Harry Beal a local Navy Seal legend
When Harry Beal signed up for the U.S. Navy in June 1948, he didn’t expect to make a career in the military. He also likely didn’t expect to make history.
Now the 88-year-old from Pocahontas is a local legend.
He thought that the “kiddy cruise,” which required his father’s permission for the then 17-year-old would only last three years.
That initial decision to leave Meyersdale and go into the military changed his life. He became the first person to sign the roster for the U.S. Navy SEALs in 1962.
He retired at 37 years old in 1968.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Harry said. “My dad had wanted me to go into the coal mines but decided to sign me up for the Navy instead. It changed my life.”
The son of the late Clarence and Cora (Caruthers) Beal, Harry left his parents and four siblings behind in Somerset County to attend basic training at Camp Downs in the Great Lakes and then went to Norfolk, Virginia, aboard the USS Shenandoah. Although the Korean War had begun after his enlistment, his ship was never involved in battle.
Even though it was Harry’s intention to get out of the military after three years and return home to Meyersdale to marry the girl next door, Margie Bowman, the government kept him longer because of the Korean War. Then he decided to re-enlist. He earned leave to come home to marry Margie in 1951 and the couple moved to Norfolk.
“A nice officer asked me how I would like a thousand dollars and a month’s leave to re-enlist,” Harry said with a laugh. “With a thousand dollars in my pocket, I felt like the richest man in Meyersdale and I came home and married Margie in Cumberland, Maryland. We got a rented place and a 1936 Ford.”
For the next decade, he traveled the world. He became known as what civilians call a “frogman,” training in underwater demolition through the U.S. Navy. While he didn’t necessarily go swimming all the time when he grew up in Meyersdale, the Navy allowed him to train expertly in different types of underwater operations and Harry thrived in physical athleticism.
That’s why when President John F. Kennedy came calling at the base in Little Creek, Virginia, in 1962 with a new idea to implement a special forces unit called the U.S. Navy SEALs, Harry was the first one who stepped up and signed the roster. All the men knew full well that the United States was involved in the Vietnam War at that time and this decision had serious implications.
Kennedy wanted 50 men on two teams, one on the west coast and the second team on the east coast. Kennedy wanted the units to be made up of Navy servicemen who would receive special training and answer only to the Central Intelligence Agency.
Training included a variety of operations from different branches of service other than the Navy. The Army taught him jungle warfare, foreign weapons and paratrooper schooling. The Air Force taught him survival and the Marines were in charge of escape and evasion tactics. As part of the underwater training, the men had their feet and hands tied together and were dropped to the bottom of a 15-foot pool. Whoever got a face mask on the bottom got a weekend pass. Harry got the pass by picking the mask up with his mouth.
The training proved to be necessary as he was sent that same year to Vietnam to teach the South Vietnamese underwater and warfare tactics. He recalls how the South Vietnamese were terrified of poisonous white sea snakes in the waters, and of hammerhead sharks.
“The snakes were not aggressive and they were often more afraid of humans than humans were of them,” he said. “Oftentimes big fish brushed up against us in the waters and they could have been sharks. On a dark night you could see underwater if the moon was out.”
By 1963 he returned stateside to his family and he became an instructor at Little Creek. He had been part of a team that brought John Glenn out of the space capsule following an orbit of Earth. He and his wife, Margie, and their three sons, Mack, Mark and Merle, returned home to live near Pocahontas in 1968. A fourth son, Wayne, died at a few weeks old, and another son died at birth.
Harry started working for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in 1970 and retired after 20 years. One day while working at the PennDOT shed about 15 years after he was out of the Navy, he found himself crying uncontrollably without reason. He had thought he had left his missions behind him and never believed in post-traumatic stress disorder. Fortunately the PennDOT director at the time was a veteran who knew what was going on and called Margie and the veterans clinic in Altoona.
“Post-traumatic stress is a real thing and in those 15 years I didn’t understand that some men were fighting this battle every day,” he said. “War is not like it is portrayed in the movies. Soldiers come home and fight to find a way to stop the pain. I didn’t understand the effects it has on a person.”
He went to the clinic in Altoona for a few years for counseling. He credits his wife and family for helping him.
“It’s been a wonderful life and I wouldn’t change anything. Some things in life are more difficult than others but we all have to keep going and keep the faith. Sometimes I wonder why I am still here but the good Lord must have a reason,” he said. “Maybe it is just because I am supposed to represent a generation of men who loved their country, their families and one another. My heroes have always been firemen and policemen, our American presidents and Jacques Cousteau.”