SEAL! The name conjures up images of evil-looking men with painted faces who lurk in the shadows just waiting for an opportunity to pounce on an unsuspecting enemy. That’s only partially right. During the Vietnam War, the SEAL (an acronym for sea, air, land) team members performed a variety of commando-style missions. Operating in the fertile Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam, SEAL platoons were the military’s eyes and ears, providing vital intelligence on the enemy’s whereabouts and methods of operation and, most important, anticipating the enemy’s next move. In addition, SEALs were attached to MACV – SOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observation Group) to conduct secret intelligence operations. The enemy called them ‘the men with green faces.’
To become a SEAL was a hellish ordeal. A SEAL candidate must endure nearly six months of basic underwater demolition training before he can wear the coveted Naval Special Warfare breast insignia: an eagle clutching an anchor and a trident.
Retired Lt. Cmdr. Mike Walsh was in Naval Special Warfare for 26 years, including five tours in Vietnam, where he was an adviser in the highly controversial Phoenix Program. Describing himself as a ‘renegade and consummate survivalist,’ he was also the task unit commander during operations in Grenada and Lebanon. Walsh talked with Vietnam Magazine contributing editor Al Hemingway about his experiences in Vietnam.
Vietnam: Why did you want to become a SEAL?
Walsh: That was the reason I joined the Navy in September 1966. It was probably the challenge. I was trying to decide between Army Special Forces and being a SEAL. I thought that the water, being a little bit tougher environment to operate in, had the best of both worlds; it was coming from the sea.
Vietnam: You just wanted to be part of the elite?
Walsh: I did. I had something to prove at 18. Everyone’s got something to prove at 18. Vietnam was going hot and heavy; I almost quit high school in my third year; I decided to enlist.
Vietnam: In your first book, SEAL!, you talk about the training you went through as a SEAL candidate. It took a long time to complete, if I remember correctly.
Walsh: Back then it was 18 weeks, three 6-week phases. Now it’s 26 weeks. In those days you had UDT (underwater demolition training) and that lasted 18 weeks. When you left UDT you either went to an underwater demolition team or a SEAL team. If you went to a SEAL team you had an additional six weeks of training in the desert. It was what you would expect: advanced infantry training, small-unit tactics, etc. And more weapons than you ever saw in your life. It was good training. All the instructors were ex-soldiers, some former Special Forces members, who had left the Army and come into the Navy.
Vietnam: The first part of SEAL training is supposed to be pure hell. I’ve heard that in the first three or four weeks, what you mostly get is harassment.
Walsh: It’s the physical breakdown. You’re getting used to running on the sand, and there’s lots of PT (physical training). You start learning knot tying and all the other little basic skills that go along with that. Working with the rubber boats, mastering surf passage, or how to take seven guys out in a rubber boat and get through that surf.
Vietnam: That’s got to be hard.
Walsh: It’s supposed to be hard. You start learning a little bit about how the sea really works. And if you’re a farm boy from Kansas, it’s good training. I was from Boston and around water all my life and it was still good training, so you go from there. That’s where the process starts, that’s where you start to see what you’re really made of. The last night of hell week, that’s when you’re really starting to feel sorry for yourself. That’s the wrong thing to do. Hell week can make or break you. You average about one to two hours of sleep a night. That’s about it. What hell week is designed to do is to put as much of the stress of combat on you as possible. It starts on Sunday night. On Tuesday morning you go through your first real demolition harassment. You crawl through an obstacle field. The explosives are all half-pound blocks of TNT with the metal lids removed to simulate an artillery attack or a mortar barrage. It’s at that point, when you’re already fatigued, that your ears start ringing. By Tuesday night the first hallucinations start. And, believe it or not, you’re so tired you could paddle yourself right out of a boat and into the water. That’s how you wake up. Also, I saw guys sleep on long-distance swims. They would start going right or left; that’s why you’ve got to look at your swim buddy and keep a watchful eye on each other. It’s mechanical. People say that it doesn’t happen, but it happens. I’ve done it and my swim buddy did it. Most people either swim right or left–very few people ever swim in a straight line–this way you’re always navigating. Well, if all of a sudden your partner is veering off to the left real quick, you’ve got to grab him and get him back on course. You learn that you never, ever, leave your swim buddy.
Vietnam: So you really have to be concerned about more than just getting through it yourself?
Walsh: Nowhere in the teams do you ever see the letter I. Nowhere.
Vietnam: Tell me about Lieutenant Pechacek, who inspired you so much.
