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The Role of U.S. Navy SEALs in Vietnam


To understand the role of U.S. Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, Land) in Vietnam, it is necessary to go back into the Naval special warfare community’s history and share what led them to deploy into Southeast Asia in 1962. The journey to Vietnam for the SEALs was long and arduous.

Navy Special Warfare 1940s

According to the U.S. Navy, the origins of naval special warfare trace its roots to scouts and raiders, naval combat demolition units, swimmers, underwater demolition teams, and motor torpedo boat squadrons of World War II. In 1942, to meet the need for a beach reconnaissance force, Navy and Army personnel trained at Amphibious Training Base, Little Creek, Virginia. Scouts and raiders were trained to identify and reconnoiter the objective beach, maintain a position on a designated beach prior to a landing, and guide the assault to the landing beach. 

The first group of trained operators included Capt. Phil H. Bucklew, also known as the “Father of Naval Special Warfare.” Bucklew saw action during the invasion of North Africa, Salerno, Sicily, Anzio, Normandy, and France. A second group of scouts and raiders, code-named Special Service Unit #1, was established in 1943 as a joint and combined operations force.

Their first mission was on New Guinea. Later operations included Gasmata, Arawe, Cape Gloucester and New Britain. Conflicts arose over operational matters, and all non-Navy personnel were reassigned. The unit was renamed the 7th Amphibious Scouts, and they conducted operations in the Pacific for the duration of the war, participating in more than 40 landings. A third team was formed, and they operated mostly in China. To bolster operational ranks, a little more than 1,000 mean were trained for “Amphibious Roger” at Fort Pierce, Florida. 

During World War II, combat demolition units were formed as well. Lieutenant Commander Draper L. Kauffman, also known as the “Father of Naval Combat Demolition,” established a school to train people to eliminate obstacles on an enemy-held beach prior to an invasion. Combat demolition units operated extensively throughout the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

Some of the earliest World War II predecessors of the SEALs were operational swimmers of the Office of Strategic Services. Dressed in swimsuits, fins and facemasks, they formed underwater demolition teams (UDT) who participated in every major amphibious landing in the Pacific. At the conclusion of the war, rapid demobilization reduced the number of active-duty UDTs to two on each coast. 

Navy Special Warfare 1950s

In 1950, when the North Korean army invaded South Korea and sparked the beginning of the Korean War, one of the remaining UDTs expanded to three teams with a combined strength of 300 men. As part of a Special Operations Group, UDTs conducted demolition raids on railroad tunnels and bridges along the Korean coast. The “frogmen,” as they became to be known, also participated in the amphibious landing at Inchon, mine-clearing operations in Wonsan Harbor, and Operation Fishnet. 

Navy SEALs Vietnam

In January 1962, in response to President John F. Kennedy’s desire for the services to develop unconventional warfare, the U.S. Navy established SEAL Teams One and Two. Their mission of the Navy SEALs Vietnam was to conduct counter guerilla warfare and clandestine operations in riverine and maritime environments. 

Navy SEALs Vietnam involvement began immediately and was advisory in nature. Navy SEALs Vietnam instructed the Vietnamese to their tactics by conducting a training course for the Biet Hai commandos.

In February 1966, a small SEAL Team One detachment arrived in Vietnam to conduct direct-action missions. Eventually, eight SEAL platoons would have a presence in the country on a continuous basis as Navy SEALs Vietnam.

In August 1966, Radarman Second Class Billy Machen, SEAL Team 1, was killed in action during a reconnaissance patrol; the first Navy SEALs Vietnam combat casualty in Vietnam.

SEALs who served as Navy SEALs Vietnam in the early years state that their missions were ordinarily short. Teams would go out in the afternoon or after dark and return by morning. Navy SEALs Vietnam would travel by helicopter, boat, or on foot. Some say they made contact and engaged the enemy 10 to 20 percent of the time.

There were normally 14 men in a SEAL platoon consisting of two officers, a chief, and a leading petty officer. For the most part, Navy SEALs Vietnam said that there was a SEAL squad out on patrol looking for the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army every night. They averaged about 100 patrols during their combat tours.

SEALs were also used to gather intelligence. Navy SEALs Vietnam did not seek traditional, conventional combat. They were more focused on surgical strikes and intelligence collection. Navy SEALs Vietnam focused on gathering intelligence on the location, resources, movement, and leadership of enemy forces.

The SEALs were good at capturing or killing enemy leaders, retrieving battle plans, political intelligence, and gathering HUMINT (human intelligence). During the Tet Offensive in 1968, a 60-man South Vietnamese Provincial Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) led by a SEAL officer killed 20 Viet Cong soldiers and captured 23. Not long after that, SEALs detained an enemy guerrilla which enabled the unit to ambush and kill the enemy guerilla’s battalion deputy commander, a company commander, and three other officers. The operation detected and prevented an enemy attack on Binh Thuy, headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s River Patrol Force.

In another operation in 1968, SEALs collected information from an enemy defector and they identified more than 100 communists who had infiltrated U.S. combat units and agencies.

