Enjoy meeting Moki.
As Written by: Timothy Carlson
The mission was so highly classified that the world didn’t know about Operation Thunderhead until 36 years after Moki Martin and a small group of SEAL teams set out for the North Vietnam coast on June 3, 1972.
His military ID read “Philip L. Martin,” but his SEAL team and all his friends knew him as Moki, a nickname given to him when he was a skinny kid in Maui. He was an accomplished free diver, swimmer and surfer with a taste for adventure that led him to the Navy — and eventually to play a significant role in the early days of triathlon.
The mission was to rescue American prisoners of war attempting to escape a North Vietnamese prison in Hanoi. The initial thrust called for several four-man SEAL teams to embark in darkness in mini-subs to a small island 4,000 yards offshore to await a rendezvous with the escapees. Warrant Officer Martin and Lt. Dry, members of an Underwater Demolition Team element of the SEALs, led one of the teams that embarked from the submarine USS Grayback.
Their 20-foot-long Swimmer Delivery Vehicle (SDV) fought strong surface and tidal currents, and ran out of battery power which left them unable to reach shore or return to the Grayback. Dry and Martin and the rest of their team swam the SDV out to sea to prevent it from falling in enemy hands. When a Navy rescue helicopter arrived 7 hours later, they sank the damaged SDV and were ferried to the cruiser Long Beach.
Immediately, Martin and his team decided to return to the Grayback to warn the other SEAL teams about the currents.
On the night of June 5, 1972, the helicopter bearing Martin and his team spotted a signal at sea, but it turned out to be a distress signal from another four-man SEAL team. The Grayback had aborted the planned drop because of enemy patrol boats in the area, but the message didn’t reach the Long Beach in time. Worse, visibility was poor and made altitude reading difficult.
When the pilot signaled for the team to exit, Lt. Dry was the first to jump and was killed instantly when he hit the water from high altitude. Martin survived the massive impact, although his knee was badly twisted and he was only partly conscious. Two other UDT team members were also injured, one severely.
Three decades later the mission was declassified and Martin was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with a combat “V” for valor. Specifically, Martin was cited for valor for his part in the rescue of his two injured SEAL team members and for the preserving the body of Lt. Dry until recovery.
At a March 18, 2008 medal ceremony in Coronado, Martin said, “I accept this award on behalf of all of you from Alpha Platoon… This award is for all of you.”
Moki Martin received his medal in a wheelchair, a quadriplegic. In an irony amplified by his extensive wartime service under fire, Martin’s injuries were suffered on a bicycle training ride along Coronado’s shoreline at 6:30 one morning in October of 1982. That ride was a part and parcel of his embrace of the new sport of triathlon soon after he returned to Coronado in January 1975 as a SEAL instructor.
From 1975 to his accident in 1982, Martin was at ground zero of the birth of the sport of triathlon In San Diego. While not a super athlete, he exemplified the contributions, influence and varied roles that Navy personnel such as Cmdr. John Collins and his wife Judy played in triathlon’s foundation. While enjoying participation in early races such as the Horny Toad Triathlon and Optimists Coronado Triathlon near SEAL training headquarters, perhaps his biggest mark was made founding the half Ironman distance SUPERFROG Triathlon in 1979 – one of the longest continuously running events in the sport’s history.
Underscoring his indomitable spirit, Martin remains active supporting current race director Mitch Hall in the Superfrog and SUPERSEAL triathlons at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado. After his discharge from active duty in May 1983, Martin remained an active member of the Naval Special Warfare community, giving lectures on “Lessons Learned in Vietnam” to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL students. He also gives lectures to schools on disabilities, the SEALs and triathlons.