Men Behind The Trident: Profiles of US Navy SEALs in Vietnam
17 April 2006
Darryl "Willy" Wilson, Automatic Weapons man – 1st squad, Hotel Platoon, Mobile Support Bass II and Qui Nhon – Rep. of Vietnam, (July 68 – Jan 69)
My first tour of duty in Vietnam was on board the USS Towhee AGS-28 in 1966 and 1967. We surveyed the Da Nang approach, generating a map of the ocean floor. My Second tour was with Hotel Platoon, Det. Golf, SEAL Team One. I carried a Stoner, which I loved.
It never let me down; I felt invincible with it. I could open up and fire sixteen rounds a second. Every fifth round in the belt was a tracer, which meant there were three tracers a second coming out of it. It would light the place up like day. It was one hell of a weapon!
Gary Parrott, our platoon officer, said that the only problem he had with me over in Vietnam was trying to get me to stop shooting after a firefight. I guess I've always believed in a little overkill. I was the automatic weapons man when we got into a firefight, so it was my job to spray down the whole area to keep the enemy's heads down. Certain people in the squad were supposed to shoot on single shoot, really take aim and concentrate on hitting the targets. Every other person was supposed to fire bursts on automatic. We also had a grenadier who used an M-79 to lob in high explosive shells.
We were based on Mobile Support Base II (MSB II). The base consisted of a group of barges anchored on the upper Mekong River about eleven miles from the Cambodian border. We operated near the border along the Mekong and Bassac rivers where it paralleled the Cambodian border and ran out into the Gulf of Thailand. We also went up to II Corps and operated in the Qui Nhon area twice during this deployment.
Warrant Officer Eugene Tinnin worked with our platoon for a week or so to indoctrinated us just after we arrived in Vietnam. One week after we arrived in Country, we received hostile fore on our very first operation.
Parrott, Tinnin, Dan Bratland – our radioman, Eric Arumae – the grenadier, and I had loaded in the Boston whaler at MSB II and headed up the Mekong. I was driving the whaler, powered by a 105 horsepower Chrysler. The plan that night was to get up near the Cambodian border, shut down the engine, then float back down the Mekong to see if we could detect river traffic out after the curfew. We drifted downstream and when we were about a mile below MSB II, some opened up on us from a nearby island. We could hear the supersonic crack of bullets going by us and see the tracers right over our heads. I started the boat and simultaneously shoved the throttle wide open. We accelerated so fast that the other for SEALs on board slid all the way across the floor to the stern of the boat, at the same time trying to throw everything they could back at the shoreline. We returned to MSB II, stumbled into the galley, poured cups of coffee all around then laughed about what had just happened and about how lucky we had been that one had been hit. In SEAL Cadre training, we were taught that there was a tendency to shoot high when firing a weapon at night when you can't see the sights. The “shooter” that night would have been right on target if he had known that little trick!
After we finished our coffee, we loaded back into the whaler and went back out on the river for another “float trip”, this time without making contact.
On 20th August 1968 Tinnin was killed near Vinh Long when his fire team split up at night and the group he was with apparently became disoriented and ended up walking back through the kill zone of the rest of the squad. They opened up on Tinnin's group and he was killed.
One of the first ops we ran was northeast of the MSB, along a canal that ran along the border. We patrolled back in there that night on our way to a small village. I believe the CIA had targeted a tax collector and they wanted us to break into his hootch, snatch him, and bring him back for interrogation.
We inserted that night on the Mekong, patrolling all the way to the canal, then set up for awhile. Several junks were anchored out in the canal. They were large enough that several families could have lived on each one. We could see candles burning, and noticed that there was some sort of signalling going on between a few of the junks. It appeared to be Morse code, but we weren't certain about that. Eric Arumae had gone to Vietnamese language school and we had some people on the patrol with us who could read Morse code. One of the guys said he thought he could make out the word “camouflage”. We didn't know if that meant they knew we were in the area or what, but it made us pretty damn nervous at the time.
