I had the pleasure of interviewing Chief Petty Officer Sullivan in May of 2012. I recently heard from him again and he gave me this article, first person account, written to be displayed in The Navy SEAL Museum in Florida.
My recent CN Salutes have touched on experiences during the Vietnam Conflict so when I read Sullivan’s account I knew I had to share it.
This is Number Three in a Series of Articles of the Recollections of his Career in SEAL Team One by Chief Petty Officer (SEAL) Robert F Sullivan USN (Retired) The 1st Vietnam OP34/ALPHA – VULCAN. The 2nd The CUBAN CRISIS 1962. In his own words.
My second tour of Vietnam was in 1964 at NAD (Naval Advisory Detachment) DaNang South Vietnam.
On January 24 President Lyndon Johnson signed OPLAND 34A that authorized US Personnel to assume the previous work of SOG CIA Vietnam under the new SOG MACV Commanded by General William Westmorland. With this directive the military takes over the counterinsurgency war, and I’m back in uniform in Vietnam. (In Cammies) NAD DaNang would be the US Navy’s headquarters of SOG MACV in its assisting the South Vietnam Government in resisting the war with North Vietnam by aggressive acts across the 17th parallel by Commandoes trained by US Navy SEALs.
The O in C of NAD was Navy LT Cathal (Irish) Flynn. With a platoon of 16 SEAL enlisted volunteers from SEAL Team One in Coronado CA. Lieutenant Flynn’s funny name was “Irish” The use of what we called “Funny name” was the name we used around the Vietnamese, so they had no knowledge of our real names. This was carried over from our CIA days. The name I used on my 1st tour in 1962 was “Mr. Bob”. It was the name our captured Frogs gave out to their captures at their trial as who their American trainer was and it was broadcast throughout Southeast Asia with a 10,000 piaster reward on it. My funny name for this tour was “Sully” The use of funny names remains with SEAL Teams to this day. It’s protection for the SEAL and his family because of the classified operations we so often are involved in.
We operated from an expanded site from where Don Raymond and I had set up training for operation Vulcan ( SOG OP34A ) in 1962. It was now a group of five separate training sites spread out along 4 or 5 miles of beach. The Headquarters was on the northern end of the beach, and that was where the SEAL advisors were housed. Each site was separated and segregated to keep the personnel from contact with each other for security reasons. Each site was designated for a specific mission. SEAL personal were assigned to train a particular group of agents for their mission and only that mission. Usually there were two SEALs assigned to each group, but in a few cases it took up to four. We had graduated from operating from Junks to “Swift Boats”, and then to the “Nasties” (Norwegian Attack Craft). This was a definite improvement in our speed and armament capability. All the boats were heavily armed.
Prior to our deployment, those of us scheduled for the January departure were assigned to a Berlitz type Vietnamese language class held on NAB Coronado. The instructor was a petite Vietnamese lady that was very well educated in French, English, and her native Vietnamese. The class had a directive written on the Blackboard that English will not be spoken inside the classroom while class is in session, and it wasn’t. Six hours a day for four weeks we struggled to speak, read, and write Vietnamese. We were later deflated in Vietnam when your first attempts to use the newly acquired skills were only understood by someone that had been in the class with you. Vietnamese like all Asian languages has many dialects and the language used by the people is nothing like the language taught in formally instructed University orientated classes. C’est La Vie!!
Since Don Raymond my partner on my first tour decided to leave the Navy for Commercial Diving, I was partnered up with a 1st class Bos’n mate named Ray Abreu. Ray came to the SEALs from four years in UDT- 11 and about four years of shipboard duty. Ray was what you would call a tough guy. He was a good athlete and hard as nails. We were going to get along fine, and pull off some good ops. Our group of agents came from the remaining Vietnamese trained in Taiwan for the Vietnamese UDT Team, but not chosen for the First “Vulcan” operation. There were twenty of them. There was also an interpreter in the group. He was a noncombatant and used only to explain our English to the group, and their Vietnamese to us. We held a short course with the group on what American Commands that they must know immediately without the need of an interpreter. We didn’t want the need for an interpreter if we were in the middle of a firefight.
Warriors of all ethnic backgrounds must learn to listen to the leader, and understand his direct commands or they won’t last very long.
