SOFREP marks the passing on January 26 of Harry M. Beal at the young age of just 90. Harry Beal resided in Greenville Township Pennsylvania. He grew up in Mayersville PA, southeast of Pittsburgh in the 1940s. His father was a coal miner and wanted young Harry to take up that trade as well. Instead, Harry enlisted in the Navy in 1948, attended boot camp in Great Lakes IL, and rated as a Gunner’s Mate on the Destroyer Tender USS Shenandoah.
He was incredibly fit, able to do a pull up with just one arm. Seeking a bit more excitement out of his enlistment, he even got it in his head to join the Flying Wallendas, a famous family performing highwire stunts in the circus. Harry wrote them a letter describing his physical abilities. They responded telling him that if what he claimed he could do was actually true, they would give him top billing. But his dreams of performing in the circus on the highwire were dashed when the Korean War began and the Navy involuntarily extended the enlistments of sailors.
Harry volunteered for the Underwater Demolition Teams in 1955. He was to be part of an elite group comprising just 500 sailors who specialized in pre-invasion beach reconnaissance and blowing up sea mines and submerged obstacles. It was known to be very dangerous work. The frogmen employed during the Normandy invasion in 1944, suffered 52 percent casualties in few hours that day. But Harry liked the idea of working in swim trunks and boondocker boots as his daily routine.
In January 1961, word got around that President Kennedy wanted 100 volunteers to form the first two SEAL Teams, one for each coast. Harry was the first to raise his hand to join up after a friend taunted him that he did not have the guts to sign up. These two training cadres of 50 men formed SEAL Team One on the West coast in Coronado and SEAL Team Two at Little Creek Virginia.
Harry Beal is said to have been the First Navy SEAL. He is not the only SEAL to make such a claim on history, but Harry’s claim is unique. He was a Plank Owner of Team Two, which is a Navy term for the first crew of a newly commissioned unit, squadron, or ship. Further, Harry’s claim goes beyond that. His last name, Beal placed him first in the graduation book of that first SEAL Team class: he would have been handed his certificate of graduation before all the others. So, in that sense, he was the first official Navy SEAL on the East Coast — and perhaps the West Coast too since it lags three hours behind the East coast. He shared that Plank Owner honor with SEAL Master Chief Petty Officer Rudy Boesch, who you might recall was a contestant in 2000 on CBS’s Survivor. MCPO Boesch passed away in 2019.
Harry Beal went on to serve in various capacities on the Teams, including a stint as an M-60 door gunner in helicopters. He also was on the team that retrieved John Glenn, the first American astronaut to have gone into space, and his spacecraft “Friendship 7” when it splashed down in the North Atlantic. Harry personally helped Major Glenn out of the capsule when it had been safely recovered aboard the destroyer USS Noa. He went on to be a demolitions instructor on the teams.
Beal retired in 1968 at the age of 37 with the rank of Petty Officer First Class after 20 years of service. His second career took him not to his dream of walking the highwire but to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, where he worked for another 20 years. Harry gave frequent speeches to schools and civic groups recounting his service and he was well regarded in his community. So much so that in 2020, the town of Mayersville named a bridge after him.
Ask a Navy SEAL how to get through SEAL training and earn your trident and you will never hear that you need to be the biggest or strongest guy. What you will hear is that determination to succeed is the most important quality in any candidate that goes on to become a Navy SEAL. And that was certainly true of Harry who was just five feet tall. He was neither the biggest nor the strongest but nevertheless managed to live a life that made him a giant among men and especially the SEALs he served with.
According to his obituary, Harry had lost his wife of 67 years two years earlier and is survived by two sons, five grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.
Rest in Peace Gunners Mate 1st Class Harry M. Beal.