When you think of the Navy SEALs, you think of elite special operators who have been tasked with commando-type missions in conflict zones from Central Africa to Afghanistan. Which raises a question you may never have thought about, but seems quite obvious and interesting once you do: “Wait, why are members of the Navy, a waterborne military force, operating hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean?”
This question spurred my guest, a former Navy SEAL himself, to explore the answer in his book By Water Beneath the Walls: The Rise of the Navy SEALs. His name is Benjamin Milligan and today we discuss the history that explains why the Navy became the branch of the military that supplied this famous go-anywhere force, and how men who started out as sailors became involved in land-based operations. Ben details the predecessors of the SEALs which took the form of various commando-type units that the Army and Marines experimented with and scuttled, and how the Navy, which had played a supporting role in these units, ended up being the one to continue to develop them. We discuss how the naval combat demolition units (NCDUs) and underwater demolition teams (UDTs) birthed during WWII would ultimately lead to the creation of the Navy’s frogmen as we know them today. Along the way, Ben shares details of the unique characters who shaped the unit’s trajectory, including the surprisingly bookish commander who created the most legendary part of the SEALs’ training: Hell Week.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- The shoot-down of Extortion 17
- AoM Podcast #240 on Winston Churchill in the Boer War
- Evans Carlson
- William Donovan
- Marine Raiders
- William Darby
- Darby’s Rangers movie with James Garner
- Draper Kauffman
- “Telephone pole-type calisthenics”
- Arleigh Burke
- AoM Podcast #477: The History and Future of America’s Special Forces
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. And when you think of the Navy SEALs, you think of elite special operators who have been tasked with commando-type missions in conflict zones from Central Africa to Afghanistan. Which raises a question you may never have thought about, but seems quite obvious and interesting once you do: “Wait, why are members of the Navy, a waterborne military force, operating hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean?” This question spurred my guest, a former Navy SEAL himself, to explore the answer in his book “By Water Beneath the Walls: The Rise of the Navy SEALs.” His name is Benjamin Milligan, and today we discuss the history that explains why the Navy became the branch of the military that supplied this famous go-anywhere force, and how men who started out as sailors became involved in land-based operations.
Ben details the predecessors of the SEALs, which took the form of various commando-type units that both the Army and Marines experimented with, but ultimately scuttled, and how the Navy, which had played a supporting role in all these units, ended up being the one to continue to develop them. We discuss how the naval combat demolition units, or NCDUs, and underwater demolition teams or UDTs, birthed during World War II, would ultimately lead to the creation of the Navy’s frogmen as we know them today. Along the way, Ben shares details of the unique characters who shaped the unit’s trajectory, including the surprisingly bookish commander, who created the most legendary part of the SEALs training, Hell Week. After the show is over, check out our show at aom.is/seals.
Ben Milligan, welcome to the show.
Benjamin H. Milligan: Thanks very much.
Brett McKay: So you are a Navy SEAL and you just published a book, it’s called “By Water Beneath the Walls: The Rise of the Navy SEALs” and this is an in-depth history of the origins of the SEALs. And what’s funny or interesting, interesting or funny, there was a question from your grandma about your service as a SEAL that kickstarted this book. What was that question and then how did that send you in a deep-dive under the history of the Navy SEALs?
Benjamin H. Milligan: The question was, “What the hell were you doing in Iraq?” [chuckle] She knew that I was in the Navy, she knew I was a sailor. And for her, she’d grown up during World War II, she had seven brothers that were all in the Navy during World War II, she’d been to my BUD/S graduation in 2001, and there she had gotten a reinforcement of the idea that the Navy is connected to the water, which we all know that it is. I suspect she’d seen the introduction video to all the guests show what the graduates have just gone through, they show the surf torture and surf passage and underwater knot tying and drownproofing and all that stuff and the diving. I don’t know if she just didn’t notice all the hiking and the machine guns and everything, but she, I think until the day she died she thought that I was something like a rescue swimmer, so it wasn’t totally off the whole question.
Yeah, she was curious and my response to her was maybe condescending, “I’m not a sailor, I’m a SEAL,” fully expecting that she would know the difference, but she… [chuckle] Yeah, I don’t know if it was the way that I answered the question because I’m very close to my grandma or what, but the question just stuck with me. It didn’t come back, or I didn’t come back to it really until 2011 after the Extortion 17 tragedy when all the SEALs of Gold Squadron were shot down in Afghanistan and I started to really think, “What are we? Or what are the SEAL team is doing so far removed from the water?” And that was three months and four days after SEALs had killed Osama Bin Laden, both of these events, the greatest victory in the war on terror and then the largest loss of life for American forces in Afghanistan. They happened more than 600 miles away from the closest salt water, and they were both held by a Navy unit. So, that was a question that I felt like I had to get to the bottom of.
Brett McKay: And in getting to the bottom of the question in your book by tracing the history of the SEALs, one thing you do is to get beyond the myth of how the SEALs came about. What do you think that myth is?