We stuck around for a couple of hours but nothing seemed to be going on, so we patrolled southeast along the canal, then went into the village after the tax collector. The standard procedure was for seven of us to patrol in to the front of the hootch. It was my job as the automatic weapons man to go to the outside left rear corner of the building to cover the rear in case anybody came running out.
A short while later, Gary Parrott, our platoon leader, and John Billiot, our point man, busted into the hootch, grabbed the guy the CIA wanted, taped his mouth and handcuffed him. They came out of the hootch with the prisoner and patrolled back out of the area with the rest of the squad. I was still back in the village.
The whole prisoner snatch had taken less than forty-five seconds. The VC's wife and kids were screaming, lights were coming on everywhere, dogs were barking and people began moving around. It wasn't long before I realized the squad had patrolled out of there and left me behind. I was on my own there for a while.
Our plan had been to get this tax collector and head west out of the village. We would then cut across a large open area to get back to the Mekong for extraction. There were a lot of trees between the village and the open area. When I got through the village and reached the edge of the tree line, I spotted my fire team out in the open, on line facing back toward the tree line. It was pretty damn scary because I was looking down the barrels of my teammates 's weapons. I hollered immediately to let them know where I was. I was worried as hell about walking out of that tree line and getting blown away by my own guys.
We had the VC the CIA wanted and we wasted no more time getting out of there, which made for a pretty successful op, and our first prisoner snatch. When we got back to base we turned him over to NILO or the CIA, and I never really heard what they ended up getting from him, if anything.
There was a narrow island on the Mekong River, part of it in Cambodia and part of it in South Vietnam. We inserted on the lower end of the island and patrolled north up to where we got close to some hootches. John Billiot, our pointman, crawled out in front of us and set up a couple of claymore mines. We were in there for two or three hours. Then, for some unknown reason, the geese and ducks started making a lot of noise, quacking and honking.
About midnight, a Vietnamese came out of one of the hootches and started looking around. This was another case where we thought the operation had been compromised, so we decided to just get the hell out of there. We were right on the Cambodian border and weren't one hundred percent sure that we weren't actually in Cambodia. We called in the LSSCs to extract us and the geese and ducks kept making more and more noise. Billiot was the last one out of there, and rather than going out and picking up the claymores, he just cranked them off as we were leaving. I don't know if he killed any of the geese, but it sure scared the hell out of them. A lot of Vietnamese used geese as early warning devices, just like a watchdog.
Just down the Mekong from this island on the east side of the river, was an abandoned church. We had gotten the word from the PBR crews that every time they passed the church they were fired on by VC using a 57 millimetre recoilless rifle. So we planned an op to go in and search the area, blowing up the church if necessary.
We inserted by Boston Whalers about four o'clock on Sunday morning. We had PBRs standing by out in the river and Seawolf gunships in the air nearby to back us up. As we went in, a Vietnamese heard us, came out of his hootch and told us that the village was full of VC. We grabbed and gagged him, then radioed for the Boston Whaler to come back into extract us right away because we had been compromised. We took the guy back out into the river with us and joined up with the PBRs. The Vietnamese was scared to death; he told us his wife was in the hootch and wanted to get her out. We loaded from the Whaler onto a PBR then went back into shore to get her. We took him along with us so he could communicate with her. We soon picked her up and took the two of them back out onto the river. We put a helicopter rocket strike in the area and one of them hit this guy's hootch and he went ape-shit. He was really upset with us.
Our fire team inserted a third time and patrolled down the shore of the Mekong to the church and set up a perimeter around it. After searching the Church, we loaded it full of explosives on a time fuse then extracted to watch it go off. We were back out in the river on the PBRs again when it blew. It was a beautiful sight, sunup on a Sunday morning and we were looking toward the east. We could see all these sheets of tin roofing flying through the air, like Frisbees. We went back in and patrolled around the area again. This time we found several bunkers and tunnels along the riverbank, but there was no contact with the enemy. We finally called it a day and headed back to MSB II.
