Special Operations News

Vietnam-era Navy SEAL honored 35 years after secret mission

SAN DIEGO (NNS) — More than three decades after a daring attempt to rescue prisoners of war in Vietnam ended in tragedy, a retired Navy SEAL was honored March 18 in Coronado, Calif. for saving the lives of his comrades.

Adm. Joseph D. Kernan, Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC) presented retired Lt. (SEAL) Philip L. "Moki" Martin the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with combat "V" for valor during a ceremony at NSWC.

Martin, who was a chief warrant officer at the time of the mission, was recognized for his courage, bold leadership and loyal devotion to duty during Operation Thunderhead in 1972.

The details of the once highly classified mission of Operation Thunderhead only came to light in recent years, prompting the presentation of awards to those involved. The plan was to rescue two American prisoners of war who were attempting to escape a North Vietnamese prison in Hanoi and flee to the coast along a nearby river. Martin was a member of Alpha Platoon, part of an Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) SEAL element that was charged with the mission.

Martin and Lt. Spence Dry, the officer in charge, were launched in a stealthy minisub manned by two UDT crewmen from the attack submarine USS Grayback (LPSS-574) on June 3, 1972. The special operations team was prepared to select a position to watch for the escaping prisoners of war.

"We were determined and ready," said Martin as he spoke about the operation.

The minisub, known as a Swimmer Delivery Vehicle, or SDV, was launched without incident, but due to strong surface and tidal currents, it ran out of battery power. Dry then decided that he and his team must swim with the SDV in tow out to sea and away from North Vietnam’s coast to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.

"It’s an awfully long swim to Coronado!" said Martin, reminiscing about his thoughts that night. "Our escape and evasion plan was to swim out to sea." Throughout the night, the team avoided enemy patrol boats whose engines could be heard close by.

They were rescued by a Navy helicopter seven hours later. The SDV, too heavy to be retrieved, was sunk on the orders of Dry to prevent its capture. The team returned to the nearby guided-missile cruiser USS Longbeach (CGN-9).

Martin and the team planned to return to the Grayback on the night of June 5, 1972 by jumping from a helicopter. The submarine’s position was marked with an infrared flashing beacon on the top of an antenna that was to be raised before the helicopter’s arrival.

Poor visibility and other factors made it extremely hard for the crew to find the infrared beacon. When the helicopter pilot thought he had sighted the beacon and made his final approach for the cast, he signaled for the team to exit the helicopter. Discounting the potential personal risks, the team did not hesitate. Dry was the first to jump from the helicopter and was killed instantly when he struck the water from high altitude.

Martin was a veteran of many special warfare operations in Vietnam. He recognized instantly, as he stood in the door of the helicopter, that he faced a dangerous situation, but he also knew that his teammates needed his experience and special skills. He survived the force of impacting the water, although he was shaken and only partially conscious.

"I dug down in my basic training and UDT training, and I think I had enough of a foundation to where I knew I was going to be picked up in the morning," Martin said.

The other two surviving UDT members were injured during the cast. One of these two was injured more seriously and was semi-conscious. Rescue and recovery of these men and Dry’s body was directly attributable to the courage and outstanding professionalism of Martin. A highly experienced SEAL and combat veteran, he unhesitatingly risked his life to save his comrades.

Kernan said he was honored to share this long-awaited day with Martin.

"I accept this award on behalf of all of you from Alpha Platoon, UDT-11 SDV platoon," said Martin. "This award is for all of you."

More than 200 people attended the ceremony, including several of Martin’s teammates from Alpha Platoon, his wife, Cindy, and other family members.

"I’m very happy for him," said Cindy. "I think it has helped to bring closure."

She explained she was unaware of the operation for many years but is very proud of her husband’s actions. "He never expected to be recognized, so it hasn’t been something we’ve had bad feelings about. It’s just a nice thing to happen," she said.

Martin’s teammates agreed that he was a great leader, mentor and most of all a great friend.

"It’s very gratifying that he was recognized for his bravery and commitment to all the members of the SEAL team and as a closure for all of us in Alpha Platoon," said Eric A. Knudson, a former teammate. "We would have followed him, and followed Spence Dry wherever they told us to go to complete the mission and operation."

Martin retired from the Navy in 1983 after a bicycle accident that left him in a wheelchair. He is still however, an active member of the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community. Martin gives lectures on "Lessons learned in Vietnam" to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL students at the NSW Center and is the race director for the annual NSW SuperFrog triathlon competition, now in its 30th year. The next SuperFrog is scheduled April 6.

NSW is a maritime component of U.S. Special Operations Command and the Navy’s special operations force. The community is composed of over 6,700 personnel, including 2,300 SEALs, 600 Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCC), along with military support personnel, reserve components, and civilian staff. SEALs and SWCC focus on missions involving unconventional warfare, direct action, combating terrorism, special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense, information warfare, security assistance, counter-drug operations, personnel recovery and hydrographic reconnaissance.

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