War Story

The Men Behind The Trident: SEAL Team One In Vietnam by Dennis Cummings.

Men Behind The Trident: Profiles of US Navy SEALs in Vietnam

27 March 2006

Dennis Cummings

Dwight Dee Daigle, Pointman – 1st Squad Delta Platoon, Nam Can – Rep. of Vietnam (Jan – July 1969)
I make a couple of trips to Vietnam. My first deployment was with UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) 11 to Camp Tien Sha in the area of Da Nang. We had a short stay in the Philippines on the way over where we performed some submarine operations. When we got to Da Nang we put in some time doing river recon and riverine work.

After my first deployment, we returned to the Strand in Coronado for SEAL Cadre training, then a deployment to Nha Be in the Rung Sat Special Zone with SEAL Team One. I stayed overseas for the duration of that tour then returned to the Strand once again for more stateside training in various operational tactics. Then it was back to Nam for my third and final deployment to IV Corps Combat Tactical Zone and the Nam Cam forest with SEAL Team One's Delta Platoon.

Some of the other SEALs who served in my platoon were Frank Willis, Phil Martin, Pat Omera, Mike Ambrose, Gerhart Klann, Rick Salano, Jim Gore, Doc Schrier, Bill Tucker, Gene Peterson, and Rick Knepper.

We divided our fourteen-man platoon into two squads, or fire teams, led by Lieutenant Timothy Wettack and Lieutenant Joseph 'Bob' Kerry, future Medal of Honor recipient and U.S. Senator from Nebraska. My squad was led by Lieutenant Wettack, who was also the OIC (Officer in Charge) of the detachment. In the beginning both squads were stationed at Cam Ranh Bay where we ran a couple of joint operations for a brief period of time before we separated. Lieutenant Kerry's team moved up the coast while my team remained behind in the IV Corps area around the Nam Cam forest.

Most of our ops were river ambushes. We usually inserted on the shore from the South China Sea from support craft like Coast Guard cutters or LSTs (Landing Ship – Tanks) that had a company of Swift boast or riverboats in tow behind them. We would insert along the coast then patrol into the interior toward a predetermined target. Sometimes our mission was reconnaissance. We would observe the recon area for a period of time, then move to a point on the coast or a nearby river for extraction. We also successfully completed a number of prisoner snatches, bringing out alive known Viet Cong and NVA soldiers and officers.

We received a lot of good, but often-perishable information from Hoi Chans, enemy soldiers who had surrendered to the South Vietnamese government. Usually, the success of those operations depended on our quick response to the information we received from them before it had a chance to become old business.

Our operations weren't always successful. On one particular prisoner snatch, we made multiple attempts to catch a guy named Bay Tho, an NVA who was training and organizing forces in the U Minh forest in the Nam Cam area. We had received good information on him on several occasions and had very nearly captured him more than once. One time we got to his hootch and discovered that his hammock was still swinging back and forth. One thing or another always managed to happen that enabled him to get away.

Chicken and ducks always became highly agitated and very vocal whenever they weren't familiar with. The VC didn't have to drag around their own chickens or ducks. Every village of Nipa Palm huts had a gaggle of fowl. They scratched and fed around the village without ever ruffling a feather, until a SEAL squad moved through the area. It would immediately set them off squawking and quacking. It was extremely difficult to patrol through those areas. The VC sentries were attuned to listening for fowl noises, which didn't help our cause. The best course of action was to catch a night when the weather was foul. Patrolling in the rain enabled us to move around without worrying about making any noises that might be heard by enemy troops in the area.

We were on one op where we had gotten information about a weapons cache. We set up a perimeter around this hootch, and when we busted in we caught this man and his wife at the supper table. We took them with us and went out into enemy controlled territory to look for the cache. We drew enemy fire from a distant tree line before we reached our objective and had to respond to it, which compromised our position. I believe that this would have been one of our most successful missions if we had been able to get to the cache with this guy. He was hot. He really knew some stuff. We took him back to the rear to the NILO officers and the South Vietnamese work on him. Whatever happened with that information, we never heard. They may have run some Army ops on the intel. gleaned from the prisoner.

I was the pointman in our squad. The pointman was half of the forward element of the patrol.

