SEALs fight in Vietnam and in Coronado bars

From Cam Ranh Bay to the Tradewinds

“I’ve heard conversations like, ‘I joined the Navy too late.'"
  • “I’ve heard conversations like, ‘I joined the Navy too late.'"
  • Image by David Diaz

The time is the late ’60s and it is a typically quiet afternoon at the Coronado bar, the Tradewinds. Suddenly the tranquility is disturbed when a group of 20 to 25 young Navy midshipmen enter the bar to do some afternoon drinking. They are away from home on a weekend cruise and are feeling festive and carefree. In fact, some of them are feeling so good they sit down without bothering to remove their hats. They are quickly reminded by the Tradewinds’ usual patrons, some Navy SEALs, to comply with Navy etiquette and remove their covers.

A few sharp words and baleful looks are exchanged but the midshipmen eventually comply with the request. After one drink the young men, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, get up to leave. As they go to retrieve their hats, the one who had argued the most vociferously with the SEALs hesitates over the table on which his hat has been thrown. He stares intently into the cocktail lounge twilight. Closer inspection finally reveals that cradled in the white satin lining of his precious hat is a large, fresh turd.

Without further ado the punches start flying. Chairs are heaved overhead and bottles are broken. It isn’t long before all the midshipmen find themselves lying in the parking lot, bloody and battered. They manage to pick themselves up and return to their ship, vowing never to visit the Tradewinds again. Nobody had told them it was a SEAL bar.

Those were the good old days in Coronado. The Vietnam War was in full swing and SEAL personnel were on a six-month-on/six-month-off rotation. When they returned to Coronado, the site of their training facility and headquarters, they were generally rambunctious.

At that time the Tradewinds, at Tenth Street and Orange Avenue in downtown Coronado, was their bar. There was always a keg of beer ready — just for the SEALs. If somebody got divorced or engaged, there was a keg. There were even a couple of kegs for people who had been killed in action. People not affiliated with the SEALs, or with their colleagues in the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team, didn’t go into the Tradewinds. And the woman who ran the place didn’t resist that policy. She even hired SEALs as bartenders.

After a few kegs had been drained, the fights would usually begin. The SEALs had been trained to fight and most of them were pretty good at it. Furthermore, almost all the SEALs in Coronado would be going back to the jungle again, so what did they really have to lose by getting into a bar fight?

Today the old Tradewinds is called Mulvaney’s and the ambiance is considerably more tame. If there are ever any UDT/SEALs inside, you would never know it. The end of the Vietnam War is, of course, a major reason why the SEALs are no longer considered the rowdy group that terrorized Coronado Island with loud parties and drunken brawls. Scuffles like the one with the midshipmen in the Tradewinds don’t really happen anymore. Which is not to say that today’s SEALs are not as tough as those from the war years in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

The current training classes, producing about 70 graduates today as opposed to about 120 then, might even be a little better now, a little more rigorous. The men are without question an elite band, chosen for their athletic ability and intelligence. And it is equally true that they still have an unsavory reputation, a notoriety perhaps retained from the bellicose Vietnam era. But the story of the Underwater Demolition Team and the SEALs actually began before Vietnam. In fact, the two units were conceived separately, both of them for very specific reasons, and today they remain separate, though it is not uncommon for a person to be a member of both.

The older of the two outfits, the Underwater Demolition Team, was founded in 1943. The need for underwater combat demolition experts had been established a year earlier on the Japanese-held island of Tarawa, where insufficient hydrographic intelligence had resulted in the drowning deaths of hundreds of Marines. Called the Navy Combat Demolition Unit, these predecessors of the Underwater Demolition Team were trained intensively. The theory at that time was that a man is capable of roughly ten times the physical output as is commonly thought. This premise still holds for UDT training.

UDT’s brother unit, the SEALs (Sea, Air, Land), was commissioned by President Kennedy in 1962. Most of its personnel were former UDTs, and they received training from Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force schools as well as their own. Their basic mission has always been to conduct unconventional warfare, counter-guerrilla and clandestine operations in maritime areas and riverine environments. Basically, they were in Vietnam looking for a fight. When they went out on an operation, it was usually to destroy something or someone. Whenever there was a particularly difficult or dirty job to do, it was usually one of the small, seven- or eight-man SEAL or UDT units that was called upon to make sure it got done. Also, the UDT/SEALs were very successful in training the Vietnamese ARVN forces, gathering intelligence from the Viet Cong, and performing demolition work. By their own account, their most impressive statistic was their “kill ratio” — very one-sided in favor of the SEALs. There were fatalities, approximately thirty-seven in all, and an unheard of number of purple hearts (one SEAL reportedly received his seventh over there), but the North Vietnamese were said to have definitely got the worst of the exchange.

Many military experts feel that the key to the success of the UDT/SEALs was and is their training, and few would argue about its reputation as one of the most arduous programs in the Armed Services. It’s a long list to enumerate, but the first step for the prospective SEAL is to have all the obvious physical qualifications. He needs to have, like most military specialists, good eyesight, no color blindness, no respiratory or asthmatic conditions, and a heart free of murmurs.

His next step, because underwater work will occupy a great deal of his time, is to pass a standard Navy diving physical. After that, another screening test. This time the novitiate has to swim 300 yards in seven and a half minutes — using any stroke except the overhead crawl. He also has to pass an extensive physical training test of pushups, pull-ups, and sit-ups, and has to run a mile in seven and a half minutes or less. Then more diving tests. The trainee is taken down to 160 feet to test his reaction to pressure and then up to 60 feet, where he is put on pure oxygen for 30 minutes to test his chemical tolerance.

If the candidate passes all these tests and gets acceptable marks on the GCT (General Classification Test) and ARI (Arithmetic) intelligence tests, then he is subjected to scrutiny by the Bureau of U.S. Navy Personnel. The bureau puts various factors in balance — and makes its decision.

The young man who is ultimately chosen to be a Navy SEAL (among roughly 40 percent of those who apply) has gone through a great deal, but he has really only just begun; three more phases of training await him. At one time not long ago only 33 percent made it through all phases, though the ratio is a little higher today. During phase one, the men are pushed to their mental and physical extremes. The notorious “hell week,” a torturous period of intense physical conditioning, takes place during this stretch. Those who survive move on to six intensive weeks of diving, perhaps the most critical training the students receive. The final phase, hand warfare, is conducted for five weeks in Coronado and three weeks on remote San Clemente Island. When the trainees finally complete this phase, they are hard; the baby fat is gone; the pinkness and puffiness have disappeared.

These graduates are now part of the “team,” the word used to describe all UDT/SEAL members. If that sounds fraternal and elitist, it is no accident. That is the way Navy wants it; the feeling of privilege is consciously fostered. But are the SEALs the suicidal lunatics, the steely, cold-blooded killers, the nonstop drinking, partying fanatics some accuse them of being? Ask any SEAL and he will say no — emphatically. Older SEALs will admit that during Vietnam there were indeed some raucous parties in Coronado and that a lot of SEALs hung out together in bars. But starting fights, pushing around innocent people, going on mad, murderous rampages? Most wonder where these stories started.

One of the older SEALs who remembers those days is Lt. Phil “Moki” Martin. A Hawaiian, born and raised on the island of Maui, Martin joined the Navy at 17. He had always been involved in water-related activities and going into the Underwater Demolition Team seemed the natural thing for him to do.

Between 1967 and 1972 Martin spent a total of 32 months in Vietnam, where he participated in more than 120 missions and on more than 25 occasions was involved in live-fire situations. He is one of the vintage Vietnam era UDT/SEALs. At 38 years of age he is one of the few old enough to look at the UDT/SEALs with some sense of historical perspective.

