Navy's SEAL program turns 50

Coronado, there from the start, remains the elite community's base

Written by
Jeanette Steele
8:32 p.m., Jan. 13, 2012

The Navy’s SEALs turn 50 this month. President John F. Kennedy, a Navy man himself, would probably be proud.

Created at Kennedy’s behest in 1962 to counter Communist guerrillas in Vietnam, the former World War II frogmen have transformed into one of the U.S. military’s elite forces, doing everything from traditional fighting to stealth missions to taking out pirates.

And while famously tight-lipped, these sea-air-land fighters created a story too big to keep quiet last year: The May night raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Active and retired SEALs are looking back on their history this week.

“From the Mekong Delta to the Hindu Kush, deep at sea or far into the desert, Navy SEALs have proven themselves to be tough, versatile, and successful,” said Rear Adm. Sean Pybus, Naval Special Warfare commanding officer, at a closed-to-the-public ceremony in Coronado Friday.

The force, created out of Navy underwater demolition units, started with two teams, 20 officers and 100 enlisted sailors on Jan. 1, 1962. Coronado was the location of SEAL Team One; Little Creek, Va., was home to Team Two.

Early training photos show men in swim trunks crawling under barbed wire on the beaches of the Silver Strand.

Today, the SEALs run 10 teams from a headquarters at Coronado Naval Amphibious Base and include 600 officers and 1,900 enlisted. They are still in Virginia but also at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

All SEALs do their make-or-break training at the Coronado amphibious base. It's 21 weeks of physical and mental pain called BUD/S, for basic underwater demolition/SEAL.

In 50 years, the small force has included five Medal of Honor recipients.

The last two came posthumously from actions in 2005 and 2006 in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The Navy has since named warships after those two SEALs, Lt. Michael Murphy and Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Monsoor.

Is the Osama bin Laden mission the SEALs’ highest achievement to date? Debatable, say some retired SEAL officers in San Diego.

“It was one target, one op,” said retired Rear Adm. George Worthington, a SEAL who did two Vietnam combat tours and led Naval Special Warfare Command before retiring in 1992.

“They are running 12 such operations a night,” agreed his friend, retired Rear Adm. Cathal “Irish” Flynn, who led SEAL detachments in Vietnam and was the first active-duty SEAL flag officer.

But, Flynn added, while SEAL missions in Vietnam took a heavy toll on the Viet Cong, the strategic impact of bin Laden’s death may be more permanent.

“I don’t think that al-Qaeda is the same organization without Osama bin Laden,” Flynn said. “Taking him out, even if his ability to communicate had been diminished, I think al-Qaeda is considerably less of a threat today that it was a year ago.”

It has been a decade of frequent wartime deployments, with special operations forces especially in demand.

That kind of absence exacts a price on families and personal lives.

The U.S. Special Operations Command has created a task force to address the pressure on its fighters and their loved ones.

“I’ve been harping about that to whomever will listen,” said Worthington, a Chula Vista resident who is working on a U.S. Naval Institute photo book on the SEALs.

“Sons, teenagers, growing up without a father. Guys are on an almost infinite deployment cycle. It’s a concern.”

SEALs, and other special operations forces, will likely be protected in the coming defense budget cutbacks. The Pentagon hinted as much when it unveiled its strategic outline last week.

Not just in Afghanistan, SEALs are working in 30 countries right now, according the Coronado headquarters.

U.S. special operations forces have been under orders since 2006 to grow by 15 percent, which has kept the Coronado BUD/S compound busy.

The SEALs even opened a recruiting arm in late 2005. Historically, more than two-thirds of SEAL hopefuls don’t make it.

Aside from adding personnel, the other solution to deployment wear-and-tear could be fewer missions.

“Lowering the operations tempo, there are trade-offs,” Flynn said. “We can maintain this tempo and have no force in five years. We will have worn people out.”

But, he said, if the Navy cuts back on deployments, what opportunities might that give America’s enemies?

“It requires some exquisite judgment,” the former SEAL said.

Key dates in SEAL history

January 1962: Two Navy Sea Air Land (SEAL) operating teams are established to conduct unconventional warfare and counter-guerrilla operations. SEAL Team One is formed in Coronado, and SEAL Team Two is established at Little Creek, Va. The first SEALs are selected from existing Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT), the “frogmen” responsible for clearing the way for beach landings in World War II and Korea. Almost immediately, SEALs begin acting as advisers in Vietnam.

February 1966-Dec. 7, 1971: SEAL teams conduct direct missions in Vietnam. Three Medals of Honor and seven Navy Crosses are awarded to UDT/SEAL team members for service in that conflict, and 49 UDT/SEALs are killed.

May 1, 1983: The teams drop the UDT designation and are redesignated as SEAL teams or Swimmer Delivery Vehicle Teams (SDVT).

October 1983: A SEAL team infiltrates the capital of Grenada during the U.S. invasion and secures the Government House.

August 1990: SEALs from San Diego are first into Saudi Arabia in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

January 1991: SEALs are involved in combat activities during Operation Desert Storm, including the capture of oil platforms used by Iraqi soldiers as anti-aircraft positions. SEALs also participated in combat operations in Somalia, Haiti and elsewhere in the 1990s.

Oct. 22, 2007: President Bush awards a posthumous Medal of Honor to Lt. Michael P. Murphy, 29, a SEAL from Patchogue, N.Y. Murphy was killed on June 28, 2005, while leading a reconnaissance team in Afghanistan.

April 7, 2008: SEAL Michael Anthony Monsoor is awarded the Medal of Honor. Monsoor, a Coronado-based sailor, threw himself on a grenade in Ramadi, Iraq, Sept. 29, 2006.

April 12, 2009: SEAL snipers kill three Somali pirates and rescue an American cargo-ship captain, ending a five-day standoff.

Feb. 11, 2011: Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus presents the Silver and Bronze stars to Joseph Molina, a Coronado-based SEAL who grew up in Imperial Beach, for his actions in Afghanistan in 2009.

May 2, 2011: SEALs storm a fortified compound in Pakistan and kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

SOURCES:; American Naval History: An Illustrated Chronology of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, 1775-Present by Jack Sweetman; news reports.

Navy's SEAL program turns 50 |