The pointman and the fire team officer would serve as the eyes, ears and nose of a patrolling body of men. The pointman's position was a few yards out to several hundred yards ahead of the rest of the squad, depending on the terrain. His function was to recon particular danger points such as river crossings, open roads, and rice paddies before the rest of the squad committed to those open fields of fire.

When I walked point I had to take my time, make judgments based on my experience in the field, then report back to give information to the officer leading the team so that he could make command decisions on whether to advance, set up perimeters, fall back, initiate fire, or call in artillery.

The safety of the patrol required that each man do his job, from rear security to automatic weapons men to radiomen. Everybody couldn't possibly know everything at the same time out there stomping around in the bush. Information had to be relayed back down through the patrol hand signals, whispers and body language. Information was everything while on patrol. We all relied on the past experience, our own self confidence in our weapons and our training, the intelligence we received on the terrain and the enemy during our warning orders and operation briefings and the minute by minute information collected and analysed by the pointman and the team officer.

The pointman's weapon was seldom heavier than a rifle or a Stoner light machine gun. He also carried a couple of fragmentation grenades; smoke grenades, an illumination flare, a small medical kit and his basic navigation gear – a compass. Since we were nearly always on water ops we wore our personal floatation, which was a UDT combat swimmer vest. Most of us carried Ka-Bar knives. Some SEALs opted for some thing smaller, but the standard Ka-Bar's were plentiful, free and always managed to get the job done.

We received training on how to silence a sentry using a knife. All of the SEAL Cadre gave excellent demonstrations and provided a wealth of background information on the subject. It was part of our job, just like patrolling. I guess you could call it a tactical response, or some sort of martial silencing, I don't know. But I do now that I had occasions to use that training in Vietnam. When I was on my first tour with SEAL Team One, we once sent a spot report back to the command in Coronado reporting four VC killed in action, no rounds expended. It was a joint operation with SEAL Team Two in the Nam Cam area. We inserted from either LSD or an LST, I'm not sure which. We were acting on information received from a Hoi Chan concerning a large weapons cache in an area reputedly holding a VC main force battalion. The enemy battalion was supposedly massing weapons and explosive for a major offensive. At the last moment we received information that either the same night, depending on the moon and the weather, the enemy was planning on moving the weapons from their cache site in the fake bottom of a well to their troops out in the field.

We went out to recover the cache before the enemy battalions could get their hands on it. After scouting the area, we discovered that the vicinity of the well was surrounded by sentries. Quietly, using knives, we took out all four sentries then located the well and the weapons. The sentries were the four VC mentioned in our spot report.

I still recall how much thrashing and kicking those dying enemy soldiers managed to do, despite their small stature. Adrenalin coursing through their lives gave them strength far beyond their physical size. Killing someone with a knife is not quick. It takes a lot of brute strength to overpower them, and when the deed is done, you must sit there on your victim like a bird of prey until things quiet down. From my experience, “going in low and coming out high, and then running to the next one” simply doesn't apply.

The taught us in training to put your thumb up underneath the enemy's jaw to help get the head back, which is fine, but then you discover that their jaw is awfully close to their teeth and that's where you thumb is likely to end up. The most effective and probably the fastest way to take out a sentry with a knife is to go for the lungs. Going down through the clavicle area and into the chest cavity works best, unless you can grab him and hold on. You also have to seal off any area where air can escape to prevent the noise that accompanies it.

In training I never had to stab anyone through the chest, so I didn't realize exactly how much force to put behind my thrust. We practiced the moves and the timing, but they didn't give you someone to bury the knife into. So, I was new at all this. Not realizing that the fragile VC didn't have the body mass of a two hundred pound G.I. that I was used to training with, I stabbed the guy a little too hard. The knife went right through the VC sentry and stuck Lieutenant Freedley in the knee. Lieutenant Freedley didn't utter a sound. We were trying to be quiet so he managed hide the fact from me that he had a quarter length of a Ka-Bar blade imbedded in his knee until later on when he told me that I shouldn't go around stabbing Naval officers. I said, “In whose navy?”

Anyway, we got some of the weapons out and loaded up the boat. There were just too many to bring out all of them so we blew the rest in place. On the way out we encountered some light ground fire after the blast alerted other sentries guarding the area. After all that noise, of course, they were moving in on us while we were in the midst of extracting.

