True American Gunfighter
It has been my great privilege recently to meet a true gunfighter. Robert “RJ” Thomas is one of the original Navy SEALs. He found himself in a gunfight at H? Ti?n, Republic of Vietnam in March 1969. At the time, Navy SEALs were classified as elite extensions of the Navy Underwater Demolition Teams: ST-1 in Coronado, Calif. and ST-2 in Little Creek, Va. Despite attempts at keeping the mission of the SEAL Teams classified, the NVA placed a $10,000 bounty for killing or capturing one of the “Men with Green Faces.”
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Two Navy Seawolf (HAL 3) gunships were on a rocket strike mission near the Cambodian border. Troop activity was spotted around the caves from which the Viet Cong/NVA were shelling the nearby village of H? Ti?n with mortars. RJ recounts, “The Seawolf crew spotted activity around Da Dung mountain caves during their first rocket run. As they reloaded for a second rocket run, they yelled for me to board the Seawolf.
Grabbing my binos, my Stoner 63A and my issue S&W 39 on my H-harness, I jumped on board. I was looking for the cave with rails, where the VC were rolling the mortar out, to set up a sniper op. After a couple of rocket passes, the Seawolf was hit with heavy machine-gun fire and crashed at the foot of the mountain. Pilot Lt. Richard Barr’s collective control stick slammed into his helmet visor above his orbit bone, crushing his eye socket and forcing his eye out on his cheek.”
RJ was thrown out the side door more than 30 feet from the copter onto the dry, hard, concrete-like rice paddy, suffering multiple injuries, including cutting his nose loose on the right side of his face and multiple bullet fragment injuries to his chest and shoulder. Between 10 and 20 NVA troops soon descended the mountain advancing on the crash site to kill or capture crash survivors.
Thomas was stunned by the crash and his Stoner 63A was destroyed in the crash. Reaching for the standard-issue SEAL Team 9mm S&W Model 39 in his H-harness, he found it had been ripped off, leaving the pilot’s 1911 A1 as the only weapon left to the SEAL. RJ was able to release the seatbelts on the unconscious pilot and drag him a safe distance from the burning helo. Meanwhile, the second helicopter dropped off PO2 Dan Riordan to help RJ recover PO1 Abbott, .50 gunner, and move the unconscious man farther from the crash, now raging in flames. The co-pilot and second gunner were consumed in the flames. As Thomas dragged the unconscious pilot farther from the burning wreck, incoming fire kicked up dust around the crash.
Thomas laid across the unconscious pilot and pulled the .45 from the pilot’s shoulder holster. Fortunately for what was about to happen, the pilot’s shoulder rig also had two extra magazines and extra ammunition for his .45 in cartridge loops for a total of about 50 rounds. The enemy was closing, and RJ, now prone across the pilot and using the pilot’s helmet as a rest for his wrists, engaged the approaching NVA with the 1911 A1 at over 100 yards. The NVA took cover behind a rice paddy berm and returned un-aimed fire at the wounded men from behind the dike. The NVA would peer over the dike to see if they had taken out the SEAL, and he would shoot back with the old 1911. More than occasionally, a thud sounded, and the head would disappear. Barr came to and asked how he could help. Thomas told him, “Load magazines.” An NVA jumped the dike and charged. He made it about 50 yards before RJ centered him and stoned him at 30 yards.
After 40 minutes on the ground battling the NVA, an Army Slick (transport Huey) attempted to extract the wounded Navy helo crew and SEAL. As the Slick flared to land, the NVA poured point-blank fire into the cockpit of the Huey, hitting pilot Capt. Mike Willsey in the jaw and upper leg, stunning him and knocking his legs off the controls, causing the helo to spin out of control. Co-pilot Lt. Kent Graham regained control of the helo and flew it back to the crash site several yards from the wounded Navy crew and the SEAL. As Thomas loaded the wounded pilot into the rescue helo, he fell to the ground. The NVA again charged and attempted to take out the helo. Capt. Willsey, despite multiple wounds, continued to return fire out of the helo with an M-3 grease gun. A lone NVA charged the front of the helo. Thomas rolled over on the ground and shot the last of the NVA from between the helo landing skids at 10 yards off the nose of the rescue helo. As the Slick extracted from the crash, Thomas manned the single M-60 MG door gun and engaged the remaining NVA behind the berm. Thomas recalled, “It was like sluicing quail on the ground.”
How many NVA did Thomas take down? We will probably never know but consider this. He was an excellent shot, and he had very few rounds left. The “Gunfight at H? Ti?n” may be the last military gunfight in which the wonderful 1911 was employed to dominate the battlefield in the hands of a “gunfighter.”