SEAL Team Six Founder Richard Marcinko Has Died

‘Demo Dick’ served two tours in Vietnam, founded SEAL Team Six and Red Cell, and authored many books on the topics.

byBrian O'Rourke|
Navy SEALs photo


Richard Marcinko, the decorated but controversial founder and first commanding officer of SEAL Team Six, died December 25 at the age of 81. The New York Times reports that Marcinko’s son, Matthew, attributed his father’s death on Christmas night to a heart attack.

Marcinko, who had a legendarily 'colorful' personality, served in the U.S. Navy from 1958 to 1989, and was the author of numerous fiction and non-fiction works on the SEALs, leadership, and counterterrorism. He also spent time in prison on charges of defrauding the federal government, though he maintained his innocence.

According to a web biography, at the age of 18, Marcinko enlisted in the Navy after reportedly being rejected by the Marine Corps for not having a high school diploma. The Navy made him a radioman for three years, and then he attended Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUDS), from which he graduated in October 1961, a few months before President John F. Kennedy formally established the “Sea, Air, and Land” (SEAL) commandos in 1962. Marcinko was assigned to an Underwater Demolition Team upon graduation from BUDS and attended Officer Candidate School in 1965.

Cdr. Richard Marcinko in an undated official portrait, U.S. Navy via Wikimedia

Marcinko served two tours in Vietnam with SEAL Team Two. According to the National Navy UDT/SEAL Team Museum, Marcinko’s first deployment, in 1967 led to his first commendations for gallantry in combat:

In January 1967, Marcinko deployed to Vietnam with 2nd Platoon, SEAL Team TWO. On May 18, 1967, Marcinko led his men in an assault on Ilo Ilo Hon where they killed many Viet Cong and destroyed six of their sampans. This became known as the Navy's most successful SEAL operation in the Mekong Delta. Because of his strong leadership and great success, the North Vietnamese Army placed a bounty on his head, payable to anyone who could capture and kill him. Marcinko was never caught; he went on to be awarded the first of four Bronze Stars, as well as a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and the Silver Star.

Marcinko returned to Vietnam in late 1967, just ahead of the January 1968 Tet Offensive. During the early phases, Marcinko’s SEAL Team Two assisted U.S. Army Special Forces at Châu Đốc. The SEAL Museum reports: “What began as an urban street battle evolved into an intense rescue mission of American nurses and a schoolteacher trapped in the city's church and hospital.”

After Vietnam, Marcinko returned to the United States. In 1979, when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was captured during the Iranian Revolution and staffers and U.S. Marine guards were taken hostage, Marcinko was chosen as one of two members of the Navy to work with the Joint Staff to plan a hostage rescue. After the attempted rescue — Operation Eagle Claw — failed, the Navy decided it needed a permanent anti-terrorist force and tapped Marcinko to form it. 

Marcinko named that unit “SEAL Team Six,” despite the Navy having only two other SEAL Teams, to confuse enemy intelligence about the size and number of Naval Special Warfare units. He later formed the Red Cell team, which invasively tested security at U.S military and intelligence facilities. According to a profile in People magazine, Marcinko says Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Adm. James “Ace” Lyons tasked Marcinko with forming the unit to stage “mock attacks on military installations here and abroad and [expose] their security flaws.”

“I’d tell them Red Cell was coming, eat them alive, and then show the film and rub their noses in it,” Marcinko told People. 

SOFREP has a great little series done with Richard Marcinko in 2016 that is worth checking out:

Video thumbnail

Marcinko retired from the Navy as a commander in 1989. His Navy awards included the Silver Star, the bronze star with gold combat V device and three gold stars (indicating four total bronze star awards), and two Navy Commendation Medals with combat V device, as well as the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star.

But it was the rubbing of noses with Red Cell to which Marcinko later attributed his legal troubles, In 1990, he was convicted of conspiracy to defraud the government, for which he was sentenced to 21 months in prison. He was released after serving 15 months. He told 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace in 1992 that “he was singled out for prosecution because he embarrassed Navy officials” with his Red Cell exploits. The Navy denied the existence of a vendetta, and Lyons told People: “Dick can get carried away.”

After his release, Marcinko, who was also known as “Demo Dick,” became a celebrated author of bestselling SEAL team fiction, as well as the autobiography Rogue Warrior. Marcinko also had numerous other business endeavors from entertainment to security to speaking engagements. 

Richard Marcinko signs a copy of his book Rogue Warrior: Curse of the Infidel at in August 2014., Gabe Ginsberg/FilmMagic via Getty Images

Despite his passing, Marcinko’s legacy lives on. The anti-terrorism unit he founded — formally known these days as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU — still answers to “SEAL Team Six” informally. And it was this unit that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, long after Marcinko’s 1989 retirement. 

Many of the team’s and Marcinko’s other exploits will likely remain forever in the shadows, but perhaps a few more stories may appear in the coming days and weeks, as Marcinko’s former comrades and successors remember the controversial 'larger than life' fallen warrior.

Contact the author: