Op-Ed: A Vietnam Veteran Tells The Inside Story About A Clandestine Special Operations Group During The War
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In 1966, after less than two years of a three-year shore duty tour at SACLANT in Norfolk, Virginia, I decided to accept the call for volunteers for Vietnam. I wanted to join the efforts to help the South Vietnamese save their country and their freedom from Communist aggression. My request to volunteer for duty in Vietnam was quickly approved.
Pre-deployment training was conducted at the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, California. I was accepted in the Naval Advisor Program and was ordered to attend courses in Counterinsurgency (CI), Survival, Escape and Evasion (SERE), advanced weapons training. That included: assault rifles, shotguns, .45cal pistols, grenade launchers, hand-grenades, mortars and machine guns.
The SERE Training started with several dozen of us being placed inside an old semi-trailer for about 30 to 45 minutes. The temperature in the trailer was at least 100 degrees. We were then placed into smaller containers and finally into individual Tiger Cages. The cage I was shoved into would barely accommodate my size. I was so cramped in there my legs quickly became numb.
To prevent claustrophobia and/or panic, I mentally played as many golf courses that I could remember, hole by hole. The tactic worked, but as soon as I emerged from the cage, I fell to the ground. I recall that I “chuckled” when I hit the floor.
“Aah, you think funny,” the guard yelled at me in pigeon English. “Back in cage!”
I emerged again about an hour later. I did not laugh this time.
Following those exercises, we were taken out into the wild and turned loose. We were told to try and evade capture and to work our way to a certain area, undetected. If we made it to the “safe” area, we were to be set free. Those who were caught were put into a mock prison camp. Several of us managed to evade capture, but in the end, we were put into the prison camp, regardless.
The Prison Camp course was quite an experience. We were told that this prison camp was a knitting school in comparison to the real thing that the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communist – VC) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had in store for any men they would take prisoner.
The purpose of this part of the training was designed to break our spirit and force us to divulge the information they wanted. We POWs were separated into two groups: Officers and enlisted men. Our captors believed breaking the Chain of Command would make it easier for them to control us. Our class made it a little more difficult than they had anticipated.
At the first evening meal, they allowed us to cook a huge cauldron of soup. They started to serve the enlisted men first, but we insisted that the officers be served first. They loudly stated: “officers lazy, no eat. You men work good; you may eat.”
The senior enlisted was a Chief Storekeeper and he got us into a quick huddle and when we broke from the huddle, we dumped the whole pot of soup onto the ground. We told the guards that if the officers don’t eat, we don’t eat. We slept that night with an empty stomach.
Near the end of the prison camp training, two enlisted men signed statements admitting to War Crimes. The guard ordered one of them to strike the Senior Officer; he did and with great force, knocking the officer to the ground. Those two men were returned to their Units.
Vietnamese language training was compulsory for all Naval Advisors. Before being accepted into the Language School, we had to take the FLAT (Foreign Language Aptitude Test). When I saw my FLAT score was only 32, I thought I’d flunked it! However, the scoring system for FLAT was different and I had actually scored in the top three percentile, according to FLAT records. The Vietnamese language was fun to learn and I picked it up very quickly. I graduated 2nd in our class which consisted of 108 officers and enlisted men.
MY ARRIVAL IN VIETNAM
My plane landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base just outside Saigon, South Vietnam on April 16, 1966. Two soldiers in Tiger Stripe Camouflage uniforms met the plane, checked my ID and then told me to hop into the jeep.
I received a thorough briefing at the headquarters and was told that I was being assigned to SOG as one of two Assistant Classified Material Control Officers. Almost everything that was going on at SOG was classified Top Secret – SPECAT (Special Category). When checked in, I was issued an M-16 rifle and a .45 caliber pistol.
SOG operations were covert/clandestine in nature. The U.S. government had to be able to deny knowledge and/or responsibility of any activities which were carried out in areas the U.S. was forbidden to enter. So SOG Recon Personnel operating in restricted areas were stripped of all identification and papers discharging them from U.S. military service were prepared and signed. Those who returned were reinstated and the discharge orders shredded.
