MACV-SOG: UNCOMMON VALOR, EXTRAORDINARY SOLDIERS
LTC (P) Kent R. Bolster
United States Army Special Forces
USAWC Box 68
Directed Study Elective 440 (Writing)
Dr. Henry Gole
This paper is UNCLASSIFIED, but SENSITIVE. The views expressed in this academic paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the US Government, Department of Defense, or any of its agencies.
Third party release of this paper is authorized only with the express permission of the author or Dr. Henry Gole, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Carlisle PA, 17013.
This paper would not be possible without the assistance, input, and open dialogue between the following members of Military Assistance Command Vietnam - Special Operations Group (SOG), who performed the daring feats delineated in this essay.
I would like to thank: Dr. Henry Gole, Mr. Clyde Sincere, Mr. Cliff Newman, Mr. William Krempa, Mr. John Cavaiani (MOH), Mr. Robert Mohs, Mr. Isaac Camacho, Mr. Hurley Gilpin, Mr. Frank Greco, Mr. Charles Wesley, Mr. J.D. Bath, Mr. William Boggs, Mr. John Plaster, Mr. Joe Walker, Mr. Robert Howard (MOH), Mr. Howard Sugar, Mr. Thomas B. Tompkins, Mr. Robert Donoghue, Mr. Craig Davis, Mr. William Tangney, MG Eldon Bargewell, Mr. Ed Wolcoff, Mr. Ray Frovarp, and Mr. William D. Waugh.
Through the detailed interviews and surveys, which were critical to the completion of this paper, I was particularly impressed by the common respect each of these men displayed for one another and for the organization and nation they served. It was clearly evident, at least to me, that the passing of thirty some-odd years had done little to dull the senses of these warriors. In fact, the memories of courage, loyalty, sacrifice and actions under fire were still quite vivid for many.
Most importantly, I want to thank each of them, and those not queried, but in SOG, for their sacrifice to this nation and for the legacy of excellence each has left. Many continue to support our Special Operations Forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locales around the globe. Those of us in Special Forces today have not forget the lessons learned by our predecessors in SOG, nor the ultimate sacrifice paid by too many of their friends who gave all in the defense of this country and their brothers on the RT.
Kent R. Bolster
SOG: UNCOMMON VALOR, EXTRAORDINARY SOLDIERS
Once in lifetime a light shines so bright, so pure…That darkness is defeated in its presence. Once in a lifetime will an individual, beyond all odds, rise to meet the challenge. Once in a lifetime we will be given the opportunity to honor them. Let it not pass us by… Let us shine brightly… Once in a lifetime. Let us help all to remember… That within the human spirit lives the ability to rise up and overcome all odds…if but once in a lifetime.1
The word “elite”, according to one dictionary means, “a choice part; also, a superior group.”2 Another source says, “it’s the best or most skilled members of a social group.”3 In the military, the very word generates opinion, discussion, even controversy. Needless to say, much has been written on the subject and an equal amount of energy spent on discovering its true meaning.
Some military scholars suggest it’s a word set aside for units with unusual battlefield successes, or those with unique tasks and missions. Others say it lay in the type of equipment used, a unit’s particular operating range, or the training one must endure to join such a unit. This author suggests that what makes an elite military unit above all other attributes is its human dimension. Simply put, the breed of men that comprise such units.
This paper will investigate what was arguably the finest special operations unit ever fielded by this nation¾ Military Assistance Command Vietnam - Special Operations Group (MACV-SOG), or by its cover name, Studies and Observation Group. And although the paper will broadly discuss SOG’s missions, its distinct operating environment, and its weighty contribution to battlefield successes during the Vietnam War, its primary purpose is to shed light upon its most essential ingredient, the men who performed its most dangerous missions. More to the point, it is an examination of those who “ran” the reconnaissance teams, or in special operations jargon, the RTs.
This paper is designed to get at the underlying motives and rationale for joining and staying in what was without question one of the most demanding, risk-it-all volunteer organizations found anywhere in our military’s history. The paper seeks to understand the basis for what made these men “tick”, where their true allegiances lay, and why they repeatedly “went to the well”, tempting fate time and again. What it will not do is “paint” SOG members with a “one size fits all” psychological profile, characteristic of some current-day and Vietnam era publications about special operations soldiers, sailors and airmen.
The fact is, those who joined this elite unit, and remained, some for the entire length of the war, did so for a variety of reasons. It is hopeful that by paper’s end, the reader will have a greater appreciation for SOG’s contribution to this nation, and in particular, what sort of soldier could be found within its small, yet lethal formations.
Little is known about SOG, and for good reason¾ many of its operations are still classified, Top Secret - Special Access Required. SOG was created in January 1964 as the result of a policy decision made by the Kennedy Administration to step-up covert operations against the North Vietnamese (NVN). The unit was established in the wake of repeated operational failures by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in meeting the President’s directive to “take the fight to the enemy in the north.”4
From 1961 until Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, the CIA had had made little positive progress in the covert war against Hanoi. And although SOG too would endure many of the same painful lessons as that of their predecessors, it was clear, at least to John F. Kennedy, that the “torch should be passed to a new generation” of warriors to get the desired results he sought in, a) effectively disrupting Hanoi’s support of the Vietcong in the south, b) raising unconventional elements inside of North Vietnam, and c) disrupting the north’s supply lines and sanctuaries in Laos.5
As a result of Kennedy’s decision, newly formed SOG assumed the mantle for among other things, long-term agent operations, a fictional insurgency, and running covert maritime, psychological, reconnaissance, and sabotage operations against North Vietnam.6
From its meek beginnings until its colors were furled in
April 1972, SOG conducted operations against not only the North Vietnamese (NVN) and their surrogates the Vietcong, but international sponsors of the regime in Hanoi. That is to say, Chinese, Soviet, and Warsaw Pact technicians, logisticians, and experts on-loan to Hanoi, were also fair game for capture, elimination or exploitation when found in SOG’s operating areas.7
Operational necessity took SOG members well out of the war’s internationally recognized borders also. The unit conducted operations not only in North Vietnam, but China, Cambodia, Laos, and of course within the Republic of Vietnam.8 It also launched and recovered missions “cross fence” from bases in Thailand to the west when it was more advantageous to do so. And in spite of the fact that SOG was continuously hamstrung by limitations imposed by their political masters, their operations were largely successful.