I was always very intense and focused when I was on point. Just the thought that I was out there alone with an automatic weapon, backed up by experienced people with a like mindset, made me consider myself more of an analyst with a dominating presence than a predator. I was constantly sniffing and smelling, looking and listening, and thinking about the terrain, the weather conditions, the enemy and trying to anticipate whatever surprises we might run into.

We were in Charlie's backyard. He knew all the tricks. We learned in the early '60s what the VC were doing to small combat units. Sometimes we learned the hard way, but by using those bits and pieces of information we trained hard and learned enough to be able to combat those on their own terrain, playing by their rules and coming out ahead time after time.

I think our success lay in the fact that we never took the easy route in or the easy route back. We nearly always tried to do exactly what the enemy didn't expect us to do. It was often more time consuming, but it was nearly always safer. Sometimes, though, we went right in through the front door, into villages, along well-known travel routes, into areas we knew we were outnumbered. We knew that any contact would compromise our chances of getting out again. But we'd go in any-how. Our mission was not always just to make contact. Occasionally was to just call in an air strike or observe the enemy.

Sometimes we would just sit on a riverbank directing an air strike. The enemy would swim across the river, coming directly at us in almost total darkness. We could hear hundreds of them. But we were just there to provide the attacking aircraft with precise coordinates. We didn't want to initiate contact and give away our position even though we could have neutralised several of the enemy. The risk was far too great, and it would most likely have been one fight we wouldn't have come back from. Sometimes it was better to let the enemy go by, then return to the area on a later day.

On patrol it is critical for the pointman to spot the enemy first. It is his job to encounter the enemy and engage him, or to determine where the enemy might be to avoid leading the patrol into an ambush. Advantage and the element of surprise are the key elements in staying alive. I felt an enormous freedom being out there in the lead where I was the first to see what was coming down. I liked it up front and made sure that I stayed on top of my training to keep my skills up and my confidence up.

We pulled a lot of ops in a relatively short period of time. It kept me sharp to be constantly operating. I tried to go on as many patrols as I could. I missed a few because I was out doing something else, like R&R or somewhere, but as soon as I got back getting back out in the field as quickly as I could always made me feel better.

I grew up in the New Orleans bayou country, which was a natural waterborne environment. Enjoying it as much as I did as a kid helped me to thrive in the same kind of environment in Vietnam. I loved it! It never seemed to me that I was never far from home. I shared a common feeling and an empathy with my surroundings that made me comfortable in the field. To this day, I'm happiest when I'm in the jungle where all my basic needs for comfort and survival are all around me – and the weather is never cold.

In our platoons no one really cared about what each other was like as a person, as much as what he was doing at the moment to prepared himself and his equipment for the next operation. As long as no one ran amok and caused personnel or logistical problems, everyone was just fine and didn't give much regard to their personal shortcomings.

My recollections of Lieutenant Kerrey was that he was very efficient, extremely thoughtful, quick witted, with a well developed sense of humour and totally dedicated to his men. If he had anything to do or say about it, he wanted to make sure that everything, no matter how dangerous it was, would go as well as it could.

Vietnam made some of us rather insensitive and deadened our emotions. When we got the word that Kerrey's squad had gotten hit, we al wondered how bad they had been whacked, who was still alive and what had happened. We wanted to know so that we wouldn't do the same thing. It was a very dry, heartless reaction, but the war had shrivelled a lot of our emotions. Sure, we were grieved by the fact that one of blood brothers had been badly wounded, but it was sort of like we knew we just had to carry on as quickly and as hard as we could before it had some bad affect on us. Of course, we thought about it, we slept with it, we ate with it and we drank to it. Bit it was just one of those things where we figured there would be a replacement on the plane in a few days and we would have to do something to train him. We hoped that Kerrey make it to Japan okay and they would fix him up as good as they could then send him back home.

Good men going down was never something that anyone liked to see, especially us. We'd heard the stories about hundreds of Marines getting killed at Khe Sanh and would think “Oh shit, that's terrible.” But when one SEAL went down, or any Navy man, for that matter and we took it really personally. I decided to put it out of my mind until I had the time to worry about it, and that wouldn't be until I got back to the States. It didn't affect our operations at the moment. No one shut down and went into low gear or anything like that. We were burning up the radio net and the telephone lines trying to find out just what had gone down and trying to get as much information about it as we could. There was a lot of anger and frustration.

