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When Navy SEAL Philip “Moki” Martin and a small group of SEAL teams set out on a secret mission on the North Vietnam Coast on June 5, 1972, it never occurred to him that his courage would be featured in a major PBS documentary more than 42 years later.

Martin and his fellow SEALs risk everything to rescue POWs.

The only thoughts that fired across his synapses were about the mission at hand – to rescue American prisoners of war attempting to escape a North Vietnamese prison in Hanoi as part of Operation Thunderhead. Having attempted the mission just two days earlier – set back by the failure of the team’s minisub due to treacherous weather – Martin and his team set out again on June 5, 1972, this time jumping from a helicopter.

The major challenge, however, was that the treacherous conditions remained unchanged. Martin, his commander, Lt. Melvin “Spence” Dry, and their Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) of SEALs plunged into the dark waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, the visibility so bad they were unaware about whether the USS Grayback – the submarine they were supposed to meet – was even there.

Darkness & chaos. Not everyone makes it back.

The pilot of the helicopter, having mistaken a distress signal from another four-man SEAL team for that of the Grayback, signaled Martin’s team to exit. Dry was the first to jump but was killed instantly when he hit the water. The impact left Martin with a twisted knee and only partial consciousness, while two other team members were also injured, one severely.

The helicopter crew returned the next morning to rescue the seven survivors and recover Dry’s body. Days later, the operation was canceled after commanders learned the POW escape had also been aborted.

A secret kept for decades. 

The mission, kept in secret for more than three decades, was declassified, and in 2008, Martin was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with a combat “V” for valor. He was cited for valor for his role in rescuing his two injured SEAL team members and preserving the body of Lt. Dry until recovery.

While the Thunderhead mission was a failure, the resolve of Martin and his brave team of Navy SEALs was anything but. Lessons from the mission are still taught in SEAL training, some of them by Martin himself.

“I didn’t think there was anything out of the ordinary as far as a mission for me as a SEAL,” Martin says. “But I was especially proud that I was at the right place at the right time to go do this mission, which would have been the epitome of my career as a SEAL.”

An accident changes his life – but not his purpose.

Martin served in the Navy until 1983, shortly after a bicycle accident from Coronado to Imperial Beach left him a quadriplegic. He is now “active retired” from the Navy, giving lectures to junior officers at the Naval Special Warfare Center about the lessons learned from the Vietnam War.

I’m just proud to still be a part of the military and do whatever I can to help.

“I’m just proud to still be a part of the military and do whatever I can to help in terms of recruiting,” he says, adding that he helped recruit Olympic swimmer and silver medalist Larsen Jensen to the SEAL team. “I still believe in giving back, as the Navy and the military have done right by me.”

Early founder of adaptive sports.

From 1975 up until his accident in 1982, Martin was instrumental in birthing the sport of Triathlon in San Diego. In 1979, he founded SUPERFROG Triathlon, one of the longest continuously running events in triathlon history. Martin continues to coordinate the race, which has grown to host 1,600 able-bodied and disabled athletes each year, now under the auspices of Ironman Triathlon.

“Triathlon is a reflection of basic SEAL training, and I saw it as a means for people to get involved in sports,” Martin says. “Over the years, I’ve made sure that the triathlons are set up for the disabled as well. That’s been my big push.” 

A Rennaissance Man.

Following his retirement in 1983, Martin took up art, earning his Bachelors degree in Arts and Letters from San Diego State University. His drawings and paintings were featured at numerous art shows and Martin began putting on his own art shows, many of which benefited the Navy or Paralyzed Veterans of America. He continues to draw and paint as well as judge art shows and promote art in and around San Diego.

“I want to continue to produce and sell my art, but I want my work to stand by itself,” Martin says. “I don’t want someone to value it just because I’m disabled. My art is featured in collections across the country.”

Now, Martin says his most important goal is simply spending time with his family and helping his fellow veterans, particularly those with disabilities, achieve their goals.

It’s so important to me to encourage veterans to get out there and get involved, whether in volunteer work or looking for another career. I just encourage my fellow veterans to reach out and discover the range of opportunities available to them.


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