You Can't Beat Them: The Origins of the Legendary Navy SEALs

Warfare History Network

Key point: The precursors to the SEALs filled a special operations hole that Washington discovered during World War II.

Today’s Navy SEALs (for Sea, Air, and Land special warfare experts) have a history shrouded in secrecy. Commissioned in 1962, they are the most elite shore-area Special Forces in the world, concentrating on very select and often-clandestine intelligence gathering and precision strike missions. For over 50 years it was assumed that the origin of the Navy SEALs was the Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs) and Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) of World War II. In reality, the Navy’s special warfare activity started in August 1942 with the Amphibious Scouts and Raiders.

The need for U.S. amphibious capabilities arose in the late 1930s when the U.S. military began to anticipate large-scale amphibious landings in Europe. With little experience in this area, the military initiated a series of practice operations to assess the feasibility of such landings. In 1941 they formed a Joint Training Force staffed by the three services—Army, Navy, and Marines. In March 1942, the JTF established an Amphibious Boat School at Solomons, Md., to train crews as small craft operators. Because participants had to be physically fit, planners looked for persons with athletic backgrounds. All had played college or professional sports, mostly football. The group was headed by boxer Gene Tunney and became known as “Tunney Fish.”

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As their experience improved and landings seemed achievable, planners realized that for amphibious warfare to be successful, attackers would need all possible information about the beach-landing objectives, submerged obstacles, hydrographics, and the regions just inland from the beaches. An Intelligence Section set up under the JTF was given the job of developing an amphibious reconnaissance capability, with its first mission to be in North Africa.

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