September 1985, SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) Team Two, Little Creek, Virginia:
“Amphibious assault was a tactic employed during wartime hundreds maybe even thousands of years before the existence of ballistic submarines, SEAL Delivery Vehicles (SDV) and the Dry Deck Shelter (DDS). Homer described several waterborne assaults in his epic poems The Odyssey and The Iliad. Persian King Xerces (486-465 BCE) lost hundreds of ships to a freak coastal storm in his failed attempt to attack at the heart of Greece, Athens. Not to mention the beat down his massive army received from the warriors of Sparta at the Thermopylae. The Vikings reign of terror on Great Britain through their almost mystical use of waterborne attacks pushed the English to develop a more effective coastal defense and navy.
Modern use of the amphibious assault has had no less an effect on its intended targets than the ancient attackers did. From thousands of Allied soldiers landing on the beaches of northwest France to the sinking of several British flag ships in the port of Alexandria, Egypt by the Italians during World War II, the silent but deadly option still strikes fear into the hearts of mortal men,” Master Chief said.
During high school this type of lecture or monologue would have probably put most in the room to sleep. No one was asleep, but that didn’t stop the class clown from chiming in.
“So Master Chief, yah read much?” Swamp Thing asked. He looked at the rest of us, his face screwed up. We laughed.
Eight of us huddled around an SDV sitting on its trailer, outside one of the garage bays used for maintaining the SDVs. The late summer sun was blazing bright in the Virginia sky. We tried to use the SDV for shade. It wasn’t working out too well. We felt like chickens in a roaster. The trailer was metal so it burned exposed flesh when touched. The concrete grinder felt like you were lying on a pizza stone. Plus we were waiting. Waiting for one of the Advance Operator Training (AOT) cadre to tell us what was going on. The waiting made everything more irritating.
The SDV was broken. During a dive the day before one of us new guys ran it into a wall smashing up the front end. All the SDV’s vitals are located in its nose. We were told it was down hard. Some of us wondered, as did the Cadre, if the wreckage was intentional. The pilot only smiled and the navigator simply shrugged his shoulders. We were all pretty tired of diving anyway so no tears were shed for the SDV.
We’d been baking in the sun for about an hour when Master Chief came over to chat with us. Someone in our group was complaining about being shafted by the detailer… he wanted to be a real SEAL not an SDVer. Master Chief had a few things to teach us about Frogmen.
“As a matter of fact, I do read a lot. If you haven’t noticed there’s a lot of down time around here,” Master Chief replied. We agreed and laughed. He rubbed the back of his sweaty neck, what there was of it, with one meaty paw.
At first glance you wouldn’t take Master Chief for an educated man. He wasn’t in the traditional sense, but he read a lot about the military. He was blue-collar, a knuckle dragger, but he had a passion for the Navy, submarines and being a Frogman. He was undoubtedly smarter than most educated men. He was one of our Sea Daddies, a term used to describe someone who helps new guys learn the ropes in the Navy. Most Sea Daddies in the Teams were mean, ruthless and used the opportunity to screw with the new guys relentlessly. Master Chief was different. He was calm and easy going. Similar to an old likeable grandpa, that was his nickname, it fit.
“So what does all of this amphib assault talk have to do with anything?” Banjo asked.
Master Chief was quiet for a moment. He stared at the ground as if the grinder was talking to him, telling him what to say. A moment later he looked his over and said…
“Well tomorrow you guys are going to get your Tridents. I don’t know if you really know what that means. I am not sure you really understand the significance of the event. Most new guys don’t. You are Frogmen or at least you’re carrying on the Frogmen traditions. You’re the future. The SDVs are here and we’re not going backwards, we must go forwards. The next generations of Frogmen, of SDVers are relying on you to pave the way. The Cold War will end and you will have to figure out what to do next. You will have to be ready for new missions and to develop new tactics. Snowman, Auger and I didn’t wait for someone to tell us what to do. We built the first boats in our garages. We sat around and discussed tactics and strategies. We looked to the future. Do yourselves a favor, be in the moment but don’t lose site of the horizon. That’s what history teaches us.”
“I thought the SDVs were developed ‘cause you guys were lazy and didn’t want to swim anywhere?” Swamp Thing asked. The rest of us realized Swamp Thing was dancing with the devil. Master Chief was still a Team guy, as good-humored as he was he could turn on a dime. We weren’t interested in finding out what that would be like. Everyone moved away a little from Swamp Thing.
“You might be right to some extent. Technology’s all about making things easier right?” Master Chief asked. We all moved back in. “But the SDVs aren’t a new idea; they’re just a better version of the whole mini-sub idea…”
Photo: Author’s private collection taken at the front gate to the Italian Frogman base in Le Spezia
“Yeah, but SDVs don’t have a real mission. I mean we’re kind of waiting around for something to happen, for something that isn’t gonna happen, probably. Yah know what I mean… an SDV op? At the same time real Teams guys are out there in the shit. SDVs weren’t used during Vietnam… or were they even around then,” Banjo interrupted.
“Oh, SDVs were around, but not the way we think of them today. Yah know the thing is, WWII to you guys seems like a thousand years ago. To me, though, it’s the same as Vietnam is to most of you. What I am trying to say is my dad was in WWII, so when we talk about the Italians, the Krauts and the Brits using mini-subs during WWII, it’s recent history to me. I know real Frogmen. I know where SDVs really come from. I know they have a mission, even if it’s one we have to wait around for. And by the way, everyone’s waiting around. The regular Teams are waiting around just as much as we are. Maybe Team Two does some cool winter training up in northern Europe and Team Four’s in the jungles down south hunting down drugs, but they’re still waiting for the real deal. Yah know… an actual no shit war?”
