US Navy clandestine maritime operations, WWII China and early Vietnam
May 13, 2015
By Ed Marek, editor
I must confess this is a crazy report. It slipped out of my control!
I began by wanting to talk about the “Brown Water” Riverine Navy during Vietnam. Quite early on in my research, I ran across a blog item that said this:
“In Jan/Feb 1964, SEAL Team One and UDT Team 13 were attached to MAACV (later it was MAC). They were part of ‘black ops Studies and Observation Group (original SOG)’. Two old, wooden, Captains Gigs were obtained from the USS Weiss, a barge that served as dock and housing for Team One and certain MACVSOG members, fixed in the Saigon River. These two boats were fitted with hand mounted .50 cal machine guns and deployed throughout the Delta to insert/extract recon teams. Self designated ‘River Assault Team One (RAT1)’, mostly referred to as ‘floating coffins.’ I think if you are going to talk about-the history of the Brown Water Navy….This piece needs to be mentioned some how. Black Ops was sensitive, few records or written history exists or (the subject) is denied. My guess though is that if you were to search out the ship logs of the USS Weiss you may see log entries to validate this…I am interested in accurate reporting (where it is possible) so to me the BW Navy was born in 1964 not 1967…just sayin’……..I also do not want to be contacted about this further…check it out you’ll see.”
So I looked into what he said. I found that the USS Weiss was not in Vietnamese waters in 1964, but she was there in February 1963 doing coastal surveys of Vietnam south of Danang. Navy Underwater Demolition Team Twelve (UDT-12), with elements of the 3rd Marine Reconnaissance Battalion, I believe Alpha Company, were embarked. The Marines, I believe, did go ashore and did take some hostile fire from the Communist Viet Cong guerrillas.
This struck me as odd, in part because this was over two years prior to the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, and the need for a coastal survey was not clear. So I started digging a little deeper. For every stone I unturned, I found 20 more underneath!
The notion of clandestine maritime operations really tweaked me. The more research I did the deeper I got. Before I knew it, I was studying US Navy clandestine maritime operations in China in WWII. And as I did, I became acutely aware of the relationships that developed between those operations in China in WWII and those that occurred in the early days of Vietnam, as early as 1954.
Along with this, I learned how the Navy developed its capabilities all the way up to and including the launch of the US Navy SEALs and their involvement in the early days of Vietnam. The emergence of the SEALs was not an overnight thing, but the result of a long, 60 year evolution in Navy thinking and planning
This report will highlight how clandestine, covert US Navy maritime operations developed in WWII China. Then it will skip ahead to address US Navy covert maritime operations through the early days of US involvement in Vietnam, after the French gave up Indochina in 1954. I will walk you up to the Gulf of Tonkin Incidents involving, among others, the USS Maddox and Turner Joy. That is where I will stop, August 1964. I will not cover the Korean War.
This story is extremely complex, and often convoluted. I have done my best to be accurate, even though the documented history is often conflicting and ambiguous.
I invite those who might have been involved in this era to e-mail in your stories, comments, corrections, and all that. I will eventually add one more section which will reflect stories I have found from the men who were there.
We often think the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian Islands was a surprise. Perhaps the exact timing of it was, but the Navy did anticipate that such an attack was a likely scenario.
But the navy planners could. They simply looked at the map of the Pacific islands, studied the Japanese penchant for economic development and expansion, and deduced that there was a likelihood somewhere down the line that Japan might attack some or all of these islands, many of which were under some sphere of US influence, many of which were under the European sphere of influence.
In his book, Miller notes that navy planners WWII understood that the “European dependencies (in the Far East) --- Hong Kong, Borneo Sarawak, Brunei, Malaya, French Indochina and the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) --- were more opulent prizes than the Philippines, rich in oil and resources worthy of major Western exertions to preserve.” The US also understood the importance of the “rich Chinese market,” and used the Philippines as a strategic entry point to the Far East, most notably to China.