Walsh: I saw him only a few times. I haven’t seen him again since 1970. All I know is he lives in San Antonio. Here’s a guy who, by all rights, should have died. They were ambushed, and his brains were blown out of his head. They scooped up his brains off the deck, put them back in his head, and just taped it up. They thought he was dead and kept right on going. After it was all over they discovered he was still alive! Well, they brought him in a wheelchair to the swimming pool at the UDT school while our class was there. It was his therapy. They picked him up and threw him into the pool. He’s got rubber bands for legs, a neck as thick as a telephone pole, and arms like a gorilla. He instantly sensed that this was a class going through hell week, so he swam down to our area. We were all just standing there lined up at the pool, and he started looking at everybody. There was a glow in his eyes, like fire, and I’ll never forget that. As he was swimming, he stopped right in front of me. I must have looked like I was either ready to quit, cry or crawl. He just stared at me and hollered: ‘Hoo-ya!’ I knew right then there was no stopping me. I thought to myself, this guy’s still acting like he’s a warrior. He was a very strong man and nothing has killed his spirit. That’s a high point of my life that I carry with me to this day.
Vietnam: Sounds like a tough guy.
Walsh: He is. That’s the kind of grit it takes to become a SEAL. Sometimes it isn’t just the physical aspect that pulls you through, it’s your mental makeup. That stays with you the rest of your life. I knew that toughness was in me all along. You have to have it in you to start with. The training just brings it out of you, and then you can develop it. You either have it or you don’t. I just had an iron will. When I went in I wasn’t that confident that I could go through the course. All I had was my will and my determination. I had already determined that I would rather die than fail. That’s how I approached it. My confidence grew as I went in the teams. I was 120 pounds and 5-foot-4. The instructors would look at me and say, ‘What’s a little piss ant like you gonna do.’ Sometimes the instructors would just glare at me, and I’d give them my crazy look. It was the only defense I really had.
Vietnam: In your book you mentioned that at any one time during the Vietnam War, there were only anywhere from six to 14 SEAL platoons in-country.
Walsh: I don’t think we ever reached 14; I think we had six. We never had more than 350 people in the country at any one time.
Vietnam: So it’s a very small community. Everyone gets to know everybody pretty much.
Walsh: Yes. Our biggest benefactor during the war was General William Westmoreland. He wanted 500 SEALs in Vietnam. If he could have got 500 SEALs Westmoreland felt he could have stalemated the war.
Vietnam: That seems like a tall order. Just 500?
Walsh: A lot of SEALs were going into the Phoenix Program (a CIA-sponsored program designed to identify members of the VC and either capture or kill them). Then the Phoenix Program got politicized. No one did it like we did. We were taking all the SEAL platoons and the South Vietnamese police PRU (Provisional Reconnaissance Unit) intelligence-gathering capabilities and putting all that together working with the Naval Intelligence Liason officers that were headquartered in the provinces. I’m telling you, that worked. If you read Stanley Karnow’s book Vietnam: A History, you’ll see that at the end of the war the Viet Cong were saying, ‘What really hurt us was that Phoenix Program.’ It worked.
Vietnam: There’s been quite a bit of controversy surrounding the Phoenix Program. You were a PRU adviser during one of your tours–could you shed some light on that?
Walsh: I was 22 years old, still trying to figure out what my real identity in life was, and there I was assigned to the CIA in charge of a band of 105 mercenaries. Well, that’s a lot to lay on a kid. What do you do as a kid? You rise to the challenge. I matured probably more during that tour than any other in Vietnam. There are two tours that I matured a lot on; one was the Phoenix tour and the other was the Lebanon/Grenada tour.
Vietnam: But they didn’t want to give you that advisory job in Vietnam because of your age. How did you get assigned to it?
Walsh: I kept putting my name up on the board. It was that simple. They couldn’t figure it out until I got caught one night by our operations officer, Lieutenant Dick Flanagan, who is now Captain Flanagan, I might add. He probably doesn’t even remember that. I just went in there every night, and before I left I put my name back up there.
Vietnam: What about all the accusations that were made dur-
ing the war that Phoenix was nothing more than an assassination program?
Walsh: Well, when they first started out, it was. It was called the Counter Terror Program. A lot of the VCI (Viet Cong infrastructure) had already made up their minds that they were not going to be taken alive. It’s easy to say that it was an assassination program, but it wasn’t that way by design.
Vietnam: Dead men don’t talk.
Walsh: Exactly. You want them alive if you’re going to extract any useful information out of them. There were as many women in the program as there were men. The women were actually harder to break.
Vietnam: I remember reading that in your book. Why is that?
Walsh: Women have what I call reserves of strength. Their mental strength was incredible. Also, this was after the My Lai incident. Everybody on the U.S. side was a little nervous about that. So the VC women knew they were being careful about torturing people. The U.S. image had already been tarnished enough. Everybody was aware of that on both sides of the fence.
