The  Group   Successes  and  Failures  of  the  United  States’   Special  Operations  Campaign  in  Vietnam    

Figure  1:  The  unofficial  SOG  insignia,   designed  by  men  assigned  to  the  unit.  

Andrew  Mullikin   Prepared  for  Dr.  Phillip  Karber   GOVT  451   Georgetown  University   7  December  2012  


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“You’ve  never  lived  till  you’ve  almost  died   For  those  who  fight  for  it,   Life  has  a  flavor   The  protected  will  never  know.”     –  SOG  motto1  

An  official  1988  study  by  the  Joint  Chiefs  on  the  conduct  of  the  war  in  Vietnam   simply  notes  that  the  Military  Assistance  Command-­‐Vietnam’s  Studies  and   Observations  Group2  “provided  advice  and  assistance  in  the  areas  of  research  and   development,  combat  development,  and  clandestine  activities…”  in  addition  to   “evaluating  SPAR  reports  [Significant  Problems  Area  Report]  and  recommending   courses  of  action  and/or  methods”  while  “[coordinating]  and  [monitoring]   clandestine  activities,  such  as  cross-­‐border  reconnaissance  and  operations…”3   However,  SOG  was  a  far  more  dynamic  and  important  unit  than  such  a  bland   description  would  seem  to  indicate,  conducting  some  of  the  most  dangerous   reconnaissance  missions  in  the  Vietnam  War.    The  following  paper  examines  the   Group’s  antecedents,  formation,  structure,  personnel,  and  tactics  in  detail;  the   Group’s  contributions  to  the  war  in  Vietnam,  and  its  effectiveness  in  achieving   operational  and  strategic  goals,  are  analyzed  throughout  the  paper.   The  war  in  Vietnam  was  a  complicated  affair,  and  for  that  reason  the  SOG   operations  discussed  here  are  painted  in  broad  strokes.    The  work  of  Projects  Delta,  


As written by Larry Trimble, Jim Lamotte, and Ricardo Davis. Quoted in John L. Plaster, Secret Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines with the Elite Warriors of SOG, Simon and Scheuster, New York, NY. 2004, p. xi. 2 When SOG was founded, the acronym stood for “Special Operations Group;” it was changed to the “Studies and Observations Group” for purposes of operational security in the summer of 1964. 3 Records of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam: Part 1. The War in Vietnam, 1954-1973, MACV Historical Office Documentary Collection, ed. Robert E. Lester, (Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America, 1988).


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Sigma,  and  Omega  prior  to  their  merger  with  SOG,4  for  example,  is  not  covered  here,   despite  the  similarities  between  their  mission  set  and  that  of  the  SOG  recon  teams.     It’s  also  important  to  note  that  the  scope  of  the  activities  of  these  units  remains   largely  classified  to  this  day—those  government  documents  that  have  been   declassified  are,  in  general,  redacted  so  heavily  that  precise  numbers  and  other   concrete  data  for  SOG’s  operations  is  virtually  nonexistent.    The  Joint  Chiefs  study   referenced  above,  for  example,  includes  only  two  additional  references  to  SOG,  both   of  which  are  publicly  unavailable.    For  that  reason,  much  of  the  following  text  relies   heavily  on  personal  memoirs  of  those  who  served  with  SOG,  and  analytical  texts  on   the  efforts  of  American  unconventional  warfare  specialists  in  Vietnam  and  other   parts  of  Southeast  Asia.   The  Studies  and  Observations  Group  was  an  important  asset  in  the  American   prosecution  of  the  Vietnam  War,  and  its  personnel  clearly  rank  among  the  most   valorous  of  all  the  units  that  served  during  that  war.    Unfortunately  the  Group  was   misused  both  operationally  and  strategically,  and  its  combat  and  command   experience  in  Vietnam  offer  important  lessons  to  modern  special  operations   missions.    As  Major  Danny  Kelley  notes,     Determining  a  more  effective  use  of  military  resources  to  meet  the  strategic   goal  of  defeating  international  terrorists  and  the  nations  who  sponsor  them  is  a   difficult  problem.  In  the  past,  policy  makers  faced  similar  problems  in  trying  to   determine  how  to  defeat  a  growing  communist  insurgency  in  South  Vietnam.   The  US  employed  a  mixture  of  DOD  clandestine  operations,  CIA  covert  action   forces,  and  conventional  military  units  in  the  prosecution  of  the  conflict.5   Recognizing  where  SOG  and  its  higher  command  went  wrong  is  a  key  task  in   developing  a  more  comprehensive  understanding  of  modern  special  operations   missions  at  the  tactical,  operational,  and  strategic  levels.                                                                                                                  

