By Matt Smith
Harry Constance is a highly decorated U.S. Navy Seal, who served three combat tours in Vietnam between 1967 and 1970. He participated in 300 Special Ops behind enemy lines, as a member of the Seventh Platoon of SEAL Team Two. What follows is a story of one of those operations, the small arms used by Harry, and how a suppressed High Standard pistol helped save his life. Harry’s life story can be found in his excellent autobiography “Good To Go”, which is now in paperback.
Harry had many small arms available to him during his tours of duty in Vietnam. His primary issue weapon was a Stoner 63. He had several alternate weapons depending on the mission at hand. These weapons included the standard M-16, CAR-15, and Remington 700 .308 sniper rifle, as he was assigned to be the platoon sniper. More exotic weapons, which were used less often, included the Swedish K, Sten, M-3 Grease Gun, and the suppressed High Standard pistol. Open bolt weapons were often preferred by the SEAL’s, who would swim in from the ocean, and often hit the beach shooting. Open bolt machineguns could be brought into action faster than close bolt weapons such as the M-16.
One of Harry’s most exciting experiences with a suppressed handgun took place during his second tour, when he was a PRU advisor in 1969, in the town of Soc Tran. Word had been received that there was a high level Viet Cong sector chief who wanted to defect. This individual happened to be the intelligence officer for the whole region and had a great deal of valuable information. The mission was to kidnap him and take him alive. The sector chief’s home was completely surrounded by two rings of guards, so no one could get in to him without the alarm going off. The only weakness in their defense was that the house and guards were very close to the edge of the main river. The guards had a san pan in the river to monitor other boats in the area. Whenever a boat would approach the beach, the guards would send a signal to run the boat off. No boats could approach, and no one could walk near the house.
Harry’s chief at the time, Bob Gallagher, reminded him that they were frogmen, and suggested that they swim in to retrieve him. The two SEAL’s took a Chu Hoi ( a former Viet Cong, who had surrendered and changed sides and was working with the American’s) on the mission. The three men loaded their gear for the swim to grab the sector chief. Harry’s weapons for that night included a CAR-15, a 9mm Smith and Wesson Model 39 pistol, knife, and grenades on all of which were stowed on H-gear suspenders. The men had to swim 600 yards down river from the point of land, after sliding off their PBR (Patrol Boat River) into the water. Life jackets were tied to the gear, and the men breast-stroked toward the shore pulling their equipment behind them. About half way to shore, the former VC’s life vest failed and he started drowning. Harry swam to the man, who was splashing wildly in the water, to quiet him down, and prevent discovery. As Harry approached, the scout jumped on him in an effort to save himself. This action forced Harry underwater from the weight of the two men and his own gear. Harry was wearing jungle boots, instead of fins, and was barely able to hold up the scout, his own head, and his gear. The scout continued to struggle and climb further up on Harry’s arm, which was holding onto the gear. During the struggle, the scout ruptured Harry’s life jacket, leaving the two men with no floatation devices, and Harry holding 80 pounds of gear in one hand and a 90 pound man in the other. Harry dropped the gear, placed the scout in a crossed chest carry, and swam to the beach.
The good news was they survived to reach the beach. The bad news was that the two men had lost all their weapons and gear, and were deep in Indian country. Luckily, Gallagher had made it safely to the beach with all his gear. Harry leaned over to Bob and told him they needed to return home. Gallagher replied that they could still accomplish the mission, as the house was only a short distance away. The element of surprise was still on their side for the snatch and grab. As Harry had no weapon, Bob gave him his own backup weapon- a suppressed High Standard .22 pistol with a spare magazine and the radio wrapped in a plastic bag. The men covered themselves with lily pads as they laid against the bank of the canal, and waited for first light. As the tide went out, the men became more exposed, but the mud that they were covered with kept them camouflaged.
As the sun rose, Harry heard a Viet Cong soldier walking in the mud behind him. The VC had his hands on the bow of a san pan. There were three more VC in the san pan, which was attempting to come ashore through the mud. The VC pulling the boat had mud up to his calves and walked right between Harry’s legs. Harry rolled over to look, and when he did the VC spotted his eyes. Harry shot the man twice in the chest. The man merely flinched and didn’t realize he was shot, because the pistol made no noise. The VC reached into the boat for his AK-47, but Harry took careful aim and shot him in the throat, dropping him immediately.
The next VC in the boat stood up with his AK-47 to see what had happened to his buddy. He saw the body of his friend laying in the mud, but before he could react, Harry shot him several times with the High Standard. These shots had a minimal effect and the VC started to turn his AK toward Harry. At the same time, Harry had emptied his ten round clip, and the slide locked to the rear. Luckily, Gallagher heard the slide lock and turned with his CAR to finish off the wounded VC, and shoot the other two Viet Cong in the boat. The gunfire had alerted the VC at the house to their presence, and Harry suggested that this would be good time to leave. Gallagher said no that they should attack and went off by himself towards the house. The scout, who was unarmed remained put. Harry ran up to the middle of the courtyard, about 30 yards from where he was laying, and attempted to get the radio working.
Gallagher had taken the fight to the VC. Harry heard shots being fired, and a fight inside the house. Once the radio was working, Harry requested immediate extraction. The response from the Mike Boat which was assigned to pick them up came as, “No problem, we’ll be there in 30 minutes.” Harry responded that the fight would be over in one minute, and they were needed right away. They responded to Harry that they would do their best to be there as soon as possible. Harry’s friend Scott Kelly was a Gunner’s Mate on the Mike Boat and was armed with a GE Minigun.
The fight in the house continued, and Harry took a look around. Forty-five degrees from the house and inland, across five hundreds meters of rice paddies, Harry sighted twenty to thirty uniformed soldiers with guns running down the treeline. Harry yelled for Gallagher so they could escape the oncoming soldiers. He then directed the scout to retrieve an AK-47 and ammunition pouch from the dead VC in the mud. Gallagher emerged from the house dragging the sector chief, who was shot in the femur. Harry directed everyone to the main canal where they could easily be picked up by a boat or a helicopter. Once they were in position, Harry heard his call sign on the radio, “Moose Jaw 7 Bravo, be advised we’re right off your flank and coming hot!”
The PBR had turned off their engines during the night after dropping off the men and floated towards Harry’s position in anticipation of trouble. It was a good thing the PBR had stayed in the area as the Mike Boat was too slow and too far out for an immediate rescue. Harry stood up, waved his hat, pointed first at his blond hair and then at the approaching enemy troops 150 yards away. The PBR cranked up its engines and slid around the corner. Harry again pointed out the enemy and the gunner on the bow of the boat smiled at Harry, and then opened up his twin .50’s. As the boat slammed into the embankment, Harry and Gallagher shoved the wounded sector chief and the scout up into the boat while brass was streaming down on them. Their efforts got the two Vietnamese into the boat, but also sunk Harry and Gallagher hip-deep into the mud. The boat crew reached down and pulled the two SEAL’s to safety, slammed the engines into reverse, peeling the boat backwards and upwards into the river. The gunner on the front never lost his sight and continued firing at the enemy as the boat spun around.
As Gallagher and Harry laid exhausted on top of the other men, Harry wondered out loud if there would be many more days like this one. Gallagher responded with, “See, I told you that High Standard would work for you!”
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V2N3 (December 1998)|