Kerrey's squad had been on an op on Hon Toi Island a large island located in the bay of Nha Trang. Everybody thought that there was nothing there but roosting birds, since it was of no real strategic importance to either side. It was just a big rock sitting out in the ocean that nobody paid much attention to – which made it a great meeting place for the NVA and VC in the area. They didn't use it often, but they were using it the night Lieutenant Kerrey's squad landed there.

From what I understood, the VC brought a group of very important, high-level NVA and VC dignitaries onto the island for a meeting. Word got out and the SEALs decided to go in by the back door to check it out. The “back door” was a very dangerous climb up a nearly vertical rock face on the ocean side of the island. It was made more difficult because the climb was undertaken on a pitch-black night. The also had to be careful not to make any noise with all their ammunition and equipment banging against the rocks. When they finally reached the top of the cliff they discovered that they were right in the middle of the enemy base camp.

With the SEALs sneaking and peeking, crawling under people asleep in hammocks stung among the trees, it was only a matter of time before someone bumped into something and roused the entire encampment. And that's exactly what happened. Suddenly, illumination flares were going off and a firefight broke out at point-blank range. Grenades were tossed about haphazardly in the darkness, and were rolling around among the SEALs and the enemy. Lieutenant Kerrey was caught standing too close to one. When it cranked off, it took part of his leg.

The document and other intelligence recovered from the bodies of the dead VC and NVA killed in the action led U.S. and South Vietnamese Navy and Army officers to confirm that the enemy had indeed been conducting a really high-powered meeting on the island. The SEALs had really interrupted their powwow for certain. The next day a sweep of the island netted some great intelligence.

One memorable situation that happened during my first tour with SEAL Team One occurred on an insertion into the Rung Sat Special Zone. We knew ahead of time that the area was heavily occupied. We were working out of Nha Be. One of the best support groups any special warfare operator could have had, were the boat groups or the riverine forces, the PBR crews and the Swift boast crews. These guys were totally dedicated and excellent at what they did.

That night we went in on a PBR. The plan required that the boat nose up to the beach to let us off, which could only be accomplished during high tide. It couldn't be done during low tide because the exposed mud flats would keep us from reaching the shore. We planned to sneak right in during the high tide.

Each PBR was equipped with a dockside safety. This siren would warn the crew if the boat were taking on water. Through some oversight, the siren hadn't been turned off that night. As we nosed up to the beach the bow of the boat push up on the mud flats just enough so that the bilge water that was left in the boat rushed back to where the sensor was located that set off the siren. So there we were, sneaking over the bow, when we heard warning shots, illumination flares went up and all kinds of hell began breaking loose. It was almost as if we had just announced, “HEY WE'RE HERE!”

The insertion is always the most dangerous time on a patrol, and we had just proven why. It was a total surprise to us. I remember a lot of other situations and ops that had to do with engaging the enemy, communicating with my officer and the other people in the patrol, foul weather and bad surf conditions. All of those things were memorable, but that one single insertion still sticks in my mind as being the one, supreme “OH SHIT” missions of all three of my tours.

During our tour in the Nam Can we operated out of a small Vietnamese village at the foot of a waterway system that led into what used to be French colonial farmland. There was a dilapidated iron bridge that was impassable, but we still used it as an observation post and a .50 Calibre site situated for the defence of the village. We also based some support craft there – a number of Boston Whalers and some small utility riverboats that were armed with machine guns, mini-guns and M-79 grenade launchers. We kept some fuel bladders floating in the river so they would maintain a low profile in case of attack. We ran operations out of the village. Sometimes helicopters would come in and pick us up for the ops, and sometimes we would go up or down the river in small boats.

On some ops we'd be taken out into the South China Sea on Swift boats then come back into the shore to insert. That was kind of dangerous because the Swift boats had to run up the river to get us and then turn around and go back down the river the same way. Of course, every time we did that we'd catch some B-40 rockets, which was never a big surprise. The VC had B-40s and home made mines that they would drag out into the water, then try to crank them off when they saw on of our boats go by. When they saw the boats come in, they knew that they had to come back out – the boats weren't going up river to be decommissioned.