Today Martin has an office job, anathema to most SEALs. At the Amphibious School he is the “Special Warfare Logistics/Swimmer Delivery Vehicle, Diving Officer.” But he still remembers the old days, the days when the SEALs developed their redoubtable notoriety. Yet what Martin remembers is invariably not as sensational as some of the stories that circulate among younger SEAL trainees in Coronado. He is tired of the tales which graphically describe rabid SEALs throwing a juke box through a bar window with three guys still hanging on it. He thinks that the stories should concentrate more on the fact that Navy SEALs are complicated, that they are not all medal-hungry, amoral maniacs.

Martin, of course, does not deny that there were fights, lots of fights. Or that he was involved in some of them. But he has since settled down a bit; he doesn’t jump out of as many airplanes or take as many risks when he is scuba diving. And despite the fact that SEALs have the highest divorce rate in the Navy, he remains happily married. There was a time when he was younger, though, when the things he did were not risks so much as fully calculated acts with a high probability for success. Bar brawls were among them. If his memory serves him correctly, Martin cannot recall a SEAL ever losing a fight.

Probably the biggest fracas in which he was personally involved took place at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. He was a member of a squad of seven SEALs who went into a bar for a drink or two on the eve of an operation into the jungle. No sooner had they walked into the club than a melodramatic hush fell over everyone, “kind of the way it happens in the movies,” Martin said smiling.

The squad went to sit down, but before they were even in their chairs the Navy chief who ran the club asked them to leave. He was reasonably polite about it, but the time was only 10:15 and the bar wasn’t due to close until 11:00. The chief persevered, he pleaded, and the SEALs finally agreed to go. As they started to walk out the front door, the chief stopped them and asked them to leave through the back. To Martin this was simply uncalled for.

While the chief was “pushing” Martin and the others out the rear door, Martin recalled, “a punch came flying out of the air somewhere behind me. Some say I threw it but I don’t know…” Fights quickly broke out all across the room; basically it was the seven SEALs against the 20 regular Navy men who had been in the bar. It was the SEALs who ended up walking out, though, leaving an assortment of bodies scattered about. Martin remembers that not a soul was left standing. The SEALs left through the front door.

Martin also recollects some pretty good tussles in the old Tradewinds. “In those Vietnam days,” Martin said, “you could stand in there about every night and watch some guy come in and try to start a fight with a UDT/SEAL member.” Being a SEAL then was a little like being a gun-fighter in the old American West. You were a man with a reputation and every tough kid in town wanted a chance to knock you off. This (sometimes reckless) curiosity about the SEALs was actually late in coming. The first official civilian news release on the UDT/SEALs was not circulated until 1967. Before then, they were one of the Navy’s best-kept secrets.

Next came a Reader’s Digest article. The writer, Martin said, called the SEALs “rock-muscled, computer-minded geniuses who could rappel out of a helicopter one hundred feet down to the ground and then hand-over-hand right back up the line to the helicopter.” The success these near supermen were having in Vietnam was heavily applauded by the magazine. In Martin’s opinion, it was articles like that which piqued people’s interest. Tough sailors and civilians alike wanted to find out just how formidable these SEALs really were.

Martin can recall one fight in particular at the Tradewinds. It started when four regular Navy men swaggered into the club looking as if they meant trouble. Within minutes, one of the four stood up at the bar and announced at the top of his voice, “I think I’m tougher than any SEAL in here!” According to Martin, there must have been 30 to 40 “team” members in the bar at that time, but they all just glanced up and went back to their drinks and conversation. All, that is, except the youngest SEAL present, who directed some harsh words to the offending sailor.

Before anything could start, the two were pushed apart by a SEAL officer, who then offered to buy the sailor a drink. While he was paying for the liquor, one of the sailors turned to his friends and said in a rather loud voice that he’d “like to punch this big fucker right in the goddamn nose.” This comment did not help to calm matters any, especially since the “big fucker” was actually a Navy heavyweight fighter and perfectly capable of destroying all four sailors with a single blow.

