Secret Navy SEAL Missions
This was a CIA led covert operation to remove Fidel Castro and his Communist regime from power in Cuba in 1959. In the spring of 1962 the SEALs were used to conduct beach landing reconnaissance to identify places where the invading Marine force could land. While the CIA operation would lead to the disaster in the, “Bay of Pigs”, the SEALs were establishing themselves as a very effective amphibious Special Operations Force.
CIA’s Phoenix Program
SEAL Teams 1 & 2 carried out numerous direct action and gorilla warfare missions during Vietnam and had an amazing win rate with very little casualties and a 200:1 kill ratio.
The unit also participated in the CIA’s “Phoenix” assassination program with great success.
There were usually up to 5 active SEAL platoons in Vietnam, each platoon consisting of around twelve operators. Some were farmed out to the Phoenix program separately.
Famously the SEALs adopted a brutal mix tape of unconventional warfare. Often swapping out combat pants for Levis because they were quieter when wet. They would often snatch or kill a high value target out of their bunk in the middle of the night, unseen by the enemy.
The north Vietnamese called them, “Men with Green Faces” and were terrified at the idea of the SEALs paying a nighttime visit.
Nha Trang High Value Target Mission & the Medal of Honor
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a SEAL team leader during action against enemy aggressor (Viet Cong) forces.
Bob Kerrey entered Naval Special Warfare after completing Officer Candidate School in 1967. He went thru and successfully completed Basic Underwater Demolition/Sea, Air, Land (BUD/S) training with class 42 in 1968.
Kerrey volunteered to be assigned to SEAL Team One which was in the Republic of Vietnam. After pre-deployment training, he was assigned to Vietnam as an assistant platoon commander with Delta Platoon, SEAL Team ONE in January 1969.
On March 14, 1969, he was assigned to a mission to Hon Tre Island off of Nha Trang to capture a high-value target which was Viet Cong cadre. It was during this action that Kerrey and the SEALs would have to scale a 350-foot cliff to get to a position above the enemy village to achieve their mission.
While assaulting down the hill into the village under heavy fire, a Vietnamese grenade exploded right at his feet, severely injuring his lower body and hurling him backward. Despite his painful wounds, he directed his men, split into two teams into neutralizing the enemy’s fire. He then directed his men to secure and defend an extraction site despite being immobilized by his wounds which were severe.
The Viet Cong POWs captured were instrumental in the extraction of intelligence for the war effort. Eventually, he and the SEAL team were extracted back to their base. Kerrey’s wound resulted in the loss of the lower part of his leg.
On May 14, 1970, President Richard Nixon, awarded Kerrey the Medal of Honor at the White House.
Read Next: SEAL Team Six Blended Operations in Africa
Bob’s Medal of Honor Citation can be read here.
Urgent Fury Grenada
Fast forward through history and it’s the 1980s. SEAL Team 6 has been formed with Dick Marcinko as its first Commander. Grenada would be there first operational mission alongside SEAL Team 4.
Grenada is a tiny island state near the northeastern tip of South America had fallen into the hands of a Communist regime and the CIA had concerns that the island would be used to funnel weapons into South America and into the hands of Communist insurgents.
Similar to the “Bay of Pigs”, the CIA and Army intelligence on the mission was very weak and comprised of old magazine articles and tourist guides for the island.
The SEALs would lead an advanced party to gather intelligence but the CIA didn’t plan for daylight savings and what was supposed to be a day time water parachute operation that led to a nighttime over the beach operation turned disastrous. The parachute drop over water was at night and the Air Force dropped several SEALs in the wrong location. Four SEALs would perish in the water but the mission would go on and two days later 20,000 American troops invaded. Delta Force, Army’s 82nd Airborne, Marines, and the SEALs (6 and Team 4) all carved up the mission profile under the Command of Vice Admiral Metcalf.
The SEALs mission was to extract the Governor-General Paul Scoon and Team Four would capture the islands radio tower.
During the invasion, the SEALs split into two groups and proceeded to their objectives. After setting up at the Governor’s mansion, the SEALs realized that their satellite communications equipment was still on their insertion helicopter. As Grenadian and Cuban troops began surrounding the men, the SEALs’ only radio ran out of battery power. They were forced to improvise, and used the mansion’s land line telephone to call their headquarters to direct AC-130 aircraft fire support on the approaching enemy. The SEALs maintained position in the mansion overnight and extracted the following morning, when they were relieved by a group of Force Recon Marines.
SEALs attacking the radio station also ran into communication problems. As soon as they reached the radio tower they found themselves unable to raise their command group. After beating back several waves of Grenadian and Cuban troops, the SEALs decided that their position was too untenable. They destroyed the station and fought their way to the water, where they hid from patrolling enemy forces. They swam toward the open sea, and were picked up several hours later after being spotted by a reconnaissance plane.