We ran another night op downstream from MSB II. We took a Boston Whaler and decided that everyone would stay in the boat. We pulled into the lower end of this island and sat therefore several hours to watch the river to see if anyone was moving. We didn't know it at first, but there were some damn water buffalo on the shore closer to where we were. They kept moving around in the water, which kept our hearts pumping. We didn't know what the hell the noises were, whether it was people walking around or what. We finally realized it was water buffalo.
From our spot on the shore of an island we could hear dogs barking for several hours along the west bank of the Mekong. We found out the next day that a hell of a large contingent of Viet Cong had moved single file down the west bank of the river during the night carrying supplies. We didn't even know it. It was unfortunate because we could have gotten a helicopter strike in there and really done some major damage.
In the upper Mekong area in northern I Corps we worked along the Vinh Te canal. The canal paralleled the Cambodian border between the Bassac River and ran southwest to the sea. The PBRs were getting shot all to hell in the canal. Their commander talked to Gary Parrott one day about this brilliant idea he had. He wanted us to ride on the PBRs until they got ambushed, then they would pull the PBRs into the bank so that we could jump off and charge the enemy and wipe him out. Parrott was so upset about this plan that he took our whole platoon downriver to Can Tho to talk to this guy's superior about how insane this idea was. We hooked up with Alpha Platoon while down there and had a hell of a party, which really make the trip worthwhile.
We did operate for a month out on the Vinh Te canal. We spent a couple of weeks in the Tinh Binh area just north of the Three Sisters Mountains, then went to another place called Vinh Gia just west of the Three Sisters.
It was pretty scary operating out there. The only action we saw was on an op with about sixty PRUs. They were swimming, joking around and smoking cigarettes. We didn't think there was a chance in the world that any VC would happen by. All of a sudden around 11.00pm everything got quiet, then all hell broke loose. Two VC were crossing the border into South Vietnam in a sampan. When the PRUs opened up on them, the VC fired back with AKs. Our fire team was lying on a knoll along the canal and the incoming rounds were hitting so close they kicked up dirt in our eyes. When the smoke cleared the only casualty was a dead VC.
We'd be riding the PBRs right before sundown and Vietnamese would run along the bank on South Vietnam side of the Canal hollering, “VC, VC!” and pointing toward the west. We'd look over into Cambodia about a mile away and see armed patrols of Viet Cong looking back at us. They had weapons and were all bunched up getting ready to cross over into Vietnam after dark. So we knew they were in the area and that they were going to come across the border, but we weren't really sure where they would cross.
We pulled on night op out of Vinh Gia where we were expecting to lock horns with the enemy. We carried extra Stoners and extra ammo, actually dug foxholes on the north bank of the canal and wore helmets. There must have been a million mosquitoes in that foxhole with me that night. I usually carried about either to nine hundred rounds with me. It wasn't overly heavy and it didn't bother me to carry that much. I never carried water with me. I'd just take a hell of a big drink right before an op. Rather than carry the extra weight of water, I preferred to carry extra ammo. We sat there all night long and into the next morning when a South Vietnamese patrol came along and compromised the entire mission. We had planned to remain in there at least twenty-four hours, longer than just an overnight op. But the mission was compromised at 9.00am and we ended up pulling out early. I was damn glad to get away from those flying teeth.
I'll never forget one op up toward the Tinh Binh area. The PBR sailors were really jumpy. They had been getting shot up a lot and some had been killed, so they were really trigger-happy. We were set up on a canal ambush one night, and heard the low drone of PBRs coming from a long way off. They kept getting closer as they patrolled down the canal. Gary Parrott leaned over and whispered that he was going to throw a rock at one of the PBRs when it passed by our position. I pleaded with him not to because I figured they'd open on us and kill us all – just for throwing a rock. I could see Parrott's teeth shining in the darkness and realized he was just jerking my chain, but eh thought of it scared the hell out of me.