Benjamin H. Milligan: Yeah. The myth has always been that the frogmen created themselves, like they self-actualized, a generous appraisal for… Everybody wants to assume that their success is due to their own effort and struggle or whatever. And so the origin story, or the creation myth is that enterprising frogmen after World War II were looking for a mission or looking to stretch the boundaries of maritime warfare and they just kept following the enemy inland. And this was always done against the Navy’s wishes. There was always a hostile bureaucracy trying to keep the SEALs contained to the water, or not SEALs necessarily, but the UDT or the frogmen. And then when Kennedy came along, he authorized this encroachment by the Navy and then after that authorization then the SEALs even pushed the breadth of their mission even further. But the more I thought about it and in fact, when I was doing the initial research for the book I was just keeping a timeline in a Word document. This timeline just kept getting bigger and bigger everyday and the one thing I started to really notice is, this didn’t happen accidentally and it didn’t happen against the Navy’s wishes.
The Navy doesn’t work like that. The military doesn’t work like that. The military is, it’s the most hierarchical institution in the government. Nothing happens without the buy-with and through with the approval of senior leadership. So, the one thing that I noticed is that this would not have happened if the Navy had not championed the idea itself, and that means the Navy’s planners, the top leaders in the Navy. I realized fairly early on that the SEAL origin story or the SEAL creation myth was just that, it was a myth. I think it resonated, or I think it persisted for such a long time, because if you are a SEAL or if you are in Special Operations just generally, you’ve had experiences with conventional troops or conventional sailors who have not always had the highest opinion of elite troops. And so, that myth was just reinforced time after time when in fact it’s… That grain of truth is just that, it’s just a grain, it’s not the real story. The real story is much richer and much more interesting.
Brett McKay: Alright. So the SEALs specialize the, what would you call a commando or Raider type operations. Just big picture for those who aren’t familiar, I think we kinda know what the difference is, but what is the difference between Raider warfare and traditional warfare?
Benjamin H. Milligan: Yeah. It’s like pornography almost, you know it when you see it. But, the word “commando” came out of the Boer War. Churchill coined it to describe the Afrikaner troops that would raid in the middle of the night and then disappear into the darkness. But we’ve had, there’s been Raiders throughout history, whether they were Plains Indians or Vikings or whatever. Soldiers can be Raiders, sailors have been Raiders, we’ve always had Raiders in warfare. But yeah, so… When World War II starts, the British Expeditionary Force had just been chased off the continent by the Germans and Churchill’s purpose in creating his commandos was to: One, restore the morale of the British people and two, to achieve more with less. Some sort of strategic impact with the few troops that he had. The only way that he could really do that was with a series of lightning raids up and down the coast. That’s where we get the term “Commando.” And that’s what commando operations really are, it’s just, instead of regular troops, they may perform a behind-the-lines action or something like that but more often than not, they’re holding ground after they’ve advanced or something. Raiders don’t do that, or commandos don’t do that, or at least the traditional understanding of the term. Commandos or Raiders, they strike behind the lines and usually a vulnerable target and then once they’ve achieved their objective, then they usually are fleeing back into the darkness.
Brett McKay: Okay. So the British military kickstarted the whole commando-type warfare in World War II, it was out of necessity, didn’t have enough troops, they had to get the most bang for their buck. Then the US military saw this and was like, “Hey, maybe we should try that.” But I think… Okay. So you…
Benjamin H. Milligan: Sort of.
Brett McKay: Yeah, sort of like that, but we can talk about that.
Benjamin H. Milligan: Yeah.
Brett McKay: But I think though, what’s interesting here. You make this, one of the points you make is to understand why the Navy ended up creating a Special Forces unit capable of operating on land, sea and air. You have to understand, you have to explore, why didn’t the Army or why didn’t the Marine Corps come up? Why weren’t they able to come up with commando units? And so… Yeah, let’s start there.
Benjamin H. Milligan: Right. Yeah. The point I make in the book is that, well, the reason that the Navy created a unit that could go anywhere or a commando unit that could go anywhere is not in spite of the Army and Navy, it’s actually because of them. When you look at the Bin Laden raid. Bin Laden raid occurred in Abbottabad, Pakistan. I think the last time I looked it was, Abbottabad was something like 800 miles away from the closest saltwater. If you were planning that mission, not knowing anything about the US military or its history or its order of battle, you wouldn’t choose a Navy unit. You wouldn’t expect to choose a Navy unit. So it’s a totally unexpected, or how did a Navy unit come to be relied upon by the US military as such a go-anywhere commando force? Instead… And when you phrase it like that, you have to assume that the rest of the sentence is implying that instead of the Army or the Marine Corps, these institutions that are the traditional owners of land operations. What I found was, like I said, when I was laying that timeline out, I noticed the Army and the Marine Corps always had this very sort of haphazard relationship with commando-type operations.
They’d want them at one point, they were trying to fill some sort of need, or they would create them not necessarily for the same reasons that Churchill wanted them, for their own peculiar reasons, they were creating commandos for a purpose and then they would commit them to action, usually that action would lead to some sort of disaster. Then the Army would say, “Well, let’s back off that idea” and they would just disband the unit. And in each time, well, not each time, but almost every time, the Navy had come to expect that the Army or the Marine Corps was going to be a partner when it came to commando-type raiding, ’cause the Navy was usually in the wings of all these operations. And each time the Army or the Marine Corps pulled the rug out of these operations, the Navy was just left holding the bag. So the Navy just continued to… When the Army or the Marine Corps left, they would just push just a little bit further, a little bit further each time trying… Not necessarily with a long-range idea that they were going to create a go-anywhere commando force but they were just trying to solve a problem and that problem was filling a gap and they would just continue to fill that gap and ultimately after 30 years, the SEALs are created.