SOG had the widest array of missions and targets found anywhere in the Pacific Theater. There were even special projects within SOG, known but to few. These programs ranged from high value target elimination, interrogation, exploitation, and personnel seizures, to friendly rescues, counterfeiting, radio broadcasts, black propaganda, and a host of others, in many cases, cloaked in secrecy and not divulged to even the highest ranking officers within the US chain of command.9
In the beginning, SOG’s efforts were squarely focused on developing the guerrilla potential in North Vietnam. Following Kennedy’s original guidance, SOG’s leaders were determined to transmute the CIA’s failures and develop a successful long-term agent network designed to target Hanoi’s leadership.10 SOG’s special programs, such as those code-named Borden, Urgency, and Oodles all played key roles in creating those conditions, while at the same time, creating monstrous security problems for Hanoi’s military and state security services. So destabilizing and effective were these deception operations prior to their cancellation in 1968, that the NVN, alarmed at what they believed were as many as 2000 agents operating within their borders, launched a massive counterintelligence effort to find and capture the saboteurs.11 But, let’s be clear, SOG had some significant challenges with these programs, and certainly, the long-term agent program could have ended in a tremendous military and political failure for the US.
Even before 1967, SOG had solid intelligence indicating that all but one of the twenty-five original agent teams inserted into North Vietnam by the CIA were either captured, killed or working as “doubles” for the north.12 As early as mid-1966, SOG’s assessment of the agent program was bleak; its future clearly in jeopardy. Confronted with what appeared an overwhelming operational failure, SOG’s experts began plotting a roadmap to turn the tide of its first defeated “science project.”
Under the leadership of unconventional thinkers like Donald Blackburn, Robert Kingston, Jack Singlaub, George “Speedy” Gaspard, Bob Mcnight, Ed Partain and others, in what was then
OP-34 (Ground Studies Branch), SOG devised a bold plan to conduct a rarely attempted and highly sophisticated “triple-cross” against Hanoi.
In simple terms, SOG accelerated its disinformation campaign against the north in order to combat the program’s setbacks. At its core, the new campaign plan called for deceiving the enemy through a range of options from intentional leaks and fictitious agent reports, to illusory airdrops, and misleading radio transmissions to and from agents who in reality did not exist. Fortuitously for SOG, Hanoi, presumably taking the bait, at least according to intelligence reports throughout 1967-68, initiated a huge manhunt and diverted scores of frontline assets to countering the fictitious insurgency within their borders.13 Hundreds of suspected SOG “agents” were rounded up and interrogated, executed, or jailed by Hanoi’s internal security services. Like many of SOG’s operations, expected failure was averted through the reverse engineering of a complex problem. In the end these projects resulted in some of the most successful “coups” of the war.
Other secretive projects such as Eldest Son, Phoenix, STRATA, and Humidor were equally successful. Essentially, these operations were designed to further undermine the north’s morale and continued to successfully target Hanoi’s leadership with disinformation and perceived threats to their security.
Missions under this rubric called for select teams to infiltrate NVN stockpiles, and then through careful “doctoring”, or “mutating the strain”, reinsert large quantities of malfunctioning munitions back into circulation amongst NVN main forces. Other teams conducted enemy prisoner “snatches” in denied territory as well as high value target elimination under the very noses of the north.14 Still others went deep into enemy held territory, in particular, North Vietnam, to measure the effectiveness of such operations against the north. One project, Humidor, was a highly intricate operation where SOG operatives captured and impressed into service ordinary NVN civilians along the coast for use in sabotage and intelligence collection operations.15 Not surprisingly, the results of these missions were devastating to the common enemy foot soldier, commanders at every level, and the leaders in North Vietnam.
Inarguably one of the riskiest portfolios run by SOG became the focus of this paper¾ Project Prairie Fire and the mission to collect intelligence and/or destroy the enemy in Laos.
Dubbed “Shining Brass” in 1965, reconnaissance and exploitation operations were limited initially to only a few select areas on the border between Vietnam and Laos; a problem that would continually nag at SOG throughout its tenure in Vietnam. There also persisted the issue of Hanoi’s use of Cambodia as a sanctuary. In 1967, after much lobbying by then commander, MACV, General Westmoreland, SOG initiated programs to address the trail network in both countries, Laos and Cambodia. In the same year, Project Shining Brass was changed to Prairie Fire, and newly dubbed Project Daniel Boone was established to address the growing build up of NVN forces in Cambodia.
Prairie Fire and Daniel Boone operations were anything but standard. Deep in enemy controlled territory and well beyond the range of ground-based conventional support, teams located and reported on the enemy’s activities, and then when authorized and/or directed, destroyed them with larger exploitation forces, or through the employment of friendly air strikes.