“It’s hard to look to the lessons of the past when you’re young and anxious, I get that. I didn’t have to wait, I was in Vietnam when I was still a kid and I’ve had my time. I can’t promise any of you that you will actually see combat in your time as a SEAL. In many ways I hope you don’t. But SDVs have a long and impressive past. A past that I think is just as impressive as the SEAL Team One is. Especially ‘cause I don’t just look at our past when I think of the successes of SDVs, I think about all mini-subs,” Master Chief said. He took a long drink from his over-sized coffee cup. As he put his cup down he eyeballed each of us. He smiled as if he could see the confusion written all over our faces.
“The Italians,” Master Chief continued, “may not have perfected the technology of the boat during WWII, but they were amazing tacticians. I admire the brains, courage and determination it must have taken to attack Alexandria…”
“The Italians? Weren’t they the bad guys, part of the Axis during WWII? Is this some sort of Sun Tzu stuff, Master Chief?” Squirrel interrupted.
“Kind of, maybe,” Master Chief said. Swamp Thing leaned over to me and asked who Sun Zoo was. I put my finger to my lips and nodded towards Master Chief. “But that’s exactly what I am talking about,” he continued, “it doesn’t matter who did it, bad guy or good guy. If they were successful, you should study them. The Italians were on the bad guy side when they attacked Alexandria, but that makes it no less worthy, maybe more so.”
“The Italian Frogmen, or Incursori… I think they’re called the COMSUBIN now, I forget. At the start WWII they were called the 1st Light Flotilla, that I know for sure. The Italians were the first to use swimmers. That’s what the history books tell us. I am sure there’s unrecorded history of swimmers used long before WWII. In fact, the Italians used some swimmers in 1918. But, during WWII, the Italians used manned torpedoes to take out two British battle ships and severely damage a cruiser (HMS Valiant, HMS Queen Elizabeth, and the HMS Jervis) in the port of Alexandria. The manned torpedoes were exactly as their name implies, they were torpedoes converted to be driven by the Frogmen. The Italians called the boats Pigs. The story I heard was they called them that ‘cause they were such a pain in the ass to maneuver. I am sure that they were but I am not sure that’s why they called them Pigs…”
“Hell, we should call these things Pigs too,” Banjo said, slapping the side of the wounded SDV.
“The Black-Coffin-of-Death sounds better to me,” Swamp Thing said.
“Why don’t you guys shut the hell up and let Master Chief talk,” Glad Bag barked.
“Yeah no shit, this is good stuff,” Squirrel said in support.
“No kidding this is starting to get interesting. You ever hear about this stuff before Swamp Thing?” Glad Bag asked.
“Then shut up and you might learn something. Knowing this stuff might make it easier to spend ten hours in this beast and…” Glad Bag said
“Ok, ok, fine” Swamp Thing interrupted. He took his shirt off, hung it on the SDV and started doing push ups.
Master Chief sat on a metal folding chair in the direct sun. Except for the sweat pouring from his tan skin he looked entirely un-phased by the heat. His face was relaxed. He looked us over laughing to himself. “Kids!” I heard him say under his breath.
“The cool thing about the Italian’s history is it’s kind of like ours. The Teams have never had the greatest reputation. I mean operationally it’s all good. We can get the job done for sure, but there were plenty in the regular Navy who resisted the formation of a special unit to do what we do.
The Italians had the same up hill climb. Even though on several occasions they, the Italian Frogmen had proven themselves invaluable there were still those who were less than happy about it all.
The Light Flotilla leadership kept working on developing the boats as well as working out their tactics even though they met a lot of resistance. At first they would use the Pigs like we do. They would use them to go into and out of the target area. Then they figured out how to leave the boats at the target. This was good for the mother ship, yah know it didn’t have to come in so close. Because in those days the sub had to surface to launch the Pigs…” Master Chief said.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Swamp Thing said. “You mean the Italians would do suicide missions. What the hell…”
Master Chief had everyone’s attention now, especially Swamp Thing. He took another swig from his coffee cup. Swamp Thing stopped his push ups and sat down with his eyes on Master Chief.
“Hey there Master Chief. A little hot out here huh?” One of the AOT Cadre asked as he walked up to our group.
“It’s not that bad,” Master Chief said wiping the back of his neck again.
“Can I steal the guys away from yah? We got some word to put out,” The Cadre said.
“Oh sure, I was just boring them with some Frogman history. It was boring right Swamp Thing?” Master Chief asked.
“No, wait so what happens to the divers, I mean how…” Swamp Thing pleaded.
“I’ll catch up with you guys later and finish the story…”
“Ah man… this is bull shit,” Swamp Thing grumbled.
Swamp Thing continued to complain about the interruption as we followed the Cadre member into the Team building. We were all anxious to hear the rest of the story from Master Chief. Hopefully next time we wouldn’t have to endure the blazing heat, but either way we wanted to hear the rest of the story.
Luckily we wouldn’t have to wait too long.
SPECIAL NOTE: I owe considerable credit to Admiral William H. McRaven’s amazing book Spec Ops, Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice for helping me remember many of the details Master Chief told us about the Italian Frogmen.