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The Making of a SEAL
Over the past quarter century the art of warfare has changed as it has become apparent that most operations in which the military is involved (Operation Desert Storm excepted) do not require the deployment of large numbers of ships, aircraft, and land armies but of small, efficient forces that can move swiftly and strike precisely. Such affairs as Israel’s Entebbe raid showed how quickly a small force could strike, and such as the failed American raid to rescue hostages in Iran showed why the striking force should be homogeneous and self-contained. To meet this challenge the United States has now developed the Special Warfare Command, representing all three services. The Navy arm is the Naval Special Warfare Command, and its backbone is the fighting team called the Navy SEALs, who can operate on land, sea, and from the air. Two of these attributes they exhibited in Operation Desert Storm. In one operation, with only a handful of swimmers, they gulled the Iraqis into believing that an amphibious action was imminent in the beginning of that war. Their efforts and a few explosions caused the Iraqis to move troops into the beach area, troops who otherwise would have been pitted against the Marines inland. The SEALs also staged a lightning raid into Baghdad during the war, indicative of their land-operating potential.
These successes did not come about by accident. They were the result of what is now fifty years of effort by the Navy to improve its combat capability in special ways, based on experience. This increased capability is developing constantly, as the SEALs hone the sharp edge of their training programs and make use of every new development in warfare, from improved landing craft to improved computers and sophisticated computer programs. As one veteran SEAL at the Special Warfare headquarters in Coronado, California, said, “The new breed of SEALs is smarter and more experienced and all the way around more capable than we were.”
That statement is a proud reminder of the strong bond that exists between these underwater warriors of two generations. SEALs tend to work together and play together, further cementing ties woven during their initial and subsequent training. The older generation, now lieutenant commanders and warrant officers and chief petty officers, are the instructors of the young, retaining the traditions of this very special service and working to improve the standards of performance. It is all very real and all very deadly, for the SEALs are a combat unit, and in every clandestine operation every man’s life is on the line.
The roots of the Navy SEALs lie in the development of amphibious warfare by the U.S. Navy, beginning in 1942. Before that time the Navy did not have any underwater capability except for the helmeted Navy diver, whose tasks were primarily salvage and repair. The Europeans were far ahead in this field, particularly the Italians, whose frogmen accomplished some remarkable feats in the war, crippling several elements of the British fleet with limpet mines at Alexandria and in similar operations elsewhere.
The American amphibious program was designed to meet needs in the Aleutians and at Guadalcanal, but it was so hurriedly constructed that no thought was given to the conditions and problems an amphibious landing force might encounter in the shallow waters just offshore. The Guadalcanal landing was misleading. It was too easy, except on the Tulagi side of the channel; the Marines did not encounter any combat troops at the beginning. The ships came right up to the land, with no reefs or obstructions to bar their way, and began to unload supplies without difficulty. But that was not the pattern that would develop, as the Navy discovered in their next major operation, halfway across the world, in North Africa. There the Navy did find obstructions and did learn that it needed information and the capability of creating suitable conditions for the landing of small craft on an enemy shore.
One of the first, and most famous, of the underwater men was Phillip H. Bucklew. He was a college football player who turned professional before World War II. During the war he became an instructor in the Navy/Marine Corps Scout-Raider School in Florida. Before the North Africa landings, the commanders of the invasion force became concerned about the conditions of the beaches. What kind of beaches were they? What conditions would the landing troops face? Bucklew went into the beach alone, to gather intelligence about landing beaches, and returned with the information and a bucket of sand for the officers to study.
In July 1943 Bucklew led a team of the eleven new frogmen from a submarine onto the Sicilian beach. The team was discovered and attacked by the Germans, but Bucklew led them to the completion of their mission and guided the first waves of troops ashore. He did the same two months later, in the invasion of Italy. For these exploits he won the Navy Cross and a Silver Star. Early in 1944 Bucklew carried out a single-handed reconnaissance of the Normandy beaches. On that mission he was discovered by German soldiers, who surrounded him. He fled into a swamp and lay silent, concealed, until the Germans gave up searching and went away.