Another night we worked out of Chau Doc in sampans. We had one SEAL and two Vietnamese PRUs in each sampan. We had to sit perfectly still because there was on about an inch of leeway about the waterline. If you leaned one way or the other the boat started taking water. The Vietnamese paddled the sampans and each SEAL bailed water to keep them afloat. We paddled upstream from Chau Doc toward the Cambodian border to a little village called Ap Vin. It was during the rainy season and you could paddle right across the banks of the rivers and into the rice paddies.
We came in on the back side of the village and Parrott got out with some of the Vietnamese. They went up to a hootch and one of the Vietnamese with us talked to the people inside. A lady came to the door thinking the Vietnamese with us was a VC friend of her husband's who was with some Viet Cong just up the river in Cambodia. We waited there a while but the VC never showed up. It ended up being a hair-raising night. Some of us were left guarding the boats and others were out walking through the village. When we finally left in the sampans, we had to paddle all the way back to Chau Doc.
Twice during our six-month deployment we were sent up to Qui Nhon. It seemed like we were always getting into it with the North Vietnamese Army up there. That was where our platoon saw most of its action and where most of our people were wounded.
Almost all of our ops were patrols and ambushes at the north end of Qui Nhon Bay. It was a long bay that extended six or eight miles north of the city. At the north end of the bay there was a whole bunch of islands and along the north shore was a mountain range. The NVA lived in caves in the mountains and would come down to the bay at night to fish. They used fish traps and grenades to get fish to feed their troops. When we flew over the area in the daylight we could see a trail they used to reach the bay. We nicknamed it “Broadway”. We could go up in there a lot and set ambushes along the trail.
On one op in Qui Nhon, five of us went up to the north end of the bay and set up an ambush on an island. That night three NVA paddled around in a sampan nearby fishing with grenades. The one in front and the one in back were doing the padding, while the one in the middle stripped naked and jumped into the water to gather up the fish. We could her them joking and laughing. They would get relatively close to us then paddle further away to the north, almost out of hearing. Then they would come back down toward us again. This went on for two or three hours until we finally decided that they weren't going to come close enough for us to blow the ambush, so we decided that we would go to them. But that time the tide had come in, so we had to patrol in waist to chest deep water around the east side of the island. We went around the north end of the island and saw their silhouettes out on the bay at least forty or fifty yards away. Parrott initiated the ambush and everyone's tracers went right through that damn sampan. I can still see them, ricocheting off the sampan and up into the sky. It was amazing how concentrated our fire was on that sampan.
On an op like that one, we'd always ride a Swift boat from Qui Nhon. When it got too shallow to go any further, we'd climb in a Boston Whaler and ride it until it ran aground. Then we'd get out and patrol or wade the rest of the way into where we were operating. On this particular night, because the tide had come in while we were on the op, we were able to call the LSSC to come in and extract us since there was quite a bit more water. After we blew the hell out of the sampan, John Benanti radioed the LSSC to come in a get us. We went out to the sampan in the LSSC and put a spotlight on it. We knew these people had grenades so we had our guns trained on their sampan as we approached. Somebody said they thought they saw one of them move, so everyone opened up on the sampan again. It looked like the closing scene from “Bonnie and Clyde”, with the three bodies flopping and rolling around inside. We shot the sampan so full of holes that it started to sink. We pulled alongside and tied it to the LSSC to keep it from going under. We took it back to the NILO and they removed the bodies and searched them. We also recovered some weapons and grenades from the sampan.
On the 14th September we went back to the same area and set up a night ambush on one side of the island. A lot of the islands around there were real narrow. They weren't very wide east to west, but ran quite a way north to the south. The island we inserted on that night had a thin channel that cut across it. We set up our ambush on the south side of the channel.
