OPERATION THUNDERCLOUD

By: Captain Bud Williams

All of these handsome young men are former NVA soldiers Another shot of me with some of my THUNDERCLOUD troopers. In the middle is Captain Bud Williams. To his right is one three-man THUNDERCLOUD team. To his left is THUNDERCLOUD Team Leader "Vinh."
Two  THUNDERCLOUD teams embarking on a mission.  
Take my word for it, these were tough customers!

This is THUNDERCLOUD Team Leader "Vinh" preparing for a mission. Look familiar?

OPERATION THUNDERCLOUD was a highly classified Special Forces/SOG, OP-35, project involving the recruitment and training of captured and Chieu Hoi North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers who were willing to work on our side against the communists. I was the first commanding officer, "volunteered" and appointed by Chief SOG, and I had to organize the whole project from scratch.
 
All of these handsome young men are former NVA soldiers. I organized them into four three-man teams. We dressed them in NVA uniforms and equipped them with NVA gear. We also gave them a cover story and fake documentation to justify their presence in the target areas we assigned to them. We also gave them concealed radios, cameras, maps and note-taking equipment. We would insert them by helicopter into a designated target area and they would walk down a path or road until they encountered the enemy, at which time they would strive to be invited for a meal or to sleep in an NVA bivouac area. The useful intelligence information they collected was extraordinary. When it was time to exfiltrate them, we would follow one of the predetermined exfiltration exercises - we usually had three or four back-up plans. Frankly, this got a little hairy.
 
For the first several missions, I had no idea whether I could trust these fellows or not. The proof would be in the pudding, and if I had been wrong, I would have been the pudding!
 
My former civilian government colleagues will be interested to know that I arranged - totally illegally and out of all approved channels - to have each of these NVA soldiers polygraphed by the Saigon Station's famous Lou DiFilipo. That name will evoke favorable memories in those of us who were in Berlin! Lou passed every one of them. Using some ruse, I conned the Air Force out of space on one of their aircraft from Danang to Saigon, and I flew the whole THUNDERCLOUD crowd to Saigon to put them on the box. You should have seen their reaction to bustling Saigon!
 
During insertions and exfiltrations, I would fly in the lead H-34 (flown by South Vietnamese Air Force pilots assigned to SOG, known as the QUEEN BEES).  For exfiltrations, we would make radio contact with the team on the ground and the pilot would fly around until we had visual contact with the team. This was a bit risky because we had to come down to treetop level, and we were always way behind the enemy's lines - in Laos, Cambodia or a few other places in that part of the world. During insertions and exfiltrations we were very vulnerable to ground fire - and indeed received ground fire on more than one occasion.
 
None of the team spoke any English - and I didn't want to teach them for fear this might erode their credibility as NVA soldiers. After establishing visual contact with the team, the Vietnamese pilot would direct the team to a bomb crater, an island in a river, or some other potential landing zone. I would hang out of the door standing on a strut while the chopper approached the pickup point. Door gunners were always more than a little nervous at all this and I had to keep one hand on the gunner's shoulder to make sure he did not open fire on our guys - who certainly looked the role of bad guys! We would not know whether the North Vietnamese Army guys on the ground carrying AK-47s were OUR NVA soldiers until we were close enough for me to recognize their faces. Obviously, if it was a trap, we would have been sunk.
 
These were very, very brave young men and I considered it an honor to have the opportunity to work with them. We collected a huge volume of useful intelligence information and, when when I left country, we were teaching them to direct TACAIR strikes. I do not know if this actually developed.
 
I was in command of THUNDERCLOUD and I had one NCO. Ken Greenwood who, most tragically, has passed away at Ft. Bragg. Ken is not the E-5 in this photo - in fact I do not remember this fine Sergeant, but then the years have a way of eroding memory. Ken and I did a lot together. He was an outstanding Special Forces Soldier and I miss him. But that was it - Ken, me and North Vietnamese - who could have turned on us any moment. But they didn't! Oh yeah, there was supposed to be a South Vietnamese Special Forces Major assigned to the project, but he sort of disappeared in a huff after I insisted he, too, be polygraphed. A young LLDB Warrant Officer hung around the project, too, and acted as translator/interpreter. He was a good man to whom I gave my custom made Randall knife (like a sentimental idiot).
 
Robert, I thought this might contribute constructively to your SOG web site, which I think is highly commendable.  Finding these old photos certainly brings back a lot of memories. I will be happy to try and answer any question from your audience. I do have some more photos of Thundercloud in case anybody is interested.
 
Keep up the good work and best wishes,
 
DE OPPRESSO LIBER
 
Bud Williams
(The Captain klneeling) in the middle of the photo).
 
Dr. Warren W. Williams
The Coach House
20 Western Lane
Mumbles
Swansea SA3 4EY
Wales
United Kingdom
TEL: 44-1792-360-356
FAX: 44-1792-361-922
MOBILE: 07966230299

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Email from Ben Lyons Oct 20, 2009
 

Hi Robert-John;
"Ben" Lyons here.

 
Robert:
A friend sent me this site about 'Thundercloud' and after looking at the second pic from right and reading the caption that these VN were fixing to go on a 'mission' I have two questions:
1-Why photograph them?
2-Why issue them U.S. gear when this 'Cpt. Williams' said they were in NVA gear

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Response from Dr. Warren "Bud" W. Williams Oct 21, 2009

You can assure Mr Lyons that Operation Thundercloud was a legit SOG special operation, commissioned by then-Colonel Jack Singlaub, Chief SOG. (By the way, my wife and I spent a few days with the SInglaubs in Washington earlier this year, just before they sold their flat in Virginia and moved to Tennessee. He is in great shape).
 
Regarding his two questions:
 
1. I don't recall why they asked us to photograph the teams before missions. I do recall that we had to keep a pretty detailed record of all Thundercloud activities, including photographs when these were possible. The photo on your site was taken at Danang Airbase prior to our boarding a C-130 which then took us to the launch site - again I don't remember which mission this was - maybe we were headed for the Michelin Rubber Plantation - we did launch into Cambodia from there. If Lt Col Snell is still around, he might remember. I think he took the photo - he certainly took the camera and film after the shot was taken and just before we boarded the aircraft. (By the way, I have a whole lot of other slides of Operation Thundercloud, which I am donating to the Vietnam Center (or whatever they call it) at Texas Tech)).
 
2. The Thundercloud teams never, ever donned their NVA gear until just before the actual launch. All the NVA clothing and equipment was carried in foot lockers under close guard. We certainly would never allow them to parade around Danang Airbase in broad daylight, dressed as NVA! One of the serious problems we had to solve on virtually every mission was how to get them into their NVA gear and onto the helicopters without anyone seeing them.
 
I hope this responds to Mr Lyons' two questions. To be honest, I don't recall him either at FOB-2 (where I commanded the Hatchet Force and was later XO) or at CCN, but then the years have an unpleasant way of affecting memory.
 
Best regards to you and yours,
 
Bud Williams

 

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