Brett McKay: Well and you do a good job of exploring the Marine Corps’ and the Army’s forays into commando-type warfare during World War II. And what I found interesting with each one, it seems like… And the Navy was involved somehow. And like you said, each time these units would get disbanded, but it seemed like whatever that Raider unit learned, the Navy got to keep. And it just got baked in into their curriculum. The first one you highlight is Donovan’s Raiders. This is a Marine Corps unit that tried to dabble in commando’s type warfare. What was their story? What was their objective, and what was the result of that unit?
Benjamin H. Milligan: Okay. The Marine Corps Raiders are the first commando force that the US military creates in World War II. The reason that they create them is because of really, one, personality and that personality is Evans Carlson. He’s had a, not a checkered history with the Marine Corps but an unusual history. He served in Nicaragua in a guerrilla war, he is attached to Mao’s communist army in China, on Mao’s flight from the Nationalists in China. Carlson comes up with this idea, he wants to create a Marine unit that is similar to the Chinese guerillas that he serves alongside in the ’30s. When World War II kicks off, he’s befriended President Roosevelt’s son, Jimmy Roosevelt. Jimmy Roosevelt sends a letter to the commandant. And you wouldn’t normally… Any junior officer wouldn’t normally get the time of day from the commandant, but this junior officer happens to be the President’s son. So, the Marine Corps, very reluctantly, the Marine Corps has no interest in building commandos. Throughout the Marine Corps history, they’ve been the Navy’s go-anywhere force, but after World War I they’d proven that they can be as capable as the US Army.
So the Marine Corps doesn’t really want commandos, but Carlson and Jimmy Roosevelt are pressuring the Marine Corps commandant to do it and the Navy picks up on this idea, and the Navy’s like, “Well, we really could use a unit that could go out there into the Pacific, stretch the Japanese out across the Pacific.” So that’s essentially what happens, the Navy forces the Marine Corps hand, and the Marine Corps never, like I said, they never really want these guys. And then on their first raid, Evans Carlson leads this pretty dramatic raid, some 2000 miles into the Northern Pacific into the Gilbert Islands that make an island and the raid is… The main reason it’s a disaster is because of Carlson’s leadership. He loses confidence, he thinks that… At different points in the battle he loses track of a lot of his men, he thinks that Jimmy Roosevelt is going to get captured.
Ultimately, he resolves that he’s just going to surrender to the Japanese, but he can’t even surrender to the Japanese because the guys that he sends with the surrender note to the Japanese commander, another group of his Raiders end up killing that messenger, so the raid just turns into a disaster. He ultimately… I think he loses something like 18 Raiders or something like that, and then another 12 were left behind to be captured and ultimately beheaded. And the Marine Corps sees this and they ultimately decide, “Well, we didn’t want these guys to begin with.” So they petitioned the Navy to get rid of them and the Navy does. But that doesn’t solve the problem that the Navy’s had, which is we… The Navy really wants some sort of unit that can go into the Pacific, accomplish more with less, spread the Japanese out. This cycle, it almost repeats itself time and time again throughout this commando history, throughout the American Special Operations, at least until the end of Vietnam.
Brett McKay: Well, another experiment that the Navy did commando warfare with, it was with the army, it was the creation of the Army Scouts. And the Navy… They’re called the Army Scouts, but the Navy played a role. What was the Navy’s role in the Army Scouts?
Benjamin H. Milligan: Each aspect of amphibious warfare plays a part in creating a different unit. The Marine and Corps Raiders are created because they… The Navy wants to stretch the Japanese out, they wanna accomplish more with less, behind the lines types raids. The Army Navy Scouts and Raiders are created because the Army and the Navy realized that they are about to embark on a campaign across the world, literally around the entire world, where in almost each instance where they’re going to confront the enemy, they’re going to have to land on an enemy beach. Which for a military that’s never done that, for a military that during the First World War had landed on the coast comfortably and walked down numerous gang planks, they never had to land on an enemy beach or anything like that, this is a terrifying prospect. And one of the most troubling parts of that whole process of amphibious warfare is trying to determine how you’re gonna land on the right beach. There’s Gantt charts that are available, there’s a lot of these beaches, they’re not lit, you’ve gotta figure… You gotta come up with a unit that can identify beaches and then signal the landing fleet to where those beaches actually are, ’cause you can’t land an army on the back side of that beach, there’s no exits to move trucks, move tanks, move anything. You definitely can’t land on a beach where the sand is too soft for tank treads or something like that.
That’s what the Army Navy Scouts and Raiders are meant to accomplish, they create this joint unit, they divide both halves of this unit into a distinct Army and Navy sides, the Army are gonna be these Scouts/Raiders that are going to be the ones that are landed on the beach, identify the beach and then signal the landing fleet. The Navy part of this program is going to be the unit that basically just shuttles the Scout Raiders back and forth. But after the invasion in North Africa, and after Sicily, the Army realizes, “Well, we have more than enough folks that are capable of identifying beaches or signaling the landing fleet,” so they pull out of the entire program, basically leaving the entire curriculum for, that the Army and Navy had been developing together with the Navy. And the Navy doesn’t feel like abandoning this program. The Navy sees opportunities throughout the world, throughout the Pacific, South Pacific, Central Pacific, and employing troops like these, so the Navy maintains the curriculum. But when the Army leaves, now there’s no more agreement that prohibits the Navy from fielding its actual Scout, so no longer are they Scout officers and Scout boat crews, but they… The Navy becomes, in fact, Scouts and actual Raiders.