SOG ran both Prairie Fire and Daniel Boone missions from three major bases in the Republic of Vietnam. The command and control (C2) sites for these operations were geographically selected to maximize launch, recovery and support of the committed teams. Command and Control North (CCN) conducted operations from outside Hue and Phu Bai into target areas in North Vietnam and Laos. Command and Control Central (CCC), headquartered at Kontum, ran missions near-exclusively into Laos. Lastly, Command and Control South (CCS), stationed in Ban Me Thuot, had priority over select targets in Cambodia supporting Project Daniel Boone.16
Each C2 site also had smaller launch and recovery bases in closer proximity to their team’s operating areas to, a) facilitate rapid insertion, b) assist in support functions, c) communicate with deployed teams, and d) to recover the teams. From Khe Sahn in the north to Dak To further south, the forward launch sites saw more than their share of activity during SOG’s eight-year stint. From these operational launch pads, teams were sent in, aircraft staged, and mobile strike and hatchet forces thrown into the grist. The forward staging sites also saw their share of high-risk rescue operations performed under Project Bright Light, code-named for friendly personnel and/or POW recoveries.17
As was the case with its specified missions, task organization, and a host of other irregularities, SOG’s recce team designations too were unique¾ after snakes in CCN (RT Asp, Habu, Python, etc.), states in CCC (RT Vermont, Michigan, Kansas, etc.), and tools in CCS (RT Auger, Hammer, Saw, etc.).
The terrain in which RTs operated was the most challenging found anywhere in Southeast Asia. The Alps outside of Lenggries, Germany it was not. The tract of land along the Laotian and Cambodian borders with Vietnam was incredibly difficult to any form of human endeavor. This was the RT’s “playground” for eight years, and regarded as hallowed ground by many out of respect for the valorous unit and individual actions that took place there. It was also home to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), and as SOG became increasingly aware, they were fully committed to maintaining it for their own exclusive use.
To add to the difficulty of karst-filled ravines, steep mountains, triple canopy jungle, few clearings, communications, observation, and a host of other terrestrial problems, as previously suggested, SOG’s recon teams had to deal with yet another operational impediment¾ political restrictions.
In 1964, upon receipt of the mission to establish SOG, the Department of State (DOS) restricted operative penetration of Laos (and later Cambodia) to not more than twenty kilometers from its internationally recognized border with the Republic of Vietnam.18 This caveat proved most costly to not only the men on the RTs, and for the exploitation and hatchet forces sent in to destroy enemy concentrations where and when found, it was particularly hazardous to helicopter crews responsible for putting teams in and out of the reconnaissance zones (RZs).
The restrictions became particularly onerous after 1968, when the NVN had, a) identified many of SOG’s operating areas, b) infiltrated SOG’s operational architecture through secret agents and informants, and c) flooded the border area with expert trackers, whistleblowers, and trail/LZ watchers.19 To be sure, as the war prolonged and the NVN better understood SOG’s modus operandi, they put their “first team” against it and tracked SOG reconnaissance teams with ruthless unconstraint until they were either destroyed, captured, or successfully extracted to a recovery site.20 Notwithstanding the highly restrictive terrain that characterized most of the region, the “episodic”, on-again, off-again bombing policy in Laos, as well as the damning ball and chain limitations set forth by DOS, all contributed significantly to many a blown SOG mission.
As any reconnaissance leader worth his salt will attest, flexibility and adaptation to the enemy’s movements are critical to the success of any deep penetration recce, not to mention the survivability of the team. None better to reinforce these principles was then SSG Eldon Bargewell, leader for RT Michigan, who stated, “the reconnaissance zones were akin to a small Army post, in many cases not more than a few kilometers in length and width. Very difficult, very restricted, tough to hide even a 6-man unit”21 Robert Howard, one of SOG’s finest reconnaissance leaders added, “trying to hide from well-trained trackers and hunter-killer teams was difficult to say the least. It got particularly tough when we couldn’t effectively mask our insertions. We used some deception, but still, we were forced to adapt and move rapidly from our infil sites. Lots of times we got pounced on right after arriving and needed immediate extraction.”22
The DOS-imposed restrictions were the result of the our nation’s signing of the 1962 Geneva Accords, which declared Laos a neutral country, thus prohibiting its use for military operations against the NVN in the subsequent years. Our steadfast adherence to those accords was at the very least, a farce, and I would further suggest, self-defeating, in so far as, a) the NVN Army did not consider Laos neutral and used it at will to infiltrate men, equipment and supplies to South Vietnam, and b) the CIA was recruiting and raising paramilitary forces of their own inside of Laos throughout the 1960s in direct violation of the same accords. The fact is, the NVN knew of the CIA’s operations, and furthermore, had no compunction about using Laos if it would further their war aims. To the dismay and frustration of many in SOG, “the NVN simply bypassed SOG’s operating areas, traveling farther west and then south on the trail in an effort to extend their lines of communications around us.”23
RTs typically operated beyond the range of conventional artillery as well. A team deep in enemy controlled territory and under fire was more times than not outgunned, outnumbered, and dependent upon friendly airpower to “even the playing field.”
Forward Air Controllers (FACs) and Covey Riders flying Cessna-01, 02, or OV10 Bronco aircraft coordinated this effort for the RTs. The FACs, among the very best apportioned from the flying squadrons, were young, smart and had “brass balls.” The Covey Rider who accompanied the FACs, were typically former reconnaissance leaders and experienced SOG operatives, and familiar with the terrain and detailed plans of the very teams they supported. The combination of exceptional pilots and multi-talented Covey Riders proved a lifesaver to many an RT.
FAC teams could rally massive numbers fixed and rotary wing platforms for SOG’s missions. Many times responding to a tactical emergency (or “TAC-E” in SOG jargon), or a “Prairie Fire”, indicating the team was being overrun by the enemy, FAC teams brought in the arsenal of close air support, or CAS, for teams “in the wind.” Orchestrating stacks of aircraft ranging from A1-Skyraiders (SPADS), F-100s and B52s, to Spectre Gunships, Cobras, utility helicopters, and an assortment of other aircraft, not to mention artillery when in range, the FAC teams were instrumental in providing fires for insertions, extractions, and the all too often emergency call.24
As several in SOG would attest, “the RT could find itself in immediate contact after leaving the skids of the helicopter, quite literally “running for its life” minutes later, all the while hailing a FAC for immediate extraction or fires.” And to be sure, not all operating areas were the same in terms of enemy activity. In other words, some were “hotter” than others. As several of those interviewed would testify, “Juliet-9, Oscar-8 and Alpha-6 were always exceptionally tough for every team called upon to operate there.”25 Well-trained FAC teams made the difference in life and death situations on more than a few missions into Laos and Cambodia.