Our agents were in good physical condition, so getting them into condition to operate was not a problem. We were training these guys for Commando type insertions into North Vietnam to destroy seaside Radar stations that tracked our shipping and aircraft and were used as a warning element to their approach into North Vietnam. There were numerous small mobile Radar and Surface to Air (SAM) missile sites tracking our Aircraft launched from Carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Because of the mountainous terrain of North Vietnam, the Seaside Radar sites picked up our aircraft flying even at low altitudes. Since small boat traffic was normal along the coast, our Swift Boats could get into IBS (Rubber Boat) launching range at night without trouble, and the Commando raids were successful in eliminating some of the sites and it reminded North Vietnam that we could cross their borders too. Small Electric power plants were also a seaside target. They use sea water to cool the oil burning generators used to power military sites, and some of more modern villages of North Vietnam. These sites were well camouflaged from air craft, and were not a high priority target during early bombing raids.
Besides the normal water skills that our Frogs must have, we’ve incorporated small arms and demolition use into their training. Skills in the 3.5 rocket launchers, 40 mm grenade weapons, and 60 mm machine guns were added to the M-16 (AR 15) general use military weapon.
An over the beach raiding party could consist of a Swift Boat, two rubber IBS’s ( Inflatable Boat Small )with crews of 7 men each, and 6 gunners manning the Swift Boats 50 cal machine guns and 81 mm Mortars, plus act as backups to the raiding crews. The Swift Boat had a Coxswain and an Engineer that were not part of the Vietnamese Agent group. The Coxswain and Engineer were leftover contract personal from the SOG CIA days. They were Scandinavian Merchant Seamen contracted by the CIA for their Navigational skills and used for their deniability of presence to the International Control Committee (They were not Americans if captured) they were training their replacements from the
Vietnamese Navy, because their contracts would end in December 1964. The CIA would always deny any American involvement in any covert clandestine operations, because that’s what the CIA always does. Just part of the job !!
The Swift boats were a giant leap from the days when motorized fishing Junks were used to land clandestine agents across the 17th pararell into North Vietnam. The speed and armament of the Swift boats would better match them with the Swatow Gun Boats the North used, and the Junks the Swift boats replaced. The Swift Boats were 50 ft in length, and powered with two V1271 GM diesel engines. (A Greyhound Bus is powered by a single 671 GM diesel engine) They had a range of 750 mi at 10 kts and a top speed of 32 kts. They could outrun a Swatow (28 kts) North Vietnams premier Gunboat. They had twin 50 cal machine guns mounted over the pilot house and a combination 50 cal machine gun and 81 mm Lanier fired mortar mounted on the stern. There was a 60 mm machine gun on the bow. They could carry 20 troops with a minimum crew of six. Two inflatable boats (IBS) could be launched from the stern area. The Boat had Radar for night operations, and fathometer for shallow water ops.
The typical op was to approach the target to within a few hundred yards at night, launch two IBS’s with 7 man raiding parties each to land on the beach as clandestine as possible. Destroy the target and egress by IBS to the Swift boat. The armament on the Swift boat can cover the egress and make the pickup in a relative manner close to shore. The Swift boat will use its speed and armaments as protection from Patrol boats. Being home ported in DaNang, the Swift boats have a possible range of 300 miles into North Vietnam. The loss of U S bombing aircraft by SAM missiles, from the Radar- SAM sites, made the sites prime targets for over the beach raids. The sites were generally mobile, but stationary at night. They were protected by armed militia from their immediate areas, with a few regular Army in supervision. The use of the militia as guards was proven to be a poor decision since many of them were asleep when a raiding party was coming ashore. To many of the local populations along the coast, their life was fishing, and the war was something happening far away. Time in the militia was something the government required along with their duty to make a living. It’s the Communist way of life. Militias were poorly trained and during some raids, they ran rather than engage while protecting their assigned station.