Brett McKay: So this is… You’re starting to see the encroachment into the land.
Benjamin H. Milligan: Right, it’s just that little… That little nudge that… Like I said, the Navy never sets out with this plan in 1942 to create a commando force or a go-anywhere commando force. The Navy just continuously solves individual problems that just keep pushing the Navy further and further ashore.
Brett McKay: Another experiment with commando warfare during World War II, again, by the US Army was Darby’s Rangers. What was their mission and how did they perform as a unit and what ended up happening to them?
Benjamin H. Milligan: Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the James Garner movie, Darby’s Rangers… Darby is one of the all-time legends in American Special Operations history and deservedly so, he’s a larger-than-life character from Arkansas, he was an artillery officer before the war, and he’s a totally irrepressible guy. He’s one of the folks, when I was researching and digging into the letters of the folks that I was writing about, he’s a guy that you just can’t help but like him. I don’t like to admit liking a character, or disliking a character, I don’t want to convey any of that to the reader, it’s very difficult not to like him. In part because he’s just so, so brave, such an advocate for us guys, and time and time again during the war, he turns down promotions simply because he wants to stay with his Rangers. The Rangers are created for a specific purpose by George Marshall. George Marshall has grown into the legend, you don’t ever wanna criticize George Marshall. I’m not criticizing him, but he has priorities for the Army that aren’t necessarily beneficial to the Rangers, so the priority that he has when he creates the Rangers is to get as much combat experience as they can that they can pass along to the rest of the infantry and then really just to support the infantry in whatever way the division commanders want.
On the one hand you’ve got Darby who’s this archetypal commando and on the other hand you’ve got George Marshall, the level-headed, constantly preoccupied with his army and between these two, the Rangers are ultimately broken, just by the competing objectives of these two men. And that breaking happens when by early, early 1944.
The Rangers have stopped being commando raiders and they’ve really turned into spear-headers for the regular infantry. They’re not really operating as a small unit anymore, they’re operating in regiment-sized units and they’re taking not just a small fort here, or an artillery battery there, or something like that, like they did in the beginning, but the Army is committing them to take and hold entire towns. And the raid that they get sent on, which isn’t a raid at all, is this raid on Cisterna in Italy, after the invasion of Anzio and it’s a biggest disaster in American Special Operations history. Two battalions are destroyed and the remnants are captured and frog-marched off into captivity with the Germans. It’s a real tragedy… When I was researching this in the National Archives, you can see the transcript of Darby communicating with his frontline leaders and I don’t know how they kept this transcript, but it’s there and you can read page after page of it and it’s… When you’re going through the pages, it’s hard to not get emotional yourself ’cause you see what’s happening to these guys and the lengths that they’re going for each other. And then after this terrible debacle, the Army decides, “Well, we don’t need Rangers in this theater anymore anyway, so we’re gonna disband the whole program.”
Brett McKay: I can see how we’re seeing over and over again, both the Army and the Marine Corps, they try to experiment with it, they realize it doesn’t work. And I think the point you make is that, part of the problem with the Army and the Marine Corps is that they already had a culture of infantry. That’s what you do. And so they’d often… They’d create these commando units, but then they’d end up treating them like infantry soldiers, like regular infantry soldiers. And the Navy, they didn’t have that, what would we call it, mindset. And so they were completely open to the idea of, “Yeah, we could do commando-type stuff.”
Benjamin H. Milligan: Right. The Army is always… The Army and the Marine Corps, they always think that raiding is really just… It’s an activity that any infantry troops can perform as long as they’re given enough preparation, rehearsals, special equipment or whatever. And so, you really shouldn’t pull troops out of the regular line of battle to do this mission and they had relatively good reason to think so. Every great Raider in history, whether it was Nathan Bedford Forrest, or Ulric Dahlgren or whatever, all these folks from the American Civil War, they hadn’t just been Raiders, they had raided throughout the war, but after their raids, they would often just fall back in line with their regular cavalry or infantry regiments. So why wouldn’t they think so? But the Navy didn’t have this legacy, and the Navy isn’t constantly preoccupied with its infantry. The Army doesn’t want to create an elite branch because they don’t wanna take all the best soldiers out of their infantry companies and put them into an elite unit, then you have nothing but so-so troops in the infantry regiments. The Navy doesn’t have that problem. They’re never trying to rob Peter to pay Paul. A unit like this can exist alongside the Navy, whereas it really can’t, or it couldn’t at the time, but in the Army or the Marine Corps.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So with all these experiments with special warfare within the Army and the Marine Corps, the Navy was there somehow, either working with them directly or just their support, and then when those got disbanded the Navy ended up with the curriculum and they saw an opportunity like, “Hey, we can actually do what they were trying to do.” And then you really start seeing an advert… I guess, encroachment on the land with a guy named Draper Kauffman. And this guy has an incredible story. I couldn’t believe, is this real? This guy sounded made up. So what’s his story and how did he pave the way for the Navy creating an explicit, like, “Yeah, we are a commando unit separate from the Navy,” or it’s part of the Navy, but it’s distinct from a sailor?