Some of SOG’s missions lasted only a few short hours, many times conducted for very specific purposes such as, battle damage assessment or a body recovery. However, most Prairie Fire and Daniel Boone missions lasted from days to weeks. One mission in particular, conducted by then SGM William D. Waugh’s team, lasted in excess of 62 days, an incredibly long time “clover leafing” around in hostile territory.
The RT was typically comprised of one to three Americans, and four to eight indigenous Montagnards. The Team Leader (code designated, “One-Zero”), was American; so was the second in command, or “One-One”. The Radio Operator, also American, was designated, the “One-Three”. The remainder of an RT usually consisted of Montagnards, or in SOG vernacular, “little people”.
The Montagnards (or mountain people) were mostly of Chinese descent. They came from tribes of the Hmnong, Bru, Nung, Sedang, and others, each with its own identity, culture, tradition, clothing, language (in many cases), and beliefs. Their history rich in Vietnamese persecution, thousands of their friends and family were killed and pushed out of their fertile croplands for centuries, losing huge swaths of territory to the “flatlanders” in the north and south of Vietnam. Maintaining a loathing for all Vietnamese, but fiercely loyal to their American teammates, not to mention experts in mountain and jungle, Montagnards made perfect soldiers for SOG’s recce teams. And although fully recognizing the incredible contribution and sacrifice made by the Montagnards, I will not be able to pay proper tribute to them in this short essay. Suffice it to say, and certainly not all inclusive, they were: 1) savvy, 2) loyal, 3) simplistic, 4) superstitious, 5) uncomplaining, 6) mentally and physically hard, 7) courageous, and 8) fully committed to the RT.26
The RTs were organized for flexibility and tailored to task, and unlike their conventional counterparts, the One-Zero had supreme authority over the RT’s composition, weapons, scheme of maneuver, fires, procedures, munitions, and a host of other “latitudes”. For instance, some teams, like Joe Walker’s, “ran heavy”. That is to say, RT California was typically organized with more men, in particular, more Americans, and more organic firepower. Some teams, like Walker’s, were more predisposed to contact with the enemy. In fact, as Walker said years later, “a lot of times we sought contact with the enemy when we had the option to due so, therefore we configured for such missions.”27 SGM Franklin D. Miller, the One-Zero for RT Vermont, and an equally aggressive leader, usually launched on missions with fewer men¾ one or two Americans and three to four Montagnards.28
Team composition depended upon several factors to which I have alluded. Notwithstanding the One-Zero’s personal desires, terrain, anticipated time on the ground, range to objective, lift capacity, regional expertise, language ability, and probability of contact all played critical roles in the decision to organize for missions. Arguably the most critical factor was the objective itself. In other words, the team’s make-up depended largely upon whether or not the mission was reconnaissance, direct action, wiretap, prisoner snatch, battle damage assessment, or any one of another variety of missions?
Certainly, if contact with the enemy was not desired, the One-Zero might modify the number of men, weapons carried, and equipment in-tow to “lighten the load”. The opposite might be true for direct action missions, where destruction of the enemy was central to a team’s mission, and therefore, wielding ample firepower and having more men was essential.
Another unique aspect of the RT was its unusual command structure. The RTs were commanded by the most experienced soldiers in the reconnaissance companies, and more times than not, they were NCOs.29 One signature difference between SOG and more conventional units was the fact that the most experienced soldiers led, regardless of rank¾ period!
Bill Krempa, a veteran from RT Florida, put it this way, “On my first SOG team the One-Zero was an E5/SGT, and I was an E6/SSG. One might think that there would be a problem with it, but the rank simply didn’t matter on the RTs. He was a superior leader, I knew it, and so did everyone else. For us, it was not an issue.”30 Krempa went on to say, “on other RTs, even young NCOs ran recce with officers as their number two. The most experienced men ran the teams… that’s the way it was.” Craig D. Davis, from RT Wyoming said, “the RTs were unique, even among the other specialized units in-country. Your status in SOG among peers was not measured by what was on your sleeves or collar, but what you did in the here and now.”31
Hopefully now that the reader has somewhat of an appreciation for what SOG did, how it was organized, some of its history, and a better understanding of the operating environment, lets focus on its most critical component, the soldiers on the RT. However, before we go “there”, let me quickly address the “rules of engagement” for this part of the paper.
I want to impress upon the reader that the following opinions and comments from those interviewed, surveyed and researched do not represent all of the men who served in SOG. In fact, what’s catalogued here represents but a small cross section of those who served on RTs. And to be sure, combat veterans all, there will be some disagreement and differences in opinion about the subject matter we’re about to broach. However, based on the results of the research I’m fully convinced that every SOG man will find some commonality and familiarity in the following commentary.
The research into SOG led me to ask several probing questions of the soldiers who conducted these daring-do missions. The question, “what made them join the organization?”, and then, “what made them stay?”, seemed apropos. An inquiry into whether or not these men had the opportunity to join other units with less arduous, less risky profiles than in SOG also seemed relevant. The most sought after information was that which was amplified by many¾ “what attributes best described the finest of those on the RT?”
In so much as having the ability to join other units, many had already served combat tours prior to joining SOG. By and large, all but the officers and NCOs comprising SOG’s initial “start-up” cadre in 1964 had the opportunity to join other outfits.