The most notable SEAL mission in Vietnam, however, is their involvement in the CIA’s Phoenix Program. During those years, SEALs teamed up with PRUs to capture or kill members of the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI). Those were people who were identified as enemy military leaders, political operatives, intelligence agents, tax collectors, and other key enemy personnel.

Exploiting information from a variety of sources to include prisoners, enemy soldiers, and villagers, SEALs achieved success in the counterinsurgency operations.

During the Phoenix Program, the SEALs captured nearly 30,000 VCI and Phoenix forces, which included SEALs, killed more than 20,000 communists who fought to resist capture. A notable operation from Phoenix was an attempt to capture several communist leaders located on an island.

In March 1969, Lieutenant (j.g.) Joseph “Bob” Kerrey and a squad of SEALs approached the VC camp. Detected by the enemy, a fight ensued. Kerrey was wounded, but his team killed seven enemy and captured others.

The intelligence gathered from that mission was significant and included documents that listed communist agents. Kerrey was awarded the Medal of Honor, the first of only three SEALs recognized with the Medal of Honor during the war. Kerrey later became governor of Nebraska and also a senator.

By war’s end, the Navy awarded SEAL Team One and Two five Presidential Unit Citations. The SEALs had directly killed or captured 4,000 enemy leaders and troops. Forty-eight SEALs made the ultimate sacrifice.

The Accidental Aviator

US Army Major Robert F. Morris as an enlisted sailor

Aircraft contrails in the sky are usually indicators of where an aircraft has come from and where it is heading. If the life of retired U.S. Army Maj. Robert F. Morris had vapor lines, they would represent a lifetime of aviation achievement both in and out of uniform. 

Morris is a flight instrument and flight safety instructor. His career in aviation spans more than 50 years if you include his volunteer service and the accomplishments are dizzying; thousands of flight hours logged, multiple FAA ratings achieved, several dozen airframes flown, wings earned from the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army, service in two wars, a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and 13 Air Medals, including one with a “V” device for valor during his tour in Vietnam as a Chinook pilot.

And it all happened by accident.

Morris’s military odyssey began when he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve at 17.  In 1952, he was ordered to LSM 547, a ship headed to Korea. After several port stops, they picked up an Army unit and headed to the war.

“We arrived in Inchon harbor and the artillery was firing just over the north hills.  It was the first time I had heard shots fired in anger,” Morris recalled. “The battleship Missouri and the cruiser USS St. Paul were firing over us at the beach,” he said. 

After Korea, Morris attended college. He majored in education and had hopes to teach and be a counselor, but life encouraged him to change his heading.

“My roommate in college was going to Dallas to take a test to become a naval pilot,” Morris said smiling. His roommate needed a ride, so Morris drove him. As his friend took the exam, Morris read magazines in another room. 

US Army Major Robert F. Morris as a commissioned officer in the navy

“I was asked by an enlisted man if I wanted to take the test and told him I did not as I just got out of the Navy and hand no intention of going back in,” Morris said. “An hour later he asked again and I was bored and said ‘OK’ just for something to do.”

Morris finished the test before his roommate who had started much earlier. He also got a better score. Months later Morris got a letter from the U.S. Navy ordering him to flight training.

Morris thought to himself, “Why not?” and thus began a decade’s long accidental career in aviation that led Morris through the U.S. Marine Corps as a fighter pilot, a U.S. Army chief warrant officer flying CH-47 Chinooks, and as a civilian pilot.

US Army Major Robert F. Morris as a commissioned officer in the Army

“Going to helicopter school was like buying a one-way ticket to Vietnam and you had to work 365 days to get a ticket back home,” Morris said. “Moving 10,300-pound loads hanging off the bottom of the aircraft all day and landing to the top of hills is a challenge, but you get good at it with practice, like anything else that you do.”

Morris said he and his crew were called to move “all kinds of stuff” in Vietnam.  One day they were tasked with recovering an airplane that was shot down. They connected to the aircraft and began to lift it out when the Viet Cong attacked them.

“When we got there all the people on the ground were laying down and had their weapons pointing the same direction,” Morris said. “At about 200 feet above the ground, two guys stepped out of a cement building and started shooting up at us with automatic weapons. I was flying and … my gunners were firing back and the load was trying to fly into us … the rounds were coming up through the floor all around....”

One round came through the floor and hit Morris’s left leg and knocked his foot off the rudder peddle. He told his co-pilot he was hit and the co-pilot took control of the aircraft.  

“My leg started to feel less painful and I did not want to look at it so I ran my hand down the back of my leg to feel how big a hole I had in it. There was no hole,” Morris said. “After we landed we looked in the chin bubble of the aircraft and found the round. It looked like a 50 cent piece and was very sharp all the way around it.”

On another mission, Morris was flying in support of U.S. Marines and he was notified that some Marines needed to be ferried to a fire base. After picking up the Marines, he was airborne when he was told that there were battle-wounded Marines that needed medical evacuation at a hilltop fire base with no clear place to land.

