In the decade following WW II the attention of the world was focused on the rebuilding of shattered European cities; Southeast Asia was almost forgotten. For over a decade Vietnam smoldered like a tinder dry forest that had gone too long without rain, constant brush fires threatened to begin the conflagration that would consume the country. The Viet Minh under the command of General Vo Nguyen Giap, a resourceful guerrilla leader, plagued the French occupying forces by employing hit and run tactics that Giap knew would slowly bleed the French dry. The Viet Minh under his command were exceptional guerrilla fighters, they chose where and when they would fight, they never stood their ground or fought a fixed battle. Giap changed his tactics in March of 1954 at Dien Bien Phu.
The Viet Minh surrounded the three French fire bases which could only be re-supplied from the air. The Viet Minh did what the French had thought impossible; they moved their heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns to the tops of the mountains surrounding the bases. Throughout the months of March, April, and early May the French forces were hammered by artillery, almost continuous small arms fire, and infiltration by sappers. With the airfield destroyed by artillery fire, able to be re-supplied only by parachute, with all supplies running low and increasing numbers of Viet Minh fighters surrounding the base, the French were close to being over run. Commanding officer Colonel Christian de Castries radioed the French HQ in Hanoi: “The Viet Minh are everywhere, the situation is very grave. The combat is confused and goes on all about. I feel the end is approaching, but we will fight to the finish.”
Seven years after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu President John F. Kennedy, an ex United States Navy LTJG, recognized the clear need for an unconventional warfare capability unlike any other in history. President Kennedy authorized the establishment of the SEALs. At 1300 hours on January 1, 1962 Seal Team One was commissioned in the Pacific Fleet and Seal Team Two in the Atlantic Fleet. The history of unconventional warfare had forever changed.
Anxious to serve a President who was one of their own, the Navy moved mountains of paperwork, searched for and found facilities where these new Sea, Air, and Land teams would be based, and, began a SEAL legacy that survives today; ignoring, bending or breaking the rules to accomplish their mission.
The Navy had decided to do what had never been done before, pull highly disciplined volunteers out of a well defined command and control structure where everything went by the book and turn them into geurilla fighters. Before any man could become a SEAL he would have to prove himself, and prove that there was a single four letter word which was not a part of his vocubulary: quit. The teams would be made up of volunteers who had proven their ability to accomplish any mission or die trying;
The Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams. The SEALs may have come late to the dance but we would redefine modern guerrilla warfare.
The small brush fires in Vietnam, fed by communist China, grew into an inferno that could no longer be ignored. To cut the supply lines, stop the communist infiltration of South Vietnam, and sustain the balance of power in Southeast Asia the Seal’s would become the unconventional force that could take the battle to the enemy on their own turf. The Seal’s would not be another means to use the heavy hammer of American military power, they would be small units of extraordinary men who would become the surgeons of unconventional warfare; going anywhere at any time to take on and defeat any enemy.
To learn how to fight a guerilla war the Seal Teams started with a blank slate. Everything from tactics to weapons was new. Unless we had tried it, tested it, proven it, and it worked we didn’t bet our lives on it. There was only one fact that we did bet our lives on. If you were one of us you were one of the best trained and toughest fighting men in history. The backbone of the Seal’s were warriors; and warriors can only be forged in battle.
In Vietnam we learned the warrior’s craft. We took the battle to the enemy in the jungle, the mangrove swamps, the rice paddies, on the rivers, the canals, and underwater. As we learned, fought, and reinvented geurilla war, the men with green faces brought terror to the hearts of the Viet Cong.
Throughout my career as a SEAL I had the privilege to fight beside many good men, but Tom Keith, Master Chief, U.S. Navy Ret., is one of the warriors that made the Seal’s what they became; the most deadly, unconventional group of warriors who have ever existed. Tom was, and remains, an operator, one of the very few men who is only fully alive in the bush, leaping out of perfectly good airplanes that are not on fire, underwater, or under fire. When the shit hits the fan, Tom Keith is the man I want at my back, if not, he’s the man I want sitting next to me at the bar.
Co-Author’s Note –
Our nation was created by men who would have been proud to call Tom Keith their friend. Like Tom, the first Americans who fought for their nation were volunteers; citizen soldiers and sailors, who, when their service was needed, raised their hand, signed their name or scratched their X on an enlistment contract that many couldn’t read, and left behind their homes, shops, fields, and families to march into harm’s way. Most of these volunteers were men, but as we have come to know, women, disguised as men, also fought. War, when we look closely at our history, must be endemic to freedom for we have been unceasingly at war since long before America, as a nation, existed.
When we speak of “peacetime”, what we most often mean is the time between wars which engage us as a nation. When we look outside of this narrow definition, it is difficult or impossible to find even a few weeks of what most would consider “peace”.
It is said that if one loves peace one must constantly prepare for war. It is a fact that the first Americans, the peoples who have been called American Indians for centuries, lived at war. They killed their meat, fought their enemies with the best weapons at hand, sired children, and lived from the land. They were, and many still are, exceptional examples of guerilla warriors. It was from these warriors that the American frontiersmen learned how to fight, and that numerical and technological superiority did not always mean victory. From the beginning Americans have been at war or preparing for it.
As a people, Americans are unique. Ours is the only nation which guarantees that each citizen has the right to be armed, a freedom exercised by over thirty million hunters alone every year.
America has been called “a nation of riflemen” and I can see little room to debate this. In many communities schools close for the opening few days of deer season and twelve year old children carrying high powered rifles sneak into the wilderness to, as the mountain men said, ‘make meat.” It is their intent to kill, eviscerate, and drag home the carcass of a deer, elk, moose, or any animal that will feed their family. Perhaps this is why and how American warriors have become the criteria by which all fighting men and women are measured. We are a tough people, and we have never stopped learning the skills which put food on the family table and allow us to be prepared always for war or peace.
If we are very lucky most of us will live out our lives without facing an enemy in battle. For this, we can offer our thanks to God and to all of the warriors who constantly train for war that we may have peace.
Master Chief Tom Keith, US Navy, SEAL Team 2, retired, is a very rare man in the company of rare men. He embodies the honor, courage, and skill at arms which assures that America will always be free and ready for war. He has survived in circumstances under which most men, myself included, would have failed, and died. He has trained future warriors, and those warriors have trained more warriors.
I have tried to do justice to Tom and to the other SEALs who served with him through three tours of duty in Vietnam. I have done my best to represent accurately those who fought at his side in and out of the SEALs, dates and times when important , weapons used, and a few of the women who played a part in Tom’s life and times. It has been an honor to know Tom, to earn his trust, and to work with him on his first book. I sincerely hope that I have helped to portray the Master Chief as he is, a man of rare skills, immense courage, and patriotism. If there is any failure to tell Tom’s story accurately it is mine.
J. Terry Riebling