Some in SOG joined the Army in the 1940s, like one of its most accomplished Chiefs, Jack Singlaub, who conducted missions behind the enemy’s lines for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in WW2. Others joined the Army in the 1950s, at the height of Korea, and then continued in service through the 1960s where they joined SOG. Two such men are SOG officers, Clyde Sincere, who served in combat Infantry units prior to SOG, and Henry Gole, Director of Operations and Intelligence, CCC, who fought in Korea as an enlisted man well before joining SOG.32 Others came to SOG during their first, second, or even third stints of service in the 1960s, or early 1970s. It is fair to say that SOG was replete with the “old breed” and the new, but to for sure, it was an all-volunteer unit.
The background of the men on the RT was as diverse as any found in our Special Operations Forces (SOF) today. Many had experience in combat arms specialties such as, Robert Howard, James “JD” Bath, Robert Donoghue, William “Bill” Boggs, and others. Some, such as Craig D. Davis, a parachute rigger with the Army’s Reserve in Utah, joined SOG with no field experience or background in recce whatsoever. But as several of the SOG men attested, and that which is patently characteristic of soldiers in SOF units today, “it wasn’t your background that stood for anything. It was what you could do for the organization now, and whether or not you were made of the right stuff to make it on an RT? Essentially, were you good where it mattered most; in the woods, under fire, low on ammunition, and with wounded teammates? For color, creed, status, rich or poor, had no place on the RT; attitudes were checked at the door until you were a known quantity.”33
The length of time most SOG men spent in country was also a defining characteristic of the organization, and differed greatly from not only conventional units, but other special operations units in Vietnam. Although governed by the same policy of year- long tours of duty in country, many a SOG man spent two or more tours with SOG as opposed to returning to the states upon completion of one’s commitment. Many in SOG spent excessive numbers of years in combat roles. William “Billy” Waugh, a legend with both CCC and CCN, and awarded eight Purple Hearts, spent over four years in SOG alone, not to mention tours with other units while in Vietnam. Others, such as Robinson “Robbie” Reich, spent over six years running missions with SOG. Joe Waldron, exceeding most even by SOG standards, spent over seven years in Vietnam, mostly with CCC and RT Alaska. Franklin D. Miller and Robert Howard, both Medal of Honor recipients, and both with over six Purple Hearts and a like number of years on RTs, conducted in excess of 100 reconnaissance missions into Laos, Cambodia or North Vietnam. On the other hand, many served on the RT for a year or two, but bedeviled years they were, as NVN countermeasures took their toll on the teams, particularly from 1968-1972.
What inspired the men to join SOG and the RT was
of particular interest to me during the research into the motives and psyche of these warriors. Many were recruited into SOG to fill critical billets, while others went simply out of ignorance of what SOG was, save the advertised excitement and “high speed” challenge it promised. Others in SOG, such as William “Bill” Boggs, a veteran of CCC with multiple tours in Vietnam, pointed out, “SOG had the priority of selecting people for their unit. I was recruited following a review of my records jacket, which showed experience in other projects like, Blackjack, Omega and White Star.”34 Some, such as Ed Wolcoff, a One-Zero with RT New York, confided, “I too came to SOG in order to join an elite organization. I heard they had a casualty rate in excess of 70% even before I even got there. For me, being a member of an elite organization was compelling. SOG appeared the pinnacle of the SF elite, and being young and brazen I was not particularly concerned with getting killed at the time.”35 Joe Walker added, “I had been part of Project Delta, B52, prior to SOG. It was good there, but a new commander and Sergeant Major changed my decision to remain. I wanted to join the big leagues. I’d been plagued by poor leadership and I wanted to lead, I wanted to be a One-Zero, and I thought it was a place where I could excel.”36 Frank Greco, who served in SOG in the early 1970s, added that, “I wanted to be part of something special. It was clear to me that the RT was where the action was, even among other SF units in country.”37
Although there were variations in the answers to this question, the overarching rationale appeared to be, a) the desire to join an elite organization, b) to be part of something different, special, unique, and c) to be part of a unit where one’s skills, regardless of rank, could flourish. The desire to be part of an organization that stood out, even among other special operations units, was the driving force behind most.
An equally interesting question, at least as far as I was concerned, was what made the SOG volunteers stay in the unit? Why, for instance, would a man remain in a unit where in 1969, 50% of the members from returning RTs were wounded, or reported to MACV headquarters as killed or missing?38 Why, “where the average wounds received was well in excess of any conventional unit, and where an incredible 3½ Purple Hearts was average on an RT?”39 Why stay, when entire teams were reported missing-in-action such as, RT Asp, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Arizona? Or where, for that matter, whole teams had been destroyed and eliminated from the rolls at CCC like, RT New Mexico and Kansas?40 And finally, why would a man stay in SOG when he could simply join another unit, where commanders sought their expertise, and where there was probably less likelihood of death or serious injury? The question was clearly worth examination.
Peter Maass, author of an article on how men justify killing and why they repeatedly “return to the well” at risk of life and liberty, suggests that it could be a psychological state of mind called, “operant conditioning.” Operant conditioning is a term used to describe intensive, repetitive training to the point where soldiers act and respond to their environments “autonomically”. That is to say, without thinking, without even considering the risk versus gain of action or option. Perhaps SOG’s penchant for repetitive tours is tied to this same claim.”41
Another author, David Grossman, who spent years researching the mechanics of men in combat, had yet another perspective¾ he suggests that perhaps it’s because they liked the killing, as well as the “rush” of living on the “edge”. Grossman says, “for some soldiers, like the Special Forces officer he once interviewed, it was “programming to kill the enemy that probably kept him in Vietnam for six tours.” The officer who was interviewed told Grossman that, “killing is what I know, it’s what I do best, I’m comfortable with it.”42 Grossman went on to suggest another angle, which might account for why men stayed in SOG. He indicates that, “the personal impact of losing close friends and mentors in combat may well be the fuel for staying in such units.”43 Interestingly, one RT member I interviewed in 1984, and who will remain anonymous, suggested that there is credence in Grossman’s findings.
