From the origins of Naval Special Warfare during World War II to the killing of Osama bin Laden, explore 10 key events and operations in the history of the Navy SEALs.
D-Day Landings – 1944
On June 6, 1944, some 175 members of Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs)— predecessors of the Navy SEALS–were among the first invading forces to arrive on the beaches of Normandy. Approaching under heavy German fire, the demolitionists used explosives to clear the way for the massive invasion of some 5,000 vessels, 11,000 planes and more than 150,000 Allied soldiers and sailors. The NCDUs at Omaha Beach were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, one of only three presented for military actions at Normandy. Of the NCDU personnel on Omaha and Utah Beaches, a total of 37 were killed and 71 wounded; all casualties were the result of enemy action, not mishandling of the explosives. This 52 percent casualty rate represented the bloodiest single day in the history of Naval Special Warfare.
Invasion of Okinawa – 1945
After the loss of more than 3,000 Marines in the Battle of Tarawa in November 1943, the U.S. military turned to the Navy’s special operations forces to gather intelligence and navigate the islands of the South Pacific ahead of Allied invasions. Before the invasion of Okinawa on April 1, 1945, the crucial last step in the Allies’ island-hopping campaign toward mainland Japan, nearly 1,000 members of the U.S. Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) performed reconnaissance, surveyed and cleared the beaches for the landing of some 450,000 U.S. Army and Marine forces. In all, some 3,500 UDT “frogmen” served during World War II, taking part in almost every major amphibious operation in the Pacific; a total of 83 were killed. The UDTs were one of the most heavily decorated combat units in the war, earning 750 Bronze Stars, 150 Silver Stars, one Navy Cross and several Presidential Unit Citations.
Vietnam War – 1965-72
During the Vietnam War, the newly created SEAL teams—called SEALs for their ability to operate in the environments of Sea, Air and Land—were initially tasked with training indigenous South Vietnamese forces to operate as maritime commandos. Later in the conflict, 12-men SEAL platoons rotated in and out of deployment in South Vietnam, honing their battle skills and launching their reputation as an elite special ops force. They often operated at night, deploying from boats and helicopters to carry out short direct-action missions like ambushes, hit-and-run raids, personnel recovery, intelligence collection and reconnaissance patrols. The Viet Cong dubbed the fearsome SEALs the “men with green faces” for the camouflage face paint they favored.
Invasion of Grenada – 1983
Growing tensions between the United States and Grenada boiled over in late 1983, when President Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. forces to invade the tiny Caribbean island-nation and overthrow its new hard-line communist government. Operation Urgent Fury, as it was officially known, marked the first time Navy SEALs had seen combat since Vietnam. SEALs provided pre-assault reconnaissance during the invasion and successfully rescued and evacuated Sir Paul Scoon, Grenada’s governor general, who had been placed on house arrest after he invited the United States and other Caribbean nations to intervene militarily. One group of SEALs tasked with capturing the island’s only radio tower narrowly avoided disaster after communication failures left them holed up and under heavy attack from Cuban and Grenadian forces. After destroying the tower and fighting their way to the water, they managed to swim to the open sea, where they were picked up several hours later by a reconnaissance plane.
Capture and arrest of Manuel Noriega – 1989
Six years after the invasion of Grenada, the SEALs were called into action in another Caribbean nation: Panama. Not only had the country’s president, Manuel Noriega, been indicted on drug trafficking charges in the United States, but his security forces were accused of harassing American citizens living in Panama. In December 1989, President George Bush launched Operation Just Cause, aimed at deposing Noriega and bringing him to justice. A SEAL mission to disable Noriega’s Learjet at Paitilla Airfield to prevent him from escaping succeeded at a heavy cost, as four SEALs were killed and eight wounded. Eventually, several SEAL platoons tracked down and surrounded Noriega, who had taken refuge in the Vatican embassy in Panama City, before he ultimately surrendered on January 3, 1990.
Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm – 1991
When Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the Navy SEALs—along with the rest of the U.S. military—faced their first large-scale conflict since Vietnam. During the buildup to the first Gulf War, SEALs performed key reconnaissance along the Kuwaiti coastline. With the international coalition’s ground operations set to begin in early 1991, SEAL operators planted explosives on the coast that, when detonated, convinced the Iraqi defenders that an amphibious landing was imminent. The Iraqis committed more forces to the coast, making them more vulnerable to the subsequent thrust into central Kuwait by the U.S. Marine Corps.
Operation Red Wings – 2005
On June 28, 2005, a four-man SEAL patrol on a mission to capture a high-ranking Taliban leader in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province crossed paths with several local goatherders. After determining they were not enemy combatants, the SEALs let them go according to the rules of engagement. All too soon, however, Taliban fighters attacked the patrol; three of the four SEALs were killed, while the fourth, Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, was left unconscious and seriously wounded. (Luttrell was later rescued, and would write about the mission in his best-selling memoir “Lone Survivor.”) Lieutenant Michael Murphy, who posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions trying to save his team, and the two other SEALs killed in the firefight weren’t the only casualties of the day: Eight SEALs and eight members of the Army’s 160th Special Forces Operations Regiment (SOAR) deployed to rescue Murphy’s team also died when the enemy shot down their Chinook helicopter.
Rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates – 2009
Among the best-known SEAL successes of recent years was the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, master of the merchant ship MV Maersk Alabama, after four Somali pirates took him hostage in April 2009. Three of the pirates fled the ship in a small lifeboat with Phillips and headed for the Somali coast, with U.S. Navy ships in pursuit. During the standoff that followed, a contingent of Navy SEALs parachuted into the area and boarded the destroyer USS Bainbridge. On Easter Sunday, April 12, when it looked as if the pirates were about to shoot Phillips, the crisis came to a dramatic end. Three SEAL snipers on the fantail of the Bainbridge aimed and squeezed their triggers simultaneously, killing all three pirates in the bobbing lifeboat some 90 feet away. Details of the hostage rescue were later made public, and the events would later be depicted on the big screen in the hit movie “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks.
Killing of Osama bin Laden (Operation Neptune Spear) – 2011
The 10-year manhunt for the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks concluded on May 2, 2011, when helicopters from the Army’s SOAR (Airborne) deposited some two dozen SEALs, along with a Pashto translator and a Belgian Malinois combat dog, at the compound of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. After methodically clearing the first and second floors of the compound, the SEALs advanced to the third floor, where they found the Al Qaeda leader and killed him. In addition to bin Laden, several other adults were killed in the raid, but some dozen children in the compound were left unharmed. The entire operation took less than 40 minutes. Like the snipers who took out Phillips’ captors, the SEALs who killed bin Laden were reportedly operators from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), better known as Team Six. When their involvement later became public, the SEALs and particularly Team Six became the subject of global fascination, as the elite fighters who pulled off the highest-profile special ops raid in history.
Rescue of aid workers in Somalia – 2012
American aid worker Jessica Buchanan and her Danish colleague, Poul Thisted, were working for a nongovernmental organization called the Danish Relief Council when they were kidnapped in late 2011 and held for three months by armed men near the town of Adado in north-central Somalia. On the night of January 25, 2012, an Air Force Special Operations plane carried around two dozen operators—mostly from DEVGRU—to a location about two miles from where the hostages were being held. After parachuting down and walking through darkness to the camp, the SEALs managed to surprise the kidnappers, killing all nine of them within minutes. Buchanan and Thisted were evacuated in helicopters to an American base in Djibouti, where they received medical treatment. Buchanan later chronicled the experience in her book “Impossible Odds,” describing the moment on the helicopter when one of her rescuers handed her a folded American flag. “I just started to cry,” she wrote. “At that point in time I have never in my life been so proud and so very happy to be an American.”