Sunday, July 26, 2009

By Thomas H. Keith with J. Terry Riebling
St. Martin’s Press, $25.95, 304 pages, illus

The Viet Cong Tet offensive of 1968 is noteworthy for two reasons: the first is that a spectacular shoot-em-up enabled a large number of media commentators to say that the war could not be won; the second is that in order to conduct the offensive, the Viet Cong had to come out into the open and as a result were obliterated in most of the country, their ranks later filled by infiltrating North Vietnamese Army troops.

Only in the waterlogged, labyrinth of canals that constituted the Mekong Delta were the VC able to hang on. It was here that the U.S. Navy decided to send in the SEALs, their elite combat troops skilled in demolitions, boat handling and small scale lethal operations. Thomas H. Keith, who had three tours in Vietnam (because of some obscure Navy regulations, the maximum tour for a SEAL was six months) and is now retired from the Navy after 30 years, tells us with the help of Terry Riebling in “SEAL Warrior” what it was like to become a SEAL and then operate in Vietnam. Their task was neither to defend or seize territory but to obtain intelligence, interdict VC operations and let the civilian population know that the VC were no longer masters of the night and could not rule the Delta.

Their customary mode of operation was a night ambush based on information received from VC defectors or other Vietnamese informants. They would lie in wait for a boat convoy at a canal junction and not leave until the break of dawn. Depending on the quality of the information received, they might see no one all night, other than the mosquitoes and leeches that infested the canals, or there might indeed be a sharp and very lethal conflict. The SEALs operated under the usual rules of engagement which called for the protection of civilians. Decision-making was simple. If a Vietnamese was carrying a gun in the middle of the night and not wearing a South Vietnamese government uniform, he was Viet Cong. If he was unarmed, however, he was allowed to pass unobstructed unless needed for interrogation.

A SEAL platoon consisted of 14 men divided into two squads. One platoon was considered ample for most operations but of course the numbers could vary. Insertion into VC -dominated areas was almost always by boat, helicopters being too noisy and obvious.

The SEALs believed firepower was the crucial factor in conflict and the author made sure he carried enough. His normal load was a Stoner light machine gun with a drum containing 150 rounds of 5.6 mm ammunition, four bandoleers of additional ammunition, a 66 mm rocket (ideal for combat at 40 yards), two fragmentation grenades, two concussion grenades, one claymore mine, one red-star, two white- star and one green-star cluster parachute flares, plus the normal canteen, first-aid kit, booby-trap kit, poncho liner, flashlight and kaybar knife. All this could weigh upward of 80 pounds and had to be humped through the mire to the ambush site that could be several kilometers off. Coming back after a firefight, the load would be much lighter, unless he was carrying captured VC materiel or helping the wounded.

The personal fire power of each SEAL, backed up by the heavy machine guns and even mortars that the insertion boats waiting for them carried, and the air and artillery that could be called upon by radio meant that the SEALs even when only a seven-man squad had overwhelming firepower and normally won all their matches. But firepower by itself could not do everything. Old-fashioned cunning was also needed. The VC had the habit of mortaring assorted villages at different times of day to let the civilians know they were still there and could cause trouble. A three-man team could set up a mortar anywhere at any time, fire three rounds and disappear before any counteraction could possibly take place.

The author’s platoon, after some cogitation, finally came up with a solution. They had in their warehouse of captured VC stores a case of Chinese mortar ammunition. They were skillful enough to be able to change each round so that it would detonate when dropped down the mortar tube (i.e. when being loaded); a highly lethal act to those clustered around the mortar. They would then put the case in an old Vietnamese boat or sampan that they left beached on the side of a canal. Later, they had a noisy mock firefight and managed a few bullet holes into the sampan. The next day’s aerial reconnaissance showed the sampan still there but the mortar ammunition gone. Days later, listeners heard a muffled pop that they assumed was the misfire intended, and random mortaring stopped. The VC had become suspicious not only of the mortar ammunition they had picked up from the sampan, but of all Chinese mortar rounds that had been infiltrated to them by various means. Muscle and brains together are a hard combination to beat.

We all know that Navy chiefs swear a lot, and accordingly Chief Keith’s book is filled with profanity, some might think to excess. He also has the itch to enumerate all his sexual encounters, so he clearly has his failings; but he has shed blood, ample quantities of his own and even more of the enemies, in defense of his country. We are fortunate that America still has volunteers like Thomas Keith willing to venture into harm’s way to do what used to be called their duty. They deserve our respect and honor.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer who served 18 months in Vietnam with the U.S. Information Service.

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