Military planners recognized shortly after 1900 that Marine expeditionary forces capable of rapid deployment would be necessary in the future. By 1920 the Navy had decided it would develop in the future in accordance with War Plan ORANGE. As a result, it ordered the Marine Corps to be ready to launch expeditionary forces on short notice from the West Coast for a naval campaign in the Pacific. It then added the East Coast for Atlantic and Caribbean contingencies later.
As a result, amphibious warfare became a firm new wartime mission for the Marines --- amphibious assault to seize and defend advanced bases. Broadly speaking, in those days this was a conventional warfare mission.
With that in mind, let’s look at the evolution of Naval covert maritime operations, in short, the SEAL lineage. Navy SEAL History says this:
“Today’s SEALs embody in a single force the heritage, missions, capabilities, and combat lessons-learned of five daring groups that no longer exist but were crucial to Allied Victory in World War II and the conflict in Korea. These were (Army) Scouts and (Navy) Raiders; Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs), Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Operational Swimmers, Navy Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs), and Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons.”
The SEALs were established in January 1962, just prior to the official beginning of the US war in Indochina, which was August 7, 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
However, JFK did not establish the Navy SEALs. The Navy did that.
Establishing the Navy SEALs was the result of a 60 year evolutionary process within the Navy. Navy planners had been working the issue for some time.
Some say the SEALs were formed specifically for Vietnam. That is arguable. They actually conducted their first operational missions against Cuba, and then went to Vietnam. It is true that naval planners understood what was happening in Vietnam and that they would need unconventional counter-insurgency forces to operate there. But there was a confluence of many, many events that happened to result in the Navy creating the SEALs just in time to go to Vietnam.
I want to introduce you to some SEAL heritage by highlighting a few specially organized maritime commando units formed during WWII. They would serve as a foundation for later Navy SEAL operations to include those done in Vietnam. My reading of the history is that many of the units formed during WWII collectively were known as Scouts and Raiders, though each group seemed to acquire its own nomenclature and title. The photo is of some Scouts and Raiders drawn from the book cover, US Naval Commandos of World War II, by Mir Bahmanyar, illustrated by Michael Welly.
Let’s walk quickly through the lineage.
“The Observer Group experimented with many types of small landing craft including rubber boats, folding canvas boats, kayaks, outboard motors, light weight radio equipment, signal lights and different types of clothing. The Army went to Africa and the Marines under Capt. James Jones, USMC went to Camp Elliot outside of San Diego as part of Amphibious Corps Pacific Fleet Force.”
Scott McEwan, in his book, Eyes on the target: Inside Stories from the Brotherhood of the US Navy SEALs, wrote:
“Five months before the Japanese attacks the Navy tasked 2nd Lt. Lloyd E. Peddicord, USA to study the need for Navy swimmers to assess the reefs, fortifications and other obstacles to landing sailors and Marines. This as an interesting task for an infantry man! These reconnaissance teams needed to move undetected in enemy waters and collect the kind of intelligence that could be gathered only by skilled observers at sea level.”
Peddicord warned that aerial reconnaissance was insufficient to accurately understand the depth of reefs.
The S&R were born out of an understanding that WWII would demand a great number of amphibious landings that required reconnaissance of landing beaches, obstacles and defenses, as well guiding forces in. This in turn required a good amount of human intelligence collection gathered from human, rather than technical, sources.
Seven NCDU units were set up for the 3rd and 5th Fleets in the Pacific, three for the 8th Fleet in the Mediterranean, and one unit sent to England. By 1944, some 34 NCDUs had come to England to prepare for Operation Overlord, the amphibious landings at Normandy. The NCDUs at Normandy on D-Day suffered a 52 percent casualty rate, thirty-seven KIA and 71 WIA, the worst losses in history suffered by Naval Special Warfare (NSW).
Many historians refer to the NCDUs as frogmen, which is not accurate. Of course they were trained to swim. But they wore full combat gear and learned to operate with stealth at night and during pre-dawn hours. This photo from the Navy SEAL Museum shows a group from NCDU, probably taken in 1943 at Ft. Pierce.