The official Mission Statement for U.S. forces in Vietnam went like this:
The peaceful nation of South Vietnam is engaged in a civil war with neighboring North Vietnam, which is supported militarily and economically by the Communist Chinese and the Communist Russians. Should the North Vietnamese conquer the South Vietnamese, this will open up the “rice bowl” of the agriculturally fertile southern part of South Vietnam. It will further expose the nations of Laos and Cambodia to Communist incursion and potential communist rule. The Chinese, in particular, are experiencing great population explosion and are having difficulty providing the population with its major food staple — rice. If the North Vietnamese troops prevail in this war, the door will then be opened to the hordes of Chinese to take over the rice paddies and other agricultural areas of southern Vietnam. They can be expected to leapfrog from these areas to Indonesia, Sarawak, Borneo, and eventually up into the intensely fertile Philippine Islands, our longtime ally, beginning with the southernmost island of Mindanao, on up into the capitol city of Manila, on the island of Luzon. Our mission therefore, is to prevent the exploitation of South Vietnam by the Communist elements, thereby preserving the peace throughout Southeast Asia. Our mission is to support the South Vietnamese in the defense of their nation!
By the late 60s, the Russians and Chinese could read and hear about the anti-war sentiment among certain politicians in Washington and nationally recognized movie stars (Jane Fonda for one) in Hollywood. This anti-war sentiment began to have an effect on American liberals. This sentiment was so strong that, in effect, the war was being won for the enemy back in the U.S. That is, if the North Vietnamese could hold on long enough… which they did.
In the end, after almost 20 years of fighting, the South Vietnamese military was unable to defend South Vietnam and the nation eventually fell to the Communist North Vietnamese (after continued anti-war sentiment in the U.S. demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces).
The question of whether the U.S. government ever should have committed troops to the defense of South Vietnam, beyond serving in a limited advisory and support role, will long be debated. Contributing to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was the almost complete cessation of CIA’s covert actions which had been going on since the late 50s. When Washington transferred the CIA’s role to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), the U.S. role began to expand, dramatically.
It went this way — after the French-Indochina War in 1954, communist Viet Minh fighters fled to North Vietnam. In April 1959, shortly after William Colby was appointed CIA’s Saigon Station Chief, the North Vietnamese Communist Party Central Committee secretly decided to return to South Vietnam thousands of these Viet Minh fighters. It was decided that the infiltration would be done covertly and that the traveled routes must be kept absolutely secret.
The route the Viet Minh would use was originally a footpath called the “Truong Son Route” (named after the Truong Son mountains through which the path meandered). U.S. military personnel named it the “Ho Chi Minh Trail.” Very little was known of the Laotian wilderness and thick jungle (including double-canopy trees) prevented aerial photos. Additionally, the area was unmapped.
The Kennedy administration authorized the expansion of CIA’s covert effort to detect communist infiltration and to increase the network of CIA saboteurs and agents into North Vietnam. National Security Memorandum authorized the use of Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs to train these agents. In early 1961, a single agent code-named “Ares” was infiltrated at Cam Pha, North of Haiphong, North Vietnam. By May ’61, the initial now-trained agents were also ready to be infiltrated into the North.
One of the reasons causing the increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam was President Kennedy’s anger with the CIA debacle in the Bay of Pigs Operation in Cuba. So embarrassed was the administration, the Taylor Commission was formed to learn why the CIA failed. It was concluded, by the commission, that the Cuba project outgrew CIA’s capability to manage it and that a worldwide review of CIA’s operations was in order. Subsequently, the Agency was forced to transfer most of its Southeast Asia programs to the Military.
However, the overthrow of South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem, Kennedy’s assassination, and the fact that the Military Assistance Command (MACV) had not yet created a unit to take over the Agency’s programs, prevented this transfer of control until January 1964 when the Special Operations Group (SOG) was formed. Pursuant to Operations Plan 34-A, signed by President Johnson, SOG was formed on January 24, 1964.
Although SOG was nominally a subordinate command under MACV, it was virtually an independent command. There was, however, a J-5 (Plans Section) in MACV, which had cognizance of SOG operations. This organizational requirement existed because MACV did not have an official charter authorizing operations outside of South Vietnam (i.e. Cambodia, Laos, and/or North Vietnam). SOG’s direct superior was the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities (SACSA) at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. MACV and Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC) in Honolulu, Hawaii retained veto power over SOG operations.
