Navy SEAL Harry Constance accuses Charles Watson of cowardice during Tet offensive

The 30-year war between Vietnam vets

Constance signing at Bay Books. He has been hit with $6 million libel suit by Watson.
  • Constance signing at Bay Books. He has been hit with $6 million libel suit by Watson.
  • Image by Joe Klein

August, 1997. It is a sunny Saturday on Coronado's Orange Avenue. Bay Books is having a ball. Half a dozen ex-Navy SEALs sit at tables inside, each autographing the book he has written about his exploits in Vietnam and trouble spots around the world. The longest line -- it stretches half a block -- is for Richard Marcinko, the bearded giant who wrote Rogue Warrior. But at the first table on the right, a jovial blond-haired guy is getting a steady stream for his just-published book, Good to Go: The Life and Times of a Decorated Member of the U.S. Navy's Elite SEAL Team Two.

The book's a page-turning tale of derring-do in Vietnam's Mekong Delta: bodies flying and booby traps exploding from go to woe.

Harry Constance, the Escondido-based SEAL who cowrote the book with Randall Fuerst, drew from his own 300 combat missions on three tours, during which he was awarded 32 citations, three Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart.

That was in 1968.

On this Saturday in 1997, at 52, Constance is still outgoing and jolly, joshing with those waiting in Marcinko's line. He needn't worry about sales: his own book will sell around 20,000 copies hardback and go into paperback.

Now cut to Monday, February 1, 1999. Constance is back in a firefight. Except this time it's in a courtroom in Norfolk, Virginia. He faces Charles R. Watson, fellow SEAL, ex-comrade-in-arms.

Watson accuses Constance of portraying him as a coward in the book. He's hit Constance with a $6 million libel suit.

Constance readily admits he believes Watson is a coward. In his book he throws the moniker "Chicken Charlie" around liberally. He describes Watson cowering in a bathroom under a mattress for several days during the Tet Offensive in January 1968, avoiding contact with the enemy during routine jungle patrols at night, running away under fire, and deserting his men in battle.

Watson says it was this last accusation that moved Watson to file the lawsuit.

Did Charlie Watson run under fire and desert his men? For jurors listening spellbound over the last few weeks, it has come down to different accounts of what happened early one morning in December 1967 or January 1968, depending on who you believe, near the My Tho River in the Mekong Delta.

This is how Harry Constance remembers it: he describes in Chapter 9 ("Life's Little Burdens") how the SEALs' seventh platoon had been patrolling through the night. They had split into two small teams. Harry Constance was under Lt. Robert "Pete" Peterson in "A" squad. Warrant Officer Charlie Watson led "B" squad.

As dawn broke on the edge of the jungle, Constance says his boss Peterson spotted Watson's unit in the distance.

"All of a sudden, the tree line nearest them erupted in flames. There must have been 50 or 60 guys pouring a fusillade of bullets at Charlie and his team.... The team hit the deck.... They were lying behind a berm that was, at most, 12 to 18 inches high. At once, from out of the dust came Charlie [Watson], running as hard as he could go, away from the tree line, toward the river.... 'Dammit!' exclaimed Pete. 'He's got the radio! He's got the damn radio!'

"...Pete got on the radio and started hollering. He was yelling into the mike," writes Constance. " 'Charlie! STOP! Stop running! Rejoin your team! You have got to save your team! You have got to call in support!' "

Constance says he and his team provided diversionary fire that finally allowed Watson's deserted team to make it back to the river.

When Watson left Vietnam before the rest of the platoon, Constance says in his book it was because he was a broken man. "Poor Chicken Charlie. He took off right after Tet as a medical evacuation. He just cracked."

"This whole book is a lie," says Watson, on the line from Norfolk, Virginia, where the trial is taking place in federal court.

Here's his version of what happened that day. It happened, he says, at dawn on January 16, 1968.

"You've got to remember that just prior to [the 1968] Tet [offensive], things were pretty slow. We'd go out and walk through the woods and not find anybody! No heavy firefights. So that night we went in and set up an ambush, and nothing came. Next morning we heard a guy chopping wood. We walked up on him in the jungle, and he told us there was a battalion of VC stopped there last night and they were 'over there.'

"Well, we didn't know whether to believe him or not. The chief [Robert Gallagher] kept [saying], 'Let's go in and get them.' I said, 'Chief, goddamn, if there's 300 people in there, I ain't going in.'

"He said, 'Well, what the hell are we over here [in Vietnam] for?' So I called an Air Force spotter plane to take a look. The pilot said, 'Look, I didn't see anything, but that don't mean nothing.' I took Hook [fellow SEAL Richard "Hooker" Tuure] and myself along a dike to within 25 yards of the jungle. And I saw something out of the corner of my eye, and I looked to the right. Somebody was crawling through the rice field real fast. I turned around, and Hook had a bead on him. I said, 'Hook, don't shoot, goddamn it. Just put your gun down, turn around, and walk away real slow.'

