DEATH IN THE JUNGLE: DIARY OF A NAVY SEAL
The Vietnamese referred to it as the Forest of Assassins, and to the Navy SEALs (sea-air-land forces) who conductedcombat operations there it was the Rung Sat Special Zone, a huge, sprawling mangrove swamp on the northeastern edge ofthe Mekong Delta. A safe haven for the Viet Cong, the Rung Sat Special Zone boasted some of the most forbidding terrain inVietnam. It is the setting for Death in the Jungle: Diary of a Navy SEAL, by Gary R. Smith and Alan Maki (Paladin Press,Boulder, Colo., 1995, $29.95), a firsthand account of interminable waits in night ambush positions chest-deep in water, vigilsthat often ended in boring and uneventful returns to base but sometimes culminated in a sudden flash of exploding Claymoresand grenades, the impenetrable blackness illuminated by streams of tracers from the Stoner rifles and M-60s of Navy SEALs.
U.S. Navy SEAL Gary R. Smith served five combat tours in Vietnam, and during those 32 months participated in 257 combatmissions. He was awarded three Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. Death in the Jungleis the memoir of his first tour in Vietnam, taken from his personal diary, in which he meticulously recorded his experiences. In ithe recounts several combat actions against Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces, including patrols inT-10, a particularly dangerous operational area within the northeastern portion of the Rung Sat Special Zone composed ofextremely dense vegetation and double-canopy jungle, numerous streams and swampy terrain. The VC and NVA troops usedT-10 as a rest and recreation center and troop staging area, complete with training areas and field hospitals. SEALs likedoperating there because they made enemy contact on every mission, and contact resulting in enemy deaths was the epitome ofsuccess for a SEAL.
Smith’s detailed storytelling brings to life the raids, prisoner snatches and merciless ambushes of small-unit combat. Hedescribes the adrenaline rush felt by the Navy’s most elite warriors as they carried the war to the enemy in well-plannedambushes and village raids, and captures his own post-combat feelings and those of his comrades.
Gary Smith joined the Navy at 22, intent on becoming a UDT (underwater demolition team) frogman. His first two requests forUDT training were refused, but he was eventually successful in securing a transfer. Smith recounts tales of “Hell Week” on thebeaches of Coronado, Calif. Graduating with UDT Training Class 36 in 1965, he served with UDT/SEAL teams for 15 years,retiring from the Navy after 20 years of service. Smith stresses that working as a member of the SEAL teams required unity,trust and dependence on one other–important lessons that were learned while enduring the grueling UDT training (thedesignation was later changed to BUDS–basic underwater demolition/SEAL). He says that “there are no true cynics,pessimists, scorners or complainers in the teams.” Candidates with those characteristics never make it through the intensetraining, unlike the highly motivated, confident, group-oriented, extroverted individuals that make up a SEAL team.
Smith, who was deployed to Vietnam in 1967, describes the life of his SEAL platoon–including ribald banter in the chow hall,dangerous ambush missions, the grueling daily training runs (which often as not ended in fits of vomiting) and hard-drinking,all-night parties. Smith provides an unapologetically realistic look at what it was like to be a combat Navy SEAL. There isn’tany debate about the politics of the war, and the author spares us the philosophical and political rationalizations or remorse thatare found in many other personal accounts of the Vietnam War. This is a story about warriors who do not question theirparticipation in America’s most controversial conflict. Smith and his friends in SEAL Team One were concerned only withhunting the VC and the NVA in the waterways and swamps of the Rung Sat Special Zone, where they successfully ambushedthe enemy time and again right in his own backyard. A pointman on several combat missions, Smith describes what it was liketo sit silent and uncomplaining for hour after hour in an ambush site, enduring the swarms of insects, waist-deep mud, musclecramps, thirst and the unrelenting heat of the Vietnamese jungle. The payoff was springing sudden death upon the elusive VCand NVA…often as they unsuspectingly floated by in their sampans.
Beginning each of his chapters with a mission profile that includes time, date, map grid, locations, personnel, weapons, terrain,weather and code words, Smith injects grim, vivid realism into the combat missions he describes. The often colorfulconversations recounted in Death in the Jungle are obviously not verbatim accounts or even accurate recollections, as Smith admits in an author’s note. Rather, they are representative of the give-and-take banter and jesting interplay between Smith andhis SEAL teammates. In that respect, Death in the Jungle contains a good deal of dialogue. Smith has attempted to addveracity to his memoir by giving readers a “you are there” look at Navy SEALs in combat. Using dialogue, he tries to recapturethe feelings and emotions of those with whom he served. While it generally seems to work, there are times when it comes offstilted and even a little false.
To alleviate the stress of combat and the monotony of base camp, the SEALs in Smith’s platoon spent an inordinate amount oftime playing jokes on each other. Of course, despite the comic antics of the SEALs, Gary Smith’s first combat tour wasmarked by tragedy, as well. One of the SEALs died in a training accident, drowning when a boat overturned. Smith feelsresponsible for his death because he had bound the man’s hands before the accident to make him look like a VC prisoner. Anambush that accounted for four enemy killed in action also left two newborn infants, orphaned and injured, in the care of theNavy commandos. Recognizing one of the bundles for what it was, a baby, Smith screamed at his comrades during the firefightnot to fire near the child. Diving into the swirling, bloody waters, he recovered the infants from a shot-up sampan. He laterworried about their well-being, eventually engineering their evacuation.
On his last mission before rotation home from Vietnam, Smith took part in a combined mission of SEAL Team One and SEALTeam Two units. Led by then Lt. j.g. Richard Marcinko, author of Rogue Warrior, the SEALs searched for a reported POWcamp. During a firefight with a group of Viet Cong, Smith was wounded in the arm by a hand grenade and a few weeks laterboarded an airplane home.
There have been many SEAL books, good, bad and indifferent, published in the past two or three years. Smith’s is one of thebetter first-person memoirs of platoon-level combat operations in Vietnam and will give the reader a feel for what it was like tohunt the VC in the muddy swamps of the Rung Sat Special Zone.