SEAL History: First Airborne Frogmen

By Captain (SEAL) N.H. Olson, USN, Retired
Updated: February 2013

Today, basic and advanced parachuting in the SEAL, SDV and SWCC Teams is routine and an accepted part of doing business. While the parachuting lineage of today’s Naval Special Warfare forces can be traced to the early 1950s, there was one unsung hero in World War II, who by virtue of training and operations was likely the first individual in the United States to ever conduct the full range of missions considered core to the SEAL Teams.

When the U.S. entered World War II, Jack Taylor, a 33-year old orthodontist practicing in California, joined the Navy as a line officer and initially served on a sub-chaser. Based on his vast pre-war experience as an open-ocean sailor, he was sequestered by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to serve in their maritime training section as an instructor in boat handling, navigation and seamanship. He then went on to qualify in the use of the Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit (LARU) and was assigned to the first Underwater Swimmer Group trained for operations in Northern Europe. However, prior to his deployment to England, his vast experience in small boat operations found another calling, and he was transferred as the first OSS Maritime Unit (MU) representative in the Middle East. Over a 15-month period, his achievements were considerable in the landing of agents and the delivery of ammunition and supplies to advance operations bases in the Nazi-occupied Greek Islands and mainland, and into Yugoslavia and Albania, including near capture on one occasion.

As the war in Europe was coming to a close, it was recognized that there were no known Partisan groups or resistance movements in Austria with whom to ally with. Thus, the Vienna area was chosen as the first priority to infiltrate an OSS team. LT Taylor was selected to lead three volunteer Austrian corporal POWs on the first American operation into Austria, coined the Dupont Mission. On 13 October 1944, the 4-man team was infiltrated by parachute from a British Liberator manned by a Polish crew. To minimize their exposure to searchlights and anti-aircraft batteries, the jump was conducted during the dark of the moon from 400 feet, without a ground reception committee or ground lights, and with absolutely no circling. Compared to normal Partisan drops, this plan was entirely abnormal, due to the extremely hazardous nature of this operation.

After evading the enemy for over 6-weeks, the team was captured an interned in a Vienna prison. Tortured and brutalized for over 4-months, LT Taylor was transferred on 1 April 1945 to Mauthausen, the most notorious of all Nazi concentration camps. He was scheduled to be executed on 28 April, but 3-days before, a friendly Czech working in the political department burned his file. Several days later, Mauthausen was liberated by the Americans and LT Taylor was set free. Following his recovery, he testified at the Nuremberg Trials, wearing his service dress blues, with silver jump wings over his left breast pocket.

As a member of the U.S. Navy, LT Jack Taylor unquestionably stands out in the history of Maritime Special Operations as our nation’s first Sea, Air, and Land Commando. While he did not have the benefit of today’s formal training, parachuting or otherwise, his operational exploits and personal daring serve as a role model for present day SEALs to emulate.

In the Spring of 1950, five years after the close of World War II and during the early period of the Korean Police Action, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations requested the Commanders of Underwater Demolition Teams ATLANTIC and PACIFIC to each submit a list of UDT- qualified officers recommended for specialized training at Fort Benning, GA, which would require, among other things, qualification as parachutists.

In January 1951, LT (later CAPT) Bruce Dunning from UDT TWO was the first UDT operator selected to attend this specialized, tri-Service training. After graduation the following February, and while enroute to Washington, DC, LT Dunning briefed COMUDTLANT on the value of having Basic Airborne Training incorporated into the UDT program, both as a delivery means and to upgrade the quality of UDT Training. LT (later CAPT) Bill Thede from UDT ONE attended the next class, and he was followed by LTJG (later CAPT) Allen Jones, Jr. from UDT FOUR. In a number of cases, this training led to assignment with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the follow-on organization to the OSS. Much like World War II, qualification as a parachutist was a prerequisite for such assignment.

It is not clear whether others from UDT attended this specialized training during the Korean War, but in 1954, the XO, UDT TWENTY-ONE, LT (Later CDR) Leo Huddleston (a WW II veteran of UDT THIRTEEN), was directed to review UDT’s mission statement. Surprisingly to him, it contained a clause that stated UDT should have the capability to be delivered to an objective area by parachute. This was in all likelihood the result of recommendations made by the early pioneers, who opened the doors that led to what is now an accepted core readiness capability in SEAL Training.

As a result of LT Huddleston’s discovery, he immediately recommended that a chosen few, him included, acquire parachute training in order to determine whether this was in fact a viable option. Thus, in the fall of 1955, after a year of persistent struggle with the Army for quotas, CDR Dave Saunders, COMUDUTWO (the WW II CO, UDT TWENTY-SIX), along with LT Larry Fay, UDT TWENTY TWO, attended Basic Airborne School, Ft. Benning, GA. Prior to their scheduled graduation, LT Huddleston and LTJG Ralph Leonard, both of UDT TWENTY-ONE, commenced training in the next class.