By March 1964 we had our troops ready for a real raid. We had been practicing on the other training sites with everything but live ammo. Ray and I felt confident in our Commandos. Then politics reared its ugly head. The powers that be decided that a Vietnamese Navy Lieutenant should command their first cross border operation. Not as a raiding party participant but in command from the Swift Boat. We were not to go because at this time the American involvement was still being denied. As our boss Irish Flynn said “Just say aye- aye, and pull the rope “ The raid was scheduled for a power station that was about 110 miles north of DaNang. The building had been well camouflaged but under the scrutiny from air photos the intake and return water lines from the ocean gave it away. The heated water from the return line was causing a stirred up area in the water where it returned it into the ocean. The water was crystal clear except for a spot directly off shore from one of the buildings built along the ocean side, and then fifty feet away from the same building a cable emerges from the ground and runs to a row of poles leading to the village. Two days later the Swift Boat returns and reports that the Raid had been aborted. The Vietnamese Navy Lieutenant had reasons for the abort that I was never privy to. Then through a conversation we had at a bar in DaNang over a few beers, the Coxswain of the boat said that in his opinion the Lieutenant “ Chickened Out” This was the same problem SOG Combined Studies had with agents scheduled for Air Inserts ( Parachuted ) back in 1962-63. This was cured when US Personnel were made Jumpmasters and the deniability clause was ignored. Don and I were involved on one of those missions in 1962.
This became a problem with Maritime operations, and the same cure was used, only without the knowledge of MACV until after President Johnson signed the Tonkin Gulf Initiative. Then the US Personal were legally released from the deniability restrictions. Our boss realized the problem was political from the get-go. We were not involved at our level but there was a constant turmoil in the upper levels at the United States and the Vietnamese Headquarters.
To shove an untrained Officer into the command of the type of warriors that we trained was asinine. Shipboard officers have no experience in commando type operations. The Lieutenant remained with our Commando Team, but after some heated discussions between his superiors and our superiors, he was made a liaison officer. True to the French influence on the Vietnamese Navy, The Lieutenant would not live with his assigned team, but lived in quarters for other Vietnamese officers set aside in our compound ( Trainees to operate the Swift Boats and Nasties ) SEAL Team officers always lived with their platoons while in Vietnam. The only time they stayed in separate quarters was aboard US Naval Vessels, and on US Military Bases.
We went on to have several what we called successful operations with Ray and I running the show. Since Ray and I did not go ashore with the raiding parties, our best assessment was when the demolitions that were planted went off “High Order” and our personnel returned to the boat. We did have several casualties and two KIA, but none were left behind. On several trips we were fired on by North Vietnam patrol boats that we assumed were Swatows. They gave up the chase shortly after we returned fire so we don’t know if we scored some hits or we were just too fast for them. We were not foolish enough to continue to engage an unknown vessel because if it was a Swatow, we would have been severely outgunned. On the plans made up by the high paid plan makers, each site was to be bombed immediately following a raid, supposedly when it was without defenses. That old deniability crap went out the window when we wanted to be sure of getting a job done. (I’m sure I got some good licks in with our 50 calibers) We used API Ammo (Armor Piercing Incendiaries) and at night you can really light up a target.
The North Vietnamese did not broadcast their losses, so our successes were often conjectured. Then again we were far down the information system, what we did hear was not taken as gospel since too much of the news was exaggerated to inflate moral of our troops. All I know for sure is that we were part of a mission that was awarded the “Presidential Unit Citation” the country’s highest award for combat and second only to the “Congressional Medal of Honor”.
I returned home a month before the other members of our deployment to bury my Mother who succumbed to cancer. Not a very happy homecoming.
There are a few things that stand out about my second tour that are vivid after all these years. One was the futility of trying to learn the Vietnamese language by someone out of touch with the people’s language that we would use.
I’m daily reminded of a gash to my scalp by the scar on my bald dome when I look in a mirror. It happened while we were on a training run on a practice beach. The Swift boat ran aground on a submerged sandbar while making a high speed turn in shallow water. The stop was so abrupt that I was thrown into the overhead of the pilot house. When I returned to the Compound Doc Williams our corpsman sewed me up with baseball stitches and a can of spray that freezes the area long enough that you don’t feel pain but you grit your teeth on each pull of the needle as he weaves his stitches into your bare head. I was O.K. the next day, but you really bleed when you receive a wound to your head. Since it was not inflicted by a hostile act, “NO PURPLE HEART”! I’ve since heard of a LTJG that received three “P.H”s in the span of three months from scratches he got while crewing on Swift Boats ( No gunshots ), and he took advantage of the trip home rule if you receive three “P.H”s during a cruise to VN. He also received a “Silver Star” and “Bonze Star” and all this with less than four months’ time spent in country. I heard where he went on to bigger and better things in our government. He became a Senator, and almost our President. AH! The things that get arranged at the Officers Clubs.