Codename Special Services Unit One (SSU-1) was established in July 1943 in the Pacific by RAdm. Daniel “Uncle Dan” Barbey, commanding officer, Amphibious 7th Fleet. It was quite a secret at the time, and not a lot is written today about them. SSU-1 was a combined (more than one country) joint (more than one service) unit with people from Australia and the US Army, Navy and Marines. The Navy-Seal Museum wrote:
“They were trained in martial arts, hand to hand combat, map making, rubber-craft operations, jungle survival training, Pidgin English, underwater coral formations, and sea-creatures recognition.”
Pat and Hank Staudt wrote:
“(There was) a need for precise and accurate intelligence about (amphibious) landing sites. This meant there was a need for forming a unique, highly skilled, and cohesive force unlike any the military had ever seen before. The duties these men would be required to perform would be hazardous in the extreme. They required the abilities of men of very differing background, training, and experience to subordinate individual identities and work successfully in unison and covertly to achieve crucial goals. This group was needed because of the failure of aerial photos and no onsite recon to produce precise intelligence about landing sites.”
One of the more risky jobs was to get to an island and up into it undetected, then survey potential landing beaches and obtain hydrographic data. Others would scout approaches off the beach.
The volunteers were trained in Cairns, Australia, in northeast Australia, at a place known as Z Experimental Station, informally as “The House on the Hill.” It was set up in July 1942 by the Australian Inter-Allied Services Department (ISD), and later moved to other locations. In their book, The Frogmen of World War II: An Oral History of the US Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams,” Chet Cunningham wrote Coxswain Calvin Byrd, now deceased, an SSU-1 member, said:
“Lessons were given in the use of rubber boats for landing from PT (Patrol Torpedo) boats and submarines. We practiced landing on beaches in the surf, pulling boats ashore, deflating them so they could be hidden in the jungle and later inflating them with a small cylinder of compressed air for the return after the mission was completed. We made many trips into the jungle for stays of two or three days or more. We landed at night along the coast. We had classes on what intelligence was likely to be gathered.”
“We played physical fitness exercises such as five-mile fast marches. We learned to communicate with the natives. We had target practice with our carbines and .45 pistols.”
In August 1943, SSU-1 moved to Fergusson Island, an abandoned PT boat base, the largest island of the D'Entrecasteaux Islands, in Papua New Guinea. SSU-1 did have a unique character. Its main job was to collect intelligence and work with indigenous men to conduct guerrilla-warfare missions. SSU-1 would later become the 7th Amphibious Scouts when the Army and Australians broke away.
Those who got to China before WWII ended trained Chinese in guerrilla operations and reconnaissance against the Japanese occupation force. They also were trained to survey potential landing beaches for invasions of the Chinese mainland, and report on Japanese ship movements and weather. It was thought at the time that the US would have to invade China in order to get closer to Japan. Three of the five units saw active duty.
Yet another kind of Naval unit to emerge was the Underwater Demolition Team (UDT). UDTs were formed up in December 1943 and were specifically designed to work in the Pacific region, where amphibious landings were the bread and butter of the march to Japan. Many of the men came from the Navy’s Seabees. Seabees were Naval mobile construction units.
Seabees were frequently used by the early Scouts & Rangers units. They participated in every major amphibious landing in the Pacific, so they understood what it was like to hit the beach. They were trained to defend themselves, and they were skilled volunteers who had come from all kinds of civilian construction projects including building dams, shipyards and docks, installing electrical equipment, and digging subway tunnels.
In the beginning, much of their work was to conduct pre-assault beach reconnaissance to the high tide line and to perform combat demolition to support amphibious landing operations, usually by the Marines. Much to most of their reconnaissance would be done by swimming.
They would also remove obstacles such as coral rock and wire frames made of heavy wire net, and they often detonated them. Once assaults were finished, they would select and mark beaches for follow-on landings, survey and mark channels, locate and remove mines, remove large chunks of Japanese vessels blocking certain areas, and blast slots in reefs blocking the way. They became known as the “frogmen.”