I remember really well getting in there that night. We sat down and it was relatively dry, sandy soil, a little muddy here and there. But then the tide started coming in and after a while we had to hold our guns in our laps. Then we were forced to hold over our shoulders. Before we initiated the ambush that night, I was holding the gun on top of my head to keep it out of the salt water.
We heard a lot of talking going on over on the island to the east of us. We had a Vietnamese with us that night, one of the two that had been assigned to us when we first arrived in country. This guy kept whispering, “VC, VC!” We kept telling him to shut up because voices travelled well over water and we didn't want those people to know we were there. The meeting was between some high-level VC. They were putting together a battle plans to attack Qui Nhon a month or two later.
The meeting went on for two or three hours. We could hear voices rising up at times. Their meeting finally broke up and three of them got into a sampan and came down the east side of the island where we were set up. One of the Vietnamese later told us that right before they got to the channel where we were set up on, one of the VC in the sampan warned that they had better watch out for an ambush. They were so close it seemed like we could have reached out and touched them. They were only fifteen to twenty-five feet away when we opened up on them. Our tracers lit up the place like day.
The ambush didn't last very long at all. Our radioman got some parachute flares in the air. I shot a 150 round belt with the Stoner and reloaded it. Then I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye. One of the NVA was swimming away under water to our right. I took a couple of steps out in front of our firing line and fired at a ninety-degree-angle to everybody else. I think this is another one of those cases where Parrott was probably having a little trouble getting me to stop shooting. We rounded up the three bodies to search them and gathered up all the intelligence we could. We got five kilos of documents that night which included the battle plan for a major attack on Qui Nhon. I think during the whole year SEAL teams got twenty kilos of documents. So on that one night we got one fourth of the documents SEAL Team One captured during the entire year. As far as intelligence gathering and damage inflicted on the VC that was our best op.
We found out the next day through the Vietnamese who was with us that the higher-ups in the meeting had guards set up around them. One of the guards had complained about having to stand sentry duty because they were safe, nobody was around there. And here were, right next door on the next island.
Probably the most memorable operation while we were in Qui Nhon, and really during our entire tour, was when Don Hyslop was wounded. On this operation we travelled by Swift boat up into the bay north of Qui Nhon and inserted at about 4.00am. The plan was to patrol to the east from the insertion point for about a mile, then spread out in a long line and sweep a valley in a southerly direction to the ocean, where we would extract at the friendly village of Mui Yen. We had arranged for three Vietnamese junks to pick us up at this village. This was to be a daylight operation with the while platoon, plus Mike Bailey from SEAL Team Two and his German Shepard scout dog. We also had a group of Vietnamese with us, I don't recall how many. The purpose of the operation was to look for signs of enemy movement, equipment and supply caches, caves, etc., in this valley that paralleled the coast. The line of SEALs and Vietnamese ran from about half way up the mountainside on one side of the valley, down across the valley, and about half way up the opposite side.
It was a warm, sunny and peaceful day. The only noise we heard during the sweep was the singing of birds. We didn't encounter any evidence or sign of enemy activity during the entire patrol. We were all relaxed when we exited the valley at the village of Mui Yen. It was beautiful little village on a quite bay protected from the ocean by a coral reef about an eighth of a mile offshore. There were several islands out beyond the reef. The beach was clean white sand and the water in the bay was crystal clear. A lot of the villagers were on the beach watching us, and children were playing, chasing each other and swimming in the bay. Everyone thought that the threat of trouble was over, and that all we had to do was stroll down the beach to the junks, load up and cruse back to Qui Nhon.
When we were half way past the village, an old Vietnamese man yelled something that we didn't understand. The children started running, the women began to scream and in a matter of seconds, everyone on the beach had disappeared. We looked at each other then brought our guns off our shoulders and prepared to defend ourselves. We picked up our pace toward the junks so that we could get the hell out of there. I was one of the first to arrive. As I climbed onto the junk, I laid my Stoner to the side and began to help the others aboard, we looked up into the village and saw about ten armed Vietnamese running toward us. Suddenly they dropped into some kind of trench about fifty yards away and opened fire on us. We felt like sitting ducks on that wooden boat with nothing to hide behind. I couldn't believe this was happening, and I was never so scared in my life. I remember falling to the deck and curling up in the fetal position, knowing that I was going to get hit, and wondering where. My mind went blank from fear.
