Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Look Back At The History of The U.S. Navy SEALs: My Piece On The Warriors Who Are At The Tip Of The Spear In The War On Terror

My piece on the history of the U.S. Navy SEALs appears in the current issue of The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International.

You can read the magazine pages below or the below text: 

A Look Back at the History of the U.S. Navy SEALs

By Paul Davis

Despite the widespread attention paid to the Navy SEALs (Sea, Air and Land) since they killed Osama bin Laden, the story of how these clandestine warriors evolved in response to changing threats - from WWII to the War on Terror - and how their extraordinary abilities shaped U.S. and world history, has remained untold,” PBS said in announcing the TV special. 

“Few people know the unheralded tales of the first frogmen who dared to face almost certain death with little training, scant equipment and untested tactics.” 

PBS went on to state that the documentary, narrated by actor Gary Sinise, “recounts the ticking-clock missions of the “Commandos of the Deep” through firsthand accounts - including that of a D-Day demolition team member - and through never-before-seen footage, home movies and personal mementoes. Admirals, master chiefs, clandestine operators, demolitioneers and snipers all reveal how the U.S. Navy morphed into the SEALs.” 

“The SEALs’ history has never truly been told before,” said documentary film maker Carol L. Fleisher, the producer of the PBS special. “This is the first time that Naval Special Warfare has assisted with the research of a documentary about the Teams and their forefathers.” Dick Couch, a former Navy SEAL, Vietnam veteran and author of several nonfiction books about the SEALs, as well as several thrillers that feature SEALs, served as a consultant on the PBS series and coauthored the companion book, also called Navy SEALs: Their Untold Story. 

Couch said that there were a good number of facts unknown to him prior to his involvement in the TV special and the book. “In several of my books I’ve gone into a brief history of the Navy SEALs, UDT, and all that type of thing, but very superficially” Couch said. “So it was very interesting for me to learn in depth about some of the characters who had come before me and some of them who came after me, and what they did and how they did it.” 

Couch said he came away with not only a better understanding, but also a bit more admiration for the SEALs. “These guys are tremendous innovators,” Couch said. “From the early days, right up until the present. Flexibility and ingenuity are things that have driven the organization and still drive the organization.” 

William Doyle, the co-producer of the PBS special and co-author of the companion book, said that like many other people, he became fascinated with the Navy SEALs in the wake of the bin Laden raid. “As a writer, I was also intrigued to discover that there was no complete account of their history from World War II through today in book form and that many of their greatest stories had not been fully told,” Doyle said. “I wrote the book so I could learn their history by interviewing the SEALs themselves. I had a feeling that these stories would make for thrilling reading.” 

Doyle said that the SEALs have a reputation as near-supermen, but he wanted to learn about their difficulties and failures in order to get a deeper understanding of who they are as human beings. “Carol Fleisher is a gifted, highly respected filmmaker with a passion for great non-fiction storytelling, and wonderful to work with. The SEALs we interviewed loved talking to her, too. One of them told me, “You tell that woman I’m putting her in my will,” Doyle said. 

Doyle noted that they had two critical sources. One was their original interviews with more than 100 SEALs and Naval Combat Demolition Unit (NCDU) and Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) members (their WW2 and Korea predecessors). The second critical source was thousands of pages of declassified files made available to the producers by the Naval Special Warfare Command. 

“We also consulted the work of other authors, journalists and historians,” Doyle said. “We interviewed an NCDU demolitioneer who was one of the first men on Omaha Beach on D-Day; a UDT member who conducted a hair-raising, mine recovery operation off the waters of North Korea; a SEAL who was loaned to the CIA for a secret attack on Cuba in 1962; the first commander of SEAL Team One; two Vietnam Medal of Honor winners; and SEAL combat veterans of Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of these stories were never told before.” 

“One of the most startling pieces of information we uncovered was the fact that in the first year of their existence, a team of SEALs was secretly transferred to the CIA, stationed in Florida, and tasked with training teams of Cuban frogmen and saboteurs to attack targets in Cuba, as part of the Kennedy administration’s anti-Castro Operation Mongoose program and related operations,” Doyle said. “We tell the story in our book for the first time of how one of those SEALs accompanied the Cubans on an operation that blew up Soviet missile-patrol-boats in the harbor at the Isle of Pines, Cuba.” 

Doyle said that one of his favorite moments in the book recalled the day in 2010 when Admiral William McRaven, the SEAL who oversaw the bin Laden raid, appeared at the door of an Afghan farmer whose sons were among five civilians accidentally killed during a raid by his men. “Sir, you and I are very different,” Doyle recounts Admiral McRaven saying to the farmer. “You are a family man with many children and many friends. I am a soldier. I have spent most of my career overseas away from my family. But I have children as well, and my heart grieves for you. But we have one thing in common. We have the same God. He is a God who shows great love and compassion. I pray today that He will show mercy on me and my men for this awful tragedy.” 

“Politicians love to talk about “American exceptionalism,” but when I see it in action, I feel especially proud to be an American,” Doyle said. Doyle said that most SEALs rarely talk to outsiders about their operations, so they first contacted the U.S. Navy’s Special Warfare Command and asked for their help and asked if the command would give the project a security review. Once they had the help of the command, they were able to talk to a good number of SEALs. 

Doyle said their book was also reviewed and cleared by the Pentagon and the CIA, adding that although there is nothing classified in the book, there is much history that will be new to a great many readers. “Dick Couch was a critical piece of our being able to tell the story,” Doyle said. “He is a former SEAL with Vietnam combat experience, and one of the most respected writers on the history of American special operations. His name opened a lot of doors for us in the SEAL community, and he had a big hand in the actual writing of the book.” 