SEALs performed exceptionally during pre-assault reconnaissance operations and were responsible for the rescue and evacuation of Governor Sir Paul Scoon during Operation Urgent Fury. For the most part Grenada was a failure in leadership and communications; however, they were failures that the SEALs could learn from.
SEALs killed in Grenada, but not forgotten: Machinist Mate 1st Kenneth J. Butcher, Quartermaster 1st Kevin E. Lundberg, Hull Technician 1st Stephen L. Morris, and Senior Chief Engineman Robert R. Schamberger. Visit the Navy SEAL Memorial where these heroes are forever honored. -Courtesy the UDT/SEAL Museum.
Operation Just Cause, Panama
I remember stopping by my platoon Chief’s house when he was cleaning out his garage in Point Loma, California and noticing this stainless steel boat wheel.
“What’s that for?”, I asked Chief Dye.
“That old thing? That’s from Noriega’s boat we blew up.”, he said with a grin.
Dye’s dive pair had used Dräger rebreathers and planted a large satchel of explosives to his boat and blew it to bits. It’s one of the few combat swimmer missions in the SEAL Teams outside of the SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams who routinely piggy back on navy submarines for clandestine undersea operations.
On the night of 19 December 1989 the United States invaded Panama. During the invasion, U.S. Navy SEALs were tasked with two missions: (1) disable a boat in which President General Manuel Noriega might use to escape; and, (2) disable Noriega’s Learjet at Patilla Field – to also prevent him from escaping. The boat attack went well – it was indeed “disabled.” In typical SEAL fashion; however, so many explosives were placed under the hull that one engine was never found!
The airfield raid succeeded; however, sadly four exceptional SEALs were killed and eight seriously wounded.
As a part of Operation JUST CAUSE, three SEAL Platoons were deployed on a mission to deny use of Panama’s Punta Paitilla Airfield to General Noriega and key Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) personnel. The SEALs were assigned to disable General Noriega’s personal Learjet and other selected aircraft, and to hold the airfield until relieved by conventional forces at H+5 hours (“H” hour was the established time when all coordinated military operation would begin).
As nightfall settled over Panama the SEALs deployed using support craft from Special Boat Unit 26 and Zodiac F-470 combat rubber raiding craft. They began infiltration at the southern end of the airfield at 2315 (11:00 p.m.). As the force clandestinely moved ashore, sounds of artillery fire began to fill the air from battles unfolding in and around Panama City.
The platoons continued with all possible speed to reach the PDF hangars on the northwestern side of the runway. At that point the SEALs had determined that General Noriega’s jet had been moved into one of the hangars. The two squads took up position the within 100 feet of the hangar, when they received several long bursts of fire.
In the initial volley, eight of the nine SEALs were wounded. House guards across the airfield also began to fire upon their position; putting them in a deadly cross-fire. Several SEALs were now dead, and those that weren’t were having a hard time dealing with wounds and getting out of their heavy man-packed equipment.
ENC (SEAL) Don McFaul came to realize that the men from one squad were not responding to orders and were, in fact, all lying wounded in exposed positions; most barely able to operate their weapons. McFaul immediately responded to help the numerous wounded. As he urgently began pulling fellow SEALs to safety, he was himself hit and mortally wounded by enemy automatic weapons fire. Surviving SEALs began dragging casualties away, several becoming casualties themselves in the process. An order was given for the Learjet to be taken out by rocket, which hit the aircraft cleanly, destroying any chance of it being used to escape. -Courtesy the UDT/SEAL Museum.
Operation Desert Shield
Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, continued to show aggression towards his neighbor, the small country of Kuwait. He owed Saudi Arabia and Kuwait billions of dollars in loans from fighting a war with Iran for most of the 1980s.
Similar to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, Saddam laid claim to Kuwait, and stated it was originally part of Iraq and in August, 1990 he invaded the small country. The US and United Nations intervened and the SEALs would find themselves supporting a large conventional war.
Years later SEAL Teams would be at the center of the Global War on Terror, finding the tables turned as large conventional units would support the SEALs and Special Operations unit as the nature of modern warfare shifted to Special Ops centric warfare.
SEALs conducted multiple recon missions to gather intelligence on potential bombing targets behind enemy lines as well as occupying offshore oil drilling platforms to prevent Saddam Hussein from lighting them on fire.
During the invasion the SEALs suffered zero casualties displaying their effectiveness in and out of the water.
Operation Gothic Serpent, Somalia, and the Horn of Africa
Somalia, once a protectorate of Great Britain and Italy, was declared an independent nation in 1960.
In 1969 the military took control of the country in a coup and assassinated the countries President and fell into civil war.
