I remember when I was young they were called Frogmen.
The famous force has its roots in WWII
Our readers are probably familiar with the recent ordeal of a dozen Thai children and their soccer coach who were trapped in a flooded cave for 18 days. Their dramatic rescue involved over 1,000 people, including many Thai Navy SEALs, one of whom died during the operations. Most readers might not have been aware that the Thai military had its own Navy SEAL unit, officially called the “Naval Special Warfare Command, Royal Thai Fleet,” let alone that it’s actually 6 years older than American SEALs. Today we’ll celebrate the rescue mission and honor the sacrifice of Thai SEAL Saman Kunan by looking at the World War II origins of the U.S. Navy SEALs, who might be slightly younger but still gave the Thai unit their popular name.
American military diving dates back at least to the Civil War and the Battle of Mobile Bay, when Union soldiers swam ahead of Admiral Farragut’s ships to locate and disable Confederate mines. Naval diving received another boost before World War I, when America’s troubled submarine program saw numerous accidents and necessitated the development of underwater rescue and salvage operations. This investment paid off in spades after Pearl Harbor, when some 20,000 man-hours of underwater work allowed many ships to be recovered and fight again.
The first force that was clearly a precursor of the Navy SEALs was the Amphibious Scouts and Raiders. A joint Army and Navy project launched eight months after Pearl Harbor, their purpose was to identify and reconnoiter the landing beaches in advance of an amphibious force, then direct the landing units to the right spots. “Hell Week,” an important part of modern SEAL training, harks back to the training regime of the Scouts and Raiders. The first Scouts and Raiders unit made its debut in Operation Torch, the landings in Africa, and went on to assist landings in Sicily, Italy, Normandy and Southern France.
A second unit was set up for the Pacific whose tasks also included the handling of early casualties and the clearing of beach obstacles. A third unit was created for a special mission in China but the war ended before they could truly fulfill their task. Their mission was to stay behind enemy lines and organize a joint Chinese-American guerilla force that would strike at the Japanese from rivers and lakes, using steamboats and sampans to get around.
Another ancestor of the SEALs were the Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDU). Formed shortly after the Scouts and Raiders, they were trained in demolitions, cable cutting with explosives and commando raiding techniques. They also debuted during Operation Torch, cutting cables and nets protecting a river, allowing a ground force to travel upstream and capture an airfield. They also proved their mettle on D-Day: on Omaha Beach, the 175 NCDU men suffered a 52% casualty rate but still blew eight gaps in the German defenses. They were also present on Utah Beach and at various Pacific locations throughout the war.
The Maritime Unit of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, employed operational swimmers, who are sometimes considered the World War II force closest to modern SEALs. Their tasks included gathering information, dropping operatives behind enemy lines, rescuing downed airmen and attacking ships with limpet mines. They pioneered such equipment as flexible fins, diving masks, closed-circuit diving equipment and swimmer delivery vehicles, which had originally been invented by the Italians back in World War I.
The last group considered a close ancestor of the SEAL teams were the Underwater Demolitions Teams (UDT). In November 1942, American forces suffered heavy casualties at the Battle of Tarawa, when landing craft ran aground on coral reefs. The task of this new force, originally comprising Seabees and a few Scouts and Raiders, was to avoid similar future fiascos by performing reconnaissance in landing areas and blowing up reefs and other obstacles. At first, UDTs were supposed to wear fatigues and life jackets and stay in their boats during work, similarly to NCDUs. Early experiments, however, revealed that stripping down and getting into the water in daylight hours yielded much more accurate information on obstacles and this method became the force’s standard practice. Seeing action in every major operation of the Pacific, including Guam, Saipan, Tinian, Okinawa and Iwo Jima, the “Naked Warriors” of the UDTs created the popular image of a military diver wearing nothing but swimming trunks, fins and diving masks, wielding a single Ka-bar knife as a weapon.
Almost all UDTs were demobilized after the war but the force experienced a resurgence and saw quite a bit of action in the Korean War. The lessons of the conflict helped further refine the style of warfare that eventually became the specialty of the U.S. Navy SEALS once they were established in 1962.
We would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Saman Kunan and all military divers around the world who risk their lives protecting their country and helping those in peril.