Special Operations Forces: The Founding of the SEALs, via UDT Teams Spec Ops Post 2

Just as Special Forces has an ‘official’ lineage and an unofficial one (covered in a later blog), SEALs have an official one and an unofficial one.

On Thursday, I’m going to cover the history of US Special Operations Forces, going all the way back to the French and Indian Wars, but for most of our modern forces we look to World War II and the various special units that were forged under the fierce flames of combat.

For SEALs, several units have bearing:

The Scouts & Raiders were formed in 1942 by the man considered the father of the SEALs, Captain Bucklew.  I’ve visited the SEAL museum in Fort Pierce, Florida, and if you’re in the area, it’s very much worth the time.

Combat Demolition Units were formed and were charged with clearing the beachheads in the American sectors during the Normandy Invasion.

One event, however, really galvanized the need for a unit dedicated to water operations, particularly conducting hydrographic surveys, something I learned about while attending the Royal Danish Navy’s Fromandkorpset Scout Swim School—quite a mouthful.

This event was the invasion of Tarawa.  Excerpted from Who Dares Wins: Special Operations Strategies for Success:

The Marine Corps and Navy in World War II learned the importance of hydropgraphic surveys with blood during the Tarawa Campaign.

In 1943 the United States was going on the offensive in the Pacific.  One of the objectives was the Marshall Islands, which would serve as air bases to further the advance toward Japan.  But before they could take the Marshalls, the Americans had to take the Gilberts, which lay in the way and had one operational air base on Betio, part of the atoll called Tarawa.

The commander of the Japanese forces defending Tarawa, Admiral Shibasaki proclaimed that “a million men cannot take Tarawa in a hundred years,” so confident was he of his defenses.  On an island only a mile long and a few hundred yards wide, he had twenty-six hundred elite Imperial Marines, fourteen coastal defense guns, forty dug-in artillery pieces, and over one hundred well emplaced machineguns with interlocking fields of fire.  The defenders had a four feet high coconut log sea wall covering all approaches to shore.

On the opposite side, the American naval commander (note it was the Navy commander, not the Marine commander) felt equally confident about taking Tarawa:  “We will destroy it.  We will obliterate it.”  This brings to mind one of my team sergeant’s Standing Operating Procedures:  “Nothing is impossible to the man who doesn’t have to do it.”

The admiral has some reason to be confident as the Task Force that approached Tarawa consisted of seventeen aircraft carriers, twelve battleships, and numerous supporting ships along with the 2d Marine Division and part of the Army’s 37th Division, all told about 35,000 fighting men.

At 0215 on 20 November, 1943, the Marines offshore went to General Quarters.  They received their last rites (someone had great, yet depressing foresight) and boarded their landing craft.  At 0505 the naval bombardment of the island began.  It would only pause at times to allow dive bombers to get in their licks.  The landing craft roared toward the lagoon under the cover of this massive fire.

Then things went wrong.  Five hundred yards from shore—five football fields away—the landing craft hit a submerged reef that they could not get over.  At the same time, the defenders on the island let loose with all the weapons listed above.

The marines, God bless them, jumped over the side of their stranded craft and began to wade ashore.  Few in the first wave made it.  Envision what that was like.  No cover.  No concealment.  Advancing with heavy loads through water that in some places was over their heads.  For over five hundred yards.  A running back who gains a hundred yards in a football game is considered to have done something tremendous—but no one’s shooting at him, and he isn’t in water up to his neck and carrying over a hundred pounds worth of gear.  Real heroes.

The massive bombardment had caused few casualties among the Japanese who had hunkered down in bunkers during it and then rushed out to their positions during the brief lull between the end of the shelling and the landing.

It took the Marines four successive waves—with the three follow-on waves still coming despite seeing what had happened to the first wave—before they were able to establish a tentative toe-hold on the island:  they controlled twenty feet inland up to the coconut wall, and a beachhead one hundred yards wide.  Less than the size of a football field.  And the cost in blood was high.  Out of five thousand men in the first four waves, over fifteen hundred were dead or wounded.  In the cold numbers of military science, a casualty percentage that high means a unit has been destroyed and is considered combat ineffective.

But the Marines kept coming and by sheer weight of numbers, and outstanding courage, they began to expand the beachhead.  In the seventy-six hours it took to conquer the tiny atoll of Tarawa over one thousand Americans died and twenty-three hundred were wounded.

Tarawa was costly in blood, but in the long run it saved lives as the Navy and Marines realized they had to change what they were doing.  The Higgins Boats that had been used as landing craft were removed from that task and Amtracs, capable of crawling over reefs such as the one at Tarawa replaced them.  The UDT—Underwater Demolition Teams—the forerunners of the Navy SEALs were formed to find and destroy natural and man-made obstacles before landings took place.

As part of this focus on Spec Ops, I’ve put together three of my favorite thrillers into one book at half the price of buying them separately here in Special Ops.

Coming Thursday: Rogers Rangers and the SOPs every good Ranger carries in his breast pocket over his heart!  And one Saturday, we will cover the organization of the Army Special Forces, including an explanation of why the basic operational unit is called the A-Team.  And who is on the A-Team.

About Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is a NY Times Bestselling author, graduate of West Point, former Green Beret (including commanding an A-Team) and the feeder of two Yellow Labs, most famously Cool Gus. He's had over 60 books published including the #1 series Area 51, Atlantis and The Green Berets. Born in the Bronx, having traveled the world (usually not tourist spots), he now lives peacefully with his wife, and said labs, at Write on the River, TN.

Posted on September 4, 2012, in Who Dares Wins Special Operations, Write It forward and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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