If you have heard of the Navy SEALs, but not the original ones dating back to the VietNam Conflict. You really need to read this post.
Stories about the US Navy SEALs are always tales of heroism that seem almost super human. Some of us are waiting for Marvel to announce a new Avenger to fight alongside Hulk in the next movie based on one of these fighting men.
Their non-fictional stories read like some of the best action fiction around, and the fictional stories sometimes find it hard to compete. Forest of Assassins is a “fiction” novel based on some of the real life missions of one of the earliest of the SEALs.
These guys have been involved in missions we
know about, and many more we don’t. Some of these missions we may never be able to know the details. Some of those extend back to Vietnam and include the Gulf of Tonkin incident that the United States used as a reason to enter the war. The events of that night were not all that we have been told…yet. But more about that in a minute.
One of the earliest members of these elite units, who served in Vietnam before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, was a man named Harry Dale. In the mid-1990s Harry was retired and living in Michigan near Dave Forsmark (author of Forest of Assassins). The official story of the Tonkin incident has changed so many times over the years any further government statements on the matter are essentially meaningless. Harry Dale was there that night, and knew what really happened. That incident has been told in the fictional tale based on Harry’s real life events.
Harry was, in addition to being a tough son of a bitch, was a natural storyteller.
His story was so interesting it is work knowing a few of the highlights, including his earliest as well as final mission.
Harry lied about his age in an attempt to get into World War II, but by the time he has completed his training he arrived at his first duty assignment just in time to see the Japanese war criminals hanged.
He was then stationed on a cruiser that would patrol the Whangpoo River near Shanghai, and got a taste of what the real old timers called the best duty the U.S. Military had to offer before he witnessed the surrender of the formerly International City to the Red Chinese. He had the concept that became the book China Bones (available on Amazon).
Harry had to be pushed to give up his most impactful mission. It took time to work it out of him.
It turns out that Harry had run a platoon of SEALs first in the Delta, in the Rung Sat Special Zone, where they did snatch and grab missions of Viet Cong cadres who were terrorizing the countryside. Later, his squad took PT boats north up the coast, knocking out Russian radar stations and other targets–all under the auspices of the “South Vietnamese Navy.”
When the North Vietnamese fired on the U.S. destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy in the infamous Tonkin Gulf Incident, they thought the ships were supporting Harry’s missions. In turn, LBJ had his excuse to escalate American military presence in Vietnam and the war went from Special Forces advisors and counter-insurgency to Big Army.
Later, Harry was made the captain of the USS Asheville, a prototype patrol gunboat designed to operate in shallow waters- basically to provide fire support for operations like the SEALs were doing. That made him the first “mustang” officer (one who rose from the enlisted ranks) since John Paul Jones to command a U.S. warship in wartime.
But Harry saved his best for last.
His beloved wife Shirley contracted emphysema, a family tendency, and Harry spent most of his time caring for her. After she died, he began answering the kind of phone calls that people of his particular skill set never quite leave behind them.
He would say he was going on a “pension bump,” and that was that. He would disappear for a few months. That was as close as I ever got to knowing what he was up to, but it was obviously in service to his country.
Along the way, Harry got engaged to a woman who also had a winter place in the same mobile home park he did in Florida.
One day he received some very bad news. During a physical for going someplace to do something for the country he loved they found a spot on his lung, and he required immediate surgery.
When he came out of the anesthetic the first thing he said to Dave Forsmark was, “Dave, they gutted me like a fish. The Agent Orange finally got me.”
That made me smile. Harry had started smoking when he was 12, though he quit cold turkey the day Shirley had been diagnosed with her lung disorder.
Later when I told him what he’d said, he protested: “I smoked for almost 50 years; I wouldn’t say that VVA bullshit!”
He had Dave arrange a preacher, and the minute he was home, he married Kathy in a ceremony at his home.
Harry had served his country well, and felt he deserved his pension (bumps and all) and that he had the right to leave it to someone. But one has to be married for a year in order to leave a military pension to a spouse.
Though his doctors held out little hope, and the treatment made him miserable, Harry embarked on an aggressive course of chemotherapy. “I’ve gotta make a year,” he would say. Kathy didn’t really approve, and looked stricken every time he went to the cancer center, but knew better than to argue.
They were married in December, and over the summer, Harry got progressively frailer. Dave sat with him at chemo here and there, and I could see the dapper, upbeat, tough guy was fading. The Navy officer from central casting was now a sick old man; but the spirit that kept him from ringing the bell to call it quits during SEAL training Hell Week was still burning.
When the Michigan weather started to turn, Harry and Kathy headed to Florida. When Dave saw them off, I knew I would never see him again, despite his “See ya’ in the spring, buddy.”
“Sure,” was all Dave could manage.
Dave made a call at Thanksgiving, but Kathy talked to me for a few minutes and said he couldn’t come to the phone, he wasn’t up to it. It was obvious the end was near for this great man.
He only needed another three weeks.
On the morning of their anniversary, Dave got a call from one of Kathy’s sons. “Dave, Mom is too broken up to come to the phone, but she wanted you to be the first call we made. Harry died last night.”
After I recovered, I asked, “Did he make it past midnight?”
He knew what I was asking. “Yes, he did. Almost to dawn. Tough old sonofabitch,” he said admiringly.
As they say in the Navy for a job well done, “Bravo Zulu.”\
The Forest of Assassins gives a fictionalized version of Harry’s time in Vietnam. It is available on Amazon in Kindle, Paperback, and Audio formats.