Garry Sebring had big shoes to fill when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1962 and was assigned to the Beach Jumpers Unit. Although he was not a movie star like Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the creative mind behind the Beach Jumpers, Sebring did have the courage, intelligence and willingness to participate in hazardous duty which allowed him to follow in Fairbank’s footsteps.
Garry David Sebring was born in Los Angeles, California on September 17, 1943. He spent the majority of his childhood in Southern California and later, moved with his family to Sarasota, Florida. Sebring’s biological father served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Prior to enlisting in the U.S. Navy, Sebring had no real opinions or views on the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. After graduation from high school, Sebring attended college for about one year. He also worked a variety of jobs including: training horses, working in the plastic business doing sales, and manufacturing plastic table tops for a patio furniture company. According to Sebring, he “was a poor college student and on a road to nowhere …. He wanted to see the world”. Thus, Sebring decided to enlist in the Navy. Unbeknownst to Sebring, he would be assigned to Beach Jumpers Unit 1, and become a member of an elite esprit de corps.
Sebring enlisted in the Navy in March of 1962, and was sent to basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois. He was unmarried and his family supported his decision although his mother was chagrined. According to Sebring, he chose the Navy because “he liked hot food, did not want to eat sea rats, and wanted a clean bed”. While in basic training, he learned to take orders, march, do laundry, iron, and clean the barracks. Sebring also stated, “part of being on a ship is having a clean and orderly ship. This was emphasized in the basic training and you learned to do everything to maintain the ship”. He also learned naval history, too. Although Sebring thought the training was excellent for what the Navy wanted you to learn, he found the concept of “following orders” challenging. Overall, Sebring coped with basic training by his desire to just complete it, and get out because it “was no fun”.
In July 1962, after a short leave, Sebring returned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station to attend Radarman’s School. He attended from July 1962 to February 1963 and learned how to repair, operate and fix radar equipment in combat situations. He also learned to write backwards on charts, so that the writing could be seen from the other side. Sebring learned to write bearings and ship placements from the radar screen, only everything had to be written backwards. Upon graduation from Radarman’s School, Sebring was assigned to Beach Jumper’s Unit 1 and sent to the Naval Amphibious base in Coronado, California. The Beach Jumpers were an elite group of naval personnel that specialized in deception and psychological warfare. Sebring was recruited for prolonged, hazardous duty that was kept highly classified. Any leak of information regarding the members of this elite group, or their activities, could ruin the focus of their efforts; deception.
According to John B. Dwyer in Seaborne Deception – The History of U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers, the Beach Jumpers was a concept created during World War II by former actor and naval officer, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and modeled after British military deception tactics. During World War II, while training under British Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Fairbanks learned the basics of training, planning and executing raiding parties; diversions; and deception operations. Fairbanks brought this information back to the U.S. and on March 5, 1943, Admiral King, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet and Naval Operations, issued the order to recruit officers and enlist men for the Beach Jumpers program. There were only four requirements to be a Beach Jumper: (1) not prone to seasickness; (2) some experience handling small boats; (3) electrical knowledge for handling a radio; and (4) some knowledge of celestial navigation. The mission of the Beach Jumpers was to assist and support the operating forces in the conduct of tactical cover and deception in naval warfare. According to Dwyer, the Beach Jumpers were trained in small boat handling, seamanship, ordinance, gunnery, pyrotechnics, meteorology, and cross trained to handle all crew positions. The name, Beach Jumpers, a cover name for this elite unit, is a little unclear in its conception. Some historians claim that the name comes from the concept of quickly hitting the beach and causing confusion with the enemy. Others claim that the name originated from the concept of “scaring the be-jesus out of the enemy”, also known as the “BJ factor”, as originally used by Harold Burris- Meyer, a researcher for the Navy at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Regardless of the derivation of the name, or the war that the tactics were used in, the Beach Jumpers earned their name because they were masters of “scaring the be-jesus out of the enemy”.