US Army Major Robert F. Morris as a highly decorated US Army Officer

“When we got there the ammunition dump was blowing up and the ridge line it was located on did not have a safe place to let them off,” Morris said.  With no safe place to land the large, heavy lift aircraft, Morris performed a heroic and skillful maneuver. “Make a long story short, I backed the aircraft up to the edge of the cliff and the flight engineer talked me down and we brought the six wounded aboard,” Morris said.

These days the 83-year-old Morris might not be carving through the skies, but he hasn’t slowed down. He is an aviation advocate who helps marshal future pilots into the clouds with his knowledge. He volunteers at a military museum, teaches part-time in a federal STEM program and serves as an assistant aerospace education officer with the Civil Air Patrol in Austin, Texas.

Luckily, Morris was an accidental aviator waiting to happen. 

Honoring Vietnam Veterans

John Podlaski originally intended his website to help market his fictionalized memoir, Cherries: A Vietnam War Story. It has since grown into an amplifier for stories that still need to be told.

“We weren’t there for politics and we weren’t there for our government,” Podlaski said. “We did go because the government asked, but we were actually there for each other and we did what we could to help each other survive and be able to go back home.” serves as a repository for more than 500 personal and contributed narratives, photos, videos, movies, artwork, book reviews and music of the time.

“I initially set this up in 2010 and it was going to be a place to let people know about Cherries, the first book,” Podlaski said. “I had written articles about what it was it like to hump out in the jungle, what were the insects, how did mother earth greet or treat you  ̶  going out and wearing the same clothes for 30 days and they might be in shreds. There was an episode where we got hit by a typhoon and we were out in the jungle and we had to tie ourselves to trees.”

Author John Podlaski First day in the Army uniform portrait

Strong reader support and active commentary on his posts provided opportunities to expand the website to include historical information and the personal stories of warriors who served, Podlaski said.

“It’s just a wealth of things that I consider an opportunity to keep the legacy of the Vietnam soldier alive,” Podlaski said. “When I would relay some of the facts from the book, it got (Vietnam veterans) to open up a little bit. I also have had Iraq and Afghanistan vets write, ‘substitute scorpions and sand for spiders and snakes and you’ve got my story.’” 

Podlaski served as a U.S. Army infantry soldier in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971 with both the Wolfhounds of the 25th Infantry Division and with the 101st Airborne Division, earning among other awards, the Combat Infantry Badge, Bronze Star, two Air Medals, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

“For every 25 air assaults that you would make, you qualified for an Air Medal and I got two of them,” Podlaski said. “Each time you went into a landing zone you had no idea what to expect until you were on the ground. You had the anxious feeling each time that you went, filled with dread and then sometimes there were people waiting for you and you had to react the way you were trained to react. Looking back, I’m surprised that I did survive.”

5 25th Div Michelin Rubber Plantation night defensive position 

Podlaski’s service spanned combat in the flat jungles of the south and the steep mountainous terrain of Northern Vietnam.

“The difference  ̶  down south we battled against the Viet Cong which were soldiers that lived in nearby villages,” Podlaski explained. “Up north in the 101st we fought against the NVA, the North Vietnamese Army, which were trained soldiers. They had uniforms, they studied tactics, they had modern weapons and so forth and so the challenges were much greater up north than they were down south.

“I experienced things that I never thought possible; you’re carrying 80-100 pounds on your back, you’re going up a mountain that is a 30-degree grade and you have to pull each other up. It takes 3 days to climb this mountain so for two nights you have to be tied to a tree so that you don’t roll downhill," Podlaski said. "We did have soldiers lose their balance and fall and break a leg and so forth, but it was quite night and day difference between down south and up north.”

Six years after the publication of Cherries: A Vietnam War Story, Podlaski published his award-winning second book, When Can I Stop Running.

Steve Blackburn and John Podlaski on patrol

“I decided to write a second book based on one night out on the listening post,” Podlaski said. “Two of us about 300 meters outside the wire to listen and be an early warning system for the base camp in one of the more notorious areas of the country. We had a platoon of enemy soldiers stopped for a break not more than 10 feet away from us. If you were detected, you would have died right on the spot.”

Events from that night formed the nexus of his upcoming book, Death in the Triangle.

“It’s a sequel to When Can I Stop Running, coming out in June or July,” Podlaski said. “When we got back to the base camp we had to turn right back around and go back out; what was supposed to be a couple hour thing ended up three days long.”

These days, Podlaski spends each Sunday responding to emails and comments, posting on social media and adding new articles to his website.

Recent photo of author John Podlaski

“It’s a job,” Podlaski said. “But I do it not for the recognition but for the appreciation of the people who read the stuff. I enjoy reading the comments from the wives, from the mothers, from the other soldiers and actual Vietnam vets who continue to look forward to my articles and to share them with their family. Soldiers who say I’m telling what they couldn’t so that their family can understand what they’ve gone through. That gives me a great feeling to be able to do that.”