The Navy C-118 left the runway and circled to the north, then to the west, as we gained altitude leaving Guam behind. We were on the last leg of a four-leg flight from Coronado, California, to Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base, Saigon, Republic of Vietnam. The sun was setting as I looked back out the starboard window, watching the shoreline disappear behind a large, reddish, cumulus cloud. Our plane weaved in and out of the large clouds until we gained enough altitude to level out. I couldn’t get my mind off our next stop, Vietnam.
The plane landed at Tan Son Nhut at 0230 hours, 29 June 1970. I was one of fourteen men assigned to SEAL Team One, detachment Golf, Juliett Platoon. Out of the two officers and twelve enlisted men, only five had completed one or more tours of duty in Vietnam. The other nine, including myself, would be “in-country” for the first time.
Lt J.G. Quincannon, “Mr. Q,” as we called him, was the officer-in-charge of Juliett Platoon. He had a slight eastern accent; dark, short curly hair; and was about five feet, ten inches tall. He had had a previous tour to Nam with SEAL Team One. He was easygoing, and the men of his platoon looked up to and respected him.
Ensign Walsh was second-in-command of Juliett Platoon. He had graduated with UDT/SEAL Training Class 54 and this would be his first tour to Nam. Mr. Walsh was six feet tall, medium build, dark hair, and even after he had just shaved, his dark beard would be exposed on his face. Mr. Walsh was very easy to get along with, but he was one gung-ho son of a bitch. He was quick-thinking, making wise decisions, and was in control of his men and surroundings at all times. He would never ask his men to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.
Signalman First Class Petty Officer LePage, the highest ranking enlisted man in our platoon, probably had more experience with SEAL teams in Vietnam than anyone else in our platoon. He was also the oldest man in our platoon. He had been shot in the ass twice and creased in the head by an AK-47 on a previous tour with SEALs. This was at least his third tour to Nam with SEALs, and maybe he even had another. LePage was five-ten, wore a crew cut, had brown hair, and came from New Orleans. He was fun to be around, on or off duty. He liked his whiskey and beer—it didn’t matter what kind, he drank them all. His nickname was Leaper, and for a good reason.
Radioman Second Class Petty Officer Bruce was six feet, two inches tall, brown eyes, brown curly hair, and a big mustache that looked like a set of Navy parachute wings. This was Bruce’s second tour to Nam with SEAL Team One. He was a good SEAL operator and a great asset to our platoon. Bruce was from California, and he wore hippie beads—or war beads, as we called them in Nam—around his neck.
Machinist Mate Second Class Petty Officer Sitter was another Seal with Nam experience. At five-ten, he was a stocky man with light-colored hair. Sitter also enjoyed his beer on his free time. Sitter was from Oklahoma.
Engineman Baylett went through UDT/SEAL Training Class 52. This was his first time to Nam. Baylett had light brown hair, a round face, big ears that stuck out, and always had a shit-eating grin on his face. He reminded me of Howdy Doody, except for his Pennsylvania drawl and no freckles. Though six feet tall and stocky, he acted like Howdy. Maybe it was his Pennsylvania background. He was a great morale booster for Juliett Platoon.
Aircraft Ordnance Petty Officer Panella was about five-ten, with curly brown hair. He was from California and owned a gold Corvette. While back in the States the gas pedal was always kept to the floor and he couldn’t go through the gears fast enough. Being in Nam for his first time, like the rest of us new guys in SEALs, he was in for a treat.
Seaman Weber graduated in my UDT/SEAL training class, Class 53. Being from Nebraska, he had never seen the ocean before. He was six feet tall, with dark hair, a medium build, and brown eyes. Weber was a very quiet person, and it really took a lot to piss this guy off. This was his first time in Nam also.
Seaman Reeves was six feet tall with blond hair and blue eyes. His home town was St. Louis. He had also never seen the ocean until he joined the Navy. Reeves graduated in UDT/SEAL Training Class 53 with Weber and me. The three of us had been training together for a long time, and we knew each other pretty well. We would get to know each other even more as our six-month tour to Nam went on day by day. Reeves was a slim man and seemed to be very independent. He was to be second squad’s rear security.