Programs similar in design to SOG but operating under the authority of the 5 Special Forces Group. For more information, see Kelly, Francis J. Vietnam Studies: U.S. Army Special Forces 1961-1971. Washington: Department of the Army, 1973. Print. 5 MAJ Danny M. Kelley, “The Misuse of the Studies and Observations Group as a National Asset in Vietnam,” 2005, at <>, p. 4.



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  SOG  grew  from  roots  in  the  U.S.  Army  Special  Forces,  which  in  turn  owed  its  

early  existence  to  veterans  of  the  WWII  Office  of  Strategic  Services  (OSS)  and  other   guerrilla  campaigns  in  both  the  European  and  Pacific  Theaters  of  the  war.    Men  like   Brigadier  General  Donald  Blackburn,  Col.  Arthur  “Bull”  Simons,  Col.  Aaron  Bank  (an   OSS  veteran  who  later  became  the  first  commander  of  the  10th  Special  Forces   Group),  and  others  who  gained  hard-­‐won  unconventional  warfare  experience   fighting  behind  enemy  lines  during  WWII  and  the  Korean  War  were  the  founders  of   a  whole  new  type  of  unconventional  warfighting  doctrine  within  the  US  military.     Recognizing  the  Army’s  need  for  a  permanent  unconventional  warfare  capability,   General  Robert  McClure  (then  the  head  of  the  Army’s  Office  of  the  Chief  of   Psychological  Warfare)  established  a  “Special  Operations  Division”  in  1951.    That   organization  was  eventually  renamed  the  “Special  Forces  Division”  and  was   dedicated  to  supporting  partisan  groups  in  operations  similar  to  those  of  the  OSS  in   WWII.    Five  years  later,  the  group  had  again  changed  names,  becoming  the  US  Army   Special  Warfare  Center,  and  was  deploying  units  around  the  world.6     The  first  Army  Special  Forces  deployments  to  South  Vietnam  arrived  in  June  

1956,  when  advisors  from  the  14th  Special  Forces  Group  were  sent  to  train  South   Vietnamese  troops.    With  American  involvement  in  Vietnam  escalating  in  1961,   attention  turned  to  Special  Forces—President  Kennedy’s  favorite  military   organization—as  a  way  to  provide  more  tangible  support  to  South  Vietnam’s  largely   ineffective  army  without  the  political  ramifications  of  large-­‐scale  conventional  troop   deployments.7    While  the  Special  Forces  teams  trained  South  Vietnamese  troops,   notably  including  the  elite  1st  Observation  Group,  the  Kennedy  administration   tasked  the  CIA  with  “providing  the  manpower  and  resources  for  a  covert  war                                                                                                                   6  Thomas K. Adams, US Special Operations Forces in Action: The Challenge of Unconventional
Warfare. London: Frank Cass, 1998. Print, pp. 54-57. Note: this brief history of the Army Special Forces does not do justice to the innovative men who founded the organization. For more information on the Green Berets, Adams’ text is an excellent place to start.   7 Ibid, p. 78.