This particular soldier, a One-Zero, had multiple tours with SOG, was highly decorated, had served with both CCC and CCN, and was a veteran of over 100 recce missions, aside from other type operations. The soldier related the following to me in a three-hour personal interview. “I watched as an enemy officer execute my team leader from where I was lying wounded. There was nothing I could do at the time, I was in an out of consciousness and simply couldn’t will myself to act. My body wouldn’t respond, although my mind wanted to. The enemy was all around us, I blacked out. It took some time, but I tracked that son of a bitch for years and finally caught up to him and killed him. You have to understand, it was personal at that point and it was probably the main reason I continued running missions for SOG.”44
Killing and living out on the edge probably does account for several SOG men remaining on the RT, however, and with all due respect for the opinions of authors Maass and Grossman, as well as the SOG veteran who relayed that personal tragedy, I found that the overwhelming number of SOG men had different reasons for staying. And, although not my intent to skew the research or simply waive-off on the fact that killing the enemy was critical to many in SOG, I only want to illustrate that for those SOG men researched, it was not the overarching reason they remained in the organization.
Bob Donohue, a Hatchet Force leader for SOG’s CCN, simply said, “I stayed with SOG because it was the finest group of individuals I had ever met. They were fascinating. I feel the same way today as I did in Vietnam. These were loyal, trusted, and irreplaceable friendships.”45 Bob Howard remarked, “if you were in SOG and you were willing to die, you wanted to have someone there with you that you didn’t mind dying for, or with.”46 Howard, indisputably the most decorated SOG soldier of the war, wounded countless times, and earning numerous awards for valor, continued by saying, “it was knowing that we were making a difference in reducing American casualties and impacting the North Vietnamese and the VC that was part of what kept me there.”47 Before his recent death, Frank Miller, one of the finest One-Zeros in CCC, and a man Bill O’reilly would clearly call “no spin”, said, “one major reason I stayed on is because nobody dared fuck with us¾ we were given carte blanche to do what was necessary so long as we continued to go on those missions. Back in the states or in other units you couldn’t do that. We had the freedom to operate as we needed because we were good at what we did and people respected it.”48 Many of those interviewed responded with similar comments.
The concept of a flexible command structure and unusual authority also appealed to many on the RTs. Both Joe Walker and Charles Wesley reinforced this notion in that, “we knew we could get just about anything the Air Force had flying at our disposal whenever we needed it. A SGT/E5 could call for an “arc light” on the enemy if he had a target and he would get it. Where else could an E5 do that in Vietnam, or for that matter, even today?”49 Joe Walker said, “we had total freedom to go anywhere, do anything, at anytime. We made all the decisions in the field, we were totally responsible for success or failure of our operations and for the lives of our men.”50 Ed Wolcoff added a different twist, “for me, success in operations was a key factor in my decision to stay with SOG for multiple tours. Casualties on my team went down after I took command¾ simply put, success breeds confidence. We had a good team and complete trust and confidence in one another.”51
There was also great confidence in the SOG chain of command, directly contributing to why many stayed on. The officers and senior NCOs who planned and supported the RTs were by and large first rate. Many in headquarters positions had cast aside any desire to be General Officers and Pentagon “commandoes”, all in order to serve for the betterment of SOG. For many, like Skip Sadler, Steve Cavanaugh, Larry Thorne, Roger Pezzelle, Bill Waugh, Harry Whalen, and countless other officers and noncommissioned types were ill-concerned with much outside of SOG’s operations.
Many in SOG were also lured to stay by the “no bullshit zone” that characterized life around the launch sites. “When not on mission or training and rehearsing, the chain of command was by and large willing to overlook some of our meaningless indiscretions and stunts pulled while we decompressed. It’s not to say SOG was undisciplined, or that there wasn’t a penalty for soldiers who broke the law, it’s just that our commanders and senior NCOs understood the pressures we were under and were willing to give us some slack where they could.”52
CCS One-Zero, Tom Tompkins, relayed to me years earlier that, “trivial military protocol was mostly overlooked. Saluting, uniformity, yes sir, no sir, and all of that was simply put aside. That’s not to say that there weren’t exceptions, or that the laxness was done out of disrespect, it’s just the way it was. There was no time for it, nor was it the place for such formalities. We played hard when the mission was complete, that’s for sure. But once called back into OPS and directed to do something, it was all business, and everyone had their game faces on. We all knew the difference, and we all knew, commanders, non-coms, the staff, that going over the fence was serious shit; nobody took it lightly.”53
I was interested to note that there was another common denominator among the SOG men interviewed, surveyed and researched on the question of “why stay with SOG”. William Broyles, Editor of the Texas Monthly, and a Vietnam-era Marine Lieutenant, spent some time analyzing this question years earlier, but for units other than SOG. Broyles said that the majority of his research indicated that the human factor was what made men continue to serve and continue to return.”54 Broyles suggests, at least in my interpretation, that the same decision to remain in a high speed unit like SOG, was akin to that same rationale for going back for a wounded man, carrying a teammate on your back for days, defending a remote outpost to the last, or giving up your place on a “string”, knowing the consequences of such actions. Not surprisingly, the similarity in responses to this question had much to do with what I would call a “personalization” of the war.
The research indicates that repetitive tours in SOG, in particular, on the RT, were the result of deep, undivided friendships and bonds developed between men who had faced tremendous stress, and had developed an unbreakable commitment and loyalty to one another. In fact, the overwhelming majority of respondents declared that it was the personal commitment and responsibility to one another, in fact, the love for one another, that kept them putting in paperwork to remain on the RT.
