A single ribbon of yellow light slipped over the rock strewn mountains east of Coronado, California and cast a glowing beam of light on the tallest Italian Renaissance tower of the hotel Del Coronado. A long streamer of a flag mounted on top of the tower came to life and ruffled and snapped in a light breeze.
“You F…ing new guys better be up front,” came a shout far in the rear as my running shoes tread quickly over the pavement. Fresh out of BUD/S we were expected to excel in all areas of physical training by the old timers in the team.
The early morning streets of the scenic town of Coronado had not yet awoken. There were four of us new guys and all of us were excellent runners. We were in the lead as we ran along the golf course within the edge of the quaint city. On a good day for me and a bad day for my platoon mates I would lead but today, a Friday, I was in my usual position of pushing myself as hard as I could to just keep them in sight. We hit the turn around point and headed back to the beach passing by the dozens of other UDT-12 teammates that were racing against themselves.
We breathlessly reached the truck that had our mask and fins that was parked down the beach from the Hotel Del on shore drive. It was a race and mad scramble for the lead guys to slip off their shoes, grab their swim gear and race to the shoreline. The brilliant sun now rising higher in the sky was warming the trillions of delicate sand crystals on the long stretch of beach to the shoreline. The only sound was of our black neoprene dive booties crunching and compressing the sand as we raced to the waters edge.
Run, swim runs were typical Friday events that would be followed by beer kegs on the beach. I loved my new life in the Teams!
On the last day of the week we typically had a monster mash which usually consisted of a six to eight mile run through the streets of Coronado, a one mile swim along the shore, get out and run another mile, swim for one more mile and then get out and run the last stretch to the UDT-12 compound on the beachfront. We typically got rewarmed and cleaned up in the interior open stall showers and then walked outside nude to the locker rooms. It would be a couple more years before we could no longer walk around like wild savage men in the prime of life. It gave us a feeling of complete freedom and was awesome. Jokes and laughter were typically in the air.
After we cleaned up our spaces and the team area then the Executive Officer and the Master at Arms conducted an inspection. If they were satisfied then over the 1MC or load speaker system the Quarterdeck would pass liberty call and that the drinking lamp was lit with a keg of beer on ice on the beach. This was usually around noontime and the party didn’t end but just kept moving from place to place until Sunday afternoon.
There was a house that Team guys rented and was called the Animal House after the movie of the same name. At night we would dance on the floor until it started to wobble to the point it was going to collapse. Someone would turn off the music, and then we would stop dancing until the floor stopped bobbing like a boat in rough seas. When the flooring grew calm we’d slowly crank the music up again. As it grew later in the night the police would come and tell us to settle down because we were disturbing the neighbors. We would tone it down for awhile but somehow the music and the noise would increase again and the cops showed up and we got quiet until we weren’t and so on until late at night they shut us down for good.
Somewhere down the coast on Saturday night would be a huge Toga party where all the teams guys and their girlfriends or wives would party. These parties rivaled anything I’d seen in the movies. Imagine all the perfectly toned women walking around with barely a sheet covering them. They all seemed to be trying to out do each other with how skimpy they could dress. It was like floating in heaven. Usually Imperial Beach had several dozen Team guys living in different houses and the parties would rotate around to different houses weekend to weekend.
I was usually glad Monday morning rolled around because then I could recover from the weekend. We had trained for a couple of months and it was our last week in town before we deployed for six months overseas. My barracks roommate and former classmate Rick and I had the late afternoon off so we went to the base and grabbed a paper out of a machine to check the movie times. Some of our former classmates in another team just happened to stroll by and we talked about going to a movie together. I laid out the paper on the sidewalk, which happened to be in front of the building that housed the Naval Amphibious Base Headquarters. We looked at times and all planed to meet for a movie at the theatre in Coronado.
After the movie Rick and I pulled into our barracks parking lot and as we were heading up to our room Rick heard someone in a white base pickup truck call out to him. I headed towards the barracks but paused as I heard Rick get into a heated discussion with the driver. Rick walked away and said something to the effect of whatever. When I asked what happened he said that the driver was the acting base command duty officer. Usually an actual officer or an enlisted chief petty officer this had been a senior first class petty officer filling the position. Rick told me he had accused us of stealing papers out of the machine that was in front of the command quarterdeck. “He said he saw us stealing the papers, so I told him he was full of sh_ _,” Rick said.
