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From the “Silent Ones” of Vietnam to Today’s SWCC

60 Years of the US Navy’s Combat Craft Crewmen

by James D. Gray & Phil G. Garn
06 February 2024 According to Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command, Rear Adm. Keith Davids, “This is the Maritime Century, and NSW has a key role to play in terms of solving our Nation’s toughest problems in the maritime domain.”
During his remarks to the UDT/SEAL Association’s West Coast annual reunion Aug. 18, Davids explained the NSW team is adeptly positioned to bolster the Fleet's operations in the world's littorals—coastal waters that present unique challenges for naval operations.
To address those unique challenges, over the past six decades, Special Warfare Combat Crewmen (SWCC) have evolved into a sophisticated force. Their expertise spans operational tactics, logistical support, and administrative governance, managing NSW's fleet of agile small craft with precision and adaptability.
During World War II, the U.S. Navy's prowess in small combatant operations was unmatched, with 45 Squadrons of PT Boats and a personnel complement ranging from 50,000 to 60,000 in roles spanning operations, training, and maintenance. The Office of Strategic Services' (OSS) Maritime Unit further expanded this capability, maintaining its own fleet that included a PT Boat Squadron, crash boat flotilla, and submarine chasers. They also utilized a variety of indigenous craft, engaging in high-stakes littoral combat and reconnaissance missions across diverse theaters—from the icy Aleutians to the jungles of Burma, and the Mediterranean to the frigid Norwegian Coast.
Medal of Honor recipient John D. Bulkeley, who once served as commanding officer of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, OSS Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Two and the English Channel Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla, also led the Battle of La Ciotat off the coast of France. With a force of one destroyer, 17 PT boats and two British gunboats, the victorious Allies sank a German merchant ship, corvette, and yacht, which led to the capture of 169 enemy sailors.
When  asked why he engaged two enemy vessels, Captain Bulkeley, the most famous and influential PT Boat Sailors replied, "What else could I do? You engage, you fight, you win. That is the reputation of our Navy, then and in the future.“
However, these specialized littoral operations suffered a sharp decline in the post-war period as resources were reallocated and military strategy shifted focus. Although there was a brief resurgence during the Korean War, the Navy's strategic emphasis soon returned to its conventional and nuclear blue water capabilities, leaving the small combatant expertise underutilized.
In the waning years of President Eisenhower's term, a growing presidential focus on Counter Insurgency Warfare—recognized today as the genesis of U.S. Special Operations—led to the formation of Boat Support Units (BSU). Even before the official commissioning of BSU-1 in February 1964, Gen. Paul Harkins foresaw their utility in Vietnam, calling upon the unit's Patrol Torpedo Fast (PTF) boats and SEALs to aid in the region's counterinsurgency efforts. With the commencement of their covert activities in 1964, the units of Mobile Support Team (MST) 1 initiated secretive missions targeting North Vietnamese operations. The versatile members of BSU-1 were also instrumental in testing a variety of riverine warfare vessels, including Patrol Craft Fast (PCF), Patrol Boat Riverine (PBR), hydrofoils, and hovercraft. These craft became the backbone of the Navy's newly instituted Task Forces 115, 116, and 117, designed to enhance the Navy's swift and flexible response to insurgent threats.
Ironically, the 'Silent Ones' from Mobile Support Team (MST) 2 of BSU-1 found themselves building their own SEAL support craft in 1967 due to the unavailability of the tested craft and trained personnel from Coronado for direct action operations. Their resourcefulness led to significant success in multi-craft clandestine operations across the Mekong Delta and on-the-ground missions throughout the Vietnam War. Despite their operational triumphs, there were considerations to disband the boat units post-conflict. It was the initiative of Jack Suddeth, a former commanding officer of BSU-1 and an Underwater Demolition Team veteran, that secured the necessary funding through the Naval Reserve Force. Suddeth's efforts were pivotal in sustaining the Riverine, Coastal Patrol, and Interdiction missions, along with integral SEAL support. Although the rotation back to the Fleet for high-performing personnel from the BSU and Coastal River Squadron teams truncated their tours in NSW, the combat experience and expertise cultivated within Task Forces 115, 116, and 117, as well as MSTs 1, 2, and 3, continued to enrich the capabilities of NRF and active-duty boat units through joint training exercises over the decades.
From 1978 to 2002, Special Boat Squadrons on the East and West Coasts, served as the command headquarters for the operational Special Boat Units (SBU), much like today’s Naval Special Warfare Group 4 (NSWG-4). In the 1980s, personnel and vessels from the SBUs played pivotal roles in the Grenada invasion and the Lebanese Civil War. A strategic reorganization in 1987 saw NSW and its SBUs reassigned from the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets directly to United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). Contrary to expectations, the first major deployment under USSOCOM was not a high-profile special operation but the 'Tanker Wars' against Iran, consisting of Operations like Earnest Will and Praying Mantis. These operations often involved non-stop Coastal Patrol/Interdiction and escort missions operating from mobile sea bases amidst the perilous, mine-laden waters of the Persian Gulf.
Relentless operations tempo typically leads to forgoing cosmetic upkeep and only completing necessary maintenance. This approach keeps boats in the water and on patrol but shines a spotlight on the material wear and tear of constant underway time. Retired Master Chief Jim Gray, who served as Chief Petty Officer in Charge of a Patrol Boat MK-III during Operation Earnest Will, recollects his response to a visiting VIP who mentioned the boats looked like they took a beating.
