by Roy Boehm with Charles W. Sasser, 1997

New York: Pocket Book, 308 pages. Reviewed by Byron D. Varner, U.S. Navy (Retired). Click here to order book.

Psychologists might be hard pressed to figure out what makes Roy Boehm tick, and the reader may wonder at times if parts of the story are true. But for those who like unabashed blood-and-guts, an overabundance of foul language, and macho soldier-of-fortune-type prose, this book is made to order.

Roy is a highly decorated combat veteran who rose from seaman to officer during three decades of military service. In the process, he was the driving force in creating the world's most aggressive and highly skilled military commando group – the U. S. Navy SEALS. Thus the title, FIRST SEAL.

It is unfortunate that the Vietnam portion of Boehm's experience wasn't told to the media when he returned from his first tour there in the 1960s. With proper hype, it might have had an impact on shortening the U.S. involvement there.

During my own naval career time line that paralleled his, I witnessed many strange occurrences and met a lot of unusual characters, but most of them pale by comparison to Roy Boehm. Charles Sasser's professional writing perhaps overdresses the story with metaphors that sometimes seem out of character for Boehm's seventh-grade public education and four-letter word mentality, but otherwise keeps the story moving at a fast pace.

Whether you like or dislike Roy Boehm, his methods, or his mouth, he did some incredible, heroic things that few others would have the guts or patience to attempt. This intensive story is a page-turner from beginning to end.

Don't expect to find “political correctness” in anything Boehm says or does. He was out of sync with most of his peers and practically all of his superior officers, finding his most ardent supporters among those he trained and led into combat. By today's standards, he could never have accomplished all that he did in that era, which shows how much America and the military have changed in thirty years –not that Boehm's experience was typical of all military men.

As a green 18-year old in WWII, with Japanese shrapnel embedded in his head and body, Boehm jumped from his flaming ship and, with his unconscious buddy in tow, treaded water until dawn – only to be attacked by sharks. It was the beginning of a succession of death-defying episodes throughout an extraordinary naval career.

His work as a Navy Diver led to eventual Underwater Demolition Team training. Despite a bad knee, he became the oldest man in his unit to complete the brutal course and qualify as UDT specialist – the initial step to fulfill his dream of making a unique unconventional warfare force a reality.

In this quest to become the FIRST SEAL, Boehm refined the art of cumshaw, broke rules and ruffled the feathers of superiors, “bean-counters” and bureaucrats alike, to establish this innovative program despite quiet opposition by some Navy leaders. His clandestine work in Cuba eventually brought him face to face with President John Kennedy, who then added the necessary influence to put the SEAL program on solid footing to assure its success.

In addition to being an action-packed adventure story, FIRST SEAL provides a warrior's up-close-and-personal perspective of early stealth military operations in Vietnam, along with a remarkable personal experience with both the North and South Vietnamese people, emphasizing the utter futility of that war.