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By the end of the 1950s, there were very few Special Operations Forces. The Army had the Green Berets, and the Navy had their Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT). These elite units were trained to fight and operate behind the enemy lines of a conventional war, specifically in the event of a Russian drive through Europe.
The Navy entered the Vietnam conflict in 1960, when the UDTs delivered small watercraft far up the Mekong River into Laos. In 1961, Naval Advisers started training the Vietnamese UDTs. These men were called the Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia (LDNN), roughly translated as the "soldiers that fight under the sea."
President Kennedy, aware of the situations in Southeast Asia, recognized the need for a new type of military unit for this type of unconventional warfare and the need to utilize Special Operations units as a measure to combat guerrilla activity. In a speech to Congress in May 1961, Kennedy shared his deep respect of the Green Berets. He also announced the government's plan to put a man on the moon, and, in that same speech, he allocated over one hundred million dollars toward the strengthening of the Special Forces units in order to expand the strength of the American conventional forces.
Realizing the administration's favor of the Army's Green Berets, the Navy needed to determine its role within the Special Forces arena. In March of 1961, the Chief of Naval Operations recommended the establishment of guerrilla and counter-guerrilla units within the Navy. These units would be able to operate from sea, air, or land. This was the beginning of the official Navy SEALs. Many SEAL members came from the Navy's UDT units, who had already gained experience in commando warfare in Korea; however, the UDTs were still necessary to the Navy's amphibious force.
In 1962, President Kennedy established SEAL Team ONE, and SEAL Team TWO from the existing UDT Teams to develop a Navy Unconventional Warfare capability. The Navy SEAL Teams were designed as the maritime counterpart to the Army Special Forces "Green Berets." They deployed immediately to Vietnam to operate in the deltas and thousands of rivers and canals in Vietnam, and effectively disrupted the enemy's maritime lines of communication.
The first two teams were on opposite coasts: SEAL Team Two in Little Creek, Virginia, and SEAL Team ONE in Coronado, California. The men of the newly formed SEAL Teams were educated in such unconventional areas as hand-to-hand combat, high altitude parachuting, safecracking, demolition with explosives, advanced combat medicine, and foreign languages. Among the varied tools and weapons required by the SEAL Teams was the AR-15 assault rifle, a new design that evolved into today's M-16.
The SEALs attended UDT Replacement training and they spent some time cutting their teeth with a UDT Team. Upon making it to a SEAL Team, they would undergo a three-month SEAL Basic Indoctrination (SBI) training class at Camp Kerry in the Cuyamaca Mountains. After SBI training class, they would enter a platoon and train in platoon tactics (specifically for the conflict in Vietnam) in the swampy and muddy areas of the Alamo River in southern California.
The Pacific Command recognized Vietnam as a potential hot spot for conventional forces. In the beginning of 1962, the UDT started hydrographic surveys, and Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) was formed. In March of 1962, SEALs were deployed to Vietnam for the purpose of training South Vietnamese commandos in the same methods that they themselves were trained.
The SEAL Teams' mission was to conduct counter guerrilla warfare and clandestine maritime operations. Initially, SEALs advised and trained Vietnamese forces, such as the LDNN (Vietnamese SEALs). Later in the war, SEALs conducted reconnaissance missions, and nighttime Direct Action missions such as ambushes and raids to capture prisoners of high intelligence value.
In February 1963, operating from USS Weiss, a Naval Hydrographic recon unit from UDT 12 started surveying just south of Da Nang. From the beginning, they encountered sniper fire and on 25 March, they were attacked. The unit managed to escape without any injuries. The survey was considered complete and the USS Weiss returned to Subic Bay in the Philippines where the UDTs had their forward deployed base.
The CIA utilized Navy SEALs for covert operations in early 1963. At the outset of the war, operations consisted of ambushing resupply movements, and locating and capturing North Vietnamese officers. However, due to poor intelligence information, these operations were not very successful. When the SEALs were given the resources to develop their own intelligence network, the information became much more timely and reliable. The SEALs were so effective that the enemy named them, "the men with the green faces." At the war's height, and primarily in the Mekong Delta area, eight SEAL platoons were in Vietnam on a continuing rotational basis. The last SEAL platoon departed Vietnam in 1971 and the last SEAL advisor in 1973.
On 28 October 1965, Robert J. Fay was the first SEAL killed in Vietnam by a mortar round. The first SEAL killed while engaged in active combat was Radarman second-class Billy Machen who was killed in a firefight on 16 August 1966. Machen's body was retrieved with the help of fire support from two helicopters, after the team was ambushed during a daylight patrol. Machen's death was a hard reality for the SEAL teams, and a sign of what was yet to come. Between 1965 and 1972, there were 46 SEALs killed in Vietnam.
The SEAL teams experienced the Vietnam War like no others. Because of the thick jungle environment, combat with the VC was very close and personal. Unlike the conventional warfare methods of firing artillery into a designated location, or dropping bombs from thirty thousand feet, the SEALs operated within inches of their enemy targets. SEALs had to kill at short range and respond without hesitation or be killed. Into the early 70s, the SEALs made great headway with this new style of warfare. Their method of fighting comprised the most effective counter-guerrilla and guerrilla actions of the war. The SEALs in general showed an immense success rate. The U.S. Navy SEALs earned numerous awards and citations, and they became one of the most highly decorated units of the Vietnam War.
On May 1, 1983, all U.S. Navy UDTs were re-designated as U.S. Navy SEAL Teams or Swimmer Delivery Vehicle Teams (SDVT). SDVTs have since been re-designated SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams.
The U.S. Navy SEAL teams are split into two groups, Group ONE is based on the West Coast near San Diego, CA under the Pacific Command, while Group TWO resides on the East Coast at Virginia Beach, VA under the Atlantic Command.
The current U.S. Navy SEAL teams include teams 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 and 10 with SEAL Team 6 being renamed U.S. Navy Development Group or DEVGRU. There are two SEAL Submersible Diving Vehicle units - SDV team 1, and SDV team 2.
I do not have the statistics of all those who have fallen in WWII;. my best efforts start with the Korean War. The Naval Special Warfare community lost two frogmen during the Korean War, 49 Frogmen and SEALs combined during the Vietnam War, 4 SEALs during the Grenada conflict, and 4 SEALs during the Panama conflict. Sadly, as of this writing, a total of 41 SEAL have fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There have been other SEALs and Frogmen who have fallen both in training and in actual operations. As a testament to the degree of realism and operational tempo that all U.S. Navy SEALs must train, the number of Navy SEAL deaths due to non-combat and training accidents outnumber SEAL combat deaths more than two to one.
End of the history lesson... Well, at least for now.