Legend has it that no SEAL platoon will use the designation "X-Ray" anymore. The story goes that the last platoon to use the literal nom de guerre had the worst luck — that is to say, a high casualty rate — of any platoon before or since.
(U.S. Navy photo)
"That's what I've heard," says Gordon Clisham, a member of SEAL platoon X-Ray stationed in Vietnam during its hard-luck run there. "I don't know if that's true or not ... the platoon lost four men — killed — and everyone was injured at least once."
Clisham reached out to We Are The Mighty after reading our story about X-Ray in May 2016. He wanted to clear up some facts that he claims might not be as clear cut.
Specifically, Clisham wanted to set us straight on the counterinsurgency operation the SEALs conducted at Ben Tre which was lead by one of the team's Vietnamese scouts.
"His name was Tong," Clisham recalls. "I think he was dirty and I couldn't prove it."
During the operation, X-Ray was ambushed by the Viet Cong. One story says a SEAL's own grenades blew up while still on his belt. The explosion blew his glute off. Clisham says that's not what happened.
A B-40 (a type of rocket-propelled grenade) hit the SEALs Mobile Support Team, Clisham says. The SEAL who supposedly lost a glute was actually P.K. Barnes, and he lost his leg from the knee down as a result of the explosion.
Clisham thinks it was their scout feeding intel to the enemy.
X-Ray Platoon in Vietnam. Jim Ritter (KIA) took the picture. From left to right top row - Rick Hetzell, Irving Brown, Harold Birkey (KIA), Doc Caplenor, Frank Bowmar (KIA), Clint Majors, Mike Collins (KIA), Lou Decrose. Middle - Alan Vader. Bottom Row left to right - Mike Trigg, Dave Shadnaw, Gordon Clisham, Ah (the scout). (Navy SEAL Museum photo)
Ben Tre was just one operation among many that went wrong. Clisham estimates that about half the missions conducted by SEAL platoon X-Ray were compromised. They were just walking into one trap after another.
The reason? OPSEC.
Clisham suspects someone, maybe not just Tong, was feeding information to the enemy.
"I even went to Lt. Mike Collins [the unit commander] and said 'We should get rid of this guy because we're going on ops without him and we're getting ambushed, and we go on ops with him, and he walks through the jungle like he's walking through the park and we never get hit,'" Clisham says. "The boss didn't want to shoot him, so we didn't do it."
"What we had to do before we went out at night or any operation, was to get a clearance," Clisham, who was the unit intel petty officer at the time, explains. "I would go up to the S2 center, give them our location – never the exact location, we would ask for a ten grid square clearance, so they didn't know exactly where we were at because a lot of the people working S2 center were VNs [South Vietnamese officers]."
The Army wanted the exact location, but with the Vietnamese working in the intelligence, the SEALs were not willing to give up the coordinates. Lieutenant Collins struck a deal with the Army: SEAL platoon X-Ray would put the location of their ops in a sealed envelope before their mission. If necessary, the Army could open the envelope and provide support. If not, the location remained a secret.
Standing, left to right: PK Barnes, Kit Carson Scout, Happy Baker, Mike Collins, Tong, Randal Clayton, Jim McCarthy, Ah, Mike Capelnor, Lou DiCroce, Kneeling: Allen Vader, Clint Majors, David Shadnaw. (Navy SEAL Museum)
After the first op, Clisham returned to the S2 to find the envelope opened. No one knew who opened it or why.
"There was a lot of hoopla raised about that," Clisham recalls. "I don't think anything was ever rectified, but we knew that somebody there was getting in on our intel or information of our location."
To this day, as certain as he is that Tong, their scout was dirty, Clisham is sure it was a Vietnamese officer in the intel center who was giving their locations to the Viet Cong. To my surprise, he countered the May 2016 story's claim that VC defectors who turned themselves in for amnesty – called "Chieu Hoi" – were untrustworthy.
"Now, we had a guy that worked with us that was ex-VC," says Clisham. "That was Ah. He was a good man. He was on our side one hundred percent."
There's no exact reason why some veterans remember the details differently. As Clisham says, it was 45 years ago. When he and his fellow SEALs sit down for reunions, they don't usually talk about what happened. They prefer to tell dirty jokes over cold beers.
But at least now history has a clearer picture of the "hard luck" that surrounded SEAL platoon X-Ray.