The time is the late ’60s and it is a typically quiet afternoon at the Coronado bar, the Tradewinds. Suddenly the tranquility is disturbed when a group of 20 to 25 young Navy midshipmen enter the bar to do some afternoon drinking. They are away from home on a weekend cruise and are feeling festive and carefree. In fact, some of them are feeling so good they sit down without bothering to remove their hats. They are quickly reminded by the Tradewinds’ usual patrons, some Navy SEALs, to comply with Navy etiquette and remove their covers.
A few sharp words and baleful looks are exchanged but the midshipmen eventually comply with the request. After one drink the young men, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, get up to leave. As they go to retrieve their hats, the one who had argued the most vociferously with the SEALs hesitates over the table on which his hat has been thrown. He stares intently into the cocktail lounge twilight. Closer inspection finally reveals that cradled in the white satin lining of his precious hat is a large, fresh turd.
Without further ado the punches start flying. Chairs are heaved overhead and bottles are broken. It isn’t long before all the midshipmen find themselves lying in the parking lot, bloody and battered. They manage to pick themselves up and return to their ship, vowing never to visit the Tradewinds again. Nobody had told them it was a SEAL bar.
Those were the good old days in Coronado. The Vietnam War was in full swing and SEAL personnel were on a six-month-on/six-month-off rotation. When they returned to Coronado, the site of their training facility and headquarters, they were generally rambunctious.
At that time the Tradewinds, at Tenth Street and Orange Avenue in downtown Coronado, was their bar. There was always a keg of beer ready — just for the SEALs. If somebody got divorced or engaged, there was a keg. There were even a couple of kegs for people who had been killed in action. People not affiliated with the SEALs, or with their colleagues in the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team, didn’t go into the Tradewinds. And the woman who ran the place didn’t resist that policy. She even hired SEALs as bartenders.
After a few kegs had been drained, the fights would usually begin. The SEALs had been trained to fight and most of them were pretty good at it. Furthermore, almost all the SEALs in Coronado would be going back to the jungle again, so what did they really have to lose by getting into a bar fight?
Today the old Tradewinds is called Mulvaney’s and the ambiance is considerably more tame. If there are ever any UDT/SEALs inside, you would never know it. The end of the Vietnam War is, of course, a major reason why the SEALs are no longer considered the rowdy group that terrorized Coronado Island with loud parties and drunken brawls. Scuffles like the one with the midshipmen in the Tradewinds don’t really happen anymore. Which is not to say that today’s SEALs are not as tough as those from the war years in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The current training classes, producing about 70 graduates today as opposed to about 120 then, might even be a little better now, a little more rigorous. The men are without question an elite band, chosen for their athletic ability and intelligence. And it is equally true that they still have an unsavory reputation, a notoriety perhaps retained from the bellicose Vietnam era. But the story of the Underwater Demolition Team and the SEALs actually began before Vietnam. In fact, the two units were conceived separately, both of them for very specific reasons, and today they remain separate, though it is not uncommon for a person to be a member of both.
The older of the two outfits, the Underwater Demolition Team, was founded in 1943. The need for underwater combat demolition experts had been established a year earlier on the Japanese-held island of Tarawa, where insufficient hydrographic intelligence had resulted in the drowning deaths of hundreds of Marines. Called the Navy Combat Demolition Unit, these predecessors of the Underwater Demolition Team were trained intensively. The theory at that time was that a man is capable of roughly ten times the physical output as is commonly thought. This premise still holds for UDT training.
UDT’s brother unit, the SEALs (Sea, Air, Land), was commissioned by President Kennedy in 1962. Most of its personnel were former UDTs, and they received training from Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force schools as well as their own. Their basic mission has always been to conduct unconventional warfare, counter-guerrilla and clandestine operations in maritime areas and riverine environments. Basically, they were in Vietnam looking for a fight. When they went out on an operation, it was usually to destroy something or someone. Whenever there was a particularly difficult or dirty job to do, it was usually one of the small, seven- or eight-man SEAL or UDT units that was called upon to make sure it got done. Also, the UDT/SEALs were very successful in training the Vietnamese ARVN forces, gathering intelligence from the Viet Cong, and performing demolition work. By their own account, their most impressive statistic was their “kill ratio” — very one-sided in favor of the SEALs. There were fatalities, approximately thirty-seven in all, and an unheard of number of purple hearts (one SEAL reportedly received his seventh over there), but the North Vietnamese were said to have definitely got the worst of the exchange.
Many military experts feel that the key to the success of the UDT/SEALs was and is their training, and few would argue about its reputation as one of the most arduous programs in the Armed Services. It’s a long list to enumerate, but the first step for the prospective SEAL is to have all the obvious physical qualifications. He needs to have, like most military specialists, good eyesight, no color blindness, no respiratory or asthmatic conditions, and a heart free of murmurs.