Sensing a possible massacre, another SEAL named Ed Reynolds intervened. He told the sailors, “Listen, this guy [the SEAL officer] can whip my ass, and I know I can whip all of yours. We can step right outside the bar here and let’s do it.” It was only about three minutes later that Reynolds reentered the bar kneading his right hand. “Somebody better call an ambulance,” he said calmly. An ambulance was summoned as Reynolds returned to his drink and the conversation he had left in midsentence.

Martin, in reciting the incident, was quick to point out that in this case, and all others of which he knew, the SEAL did not start the fight. In fact, he insisted, most UDT/SEALs will walk away from a fight if they can. But they’ll never, under any circumstances, back down.

Another SEAL of the old school who has seen a couple of barroom scuffles is Senior Chief Elvin “Doc” Johnson, currently a corpsman at Seal Team 1 in Coronado. One of the more renowned SEALs, whose exploits are passed on to young trainees in the true oral tradition, Johnson spent many an evening in the old Tradewinds himself. To look at Johnson is to wonder why anyone would be foolhardy enough to want to start a fight with him. It’s not so much that he’s big, which he is, but that he looks…mean. And according to SEALs who have seen him in action, his looks are not exactly deceiving.

Like Martin, Johnson claims that the SEALs were not responsible for the majority of fights in Coronado; he, too, saw more SEALs walk away from challenges than accept them. But he won’t deny that the Tradewinds’ atmosphere was often highly volatile. “That was pretty well a team bar,” Johnson told me with a half smile. “Just anybody that wasn’t in the team didn’t go in there.” He added that he never saw a fight between two SEALs in the bar and he claimed to have seen a fracas of any consequence only once.

As far as Martin’s assertion that SEALs are challenged and provoked frequently, Johnson is in perfect agreement. “It happens,” he said matter-of-factly. “It happens a lot if somebody knows that you’re a SEAL.” But as far as Johnson was concerned, most SEALs were not looking for fights, particularly those returning from Vietnam. “They came back to have a good time,” he said. “You could get all the fighting you wanted over there.”

Johnson, with genteel modesty, took exception to Martin’s assessment that he, Johnson, was one of the toughest SEALs. In his opinion that accolade was best applied to Michael Thornton, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, and in Johnson’s mind, the strongest man for his size he had ever seen. Johnson was a privileged witness to Thornton’s participation in one of the most fabled fights in SEAL team history.

Johnson and Thornton had attended an arm wrestling party on Whidbey Island in Washington State; one of the SEALs had beaten the widely heralded State champion. “These guys were civilians,” Johnson recalled,” and I thought they kind of drew us into the situation.” There had been some betting, and as the evening progressed the losers became more and more irritable and belligerent. “Eventually,” Johnson continued, “the guy called Thornton some names and hit him. In retaliation Thornton knocked him out, picked him up and stuck him in a dry wall, gave the guy a concussion, and broke his collarbone — then proceeded to go back and start drinking.”

“Moki” Martin is not unfamiliar with Michael Thornton’s adventures. He best remembers the Vietnam story, the well-known tale of how Thornton won his Congressional Medal of Honor. In Martin’s opinion, what Thornton did more or less summarizes the UDT/SEAL attitude. “It was not so much just being bigger, but it showed a great deal of camaraderie between two individuals,” he said.

As Martin tells the story, two Americans and some Vietnamese were sneaking back from an operation when they encountered fire and were overpowered. With some difficulty they finally managed to slip away. When at last they reached the beach where their boat was hidden, Thornton noticed that his American counterpart, Tom Norris, was missing. He questioned one of the Vietnamese, who told him that he thought Norris was dead. This wasn’t good enough for Thornton, and he immediately went back into the jungle in search of Norris.

