On 19 August 1966, SEAL Team One suffered its first combat fatality in Vietnam. While on a reconnaissance mission, a patrol had discovered a series of bunkers and weapons positions along the Dinh Ba River, thirteen miles south-east of Nha Be. They were extracted and reinserted further up river to pinpoint two reported camouflaged sampans that had been spotted by a helicopter. Fresh tracks were discovered, and the sampans were then sighted five hundred meters from the SEAL’s position.
Radarman Second Class Billy W. Machen, a 28 year old sailor from Dallas, Texas, was acting as point man. Coming to a clearing in the jungle growth, RD2 Machen halted the unit and moved ahead into the opening to reconnoiter. As he paused and searched the surrounding area, he suddenly spotted several Viet Cong (VC) guerillas. Rather than retreating and seeking cover, Machen initiated fire and attacked the enemy unit, forcing them to trigger their ambush prematurely. The resulting hail of fire from both banks of the river alerted his fellow SEALs to the danger and allowed them to take cover, return fire, and engage to suppress the VC attack. Machen, however, was killed in the initial fusillade.
For sacrificing his own life for those of his shipmates, he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest medal for valor. More recently, the SEALs named its Desert Warfare Training Facility in California, Camp Billy Machen.