SOG was a joint service command with its own air, sea, and ground forces:
The Maritime Studies Group (OP-32) based at Da Nang, South Vietnam, provided the naval assets; U.S. Navy SEALs, South Vietnamese Underwater Demolition Teams (Sea Commandos), and Fast Patrol Boats.
The Psychological Studies Group (OP-33) located in Saigon, with an antenna in Hue and Tay Ninh, South Vietnam.
The Air Studies Group (OP-34) based at Nha Trang, South Vietnam, provided SOG’s air power; the 90th Special Operations Wing with a squadron of USAF “Green Hornet” UH-1F helicopters, a squadron of USAF C-130’s, a squadron of covert C-123’s (former CIA aircraft) manned by Nationalist Chinese and the 219th HC-34 Helicopter Squadron.
The Ground Studies Group (OP-35), with headquarters in Saigon, South Vietnam at MACV I (General Westmoreland was headquartered at MACV II). OP-35’s mission included, but was not limited to, Military Intelligence, Psychological Operations (PSYOPS), and Reconnaissance Mobile Launch Teams (RT’s). The RT’s were originally launched out of Hue Phu Bai, Khe Sanh, Kham Duc and a base near Kontum, South Vietnam.
SOG had five primary responsibilities:
- To conduct regular cross-border (over the wire) operations primarily to disrupt the Viet Cong, Khmer Rouge, Pathet Lao, and the North Vietnamese Army.
- To keep track of all imprisoned and missing Americans and conduct raids to assist and/or free them.
- To train and dispatch indigenous agents into North Vietnam for the purpose of organizing and running resistance movements.
- To conduct “Black” and “Gray” psychological operations involving fake NVA broadcasting stations and the radio transmission of propaganda. (Gray PSYOPS was fairly successful in turning Viet Cong sympathizers into loyal supporters of South Vietnam).
- To perform additional tasks as assigned: i.e. kidnapping, assassinations, insertion of rigged mortar rounds into the enemy ammunitions supply system (set to explode and destroy their crews when used) and retrieval of sensitive documents and equipment if lost or captured through enemy action (Booby-trapped ammunition was called, “Eldest Son”).
Shortly after my arrival in South Vietnam, the OP-35 Section was reorganized into three subordinate commands:
- Command & Control, North (CCN) at Da Nang
- Command & Control, Central (CCC) at Kontum
- Command & Control, South (CCS) at Ban Me Thuot
CCN conducted their operations mainly in Northern Laos and North Vietnam. CCN Reconnaissance Teams (RT) were code-named after states and reptiles. CCC conducted their operations mainly in Southern Laos and Northern Cambodia. CCC RT’s were code-named only after states. CCS, the smallest of the three commands, operated in VC-dominated South Vietnam and most of Cambodia. CCS RT’s were code-named after tools (e.g. Hammer, Chisel, Spike, etc).
Colonel Singlaub, Chief SOG in 1966/67, was no stranger to Special Operations. During WWII, he served with CIA’s William Colby as an OSS “Jedburgh” Team Member. JED was the most prestigious title in WWII Special Ops. When Colby left the OSS, he was an Army Major. He decided to be a part of the newly formed intelligence agency (CIA). John “Jack” Singlaub decided to be a part of the Army Green Berets, a newly formed Special Forces unit. The Colonel made Lieutenant General (3-star) before retiring from the Army).
For obvious reasons, security within the SOG command was very tight. Unless you had an unquestionable need-to-know, you never learned much about other operations being conducted by SOG. At the time of my arrival in Vietnam, Colonel Singlaub had just taken over as Chief, SOG, relieving Colonel Blackburn. Colonel Blackburn had chosen Colonel Arthur D. “Bull” Simons to take charge of all SOG-35 operations. Bull Simons had earlier trained Laotian Kha Tribesmen for the CIA in 1961/62.
SOG-35 Ops were combat-oriented versus advisory/training missions, i.e. POW retrieval, wire taps and ambush operations. SOG-35 operations into Laos were code-named “Shining Brass” (later renamed Prairie Fire and then Phu Dung). Phu Dung, literally translated, meant “opium smoke.” Those code-names were changed immediately upon learning that they had been compromised. Those operations were the first ‘over-the-wire’ operations consisting of American military personnel.
The majority of the RT’s were comprised of eight to 12 men. Each team contained three U.S. Green Berets. The team leader was called 10 (pronounced One Zero); the assistant team leader was called One One, and the RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) was called One Two. The teams would also have Montagnards or Nungs (Special Forces).
From 1964 to 1972, approximately 2,700 cross-border operations were conducted by SOG. It must be understood that these over-the fence ops were covert, clandestine, extremely dangerous missions conducted by small groups of highly trained Americans and indigenous military personnel. Attesting to that danger, five of the ten Medals of Honor awarded to SOG personnel were awarded to members of RT’s operating out of CCC, Kontum! SOG RT’s earned the nickname, “Sneaky Pete’s” for their innate ability to accomplish their missions without having been detected. The skill of RT members is attested to by the fact that only 103 U.S. Green Berets were killed during these operations.
SOG’s first covert attacks (February 1964) would be led by a Norwegian Nasty-Class PT Boat Skipper with a Vietnamese crew. The crews were trained by U.S. Navy SEAL Team One, out of SOG’s Naval Advisory Detachment (NAD) in Da Nang. The Nastys were 80 feet in length and capable of 47 knots with its two British-made Napier Deltic Diesel engines (3,120hp each). They had a fiberglass hull and had only a three foot draft. They could carry a ten-man team with 48 hours provisions.
Vietnamese Sea Commandos, on their first mission, were inserted by the Nasty’s to destroy a bridge. They were repulsed by a superior force. Eight Commandos were lost in a second attempt.
Many believe that these clandestine raids eventually caused the escalation and the inevitable official involvement by the United States. North Vietnamese PT Boats attacked the destroyer USS Maddox on August 3 and the Maddox and the USS Turner Joy on August 4. On August 7, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The House passed it unanimously and the Senate 88 to 2. The Resolution authorized President Johnson “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed forces, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.”
It was the equivalent of a declaration of war, and it served as the legal basis for the massive American involvement in Southeast Asia for the ensuing eight years.
While the Nastys were busy up North, Defense Secretary McNamara ordered recon missions west of Khe Sanh into Laos. These missions were code-named “Leaping Lena.” The Vietnamese Green Berets, however, proved ineffectual and even, cowardly. Five teams were parachuted into Laos with little or no results. The teams did learn that a network of roads and trails carrying truck convoys and NVA troops lay hidden from aerial view in the Laotian jungle.
In March 1965, SOG received authorization to penetrate the Ho Chi Minh Trail with U.S. Green Berets in charge of each team. Because the authorized Area of Operation (AO) was so small, SOG had only five active RTs made up of U.S. Green Berets and South Vietnamese Nungs. Once the AO was expanded, SOG increased the number of teams to 20 and recruited Vietnamese Montagnards, too.
SOG Recon Teams trained in emergency extraction methods, i.e. Using “Strings,” the “STABO Rig,” and the “Fulton Recovery System.”
As for the Strings, four of them could be deployed simultaneously, from a Huey (two on each side). It was actually a 100-foot rope with a 6-foot loop and a padded canvas seat. The rescue helo could lift four members of an RT straight up through the treetops and then head for the barn. It was understood by everyone that, if a helo was in danger of being destroyed by enemy fire, the men on the strings would be sacrificed, if necessary.
The STABO Rig was used in place of your web gear. It was equipped with two straps and two rings. The team member merely unfastened the straps, swung them between his legs and snapped the hooks to the front of the rig. When the chopper lowered the yoke, you merely had to snap it into the two rings attached to your shoulders.
The Fulton Recovery System was was invented by Robert E. Fulton, Jr. a descendant of the “steamboat” Fulton. SOG C-130 Blackbirds were equipped with a 20-foot “Skyhook” Yoke on the nose of the aircraft. The team member being rescued had to inflate a balloon, let it float into the air, pulling with it a long length of rope. The C-130 would fly just under the balloon and snatch the rope in the yoke. You would be harnessed up, sitting on the ground with your back facing the direction the aircraft was flying and when the rope stretched out, you would be literally “snatched” up into the air and then winched into the aircraft.
One of the most important aspects of jungle fighting taught at the SOG.
Commando Training Base at Long Thanh was the IA (Immediate Action) Drills. This was the basic tactic for getting away from a numerically superior enemy. Most of SOG missions were so important that fire-fights were to be avoided at all costs.
IA Drill consisted of the Point Man firing a single shot (as opposed to automatic fire). The odd-numbered men jumped one step to the right, even-numbered men jumped to the left, and all faced the direction of the sound of the fired weapon whether hit from back, front, or side. The man closest to the enemy emptied his weapon on full-auto at the enemy in three-round bursts, then dashed between his arrayed comrades to lead the team away in the opposite direction. The split second the first man’s weapon was empty, the next man picked up the slack, also firing on full-auto. Then he, too, ran down the middle following the first man, and so on.
To exaggerate a team’s firepower, they fired only tracer rounds in their first magazine. The result was one long continuous burst backed up by exploding 40mm projectiles, tear gas and white phosphorous grenades, then a one-minute time-delay Claymore planted by the last man. From the first shot to the last, approximately 30 seconds should elapse – a shocking blur of bullets and explosions that seemed ten times the fury possible for a mere six or eight men to unleash. Between missions, RTs rehearsed live fire IA Drills several times a week.
SOG had a supply of approximately 40 different U.S. and foreign weapons, including:
Astrolite was amazing stuff, but highly unstable. It consisted of two plastic bottles of chemicals. Once you mixed the two chemicals – better use it or throw it away. You could put it in a circle on the ground, wait for your target to step into the circle – BOOM!
The British Welrod Pistol was literally a tube, 14 3/8ths inches in length. The front half was the suppressor and the back half was its rotary bolt action. The grip was a rubber-wrapped Colt .32 caliber automatic magazine. Rounds were chambered, manually. It was very quiet, but inaccurate beyond 25 or 30 feet. It was handy for assassinations, but not for prisoner snatches.
The British Sten Mark II-S Sub-machinegun was the classic three piece weapon. It had a side-mounted magazine. It was not used very often, that I know of.
The CAR-15 (AR-15) arrived in-country about the same time that I did. It was a chopped version of the M-16. The barrel was half the length and it had a collapsible stock. The SOG RT’s were the only units armed entirely with AR-15’s. The Swedish 9mm sub-machinegun was, after the arrival of the AR-15, held in reserve for special-purpose missions!
The old OSS .45 caliber M-3 Grease Gun used 230 grain slugs (twice the weight of 9mm cartridges) and was carried by many RT members. They liked it because it could be suppressed and also because there was little or no muzzle rise.
The Chinese RPD Machinegun was modified for SOG use. They removed its bipod and shortened the barrel all the way back to its gas port. It was shortened to about 32 inches. It was now only 12 pounds and its center of balance was now the drum magazine. The magazine was modified to hold a total of 125 rounds. It was so steady you could write your name with it.
The Dutch V-40 Grenade (mini grenade) was just a little larger than a golf ball. It weighed 3 ½ ounces, but contained over 400 fragments within. It was a deadly anti-personnel weapon.
The Soviet AKA-47 (AK-47) was deservedly one of the most popular automatic assault rifles in the world. semi-automatic, you must pull the trigger for each round fired. SOG RT members preferred the AR-15, because its rounds inflicted greater damage to the human body than did a round from the AK-47. The AK-47 round normally passes straight through the body. The AR-15 7.62mm round tumbles in flight, causing a great deal of tissue tearing when it enters the human body.
When my one year tour in Vietnam was concluded, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the NATO desk in Washington, D.C. wanted to keep me in the NATO loop, so I was given my choice of assignment at any U.S Embassy or NATO command anywhere in Europe. I chose to return to the NATO Headquarters in Paris.
Brooks Outland is a Korean and Vietnam war veteran.He volunteered to serve in Vietnam because he was keen to help the people of South Vietnam keep their freedom and their country from communist takeover by the North. After retiring Brooks and his wife spent eight years volunteering aboard his old battleship, USS Missouri (BB-63), before returning to the mainland in Arkansas in 2015.