I watched as the base security truck sped away as if the driver was pissed off. I had a bad feeling about this. Rick had come right to BUD/S and therefore was not savvy to the ways of the regular military. I had experience as an elite diver working with the regular Navy where less than stellar service members look for the opportunity to make others look bad so that they can further their own careers. I wished that I had been involved in the conversation.
The next morning as Rick was walking to change for morning Physical Training the Commanding Officer saw him and shouted at him that he was going to burn the two of us for stealing papers. Over the next several days we struggled to prove our innocence. We were just three days away from deploying on our first adventure that every SEAL dreams of and it was about to get squashed.
Fortunately I had been doing several triathlons, which are swim, bike and run events with the top officers and enlisted in our command. We had all gotten to know each other and built a great rapport. I had even been invited to the Horny Toad invitational, which was half the equivalent of the Ironman the mother of all triathlons. I even got my picture taken before the event started and was featured in Triathlon Magazine as one of the best bods in the sport. It was but for this camaraderie that I saved Ricks and my career in the Teams.
I remember I was the last to speak at the Executive Officers screening where they would decide if Rick and I would go on to get hammered by our Commanding Officer as he had promised. I had spoken just prior “man to man” as he called it at the time to the officer in charge of our case. He just happened to be a triathlon mate who was prior enlisted and a Viet Nam veteran. We had looked each other in the eye and I told him I guessed this petty officer was tasked with watching for people stealing papers and had failed and was looking for someone to pass the blame to. We had been in front of the one way glass that was mirrored on our side for several minutes so if he had seen us steal the papers like he claimed why hadn’t he walked out and said so during that timeframe. We had two other witnesses that would collaborate our story.
After I gave my statement the officer in charge of our case stood up and said in his deep southern accent “That Dog Don’t Bark!” meaning it was a bunch of crap that was trying to be dished on us. I was asked to leave the room. I went outside and sat by the obviously nervous and sweating Rick. I didn’t know what would happen. It is times like these that you find out who your true friends are. Some of the guys in our platoon had been overheard saying they believed we were guilty and had brought disgrace to the team and we deserved to burn. Others had been with us all along and recognized what was happening and offered their support.
After several minutes of sheer agony of awaiting our fate we were called back into the XO’s office. We both stood at attention side by side as the charges were read off to us. The XO told us what the potential consequences were for our supposed actions.
“You are both facing loss of pay, loss of rank, restriction to base and extra duty,” he said while sitting behind his massive oak desk and eyeing us for any sign of guilt.
I couldn’t believe I was in this position. I’d had an exemplary career, loved the Navy, my job, had worked for nearly four years for the opportunity to deploy as a SEAL and had dreamed of being a SEAL for nearly twenty years of my nearly twenty two years on earth. It was all about to be ruined by someone’s ridiculous lie.
I had also completed triathlons with the XO. Earlier he had also looked me in the eye when I told him without the slightest flutter in my eyes that I didn’t steal the papers.
After a pause for effect the XO said, “After review of the evidence and your testimonies I have decided to dismiss the case.”
A weight lifted from my shoulders and my heart felt like it had wings. We were dismissed and went outside and slapped each other on the backs and laughed with relief.
A few days later as Rick and I arrived at the Command Party for our platoon deployment the Commanding Officer walked past us and asked if we had any papers for sell. Lots of laughs rang out from everyone within earshot. For years afterwards it was known as “The Paper Caper.”
Love that humor when I’m not on the receiving end of it but not so much when I’m the object of it. Rick and I said nothing or showed any emotion. To do so would have shown weakness and then the taunts would have gone off the charts.
The weekend came and we boarded the ship that would be our home base for the next six months. The USS, United States Ship, Ogden LPD-5 an amphibious transport ship with 24 officers, 396 enlisted, 900 Marines and 21 SEAL/S. We had two officers, one chief, and nineteen enlisted. Only the four of us new guys had never participated in an overseas UDT cruise before. Some guys like Ivan, a Hawaiian surfer with a famous dad that was a surfing legend had several cruises under their belts.
