August, 1997. It is a sunny Saturday on Coronado's Orange Avenue. Bay Books is having a ball. Half a dozen ex-Navy SEALs sit at tables inside, each autographing the book he has written about his exploits in Vietnam and trouble spots around the world. The longest line -- it stretches half a block -- is for Richard Marcinko, the bearded giant who wrote Rogue Warrior. But at the first table on the right, a jovial blond-haired guy is getting a steady stream for his just-published book, Good to Go: The Life and Times of a Decorated Member of the U.S. Navy's Elite SEAL Team Two.
The book's a page-turning tale of derring-do in Vietnam's Mekong Delta: bodies flying and booby traps exploding from go to woe.
Harry Constance, the Escondido-based SEAL who cowrote the book with Randall Fuerst, drew from his own 300 combat missions on three tours, during which he was awarded 32 citations, three Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart.
That was in 1968.
On this Saturday in 1997, at 52, Constance is still outgoing and jolly, joshing with those waiting in Marcinko's line. He needn't worry about sales: his own book will sell around 20,000 copies hardback and go into paperback.
Now cut to Monday, February 1, 1999. Constance is back in a firefight. Except this time it's in a courtroom in Norfolk, Virginia. He faces Charles R. Watson, fellow SEAL, ex-comrade-in-arms.
Watson accuses Constance of portraying him as a coward in the book. He's hit Constance with a $6 million libel suit.
Constance readily admits he believes Watson is a coward. In his book he throws the moniker "Chicken Charlie" around liberally. He describes Watson cowering in a bathroom under a mattress for several days during the Tet Offensive in January 1968, avoiding contact with the enemy during routine jungle patrols at night, running away under fire, and deserting his men in battle.
Watson says it was this last accusation that moved Watson to file the lawsuit.
Did Charlie Watson run under fire and desert his men? For jurors listening spellbound over the last few weeks, it has come down to different accounts of what happened early one morning in December 1967 or January 1968, depending on who you believe, near the My Tho River in the Mekong Delta.
This is how Harry Constance remembers it: he describes in Chapter 9 ("Life's Little Burdens") how the SEALs' seventh platoon had been patrolling through the night. They had split into two small teams. Harry Constance was under Lt. Robert "Pete" Peterson in "A" squad. Warrant Officer Charlie Watson led "B" squad.
As dawn broke on the edge of the jungle, Constance says his boss Peterson spotted Watson's unit in the distance.
"All of a sudden, the tree line nearest them erupted in flames. There must have been 50 or 60 guys pouring a fusillade of bullets at Charlie and his team.... The team hit the deck.... They were lying behind a berm that was, at most, 12 to 18 inches high. At once, from out of the dust came Charlie [Watson], running as hard as he could go, away from the tree line, toward the river.... 'Dammit!' exclaimed Pete. 'He's got the radio! He's got the damn radio!'
"...Pete got on the radio and started hollering. He was yelling into the mike," writes Constance. " 'Charlie! STOP! Stop running! Rejoin your team! You have got to save your team! You have got to call in support!' "
Constance says he and his team provided diversionary fire that finally allowed Watson's deserted team to make it back to the river.
When Watson left Vietnam before the rest of the platoon, Constance says in his book it was because he was a broken man. "Poor Chicken Charlie. He took off right after Tet as a medical evacuation. He just cracked."
* * *
"This whole book is a lie," says Watson, on the line from Norfolk, Virginia, where the trial is taking place in federal court.
Here's his version of what happened that day. It happened, he says, at dawn on January 16, 1968.
"You've got to remember that just prior to [the 1968] Tet [offensive], things were pretty slow. We'd go out and walk through the woods and not find anybody! No heavy firefights. So that night we went in and set up an ambush, and nothing came. Next morning we heard a guy chopping wood. We walked up on him in the jungle, and he told us there was a battalion of VC stopped there last night and they were 'over there.'
"Well, we didn't know whether to believe him or not. The chief [Robert Gallagher] kept [saying], 'Let's go in and get them.' I said, 'Chief, goddamn, if there's 300 people in there, I ain't going in.'
"He said, 'Well, what the hell are we over here [in Vietnam] for?' So I called an Air Force spotter plane to take a look. The pilot said, 'Look, I didn't see anything, but that don't mean nothing.' I took Hook [fellow SEAL Richard "Hooker" Tuure] and myself along a dike to within 25 yards of the jungle. And I saw something out of the corner of my eye, and I looked to the right. Somebody was crawling through the rice field real fast. I turned around, and Hook had a bead on him. I said, 'Hook, don't shoot, goddamn it. Just put your gun down, turn around, and walk away real slow.'
"So we walked away real slow, and when we got back to the troops I said, 'Let's go!' And they said, 'Oh shit!' So they all got up to go...and that's when [the VC] hit us.
"And we just flopped over the other side of that dike. There's no way in the world anybody could have got up and run."
Watson did not grab a radio, he says, for a very good reason. "See, me and Pete [Lt. Peterson] had what they called 'squad radios.' They're little radios that the army uses. The receiver is made so that it fits up inside the helmet. As you go along fighting, people'd be talking to you, and there was a little transmitter that I'd just throw inside my blouse. And I could call to the boat, for whatever I needed. And so we didn't take out a PRC-25, one of those big radios, most of the time, because, hell, we didn't need it!