Another bloody evening I remember was when we thought the V. C. were testing out the integrity of the farthest camp south on our beach. The individual sites maintained their own security and made up their own guard assignments. Each site usually kept two guards on duty every night rotating the assignments every two hours. This particular site was the largest of the five sites, and had a group of about 30 Chinese Nungs in training. The Nungs are an ethnic group that live in Vietnam, but immigrated from mainland China after WW ll. They fought on the side of the French during the war with the Viet Minh 1946-54 ( Indochina War ) where they were considered mercenaries. Their language is a mixture of Chinese and Thai. We used Nungs to act as our security at the Main Compound where we lived. Many of the Special Forces Compounds throughout Vietnam used Nungs as security. The number one reason was that the VC had not infiltrated their communities like they had the Vietnamese . Nungs were known for their integrity to whoever paid them, and in Vietnam that was the U.S.
Throughout Vietnam the VC would probe military compounds at night to get an idea if the site had security. If the security was lax or nonexistence they would do a ”Snatch and Grab” of equipment and supplies, or just cause some harassment to provoke and frighten the occupants. In some cases the whole area would be overrun if the resistance to a probe was low. This happened to a Special forces camp in our general area when Don Raymond and I were training our “Vulcan” crew here in 1962.
This night the VC picked the wrong site to see if the troops would panic under attack. Some of the Nungs at that site were previously signed up to work for SOGCIA, and were former mercenaries for the French in the war with the Viet Minh. Now they were working for SOGMACV but being paid by the CIA ( Known as Combined Studies because the term CIA was not supposed to be used ), these Nungs were tough cookies, and experienced fighters.
The main compound was hooked up to each site by radio, phone line, plus each site had very pistols to fire colored flares in case of an attack or to light up the perimeter to make it a killing field. White flares were used periodically by site security to check the area surrounding the site. A series of red flares was a call for help, that the site was being probed or under attack.
Each Training site had at least two vehicles. A Jeep, and a duce and a half truck for hauling personnel and equipment to the piers used by the Swift Boats and Nasties, plus for other uses. Ray and I were assigned a jeep our for work and personal use, this made us very independent.
The night the VC probed training site 5 #, we were hanging out in the main compound having a few at our Lounge/ Meeting Room which was SOP when not out on a operation, training, or in DaNang. The main camp had two guard towers manned by Nungs, and just before midnight they were shouting about the Red
Flares going off down the beach. There were 8 to 10 SEALs in the compound at the time and all but the duty man loaded up our vehicles and went roaring down the beach. Ray and I were in the 1st jeep heading towards site number 5 #. We each had an AR 15 with a lot of ammo. Our own site was number 4 # and as we passed it on the way to 5 # we saw our guys were manning their sandbagged fighting holes. The Nungs of 5 # were in their fighting holes, and firing into the expanse of no man’s land to the south of the site. Not a steady fire on full automatic, but periodically from different places on the line as they were trained to do. The incoming fire ceased soon after we arrived so we surmised that it was only a probe. There were two casualties, one being the “No 1” man among the Nungs ( The Leader ) He had been shot through the neck, and bleed to death in a manner of minutes. The other Nung had a head wound and would survive. Both had been in a guard tower which gave us to think that they were shot by a Sharpshooter (Sniper) since theirs were the first shots fired. There was other incoming fire from the area to the south of the site, but none of it hitting anyone. The leader was probably checking up on the guard, or checking with him on something the guard had seen or heard from the tower, this being the reason why there were the two of them in the tower.
The sites would stay on the alert throughout the night, and in the AM there would be a group of anxious Nungs and SEALs ready to go south for VC hunting. It was common practice for the VC to collect their casualties and slip back into the hinterland, but an inspection of the area could tell us the approximate size of the attacking party, and maybe this time they might of left some dead behind. None were left behind, but by the appearance of the area directly south of the training site, there had been possibly 20 VC’s in the probe.
The tracks in the sand ( this was all beach area ), and the spent cartridges gave us a fair guess at the size of the VC group. There were trails of blood so the Nungs got in some possible kills in the firefight. The area for the training sites and south of the training sites for 7-8 miles to the huge bump called “Marble Mountains” is a strip of beach and sand dunes continuing inland from the beach ¾ of a mile to a river. Just before the “Marble Mountains” the river bends inland and goes off into strictly VC country all the way to the Laos border.