As with the Beach Jumpers of World War II, the Beach Jumpers of the Vietnam War Era were a psychological electronic warfare operation tasked with learning to confuse and distract the enemy to minimize the amount of casualties. When Sebring joined the Unit, he was a Seaman 2nd Class. There were three teams of Beach Jumpers in Unit 1: 11, 12 and 13. Sebring was assigned to Team 12 although he did one stint with Team 13. The administrative control of the Unit was held by the Commanding Officer of the Naval Amphibious Training Unit, but under operational control of the Commander of the Amphibious Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet. The Unit organization was similar to shipboard organization and usually consisted of ten officers and eighteen enlisted men. As with World War II, the Beach Jumpers were still needed during the Vietnam War since deception tactics still played an important role in naval tactics. Sebring was elated to be back in the San Diego area and was happy with his assignment to the Beach Jumpers. While in Coronado, he lived on the base in the barracks. Living conditions were similar to dorm living and he marched to chow line and marched back. “The food was rather poor overall, but it was better than eating sea rats”, claimed Sebring. For entertainment, Sebring and the other Beach Jumpers would go to the movies and the EM club.
While in Coronado, Sebring received additional training on how to operate tape recorders, transmit bogus sounds, and learned to jam enemy communications. After training, the Unit was deployed in the Western Pacific area on a continuous basis. Teams 11, 12 and 13 were sent to the naval base in Yokuska, Japan for a six month rotation. Overall, the teams were to do a six month rotation in Japan, come back to Coronado, California for six months, and then back to Japan for six months. During Sebring’s first rotation in Japan, he was asked to volunteer for the Army parachute school and training in Okinawa, Japan. He completed the training much to the chagrin of the Army. After completing “jump school”, Sebring finished a six month tour in Japan and then returned to Coronado for another six months. On the day Sebring arrived back in Japan, for his next six month tour, he and Team 12 were instructed to immediately turn around and head to De Nang, Vietnam. At this time, Sebring indicated that the morale of his Team and the Unit was excellent. He felt his service and training was very effective. According to Sebring, “when you are an elite esprit de corps, it is very important to have good morale”. He felt his fellow personnel were excellent, as were the superior officers. Sebring’s superiors were all “mustangs”, officers that rose through the enlisted ranks to officer. He felt the mustangs understood the enlisted men better than any officer just out of college without basic training.
Sebring claimed that he wasn’t prepared to go to Vietnam because he never thought he would be assigned there. When he landed in De Nang, Vietnam, there was no naval base. Sebring was offered to bunk with the Marines or the Air Force. He chose to share quarters with the Air Force because they had a nice base, barracks, actual beds, and maids to clean and do laundry. The poor Marines were located across the airport runway, lived in pup tents erected along one side of the runway, and ate sea rats out of their helmets. Sebring felt fortunate to live with the Air Force. He received hot meals and had a totally different experience than most in Vietnam. While in De Nang, Sebring and his Team waited for redeployment orders. After finally being assigned to a ship, Sebring and his Team created a communication station that was housed in a large, redesigned, twenty foot cargo trailer. This communications station was the office for all the communication gear and jamming equipment and was transported with the Team. When the Team was transferred to a ship, the cargo trailer accompanied them.
Sebring’s first assignment in Vietnam was aboard a ship that went up and down the coast of Vietnam and jammed communications of all ships. Whenever a Vietnamese junk went by, the junk was stopped and searched for contraband, illegal arms or equipment for the Vietcong. “Of course, any illegal contraband, such as beer, was immediately confiscated by the Team,” claimed Sebring mischievously. While in Vietnam, Sebring did not receive any additional training. The general morale of his Team, and Unit 1 as a whole, was good. Sebring himself enjoyed very good morale and felt he had excellent duty. At that time, Sebring’s Team 12 consisted of one officer and four enlisted personnel. When on board ship, Sebring’s Team did their own watches, and the food was okay which helped with morale.
After this initial assignment, Sebring and his Team were sent to Subic Bay in the Philippines to further hone their deception skills. Thereafter, Sebring was sent to Saigon where he waited for the next assignment on another ship. This second assignment also involved patrolling up and down the Vietnam coast searching for contraband being smuggled to the Vietcong. Sebring recalled, on the 1st day out, that the ship lost its desalination unit. It was to be a long eighty day cruise for Sebring and the other naval personnel. The men were limited to one drink a day of water, and all bathing was done with buckets of sea water. Good thing Sebring was used to swimming in sea water having grown up near the beaches of Southern California and Florida. Despite the circumstances, Sebring and the other men coped very well. They were all an elite group of men that wanted to be there. Any member of the Beach Jumpers Unit could transfer at any time. According to Sebring, “they all wanted to be there…. Watch stations were pleasant and it was easy duty”. Like all sailors, Sebring’s motivation to keep going was simply that he hoped to survive and make it home safely.
