Chief Petty Officer Robert Sullivan
It’s an honor to once again hear from Chief Petty Officer Robert Sullivan as he shares his experiences from the early days the Navy SEAL Teams were establish. Thank you Chief Petty Officer Sullivan for your service and thanks to those who served beside you.
OP34/ALPHA – VULCAN
A RECORD OF SEAL ONE’S FIRST OPERATIONAL DEPLOYMENT TO VIETNAM.
By CPO (SEAL) Robert F Sullivan USN Ret ( ST-1 Plank Owner )
During this past fifty years, it’s been repeated over and over on how, when, and where the SEAL Teams came into existence, so I’m going to start somewhere during our first weeks
During the third week of February 1962, while members of newly established SEAL Team One were chasing around the hills of Camp Pendleton, The word went out for CPO Robert F Sullivan and HM1 Donald C Raymond to report to the SEAL HQ on NAB, ASAP.
Sullivan and Raymond had received orders for the first SEAL Team One operational deployment to Vietnam. These orders were different than the normal orders for a TAD detachment of enlisted men.
The orders read:
1 Mar 1962 Proceed to Honolulu Hawaii, upon arrival report to CINCPACFLT HQ in connection with naval matters for a period of about one day. Upon completion and when directed, proceed to Saigon Vietnam and report to Chief MAAG Vietnam TEMADDCON with naval matters for a period of about six (6) months Travel by Commercial Air Civilian Clothes Required Advance Per-Diem Auth.
What is not in the orders is that a current Passport w Visa is also required. This item mystified us. Since when do enlisted men need passports??
SEAL One’s new commanding officer Lt David Del Giudice had us in his office for a briefing, only it was more of a pep talk, our briefing would come in Honolulu. He did reiterate the subject that was paramount in the team briefing on the day we were established. He said to remember our concept is highly classified, and information about it is not to be told to anybody.
Don and I caught a United Airline to Honolulu and checked in at Nav Sta Pearl Harbor and were taken by staff car to CINCPACFLT Headquarters. A Staff Car?? WE find out that we should be at COMNAVCINPAC the offices of Admiral Felt.
(CINCPAC) There our briefing starts with a civilian that tells us what might happen if we breach security (CIA security). This is the first that we know who we will be working for. Next a Commander explains that in the (Remote) chance that we get captured, there is this thing they call deniability , in other words, “They don’t know you” He explains that Admiral Felt has a personal interest in this experimental program and will talk to us about it. Next we have a short meeting with Admiral Felt. The Admiral is very cordial. He asked how our families felt about this sudden change. He being from the old school Navy, said he thought we would be Bos’n mates. I explained that UDT was a career change for many ratings, and responsibilities went to those that were most qualified. Don Raymond and I were both qualified Diving Supervisors. Admiral Felt said he was planning a visit to Vietnam, and he wanted an opinion on how well the host Vietnamese were to work with, and what improvements we felt should be made. He reiterated that our country’s involvement into North Vietnam was a very fragile thing, and it could become compromised easily. He did visit Vietnam but we never saw him.
From our briefing at CINCPAC, we were to catch a PAM AM to Manila, and transfer to an AIR FRANCE Airliner for the last leg to Saigon. The reason for the change to AIR FRANCE was the Geneva Convention Committee had put quotas on how many military advisors each country could have in South Vietnam. The International Control Commission (ICC) was stationed at the Saigon Airport checking the passengers from each plane. Honolulu told us to look like tourists. When we reached Saigon, We got in alright because they were only checking American air craft, but believe me, Don and I could never pass for French tourists.
Checking in at MAAG was interesting since our orders read report to MAAG for TAD, and nothing else. We ended up in front of the Commanding Officers desk looking ignorant. He had never heard of SEALs, and in Honolulu it was made emphatic that we not mention CIA to anyone, and Navy Captains were not an exception. The Chief Yeoman suggested they call Combined Studies that has an office in the compound. Navy Chiefs seem to know where the secrets are kept.