“It’s not the NSW boats that are special,” Gray told the visiting dignitary. “It's the crew that makes them work and successfully complete the missions."
During Operation Just Cause in Panama, SBU-26 distinguished itself by seizing assets belonging to Gen. Manuel Noriega, including his yachts and aircraft, and played a crucial role in quelling opposition forces alongside SEAL units. SBUs were also integral to Foreign Internal Defense (FID) missions across Central and South America, reinforcing their adaptability and breadth of capability.
During the course of Operation Desert Shield/Storm from 1990 to 1991, Special Boat Unit operatives were swiftly deployed to the Persian Gulf. There, they conducted a variety of critical missions which included reconnaissance, combat search and rescue operations, and direct assaults on strategic oil and gas infrastructure. Additionally, SBU teams supported a major amphibious deception operation. They utilized high-speed boats to simulate an impending landing along the Kuwaiti coast, which effectively diverted approximately 10,000 Iraqi soldiers, diluting their defenses against Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's main coalition ground forces. This maneuver played a key role in the success of the broader coalition strategy by misdirecting Iraqi military resources at a pivotal moment.
In the decade following, a transformational shift occurred within the Special Boat Units, spearheaded by Master Chief Kelly Webb and a group of devoted enlisted personnel. Supported by admirals such as Thomas Richards and Raymond Smith, along with contributions from other SEALs, this team was instrumental in professionalizing SBU training. In a revolutionizing move for the community, they established the 'School House' within Naval Special Warfare Center, known today as the SWCC Training Center. This initiative enabled SWCC operators to pursue a dedicated career path exclusively within the NSW boat community, rather than rotating back to the general fleet after a single tour. As a result, specialized training in areas such as parachute qualifications, the Maritime External Air Transportation System (MEATS), and the Maritime Craft Aerial Deployment System for boat insertion became standard practice. Moreover, SWCC personnel were granted the opportunity to compete for positions within the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU). The institution of the Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) program was another milestone, providing SWCC with their own commissioned leaders capable of guiding missions and serving in pivotal NSW leadership and advisory roles.
"The CWO program was established in 2002 to replace the Surface Warfare Officer requirement as MK-V officer in charge,” said retired CWO4 Dave Wylie, the first SWCC CWO. “Originally, we started with 32 billets to fill all MK-V OIC, training officers and NSWG-4 staff officer billets. By 2019, we were at 45 billets across all NSW echelons, to include Naval Special Warfare Command, N3, N8, NSW unit planners, DEVGRU, SOCOM acquisition office and the command Warrant Officer positions."
The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, marked the onset of the Global War on Terror, prompting the deployment of SWCC to multiple theaters worldwide. In Iraq, SWCC were engaged in the most intense riverine combat encounters since the Vietnam War. Their roles included conducting Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS) missions, enforcing maritime denial operations, and executing the Maritime External Air Transportation System (MEATS). Beyond Iraq, the SWCC pursued the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the Philippines, employing a variety of craft from
MK-V Special Operations Craft to NSW Rigid Inflatable Boats and even local dugout canoes for stealth and adaptability. In the Horn of Africa, they targeted the militant group al-Shabaab, and their adaptability extended to land-based operations in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan.
In October 2006, the transition of Special Boat Units (SBUs) into Special Boat Teams mirrored the organizational model of NSW’s SEAL Teams, a change underscored by the establishment of the Special Boat Operator (SB) rating. This structural evolution facilitated a more integrated and cohesive force within the Naval Special Warfare community. In tandem with these changes, SWCC veterans established the Combatant Craft Crewman Association, an organization committed to preserving the history and legacy of NSW service through historical preservation and charitable endeavors. Reflecting their expanded role, SWCC senior enlisted members have taken leadership positions in Special Reconnaissance Teams, and SWCC personnel have also joined the ranks of the esteemed Navy Parachute Team, 'The Leap Frogs,' showcasing their versatile skills in aerial operations.
In recent years, the Naval Special Warfare community has marked a historic milestone with women Sailors successfully qualifying as SWCC operators, demonstrating the community's commitment to inclusivity and strength through diversity. Master Chief Joaquin Martinez furthered this progressive trajectory by becoming the first SWCC Command Master Chief at the Naval Special Warfare Center, where he oversees the rigorous training pipelines for both SEAL and SWCC candidates. Under his stewardship, SWCC are encouraged to excel across all facets of their profession. As Master Chief Martinez articulates, War Boat pin worn by SWCC Masters is a constant reminder that being a member of the world’s premier maritime special operations force requires mastering every facet of their profession and requires persistent dedication and refinement.
“The three stars of the SWCC Master War Boat device not only stand for Vietnam Task Forces 115, 116 and 117,” Martinez said. “They also represent administration, logistics, and operations; skills all SWCC must master and continually hone, especially at the senior enlisted levels.”
As the focus of global security shifts from the predominantly land-based engagements to a renewed emphasis on maritime strategy, the demand for the expertise of SWCC operators, their support teams, and high-performance craft has surged. In response to this new era, SWCC units tirelessly refine their maritime and tactical proficiencies. Their guiding motto, “On Time, On Target, and Never Quit,” reflects the SWCC community’s commitment to the relentless pursuit of excellence and readiness. As guardians of the sea, they remain vigilant and prepared, ensuring that their response is as stealthy as it is swift, reflecting the evolving needs of NSW in the 21st century.