Couch spoke of the SEALs’ forbearers, the Underwater Demolition Teams. “There was a need for reconnaissance before we put people ashore in WWII,” Couch explained. “This really came into focus during the battle for Tarawa, where we started this long march across the Pacific island-hopping campaign. We suffered horrible casualties at Tarawa because we lacked knowledge of the hydrographic conditions off shore and of the obstacles placed on the beach by the enemy. We quickly needed guys who could go ashore and find out what was there and at some future point, before the Marines went ashore, go back in ahead of them and blow up those obstacles. That is where the UDTs came into being and they ran in front of almost every major amphibious operation across the Pacific.” 

Couch said that the UDT in the Korean War were tasked with going ashore and conducting raids along the coast, placing demolitions and destroying rail lines and other targets. “Except for the landings at Inchon and disabling Soviet mines, the UDT function was small,’ Couch said. “But it was the first time the UDT came out of the water, crossed the beach, and undertook inland targets as part of their mission.” 

Couch said that early in the Vietnam War it was determined that there was a need for an unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency capability. So in 1962 the SEALs came into being with SEAL One on the West Coast and SEAL Two on the East Coast. “They just came of age, got funded and staffed and commissioned as entities and Vietnam was standing right there in front of them,” Couch said. Couch said that the SEALs trained the South Vietnamese SEALs and also participated in the Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRU) program. This was a CIA sponsored program and the intelligence agency used Marine Recon, Army Special Forces and SEAL advisors. 

“This was probably the most effective unit of all special operations deployed during that conflict,” Couch said. “Declassified North Vietnamese documents show that the PRUs were hurting them bad. The guys who lived with those PRUs and went out and fought with them--they were a special bred of fellas.” 

Couch also spoke of the SEALs’ involvement in the Grenada and Panama conflicts. “These things would come up and would have to planned and executed very quickly,” Couch said. “Both Grenada and Panama, and certainly the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission, surfaced the need that we must have an on-call, standing, responsive and effective small unit capability that on very short notice can go places and do things.” Couch also said that the unit also had to be integrated with their support components and communications. “So when the U.S. Special Operations Command was commissioned in 1986, it essentially became a 5th service,” Couch said. “You had the Army, Navy, Marine Corp and Air Force, and then you had the Special Operations Command.” “They cut their teeth on some of these missions. They were not the well-oiled, smooth-functioning organizations that served in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

In Grenada they had some great difficulties and there were some very expensive lessons learned in these small, but vicious confrontations.” In Couch’s opinion, the well-publicized rescue operation of Captain Philips from Somali pirates, was relatively easy for the SEALs. “The whole thing was getting to the job site. You had guys that quickly went half way around the world, parachuted into the ocean, got in their boats and drove over to the U.S. Navy ship. They went aboard, got set up, and did what had to be done.” “And there was a tight time frame on this,” Couch added. “I admire the commanding officer of the destroyer the SEALs were on, because it was on his authority that the SEALs pulled the trigger on the pirates. It was a gutsy decision.” 

Regarding the most famous SEAL action - the bin Laden operation - Couch said that the raid was one of about seven special operations that took place that night. “The bin Laden operation was only special in the target, and that made it very special,” Couch said. “They went a long way into a foreign country, but the takedown of the compound was rather routine for this quality organization.” 

When asked about the two former SEALs who have spoken out about the bin Laden raid, Couch said there were two issues on the table. “One is the legal issue, and I think they may have stepped over their legal bounds,” Couch said. “But the second is the moral issue, and that’s where they really violated their moral obligation to their teammates. What they did on that operation, or on any operation, is team-centric. The analysts, intelligence collectors, aviation support, and combat support all go into getting the SEALs on target. Then there is the teamwork on target.” 

“In my opinion it is unconscionable that they should step out for what I see as vanity and money. To cash in on this while their brothers are still overseas in combat rotation fighting, is to me, very disappointing.” Couch noted that SEALs execute basic infantry tactics to a very refined level. They are not supermen, he said, and they are not super athletes. 

“The SEALs have been afforded a tremendous amount of training and they have the best equipment in the world. They say amateurs do things over and over until they get it right, and professionals, like these SEALs, do things over and over until they just can’t get it wrong.” 

Doyle said the most gratifying response they received after the airing of the special was from the SEALs themselves. “I was at a screening of the film at PBS headquarters in Washington, DC, sitting next to a Vietnam-era SEAL commander named Maynard Weyers, who led an operation during which the first SEAL died in the Vietnam War, a man named Billy Machen,” Doyle said. 

 “In our film, there is a moment when Maynard tears up and is visibly emotional at the memory of Mr. Machen, and I was very concerned that he didn’t object to the way we handled it. After the film, I asked Maynard what he thought. He smiled, gave me a thumbs up, and said, “you got it exactly right.” “That made me feel good.” 

The PBS special can be viewed at 

Paul Davis, a Navy veteran who served on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, is a contributing editor to this Journal. His late father, Edward M. Davis, was a UDT frogman in WWII.

Note: I interviewed former Navy SEAL Dick Couch (seen in the below photo) and William Doyle (seen in the color photo below), the co-authors of the companion book to the PBS series on the Navy SEALs.

My late father, Edward M.Davis (seen in the center of the below photo), was a Navy chief and UDT frogman in WWII.

You can read my piece on the Navy's UDT frogmen in WWII and how they influenced the modern Navy SEALs via the below link:

You can click on the above photos to enlarge.