When the invasion came, Bucklew went in with the troops and won a second Navy Cross for valor under fire. Toward the end of World War II, Bucklew carried out a long reconnaissance mission of the South China coast, north of Hong Kong, to find the answers to questions about the Japanese defenses and the beaches. At this point Adm. Ernest J. King was proposing an invasion of China before the invasion of Japan. Bucklew, disguised as a coolie, traveled four hundred miles with a band of Chinese guerrillas. At one point he evaded a Japanese Army patrol by hiding in a haystack. He was the epitome of the underwater hero and was so recognized within that special group of men to which he belonged. In 1987, when the Naval Special Warfare Command was established at the amphibious base in Coronado, it was dedicated to him, and his shadow still hovers above the training schools located there.
Training of SEALs is a compendium of all that has been learned in the past, from the days of Draper Kauffman and the original demolition training program at Fort Pierce, Florida, where many of the concepts were born. The most spectacular of these is Hell Week, the culmination of the basic training of a SEAL or Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) man. The program called BUD/S means Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL. It goes back to those early days, when Draper Kauffman conceived of the idea that a man could put forth ten times as much physical effort as he thought he could if he had the proper training, indoctrination, and spirit. Spirit is one of the aspects of SEAL training not talked about much, but it is the essence of the whole organization. Most of the men who drop out of the program (and this has been as much as 90 percent of a class) leave because they change their minds about their aspirations, or lose heart to face the challenges of the training program. This change can occur at any point along the way in the program, but most often during Hell Week, that week of applied torture testing the physical strength of the SEAL candidates, but above all, their spirit.
BUD/S has evolved to be the most difficult course offered within the U.S. military forces, and the SEALs and the UDT men are proud of that fact. The BUD/S class number is an important matter to all of them, and endless hours are spent in scuttlebutt about the rigors of the training program and the personal characteristics of the instructors.
The BUD/S training center is built around a courtyard in the center and on the ocean side of the Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado. On the outside, fronting on Highway 75, is the headquarters of Naval Special Warfare, or the quarterdeck, as the SEALs call it. This is the Phillip H. Bucklew Building. Above the door to the training quadrangle hangs a plaque embellished with two carved wooden seals, one diving and one standing, with the legend “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” This is one of the mementos—each class has given at least one—that the classes have left the school since the SEALs were established. They include a statue of a creature that is part frog and part man, and a wheel of misfortune, which is divided into sections showing the various hardships a SEAL aspirant must undergo. One sign on the building says, “The only easy day was yesterday.” All these are symbolic of the intention of SEALs training, which is to stretch each man’s capabilities to the limit, relax the pressure for a little, then to stretch them again.
Much of that stretching goes on in the courtyard here, which is known as “The Grinder.” At one corner of The Grinder stands the post that holds the brass “quitting bell.” Any SEAL candidate who feels that he has reached the limit of his endurance and cannot take any more is free at any time to ring the bell. Lying on the ground next to the bell is a line of helmets from the trainees of the particular class in progress who have quit in midstream. In Hell Week, the line of helmets grows longer and longer.
The high rate of dropout is a matter of concern to the SEALs and the Navy, but it is one of the built-in hazards of the program. A man has to be highly motivated to want to become a SEAL, and his motivation must be stern and lasting. As the old SEALs say, the emphasis in BUD/S training is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. They say that any man could get through one day of training. But twenty-six weeks of it, day after day, is another matter, and the weak of heart drop out. Those who survive know that they are the ones who can be counted on in moments of crisis and that every other survivor of their class has those same attributes. That is one of the psychological factors of becoming and being a SEAL.
The nature of the training changes them, and they are never the same again.
The training does not avoid any physical challenge to which the SEALs might someday have to respond.