The country fell into chaos and many turned to seaborne piracy and the situation escalated into a humanitarian disaster and in August, 1992 President Bush authorized a relief mission “Operation Provide Relief”.
When this failed to provide any meaningful relief to the situation Bush authorized the military to restore order and allow stability for the relief mission.
The SEALs were some of the first into the country since naval ships carrying the commandos were just off the coast of Somalia.
Sniper Teams conducted reconnaissance operations to monitor various Warlord factions, the largest controlled by Mohamed Farrah.
Master Chief (at the time a junior petty officer) Jason Gardner had several confirmed kills as a sniper using a .50 caliber sniper rifle.
“Only a few men could make that shot (over 1000 yards) and it wasn’t me. I missed and took off his bad guy friend out.”, Gardner said.
By 1993 tensions were boiling over and on October 3rd Task Force Ranger conducted an operation in Mogadishu to locate foreign minister Omar Salad Elmi.
The mission went terribly wrong and as featured in the hit movie, Black Hawk Down.
Fortunately there were no SEAL fatalities despite several being injured including, SEAL Chief John Gay, who was struck in the leg by a bullet.
A decade later SEALs, mostly from SEAL TEAM 3, would find themselves enforcing UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s oil smuggling operations. SEALs would board the oil smugglers at night and force the ships to dock in the United Arab Emirates.
Then the USS Cole was bombed and almost sunk by two terrorists in a make-shift boat.
Navy SEAL sniper Brandon Webb recounts.
We were there in Bahrain to conduct some training exercises with the neighboring
Saudis. As an unofficial rule, we don’t train these guys in the Middle East too thoroughly. I mean, we’re there to help—but at the same time, when the sun comes up tomorrow in that part of the world, you never know for sure who’s going to be arrayed against you. After a few days we got back out onto the Duluth and into the Gulf, where we planned to spend a few days engaged in ship-boarding training exercises.
That’s when we got the call about the attack on the USS Cole.
To much of the world, September 11, 2001, was and still is “the day everything changed,” and it’s easy to understand why. In the summer of 2001 the public’s attention in the United States was focused largely on the debate over stem cell research and the latest political scandal about whichever congressman had been most recently caught with his zipper down. (In case you’re wondering, it was California Democrat Gary Condit.) The reality of war was mostly a fading memory, the topic of nostalgia. Stephen Spielberg’s made-for-TV World War II epic Band of Brothers had just premiered on HBO, on Sunday, September 9.
It had been a decade since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was over, a new century had begun, and it was easy to be lulled into a sense that the kinds of global conflicts that had convulsed the twentieth century were already archaic relics of a distant past. We had left behind a world defined by the opposition of two vast global forces, Western capitalism and Eastern communism. But we hadn’t yet come to grips with what came next. For most of the world, what came next was suddenly, starkly defined that sunny, clear-sky New York morning in the fall of 2001.
Not for me. For me, it came eleven months earlier, on October 12, 2000.
Going into that fall, there was no significant conflict for our military forces to focus on. Still, the whole Mideast region was a political and military tinderbox that always loomed in the background. At the time, SEAL Team Three was involved in reinforcing United Nations sanctions against Iraq, and Saddam was smuggling out an awful lot of oil. We were expecting to participate in policing the area, which would mean doing a significant number of ship boardings on noncompliant vessels. The Iraqis would send these tankers out onto the Gulf to make a run for Iranian waters, where American and other NATO personnel could not legally pursue. Our job would be to catch up with them and intercept them while they ran that brief gauntlet through the narrow international shipping lanes.
This was a mission we were hoping to rotate in on. We had just gotten back on the Duluth and were mobilizing to get our equipment and go participate in that ship-boarding detail when we suddenly got word that an American destroyer, the USS Cole, had been hit in the nearby Gulf of Aden just off the coast of Yemen, and hit bad.
That morning, the Cole had put in at about 9:30 local time for a routine refueling stop. By 10:30 refueling had commenced. At 11:18 a small craft loaded with about a quarter ton of homemade explosives and manned by two individuals approached the ship’s port side and made contact. The explosion killed seventeen sailors and injured thirty-nine others, putting a 40′ x 40′ hole in the hull in the process.
Wait—what? Two guys in a speed boat?! How the hell had that happened?
We took off and were on-site within shooting distance of the Yemeni coast within
eight hours, putting our fast boats over the side. The marines had an outfit in Bahrain they called the Fast Company, and they earned their nickname: they were on the scene a few hours ahead of us and had already established a security command post on the injured Cole by the time we arrived. We immediately set up a 500-meter perimeter incorporating both the pier and the surrounding water. We were also directed to set up a sniper team on the bridge of the ship itself to monitor the situation, glassing the entire perimeter constantly to ensure that no other bad actors got into the mix.