Most sources will tell you UDTs were developed in large part as the result of the Marine landings at Tarawa in November 20-23, 1943, depicted here in a painting by Sergeant Tom Lovell, USMC. This painting tells the story --- the landing craft had to stop short of the beach, the Marines had to get out and wade to the distant beach under hostile fire, no real way to defend themselves.
The landings did quickly establish an urgent requirement for hydrographic reconnaissance and underwater demolition of obstacles prior to any amphibious landings. As you probably know, much of the Pacific war consisted of island hopping and amphibious landings.
But to be fair, the Navy recognized before Tarawa that it would need naval combat demolition. There had not been a great need to demolish obstacles in Europe or even the Pacific. But In July 1943, the Navy set up a training program for naval combat demolition at the Amphibious Training Base, Ft. Pierce, Florida, prior to Tarawa. In the first week of November 1943, just prior to the Tarawa landings, the 5th Amphibious Force acted to organize and train naval demolition personal.
The Navy knew it would encounter many coral atolls and choked entry areas at a minimum. Intelligence sources could not at the time say with certainty that the Japanese would employ obstacles --- they had not done so up until now, but it was very early in the war and the Navy knew there would be many American amphibious landings conducted as the war proceeded. The photo shows one of the Solomon Islands, I believe Guadalcanal, with its coral reefs. The great difficulty is determining how deep the water is going to be above the coral for amphibious vehicles to land ground forces, who like it best when dumped on the beach and not 100 yds. out in the sea.
The 5th Amphibious Force grabbed up a bunch of Seabees who had done coral basin and coral lagoon clearance projects in various atolls in the Pacific and sent them to train at Waimanalo, Oahu, Hawaii, in early November 1943. By the end of November there were about 180 men training in underwater demolition, divided into two teams, UDT-1 and UDT-2. Men from the Army, Navy and Marines formed these teams.
All this said, these trained men were not ready for Tarawa and the Tarawa landings clearly caused the Navy to accelerate this UDT training.
The UDTs entered combat in January 1944 in the Marshall Islands. Thirty-four teams were eventually established. They would have been used had the invasion of the Japanese mainland gone ahead, but the Japanese surrendered under the yoke of two Atom bombs. The invasion was not necessary.
The UDTs were the only units of all those I have addressed thus far to remain operational after WWII, though they were downsized significantly thereafter. The six postwar UDTs were designated Teams Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Echo, and Foxtrot, consisting of about four officers and 50 enlisted each. In mid-1946 four of the “alphabet teams” were redesignated UDTs 1, 2, 3, and 4; with 1 and 3 assigned to the west coast at Coronado, California and 2 and 4 to the east coast at Little Creek, Virginia.
UDTs 1 and 3 were used in Korea, later augmented by the newly established UDT 5. During that war, they added to their repertoire of activities, most notably, they were required to go inland. They began covert demolition raids against enemy bridges, dams, railway tunnels and other installations, as well as minesweeping. I am not going to write about UDT operations in the Korean War, concentrating only on WWII China and Vietnam prior to August 1964, but I must highlight a singular point about UDT development during and after the Korean War.
This photo shows the USS Begor (APD-127) standing offshore Hungnam, Korea, on North Korea’s east coast, on Christmas Eve, 1950. Read this account from the Navy SEAL Museum:
“On Christmas Eve 1950 an eight-man squad from UDT-3 destroyed the waterfront facilities at Hungnam, Korea by setting off over 20 tons of explosives after working for hours in severe cold, rain, and enemy sniper fire, as their support ship USS Begore (APD-127) beat off Chinese troops with its 5-inch guns. The demolition operation resulted in the largest single blast to be set off during the Korean War and the largest non-nuclear blast since WWII.”
This underscores that the UDT mission following WWII and Korea was expanded greatly, especially after Korea. This is very important. Again referring to his book, SEALs at War, Edwin P. Hoyt said this:
“The men would still look for underwater obstacles and clear harbors and channels for amphibious landings, but they would also penetrate enemy waters to attack ships at anchor, demolish antisubmarine and other nets, and create confusion in enemy forces. They would be responsible for mine clearance, but also dissemination of intelligence. They would guide assault waves to the beaches as in the past, but they would also make inland penetration for intelligence purposes and would land and supply raiders and guerrilla fighters. They would improve channels and harbors as they did in World War II and in Korea, but they would also destroy port facilities during withdrawals.
