How the Powerful and Elite Navy Seals Were Forged Out of World War II

Navy SEALs
April 22, 2021 Topic: Navy SEALs Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIEuropean TheaterNavy SealsS&RPacific Theater

How the Powerful and Elite Navy Seals Were Forged Out of World War II

America needed elite forces to fight the Axis and from those units the modern Navy SEALs were born.

A Permanent Underwater Demolitions Team

But with the changing plans of war, the intended use of these S&R Officers did not reach fruition. The November 1943 landing on island of Tarawa in the Pacific had grimly illustrated the need for pre-assault reconnaissance. Marines landing on the atoll were either drowned or made easy targets for the Japanese when their landing craft hit hidden reefs. Planners recommended to the Chief of Naval Operations that Underwater Demolition Teams be formed permanently, with six teams assigned to the Central Pacific and three to the South Pacific, and that a training location be established in Hawaii. Initially this meant combining the existing, smaller Naval Combat Demolition Units. The Navy also tapped into the S&R resources.

Beginning in November 1944, the majority of Class #6’s 25 officers joined the Underwater Demolition Teams and took further training at the Naval Combat Demolition Training and Experimental Base at Maui. UDT personnel were familiar with the S&Rs because of their similar work. Some of them had trained together at Ft. Pierce, and some had worked together before. Also, some existing S&R crews began functioning in parallel to the UDTs to accomplish the same beach demolition functions.

In the southwest Pacific, meanwhile, MacArthur’s forces had been carrying out amphibious assaults, including the landing in New Guinea in September 1943 by the 9th Australian Division. The 9th had established a new unit, the top-secret Amphibious Scouts, for advanced intelligence gathering. It included various services volunteers as well as Australian Coast Watchers. It was, in every respect except in name, Scouts and Raiders. In fact, when the original members of this group returned to the States, trained S&R personnel replaced them.

The first Amphibious Scouts’ tasks, in preparation for landing at various places on New Guinea, included being dropped offshore by PT boat, and slipping ashore in rubber boats to gather intelligence on Japanese installations and movements. By July 1944 MacArthur’s troops had made 11 landings on New Guinea, the last of these at Sansapor. In his book, MacArthur’s Amphibious Navy, Admiral Barbey calls Sansapor “the most thoroughly reconnoitered landing ever in the SWPA (South-West Pacific Area).”

For landings at the heavily mined Leyte Gulf, Philippines, Scout officers sneaked ashore to set up navigation lights, first for guiding minesweepers several days before the landings and later for the actual landing craft. At Panay in west-central Philippines, one Scout team went ashore from PT boats to do beach reconnaissance and depth soundings before the landings. Another Scout group prepared the way for landings on southern Luzon. This team went ashore to meet with an Army officer and a band of Filipino guerrillas. They gathered information on nine Japanese coastal defense guns, seven of which the Air Force was able to knock out before the landings.

Okinawa was the largest amphibious undertaking in the Pacific theater, and the toughest. S&Rs worked as and with UDTs, Scout Intelligence Officers, Beachmasters, and Control Officers. The S&Rs and UDTs were taken to within a thousand yards of the beaches, where they slipped into the water and swam shoreward to gather beach intelligence, often under enemy fire. They then swam back out and were picked up in the reverse procedure by the landing craft. This became the standard mode of advanced reconnaissance. The men then prepared maps of the shorelines and the reef floors, and then briefed the Amphibious Forces Intelligence staffs aboard ship. Returning later with the same “drop-and-pickup” methods, they blew up beach obstacles.

Trained in Judo, Wrestling, Boxing, Weapons, and Sabotage

On March 1, 1945 the Ft. Pierce school was renamed Amphibious Scout School. It also had a new challenge—to train men for a reshaped S&R role known as Amphibious Roger. The phrase came from the phrase “Jolly Roger,” a piratical term, the word Roger standing for “raider.” Amphibious Roger personnel were trained for guerrilla warfare and raiding operations in China. The training was essentially the basic S&R course, but with extra emphasis on demolition and inland reconnaissance. Added were classes in Chinese culture and language, and more hand-to-hand combat, judo, boxing, and wrestling as well as additional weapons and sabotage work.

One of the key elements of the war in China was SACO, the Sino-American Cooperative Organization agreement signed by the Chinese and the United States on April 1, 1943. Under the terms of the Agreement, the United States was to train guerrillas, intelligence agents, weather groups, saboteurs, and raiding squads to set up weather, radio, and radio-intercept stations using American equipment and mostly Chinese personnel.

The S&R coastal intelligence-gathering experience, which began in China with SACO in 1945, lent itself well to hydrographic and shoreline surveillance and mapping. But here, because of the high density of Japanese patrols and the safety concerns regarding submarine operations in uncharted waters, the missions were often conducted over land. A few S&R officers were pulled out of Class #6 in July 1944 and were sent to train Chinese guerrillas at a camp in Teng Feng, China. Others followed from Ft. Pierce and the Mediterranean.

S&R officers staffed a number of SACO camps in interior China. They made reconnaissance missions to determine landing accessibility along the lower China coast. They also harassed and fought running battles with the Japanese. They rescued 20 downed pilots. In one mission, dubbed Operation Swordfish, an S&R team sunk a Japanese freighter in Amoy Harbor. They were so effective that at one time the Japanese offered a bounty of $1,000 in gold to any Chinese person who turned in an S&R.

From S&R to SEALS

Amphibious Roger Class #4 was the last group to graduate from ATB Ft. Pierce. Class #5 began its training in June 1945. A contingent from that class had been taken to Ft. Bragg, NC, for airborne training, but the end of the war canceled it. The new training would have given the S&Rs a sea, air, and land capability. One of the members of that class was Rudolph E. Boesch, who went on to become the longest-serving enlisted man in the Navy at over 45 years, and the longest serving SEAL. At the time, there were over four hundred officers and enlisted men in Amphibious Roger duties.

When WWII ended, many of the S&Rs who remained in the Navy were transferred back into the fleet. As the first Naval Special Warfare commandos, they had pioneered a wide range of tactics and techniques of amphibious reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. This knowledge fortunately was carried along to the UDTs serving in the Korean War, and later the UDTs and SEALS for other theaters of operation.

In November 1985 the UDT-SEAL Museum was commissioned at Ft. Pierce to commemorate the many years of service of the frogmen and SEALs. As Navy files were declassified, and the background history of the UDT and SEALs was uncovered, the importance of the Scouts and Raiders to the heritage of Naval Special Warfare was realized. Although disbanded after the war, their lineal descendants, the U.S. Navy SEALs, and other special warfare personnel gathered at the Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, Calif., on January 21, 1987 to honor Captain Phil Bucklew, USNR Ret., a legendary Scout and Raider officer, by naming the Center for Naval Special Warfare after him. And in November 1989 the UDT-SEAL museum at Ft. Pierce chose to include the Scouts and Raiders as part of their Naval Special Warfare historical record.

Bud Hyland is a former member of the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team 12, and of the UDT-SEAL reserve.

This story was initially published by Warfare History Network. 

Image: Reuters.