Army Devil’s Brigade troops ashore at Levant and Port Cross Islands to take out German 6-inch gun batteries that commanded the Anvil-Dragoon beaches. S&Rs led several French commando forces ashore to block roads to and from the beaches. They then directed in the landing waves of the full beach assaults. Following Anvil-Dragoon, the Mediterranean S&R crews were ordered back to ATB Ft. Pierce, some to be reassigned to the Far East.