The US Navy SEALs established their reputation as a fierce maritime commando force during the Vietnam War. These “men with green faces,” as they were known to their Viet Cong enemies, often wore green face paint and disguised themselves in black pajamas. On nighttime operations, however, the SEALs quickly learned that jungle critters were a serious problem. And they needed an unconventional solution.
“One of the things about black pajamas, you had to dig the leeches out, because leeches would always tie to you,” retired Navy SEAL Kirby Horrell, whose career spanned 47 years, told Coffee or Die Magazine. “That’s where we started having our girlfriends send us pantyhose. We could put pantyhose on and the leeches couldn’t bite through them.”
Horrell — who carried the Stoner 63 weapons system as a point man for SEAL Team 1’s Foxtrot Platoon during a 1970 tour in Vietnam — soon discovered that bluejeans made a better combat-uniform alternative than the local Vietnamese garb.
“We started getting Levi’s and started wearing Levi jeans with our cammy tops,” Horrell said. “They lasted a lot longer than any other type of clothing.”
Horrell wasn’t the only one to opt for bluejeans in combat. As different platoons rotated into Vietnam from SEAL Team 1 and SEAL Team 2, other frogmen soon adapted to the local environment by adopting the clothing their predecessors had chosen. For his part, Jim Berta, a SEAL Team 1 operator, had problems with mosquitoes.
“Mosquitoes couldn’t get through the denim,” Berta, who was an adviser for Lien Doi Nguoi Nhai, or LDNN, the South Vietnamese frogman unit, told author Dennis Cummings in The Men Behind the Trident: SEAL Team One in Vietnam, a collection of stories about notable Vietnam War SEALs.
“The leeches could crawl up the legs, so we’d put rubber bands around the bottom of the pant legs,” Berta said. “The mud didn’t cling to Levis like it did to the cammo pants, and there were no large side pockets on the jeans, like there were on the cammo pants, that would fill with water when you came out of a river or canals.”
Vietnam established the SEAL Teams as a premier special operations force.
“It established a training pipeline,” Horrell said. “It established the kind of men that we’ve wanted in Naval Special Warfare.”
While the legacy of Navy SEALs dates back to World War II, the SEAL Teams’ culture transformed during the Vietnam War. In the jungles, operators learned the value of unorthodox equipment, clothing, and weapons. After Vietnam, SEAL teams carried these valuable lessons into modern conflicts.
“They were using the enemy’s weapons, they were doing whatever it took, and they just really broke trail on a lot of technology for the time, which I really looked up to,” Alex West, a retired Navy SEAL with 15 combat deployments, said on the Late Night History podcast. “It inspired a lot of the modern-day SEALs when we were doing the same thing in Iraq and Afghanistan.”