After many days at sea for trials to make sure we were sea worthy and could work with the other ships in our amphibious group we headed to Hawaii. It was even more beautiful than I had ever imagined. Sun rises and sunsets are out of this world and I have heard it is attributable to the volcanic ash that is in the air. The Hawaiian Islands are still forming and the Big Island has molten lava flowing into the sea quite frequently. The volcanic soil is a paradise for exotic plants, palm trees, flowers and orchids of every color, lusciously delicious fruits like pineapple and passion fruit are all incredible.
We finished up in paradise and headed out to sea again for the first of two three-week stops in Subic Bay in the Philippines. Our at sea life was pretty casual with two hour conditioning exercises as a group every morning. During the afternoon we had authorized sun conditioning hours. We laid out on steel beach in nothing but our UDT shorts. I had this art down to a science with a collapsible lounge chair and towel. It was great lying out on what I imagined was our cruise ship, the sun, the breeze, the jokes and laughter. Sun hours were necessary because we were out on every landing for days at a time all day long in the sun. I had the best tan of my life on that six-month cruise.
We did have one guy that we called the pink frog because he never got out in the sun because his skin was so fair. He wore long sleeved camouflage tops and pants and a big floppy hat when we were all on the beach in nothing but UDT shorts during marine landings. Red haired, freckled and Irish stubborn. It’s amazing he survived our cruise because he seemed to mouth off to everyone. Our Hawaiian platoon mate nicknamed him Fi Fi after the cartoon with the pink poodle because he never tanned he just got pink skin.
Every time we came near a port or landing site we were off the ship on helicopters living on the beach in remote areas or staying in barracks or hotels while the ship was offshore during the landings or docked in port.
When we finally pulled into Subic Bay we offloaded most of our operational gear for training and drove it over to our forward in theatre of operations base. The Teams had our own compound with storage and buildings for all of our gear and a warehouse with an open bay area for preparing gear for training missions or real world operations. It was September 27, 1982 and the guys snuck up on my on a pier where we were staging our rubber boats and through me into the water for my birthday. I was twenty-two. One year ago had been the start of my BUD/S class Hell Week. I had come a long way in a short period of time.
At the time the teams were really small. We had one SEAL platoon of sixteen guys deployed and stationed in Subic Bay and one UDT platoon cruising with the amphibious fleet. That was it. The Teams have grown many times over from these numbers.
Subic Bay was definitely in the tropics with thick jungle surrounding the base. The broad blue waters of the bay leading out to the South China Sea were calm and serene. It was the first time I’d been in the tropics other than Hawaii, which was actually cool with the sea breezes gently blowing so that you never felt too hot. Subic Bay was different than anything I had experienced so far. I grew up in the south and the heat and humidity can be oppressive in the summer time. This humidity and heat was even more intense. It was great when we went out in our boats on the bay and did dives but on shore you were instantly covered in sweat. The body adapts after awhile to anything and within a few days it wasn’t so bad.
My first trip across the bridge leading off base and into the city of Olongapo was surreal. Shit River as it was called carried the raw effluent of the city of tens of thousands of people. It moved past our SEAL compound on base and spilled into the vast Subic Bay, which swallowed it up as if it never existed. As you crossed the bridge at night women on long slender Bonka boats wearing contrasting white dresses to the filth they floated in. They held large mouthed catch tubes and would yell “Peso’s, Peso’s,” to passersby on the bridge from their bobbing seats in the skinny boats. Little boys held onto the sides of the boats in case the girls didn’t catch the coins that were tossed. They would dive into the dark, filthy, stinking water and grab the coins off the bottom.
Those are the “Shit River Queens” I was informed by my savvy teammates as they escorted us FNG’s out into the loud teaming city. The smell of roasting meat was in the air as vendors waved palm fronds over coals in vending carts. “Monkey meat on a stick” my friends said pointing as we walked up the street. I had some later and it tasted like chicken. I enjoyed the food of the Philippines. The fruit was amazing especially the mango daiquiris and margaritas.
Rock and roll music poured out of bars as we walked up the street. Giant two story speakers in some of the clubs rivaled rock concerts in the US. Every night local rock groups jammed in several clubs up and down the long street. The Teams had our favorite bar we called our own named Fillmore East. Women ran the bars and restaurants throughout town. They were better at business than the men and were completely accepted in that capacity throughout their society. They were called Ma Ma san.
One of my platoon mates named Steve had a brother named Bobby who sang on stage at one of the bars. You could name any popular rock song at the time and he could belt it out like he originally wrote it and recorded it. He had a Pilipino Rock group that he sang for when he was deployed. It was awesome fun. I fell in love with ice-cold San Miguel beers. If you got out early enough in the late afternoon you cold get some that were slushy. Perfect for the tropical weather. After several weeks of partying with our SEAL Team One friends virtually every night we headed out to several more ports.
We visited Hong Kong, which has to be one of the best places in the world to shop. I had the best Peking duck of my life there.
We traveled to the land down under and visited Perth, Australia.We trained with the Aussie Special Boat Service in the outback and I saw huge herds of hundreds of Kangaroo and giant Emu and Ostrich birds that are over six foot tall running around wild. We feasted every night on fresh ground Roo Burgers and Roo Spaghetti, easily some of the best wild meat I’ve ever eaten.
Perth had some of the best music at the time with Duran Duran ‘Girls on Film’ and ‘Hungry like the Wolf’ playing in all the clubs. Huge video screens were playing the latest craze that had yet to hit the US, Music Video’s.
Next we cruised to the island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We dove there and the visibility was well over one hundred feet. My dive buddy Jim and I were down at 120 feet diving along a rare black Coral wall. I looked up and could see some of the other guys in platoon swimming on the surface next to the boat clear as if we were in a swimming pool.
I heard Jim grunt loudly over and over again in alert to get my attention. The first thing I thought was he had seen a great white shark that was coming in to eat us. I spun around and there not ten feet from us was a giant Manta Ray cruising by checking us out. The wingspan on it was well over twenty feet tip to tip. It was one of the most beautiful and majestic sights I’ve ever seen.
Our next adventure was Somalia, which in late 1982, was friendly towards the US. We would do a Marine Beach landing south of Mogadishu.
Over a period of two nights we were in the water for many hours along the shoreline swimming stealthily and undetected, surveying and marking the upcoming landing area for potential obstacles. The last day after the landing was completed, a couple of us decided to surf along the shoreline.
Two of my UDT-12 teammates had brought surfboards and were surfing the large waves while I was the only one in our group that decided to bodysurf.
There was one particularly perfect wave that all three of us were riding at the same time. I thought I was doing really well because I could hear my buddies yelling at me from their surfboards. With the thunder of the crashing waves I couldn’t make out what they were saying but assumed they were cheering me for bodysurfing the wave so well. I continued swimming out and caught several more waves when I noticed my buddies were no longer surfing. I was just riding another wave when I saw all of my UDT team gesturing wildly and jumping up and down. I thought that they were again cheering me and my head swelled proudly thinking my bodysurfing skills were peerless.
The waves were fantastic breaking far off the beach you would get a long ride in the cool refreshing water. The waves had a great face on them that didn’t spill over and break right away. I was flying at high speed in the churning bubble machine, bouncing along in the spray and foam. I eventually tired and rode a wave all the way back to the beach.
When I got out of the water, my friends asked me accusingly why I had stayed after they were yelling at me to get out. I shrugged my shoulders telling them that I didn’t hear them for the crashing of the waves.
“What’s the problem,” I asked vexed at their anger.
They then proceeded to tell me they had seen a huge shark riding in the wave right next to me, they had yelled to warn me and made sure they stayed on their boards all the way into shore. When they got there, they told everyone else what they had seen, and everyone in my team jumped up to run and see.
For the next several waves they all saw the huge shark riding the waves right next to me again and again as they yelled and gestured for me to get out of the water. Steve my friend on the surfboard closest to me told me he had seen the beady eye of the shark staring at me menacingly. I guess I made a bodysurfing friend of the shark that day or my guardian angels were having a field day keeping me safe.
I got a chill in the blazing heat and looked back out to the crashing waves to see if my stalker was still there. I saw nothing and began to doubt my friends were accurate.
Later that day we got into a helicopter to return to our ship. We flew into the air and started to cruise along the shore. We were riding along when all of a sudden one of our teammates named Joe yelled for us to look down into the water. We saw hundreds of sharks in the water, some of which were well over 12 feet long.
I believe that we were saved by the fact that we were all very comfortable in the water. It was probably a good thing, however, that I didn’t see the shark next to me when I was bodysurfing. Maybe that big fella wanted to play along side me or he may have been probing me to see if I had fear or would act like prey. If I had shown fear or surprise, he and his buddies would have likely come in closer for a taste.
