(June 1997 issue of SOF)

by Capt. Larry Bailey

Several months ago I was chatting with a friend, an editor at Presidio Press, when he mentioned that the company was coming out with a real blockbuster of a wartime memoir. Naturally, I wanted to read it as soon as possible, so my Presidio pal sent me a copy of the galley proofs of Covert Warrior. I got all of two pages into this extraordinary account before realizing that I was looking at an account of the exploits of the most awesome warrior in the history of the Republic, a man named Warner Smith.

For the record, I spent twenty-seven years as a SEAL officer and know a number of Team heroes--Bob Gallagher, Frank Thornton, Tom Norris, Mike Thornton, Bob Peterson, Guy Stone, Gary Gallagher, and Charlie Bump, to name but a few--but not one of them can hold a candle to Smith, a former officer in the United States Naval Reserve. He is truly the embodiment of the warrior ethic: courageous, loyal, selfless, persevering, cunning, and strong. In another century he might have been a samurai warrior, a Teutonic knight, one of Alexander's "Immortals," or a Knight of the Round Table. Truly, this gentleman was forged at the anvil by Thor himself.

Smith, a 1964 graduate of Cornell University, has an honorable military pedigree--his father was a World War II naval officer, and Smith himself is a product of Cornell's Naval ROTC. However, nothing--NOTHING--could have led one to anticipate that Smith would become the super-hero depicted in Covert Warrior. The book is a truly remarkable account of how one man can influence the course of a conflict through the focused application of the principles of unconventional warfare.

What's wrong with this picture? There's a minor problem--it's a major lie.

Covert Warrior cover

* * * * * *

It's common knowledge that there lurks within the soul of most, if not all, men the shade of Walter Mitty; why, I confess to having personally communed with Mr. Mitty in flights of my own fancy! However, in the cases of increasing numbers of grown men who ought to know better, Mitty the Meek has morphed into a devouring monster, and such is the case of Warner Smith.

Mr. Smith is authentic in several respects: (1) he graduated from Cornell University in 1964; (2) he was a naval officer; (3) his father served in the Navy in WWII; and (4) he actually did serve in Asia during the early part of the Viet Nam War. The problem is that his experience in Asia consisted not of spewing lead from his Stoner rifle and playing mumbly-peg on enemy bodies with his KaBar knife in Viet Nam, Laos, China, and Cambodia, as Covert Warrior would indicate; rather, he spent 1964-66 at Sangley Point Naval Air Station, Philippines, where he performed duties as Mess Treasurer of the Officers Club. Walter Mitty--Warner Smitty; how the latter does indulge himself!

On the other hand, as blatant a misrepresentation of the truth as is Covert Warrior, it should win an award from somebody as the cleverest concoction ever put together by what is politely referred to as a "wannabe." It has all of the imagination and quite a bit of the historical accuracy of a Tom Clancy novel, and it most assuredly gets one's adrenaline pumping. Why, even though I knew it was pure fiction, I found myself on the edge of my seat more than a few times throughout my reading. For example, it was hard to remain calm when Smith gives his tension-filled account of how he and a handful of buddies rescued a dozen or more downed US pilots from a POW camp in Cambodia.

But I get ahead of myself. What, exactly, is it that Warner Smith claims to have done, and how did it all start? According to Smith, he and some fifty junior officers volunteered for "...a special operations team....I volunteered out of curiosity....[but] [a]s I volunteered, I never foresaw muddy jungles in my military future." Indeed.

What Mitty--er, Smitty ostensibly volunteered for was an elite CIA-sponsored group known as FRAM-16. (To this day, Smith says that he never learned what "FRAM" stood for. The "16" apparently indicated its membership--sixteen of the original fifty volunteers having survived an excruciating selection process.) Anyway, after almost a year of intensive training in weapons, Ranger operations, POW techniques, parachuting, demolitions, Vietnamese language, communications, small-unit tactics, and the like, FRAM-16 found itself on a USAF C-135 en route to the Republic of Viet Nam (RVN) sometime in May, 1965--sixteen young patriots ready to close with the communist enemy.

It is in Smith's description of the trip to 'Nam that he first demonstrates his ignorance of "the way things were done and who did 'em" during the Viet Nam era. He tells, for example, of picking up two Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) men who had just completed Rest and Recreation (R&R) in Guam, having spent the last three months in combat in the Mekong Delta. There are two things wrong with this scenario: (1) Guam was most definitely NOT an R&R location; and (2) the UDT's never participated in combat operations in the Mekong Delta. While they did conduct highly effective operations in other parts of the country, it was SEAL Teams ONE (ST-1) and TWO (ST-2) who were the first US land combat units employed in the Delta. Technically, SEAL Team ONE at that time (1965) operated in the Rung Sat Special Zone, which is actually not part of the Delta. That said, SEAL Team TWO (ST-2) was the first US land combat unit deployed to the Delta, and it didn't arrive until some twenty months after Smith alleges the UDTs were operating there. He also mentions the frogmen's discussion about their combat losses; funny, because the first SEAL casualties in RVN did not come until 1966.

