Hawaii military community remembers real SEAL team in 'Lone Survivor'
By William Cole | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: January 11, 2014
Hawaii isn't highlighted in the movie "Lone Survivor," but the sacrifice and service of military members based here runs through it before, during and after the battle and ill-fated rescue mission upon which the more than $40 million drama is based.
The Afghanistan war movie, which opened Friday, tells the true story of four Navy SEALs — three of whom were based at Pearl Harbor — who were attacked in 2005 high on a mountainside in Kunar province by a much larger enemy force.
With bullets and rocket-propelled grenades raining down on them, the SEALs fought back tenaciously and practically tumbled down the rugged and remote peak known as Sawtalo Sar as they sought to distance themselves from the attackers.
The team's leader, Lt. Michael Murphy, 29, who was with SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 at Pearl City Peninsula, made the decision to move into the open to get a signal to call for help.
He was shot through the back, causing him to drop the transmitter, but even then he retrieved it and completed the call before dying.
Murphy was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on June 28, 2005, in what the Navy said was a battle with more than 50 militia members.
Another Pearl Harbor SEAL on the four-man team, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matt Axelson, 29, also died in the fighting.
The carnage for the United States only increased with the arrival of a big MH-47 Chinook rescue helicopter with 16 American troops, including three other Hawaii-based SEALs, that was hit by an RPG, crashed and was obliterated as it rolled down the mountainside.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell, who was part of Murphy's team, was the eponymous "Lone Survivor" in the book he wrote about Operation Red Wings, the basis for the movie.
At the time it was the single largest loss of life for Naval Special Warfare since World War II.
"Lone Survivor" the movie reveals in unflinching and bloody detail the SEALs' plight — as well as their considerable skill and unwavering sense of duty — as they fought back, with Luttrell played by Mark Wahlberg and Murphy by Taylor Kitsch.
An estimated 35 enemy fighters were killed.
But what isn't presented is the SEALs as part of Hawaii's ohana, their legacy here or the extent to which Hawaii-based military forces — including Kaneohe Bay Marines and Schofield Barracks soldiers — have also lived and died fighting in Afghanistan's inhospitable Kunar province.
Among the SEALs who died in the helicopter crash, Petty Officer 2nd Class Shane Patton, 22, "had a surfer dude mentality," was easy to get along with and had a lot of friends, said Chief Gunner's Mate Jake Dort.
Dort worked with most of the SEALs at SDVT-1 and now serves on the destroyer named for Murphy — the USS Michael Murphy — home-ported in Hawaii.
"All those guys got into (surfing)," Dort said.
Patton had an old Volkswagen Beetle he used to drive around,
"It fit his personality. It was something he got on the island, something to beat around with," Dort said.
The car sat at the Pearl City Peninsula SEAL compound for years after Patton died in the helicopter crash, he said.
Petty Officer 2nd Class James Suh, 28, "was probably one of the better snipers that was out there," Dort said.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Dan Healy also died when the helicopter crashed.
Dort remembered Axelson, who was part of Murphy's team, as being "a stoic type of quiet guy, but he was really good (about) his weaponry."
"The last time I remember (about him) was being in the armory and working and him just being so focused on what he was doing," Dort said. "He always thought things through."
Dort said he worked more with Morgan Luttrell, Marcus' twin brother, who also was with SDVT-1. The brothers "were connected at the hip," loved dogs and played softball with other team members, he said.
The first time Dort met Murphy, he thought the lieutenant "was a second-class petty officer like me, because over at the (SEAL) team, we don't wear uniforms."
"The mentality is, it's not about what you wear on your collar, it's what you bring to the team," Dort said. Murphy was a "super-humble guy," he recalled.
Murphy and his team were dropped high on Sawtalo Sar at night to conduct surveillance as part of a larger operation to interdict the "high payoff target" Ahmad Shah, according to journalist Ed Darack, who wrote the book "Operations Red Wings and Whalers -- The Marine Corps' Battle for Freedom in Afghanistan."
But Darack writes that it was supposed to be a mission conducted by the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment out of Kaneohe Bay.
The 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines from Hawaii had primary responsibility for the eastern Afghan region until June 2005, when they turned over the area to the 2nd Battalion.
The 3rd Battalion adopted the sports team naming convention that continued when the 2nd Battalion picked Operation Red Wings, named after the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, Darack said on his website.
A six-man Marine scout/ sniper team followed by 20 Marines and then a company-sized element was tabbed for the assignment, but special operations commanders would not allow the Marines to have access to special operations helicopters — unless SEALs were used for the opening phases of the operation, Darack said.
Unfortunately, Murphy and his team were discovered by three goat herders — a boy about age 14 and two adults. The troops let the civilians go and within hours were attacked by the larger group of enemy fighters.
In August 2005 the Hawaii Marines mounted Operation Whalers, which "crushed" Shah's army, Darack wrote.
In the spring of 2012, meanwhile, Schofield soldiers with the 3rd Brigade returned from a deployment to Kunar, Nuristan and Nangarhar provinces, where 20 soldiers were killed and 260 were wounded in action.
Among the legacies of Operation Red Wings was the home-porting of the USS Michael Murphy at Pearl Harbor.
Tributes to Murphy and the other SEALs are everywhere on the ship. In the officer's mess Murphy's M-4 rifle, his desert boots, body armor, a black SEAL helmet and his Ka-Bar knife are displayed.
In the Heritage Passageway, a summer white shirt is on display with "MPM," Murphy's initials, on the tag, and his SEAL trident pin.
Stories and photos of all 19 Americans who perished are on the wall in the crew's mess.
Dort said the loss of the SEALs "still sticks with me today — that's why I'm here. It's a good opportunity to bring Mike and the guys back to the fight."
Most of the crew saw an advance screening of the film Dec. 6.
Dort said it was strange to see actors portray the men he knew. One was true to life — Luttrell has a cameo on the doomed rescue chopper, Dort said.
"He put himself on the helicopter because he always felt like, 'Hey, I died up on that mountain, too,'" he said.
Cmdr. Corey Turner, the USS Michael Murphy's captain, said it was "surreal" seeing the film.
Original crew members "have a deep connection with the families," Turner said. "We've met all of them. We've met moms, the dads, the children."
"(The movie) puts together that sense of pride and professionalism, a sense of honor (and) the bravery of those sailors and those soldiers that were there," Turner said. "They did it without a thought of themselves. They didn't do it for money or personal glory. They did it defending our freedom."