Benjamin H. Milligan: Yeah. Draper Kauffman is next to Evans Carlson. Evans Carlson might be the weirdest guy in the book, but Draper Kauffman is easily second. [chuckle] Draper is… Nobody that I look at in the book or spend a lot of time reading their mail, I didn’t find anybody as peculiar as Kauffman, he’s a totally bookish guy. When you look at him and you see pictures of him, you wouldn’t think twice of him, he looks like a clerk. But nobody that I found so oblivious to danger, he was just constantly putting himself in tight spot after tight spot and volunteering for the most dangerous assignments. Anyway. Draper Kauffman is a… Gets dumped from naval service. He goes to the Naval Academy, he gets dropped from the Navy after he graduated from the Naval Academy because he’s got bad eyesight. The Navy at the time was trying to cut costs in any way that they could, which is a crushing blow to Draper Kauffman, who in his entire life, all he’s ever wanted to do is be like his dad, who’s a famous destroyer skipper. He’s a surface fleet sailor. That’s all Draper wants to be, and then suddenly he’s cut off from his dream job.
So, he spends the next five years just trying to figure out what to do with himself. He’s working for a shipping company, manages to get himself sent over to Germany where he witnesses a couple of speeches by Adolf Hitler. Realizes this man is a monster, just from the tempo of his speech. He can’t speak German, but he realizes this is a threat to the world. So he comes back, he wants to volunteer for the French Army. The only thing that he can do as an American in the French Army is volunteer for the Ambulance Corps, which is mentioned a lot, people talk about Draper’s biography. What they don’t mention is that Draper had to… It’s not like you signed up for the French Army, he had to pay the French Army to join and he had to pay them. It was essentially the cost of a house to join, so he bankrupts himself just for the opportunity to fight against the Germans. He becomes an ambulance driver like Hemingway in World War I, and he lands in his first assignment on the day that the Germans invade in 1940. And so he and a handful of Americans, he gets to see, or he’s a participant in the war, literally the war’s opening days and fights, continually pushes himself out there rescuing French soldiers. And in the process of this, he comes across this unit that he really respects called the Corps Franc, really their only motto was, “We never leave a man behind.”
And Draper adopts that philosophy for himself, and finds himself rescuing French soldiers behind enemy lines and predictably gets captured by the Germans and stuffed in a POW camp. The only way that the Germans ultimately let him go is if he promises that he’ll never take up arms against the German empire again. He signs the paperwork, he gets released and the only country that he’s allowed to go to is the United States. Of course, he jumps on a Portuguese freighter sailing for Great Britain and enlists immediately in the Royal Navy. [chuckle] But the Royal Navy, they blocked him too from [0:26:26.1] ____ theirs in the Royal Navy from a ship because of his eyesight. He does the next most dangerous thing, he volunteers for British bomb disposal and he fights throughout the Blitz doing nothing but disarming bombs. Ultimately, he gets pulled back into the American Navy, not necessarily against his will ’cause he’s always wanted to come back to the American Navy, but it’s a pretty dramatic… He gets pulled back in, he ends up going out to Pearl Harbor right after the attack, disarming a bomb, making a huge name for himself, winning a Navy Cross. And he’s placed in charge of the Navy’s bomb disposal group, where he comes up with…
He knows that this is really, really dangerous, really hard work, and he needs to create a curriculum as quickly as possible that can prepare his men to take out the obstacles that Hitler is setting up on the beaches in France and Belgium. So, he goes to the Scouts & Raiders School in Fort Pierce, Florida. He sees their eight-week curriculum, their eight-week conditioning curriculum, which is boat races, telephone pole type calisthenics, it’s all sorts of miserable things that the Scouts & Raiders had come up with, but it’s an eight-week period. Kauffman knows he doesn’t have eight weeks to prepare his men, so, well, he does the next best thing, is he compresses all eight weeks of these calisthenics into a single horrible week that we now know as “Hell Week.” And it’s a sleepless five days, he sends a couple of groups through this program and he loses more than half of them each time he does it and ultimately being Kauffman, he can’t do anything but submit himself to the own course and he puts himself through Hell Week. He has his guys run through, everybody thinks the entire time he’s not an athlete, he’s not anywhere close to what you would consider a frogman today and he makes it through his own program, and he creates the men ultimately that lead the invasion into Omaha Beach and Utah Beach in Normandy.
Brett McKay: Alright. So this bookish guy with bad eyesight was the one who created Hell Week?
Benjamin H. Milligan: Yeah, if you can believe it. It’s a combination of the Scouts & Raiders who, they’d come up with the individual evolutions and then Draper Kauffman who has the idea to put it all together. And the reason he wants to put all the stuff together is he’s trying to recreate the hell of combat that he has experienced and he knows combat better than anybody else in the US military at that point, he knows how little sleep you get during it, how little food you can never… You’re gonna be constantly wet, cold, miserable, chafed, and he’s trying to put guys through that, just like he experienced it in France and in the Blitz.
Brett McKay: What was their job, the naval combat demolition units? What were they doing that, on D-Day?