Continuing his commentary on the discussions with the UDT members, Smith makes three (actually, four) factual errors in the same sentence: (1) "The SEALs, which [sic] had not yet been deployed to Vietnam, (2) had similar poor experiences with the M16 and (3) its grenade-launcher attachment, (4) especially in the wet and muddy combat practice conditions of Panama. One at a time: (1) The first SEALs deployed to Viet Nam in 1963; (2) SEALs had not been issued either M16's or the [XM-203] grenade launcher attachment in 1965 (they still used the original AR-15's and the M-79 grenade launcher); and (3) the only time SEALs had anything to do with Panama was when they attended the Special Forces Jungle Warfare School at Ft. Gulick (with one exception--in 1965 I organized ST-2 participation in a joint/combined guerrilla warfare exercise in the El Valle area of Panama.) It would appear that Smith is striking for some sort of world record in same-sentence errors.

Then in the very next sentence he makes three more boners. He has a UDT-er saying that he had been issued the Stoner rifle. That's a remarkable assertion, especially since the UDTs were never issued Stoners, either in rifle- or Light Machine Gun (LMG) configuration. Then Smith observes that the 5.56mm bullet fired by the Stoner is "...comparable to the .223-caliber cartridge." Technically, I guess he's right, but the truth is that the Stoner .223 round is nothing more or less than the 5.56mm round--they are one and the same. Let's see, now--that's six--no, seven, errors in two sentences.

Enough of technical incompetence--let's move on now to how Smith describes the mission of FRAM-16. He has a CIA representative briefing them on the team's mission as follows: "Ultimately you will become a study and observation group (SOG), also referred to by some as a special operations group." Here again Smith shows the ignorance of the wannabe. There was a single Studies and Observations Group (SOG), and its charter was to provide policy, command, and control for all special operations conducted in Southeast Asia outside South Viet Nam. It most assuredly did not consist of numerous SOGETTES!

The group's initiation into Viet Nam combat was a planned "body snatch" of a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) officer in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which separated North- and South Viet Nam. It is here that Smith's lack of knowledge about the "real world" of combat becomes evident. When a FRAM 16 friend, Larry, was killed in a firefight with superior North Vietnamese Army forces, Smith was ordered by a Special Forces (SF) sergeant to leave Larry's body behind when the combined SF/FRAM-16 team was forced to retreat. Of course, Smith ignored the orders and carried his buddy out anyway, but he was read the riot act by an SF major upon return to base camp.

There is no way that any American military man, SF or otherwise, would order any other American in combat to leave a buddy's body behind. In fact, there are dozens of cases in which additional casualties were taken because combat troops refused to leave a dead friend behind. There are other aspects of this tale that don't ring true, as well. For example, SF soldiers rarely, if ever, went out on Americans-only patrols, since their primary mission was to instruct Vietnamese in the arts of war. Smith treats the situation as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

The next combat op involved simultaneous missions by the three "teams" (A, B, and C) into which FRAM-16 had been divided. At this time the unit was operating out of Soc Trang, correctly located by Smith as being 35 miles southwest of Can Tho. There's a problem here, though: I have a personal friend who was a Naval Intelligence operative in Soc Trang during the period Smith writes about, and he roared when I read him Smith's account. He assured me that he would have known of any special unit operating out of Soc Trang.

According to Smith, A-team was "...assigned to join a UDT Team [sic] (wrong terminology--the "T" in "UDT" already stands for "Team")...for a search-and-destroy mission on "Dung" Island, at the mouth of the Mekong." Whoa! Let's look at this again! First of all, as mentioned earlier, the UDTs were not operating in the Delta then or ever. Next, Dung Island (or "Cu Lao Dung" in the Vietnamese language) is in the mouth of the Bassac River, not the Mekong, and my own SEAL platoon was the first US land combat unit to set foot on that lovely isle.

B-team was to go with "...some Army Special Forces" into southeastern Cambodia to destroy a radio tower which "...directed small boat traffic in the various rivers of the area." Neither I nor any other military people ever assigned to the Delta region ever heard of a need to direct small boat traffic by radio! It's not like traffic jams on the rivers were a major problem for the Viet Cong (VC)!