Vietnam: And the VC leaders were taking advantage of that?
Walsh: Everybody thought if you torture somebody, he would eventually talk. It doesn’t always work that way. I never saw any of that. I knew it went on at other times and places–I’m not that naive to think it didn’t. But one of my rules was no torture. I told my PRUs, ‘I’d better not ever find out it’s going on.’ I never saw or participated in any of that, and I would never allow it. I learned from the pros. I learned the basics from a Mexican-American guy. He said: ‘Mikey, if I ever have to lay my hands on them, I’m dumber than they are. However, I don’t have to do that because I’m smarter than they are, and I’ve got all the psychological high cards. I’m the interrogator.’ Well, those lessons, learned when I was only a 22-year-old kid, have never left me. You use your brains, your intellect, that’s how you break them down.
Vietnam: So you were successful on a number of occasions? Without using force, that is.
Walsh: Oh, yes. But, as I stated earlier, the women were smarter. They knew that all they had to do was hold on for 24 hours and the trail would be cold. The big boys would have gotten away by that time. And that’s who I was after. The men were easier to break down. They were all cutting deals.
Vietnam: How did the VCI work?
Walsh: It’s a mirror image of their society. The smallest unit of society in Vietnam was the family; then you had the hamlet, which was a group of families; a group of hamlets make up a village; a group of villages make up a district; a group of districts make up a province; and a group of provinces make up a region. So that’s how the VCI did it. It exactly paralleled their society. Their plan was simple: When the South Vietnamese government in Saigon fell, the VCI was ready to just step across the aisle and assume total control in one or two days.
Vietnam: But it never happened because of the Phoenix Program?
Walsh: That’s what Phoenix was designed to do: stop the VCI. And, again, I was after their leaders.
Vietnam: You must have had success getting some VCI leaders or else the Hanoi government would not have admitted after the war that Phoenix really hurt them.
Walsh: One SEAL officer, who’s now dead, actually killed a COSVN (Central Office of South Vietnam) member. COSVN was the big staff that ran the VCI. Their office was in a remote region of III Corps. They moved to Cambodia when things got too hot.That was the biggest priority of the war, finding that staff.
Vietnam: So you did manage to get one of the COSVN members. Tell us about some of your other successes in Phoenix.
Walsh: We killed three regional-level officers in the teams. That happened in my third or fourth tour. Two of them would be equivalent to two-star generals. The documents we captured were so sensitive we weren’t even allowed to know what they contained. The stuff was flown out of the country that evening, and it went right to the Pentagon. We received a top-secret message back that simply said, ‘Thanks.’
Vietnam: The Communists kept meticulous records during the war, isn’t that so?
Walsh: Yes, and all handwritten. But what I liked were their maps. We would stop turning them in because we started using them. Their maps were exact in every detail; every little tributary and stream was noted. These people actually walked the grounds where their commo-liaison routes were. So we actually found out where their commo-liaison routes were by using their own maps.
Vietnam: Did you booby trap those routes?
Walsh: We would set booby traps, lay ambushes, all kinds of stuff. But, getting back to the Phoenix Program, the SEAL platoons would use the resources of the PRUs to find somebody in the VCI who was willing to spy for us. And eventually, if you spent the money and you were patient, it could happen. But then, in a six-month tour, you didn’t have much time. You see, the Navy wouldn’t let SEALs stay in-country for more than 180 days.
Vietnam: Why was that?
Walsh: For anything over six months we would have had to be temporarily assigned. In the Navy it’s called TAD: Temporary Assigned Duty. It was strictly bureaucratic. The Navy did not want to let their SEALs go on loan to MACV – SOG for anything longer than that. They wanted us under their control at all times. When Special Forces started going up north and into Laos, we had guys that wanted to be a part of that. However, the Navy refused, saying we were better prepared for riverine and coastal operations. That was our bread and butter. We had two guys actually get out of the SEALs and join the CIA paramilitary program. Both went back as civilians into Laos. They both got shot; one made it.
Vietnam: Was it on your first tour that you grappled with an NVA general?
Walsh: Yes, that was on my first tour, my pointman tour. I didn’t know he was a general. His job, we discovered later on, was to organize the next big Tet offensive. We put the kibosh on that by just taking out this one general. He had everything on a 100-piastre note: who he was, his mission and his safe-conduct passes all the way from North Vietnam down into the delta. This 100-piastre note was covered with all these little stamps that allowed him safe passage.
Vietnam: Interesting. So he was sent down there to organize the 1969 Tet offensive?
Walsh: For that whole region, and we actually stumbled into his command post.