Many felt an obligation to the living. Others intimated that remaining on the RT was a commitment to those believed prisoners. The point is, as one SOG NCO has already testified, and that which was implied by many of those interviewed, “it gets personal.”55
RT Indiana’s One-Zero, Bill Boggs, put it into simple terms. He said, “my promise to the guys was pretty clear… if I’m taking you in, I’m getting you out. There was no way I was going to go back on that promise and keep my self-respect.”56 Ed Wolcoff added, “we were truly a Band of Brothers. Trust, confidence and bonding crossed ethnic lines, US & non-US. It’s been said that a soldier typically does not die for his country, but for his comrades, and that was certainly the case on the RTs.”57
There were many SOG men who intimated, “we had an obligation to those still living and to ensure those who would replace us on the teams had a better chance of survival.”58 Many felt the added responsibility of, “if not you, then who?”, as if to say, who is better trained, better in the woods, more capable of running these missions? And then finally, many felt an untiring responsibility to those who had died on RTs, in many cases trying to save the very same men who responded to this query. Suffice it to say, and again, not surprisingly, the overwhelming reason why the men stayed in SOG and remained on the RT, at least according to those interviewed, was the pursuit of personal commitment and loyalty to the unit and other men in SOG.
Having discovered why these elite soldiers joined SOG, and then a somewhat detailed explanation as to why many stayed with the RT, it seemed relevant to inquire about those attributes which best described the finest of those on the teams. In other words, what human qualities best describe a “model” SOG man?
I thought the question was important in that it exposes the reader, particularly those not familiar with special operations units, to the type of soldiers these were and gives insight as to those attributes expectedly found in our best SOF units today.
These personal qualities describe the finest performers in an all-star team, and importantly, they are attributes decided upon by men with similar backgrounds, shared experiences, and who have a particular lens through which to view and assess what only they can. Who better to assess the finest in their trade than the survivors of thousands of recce missions, raids, recoveries, snatches, and near captures than other SOG men?
The question of, “what key attributes most characterize the finest SOG soldier you ever knew?”, prompted deep thought on the part of most. There were no quick responses to the question. Many of those interviewed, such as Clyde Sincere, stated, “I have thought about this particular question many times in the past.”59 SOG veteran, Henry Gole (CCC), remarked, “this is a very difficult question, there were so many with exceptional skills.”60 Bob Donoghue echoed, “this was probably the most difficult question to answer for me, every SOG guy had something different about him, each one a different talent to offer the team.”61 Several SOG veterans clearly toiled over the question by stating, “I’m going to have to think about this for a while, it’s very difficult to whittle down, we had so many great folks, and I don’t want to single any one man out in answering this question”, etc,.62 It became evident that several attributes overlapped, or in fact were used interchangeably by the respondents. Therefore, I’ve taken the liberty to link several characteristics which were united in purpose and meaning in order to describe SOG’s finest operatives.
As expected, I had no responses indicating that for instance, strength, agility, stamina, or other more tangible, physical characteristics overshadowed the attributes. But to give these their due and not simply push them aside, I think the reason they were not brought up as primary considerations is because everyone on an RT had to be in good condition, strong enough to carry his own (and his companion’s) gear, possess incredible stamina, and demonstrate ample intellect to plan independent ventures into “Indian country.”
Bill Waugh relayed that, “strength was important, but big guys were not what we were looking for on the RT. Too tough to carry when wounded. SGT Jenkins, a guy who wanted to go recon in 67’, was big as a house. He was too big to sneak and peek and he scared the hell out of the little people. I made him a POW snatcher where he could best use his size and prowess.”63 In another related story, Henry Gole discussed the fate of RT Alabama’s One-Zero, Peter “Fat Albert” Wilson, whose body was never recovered, and who was believed killed in action on a mission to Laos in 1970. In part, he says, “a firefight ensued somewhere down the trail from Wilson’s One-One, who was located with the remainder of the team. Fifteen minutes or so had gone by when movement could be seen; it was Wilson scurrying down the path with his Montagnard teammate piggy-back in the direction of the exfil site. Coming to a temporary halt with the injured ‘yard’ on his back not 20 meters away, speaking not, Wilson turned to his One-One, seemingly resigned to his fate, and then, as if to say, go, now, immediately, he vigorously pumped his fist up and down and pointed in the direction of the exfil site. Following another short eruption of fire, two single, distinct shots could be heard; Fat Albert was never heard from again.”64 The point is, everyone on the RT had to be strong enough to carry a load and maintain ample stamina to complete the mission, and as evidence by actions on this mission, and similarly others, strength and stamina many times were not enough.
In today’s military we use the adage, “Be-Know-Do” to articulate the qualities required of every leader, commissioned or noncommissioned. They are the fundamental basis for ethics and competencies demanded of every man or woman holding a position of responsibility in our business. The “Be” part best describes those values based character qualities required of leaders, in fact, every soldier. The “Know” piece refers to skills and proficiency acquired to perform specific functions within the military; it’s the technical part. The “Do” portion delineates the kinetic piece of this puzzle, and constitutes the practical application of soldiering. To possess certain values based qualities, but displaying an inability to perform them is useless. In other words, “to know”, but not “do”, is futile. Along the same lines, “to know” how to do something, but lacking the commitment and desire, or “the do”, is equally pointless.
The responses I received about “best attributes,” were as wide-ranging and diverse as the very men who provided them. The opinions of more than a few of the forty some-odd SOG men researched clearly transcended the entire spectrum of the Be-Know-Do tenets. However, one attribute towered over the others, and it’s central to the very fabric of the men who served in SOG, and in particular, those on the RT.