Our Nungs wanted to hunt down the VC responsible for the death of their Leader, but calmer heads prevailed. Mixing it up with the VC were not what these guys were being trained to do, so it was turned over to the “I Corp” The Headquarters of ARVN ( Vietnamese Army ), and it caused our security to be ramped up a little, for one thing SEALs started taking a weapon with them when they were in the lounge/meeting room. We had to rush back to our barracks for weapons before our charge off to do battle with the VC when 5 # site was probed. The word came down that ARVN had found no VC in their search south to the Mable Mountains. My guess is that ARVN didn’t get off the road in their search. In 1964 before US advisors were stationed with the ARVN units, they didn’t go looking for a fight with the VC. A year later after my return to CONNUS, Special Forces ( Green Berets ) found a complete VC strong hold dug into a maze of tunnels at the Marble Mountains.
There are five large out cropping’s that in the Vietnamese language translates to “Mountains made from Marble” They estimated there was a Battalion of hardcore VC involved. They even had a hospital. It was realized through interrogation of prisoners that the place had been there from the days of the French occupation, and had been a place used by the Viet Minh against the French. It took The US Marines that made their first landing in Vietnam just south of the NAD training sites in 1965 to take over the Marble Mountain encampment. This was after they were under daily harassment from VC’s mortars after building a helicopter air field south of DaNang. We might of lost a some of our Nungs if we would of let them chase the VC any farther than they did the day after the probe of site 5 # because the marines lost about a dozen troops, but they killed a sizable number, but since the VC collect their casualties, they didn’t have a count. With the exception of a few prisoners, the VCs from Marble Mountains disappeared into the countryside.
This gave me some after thoughts because as Don Raymond and I were training our Four Frogs for the Limpet attack on the Swatow Gunboats in 1962, we were within a few miles of Marble Mountains. In those days we were the only ones training on this whole beach (My Kye ), and they must of known of our existence.
The SEALs expanded My Kye into five sites and a headquarters compound with the transfer to SOGMACV from SOGCIA (Combined Studies) in 1963.
It was probably the same VC’s that attacked the Special Forces camp at Hoa Com and killed our drinking buddies Spec Gabriel, Sgt Marchand, and captured Sgts Quinn, and Groom that they released on May 1st 1962 as a propaganda move while negotiating for the release from prison of high priced VC officials. Remember in 1962 the war was still in the shouting and clandestine stages.
Note; After the NAD sites were abandoned in 1968, the Headquarters area became “China Beach”, a recreational area for US service personnel. (This was made into a TV series for stateside showing)
On my return to Coronado in 1964, and after the death of my Mother, I was engaged with the training of new transplants to SEAL One from the UDT‘s to ready them for deployment to Vietnam. SEAL Team One was expanding its number of personnel.
We had to wait while new replacements graduated from UDT replacement training and they were then simulated into the UDTs. We got the more experienced Frogs, because to become a SEAL required far more experience to qualify than the replacement course did for the UDTs. By 1964-65 all SEALs were Parachute qualified, proficient in small arms, trained in small unit tactics ashore, Submarine escape trunk training, and knowledge of counter insurgency warfare. In the beginning of the SEAL teams, all personnel were required to have two years of service in UDT. Due to the changing times that requirement started to be relaxed.
SEAL detachments were now operating in the lower Mekong Delta, the Run Sat’ Special Zone, and they continued with the Biet’Hai. The Run Sat’ and Mekong Delta ops were without Vietnamese Forces. Some ops were made with the Riverine Boat Units, plus we had our own boats. Others were done largely from Helo insertions, and extractions. (The Sea Wolves) Operating with the Viet’s was compromised too often by intelligence leaks, so the SEALs stayed away from operating with any more than a single Viet interpreter. From a large number of successful ambushes and sweeps in the Rung’Sat and Mekong Delta, SEALs had built a reputation with the VC as warriors they should stay away from.
Later when they started the PRU’s of the Phoenix Program they would get the biggest, meanest Nung and put him in charge of security. That usually took care of any VC’s that had infiltrated the unit.
In 1965 I was given an operation to rescue two Nationalist Chinese Air Force Pilots that were on Hainan Mainland China (An Island in the Tonkin Gulf) this would be done from a US Navy Submarine, and it will be my next memoir.
On April 4, 2001 SOG awarded Chief Petty Officer Robert Sullivan with Presidential Unit Citation for his service SOG MACV Da Nang Vietnam.
THANK YOU CHIEF PETTY OFFICER SULLIVAN FOR YOUR SERVICE!