After crossing sand dunes and open fields, Thornton miraculously found Norris, gravely wounded in the head but alive. “I wish,” Martin told me, “there would be some painter who could paint a picture of Thornton with this wounded man over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, and then using his weapon, firing his weapon, shooting his way out, running back over the sand dunes, down to the beach. It’s everything you’ve seen Audie Murphy do in the movies. It’s one of those rare heroic acts. If you polled a hundred SEALs and asked them if they’d do it, I think maybe only ten would say, ‘yeah.’ ”

Vietnam was a matter of some personal heroics for “Doc” Johnson as well, and though he was not awarded the Medal of Honor, he did receive his share of Purple Hearts; he was wounded on three separate occasions between 1968 and 1971. The first injury occurred while he was searching underwater for a Viet Cong cave on a riverbank. He surfaced and was greeted by a VC solider who dropped a hand grenade on his head. Johnson tried to throw it back but the thing went off about three feet away. The result was shrapnel imbedded in his skull, eye, and throat. That earned him a year of recuperation in Japan. But he went back to the war zone again and was wounded again — once by gunshot and another time again by shrapnel. Today he still bears physical scars from the war; the mental ones have not been as debilitating to him as they were to certain others. “I feel no personal guilt [about Vietnam],” Johnson told me, his mood darkening. “I feel that we’ve been slighted.… This shame and this guilt feeling from the American public is a bunch of horseshit. Oh, I don’t feel guilty about anything I did. I don’t perceive of myself as a woman- or baby-killer; I saw civilians die, but it was always in situations that were set up by the other side. If I was a Marine infantry corp and started taking fire from the other side of a rice paddy, then I’d return the fire. Nobody said anything about the VC putting women and kids out in front of them as shields.”

Martin, too, feels that the American obsession with guilt is misplaced. “Because of the publicity about the Vietnam war and the movies it generated,” he said, “I get the impression the Vietnam person is usually wild-eyed or crazy, and years later he’d have these recurring dreams or desires to do some of the things he did in Vietnam, or that he’s a doper. With all my contacts around the community, I’ve yet to see someone like that. The common talk is that we need another war, but none of the other.

“We were trained to do a job,” Martin continued unemotionally. “Maybe that sounds mechanized. Vietnam was shitty, but SEALs were coming back and volunteering to return. There were very few getting killed over there like with the Army regulars. But you don’t have a community of 600 men, trained as UDT/SEAL operators, and not have three or four who go off the deep end. You find that in any organization. We had a couple we had to remove from Vietnam — not because of anything that they’d done, but because they wanted to stay there!”

The Navy continues to train SEALs, combat-ready young men whose desire to test their skills is frustrated by the current lack of a live battlefield. As a result, the men who got a chance to fight in Vietnam are the objects of considerable admiration. “Doc” Johnson has observed that the SEALs who got their training right after the conflict ended are the ones who feel the most slighted. “They don’t have that to add to their credibility when they say something to somebody, when there’s a direct conflict between them and an officer, say. It’s not a spoken thing — it’s an unspoken thing.”

“Moki” Martin also feels that many of the recent trainees resent never having seen action. “I just sense it,” Martin says. “I haven’t seen any real indication that some of these guys felt left out, but I’ve heard conversations like, ‘I joined the Navy too late,’ or ‘Some of you guys were really lucky to get in those operations in Vietnam.’ ”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Martin frequently hears talk about the possibility of another war; El Salvador has been the object of some lively conjecture. “It’s understandable,” Martin says of the hopeful speculation, “because they were weaned on those experiences, those operations reports that they read. It’s like the young Indian warrior on his 16th birthday who has to go out and prove his manhood. They give him a spear and a shield and his loincloth. But what if there’s no mountain lion to kill? What if there’s no enemy brave to go after? So he’s just sitting there on the hillside.”

Update: Martin retired from the Navy in 1983. He remains an active member of the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community and in April 2008 received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with combat “V” for valor.

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