Bullets were tearing straight through the boat as it backed off the beach and began to turn around. Splinters were flying everywhere. The next thing I remembered was standing at the left front corner of the small cabin in the rear of the junk, firing the Stoner like never before. It was a fierce firefight with all fifteen SEALs throwing everything we could back at the village to try to suppress their fire until we got out of the kill zone. The Vietnamese pilot of the junk made a run straight for the open sea, but forgot he had to skirt the reef on the way out. The junk ran aground and momentarily stopped dead in the water. Suddenly, our wake picked up the back end of the boat and pushed us over to the other side of the reef. Miraculously, we continued on out to sea still exchanging fire with the enemy onshore.
Mortar rounds from the village began to send up geysers around us. Parrott was standing behind Don Hyslop when he spotted a mortar round clearing the tree line behind the village. That's when Hyslop took a round in the neck that instantly left him paralysed. As he toppled over board the sling on his Stoner wrapped around his neck. Parrott and Bill Doyle, our senior NCO, grabbed Hyslop's legs as he fell, but the weight of the Stoner dragging through the water kept pulling his head under. Somehow the two SEALs managed to get him back on board.
The mortar round that Parrott had seen coming from the village had also found its mark. It hit the cockpit in the rear of the junk, killing one of the Vietnamese crewmen, and disabling the steering. A second crewman crawled along the deck, along the cabin until he reached me. He was covered in blood, moaning something in Vietnamese until he died at my feet. The third crewman was seriously wounded and had lost one of his arms below the elbow. The German Shepard scout dog had also been hit by the mortar round. The SEALs in the bow of the boat had been protected from the mortar blast by the cabin.
By this time the firing had ceased. We were very fortunate. With the Vietnamese crew dead or wounded, and the steering and throttle not working, the junk was bobbing helplessly in the water. Tom Lawson had called in a helo strike on the village during the firefight. When they arrived on the scene, they made one pass and dumped some rockets before they were called off by NILO in Qui Nhon. They were pretty damn upset with us for putting a strike in on a “friendly” village.
A couple of PTF Swift boats came to our rescue right after the firing had ceased. We loaded Hyslop, the wounded Vietnamese and a few others on one of the Swifts and rushed them to Qui Nhon. The rest of us boarded the second Swift boat and towed the junk back to the naval base.
It was questionable for days whether Don Hyslop was going to pull through. He did eventually become stable enough to be transferred back to the States.
Shortly after this operation, our entire platoon was called to Saigon for interrogation. They took us, one at a time, into a room full of brass and tape recorders, and questioned us about what had happened that day at Mui Yen. It was almost as if we were being accused of attacking innocent people in a friendly village. We were later told that the village had a beef with the Vietnamese Navy that picked us up in the junks that day. No one ever explained why they only fired at the junk with the SEALs on board.
We pulled another op along the trail we called “Broadway”. That night we decided to take the entire platoon, all fourteen of us. We had Mike Bailey from SEAL Team Two and his German Shepard scout dog, Prince, along with us. Then we inserted on the east end of the bay, then patrolled north up the peninsula to the trail. We got pretty close to Broadway then split up, with Tom Lawson's fire team heading down to the bay where we knew the VC had hidden sampans. Our fire team went north of the ridge where we could overlook the trail. Our pointman, John Billiot, had Prince up front with him. As we started moving to the north, the dog stood broadside right in front of Billiot, stopping him. Billiot tried to walk around the dog, but Prince would just run around in front of him again. This happened three or four times. Bailey was right behind the pointman and recognized that Prince was trying to tell him there was somebody up in front of us. At the same time, some NVA were in a brushy draw just north of us. We saw one of them light up a cigarette. We swung around into a firing line and started backing down the ridge. About that time Lawson's fire team opened up on some NVA that had walked into the kill zone of their ambush. The NVA immediately returned a heavy volume of fire.
