At one side of the door to the concrete exercise yard at the SEAL school in Coronado, a man-sized statue of The Creature from the Black Lagoon stands, looking you straight in the eye. Daring all who want to pass the toughest training regimen in the world, hung on Mr. Creature is a sign that says, “So you want to be a navy frogman?” On the other side of the door, a large bronze bullfrog stands on a pedestal. It has a bunch of name plates affixed to the pedestal. To be a SEAL is to be a “frogman,” a term that dates back to the Underwater Demolition Teams of World War II. The names attached to the “Bullfrog” are those of individual SEALs who, at a given moment, were the longest-serving on active duty. To be The Bullfrog is to stand alone, a cherished and honored title in that very exclusive community. Two weeks ago in Jerusalem, I met Ze’ev Almog, who was Israel’s Bullfrog. And more.
(A few weeks ago, I reported that Adm. Almog had been killed in the Maxim Restaurant homicide bombing. There was an Adm. Ze’ev Almog killed, along with several members of his family. But there were, up to the time of that atrocity, two retired Adm. Ze’ev Almogs. I apologize to the families and friends of both men for my error and regret any anguish caused by it.)
When I told my friend RAdm. George Worthington, USN (Ret.) — former boss SEAL — that I was going to Israel, he told me that I absolutely had to meet a guy named Ze’ev Almog, whom George called “an historic man.” George is a tough grader, and isn’t likely to bestow that title to someone who hadn’t earned it. I asked who Almog was, and he said Almog had been, among other things, the boss of Squadron Thirteen. The Israeli frogmen — Squadron Thirteen — aren’t called “SEALs,” an American acronym for “sea, air, land,” but they’re the same in all but name. Despite the fact that Adm. Almog lives in Haifa, he offered to drive to Jerusalem where I was to be on the appointed night, a frustrating hour’s drive away. (Israeli drivers combine the calm of Italians and the courtesy of New York taxi drivers.) We met at the bar of the Inbal Hotel.
Unlike most special forces guys, Ze’ev Almog began his special ops career by defecting. From the army to the navy, that is. Like most Israeli men, his military career began in the infantry. When he was told he couldn’t get into special ops from that assignment, he took a day’s leave and visited the commander of the Israeli frogman unit. Which resulted — after a long conversation — in Almog jumping into the Boss Frog’s car. They drove to the personnel unit, and the c.o. told the personnel weenies something to the effect of, “Don’t even look for this guy anymore. He’s mine from now on.”
Which wasn’t altogether true, because the Israeli navy rotated Almog in and out of spec ops. At the outset of the 1967 war, Almog was commanding a torpedo boat, when he was quickly called back to spec ops to lead a raid into Port Said harbor. Like most other Israeli frogman ops in that war, the mission failed. Almog’s unit found none of the targets they’d been ordered to destroy where they should have been.
In May 1968, Almog took over Squadron Thirteen. Having failed to accomplish much in the ‘67 war, the unit found morale low and resignations high. It needed everything: theory, training, and operational doctrine. Before he took over, Israeli naval special warfare was — like so many American special forces units were then — the bastard child of its parent force. One of the main problems that the Israeli naval spec ops had in 1967 was that they didn’t have a clear mission. So Almog had to define one.
It sounds simple when he explains it, but Almog’s exercise was enormously complicated. It required both a profound analysis — of the enemy and the capability his people could have, but did not — as well as innovative thought. Almog, a relatively junior officer given a responsibility to plan on a strategic level, had to measure the enemy, figure out what needed to be done and then devise a plan to do it. (Note to Vichy John Kerry and Dr. Howie: if you want powerful intellectual analysis of almost any problem, don’t look to Hahvahd. Look to the National War College. There are far more real intellectuals at the latter than the former.) Almog chose the classic frogman mission: to conduct reconnaissance and strike ground targets from across water barriers. The trick then was to figure out how to do it.
ADM. ALMOG’S REFRAIN IS THE SAME one I have heard from every other spec ops top guy. In the early days, he had to fight higher headquarters more than the enemy. Resources — both money and people — were hard to come by. Ze’ev Almog developed the doctrines around three principles that would be familiar to any of our spec ops guys: mission orientation, military proficiency, and discipline. He was the first non-American to work with our Navy SEALs, and some of the names he mentioned as casual swimming or running pals are the names of men who guided the SEAL evolution from the old UDT days to the versatile force they are today. About a year after he took over, Squadron Thirteen was an effective striking force, with well-defined training and operational doctrines.
There was no peace between the 1967 and 1973 wars, just an often-violated cease-fire. There were many fights on many fronts. On the day in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped on to the surface of the moon, Ze’ev Almog and about twenty other Israeli frogmen were swimming to Green Island, a small but strategic dot in the Red Sea.
You may remember that night. It sticks in my mind like the day JFK was assassinated. Along with about 200 other Air Force ROTC cadets in summer camp at Otis Air Force Base, I sat around a small black and white TV trying to absorb every second of the first moon landing. But Ze’ev Almog missed all that. He was busy elsewhere, conducting the first Israeli landing on Egyptian soil.
To destroy a fortified position defended by more than 200 Egyptians, the Israeli army planned a raid of 70 paratroops, a force that had little chance of landing undetected. Almog convinced them to give Squadron Thirteen the mission. With twenty men, Almog swam in, the last half mile under water. They landed undetected, destroyed all the artillery on the island, and withdrew when the Egyptians opened fire from nearby shore batteries. That artillery barrage apparently killed every Egyptian that had survived the frogmen’s attack. None of the Squadron Thirteen men were killed, and only a few were wounded.
Between the 1967 and 1973 wars, Squadron Thirteen performed about eighty missions. On the Jewish highest holy day of Yom Kippur, in 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked Israel. For the first day or so, it wasn’t clear that Israel would survive. Part of the Israeli counterattack depended on Ze’ev Almog and his Squadron Thirteen.
They were tasked to find and destroy several Egyptian torpedo boats that had sunk the Israeli destroyer Eilat, clearing the way for an Israeli armored force landing in Egypt the next day. Pulled through the water by sea sleds, they went in after dark, found the boats and attached mines to them. The Egyptians never knew what hit them. Squadron Thirteen spent nearly twenty hours in the water. In colder water, it’s unlikely any of them would have survived the hypothermia.
After the 1973 war, Almog went on to higher command, finishing his career as the Israeli equivalent of our Chief of Naval Operations. Today, Ze’ev Almog still teaches what he learned in years of study, thought and war. He is a warrior, an intellectual, and someone with whom I hope to spend much more time.
I want to spend more time with him because the lesson of Ze’ev Almog is not just the heroism, which is extraordinary, but the thought processes which are even more so. Looking back on his reformation of the Israeli frogmen, it’s easy — and wrong — to say that all he did was follow the many examples he had, such as our SEALs and the Brit Special Boat Service. It’s just as easy — and just as wrong — to say that all he did was to motivate his people. I don’t yet know the lesson of Ze’ev Almog. To learn that lesson, it will be necessary to understand two things: how his thought process defined the mission and the training needed to perform it, and how he, as a leader, taught it all in such a very short time.
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