'The Father of Naval Special Warfare' Almost Changed the History of the Vietnam War

Phil H. Bucklew, "the Father of Naval Special Warfare," earned two Navy crosses and served in three major conflicts. (U.S. Navy)

Phil H. Bucklew was a World War II veteran with a few good years left by the time the United States got involved in Vietnam. The frogman already had a storied military career, but America’s latest conflict showed there was still more for him to do.

Bucklew saw exactly how the North Vietnamese were infiltrating South Vietnam, because that’s exactly how he, a longtime irregular warrior, would have done it. The Navy disregarded his assessment, and it might have changed the war forever.

As a young man, Bucklew first joined the Naval Reserve in 1930 while playing football in what one day would become the NFL. But his life took a total turn for the military after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. As a new naval officer, he would learn not only to work in the burgeoning field of special warfare, but he also would shape its entire future.

The Navy Scouts and Raiders were one of the precursors to the Navy SEALs the U.S. employs around the world today. During World War II, the concept of special warfare was far from refined, but the job of these combat swimmers was simple enough on most occasions: scout the beach for its defenses and return with the information.

That was the kind of work Bucklew and other frogmen did before planned amphibious landings throughout the war. Bucklew served with the Scouts and Raiders during Operation Torch, the American invasion of North Africa, as well as at Sicily, Salerno and Normandy.

Bucklew actually landed on Omaha Beach many times before the actual D-Day invasions, taking samples of sand, getting information on the metal obstacles and booby traps that awaited Allied tanks so they could clear the way for landing craft.

When D-Day came, Bucklew led a series of landing craft carrying tanks onto the beaches at Normandy. Having been briefed on the overall invasion plans, he was not allowed to land himself, for fear of being captured.

After his tanks were on the beach, he helped save drowning infantrymen trying to wade ashore, using his boat and rendering similar assistance all along the beaches. A trip to China to gather information and train the Chinese Nationalists there rounded out Bucklew’s World War II missions, but not his military career.

By the early 1960s, Vietnam was becoming the next Cold War flashpoint, and Bucklew’s skills were sorely needed. The Viet Cong, communist guerrillas operating openly in South Vietnam, were moving men and supplies south around the Vietnamese demilitarized zone just by moving them through Cambodia in local fishing boats along the Mekong River.

The U.S. Navy’s efforts to stem the flow of these supplies only caused the communists to increase the flow. It launched Market Time, a Navy, U.S. Coast Guard and South Vietnamese monitoring and interdiction operation that searched coastal vessels and captured tons of materials headed to communist units in South Vietnam. The U.S. Navy also launched Operation Game Warden, a similar operation used to patrol the Mekong River and its delta.

Bucklew argued that these patrol operations were not sufficient, and more concrete, thorough steps were necessary to control communist supply routes. He argued for things such as checkpoints, barricades and curfews to control traffic. The Navy disregarded his recommendations.

A member of US Navy SEAL team uses caution as he watches for any movement in the thick wooded area along a stream in October 1968. (National Archives & Records Administration)

The seaborne infiltrations by communist forces went on for years. Despite the U.S. Navy’s patrols successfully intercepting communist supply runs for eight years, the North still stockpiled what it needed to launch the 1968 Tet Offensive. The surprise attack turned American public opinion against the war for the first time.

Had the United States prevented the Tet Offensive by choking its shallow water supply points, the entire history of the war might have been different from 1968 onward.

But Bucklew was long gone before 1968, having been reassigned to the Pentagon before retiring from the military altogether in 1969. He is remembered as the “Father of Naval Special Warfare,” and the Coronado, California Naval Special Warfare Center is named for him, so Phil Bucklew is the first name SEAL recruits learn when they head off to BUD/S or SWCC training.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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