Perhaps the most important lesson learned from the ill-starred 1915 Allied landings on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula during World War I was the importance of both gathering intelligence on an objective and clearing mines and other obstacles from the beaches.

Tasked with those responsibilities during World War II were the U.S. Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams. In the mid-1950s the UDTs’ role expanded into unconventional warfare, incorporating guerrilla/counterinsurgency tactics, high-altitude parachuting and covert operations. This evolution culminated in the January 1962 formation of Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) Team One, at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, Calif., and SEAL Team Two, at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, in Virginia Beach, Va. By 1986 the last UDTs had made the transition to SEAL teams.

These amazing photos are excerpted from the book “Uncommon Grit: A Photographic Journey Through Navy SEAL Training”” by retired SEAL turned photographer Darren McBurnett.

  • Log PT requires hefting a 200-pound length of telephone pole, rendered smooth and slippery by previous wielders, to impress on all trainees the importance of teamwork.
  • Once known as “surf torture” but now called surf conditioning, this exercise requires BUD/S trainees already exhausted from physical training to hook arms and lie side by side in the Pacific surf line in the dead of night or on even colder early mornings.
  • “Everyone has a moment of struggle during log PT,” McBurnett says, “but you dig deep and keep going because your crew is counting on you.”
  • “Hell Week” applies one’s growing stamina to all manner of problem-solving under constant extreme pressure.
  • Toting heavy objects quickly is standard military procedure, but McBurnett describes BUD/S buddy carries as “trying to balance the 200-pound wet, sandy noodle of a student on your back” while running from the surf across the beach, up a berm and back again.
  • Drownproofing in the combat training tank (i.e., pool) demands trainees swim 100 meters, float for five minutes and bob for five minutes in 9 feet of water, all while doing tasks—with one’s hands and feet bound.
  • When not in the surf, Hell Week trainees drill in the sand and pool, though not before cleaning off beneath the 50 cold-water nozzle jets at the decontamination station.
  • From the moment they begin the course, trainees are kept continually on the run. “In the unlikely event that you graduate BUD/S,” McBurnett quips, “you are then allowed to walk and get your diploma.”

During the Vietnam War and every other conflict in which the United States has since been involved, the SEALs have played a key role, displaying extraordinary toughness, skill, endurance and versatility in myriad environments, from Middle Eastern deserts to Afghan mountains. To become a team member, one must be born with the right physical and mental characteristics, which trainers discover and hone over the course of the grueling 24-week BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) course. MH

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This article appeared in the January 2021 issue of Military History magazine. For more stories, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook: