At zero two hundred on the morning of June 6th 1944, Ensign Lawrence Karnowski slipped into the dark frigid waters of the North Atlantic. His small band of men had no wetsuits. Each man carried simply a knife and about 50 pounds of explosives heading into battle. They were embarking on one of the most dangerous and important missions of World War II. Ensign Karnowski and his men were members of the Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDU’s), the forefathers of the modern day Navy SEAL teams. While their role in the Normandy invasion remains relatively unknown, they were a small but critical piece of an epic battle that has been lionized in celluloid and popular culture.
This year, 30 active duty and former SEALs are honoring the first SEALs, the NCDUs, and their incredible heroism in their first assaulting the beaches of Normandy. On June 6, the 74th anniversary of their historic D-Day mission, a group of SEALs and a few gritty civilians are undertaking an epic Swim/Ruck challenge. We are recreating the spirit of the D-Day mission with a 6.2-mile swim in the English Channel finishing on the beach at the Omaha landing site. Those who complete the swim will rope climb to the top of the cliffs of Normandy, place a wreath at the memorial, and then soldier on with a 20-mile run carrying 44-pound rucksacks. It is meant to be cold, arduous, dangerous, and harrowing, just like the earliest missions of the naval commandos.
The NCDUs hit the beaches of Normandy in advance of the main landing force just before dawn in order to conceal the landing points. The legendary Nazi Field Marshall, Erwin Rommel, had suspected the Allies might use the coast of Normandy as an invasion point. He had ordered the number of mines and obstacles to be tripled along the coast. Obstacles with names like Jap Scully’s, the Belgian Gate, Hedgehogs, and Teller Mines, created a deadly barricade for Allied landing craft. Rommel knew that if the invasion came, the allied Landing Craft (and the soldiers in them) would be obliterated by German guns when the boats were hung up on the obstacles like insects caught in a spider web.
The NCDUs hit the beaches at high tide and swam down to the obstacles. They set explosive charges and cleared huge 50 foot lanes, which allowed the ships to come in and deliver the troops. The NCDUs then went over the beach to signal the ships through the safe lanes. They did this under extreme fire and suffered heavy casualties of over 50%. Even today, the attrition rate in SEAL training of over 80% is a tacit nod to the heavy losses suffered in combat by our forefathers.
Almost 60 years after this historical battle, I attended Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL (BUD/s) training. The modern SEAL training curriculum is inspired by the missions of the early amphibious warriors. Our days would often start predawn with an inspection of our knives for sharpness and rust before donning wetsuits for a two-mile ocean swim. During the afternoons we would head to the dive tower, an 80-foot-tall architectural behemoth where we would practice underwater knot tying on a breath hold. It was meant to simulate tying an explosive charge to a submerged object. Some of the tools of the trade may have changed, but those early days of training were devoted to the identical skills that Ensign Karnowski and his band of naval commandos had used in the early morning hours of D-Day some six decades earlier.
In the SEAL community today we recognize that the reputation we have, is earned on the sacrifice of those who went before us. The NCDUs of WWII, the men with Green faces who terrorized the Viet Cong in the Mekong Delta, the warriors who perished on the Extortion 17 mission in Afghanistan and many others created the fearsome reputation SEALs have today. For most of our existence, we were a community in the shadows but it is no longer possible to avoid the public spotlight. So we ingrain in our newest SEALs that they have their reputation because they stand on the shoulders of giants; their actions are reflective of those who paved the way for them.
As a young junior officer, I was tasked with helping create the ceremony at the culmination of advanced warfare training. This is the formal moment when SEAL trainees are presented a Trident — the warfare insignia designating us as bona fide members of the Naval Special Warfare community. The ceremony itself occurs outside public view. By design it is meant to be a private moment to welcome new members into the brotherhood. Borrowing from the rituals of other special operations communities around the world, the SEAL graduation begins with an oral history of the SEAL teams, followed by the pinning of the Trident. Then, new SEALs are baptized with an old tradition, a grueling run-swim-run competition around Coronado Island.
In the SEAL community we have a unique way of honoring our history and our fallen brethren. We honor the price they paid in blood with sweat. We put ourselves through a crucible in order to pay homage to our buddies who have made the final frogman pilgrimage. Some of these rituals have leaked their way out into popular culture. One of my roommates from training, Lt. Mike Murphy, loved a knock-down drag-out workout called a ‘monster mash.’ We would often don our armor plated vests and head out to run these with other teammates. After Mike was killed June 28th, 2005 in Afghanistan, his workout became a tradition in the civilian world. Each year thousands of Americans around the country participate in the ‘Murph’ workout on Memorial Day. It’s a fitting tribute to a Mike, and he would have loved to see everyone from firefighters to NFL players strapping on a vest and ‘getting some.’ While Mike’s mission, Operation Red Wing, was immortalized in the Hollywood movie “Lone Survivor,” the full history of the US Navy SEAL teams has rarely been told.
Our 2018 D-Day swim-ruck-run challenge has a mission. Its purpose is to raise awareness for Naval Special Warfare families who have lost service members over the course of the last two decades of war. The Naval Special warfare community has paid a high price in the Global War on Terror from Afghanistan to Yemen to right back here at home. With the exception of rare public glimpses, most of that suffering remains unseen. Each man, myself included, is raising awareness and funds for the Navy SEAL heritage Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida and the programs they offer to support family members of the fallen. The Museum not only provides knowledge of the Special Warfare community to the public, but is a major donor of scholarships and support to the children of fallen SEALs.
Pulling our bodies through the English Channel and running 30 kilometers with weight isn’t going to be easy. Adversity builds strength in our community and the purpose of that strength is to support the families of our fellow SEALs. Ensign Karnowski, Murph, the other frogmen who have given the ultimate sacrifice will be smiling down on us from that big lily pad in the sky on June 6, reminding us every step of the way that “the only easy day was yesterday.”
Click here to support Lieutenant Commander Kaj Larsen’s fundraiser and the other Navy SEALs in the Navy SEAL Museum D-Day Swim/Ruck challenge.
This online auction offers incredible prizes and benefits the D-Day epic charity Swim/Ruck challenge.
Kaj Larsen is an Emmy-nominated journalist, producer, and correspondent. With a focus on conflict zones and national security, he has reported from war zones all over the world. His work has taken him to dozens of conflict spots including Liberia, Burma, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Mexico, and Colombia. Kaj has a Masters degree in public policy from Harvard University. Prior to his work in television journalism Kaj served as a US Navy SEAL.