SEAL Team 5 Celebrates 40th Anniversary

July 1, 2023

By Petty Officer 1st Class Alex Smedegard

The sun ascends over the horizon as military personnel make their way onto the compound at Silver Strand Training Complex. After catching their breath from a grueling morning workout, the bagpipes playing in the background orchestrate a calming atmosphere. With the sun now fully visible, five current and past service members step onto the stage in front of approximately 150 personnel to commemorate the 40th anniversary of SEAL Team 5.

“On May 1, 1983, Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) 11 redesignated as SEAL Team 5,” said the current commanding officer of SEAL Team 5. “Recognizing our 40 years of service and the ascension to success is a testament to the incredible leadership, character and cognitive attributes of personnel throughout our unit’s rich history.”

Retired and active operators reunited with former teammates. Enlisted Sailors and officers alike stood united by the trident they had all earned and wore on their chests. The five guest speakers delivered remarks, each representing every decade dating back to the 1980s.

“To understand how SEAL Team 5 formed, we first need to understand the foundation laid by our predecessors of UDT-11,” said retired Capt. Pete Toennies, a former SEAL Team 5 commanding officer.

UDT-11, formed in May of 1944, initially was conceptualized for the invasion of the Pacific Island Iwo Jima. Although they did not serve on Iwo Jima, the men saw significant action in the invasion of Okinawa alongside approximately 1,000 frogmen conducting reconnaissance and demolition work to support the follow-on amphibious invasion.

Photo: Retired Capt. Pete Toennies, former commanding officer of SEAL Team 5, delivers remarks during the SEAL Team 5 40th anniversary ceremony at the Silver Strand Training Complex. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Alex Smedegard)

“They conducted hydrographic surveys, both clandestinely and under fire, to enable conventional force amphibious landings during WWII and the Korean War,” added Toennies. “They were experts at underwater demolitions and saw significant employment clearing obstacles for landing craft to make their way onto enemy beaches.”

During periods in between wars, the Sailors of UDT-11 were innovators, pushing the limits in harsh, uncomfortable, and unforgiving environments like the Arctic and undersea.

“During the Cold War, the command led special projects in the Artic, innovated with underwater delivery vehicles, and partnered with the space program to recover astronauts,” said Toennies.

UDT-11 played a very important and public role on July 24, 1969, as millions around the world, including President Nixon in person aboard Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV 12), watched the UDT-11 frogmen recover astronauts from the Apollo 11 mission.

“Continuing into the Vietnam War, the unit was active in South Vietnam conducting hydrographic reconnaissance of nearly the entire coastline as well as conducting operations with SEAL Team 1 and the Brown Water Navy,” said Toennies.

Photo: Two members of Underwater Demolition Team 11 watch an airstrike against the Viet Cong from the deck of the amphibious transport dock USS Ogden (LPD-5). (Courtesy Photo)

Their success in non-traditional assignments built trust with and demonstrated UDT’s value to the Navy and the Department of Defense. This ultimately set the foundation for UDT-11’s redesignation to SEAL Team 5 in 1983.

Under the new designation as SEAL Team 5, from 1987 to 1988, operators were assigned to task units in the Persian Gulf aboard Mobile Sea Bases during the “Tanker War” – a war between Iran and Iraq that spilled into the maritime environment. These task units were assigned the mission of ending the Iranian mine place efforts, and the presence of SEALs in theater acted as a strong deterrence to Iranian mining operations.

Photo: Mobile Sea Base (MSB) Wimbrown VII was headquarters for the Special Operations Task Unit during the “Tanker War”. The MSB was outfitted with SEAL Team FIVE personnel, Mk III Patrol Boats, and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment assets. (Courtesy photo NSW)

“The U.S. saw the “Tanker War” as a threat to not only to our economy but the world economy,” said Toennies. “We reflagged those tankers as U.S. vessels so we could provide support and protection to them as they transited the Persian Gulf.

“The 1980s continued to be a time of growth, both in the size of the community and the tactics we developed,” added Toennies.

Retired Cmdr. Tom Dietz, a member of SEAL Team 5 throughout his career and commanding officer from 2000-2002, delivered remarks about the team’s history during the 1990s.

“I can define the success of a SEAL Team in six words,” said Dietz. “The mission. The mission. The mission. And in the 1990s, I was a SEAL Team 5 platoon commander getting ready to deploy to the Philippines when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Within 72 hours, our guys deployed to Saudi Arabia. Our mission was now Operation Desert Storm.”

As Operation Desert Storm developed, SEAL Team 5 would send an additional platoon tasked to work with the CIA and Kuwaiti special operations units to infiltrate behind enemy lines to call in airstrikes and provide deconflictions.

“Our platoon was tasked with the coastal reconnaissance of Kuwait to locate a beach appropriate for the Marines to do an amphibious landing,” said Dietz. “The enemy was expecting this, even though the Marines weren’t going to do it, and one night six guys swam in with 20 pounds of explosives each and simulated a large amphibious Marine assault drawing in and relocating enemy forces allowing our military to conduct other missions nearby. Those missions were all a success.”

Further on in the 1990s, SEAL Team 5’s Delta platoon conducted operations from amphibious ships in continued support to Operation Desert Storm. Following the completion of the platoon’s cycle, they headed back to the U.S. when the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone occurred – one of the deadliest tropical cyclones on record.

“Combat operations are important – it is our mission – but so are humanitarian operations,” said Dietz. “We support our nation’s missions, whatever it may be. A massive typhoon struck Bangladesh and Delta platoon was able to go in there and provide humanitarian support.”

Following the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, popularly depicted in Hollywood film “Blackhawk Down,” SEAL Team 5 sent a platoon to Somalia in the spring of 1994 to provide support in the extraction of all United Nations forces in country.

“We had a platoon pulled off an amphibious ready group to support this,” said Dietz. “These operations continued to 1996.”

Dietz would become SEAL Team 5’s executive officer in 1997. Operations continued with a stronger emphasis on maritime interdiction operations. And the platoons aboard the amphibious ready groups would engage enemy ships out of Iraq against United Nations sanctions.

“We sent a lot of guys out there to operations out in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” said Dietz. “So you look at the operations we did across this decade alone – underwater, above water and land mission sets. It was the mindset in the leaders from this decade, those who were molded from those in the 80s and UDT era. The approach these guys had in finding solutions is a testament to the resilient mindset that continues to the shape our special operation forces in upcoming decades.”

Following the attacks on 9/11, SEALs were in theater less than one month later. SEAL Team 5 would deploy platoons to Afghanistan to work with interagency and international partners. What started off with the deployment of platoons to theater, and by the Iraq War, turned into full SEAL team deployments.

“That little thing called ‘to serve’, where we didn’t have enough SEALs to go into combat for Afghanistan and Iraq,” said retired Master Chief Petty Officer Ron Culpepper, a former SEAL Team 5 command master chief. “We became tired. What were typically six-month deployments turned into seven, eight, all the way up to eleven. We answered the call of our nation, and we were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice in doing so.”

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq extended into the next decade.

“The war continued, and it always came back to being ready,” said an active-duty operator and former SEAL Team 5 commanding officer. “We continued to train as much as we could, while still fighting the fight. You never knew what was going to come next, but as it did, it came very quickly.

“It was the shift in tactics and our approach that changed the dynamic, eventually leading local counterparts to gain traction,” added the former SEAL Team 5 commanding officer. “This ultimately led to the securing of East Mosul and eventually set the conditions for forces to continue westward.”

The speeches all reflected on the evolution of SEAL Team 5.

“To truly appreciate history, you first have to understand it,” said the current commanding officer of SEAL Team 5. “Regardless of the size of platoon and whatever the mission tasking may be, the warriors here today carry the same DNA in their blood as the generations before. As we look towards the future, we can expect SEALs to continue to be a critical component in our National Defense Strategy.”

“I could not be prouder to serve at SEAL Team 5, nor could I be more excited for the future of this great command,” added the current commanding officer.

As the ceremony concluded, past and present teammates along with their families gathered in small circles in front of the stage. Frogmen shared their stories, laughed and reminisced about their days as SEAL Team 5 operators.

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This story by Petty Officer 1st Class Alex Smedegard was first published by the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service on May 11, 2023. DVIDS content is in the public domain.

Top photo: Recovery swimmers assigned to Underwater Demolition Team 11 rehearse the recovery of Apollo Spacecraft in San Diego Bay. The practice of anticipating and rehearsing contingencies remains a crucial aspect of contemporary special operations mission planning and execution. (Courtesy photo NSW)