We were up on the ridge and wanted to try to hold our position to provide fire support if needed. We were in a key spot on the ridge, but the problem we had was that we weren't exactly certain where Lawson was, so we couldn't do any shooting to support them. There was a lot of radio traffic going on between Lawson and the helicopters to try to get some helo strikes in there.
We were using Army helicopters for support out of Qui Nhon. I had to hand it to those guys, they did a great job. They came in and put some strikes in right where the NVA were dug in. Lawson and his men were below the steep ridge we occupied, shinning their red flashlight. The helos were guiding in on Lawson's light. The helicopters came in very close to us, headed for Lawson and all his wounded people. One helicopter actually bounced off the ridge we occupied, causing the pilot to lose control. It circled back around and once again bounced off the top of the ridge before the pilot could regain control. By then he started to receive fire and had to leave the area. They put in some more gunship strikes, then the pilot came back in.
There were seven SEALs and one Vietnamese in Lawson's fire team. Six of the eight had been wounded that night. Only Doc Brown and Dave Wilkenson had not been hit. The two most seriously wounded were Fletcher “Bill” Wright, who had one of his eyes shot out, and Al Yutz who got hit really badly with shrapnel. Both Wright and Yutz had to be shipped back to the States.
The helicopter with its four-man crew went down and picked up all eight guys. The helo was overloaded with twelve people aboard along with all their guns and ammunition. I'll never forget the sound of that helicopter that night. While they were loading the wounded aboard, the pilot kept the engine over-torqued. It was all he could do to get the helicopter airborne again. Finally, he shot away from the ground, gaining all the altitude he could get. He still had to fly six to eight miles back across the bay to get to the airstrip at Qui Nhon. He lost altitude all the way. The pilot thought he was going to have touch down somewhere and have Dave Wilkenson and Doc Brown et out of the helicopter and throw out some guns to lighten the load. They managed to make it to the end of the runway before touching down again. They were met by ambulances and fire trucks, but the pilot wasn't ready to shut the helicopter down there. Instead, he dragged it on its skids part way down the runway to get to the medevac hospital at the other end of the airstrip.
In the meantime, we were still up on the ridge. There was so much radio traffic going on and we still weren't sure they had gotten all of Lawson's people out. When we found out that they were all out, under the cover of helicopter gunships, we started working our way back down the ridge to the south, taking fire the whole time. A slick came in and got everybody out except Dan Bratland, Parrott and me. Then a second chopper arrived and got the three of us. It was a hell of a hairy night, a real scary op. John Benanti, Tom Lawson, Frank “Hopper” Milhatsch, Al Yutz, Fletcher “Bill” Wright and all the Vietnamese had been wounded. With all the lead that was flying around, we were lucky someone wasn't killed on that op.
We also operated off the USS Weiss with Alpha Platoon on Phu Quoc Island. On the southern tip of the island was a POW camp where VC and NVA prisoners were kept. The rest of the island was a free fire zone, which meant we could shoot anybody at any time out there. It was some of the easiest action that we saw. I think the Viet Cong on the island had no idea that any U.S. troops were going to be there. We really caught them by surprise.
Working off the Weiss was different than working on the Mekong River or in Qui Nhon because the Weiss was anchored out in the open sea. Insertions were different, too, because we had to take the LSSC in through swells and the surf zone or insert by helo. Operating down there was a little easier. It was in mountainous country, so we didn't have to wade through rice paddies, swamps and canals. Usually when we inserted we were on dry land, which was a nice change.
