Due to their clandestine nature, few know how the U.S. Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, and Land) became the widely known and feared warriors they are today. This famous cadre grew from humble beginnings on the beaches of Fort Pierce, Florida, to warriors tasked with some of the most high-risk missions known in history. Although not officially designated until 1962, from the beaches of Normandy to the jungles of Vietnam, SEALs have had a direct impact on history. Their quick study of unconventional warfare and guerilla tactics helped them become experts in 20th century combat.
The Vietnam War
President John F. Kennedy sent helicopters and Special Forces to South Vietnam and authorized secret operations against the Viet Cong (VC) guerillas in May 1961. The following year, SEAL Team ONE deployed Chief Petty Officer Robert Sullivan and Chief Petty Officer Charles Raymond to South Vietnam to take initial surveys and prepare to train South Vietnamese in the tactics, techniques and procedures of maritime commandos.
By mid-1968, SEALs carried out both day and night ambushes, reconnaissance patrols and special intelligence collection operations. The VC feared and put bounties on the heads of the “men with green faces” so called because of their face camouflage.
Fifteen U.S. Navy personnel, including three SEALs, received Medals of Honor for gallantry and bravery above and beyond the call of duty during the Vietnam War, including Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael E. Thornton. On his last tour in Vietnam, in Oct. 1972, Thornton saved the life of his senior officer during an intelligence gathering and prisoner capture operation. His small team, including two other SEALs and three South Vietnamese commandos, was discovered by a North Vietnamese Army force and came under heavy fire. During the firefight that followed, he was badly wounded. Thornton ran into enemy fire to retrieve SEAL Lt. Thomas Norris and dragged him to a beach, inflated his life vest, and swam with Norris down a river for two hours before they were rescued by a comrade in a support craft.
SEALs developed hit-and-run air-assault tactics using Army and Navy helicopters. In fact, Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron THREE (HAL-3) — “Seawolves” – was the only rapid reaction armed helicopter squadron ever commissioned in the U.S. Navy. The squadron provided quick reaction close-air support to Navy craft, as well as armed reconnaissance and fire support for the SEALs.
SEALs also supported riverine patrols, which grew into three specialized Navy task forces –Task Force 115 (Coastal Surveillance), Task Force 116 (River Patrol), and Task Force 117 (River Assault) – totaling more than 700 craft and 38,000 men.
By the time they left Vietnam, SEALs had been credited with 600 VC kills, as well as hundreds of captures and detentions. SEALs gained reputations as both fearsome and extraordinary warriors, morphing from a reactive force to elite warfare experts.
• Between 1965 and 1972, 46 SEALs were killed in Vietnam.
Operation Urgent Fury
On Oct. 25, 1983, the U.S. invaded the island-nation of Grenada, located in the Caribbean, hoping to ensure the safety of U.S. citizens and overthrow the hardline communist government.
SEAL Teams FOUR and SIX arrived early to scout the area and conduct pre-assault reconnaissance. They had two major objectives. The first was to rescue Governor General Sir Paul Scoon from house arrest. At H-Hour, 0500, SEAL Team SIX reached the governor general’s house, but was surrounded. The men remained under fire until reinforcements arrived the following day.
Meanwhile, another team attempted to capture the Beauséjour radio station, but security was compromised and the SEALs were initially driven back. They finally destroyed the tower under heavy fire the next day.
SEALs were also responsible for delivering four Air Force combat controllers who would set up radio beacons. Unfortunately, delays resulted in a dark, stormy insertion with low visibility and high waves. One of the transport planes missed the drop zone, and four SEALs were lost off the island’s coast. Their bodies were never recovered, and the mission was scrubbed.
While “Operation Urgent Fury” was technically a success, inter-service rivalry had resulted in poor joint preparation. This led to the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of Oct. 4, 1986, meant to resolve these problems.
Operation Just Cause
The U.S. invaded Panama on the night of Dec. 19, 1989 to execute an arrest warrant against its dictator, President General Manuel Noriega, on charges of drug trafficking. SEALs were tasked with two missions. The first mission was simple – disable a boat Noriega might use to escape.
Their second task was to, disable Noriega’s Learjet at Paitilla Field and hold the airfield until relieved by conventional forces at H+5 hours. As SEAL forces began to infiltrate the southern end of the airfield at 2300, sounds of artillery fire began to fill the air. Four of the nine SEALs were killed in the ensuing firefight.
Chief Engineman Don McFaul realized men were lying wounded in exposed position. He began pulling them to safety. He intentionally laid himself across a shipmate, and was killed by enemy fire. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and Purple Heart Medals. USS McFaul (DDG 74) is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer named in his honor
Surviving SEALs began dragging casualties to safety, and requested that the Learjet be taken out by a rocket.
Although the invasion resulted in many casualties, including SEALs and thousands of Panamanian civilians, under Goldwater-Nichols, the military services had learned to work together. They quickly destroyed the enemy’s ability fight, and on Jan. 3, 1990, Noriega surrendered to U.S. forces and was eventually prosecuted.