During this 2nd tour in Vietnam, Sebring made one landing with the Marines after having spent the entire previous night doing their confusion type work. According to Sebring, “they had broadcast all night to give the impression that they were a huge force massing just off the beach”. Sebring stated, “when they landed the next day, the hope was that there would be no enemy meeting them or to rebuff them”. The tactic worked, and when Sebring landed with the Marines, they were not met with resistance. The only shot fired, opined Sebring, was from someone in his Unit who was shaking so badly that he discharged his rifle into the air. This was the scariest moment of Sebring’s service. He was not certain what awaited him and the other men when they landed on the beach. Luckily, the Beach Jumpers had scared the be-jesus out of the enemy and they landed safely.
After serving several assignments in Vietnam, Sebring was sent back to the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, California. While Sebring waited to be discharged, he trained new recruits with the Beach Jumpers Unit, and maintained, repaired and upgraded all equipment for the Unit’s further operations. Although Sebring was scheduled to be discharge in March of 1966, the Navy decided to extend his service against his wishes for an additional ninety days. Sebring was finally discharged from the Navy in July 1966 in Coronado, California. Fortunately for Sebring, he did not suffer any injuries during his service. Upon discharge, Sebring’s highest rank was RD-3, Radarman 3rd Class. He received a good conduct medal and a Vietnam medal for his participation in the war. “I felt jubilant upon release”, claims Sebring. Immediately upon discharge, Sebring and his wife, Barbara Bitgood Sebring, also a Vietnam veteran went to visit family in Marin County, located in Northern California. After his discharge, Sebring did not feel that he was received well by his fellow Americans in San Diego or in Marin County. However, while visiting his in-laws in Hope Valley, Rhode Island, Sebring and his wife were treated very well by the community and their service and sacrifices made during the Vietnam War were clearly appreciated and respected.
After his discharge from the Navy, Sebring attended night school and later went to work for General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut. At General Dynamics, Sebring was able to capitalize on his naval training and was put in charge of installing sonar equipment on new submarines in for repair. Later, Sebring and his family would return to Marin County and settle down in San Rafael, California. Today, Sebring and his wife own and operate a successful manufacturing representative business. Sebring is a member of the American Legion in Rhode Island and the American Legion, Wilkins Post 37, in San Rafael. He is also a member of the Beach Jumpers Unit One Association of the Navy.
During his service, Sebring made many good friends. He still keeps in contact with his Unit, participates in Reunions every other year in San Diego where they hold memorial services for those unfortunate soldiers that did not survive the war. According to Sebring, the most memorable part of his service was “the time spent with his comrades”. He really enjoyed the comradery and the time spent with his fellow servicemen. On the other hand, the toughest part of the service for Sebring was “learning to follow orders”. Sebring explained that prior to enlisting he never had that kind of discipline. The training received and the overall experience certainly matured Sebring beyond his age, in comparison to his peers that did not serve.
Upon reflection on his service during the Vietnam War, Sebring feels that his sacrifice was not justified. While he initially felt gung ho at the time of his service, after reflecting upon the war and seeing how history has unfolded, “it ended up being a senseless and needless war on our part”, opined Sebring. He would like people today to know that “we should only send our troops to places where there is a sound reason for being there. All too often, we haven’t learned a thing from Vietnam or Korea. We need to stop making the same mistake over and over”, explained Garry Sebring. Sebring also stated, “we need to remember that we lost some really good men and women in Vietnam for no good reason”.
Sebring advised young men and women entering the military today “to go in both mentally and physically”. He offered, “If you do go in, you may as well stick it out for the whole twenty years”. Many of Sebring’s friends served their full twenty years, are now forty, and leading a pretty good life right now. In general, Sebring advised young people today not to “buck the system”. Sebring further stated, “hopefully, you volunteered to enlist in the military and made a decision to go in. Make the best of it, learn everything you can and do not buck the system since the system will win”. Sage advice from a man that was a master of deception.
Interview by Nicholas Elsbree on June 15, 2011