“In other words, the mission of the UDT men had expanded broadly to make them a special force with the capability of the raider and the guerrilla added to the frogman activities of the past. And as their mission expanded, so did the range of weapons and heir skills.”
The Navy SEAL Museum says something similar:
“The Korean War substantially changed UDT operational doctrine; giving the men vastly expanded mission capabilities. In addition to their traditional roles of amphibious reconnaissance and mine and obstacle clearance, the UDTs saw the scope of their mission expanded to include stealthy infiltration from the sea to conduct raids and attack enemy shipping, port, and harbor facilities; clearance of ordnance from the high seas; intelligence gathering; and the covering of the withdrawal of friendly forces.”
To emphasize the point further, the UDTs were no longer confined to the sea. In 1950, a UDT blew up the an important North Korean railway supply line near Chong-jin, about 100 miles from the Soviet border. Chongjin was an iron and steel producing area.
I’ll mention here that the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a wartime intelligence agency formed in June 1942, stepped through an evolution similar to development of the Navy’s UDTs. The OSS job was to collect and analyze strategic information needed by the JCS and to conduct special operations not assigned to other agencies. It was the predecessor to the CIA. Early in WWII the OSS saw that it needed a maritime capability.
In January 1943, the OSS established a Maritime Unit (MU) whose jobs were to plan and coordinate agent infiltrations, supply resistance groups, conduct maritime sabotage, and develop special equipment to be used from the sea. They had men from the Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines in their ranks. The MU employed special boat infiltration tactics and all manner of other techniques which would by used by the UDTs and ultimately the SEALs. This photo obtained from the Navy SEAL Museum shows an OSS MU diver in training. He is wearing some advanced equipment such as the Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit, the LARU.
We’ll talk a lot more about the OSS in later sections.
Sea, Air, Land SEALs
Admiral Burke wanted to keep communist forces off-guard through employing covert maritime operations. He asked his staff to study the problem and develop recommendations. The staff concluded that the UDTs could be expanded to take on unconventional warfare tasks. That was, in large part, due to the UDT lineage and its mission expansion after Korea.
It’s worth remembering that the conventional Navy for the most part did not like any of this covert stuff. As always, competition for resources dominated and they wanted theirs for carriers, destroyers and submarines, and all those goes with them. It would take a long time for Navy clandestine operations to be accepted by the Navy at large, though you will see the top-dogs understood the need and acted.
During March 1961, the Navy staff recommended two new units be established separate from UDTs , one east coast, one west coast, both subordinate to amphibious commanders. The term SEAL was recommended. The reason new separate units were desired had to do with the fact that UDTs were generally tied to an amphibious force. Admiral Burke and those who studied the problem wanted the new units to be free and more independent, but still incorporating all that had been learned to date. While they might be administratively subordinate to amphibious commanders, they would also undertake special tasks assigned from outside, to wit the CIA, the secretary of defense, the president, and unified combatant commanders such as the commander-in-chief, Pacific, CINCPAC. In this sense, the SEALs were envisioned to be more unconventional than UDTs had been.
In May 1961, Admiral Burke signed a memo to his staff saying the two units should be formed and “represent a center or focal point through which all elements of this specialized Navy capability (naval guerrilla warfare) would be channeled. An appropriate name for such units could be SEAL units, SEAL being a contraction of SEA, AIR, LAND, and thereby, indicating an all-around, universal capability.”
ST-1 was formed on January 1, 1962 at Naval Amphibious Base (NAB), Coronado, California to support the Pacific Fleet, Lt. David Del Giudice, US Navy (left) in command. A few days later, on January 8, 1962, ST-2 was commissioned at Little Creek, Virginia to support the Atlantic Fleet, Lt. John Callahan (right) in command. All the men came from UDTs; UDT-11 and UDT-12 for ST-1, and UDT-21 for ST-2.
Let’s press ahead to Essential Historical Background.