Chief Petty Officer James "Patches" Watson was there at the start. One of the first to come out of the famed Underwater Demolition Team 21, he was an initial member -- a "plank owner" -- of America's deadliest and most elite fighting force, the U.S. Navy SEALs.
Through three tours in the jungle hell of Vietnam, he walked the point -- staying alert to trip wires, booby traps and punji pits, guiding his squad of amphibious fighters on missions of rescue, reconnaissance and demolition -- confronting a war's unique terrors head-on, unprotected . . . and unafraid.This is the story of a hero told from the heart and from the gut -- an authentic tour of duty with one of the most legendary commandoes of the Vietnam War.
Chapter One: Bright Light
Here it was, a POW rescue operation. These ops were so important that the high command had given them their own code, name, Bright Light. And my SEAL platoon was going in on the first Bright Light operation of the Vietnam War. As the lead helicopter of our assault group came close to the ground, John Porter and I were just getting ready to jump out when the door gunner and crew chief grabbed us. "No!" they shouted.
I looked to the pilot in the right-hand seat just in time to see him pull all the way up on the collective while turning the' throttle to full open. He was vying to get the bird up and out of there and the chopper wasn't moving.
All I heard at the time was the fading scream of the turbine slowing to a stop. We had lost the engine, we were taking fire from the ground.
I saw the pilot slap the stick over to the side. He was trying to put the bird in on her side so that the blades wouldn't slice us into chopped meat when we bailed out. If we went in it would be a toss-up whether the engine and transmission through the roof would crush us before the blades bad a chance at us. Below us was double-canopy jungle -- we had overshot the insertion point.
Holy shit, we're gonna crash! I thought to myself. We're gonna plow into the ground, burn, and die! What the hell did I get myself into this time?
Though I didn't know it until later, when the pilot turned the chopper on her side, Fuks, our native interpreter, fell out of the bird! Because we were so close to the ground, Fuks wasn't hurt when he landed; He, had a small Instamatic camera in his shirt pocket and actually snapped some pictures of The crash.
There wasn't time for more than a moment's thought when wham, we were into the ground. The chopper went in on her right side, plowing through the trees and into the jungle 'floor. Blades snapped as they sliced into the rotting vegetation that covered the ground.
Metal groaned as it bent and screamed as it tore. We were all tossed around like gravel in a cement mixer Finally the stricken bird came to a stop. The sharp odor of fuel leaking from ruptured Imes overwhelmed the normal stench of the jungle.
Miraculously, nobody was hurt in the crash. We were all shook up, but even the right-hand door gunner got out without much more than a banging-up. We had to sort out the tangled mass of men in the dead chopper and scramble out and away from the downed bird before she caught fire. Quickly organizing the team away from the helicopter, I took stock of our situation.
I was running very light in terms of weapons. I only had a .45 automatic pistol and the radio on my back. Originally, I had figured I would be too busy on the radio to worry about a shotgun. A radio is the biggest "gun" a man' can carry, because with it you can call in all the available fire support, and I almost always carried my own radio. John was right there at my side with his Stoner light machine gun at the ready when we all scrambled out of the crippled bird.
After we were safely on the ground I understood the situation a little more clearly. I had a pilot, co-pilot, two. door gunners, Fuks, the prisoner, John, and several VNs on my hands, most of them even more scared than I was, if that was possible. I had never been in a crash before.
We needed to get away from the downed bud as quickly as we could. I had no idea if there would be a fire or not. After between ourselves and the crash, I could see that thing I had to do was calm everyone down a little bit. We were deep into Jap country, and the natives had already proved themselves restless. (A legacy from the UDT of World War II, enemies in Asia were "Japs.")
The copilot, who was Vietnamese, had left his weapon back in the bird and was really shook about not being armed. "John, stay in my pocket," I said to Porter as I handed the VN my pistol. That made the VN smile a bit, and then I
tamed my attention to die pilot.
"Sir," I said, "if you had to get shot down, you just got shot down with the best in the world. We're going to get you all out of here. I don't give a damn if we have to walk for a week, I'm getting you out of this. You have no problem-we just don't need you getting excited. Just do as I tell you, move when I tell you, and we're going to be all right. We've survived this, and we can get but."
The two door gunners were all ears and listened to my everyword. The only weapon they could have reached was a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the left door, and there was no way we were going to take that. The M60 that had been- in the right door was buried under the bird. The VNs could all speak a little English, and I had succeeded in getting everyone calmed down. Now if only someone would give me a pep talk!
The clearing where we were supposed to land was, I thought, to our north. I took a fast compass sighting and -pointed. "John, that way, go." I had no idea whether the bird would explode if we threw a grenade or Mark 13 signal flare into it. Anyway, I wanted to get away and call in my air support.