Unfortunately, CDR Saunders did not graduate due to a near fatal injury sustained on the 250 Ft Tower. As he was being hoisted up, the locking mechanism that secured the apex of the parachute assembly prematurely released at about 100 feet, driving him to the ground and severely injuring one of his ankles. He was subsequently retired on full disability. This was the first tower malfunction in the history of Airborne Training, which is phenomenal when you consider that nearly a quarter of a million trainees had passed through the “Cradle of American Airborne” before him. As a result, those of us that followed were hooked up to a safety line that attached to the solid outer ring housing each of the tower’s canopies.

Following this initial assessment, quotas for fifteen Frogmen were obtained in the spring of 1956. Their purpose was to complete training and then return to Little Creek to develop tactical water entry techniques. A call went out to both UDT TWENTY-ONE and UDT TWENTY-TWO for volunteers, and virtually everyone signed up. LTJG Leonard was put in charge of paring this group down to three officers and twelve enlisted men.

This period of pre screening, referred to by many as “Gladiator” training, included untold numbers of pull-ups, practicing the “Parachute Shuffle,” and worse yet, wearing starched greens, polishing brass, shaving one’s head and learning how to march. After several weeks, the selection was made and LTJG Norm Olson was designated as the Detachment Officer in Charge. Rounding out the Detachment were LTJG Jack Connelly, ENS Tony Steimle, BM1 Joe DiMartino, BM1 Fred “Robby” Robbins, QM1 Charles “Moose” Boitnott, GM1 Ben Sulinski, MN1 Jim McGee, CD1 Paul Grimes, GM2 Tom McAllister, MM2 “Charlie” Bond, EM2 Frank Moncrief, BM3 Bob Salerno, SW3 Bob Ballard, and IC3 Dick Prahm. Although there was much complaining about this pre selection phase, it paid off, making the actual training a piece of cake.

In those days, the UDTs wore boondockers and WW II vintage Seabee greens and ball caps, and in most cases these uniforms had been turned in by departing Frogmen and reissued to newly arrived Trainees. Last names were stenciled over one of the pockets and new arrivals usually had several iterations of names that had been blackened out before reissue. The bottom line was that this ensemble, referred to as a uniform, was motley looking at best.

However, in preparation for jump school, and to the dismay of others in the Teams, the dirty dozen plus three were issued several sets of Army style greens purchased at Ft. Story. Additionally, at their own expense, they ordered Corcoran Jump Boots, without which they could not attend the course. In those days, the boots only came in brown, the color of the Army Airborne thus, prior to departure, they were dyed black.

Basic Airborne Training hasn’t changed much over the years, except for the jump platform and parachute. In those days, the aircraft was the C 119 “Flying Boxcar” and the parachute assembly was the T 10 with an unmodified 35 Ft Canopy. After two weeks of ground training and a third week consisting of five jumps, Airborne Class 12 graduated in June 1956. The parade review was marked with the UDT officers wearing khakis and framed caps, and the enlisted men wearing whites, neckerchiefs and white hats.

Boots were also bloused. It wasn’t clear why the Detachment was disbursed throughout the 250 man formation, but rumor had it that the Army didn’t want this small group to stand out from the rest, particularly since the two class honormen were GM1 Ben Sulinski and CD1 Paul Grimes. In truth, they probably feared that UDT’s marching skills would cause great hilarity and embarrassment, and that it would be far better to spread the Detachment out amongst the masses.

Following graduation, the Detachment remained for an additional week of Jumpmaster Training, which included three more jumps. During this time, mock exits were made from the 34 Ft Tower wearing a dry suit, with fins and facemask either worn or secured to the bellyband. Additionally, exits were made with the Draeger Lar III Closed Circuit SCUBA under the harness. This preliminary assessment was done in anticipation of making water jumps once the Detachment returned to Little Creek. Regrettably, the lack of funding to procure parachute equipment and priority to schedule aircraft resulted in a four year delay before any water jumps were actually conducted.

During the intervening years, additional quotas were sought so as to have a cadre of qualified personnel on board at all times. However, it wasn’t until 1958 that eighteen more quotas were obtained. Shortly thereafter, a new group of volunteers commenced “Gladiator” pre screening under the watchful eye of now LT Olson. This Detachment, headed by LTJG Fred Cook, graduated in December. Shortly thereafter, he was tasked to develop techniques and evaluate procedures for water entry by parachute. Without benefit of aircraft or parachutes, this initial evaluation was limited to pool testing wearing salvaged parachute harnesses and using the “Dilbert Dunker” at the Norfolk Naval Air Station. Although this was far from an ideal situation, the tests did conclude that the wearing of Closed Circuit SCUBA and ancillary equipment under the existing parachute assembly was not the way to go, and that some form of general purpose (GP) bag would be needed.

