Military Book Reviews

By Water Beneath the Walls

By Water Beneath the Walls: The Rise of the Navy SEALs, by Benjamin H. Milligan (Bantam, 2021, 581 pages)

Told through the eyes of remarkable leaders and racing from one longshot, hair-curling raid to the next, By Water Beneath the Walls is the tale of the unit’s heroic naval predecessors, and the evolution of the SEALs themselves. But it’s also the story of the forging of American special operations as a whole—and how the SEALs emerged from the fires as America’s first permanent commando force when again and again some other unit seemed predestined to seize that role.

At first glance, it might seem strange that for a book about the rise of the Navy’s Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) Teams, SEAL Team ONE isn’t commissioned until page 380. However, author Benjamin Milligan, a former SEAL, makes clear in his introduction that he’s not interested in writing a straightforward history of the Navy SEALs. His goal is to answer the question, “Why on earth did the Navy need commandos who could raid anywhere on it?”


The author details the US military’s attempts to establish and employ special operations units in the various theaters of World War II. The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps tried with mixed success to use a mix of scouts, rangers, commandos, demolitioneers, and frogmen to lead the D-Day invasion of Normandy, survey landing beaches before amphibious operations in the Pacific island-hopping campaign, and wage guerilla warfare against Japan in China. 

The struggle with special forces continued through the post-WWII drawdown and during the Korean and Vietnam wars, leading to the establishment of the first two SEAL Teams in January 1962. The early years of the SEAL Teams, and their successes, are then covered through the 1960s. 


The author shines the spotlight on a diverse bunch of soldiers, sailors, and Marines that are not usually covered in broader histories of war. Names such as Draper Kauffman, Robert “Buck” Halperin, and Milton “Mary” Miles may not get much coverage in typical history books, but you’ll learn how they, and many others, fought for their country while contributing to the development of a warfare tradition that would culminate in the Navy SEALs. 

The author’s style keeps the 500-page history interesting. He clearly is passionate about telling this story and takes advantage of the space allowed to inject his thoughts and opinions while sharing some great stories about a wide cast of colorful characters.

I highly recommended this book for those wanting to learn more about why the Navy SEALs exist, and the brave Americans that paved the way for them.

Book review submitted by Stephen Lepper, who served 21 years on Active Duty with the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. A licensed Professional Engineer, he currently works for CACI International Inc as an advisor on Military Construction for an international shipbuilding program. He lives with his family in central Massachusetts and is always on the lookout for what to read next. You can connect with him on LinkedIn at 

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