SEAL team reunites for first time after years of secrecy 

| July 19, 2020

On Sunday, a group of Vietnam veterans were together for the first time since they shared a tragic night together in 1972 in the Gulf of Tonkin.

For decades, they weren’t allowed to talk about the incident – not even to each other.

During the 23rd Annual Military Gala & Banquet at the Chateau on the Lake Resort in Branson, hosted by the P.O.W. Network, these men had the chance to visit with each other and receive a long-overdue, warm greeting from a roomful of appreciative veterans and family members.

“To be involved in something that important, but was never spoken of again, just to make sure this group got recognition is what is important,” said Richard Hetzell during an interview before the banquet.  He was one of 14 Navy SEALs assigned to take part in a secret mission to aid POWs in their escape from the infamous Hoa Lo prison, more commonly known by its nickname, the “Hanoi Hilton.”

The mission was known as Operation Thunderhead. Along with the 14 Navy SEALs from Alpha Platoon, were seven members of an Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) who were to deliver SEALs in underwater Swimmer Delivery Vehicles (basically a tiny submarine, but filled with water) to a spot at the mouth of the Red River where they were to look for the escaping prisoners and help them to safety.

At the time, the SEALs were not aware they were waiting to assist POWs. According to Hetzell, all they were told was that they were waiting for “very important indigenous people.”

Unfortunately, the mission did not go smoothly.

On June 3, 1972, the first team, made of two SEALs and two UDT individuals, endured strong currents and, after running out of battery power in their Swimmer Delivery Vehicle (SDV), were unable to reach an island where they were to watch for the POWs. They had to scuttle the Swimmer Delivery Vehicle (SDV) and swim out to sea where they were later picked up. The four were to be delivered back to the USS Grayback, a submarine from which the mission was launched.

When it was believed the Grayback had been spotted, the four-member crew jumped from the helicopter. Darkness and high waves made it hard to judge the helicopter’s height, and a strong tail wind added to the helicopter’s speed. The result was a jump higher and faster than was safe. The leader of the crew, Lt. Melvin Spencer Dry, was killed immediately when he hit the water. Another member, Seaman Thomas Edwards, was severely injured.

Edwards, who was in Branson Sunday, said he suffered several injuries, including broken ribs. It turned out, his injuries were worse than he – or anyone – thought. He said he had an aneurysm that wasn’t discovered for several years and he finally had surgery on the aneurysm in 1987.

“It showed up during a physical,” he said.

In the meantime, a second SDV team had been deployed from the Grayback. They also encountered trouble, and their vehicle sank in 60 feet of water. They managed to meet up with the survivors of the other SDV team and were picked up the next morning.

The mission continued until the end of June, but no escaping POWs were ever located.

That’s because there never were any escaped POWs to be found.

Unknown to the Navy SEAL teams, the North Vietnamese had relocated the prisoners temporarily, causing the escape plan to be canceled.

The one casualty from the mission, Dry, ended up being the last Navy SEAL to be killed during the Vietnam War. However, it was years before his sacrifice was properly recognized. Because the mission was classified, the military created a cover story in which Dry was killed during a training exercise. Because of that, Dry’s family did not know the true circumstances of his death for years, and Dry’s name was not included at the Naval Academy’s Memorial Hall. Today, however, his name is included.

And as of December 2018, those members of Alpha Platoon, SEAL Team ONE, now qualify for the Vietnam Service Medal for the Vietnam Ceasefire Campaign.

The P.O.W. Network awarded plaques to all the men involved in Operation Thunderhead, including those who have since passed away or who could not attend Sunday’s banquet.

The men of Operation Thunderhead are:

SEAL Team One, Alpha Platoon

LTJG Robert W. Conger Jr.

EO1 Samuel E. Birkey

RM3 Richard C. Hetzell

ETR3 John M. Davis

Lt. Melvin S. “Spence” Dry

CWO2 Philip “Moki” L. Martin

PH3 Tim R. Reeves

RM3 Michael J. Shortell

RM3 Barry S. Steele

ADJAN Robert M. Hooke

HM2 William B. Wheeler

RM3 Frank H. Sayle

RM3 Dave R. Hankins

Yn3 Eric A Knudson

UTD-11 SDV Platoon

LTJG John C. Lutz

FN Thomas F. Edwards


Lt Thomas McGrath

GMG2 Douglas Herzik

AAW – HC-7 Det 110

LCDR Edwin Towers

Source: SEAL team reunites for first time after years of secrecy | News Free |

Category: Historical, POW, Vietnam, War Stories

Comments (19)

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  1. Skippy says:

    Old school guys rule

  2. Ex-PH2 says:

    ‘Bout time that was done. After all these years, there was no need to keep it a secret.

    • Evilone03 says:

      Sometimes the need isn’t the reason it is kept classified. There are certain time periods dictated by the methods used that make stay unknown…

    • Flakpup says:

      But I have to give immense praise to those who really followed the ethos of the professional silent soldier. Not just these men, but everyone with knowledge of the operation. They followed the rules and kept the Secrets secret for decades until formal declassification took place. Even if they (very likely) didn’t like holding their tongues, especially when the truth about the sacrifice of a fellow SEAL was papered over.

      Feels like nowadays there would have been a rush to get to a publisher or provide details to the press.

  3. 5th/77th FA says:

    Notice to the “OK Boomer”/”Generation Alphabet” snowflakes. That non-descript old dude kinda quietly picking out his groceries was once more bad ass in real life than you ever were on your game boy console. And he was taught how to be a bad ass by the bad asses that kicked the asses of the the people who had world domination and the destruction of peoples that didn’t look like them as their mission. Not that any of you would appreciate it. Too bad it’s not something that is planned to be taught to you at the re-education camps. Or told to you just before the bullet enters the back of your head.

    BZ Gentlemen. It is so sad that it took so long to recognize the Sacrifice of your Services.

    Thanks Dave.

  4. MI Ranger says:

    Great on them for finally being recognized.

    Ex-PH2, standard protocol based on the classification of the mission.

  5. USAF Ret says:

    So how long before we start reading/hearing about the other 643 seals(lower case intentional) to include “Jesse” who will be saying they were on the mission?

  6. Old NFO says:

    Much like the janitor at the Air Force Academy that was a MOH winner… Never said anything, just went about their lives. Glad they finally got the recognition they deserved for the mission.

    • Club Manager, USA ret says:

      He did not “win” the Medal of Honor, he was awarded it. There are no medal “winners”.

  7. SEAL TWO says:

    I knew Moki Martin well. An incredibly brave operator, he was badly injured in a bicycle accident in Coronado (of all things/places) in the 1980s from which he never fully recovered, and eventually died of the injuries incurred. He was a great guy who was sorely missed by everyone who knew him.

  8. Green Thumb says:

    If I was LT Dry’s family, I would be royally pissed.

  9. Slow Joe says:

    3 JUN 1972.
    I thought there were no American combat troops in Vietnam by that time…

    • SFC D says:

      29 March 1973. Last combat troops leave Vietnam.
      April 30 1975. Saigon falls.

      • SEAL TWO says:

        There were SEALs operating as “advisors” long after March ’73. Some of whom I knew were killed or wounded in-country during that timeframe.

  10. Green Thumb says:

    Curious if this story will make the “All-Points Logistics Quarterly” news report?

  11. tommer says:

    How many did Kerry and songbird leave behind?