Torpedoman Grimes graduated from Class 54. He was six feet tall, with blond curly hair and a thick blond mustache, dark eyes and an intimidating stare. Grimes was from California, and this was his first Vietnam experience. His dad had been a boxer, and he boxed too. That’s where he earned his nickname, “The Dude.”
Radioman Seaman Shannon was the tallest man in Juliett Platoon, close to six-four with dark hair and brown eyes. This guy always had a smile on his face; a man couldn’t ask for a better friend. If Shannon said something, he meant it. Like Mr. Q, Shannon had a slight eastern accent. He came from UDT/SEAL Training Class 54, and grew up in Baltimore.
Ship Fitter Pipe Fireman Strausbaugh was also from Class 54. He was the shortest man in our platoon, but a stocky man. At five-nine, he had light brown hair with a thin blond mustache. He was a quiet guy, but absorbed everything around him. His job was point man for second squad.
Hospital Corpsman First Class Petty Officer Schrier was from Oregon. He was six feet tall, a slim man. He had dark hair with a curl in the front and a trimmed dark mustache. Like LePage, he loved his beer and had plenty of Vietnam experience with SEALs. The medals on his chest proved that. Like most corpsmen in the service, he received the nickname “Doc.” When Doc spoke, everyone listened. Maybe that’s why Doc carried the PRC-77 radio for our platoon. I never could understand why a cowboy would join the Navy. He was always in control of all situations that came up, and was quick-thinking, with sound advice and suggestions, even when he drank too much beer. Everyone in our platoon liked Doc, looked up to him and respected him.
Seaman Young, in Nam for my first time. Nobody made me come here but myself. Blond hair, blue eyes, six feet tall, medium build, thin blond mustache. I was nineteen years old, well-trained, and was ready to do my duties for my country with thirteen of the best men I have ever met in my life. I was to be first squad’s rear security.
As we disembarked the plane, Lieutenant Boyhan, the SEAL officer in charge of Charlie Platoon, was waiting to meet us. Charlie was the SEAL platoon we were to relieve. Mr. Boyhan informed our officers that five SEALs were killed the day before in a helo crash. A slick had picked up the five men at a place called Sea Float, down on the Ca Mau Peninsula, for a ride to Saigon. Apparently the helo had been shot up on an operation but had not shut down to check out the damage it sustained. So it fell from over a thousand feet into the jungle below. By the time the other SEALs in the platoon geared up and reached the crash site, all the bodies had been stripped of weapons and usable gear. One of the men on the helo was on his way to Saigon to help Mr. Boyhan orient our platoon and welcome us to Vietnam.
What a welcome. I hadn’t even seen the enemy and already I was mad. SEAL-team and underwater-demolition team members are close, no matter which team they are from. I was shocked at the bad news, and I wondered if I would make it through my six-month tour.
We rounded up some transportation and loaded our gear for the trip to the Victoria Hotel, downtown Saigon. This hotel was made of concrete, and the walls were old but still had the marks from the wooden forms used when they were poured. The Victoria was one of the SEALs’ favorite hangouts in Saigon. As we checked in, LePage, our leading (senior) petty officer, suggested we meet on the roof of the hotel after getting settled. Weber, Reeves, and I got a room together on the sixth floor. I was surprised at how cheap it was compared to a hotel in the States, the equivalent of six American dollars. After entering our room, we looked under our pillows and beds for booby traps. After a while we decided to see what was up on the roof. Topside we found a swimming pool along with a bar, food, and—of course—bar girls awaited us there. I’d have to be pretty drunk to swim in the green, slimy pool, but LePage had arrived first and the partying was well under way.
Although the drug of the day was alcohol, some of the people in my platoon smoked pot. They were always trying to pull me aside to smoke a little with them, but being in a combat zone for my first time, I wanted to stay straight. Besides, I had never tried it.
As the day wore on and our beer consumption increased, we got rowdier. The bar girls sitting opposite us would stick their legs under the table and massage us with their toes. Being a young kid of nineteen, I wasn’t used to that sort of thing. They weren’t the best-looking things I ever saw, but I didn’t ask them to stop.
Excerpted from The Element of Surprise by Darryl Young. Copyright © 1990 by Darryl Young. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.