Benjamin H. Milligan: Their explicit mission was that they were to destroy the obstacles on Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and obstacles were a variety of things and the Germans had ingeniously placed these obstacles in the surf zone, so they were impervious to destruction by American bombers. You can’t blow up something if it’s under water, at least from a… With a bomber. The Navy knew that they were gonna have to remove each of these obstacles by hand, so that’s what Draper was preparing them for. After this Hell Week period, they got a very intense course on all the bomb disposal work that he had been doing in Britain and then, not just bomb disposal but learning how to blow up obstacles in all various types.
Brett McKay: And so this is a big success, right, they… It actually worked, what they were doing?
Benjamin H. Milligan: Monumental success, when you saw how terrible the combat was at Omaha Beach, and you saw all the naval units that had been engaged in that combat, and you saw how well the NCDUs performed, where you have the Army planners that are disbanding Ranger units, or the Marine Corps disbanding radar units because they don’t perform effectively. After Omaha Beach, the Navy Commander puts the NCDUs in for one of three naval-issued Presidential Unit Citations, and the Navy seeing how well this curriculum does, they can’t bring themselves to disband it. Even though the mission that the NCDUs have been created for, it’s no longer there. The Hitler’s Atlantic Wall has been breached, the Navy realizes that, “There’s lots of opportunities for combat left in this world, we’re not getting rid of this program.”
Brett McKay: Yeah. So then they started getting shifted to the Pacific theater. What were they doing there?
Benjamin H. Milligan: Like I said, each of these units gets created for a slightly different reason. In the Pacific, it’s always been said that the underwater demolition teams are created after the horrible battle at Tarawa, in which the most dominant feature of that battle is this coral reef that prevents the landing craft from landing the Marines at the beach, which is true, but not exactly, because they had anticipated that this coral reef was going to block them at Tarawa, so they had created, or they had re-purposed this amphibious tractor to carry the Marines in. In fact, these amphibious tractors are LVTs, they lead the invasion into Tarawa. The problem is that the Navy doesn’t like carrying these things, they’re very slow, they delay everything from fighter aircraft, bomber aircraft and naval gunfire, they’re just cumbersome to carry on ship. The Navy would much rather carry these Higgins boats because they’re faster, they can resupply better. So the Marine Corps sees this coral as a problem, where there’s a technical solution, just bring more LVTs. The Navy sees the coral as a cancer that it wants to cut out.
Benjamin H. Milligan: Nobody wants to do that more than this guy Admiral Kelly Turner, who’s the Commander of the Fifth Amphibious Force. He’s probably the most cantankerous, frustrated person in the history of the Navy. Frustrated is not the right word. He’s a frustrated General. He has this idea that the Marine Corps is the Navy’s to command, that he should be in command of all Marine Corps operations, even when they are at shore. The thing that really bothers him is when he can’t get the Marine Corps to let him use the Marine Corps reconnaissance troops to figure out where the coral is so he can plan his invasions around it. His solution to that was to create his own reconnaissance troops and that’s how the UDT are created. The UDT aren’t quite created to destroy obstacles because the Japanese weren’t putting obstacles up like the Germans were on the Atlantic Wall, there’s just this problem of coral, and an equally bigger problem that the Marine Corps won’t let the Navy be in charge of its own reconnaissance, where it’s Marine Corps reconnaissance trip.
So, Kelly Turner, he’s like, “Well, if you’re not gonna let me have yours, I’m gonna make my own,” and he does, he creates the underwater demolition teams and creates them right about the same time he’s getting ready to send them on their first real underwater demolition mission, when Draper Kauffman shows up. Draper Kauffman, who’s the founder of Hell Week and the NCDUs, he shows up in the Pacific right at the same time, and he leads these UDTs into Saipan, proves their indispensability and not only that, but proves their indispensability at Tinian, which essentially means that the UDT are going to be a permanent fixture in the Navy’s order of battle until the end of time, or at least until the end of amphibious warfare. Navy won’t go anywhere without the UDTs after that.
Brett McKay: Was there any moments during the Pacific theater where you saw the UDTs, they weren’t just demolishing coral, but they were actually going on land and doing…
Benjamin H. Milligan: Yeah, there were instances. There were instances of NCDUs going ashore and going past the beach in Normandy. There’s a couple of instances where the UDTs are doing the same thing. The first UDTs wanted to, they actually were a hodge-podge, not just of Navy sailors and NCDU guys, but they were Navy, CBs, they were Marines, they were Army soldiers, they had come up with this hodge-podge unit because they were valuable as demolitioniers, they were going ashore and helping the Army blow up bunkers and everything else. Once the UDTs become an all-Navy unit, then they really… The Navy is really trying to keep them from going ashore. And a handful of UDT swimmers that actually do go ashore and followed the Marines on Saipan, Kauffman gives them a choice of either leaving the UDT forever or spending five days on burial duty, and they picked the burial duty. Kauffman, I think he keeps them… He makes them do three days and then he pulls them back.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Okay. So the UDT, this was a successful thing, unlike other things in the Army, in the Marines, this was an actual success. What happened after World war II? If they didn’t disband them, what was the Navy doing with these guys?