Combined Studies sent a Mr. Kennedy to collect us (All names of the civilians we will meet are probably not their real names) this is SOP for this type of work. We
get our important stuff taken care of like drawing our advance per-diem, and we get hustled off to a fancy French Hotel (Majestic) where we are allowed to sign for everything. Don and I had our first eight course dinner that night on the CIA. The next day we get acquainted with some of the people we will answer to. We have a brief meeting with Mr. William E Colby who is the CIA Station Chief for Saigon. Mr. Colby will become Director of the CIA in 1973-76 He tells us of a conference that he had with Admiral Felt and General Westmoreland, where one of the problems discussed were Swatow Gunboats, and how they were creating havoc with the South Vietnamese fishing fleets. He said Admiral Felt told him that we had a solution to this problem. He stated that it was South Vietnamese that would have to make the trip into North Vietnam to solve it because The United States was still not considered a belligerent in this action. Remember this was 1962 and the war was still in the shouting stages .That term “deniability” comes up again.
The Swatow Gunboat is a Chinese-made vessel that forms the backbone of the North Vietnamese Navy. It is 83-ft. long, heavily armed, cruises at 28 knots and carries a crew of 30. A trio of Swatow’s was thought to be harbored on the Gianh River about 40 kilometers north of the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam. The 17th parallel
Raymond and I traveled to the South Vietnamese Naval HQ at NaTrang, where we were to screen 18 Navy men that had taken some UDT training in Taiwan. After two weeks of scrutiny, we settled on the four best SCUBA swimmers. Their training was in open circuit SCUBA only, and that is the only equipment we will have to use for a Limpet mine attack on the Swatow’s. Obtaining closed circuit gear and training the Frogs in its use, is out of the time period planned for the completion of the operation.
The Limpet mines will be put together at the CIA lab on Okinawa. Since the Swatow’s have wooden hulls, the mines will be modified to attach to the hull by firing a nail into it much like a carpenters gun. They will have a two pound TNT load with a delay clock mechanism.
We will need an isolated area in order to practice compass swims and attaching the limpets to wooden hulls. By using Helo recon, we found a long isolated beach
south of DaNang. On the northern area of the beach between a river that runs parallel to the beach and a road that runs into DaNang is a small fishing village with a collection of huts and fishing boats. The name is My Kye. A mile south along the beach is a single room house that is used by a French family during their summer vacations. Combined Studies makes arrangements for us to turn it into our training site. A Quonset hut type shed is built to house a cook and his cooking stuff plus store the diving gear and HP compressor. Training for the limpet attack becomes a nightly exercise using fishing boats from the village as targets. Combined Studies has a compound in DaNang, and all arraignments for hiring of boat crews, our interpreter, and a cook were made by the people from the compound. We were told they were all cleared by the agency’s Vietnamese counterparts.
Approximately two weeks after we started training a Special Forces (Hoa Com) camp about 7 kilometers inland from our beach was hit by the VC. Sergeants Frank Quinn, George Groom, Specialist James Gabriel, and Sergeant Wayne Marchand were captured by the VC. Gabriel and Marchand were then executed with their hands bound behind their backs because they were unable to walk due to wounds. The VC were withdrawing in the direction of Laos and kept Quinn, Groom and 30 Vietnamese prisoners to use as hostages in bargaining for the release from prison of high ranking VC officials. Quinn and Groom were released on May 1st, a communist holiday, as a propaganda ploy. This was significant to Don and I because we had been drinking a few beers with Quinn and Groom a couple of nights before they were captured. We had use of a ¾ ton truck, and had given them a lift back to Hoa Com
The capture of the Green Berets brought home to Don and me the fact that we had no security besides ourselves, and our beach was a known drop off point for infiltrators coming from the North. We only carried hand guns, a 38 and a 45, because we would drive into DaNang after nightly practice swims, and eat dinner at the local soup and noodle joint and have a few beers. We high tailed it over to the C. S. compound and checked out 5 of the new AR 15’s, a 30 cal BAR, and a box of grenades. We arranged a day at Hoa Com to get us and our Frogs checked out by the S.F. in our new arsenal. We weren’t much but we’d sleep better.