Army leaders at every level have a solemn duty to embrace values. Just as Heroclitus said millennia ago, "a man's character is his fate, and the destiny of the led is bound to strong leaders”65. This characterization centuries before seemed to best fit those on the RT. The first of three broad categories describing SOG’s best, is what I designated, the “professionalism attribute.” Here reside the human qualities of loyalty, dedication, integrity, commitment and others.
Bill Krempa, who served on RTs for two of SOG’s most problematic years, 1971-1972, said, “the key ingredient I think was the professionalism of the people pulling the missions. We were young and very gung-ho, but more than that, it was the ability to work and operate as a team and do the job regardless of the rank you wore on your collar. The other factor that we firmly believed was that we were making a difference by doing our job. You know, SOG tied down more troops than any line unit… so, in the end, I would have to say, excellent people, training and support.”66 Craig Davis echoed Krempa’s sentiments, “we were fully committed… some guys, Howard, Delima, Rodd, Sprouse, Walker, and the list goes on and on, kept going back for more and never seemed to get a big ego about it… they were totally committed and stood out.”67 Bob Howard and Joe Walker claim it was yet other attributes that accounted for the best in SOG. “Loyalty to the unit, mission and each other were essential elements on the RT. The mission was always first, cowardice was not accepted, if it was observed through the course of a mission, it was handled honestly, with those concerned, and without prejudice. We also knew that death and injury was anticipated, heck, almost expected… capture was not an option… we were truly dependent upon one other for individual and collective survival.”68 Walker, a One-Zero, with over five tours with SOG remarked, “professional soldiers, battle hardened, as well as committed leaders, doused with the right kind of field experience”69, made the best in SOG.
The second broad category of attributes fell into what I labeled, the “focused, calculating, aggressive” class of attributes. When I heard these and similar words, I couldn’t help but develop a mental picture to better explain them, and in so doing, help me apply them to men on the RT. The mental image I had while reading the responses to this question was that of a tiger. To watch one in the wild is impressive to say the least. Careful, quiet, plotting, stalking, not over-committing, holding back from the kill, and then springing forward to destroy the prey. Or conversely, when the conditions aren’t just right for a kill, calculating, patient, backing off, watching and waiting. I think any soldier who has pulled recce deep in the other guy’s battle space probably has similar images.
Ed Wolcoff characterized it as, “the ability to be aggressive and daring, yet prudent. The mitigation of risk through a complete understanding of the enemy, the environment, and with thorough preparation was what made the best on the RT.”70
Henry Gole stated, “the combination of shrewd analysis coupled with careful execution and boldness, just at the right time”71, were essential ingredients to SOG’s finest. Others point out that, “tenacity, coolness under fire, the ability to get the job done, and complete, unbroken focus”, were unique qualities of many of the greatest SOG soldiers.
The third and last category of attributes to best describe the model SOG soldier on the RT is what I called, the “courage and controlled fear” category. The fact that 2/3 of those queried responded with these or similar words to describe SOG’s best, makes them the overwhelming qualities best describing what was most prevalent in a superior SOG soldier.
According to one official source, the New Merriam Webster Dictionary, the word courage is, “the ability to conquer fear or despair.” Admittedly the scholars version, I have to ask, “do these words summarize that which is necessary to explain real fear and despair?” Do they reveal what men experienced in places like Juliet-9 and Omega-8? Do they adequately explain the fear of being overrun at Hickory Hill or Leghorn? Is it enough to describe the sinking feeling of knowing your time on this earth is up?
SOG veteran Clyde Sincere said, “having served with many on the RT, I can tell you now that I believe they all had ice in their veins and not blood… the men on the RT had to be made of ice and stone to do what they did.”72 One-Zero for both RT Iowa and Hawaii, Bob Mohs, stated, “from the MOH recipients on down, it took a lot of sheer guts to go into those places where you knew you were on your own with rarely any outside help. It was a world where everyone was looking for you and you had to deal with that constant, nerve-wracking pressure.”73 Bob Donoghue remarked that, “the ability to control one’s fear was critical. You couldn’t let it overpower you, focus was important. When an obstacle was thrown into your path, you couldn’t just sit there and look at it numbly, you had to react to situations that would otherwise result in failure with lesser men.”74 Several SOG men remarked that, “fear could overcome even seemingly strong men in other situations. Fear was omnipresent, it was a trait commonly accompanying the stress of being hunted and knowing you were alone with just your team, your tactical expertise, and sheer luck to see you through.”75 Frank Miller said, “the RT was a heavy load. When you are exposed to that level of danger, it’s like going through a mental meat grinder. Pressure compounds men’s fears to the point of incapacitation. You had to keep it in check.”76
As is evident, the men of SOG were in fact human, but they possessed incredible physical and mental capabilities not commonly found in every soldier wearing the uniform of our nation. The best were exceptionally courageous, intelligent, compassionate, and ethical, but at the same time able to use their primordial instincts, ingenuity, and sheer aggression to do what they were sanctioned to do. For many, SOG was the highlight of a lifetime’s commitment to excellence. For many a SOG man, their world’s revolved around the RT, and for most, those relationships that developed over thirty years ago continue to this day, equally strong.
In closing, I want to say thank-you to the men of SOG, for not only your actions and total commitment in that remote country so many years ago, but for the legacy you have left us in special operations today, and for many, your continued service to this great nation.
CCC- Command and Control Central
CCN- Command and Control North
CCS- Command and Control South
CIA- Central Intelligence Agency
DOD- Department of Defense
FOB- Forward Operating Base
LZ- Landing Zone
NCO- Noncommissioned Officer
NVA- North Vietnamese Army
NVN- North Vietnamese
POW- Prisoner of War
RT- Reconnaissance Team
RVN- Republic of Vietnam
SF- Special Forces
SOG- Special Operations Group or Studies & Observation Grp
SR- Special Reconnaissance or recce