December 31, 1986, I arrived at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California to begin BUD/S training. The place seemed to have died for the holidays, so I slipped in mostly unnoticed. I could've waited to report later, but I was too anxious. On Friday, January 2, 1987, SEAL Master Chief Rick Knepper helped my classmates and I off to a proper start. He looked like an ordinary guy in his forties, calmly leading us in calisthenics on the beach late in the afternoon—we grunted and groaned, but he didn’t seem to break a sweat. Some guys knew about his combat experience and some didn’t.
Rick Knepper served in Vietnam with SEAL Team One, Delta Platoon, 2nd Squad. Knepper’s squad thought they knew about Hon Toi, a large island in Nha Trang Bay. From a distance, the island looked like a big rock sitting in the ocean for birds to take a crap on. But two Viet Cong (VC), tired of fighting and being away from family, defected from the island—leaving a VC camp behind.
Knepper’s squad of seven SEALs inserted into the island by boat under darkness—not even the moon shone. Never ones to take the easy way, 2nd Squad free-climbed a 350-foot cliff. After reaching the top, they lowered themselves into the VC camp. The seven-man squad split into two fire teams, taking off their boots and going barefoot to search for some high value targets (HVTs) to snatch. But the VC got the drop on Lieutenant (j.g.) Bob Kerrey’s fire team. A grenade landed at his feet and exploded, slamming him into the rocks and destroying the lower half of his leg. The lieutenant’s fire team fought back while he called in the other fire team, catching the VC in a deadly crossfire. One SEAL, a hospital corpsman, lost his eye. Four of the enemy tried to escape but the SEALs cut them down. Three VC stayed to fight—but didn’t live to fight again.
One of the SEALs put a tourniquet on Lieutenant Kerrey’s leg. The squad snatched several VIPs along with three large bags of documents (some including a list of VC in the city), weapons, and other equipment. Lieutenant Kerrey continued to lead Rick Knepper and the others in his squad until they were evacuated. The intel they got from the documents and HVTs gave critical information to the allied forces in Vietnam. Lieutenant Bob Kerrey received the Medal of Honor and would later become a senator and governor of Nebraska.
Although others still talk about that op, I never heard Master Chief Knepper talk about it or any other. He served as a mentor to my classmates and me. Without his taking us under his wing, we would’ve been left on our own until the rest of the guys arrived and our BUD/S class officially formed. And I was going to need all the help I could get.