We called some ops “administration ops” or “admin ops”. We loaded some of the boats with demolition charges. The area around there was pretty secure during the daytime. We would often go right out on the river, plant some charges and blow up a river barricade that the VC were always throwing up to slow down river traffic so they could execute deadly ambushes. They almost served like a speed bump.

Several nights later, the VC would swim out there and throw up the barricade again. A few days after that, we would go back out and blow it up again.

The hairiest ops were in the T-10 area, encircling the Rung Sat Special Zone. We were definitely outnumbered in there. On one op we were to observe enemy troop movement while an Army sweep went in to scare up some VC. We had called in predetermined grid coordinates for artillery and naval gunfire. Usually when we had VC in the area we initiated air strikes, but a lot of times that backfired on us. This time we could hear hundreds of people around us. They were swimming across rivers at us, fleeing the Army operation. We just sank down in the mud and got as low as we could for as long as we could, and just hoped we weren't stepped on.

This happened not only to Delta Platoon but also to several other platoons and in different areas. We would go in to assist some large-scale operation and wind up having it all turn around on us. The “bees” would come swarming out the back door of the hive directly at us.

I had enlisted in the Navy specifically for the SEAL programme. Prior to enlisting I had met a few of these people out in the Gulf of Mexico as professional divers. I had realized that I was facing the military draft in the near future and being a maritime person I had no intentions of going into the Army. I was very interested in the SEAL programme from all the stories and reminiscing those fellows had done and I thought I'd like to try it. So I joined the Navy. Back in those days you couldn't go to a training class by putting in a request for it. You had to come from the fleet. I served on a Pritchett class destroyer for a while. The XO said, “You're no good here, you don't want to be here. Go do what you joined the Navy for.” He sent me off to the training unit where I started Class 39.

I knew I wasn't a career type, but I did want this programme for what it had to offer me and what I could do for it. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted it more than anything I had ever wanted before. I had no guarantee that I would hold up through the training, or that I would not be injured, or that I would not be tossed out by the training department for administrative reasons. But I knew that I wanted to try to see what I could do. I made it through the training one day at a time and managed to graduate in Class 39. From there I made overseas deployment with the Teams.

I consider the time in Vietnam very intense, very focused and very fulfilling. I enjoyed, but I was afraid of it at the same time. It was exhilarating yet frustrating. They didn't really know what to do with us. At the time they were still trying to define our role and our type of operations. We were trying to stay out of trouble, and they kept putting us into trouble. Because we worked best when we were in trouble, we were assigned to work n troubled areas. We were elitists, in great shape, highly motivated, but sometimes lackadaisical toward authority and the military establishment in general. We were “unusual”, and we enjoyed being unusual in that kind of way. I did my thing for as long as I though I was a benefit to the Team. Then I decided I had been in the military long enough. I couldn't see staying there much longer, running those kinds of risks to my young life, and I wanted to do something else. So when my enlistment was up I got out. I went back to work in the oil fields where I had first met these people, working diving operations in the Gulf of Mexico and overseas in the North Atlantic.

During my years in the Navy I answered a lot of questions about myself that some you men don't get the chance to do. They might envision what they might do in certain situations, but they would never know for sure. I'm not certain that everything I did in the military or in the Teams was totally admirable or commendable in some people's eyes, but there were some basic questions about myself that I answered to my own satisfaction. I met some of the most dedicated, most interesting and truly genuine people that I have ever run into – and also some of the biggest sons-of-bitches I've ever known too.

I was once asked, “What was the worst thing I ever did in Vietnam?” I said, “Get there.” Then I was asked, “What was the best thing you ever did in Vietnam?” Naturally, I said, “Leave.” I got to thinking about it later and thought that maybe my answers should have been reversed. I went their first to find out what the story was from the ground up. I went back the second time to try to change it. I went back the third time just to get out; the war was just not working. I wanted to get out one way or another. But to get out of the Teams as a full-fledged experienced combatant, I had to work hard and do it right, take my chances. Or I could be the odd-man out and get killed, which seemed to happen a lot in those days. You never knew, there was no guarantee. I just wanted to do as many ops as I could, and if I was lucky enough, I'd be able to come back and say, “Gee, that was one hell of a deal. I was a lucky guy.” And to this day, I am a lucky guy.

This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.

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