"So we walked away real slow, and when we got back to the troops I said, 'Let's go!' And they said, 'Oh shit!' So they all got up to go...and that's when [the VC] hit us.

"And we just flopped over the other side of that dike. There's no way in the world anybody could have got up and run."

Watson did not grab a radio, he says, for a very good reason. "See, me and Pete [Lt. Peterson] had what they called 'squad radios.' They're little radios that the army uses. The receiver is made so that it fits up inside the helmet. As you go along fighting, people'd be talking to you, and there was a little transmitter that I'd just throw inside my blouse. And I could call to the boat, for whatever I needed. And so we didn't take out a PRC-25, one of those big radios, most of the time, because, hell, we didn't need it!

"So when it hit us, I just flopped down, and I called for [support]. I said, 'Get the mortars in here.' So there I am waiting for the smoke on each [mortar] to come up, and I'd say, 'No, 50 yards further left.' 'A hundred yards deeper.' Then I said, 'Okay, saturate the goddamn area, because I wanted to stop any attack by them.' To this day I don't know why they didn't come charging at us. Hell, it was only about six, seven of us.

"Finally we got back to the boat. Peterson said, 'Goddamn, Charlie! That's a good job you got everybody out safe.' "

Bear in mind, this event took place 30 years ago. Both Watson and Constance have advanced into full, successful civilian lives. Watson, now 68, is a lawyer, twice elected commonwealth's attorney for Virginia's Chesterfield County. Constance, 54, recently retired as police chief at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in West Los Angeles.

Watson says he sued because of that one accusation: he had deserted his men. "This stuff about 'Chicken Charlie'? That don't bother me. If someone thinks I was chicken, hell, that's their opinion. I don't give a shit. But when they say I deserted my troops under fire, they're accusing me of a capital crime. In wartime it's the death penalty. And [Lt.] Peterson said, 'Hey, if that had happened, I'd have taken care of it myself.' And I'm sure he would. He'd have either shot me, or certainly court-marshaled me. Why would I spend $70,000 of my money to go to a court if I did something like that? [I could] just ignore the goddamn book and say, 'Hey, it's a lie.' But I took my life savings to go to court, because that's what my reputation is worth. It's worth a lot more than that, but I ain't got much more than that. But the charges were so grave. I mean, goddamn! The only thing I could have been charged with more than that is treason! For a professional fighting man to be called a coward, and to say he deserted his men under fire, damn! There ain't nothing worse than that! That's terrible!"

Bill Salisbury, a San Diego lawyer, retired Navy commander, and SEAL officer who spent two years in Vietnam in the '60s, says he would have heard if Watson was known as a coward. "Watson's reputation among the officers and enlisted men that I respected at SEAL Team Two was very good. He certainly was not thought of as a coward. On the other hand, those who rallied around Constance I'm sure had Constance's view."

The irony is that Charlie Watson has been sitting in the courtroom wearing the coveted Navy SEAL trident badge, while Harry Constance has not. In his book and in court, he openly admitted he'd had many scrapes with SEAL brass, that he'd been court-martialed and convicted of misuse of government property, that he had been kicked out -- twice -- from the SEALs after angry confrontations with his commanding officers.

Last week, according to the Virginian-Pilot, the officer who was in charge of both men in 1968, Lt. "Pete" Peterson, now a retired captain, contradicted six stories in the book in his testimony to the jury. "I did not see Mr. Watson run [away from enemy fire]. I never heard of such a thing happening when I was in Vietnam." He said he never yelled at Watson, "Charlie! STOP! Stop running!" as quoted in the book. He said Watson did not leave Vietnam because he "cracked" but because of a debilitating illness and hospital stay.

"[Watson] conducted himself with authority and dignity," he testified. "I had no question about his courage." The Virginian-Pilot reports Peterson said Watson was a "conservative SEAL" who was "about average" and did not excel in seek-and-find missions, something that sometimes annoyed the more aggressive SEALs.

And Constance's buddy, former SEAL Charles W. Jessie Jr., testified last Tuesday that "most of it [the contents of the book]...didn't happen.... I love Harry. I love him like a brother. But I think he got carried away."

The book's editor, Zachary Schisgal of publishers William Morrow and Company, admitted that he never checked the allegations with other parties such as Watson. "I believe [Constance] entirely," Schisgal told the court. "I didn't feel the need to fact-check the things he was writing about.... This is a great story."

"Did you think this [book] was causing Mr. Watson some harm to his reputation?" asked Watson's lawyer, Thomas J. Harlan Jr.

"No," Schisgal replied, "I didn't think about that."

Since the publication of Good to Go in a paperback edition, Watson has filed a second lawsuit seeking a further $6 million for libel damages.

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