When readers and armchair historians think of underwater combat, they probably think of Navy SEALs first, but Force Recon Marines, especially in the Vietnam War, saw a lot of diving duties. Like most things reconnaissance Marines did in Vietnam, they saw a lot of combat. Most of the stories involving the brown waters of Vietnam’s rivers involve what was happening on the surface of the water, but there was a lot happening below, too.
Lance Cpl. Robert L. Hughes first came to South Vietnam in 1966 with the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company. He served in Chu Lai and Hue City, among other places. Hughes was a large, tall man who literally and figuratively towered over those around him. He served with distinction throughout his time in Vietnam, but the “Gentle Giant” would be remembered for two things: his size and inflicting one of the most brutal kills of the war.
Force Recon divers had a lot of important responsibilities during the war. They protected bridges and searched the rivers for equipment and lost troops, all while on the lookout for North Vietnamese Army divers and sappers (yes, the communists had their own divers). Most importantly, there were instances where retreating NVA and Viet Cong would dive into the river and never come up.
It meant there was a hidden underwater entrance to a tunnel and that someone had to go clear that tunnel. SInce the famous “tunnel rats” weren’t always cleared for underwater duty, they sent in the Marines, like Lance Cpl. Hughes. Between 1967 and 1968, Hughes was 1st Force Recon’s Dive NCO, and when he was in the water on combat duty, the gentle left the giant entirely.
In the water, the fight got up close and personal, with divers on both sides often fighting for their lives with just a knife and the strength of their bodies. That was the situation Hughes found himself in while on a tunnel-clearing dive mission. With KA-BAR in hand, Hughes entered the murky brown water, going in almost blind.
Hughes’ first task was to actually locate the suspected tunnel’s entrance, no small feat when the water is disturbing the soil and whatever else might be floating in it. With one hand he pushed along a riverine wall. His knife was in the other, ready for anything. As he found what he thought to be the tunnel entrance, an enemy diver shot out of the hole, also armed with a knife.
The two locked hands immediately, each with a death grip on the other’s knife-holding arm. Struggling against each other underwater, with limited visibility, each fought first to overpower the other, then to gain whatever leverage they could to bring their blade home. Hughes found the advantage first.
Still locked in the struggle, Hughes wrapped his large, powerful legs around his adversary, pulling him in close. He then spat the regulator of his SCUBA gear out of his mouth, pushed forward, and bit the enemy diver hard in the throat, tearing it out with his teeth. When the diver quit struggling against the hand holding Hughes’ KA-BAR, the Recon Marine finished the job with his weapon of choice. It was his second underwater kill of the war, and a story no one would forget.
Hughes would survive his time in Vietnam and was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in January 1974, returning to his hometown of York, Pennsylvania. He would spend the rest of his life in York, where he died in 1990.