Finally, Smith's own C-team "...was assigned to a US Navy river patrol operation near the South Vietnam-Cambodia border on the Bassac River." Smith's lack of knowledge of the facts is once again his undoing. For starters, C-team is helo-landed at "...a small outpost, a mini-firebase" on an estuary feeding the Bassac River. This outpost, manned (according to Smith) by both US Navy personnel and RVN soldiers, is a US Patrol Boat--River (PBR) facility. One thing wrong with this scenario--the only PBR base on the Bassac (or any of its estuaries) was at Can Tho. While there were USN advisors assigned to such outposts, they were part of the Vietnamese Navy Riverine Assault Group (RAG) organization. While PBRs occasionally visited these "Beau Geste"-type mud forts, they were never assigned there.

Now to C-team's combat story. According to Smith, his PBR intercepted a large VC craft and shot it to pieces, killing at least thirty-five communist troops. All I can say about that is that I was on the Bassac with my platoon within a few months of this alleged operation, and if a single PBR had accounted for that many dead VC in one engagement, we would have heard about it. It was very seldom that more than four or five VC were even aboard a single vessel, much less killed. This story is clearly a total concoction.

Covert Warrior's pièce de resistance, however, is the account of a fantastic POW rescue in Cambodia. For starters, I can't imagine why the NVA or the VC would take US pilot prisoners into Cambodia, because there simply weren't that many planes being shot down in the part of Viet Nam closest to Cambodia during the 1965-66 period. Next, and most importantly, NOT A SINGLE US POW WAS EVER RESCUED DURING THE ENTIRE INDOCHINA CONFLICT! And Warner Smith claims to have participated in the rescue of more than a dozen of them! Smith's account of this event is truly exciting, but it's all a part of one continuous lie.

Then there is the story of Smith's solo mission into China (that's communist China, now) to determine whether the SAM-2 missiles being brought into North Viet Nam were of Russian or Chinese origin, as if it made any difference. Smith was parachuted into the southern part of the country, evaded capture for several days, killed a couple of bad guys, and--eureka!--confirmed that the SAMs were of Russian manufacture. The story of his extraction by a Caribou aircraft using a system of rubber bands and paper clips (not really, but close) is a real hummer, but it's so complicated that I'll refrain from telling it.

Another tall tale is that concerning a limpeteering attack on merchant shipping in Haiphong harbor. This mission was to be undertaken by twelve UDT personnel and five FRAMMERS operating from a submarine. Fortunately for Smith, however, the mission was canceled; otherwise, I'd be generating snickers galore about his account of how he sank a dozen Russian merchantmen and swam twenty miles out to sea, where he was rescued by a Taiwanese water-skiing boat. Oh! and he'd probably have saved the lives of at least a half-dozen frogmen in the process!

It's pretty clear that, as history, this book is a total strikeout. As autobiography, it's a self-serving collection of lies. As an adventure story, however (and I'm serious!), it truly is an exciting read. If Warner Smith had peddled Covert Warrior as a novel of the thriller genre, I believe it could have been a best-seller. (I'm serious about that, too!)

At the end of it all, I have to give ex-Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Smith a lot of credit for writing an account that is as genuinely exciting (and credible to those uninitiated in the world of special operations) as Covert Warrior. Ironically, I think that he would have made a lot more money and may have been able to market movie rights, if he had kept his Mitty instincts under control. He certainly would have saved himself a lot of aggro from people like me!

It is clear that Smith is one sharp cookie; for example, he knows his SE Asia geography, he knows a phenomenal amount about the Viet Nam War, and he knows enough details about real-world operations in Viet Nam to write with a high degree of credibility. It's what he makes up that ultimately shoots him down in flames.

Finally, I feel obligated to apologize to, and sympathize with, Presidio Press for slamming its latest release, but Covert Warrior is so far out in left field as to obligate someone to tell the truth about it. Coming on the heels of my recent debunking of Presidio's Swimmers among the Trees, another wannabe account (SOF, Nov. 96), its editors are probably going to put a contract out on me! All I can say is that it's a shame Presidio and a disgusting number of other publishing houses don't submit their drafts to special operations veterans for their comments before getting slam-dunked by folks like me.

Having said that, I must doff my specops hat to the master of wannabe slam-dunking, a gent down in Texas by the name of B.G. (Jug) Burkett who provided me with evidence that Warner Smith wasn't the warrior he claimed to be. SOF readers are going to hear a lot more about Jug in the near future, because he is in the final stages of writing the definitive exposé on phony warriors, a book called Stolen Valor. Suffice it to say that I'd hate to have Jug on my case if I were a wannabe; heck, I'd hate to have him on my case for any reason--he's a pit bull!

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