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Operation Thunderhead Overview

In 1972, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized U.S. Pacific Command to execute Operation Thunderhead in which a small group of hand-picked SEALS were employed to assist in the rescue of Prisoners of War being held in North Vietnam. A number of POWs were planning to escape, steal a boat, and flee via the Red River to the Gulf of Tonkin. Although mission training, planning, and rehearsal was conducted, many the POWs were moved prior to their escape without the SEALS knowledge, and no POWs were rescued. The operation was the first combat-use of a mini wet-submersible SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV).

The operation would be conducted in two parts: surveillance to detect the escapees, and the rescue. Lt. Melvin S. Dry commanded Alfa Platoon, SEAL Team ONE. His forces would depart a submerged submarine, the USS Grayback (SS 574) off the coast of North Vietnam in the Red River delta area and position themselves to make an early sighting of the escapees. Lt. Philip L. "Moki" Martin, then a Chief Warrant Officer, was a member of Dry's platoon and a critical asset to the team.

On June 3, 1972, Lt. Dry and His men were forced to abandon a swimmer delivery vehicle when its batteries were exhausted by heavy currents during a night reconnaissance mission. Dry rallied the four-man team in enemy waters for eight hours. Dry made the decision to tow to sea and scuttle the inoperable SDV, preventing detection by the enemy and preserving operational security. Upon their rescue, while aboard the USS Long Beach (CGN 9), Lt. Dry made the decision to return to the Grayback to continue to lead future SEAL insertions.

On June 5, 1972, while returning to Grayback by helicopter to continue the mission, when signaled to exit, the team unhesitatingly jumped. In harsh conditions, Lt. Dry was killed instantly and two others were injured. Nearly losing consciousness, Martin located the survivors and kept them alive through another eight-hour night.

The details of the once secret operation and the accounting of the SEALS' actions were reported in a magazine article in October of 2005. When retired Capt. John D. Chamberlain, the then commander of USS Grayback, the submarine the SEALS launched from during the operation, read the article and realized that neither Dry nor Martin were ever recognized, he collected naval messages, official documents, and personal statements from witnesses and submitted awards for the two SEALS in November 2005. The Navy authorized the medals on Oct. 26, 2007.

The 14 SEALS of Alfa Platoon, SEAL Team ONE, that participated in Operation Thunderhead are listed below:


LT Melvin S. "Spence" Dry

LTJG Robert W. Conger

CWO1 Philip L. "Moki" Martin

EO1 Sam E. Birky

PH3 Tim R. Reeves

RM3 Richard C. Hetzell

YN3 Eric A. Knudson

RM3 Michael J. Shortell

RM3 David R. Hankins

RM3 Barry S. Steele

ETR3 John M. Davis

ADJAN Robert M. Hooke

RMSN Frank H. Sayle

HM2 William B. Wheeler



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