None of us had shown any fear during the nights of our water reconnaissance, you learn not to focus on what you fear as a SEAL. If you did you’d never be able to do anything because everything we do is on the razors edge of complete abandonment or paralyzing fear. To this day, now over seventy years in existence no US Navy UDT/SEAL has ever been attacked by a shark.
As a Navy SEAL, Navy Hard Hat Diver, and PADI scuba diving instructor I have encountered many sharks over the years. On a certain level I believe that most sharks observe us humans as comfortable in the water and not an easy meal and therefore leave us alone. However, although it’s very rare, it sometimes does happen that some of us obviously must seem like inferior prey to them, so they may take a bite to see how we taste.
Personally, I have been very fortunate that I have been viewed as comfortable in the water environment and not an easy meal for over fifty years now. I always felt confident, but I have never knowingly pushed my luck just for the thrill of it when it comes to the underwater environment. I have a healthy respect for marine animals and if I’m aware that sharks are in the vicinity, I simply don’t go into the water or leave the area if I see them.
After our Somalia adventure we cruised over to Oman and trained with the Oman UDT/SEAL equivalents for a couple days. It was along the deserted shoreline that we saw a huge freighter that was washed up close to shore and abandoned. It would be at the top of the freighters mast high above the water that I would climb up and reenlist for four more years. My platoon officer in charge swore me in from the main deck below with the rest of my platoon watching from our rubber boats circling the hulk. I would have many more reenlistments in the years to come but that was my favorite.
We cruised down the straights of Malacca to Singapore for Christmas. Most of the guys in my platoon and I rented out a luxury suite to celebrate in. What a night. We were in a British pub when one of the guys decided to order a cool shot he had heard about for everyone. It was called Gorilla Tits. I have no idea what was in it. I was have a highly intelligent conversation with a local Brit on the subject of politics. Every British person I’ve ever met loves politics and are usually very well versed in teaching us Yanks what makes the world go round. I found it fascinating conversation and had forgotten about my friends. I heard laughter as if they were drunk already. This was impossible in my mind because we had sat down for a pint of beer only half an hour earlier. My conversationalist looked over my shoulder in horror. I turned just in time to see my friend Steve who is the hardiest of alcohol consumers throw his shot back up into his shot glass.
I decided I was going to ignore these hoodlums and tried to continue the conversation. The laughter grew more riotous and I heard my name being called over and over again. Each time was louder.
“Mike, MIKE, MIKE!” All of them were shouting.
I couldn’t ignore them any longer as I had a shot glass thrust into my hands. “What is it?” I asked coolly. Everyone was watching me breathlessly in anticipation through their blurry eyes.
“It’s a Gorilla Tit,” came the slurred words.
To make them leave me alone I took the shot and downed it in one gulp. What can one stupid shot do! I thought. Everyone cheered.
I turned back around to talk to the Brit and my eyes began to water. What the hell, I thought. The next thing I remember because everything became blurry soon after we were heading back to the hotel on escalators up and over the roadways. I remember one of my friends turning them off so that the rest of us behind him had to walk up or down. Of course the other Singaporean people had to do the same thing. Somehow we made it to our hotel a Hilton if I remember correctly. Someone thought it a good idea to open what was thought was the free booze refrigerator. It wasn’t free and in fact it was ridiculously expensive, as we would find out the next day when we got the bill.
During the night I remember the hotel manger and security knocking on our door and asking where the Christmas tree outside the elevator was. “We don’t have it” came the innocent response. Of course there was a trail of Christmas decorations all the way down the hall and into our room. Our normally most mellow and quiet guy CW got pissed when they insisted on checking our closet where someone had hid the tree. He threw an ornamental bulb that crashed over the doorway. It was to say the least a memorable Christmas away from home.
Our next stop was back to the Philippines for three more weeks of nightly partying. I asked my SEAL Team One friend Ron how they partied like this every night for six months.
“We don’t! he said laughing. We look forward to you guys coming because you guys are animals when you pull in and we have a great time. But we also look forward to the day you leave after a couple of weeks so we can dry out.” We both had a good laugh.
This was our last port of call and on the way back home to San Diego we passed by the amphibious fleet replacing us with UDT-11 on board. They would be the last platoon of an era as all UDT Teams would be replaced with SEAL Teams.
I would eventually go into SEAL Team Five as I’ll talk about in the next chapter.