Vietnam: You actually got into hand-to-hand combat with him?
Walsh: He hit me so hard my lights went out. That was intended as a lethal blow on his part.
Vietnam: It was dark, I assume.
Walsh: Yes, I didn’t even see it coming. He was a big man, very lean and very strong. He had a boxer’s body. He was so fast I never saw the hand coming. He hit me right in the cheekbone. I saw stars. As a matter of fact, I think I saw Jupiter and Pluto, I was so stunned.
Vietnam: Why didn’t he kill you?
Walsh: I don’t know. Instead of finishing me off, he ran. I fired seven shots at him and hit him six times. I was carrying an AK-47. I was wearing a VC uniform–the conical hat and black pajamas. Because of my height, he thought I was one of his bodyguards. I looked the part.
Vietnam: You had an encounter with an animal on one of your patrols. Tell us about that.
Walsh: Oh, the pig. You would have to bring up that embarrassing moment. It was my very first night patrol. We were after this VC tax collector. We got some intelligence telling us that
he was to meet in this hooch. Unbeknown to me, there was this 100-pound pig sleeping by the front door. I came running in like John Wayne, and it was like hitting a brick wall. I went right over the top of the pig, ass-over-teakettle. This old man was just sitting there looking at me like, ‘Oh, the gringos are here.’ The wind was knocked right out of me. My patrol leader, Chief Warrant Officer Wayne Boles, and Warrant Officer Scott Lyon came in and laughed. They said: ‘Get up, maggot, get up. You’re trying too hard. Just relax, you doing fine, you’re just trying too hard.’ Scanning the room, we looked at this big bowl of rice and we figured the old Vietnamese guy was probably feeding a whole platoon. He wasn’t. It was all the leftover rice he was feeding to the pig.
Vietnam: What happened the day you were wounded?
Walsh: Ben Tre, February 28, 1971. I was with X-ray Platoon. It was, perhaps, the most hard-luck SEAL platoon to serve in during Vietnam [see the sidebar ‘The Hard Luck X-Ray Platoon’ in Steve Edwards’ ‘Operation Bright Light,’ Vietnam, October 1991]. We had taken a Chieu Hoi (or Hoi Chanh, a VC defector under the Chieu Hoi amnesty program). I did not trust him at all. He was there to get us killed. And he almost did it. I didn’t like it; I had a bad feeling about it. But we went on patrol with this guy leading the way. You go, even though you’ve got a bad feeling about it. We found some bunkers and blew as many as we could. Our patrol was extracted by an LSSC (light SEAL support craft). We were carrying so much weight, everybody was soaking wet. You go in weighing 100 pounds, and you come out weighing 150 pounds because you’re wet and all the mud just sticks to you. The boat was really struggling to get up to speed. That was when they hit us. They put one B-40 rocket in the side of the boat. The other one missed, skipped off the water and hit the trees. We got some backlash from the shrapnel from there as well.
Vietnam: Unfortunately, one or two SEALs got killed, I understand.
Walsh: Yes, there were several legs gone, they were taken right off. One of the boat guys lost a leg. Also, a South Vietnamese interpreter we had with us lost both his legs. The force of that explosion was so powerful that it lifted me off the deck. Fortunately, most of the shrapnel went through the Chieu Hoi and then struck me. That’s what saved my life. One man lost the right cheek of his butt when all his grenades went off in low order–incomplete detonation. In this case, the B-40 rocket set off the grenades he was wearing. Thank God, Ed Jones manned the .50 caliber and began firing into the VC positions. They took off. They could have finished us off, but they ran.
Vietnam: What happened to the Chieu Hoi?
Walsh: I found him severely wounded. He looked at me and smiled. He knew he had led us into an ambush and he had succeeded. I finished him off with my gerber knife.
Vietnam: It was after that terrible incident that you decided to become an officer?
Walsh: It was on the medevac helicopter. They piled us on the helicopter and flew us to Ben Tre, to the hospital. On the way there I started evaluating the incident. I was in a mild state of shock.
Vietnam: Bitter about what happened?
Walsh: No. I was a SEAL. It was the nature of the beast. But I looked at the guys with all the missing legs and I could see it in their eyes: What’s gonna happen to me now? I thought, there but for the grace of God go I. That could have been me. What would I do if I was out in the world tomorrow? I was a petty officer 2nd class in the Navy. I didn’t feel as though I had anything to market. I decided right then that I was going to get an education, and I was going to get a commission.
Vietnam: You went to college?
Walsh: University of Southern Illinois. I did it all in the service, and eight years later, I got my officer’s commission.
This article was originally published in the August 1996 issue of Vietnam magazine.
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