On one operation we inserted by helicopter at last light along a well-travelled trail in the centre of the island. We ran into a tree line that paralleled the trail and no more got set up when a VC came walking down the trail carrying a rifle over his shoulder. Parrott shot him and then, with Billiot's help searched him and got his weapon. We sat there in ambush for three to four hours, waiting to see if any other VC would come to pick up the body. No one did, so we patrolled inland. We had no other contact that night. The next day we discovered that the guy Parrott had shot was the top VC on the island. He was missing one arm from the elbow down and had been carrying a Chicom carbine. We've always wondered how he operated the bolt with one arm.
On another op on Phu Quoc Island, our target was a two-story structure up in the mountains. We had a hell of a time getting up to it that night. We ended up having to go though some of the darkest jungle we had ever seen. It was so dark that we had to hold hands while we patrolled through it. By two o'clock in the morning we realized that we weren't going to make it to the target. About that time we came across a lighted hootch and decided to go in and snatch a prisoner. We wanted someone to interrogate about enemy activity in the area. We surrounded the hootch, then Parrott and Billiot went into the place and grabbed this guy out of bed. He had two kids and a wife, and they were all screaming as handcuffed, gagged and took him off into the darkness.
We led him down the trail about half a mile and interrogated him. He told us that there was a trail not too far from his hootch that the VC used every morning when they came down off the mountain. He took us back up there and we set up an ambush on the trail. We didn't realize that he had positioned us on the inside of a hairpin curve in the trail. It just started to get light and I could see that there wasn't anything between us and the trail but some tall grass. Our original plan had been to shoot and wound anybody who came down the trail, so that we could take them for interrogation. Now I was concerned that if we wounded somebody here they could fall to the ground in the grass and return fire. There were eight of us on the op, our seven-man fire team plus Stan Meston, the officer in charge of Det. Golf.
Just after daylight, I spotted a VC coming down the trail carrying an M1 carbine. I raised my Stoner and trained it on him. I was following this guy in my sights when Parrott saw him and fired one round and it went through the VC's legs at his knees. When it happened I leaned on my Stoner and opened up. My rounds hit him in the waist and the bullets went up through his chest and into his head. The impact picked him up off the trail and tossed him into a ditch ten feet away. We ended up striping the guy naked and left a booby-trapped grenade under his body. If anyone came after him they would be injured or killed when the grenade went off.
Before the op had begun, we had prearranged an extraction by helo. When the shooting started the helos supporting us were several miles away at the POW compound. The pilots and crew were just coming out of the chow hall after breakfast and were on the way to their aircraft when they heard the shooting. They were already airborne and on their way to us before we could even request an extraction. A pair of Cobra gunships came in and immediately started taking fire from the hillside just above us. They put some rockets in on the enemy positions without letting us know what was coming. The rockets passed right over our heads and scared the hell out of us. A single slick came in and got everyone out but Bratland and Parrott and me. It was normal for the three of us to stay behind and wait for the second helo because I was an AW (automatic weapons) man, Bratland had the radio and Parrott was the squad leader.
The second slick tried to come in to get us but received so much fire from the mountainside that it had to abort. Then it came back around and dropped in to pick up the three of us.
Those two ops were most memorable for me while we were operating on Phu Quoc Island. In the two weeks or so that we were there we really terrorized the enemy. The VC were running scared because Alpha platoon and our platoon were getting some real good hits. We wasted a lot of the enemy and suffered no SEALs wounded or killed.
I had spent two years in the fleet before I got into the teams. I think the tow year with SEAL Team One were some of the best years of my life. I was In SEAL Team One from '67 to '69, then got out of the Navy. Four years later I reenlisted and went back for two more years. But those years with SEAL Team One during the Vietnam War – well I'm glad that I did it, I'm proud of it. I met some of the finest people on the face of the earth. I come from a large family, and have five brothers and sisters, but I'm as close to my old SEAL Team One buddies as I am to my own family.Editor's Note:
This article is an exert from the book THE MEN BEHIND THE TRIDENTThis article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.
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