Benjamin H. Milligan: Right. After World War II, World War II ends, every American Special Operations unit, every raider unit is disbanded by December of 1945. I think the last Ranger battalion was disbanded in December of ’45. There’s no more commandos in the US military. The only Special Operations unit to survive disbandment after World War II is the UDTs. So, when the Korean War starts and all the Army is getting kicked to hell all the way back to the Pusan Perimeter, the Navy is trying to… Everybody’s trying to think of anything that they can possibly do to stop this route, to help cut the knees out of the Koreans that are forcing them back. The Navy, seeing the geography of Korea, sees that there’s mountains in the center, and all the highways and railways are pushed to the edge of the peninsula, which affords the Navy this huge opportunity to start bombarding railways, or sending enterprising sailors ashore to blow up tunnels, blow up bridges, blow up whatever they can, to halt the supplies that are supplying the North Koreans that are threatening to push the Americans and South Koreans into the sea.
So, the only units that are available at this time that are actually in-country are the UDT. The first Raiders to go ashore in the Korean War, well, not exactly the first, but the first ones that are continually used are these UDTs who’ve never been trained to do it, their beach markers, cable airs, they’ve never done this before. Their first raids are predictably amateurish, but they quickly figure out how to do this just out of necessity.
Brett McKay: Alright. So the Korean War pushed these guys further and further inland, basically?
Benjamin H. Milligan: Yeah, and it proves that the Navy needs a force like this. And so the Incheon invasion presents an opportunity for not just a hydrographic reconnaissance, which is what the UDTs had perfected in World War II, but because of the layout of Incheon, it’s a harbor cluttered with these small little islands, and there’s pockets of troops that are hostile to the North Koreans, hostile to communists, so the Navy sees an opportunity, or the Navy and the CIA, they see an opportunity to send a couple of guys into these islands to mobilize some resistance, and not just that, but to get information about what the actual port of Incheon looks like because nobody really… Some people know, but there’s not charts, there’s not a lot of intelligence to support the invasion.
They send one American naval officer and a handful of South Korean sailors to mobilize a guerrilla band of Raiders to go from island to island, get as much intelligence as possible, and then send that information back to the fleet. And the only way that they’re able to do this, and the naval officer that they pick is just this one of the… Probably the Forrest Gump of the Korean War, he manages to be everywhere, at least for the Navy in that initial year. He collects all this information, but does it by raiding island after island after island with his ragtag group of Korean guerrillas. And at the end of this two-week long series of raids, he ultimately lights the way for the entire landing fleet by climbing to the top of this abandoned lighthouse and lighting the wick.
Brett McKay: So we have the UDTs going further and further inland because of the Korean War, and so the Korean war ends, kind of. It’s like, well, for all intents and purposes, it was over. And then, during the ’60s, you start seeing the build-up to the Vietnam War. And this is when you started seeing the UDT transform and actually turned into what we now know as the SEALs. What was going on there? And when did we start actually calling these guys Navy SEALs?
Benjamin H. Milligan: There is a lot going on in this inter-war period, everybody’s trying to figure out… So the Army, after the Korean War… There’s this whole experience with the Rangers in Korea as well, where the Rangers are recreated, the Army recreates them and they ultimately decide they don’t want Rangers, they want some sort of force that can go in and mobilize an entire population, or something more akin to the OSS Jedburghs in World War II. So the idea of guerrilla war, counter-guerrilla war is on everybody’s mind, everybody’s thinking because there’s now nuclear weapons, they’re a part of strategic decision-making, they’ve forced an uncomfortable truce between major powers. So now, combats being pushed back down to the mud is being fought by proxies and guerrilla units. In the 1960s, or in the late 1950s, a couple of people are noticing this, probably best of all. And as far as the Navy goes, the one who notices this and then re-orients the Navy to deal with it is Chief of Naval Operations at the time who is Arleigh Burke, who is… If there is a…
He’s probably the most consequential personality when it comes to the creation of the SEAL team. He’s never been a member of any of the Navy’s elite branches, he’s never been a pilot, he’s never been a submariner. He was never in the UDT. He never does anything in World War II, that would suggest that he was going to be an advocate for guerrilla or counter-guerrilla or commando-type operations. The one thing that is distinct about Arleigh Burke is that he’s a surface sailor, but he is as aggressive a sailor or commander as anyone since John Paul Jones, he is… In each inter-war period, everybody is always predicting that the Navy is going to be relegated to become a merchant marine, because the Air Force can transport troops better than the Navy can. There aren’t any massive navies like the German Navy or the Japanese Navy. So, you don’t need as many destroyers and submarines, and all the rest. Arleigh Burke doesn’t see that future for the Navy. Arleigh Burke sees a Navy as offensively oriented as any that he served with in World War II.
So he refuses to consign the Navy to that future. He’s constantly looking for opportunities to push his men or his sailors ashore to find and chase the enemy wherever the enemy goes. Even before Kennedy comes into office, everybody attributes all the creation of Special Operations and Special Forces to Kennedy, but Burke is already orienting his staff to come up with plans to create a unit that can be the focal point of all the Navy’s previous unconventional warfare experiences. The Scouts and Raiders, the NCDUs, the UDTs, the Navy’s guerrillas in China during World War II. He’s funneling all these things into one single compact unit. One of the reports that I found, or I stumbled across, at the Navy Yard, you can see the first instance where they are proposing what to call this unit, and the guy just casually says, “This unit could be called a SEAL unit, for their universal, capability.” SEAL being a contraction of sea, air and land.