This was where Glen and I came in. We set up two teams to rotate on round-the-clock sniper watch, twelve hours on and twelve off. We had a .50 caliber sniper rifle and four LAW rockets on the bridge. Our task was to protect both the ship and the rest of the crew while repair and containment efforts were under way.
It was a tense situation. Our relationship with Yemen was not great, and there was a powerful current of anti-American sentiment in the little country. Standing there on the bridge of the crippled destroyer, we were acutely aware of all the nearby Yemeni weapons that were trained on us. It had the anxious, volatile feeling of a standoff. Our orders were simple: Anything or anyone who breaches our perimeter, take them out.
Although no outright hostilities broke out, the perimeter was in fact tested a few times. Each time we saw a vessel encroaching on our perimeter we radioed the guys in the boats: “Hey, I’ve got someone coming in close at ten o’clock. It doesn’t look serious, but they’re on the fence.”
Meanwhile, crews were furiously at work pumping bilge out of that gaping hole in the Cole’s flank. It was a constant battle just to keep the vessel afloat, and for a while there it was touch and go. We nearly watched that destroyer sink.
It was a nasty scene. The suicide bombers had rammed the ship right where the galley is located, and just at the time of day when a large numbers of sailors were lining up for lunch. The carnage was awful. It was now nearly twelve hours since the explosion, and in the unbearably humid Middle Eastern heat we had both dead bodies and all the food in the ship’s hold decomposing rapidly. The stench was unbearable, and the trauma among the living compounded the nightmarish quality of the whole scene. When we first arrived, the guys who greeted us all sported the famous thousand-yard stare that reflects an intimacy with the horrors of combat casualties. Now night had fallen, and much of the crew had set up to sleep in cots out on the deck in what looked like a shantytown of shell- shocked catastrophe survivors—which was exactly what it was.
I talked with a few of the survivors to try to find out exactly what had happened, and how this absurdly low-tech assault had penetrated the Cole’s security in the first place. The answer, in essence, was “Security? What security?”
When they described the makeup and details of their security posture, I was appalled. The lack of preparedness was ludicrous. Here we were, docked just off the coast of a hostile nation with an openly anti-American sentiment that included a history of kidnappings and sponsorship of terrorism—and as protection they’d set up a few guys to stand on the ship’s rail with M-14s. These soldiers had had no training on the M-14, and,
in fact, did not even know what kind of rifle it was they were holding. And to top it off, there were no bullets in their magazines. I need to repeat that last point. They were protecting a billion-dollar vessel by standing on its deck brandishing weapons they were not familiar with—and that were not loaded. Really? What, as if the sheer appearance of force would be sufficient deterrent to any potential aggression?
As I soon learned, this was not an exceptional situation; it was widespread. For all intents and purposes, it was standard. At least it had been up until now. After the Cole was hit, things changed fast. Soon the military was making it mandatory for at least 30 percent of every ship’s crew to be actually trained in force protection, as opposed to the previous requirement, which was 0 percent.
It’s easy (and, frankly, justified) to jump all over the Clinton administration for this lax condition, but at the same time it’s also important to see the bigger picture. In a sense, this was part of a cycle that had gone on for decades—hell, for centuries. We had our forces in a high-security posture right after World War II, and then again after Korea, and then again after Vietnam. In the years between, our sense of urgency would fade every time, and as a nation we would gradually be lulled into a false sense of security. Then all of a sudden something would go bam! and military readiness would once again become relevant.
Incredibly, earlier that year there had been a failed attempt on another U.S. vessel in the very same port. The would-be attackers had even used a similar crappy little boat and made a similar run up to one of our ships as it pulled into port, but in that instance their explosive-laden boat had sunk before they could consummate their deadly rendezvous. We had been lucky—but we had also been warned. So what happened? The incident was treated like so much background noise in the larger picture of global intelligence and sloughed off. Now we had paid for our complacency with seventeen American lives, thirty-nine more injured, and hundreds of million dollars’ worth of damage.
I’ve mentioned a number of times how fanatical about training we are in the teams. It’s not really fanaticism, though, it’s realism. If you want to become not just competent, not just good, but outstanding, you have to train like a maniac at whatever it is you’re intending to excel at—and then train some more. In his 2008 bestseller Outliers, journalist Malcolm Gladwell does a great job documenting the secret behind the accomplishments of such outstanding achievers as Bill Gates, Mozart, and the Beatles. Turns out, surprise of surprises, they all worked their asses off training. Gladwell coins what he calls the 10,000-Hour Rule, which says that outstanding (outlying) success in any field is largely the result of a shitload of practice, like twenty hours a week for ten years, which translates into 10,000 hours. Amp that pace up to eighty hours a week and you’ll get it done in two and a half years—and that right there is one reason SEALs can do what they do. -From Navy SEAL Brandon Webb’s memoir, The Red Circle.
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