Secret peril rewarded to LT. Moki Martin (SEAL)

By Steve Liewer UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER      March 19, 2008

  CORONADO – As he plunged through the darkness and into the stormy waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, Navy SEAL Philip “Moki” Martin knew he and his buddies were in trouble.
Of the 700 or so jumps Martin had made from Navy helicopters as a SEAL in training and during the Vietnam War, he could hardly remember one with such nasty conditions.

This mission – deep in enemy territory on June 5, 1972 – was, quite literally, a leap of faith: The pilot wasn't sure how high they were or whether the Grayback, the submarine they were supposed to meet, actually was there.

“I counted one thousand, two thousand, three thousand. Then I said, 'Oh no, that's too long. We're too high!' ” recalled Martin, 65, now retired from the Navy and living in Coronado. “I hit (the water) like a ton of you know what.”
Online: To learn about Operation Thunderhead and Lt. Philip "Moki" Martin, go to thunderhead/index.html
Martin suffered a twisted knee when he hit the water. His commander, Lt. Melvin “Spence” Dry, died upon impact. A third SEAL, Fireman Thomas Edwards, was badly hurt.

Yesterday, many of Martin's old platoon mates watched as he received a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with a combat “V” for valor. The ceremony took place at Coronado Naval Amphibious Base, near the headquarters of the Navy's Special Warfare Command.

Martin's wife, Cindy, and daughter, Callie, watched as Rear Adm. Joseph Kernan, the unit's commander, handed Martin a framed plaque containing the medal.

“It's been a long, long time coming,” Kernan said. “Thanks for waiting for your celebration, so this generation could share in it.”

Two weeks earlier, Dry's family had received his Bronze Star with combat “V” posthumously in a similar ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

The recognition had been long delayed because the mission, Operation Thunderhead, was kept so secret that few of the sailors and SEALs aboard the Grayback knew how significant and perilous it was.

“We saw people leave, and nobody ever came back,” said Frank Sayle, 58, of Houston, a SEAL who served aboard the Grayback at the time.

Only Martin and a handful of others knew that the platoon's job was to rescue two prisoners of war who had hatched a plot to escape from the infamous Vietnamese prison camp known as the Hanoi Hilton.

After a 2005 magazine article about the mission revealed that neither Martin nor Dry had been decorated for their actions, the Grayback's then-skipper, John Chamberlain, nominated them for the awards.

That the Thunderhead mission failed at every turn doesn't diminish its importance, said several of the men involved in it. Its lessons are still taught in SEAL training, some of them by Martin himse “It's a bit of closure for us,” said Eric Knudson, 59, of Vacaville, who was a yeoman third class in the platoon.

The Grayback was to slip into North Vietnamese waters and let out several four-man SEAL teams in small, submersible vehicles just offshore on June 3. The teams were to rendezvous with the two prisoners – who had communicated their plans through a method that today remains secret – on an offshore island.

But the currents proved unexpectedly strong. Martin, Dry and their teammates couldn't reach shore or make it back to the sub. They stayed in the water, praying the North Vietnamese wouldn't discover them during the eight hours before a rescue helicopter was supposed to pick them up and take them to the Navy cruiser Long Beach.

Aboard the Long Beach, Martin said, the SEALs knew they had to get back to the Grayback to warn other SEAL teams about the currents. So they made plans to return the following night.

The sub couldn't communicate directly with Dry's team, but it would use an infrared beacon to guide the helicopter to its location.

The helicopter crew had great difficulty spotting that beacon, said John Wilson of Maui, Hawaii, 67, a crew chief aboard the helicopter that dropped off Dry's team.

The helicopter finally found a signal at sea and then sent the team on its fateful jump. It turned out to be a distress signal from a second four-man SEAL team. The Grayback had aborted the drop because of North Vietnamese patrol boats in the area, but the message didn't reach the Long Beach in time.

Wilson's crew returned the next morning to pick up the seven survivors, as well as Dry's body. Operation Thunderhead was called off days later after commanders learned that the POW escape also had been aborted.

“You just had no idea what was going on, because no one was allowed to know,” Sayle said. “We never talked about it again. We never saw each other again.”

Martin stayed in the Navy until 1983, shortly after a bicycle accident while riding to the Coronado base left him a quadriplegic. He later earned a degree in painting and photography at San Diego State University. He has won awards for his artwork.

Yesterday, he was moved by the turnout among his platoon mates.

“I wanted this to be about them, more than me,” Martin said. “The medal is just a piece of hardware they give you.”


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