Near the end of April it was determined that the Swatow’s were nesting somewhere up the Gianh river but out of sight from the Ocean. We needed to know if our guys could operate in the rivers current, and how far up the river the Swatow’s were. We wanted to check it out by air, but Saigon said No ! Crossing of the 17th would be treated as an overt act of war. We learned that with the agency, after listening to the “Powers Set Policy”, they start looking for another way to solve the problem. At first it was thought that a fishing Junk could get the needed info, but if they are stopped they are bound to tell what they came to find out and that will blow the program. We said a Submarine would be the best way to recon the river mouth and still stay covert. The Submarine Catfish was a Sub used by the agency in North Korean waters, and it was in Subic Bay at that moment. Bringing a Sub into DaNang harbor might be too obvious, so we grabbed a hop to Cam Ranm Bay and picked up the boat there. We continued to play the role we were given by the agency while aboard the Sub and Don and I made a recon of the nesting place of the Swatow’s just like we would if it were in San Diego Bay. “A piece of Cake “ It was also nice to get a couple of meals that didn’t have noodles or rice in them.
We set up a plan that took the Frogs as far as the river mouth by fishing Junk, then transferred them to a skiff with an outboard (common for the area) they would go upstream of the Swatow’s, swim down river with the mines, and get picked up by the same skiff below the nest on their way back to the Junk waiting outside the mouth of the river. There would be three swimmers, each with a mine and one Frog and two crewmen to stay with the skiff.
The order for the attack on the Swatow’s was set for late June, about a month before the monsoons come to that area. After the monsoons start you are out of business.
The attack was not 100%; we sank one Swatow and damaged another. Two of the Frogs were KIA and two Frogs and all but one of the Junk crew were captured. The third Swatow chased the retreating Junk and caught it before they could get across the 17th. The whole group were put on trial in Hanoi and Mr. Bob and Mr.
Don ( The only names the Frogs knew us by ) were broadcasted all over South East Asia as having a 10,000 piaster reward on us.
Our boss got us out of DaNang and into a “Safe House” in Saigon awaiting Mr. Colby’s return from the states so he could be at the debriefing.
Approximately twenty minutes after Mr. Kennedy left us in this huge house called a “Safe House”, we were in a taxi headed for downtown Saigon. We wanted a Steak and something instead of warm beer.
After the debriefings where we suggested a whole shopping list of things needed especially a fast boat with armaments because Junks just aren’t any good against a Swatow. We heard that some Vietnamese politicians were unhappy with us. Not everybody in South Vietnam was happy with the Americans being there. I wrote in the report we made that would eventually be seen by Admiral Felt, that we didn’t care for Monday Morning Quarterbacks. We came to help and not to get seconded guessed. It must have gone through just the way I said it because it came back with a note that said “I concur Chief I think you did well “Felt.
We stayed around and helped get some Junks armed with 3.5 rockets fired with a hell box and 50 Cal machine guns concealed under mats. We also helped train some of the air drop personnel, we even made practice jumps with them. I was Already jump qualified and Don got qualified along with the Vietnamese agents by making more than the required five qualifying jumps. SOG had trouble on several trips into the north when at the last minute the agents refused to jump, so since it could be claim as pilot error, ( For Denilibility) it was decided that Americans Jumpmasters would go along on air ops into the north. All agents jumped after we started going along. After we returned to Conus The last plane Don and I flew on crashed into a mountain top with two Special Forces Jumpmasters and a training class of agents ( No survivors ) It was a C 54 with a Chinese Nationalist crew.
A lot of information of the actual operation ( Vulcan ) and capture came from the Frogs and crew after their release from prison camp in the late 70’s. Author Dale Andrade and Ken Conboy interviewed them after their release and published it in “The Soldier of Fortune Magazine” in May 2000.
This is extra, and FYI
We received letters of commendation from The Secretary of Defense, The Chief of Naval Operations, and from Admiral Sides. CINCPACFLT. We received them with his letter from Admiral Yeager COMPHIBPAC. at a ceremony at COMUDU HQ in December 1962
On the 20th of February 1997 We were awarded the Navy Commendation Medal/w combat V from the Secretary of the Navy. In a phone call from a Navy Commander stationed at the Pentagon, I was told that the medal was held up until after Mr. Colby’s death and his papers were made public. He said that the NCM ( or it’s like) was the highest combat award given to individuals when the United States was not a Belligerent in the action.
This was amended by President Kennedy so all medals could be awarded for actions after 1963.
Also printed in Blast Magazine ( NSW – Periodical )