SARANAC LAKE - One of the first Navy SEALs was the featured speaker Monday at Saranac Lake's annual Veterans Day ceremony.
Charlie Jessie Jr. of Saranac Lake talked about his experiences serving with the Navy's special operations force - named SEALs for their operations on sea, air and land - to a crowd of about 100 people in the Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium.
Jessie said he was working with one of the Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams when he first heard about a new unit being created.
Charlie Jessie Jr., one of the first Navy SEALs, speaks to the audience in the Harriestown Town Hall auditorium during Monday’s Veterans Day ceremony in Saranac Lake.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"They came over one day to Underwater Demolition Team 21 and took about two or three guys out of each department," Jessie said. "They said, 'We're going to start a new outfit.' I didn't know what it was or who it was or anything else about it. We went across the street to an old World War II single-story building, started knocking out walls and making rooms for lockers. That's when we started the teams."
That was December 1961. On Jan. 8, 1962, the first two SEAL teams were officially commissioned, one on each coast. Like Jessie, members were taken from the Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams.
"We started with about 27 people," he said. "We eventually built up to 66 where it was a full detachment ... We (on the East Coast) were responsible for South America and Europe. They (on the West Coast) were responsible for the Pacific. We were a small outfit, and we were constantly proving ourselves and re-proving ourselves each time we went out."
One of his first assignments, Jessie recalled, took him to Miami in 1963, where he helped train Cubans to "go after (Fidel) Castro.
"We couldn't go then, but we could train them to go," Jessie said. "We were kind of on loan with the CIA because they were running the show."
In Vietnam, Jessie said an initial group of SEALs was sent to train their Vietnamese counterparts. As the war progressed, three platoons of SEALS were stationed throughout the Mekong River delta, outside Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Combat, gathering intelligence and disrupting enemy communications were some of their operations, most of which occurred at night.
"We had a lot of ops," Jessie said. "We were really busy. That's really where our reputation was born there."
Jessie said he was involved with the SEAL community for a total of 17 years, including a dozen working directly on a SEAL team. He retired in 1978.
Jessie told the Enterprise after the ceremony that there's always been a lot of curiosity about the clandestine operations SEAL teams have been involved in over the years.
"It's good that people know what we did," he said. "I don't have a lot of bad memories of it. There are a lot of things that went on that I never forget, but they're not going to affect me mentally, although other people have had problems with that."
Monday's ceremony was emceed by Sons of the American Legion Chaplain J.R. Owens, who talked about how Veterans Day got its start as a national holiday and what it means.
"It takes courage for a soldier to risk life and limb for his country," Owens said. "The least we civilians can do is honor these heroes. That is the basis of the Veterans Day celebration."
Saranac Lake Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander Ray Boula also spoke. He commended the students and staff at Bloomingdale Elementary School for the annual Veterans Day ceremony they put on Friday. He encouraged more veterans to volunteer with their local veteran organizations, saying the numbers of people involved in these groups is dwindling and they could use some new blood. Boula also recognized five local veterans who died in the past year: Doris Darrah, Preston Burl, Bob McGarry, Vincent Pelletieri and Maurice 'Mo' O'Brien.
The ceremony also featured a color guard made up of Bob Bell, Ken Casler and John Klaus. Local Boy Scout Gabe Zaremba led the audience in the "Pledge of Allegiance," Saranac Lake High School Choral Director Drew Benware sang and played piano for "God Bless America," and trumpeters Mitchell Deleel and Donny Nadon played "Taps." The Rev. Mark Reilly, a former Marine and soon-to-retire Navy reservist who recently returned from active duty in the African nation of Dijibouti, delivered an opening prayer and a benediction. He is the pastor of four Catholic churches in the Saranac Lake area.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.