In order to gain additional parachuting experience, COMUDUTWO in July 1959 arranged for this core of UDT jumpers to attend a week long Airborne Orientation Course offered by the 77th Special Forces Group, Fort Bragg, NC. In return, the Green Berets would receive Closed Circuit SCUBA training at Little Creek. This was the first exchange between Special Forces and the East Coast UDTs, and it ultimately led to a very close working relationship once SEAL Team TWO was established in 1962.
The additional jump training provided by the 77th SFG included about a dozen jumps from a variety of fixed and rotary wing aircraft. Additionally, rigging and aerial delivery techniques unique to small units were demonstrated, which proved invaluable once the Teams conducted actual jumps.

Finally in 1960, UDTs were authorized an allowance of parachutes. Once they were received, a group of six qualified jumpers were tasked to conduct sixty water jumps each to test the concept of delivery by parachute. LTJG “Solly” Mimms was designated Officer in Charge, and his band of merry men included BM1 “Robby” Robbins”, TM1 “Pat” Patterson, MR1 Ken Lange, DM1 “Lenny” Waugh and SM2 Bill Bruhmuller.

Oceana Naval Air Station was tasked to provide CIA aircraft, rigger support and a parachute loft with drying tower, and Army riggers from the XVIII Airborne Corps provided training in T 10 parachute packing to the Navy riggers. In addition to conducting the jumps, this group designed and fabricated waterproof GP bags out of old ponchos, parachute webbing and floatation bladders. As a result of these tests, it was concluded that delivery by parachute was a viable concept and that it should be incorporated into UDT tactical doctrine as an operational capability.

Following this embryonic stage of development, jumping slowly became a part of the East Coast UDT’s culture. Additional quotas were obtained, the parachute allowance was slowly filled, a Quonset Hut was outfitted with packing tables, and selected personnel were trained and qualified as riggers at Fort Lee, VA.

In a series of initiatives, and with limited knowledge of the experiences and lessons learned east of the Mississippi, the West Coast UDTs received their first parachuting training on the island of Okinawa. In the late 1950s, it was commonplace for deployed UDT WESTPAC Detachments to request quotas for basic airborne training from the 1st Special Forces Group, Okinawa. However, it was not until early 1961 that LTJG George Raines, OIC, Second Platoon, UDT ELEVEN Detachment MIKE, received encouragement that his platoon of two officers and fifteen enlisted men may be attending the first course.

The platoon deployed from Yokosuka, Japan to Okinawa, arriving in typical UDT fashion with no money, no billeting and a long list of requirements. The Platoon Chief, PHC Gene Gagliardi, who years before had a hand in training the 1st SFG in SCUBA at Camp McGill, Japan, used his network of contacts to obtain billeting at Camp Sukeran. A week or so prior to training, the Platoon received a list of required exercises, thereby allowing them to “fine tune” their physical fitness program in accordance with the school’s requirements. With no budget for jump boots and uniform upgrades, all personnel spent their own funds for the necessary items.

The day before the course was to start, LTJG Raines was informed that SEVENTH Fleet had approved the request to train the platoon, but that the approval was for two officers and five enlisted men only. This caused significant consternation on both sides. The 1st SFG was in a time crunch and could not afford to train only seven personnel, and the platoon was faced with a morale problem because they had paid for their personal equipment, trained hard and were fired up and ready to go. With no time to go through channels, the 1st SFG solved the problem with the stroke of a pen, by inserting a “one” in front of the five.

Because the platoon was so highly motivated and in such good physical shape, the course was compressed from five weeks to two, and the five qualifying jumps from a helicopter were completed in one day. With the exception of EM3 Duane McDonald, who was injured during training and did not complete the course, two officers and fourteen enlisted men graduated on 31 March 1961.
Others in the Detachment included: LTJG Ted Hammond, SF1 Bob Fisher, SF1 Billy Steward, QM2 Clarence Betz, MN2 Gordon Brown, BM2 Frank Goerlich, BM2 Charlie Nelson, BM2 Joe Sehion, EN2 Billy Davis, SK2 Don “Herky” Hertenstein, RM2 Harry Monahan, MR3 Nick Dano, SN Curtis Hall and SN Bill Okesson.

