At base veteran ceremony, a retelling of a now declassified 1972 sub mission

Groton — Most U.S. submarine missions carried out during the Vietnam War remain classified. But the details of one mission, known as Operation Thunderhead, which involved the rescue of two U.S. airmen being held at the infamous North Vietnamese prison Hanoi Hilton, were not made public until 36 years later.

"It was an operation that failed, but nevertheless exemplified the honor, courage and commitment of our Vietnam-era service members," said Capt. Paul Whitescarver, commanding officer of the Naval Submarine Base, in retelling the story behind the mission on Wednesday during a small ceremony at the base's commissary in advance of Veterans Day.

The rescue attempt began from the USS Grayback, one of the Navy's submarines that was modified so it was capable of embarking up to 67 troops and two SEAL delivery vehicles, at 2 a.m. on June 3, 1972, in the Red River delta.

A SEAL team led by Lt. Melvin Dry and CWO Philip Martin deployed from the Grayback in a mini submarine to a small island about 4,000 yards offshore to await a rendezvous with the two POWs. The mini submarine lost battery power after facing strong surface and tidal currents and was unable to reach shore or return to the Grayback. The decision was made to sink the mini submarine to prevent it from ending up in enemy hands.

Two nights later, on June 5, Dry, Martin and their team planned to return to the Grayback by jumping from a helicopter. A number of factors, such as poor visibility, made it difficult to find the submarine's beacon. When the crew thought they spotted the beacon, the helicopter crew chief, John Wilson, signaled to the team to jump. Dry went first and was killed instantly upon impact with the water.

Martin jumped next and survived the impact of the water, but badly twisted his knee and was only partially conscious. Two of the other team members also were injured, one severely. Martin was instrumental in helping the other team members who survived. They were rescued treading water early the next morning.

The planned escape of the two prisoners ultimately was called off after being deemed too risky.

The mission was declassified three decades later and Dry posthumously was awarded the Bronze Star medal with valor in 2008. Martin was presented the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with combat "V" for valor that same year.

j.bergman@theday.com

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