Brett McKay: Alright. So that’s the creation of the SEALs, but then, when they first started seeing action, and that’s the Vietnam War, is when they were put to the test. Right?
Benjamin H. Milligan: Yeah, and it doesn’t go well. [chuckle] And so, the Navy hadn’t… Under Arleigh Burke anyway, the Navy had never really had a desire to create a version of the Army Special Forces. They didn’t really wanna create guerrilla leaders or anything like that. The Navy, in keeping with the Navy’s raiding throughout history, the Navy wants commandos, they want raiders, they want guys that can land on a coast, raid an installation and then escape back to sea. So that’s how the SEALs are originally oriented. And each one of these direct action or commando-type missions, the SEALs are raiding like a command post or a naval battery, or a truck park or something like that, some installation. And when the SEALs show up in Vietnam, there isn’t any of those. [chuckle] Vietnam, they don’t have… There’s no infrastructure there. So the first SEAL commander who shows up, he leads his men into these patrols and into the swamps of the Rung Sat Special Zone, which is this little corner of tidewater, just to the south and east of Saigon. And like I said, they don’t find any of the stuff that they have been training to take out. He starts going into Saigon, he ends up shacking up with a nurse, all of his guys end up trying to do the same thing. And the Navy planners see what these SEALs are doing, and they’re predictably, outraged. They can’t believe that there’s a Navy unit that’s not contributing to the mission, even though the mission hasn’t been particularly defined for them.
So the Navy is ready to kick the SEALs out of the country, and who knows what would have happened to the SEALs, whether they would have gotten disbanded like all the other units and Special Operations or… It’s hard to know. What we do know is, they didn’t and the reason that they didn’t is because the person in charge of all UDT and SEALs at that time, was this guy named Phil Bucklew, who had risen to command them, who himself had been one of the Navy’s first Scouts and Raiders, and then after he had proven himself as one of the Navy’s best beach markers, he had gotten sent to China where he had led guerrillas for the last year of World War II. So the decision ultimately falls to this one person, this one sailor who never served a day on a ship. And he decides… Well, he says, “Let’s give the SEALs a second chance, we’re gonna change the leadership and see if we can fix it.” And they send in a new commander for a new detachment, and that new detachment, they essentially arrive in Vietnam, Commander looks at his men and he says, “This isn’t the war we planned for, this isn’t the war we trained for, but this is the only war in town, and we’re not going to let it go to waste.” And night after night after night, he sends his guys into the swamp and they learned how to become what they never thought that they would become, and that’s these gorilla guerrilla hunters, essentially.
Brett McKay: And how did the SEALs change after Vietnam?
Benjamin H. Milligan: After Vietnam, I don’t know that they have. I think that the SEAL teams are essentially what they became in 1968. The center of gravity is still about the same. We’re on the cusp of probably a new shift in what SEALs are, just because we’re starting to move away… We’ve moved away from Afghanistan, moved away from Iraq. Likely that we’re going to be at least orienting more towards these traditional big power adversaries, like China and Russia. So it’ll be interesting to see what the SEALs ultimately become, but if combat moves inland again, just knowing what I know of the SEAL teams, knowing what their cultural center of gravity is, what their history is, knowing that they have this sort of insatiable bias for action, I don’t see the SEALs changing much. I think they’ll adapt as they always have, but that, like I said, the SEALs become the SEALs. The SEALs were created in ’62, but they don’t really become the SEALs that we know today, the go-anywhere, capture go-commando force until 1968. That’s where the institutions hardens into what it is.
Brett McKay: It took a long time. Even that, there was all these different iterations and it all came together slowly.
Benjamin H. Milligan: Yeah, it does. And it doesn’t happen because anybody is like… Like I said, nobody has a vision for it. Each instance where the Army Rangers, or the Marine Corps Raiders, or the Army Rangers again, or Army Special Forces, or Army partisans or whatever, each of the people that come along, whether it’s Carlson, Peddicord, Darby, John McGee in Korea, Aaron Bank after Korea, they all have these castles in their mind of what they want to create. And they’ve got elaborate objectives for these missions, elaborate organizational charts to go with them. Everybody that creates these Army or Marine Corps units, they’re very entrepreneurial, they just seem to always have been just slightly ahead of their time. Whereas the Navy, they don’t really have a plan. I don’t know if that’s a feature of the Navy being so bad at history or so bad at forward planning, but they’re just solving incremental issues. It didn’t happen accidentally, because the Navy was very decisive, there was always somebody that decided that the Navy was going to move in a certain direction, but it is a bit haphazard, if that makes sense.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Benjamin H. Milligan: I have a limited social media presence. I’m on Instagram, bmilligan3, we got three little guys. And then I’m on Twitter, @benhmilligan. The book though is available on Amazon. Signed copies are available through my local bookstore here, at Prairie Path Books.
Brett McKay: Well, Ben Milligan, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Benjamin H. Milligan: Thank you. Been great. Had fun.
Brett McKay: My guest here was Benjamin Milligan, he’s the author of the book “By Water Beneath the Walls,” it’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Make sure to check out our show notes at aom.is/seals, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
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