As a result of the uniqueness of this training, the new graduates were featured on the front page of the next issue of the “Stars and Stripes,” which was read by virtually everyone in WESTPAC. Shortly thereafter, LTJG Raines was ordered to the SEVENTH Fleet Command Center to explain why so many personnel attended jump training without authorization. While his encounter with three Navy Captains did not result in an official reprimand, it can be said that his unofficial warning ranked amongst the highest for junior UDT Officers in the 1960s.

Following graduation, the Second Platoon reciprocated in May 1961 by cross training some of the 1st SFG jump cadre and command personnel in SCUBA in the waters off Okinawa. Thereinafter, a precedent was set for other WESTPAC Platoons to qualify as basic parachutists at the 1st SFG School, Camp Sukeran, Okinawa.

Chief Gene “Gag” Gagliardi then went on to qualify as a Jumpmaster and Instructor at the Army’s Test Site, Yuma, AZ, and as a Rigger at Fort Lee, VA. Subsequently he, along with DC1 Ed Reynolds, SM2 Joe Messenger and SK2 “Herky” Hertenstein qualified in High Altitude, Low Opening (HALO) techniques, also at Yuma. It was this cadre that established the foundation for all follow on parachuting on the West Coast.

When the SEAL Teams were established in 1962, SEAL Team TWO, with their base of experience and proximity to Fort Bragg, NC, had a significant advantage and capitalized on it by sending most of their personnel through the Army’s HALO School. Conversely, not all SEAL Team ONE personnel had been qualified as basic parachutists thus, a number were sent to the Navy’s parachute training facility at NAS, Lakehurst, NJ to qualify and evaluate the course. In part, urgency to become parachute qualified drove this decision, as quotas at Fort Benning were limited and the Lakehurst course was significantly shorter in duration. However, the course proved to be unsatisfactory, and all follow on training reverted to the Army. Once SEAL Team ONE was fully qualified in basic parachuting, they acquired the majority of their HALO training and qualifications at the Army’s Yuma Test Facility.

Concurrently, the deployed UDTs continued to receive their basic jump training in Okinawa, but this was sporadic and unpredictable. Accordingly, in February 1965, during now LCDR Olson’s tenure as CO, UDT ELEVEN, quotas were obtained for twenty four Frogmen from UDT ELEVEN and UDT TWELVE to attend Airborne Class 25, Fort Benning, GA. A west coast version of “Gladiator” pre screening was conducted, and LT Jim Batton was selected as the Detachment Officer in Charge.

As a result of their superb performance at Fort Benning, this Detachment was presented the first and only group award ever given by the Airborne Department for Outstanding Team Leadership. From that point on, more quotas were obtained, until virtually every member of UDT ELEVEN and UDT TWELVE was given the opportunity to become airborne qualified. However, it was not for everyone, and many of the old timers on both coasts chose not to attend jump school. Conversely, amongst those that did, there were mixed emotions about jumping. Some loved it, some disliked it, and the majority accepted it as a necessary part of being a Frogman.

Throughout the early stages of development, there was a strong reluctance on the part of the Navy to accept parachuting as a tactical concept. This was due in large measure to the Test Jumper lobby within NAVAIR that viewed jumping as a means of survival and thus, themselves as the only ones qualified to jump.

Very simply, it became a “rice bowl” issue, much similar to the early non acceptance of UDT SEAL Combat Swimmers by the Navy’s diving community. This manifested itself in several ways. When the first UDT Detachment completed Army Airborne Training in 1956, the Navy did not want to acknowledge it as a qualifier for wearing Basic Jump Wings.

This same lobby also coveted a Special Military Qualification (J 856) for designation as a Master Naval Parachutist. It involved static line and freefall jumps up to 40-second delays, as well as water, oxygen and night freefall jumps. By the time the SEAL Teams were fully operational; these requirements were easily attainable by many of its members. Also, the authorization of the Navy/Marine Corps Parachutist Insignia in 1963 officially opened the door and broadened the scope of parachuting in the Naval Service.

Acknowledgments for providing invaluable assistance in writing this article go to: CDR Leo Huddleston, LCDR Jim McGee, BMCM Bill Bruhmuller, PHCM Gene Gagliardi and EMC Frank Moncrief, all former Frogmen and USN (Retired).

About the Author: Captain Olson commanded UDT ELEVEN, USMACVSOG’s Maritime Operations Group, Naval Special Warfare Group TWO and the Naval Amphibious Base, Little Creek, VA. He qualified as a Master Naval Parachutist, and when he retired in 1983, he had accumulated over 2,200 parachute jumps. Additionally, in 1965, he and CPO Peter Slempa took part in a double, night, water pickup by a Fulton Skyhook Equipped S2A “Tracker” Aircraft flying at an airspeed of 120 knots.

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