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against  the  North,”  formalizing  these  orders  in  National  Security  Action   Memorandum  (NSAM)  52,  signed  by  President  Kennedy  on  11  May  1961.8   Operation  White  Star     The  model  for  SOG  operations  developed  out  of  another  Special  Forces  

deployment  to  Southeast  Asia,  in  which  twelve  eleven-­‐man  training  teams  were  sent   to  Laos  under  the  command  of  the  Military  Assistance  Advisory  Group  Laos,   formally  established  on  19  April  1961.9    While  these  SF  operators  had  been  quietly   training  the  generally  inept  Laotian  military  alongside  CIA  operative  for  several   years,  the  program  was  significantly  expanded  and  made  official  by  the   establishment  of  MAAG-­‐Laos.    Initially,  the  SF  soldiers  served  almost  exclusively  in  a   training  role  while  also  gathering  intelligence  for  the  CIA.    Eventually,  teams  began   deploying  into  the  field  with  their  units,  serving  as  full  combat  advisors  and   executing  the  first  American  combat  assignment  in  Southeast  Asia.    Stanton  notes   that  this  deployment  was  important  because  of  the  Special  Forces’  new  role  as  an   instrument  of  American  strategy:   By  virtue  of  President  Kennedy’s  belief  in  its  individual  and  collective  excellence,   the  Special  Forces  became  the  principle  counterinsurgency  force  of  the  United   States.      The  wartime  Special  Forces  was  forged  in  the  jagged  Laotian   mountains  and  forest  plateaus  in  direct  contrast  to  its  intended  wartime   mission  as  guerrilla  cadre.  …  In  Laos,  as  in  Vietnam,  Special  Forces  soldiers   were  employed  as  elite  troops  to  execute  long-­range  special  missions,  to  lead   normal  infantry,  and  to  train  remote,  indigenous  minorities.    Actual  missions   against  true  enemy  guerrilla  bands  were  rare,  and  the  Special  Forces  was  never   allowed  to  penetrate  denied  areas  to  establish  guerrilla  units.10   Interestingly,  the  White  Star  teams  in  Laos  enjoyed  excellent  relationships  with   the  CIA  operatives  working  in  the  country,  allowing  them  to  operate  effectively   without  working  through  the  bureaucracy  established  by  the  MAAG  command.                                                                                                                    

Robert M. Gillespie, Black Ops Vietnam: The Operational History of MACVSOG, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011), pp. 4-5. 9 Shelby L Stanton. Green Berets at War: U.S. Army Special Forces in Southeast Asia, 1956 1975. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1985. Print, p. 22. 10 Ibid, pp. 30-21.


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Unfortunately  this  relationship  would  change  in  Vietnam,  probably  in  part  due  to   the  failure  of  CIA  covert  operations  there  prior  to  the  Group’s  establishment.     Operation  Leaping  Lena     By  1963,  the  CIA  had  failed  to  deliver  positive  results  from  its  covert  warfare  

campaign  against  North  Vietnam.    Despite  President  Kennedy’s  initial  orders,  the   CIA  had  focused  most  of  its  efforts  in  the  South,  fearing  that  their  intelligence   networks  would  be  degraded  without  constant  supervision.    While  CIA  operations  in   South  Vietnam  included  paramilitary  and  counterterrorism  campaigns,  operations   in  North  Vietnam  were  limited  to  agent  team  infiltration  for  intelligence  collection   and  psychological  operations  including  leaflet  drops  and  radio  broadcasts.    Such   operations  were  a  far  cry  from  Kennedy’s  orders  to  build  an  insurgent  movement   against  the  Communists.    Given  the  shortcomings  of  the  CIA  program,   responsibilities  for  covert  and  clandestine  operations  were  slowly  transitioned   away  from  the  Agency  and  assigned  to  the  newly  formed  Studies  and  Observations   Group.    The  transition  between  these  programs  took  roughly  a  year,  during  which   time  the  CIA  still  took  the  lead  on  all  “black”  operations  in  Southeast  Asia.     It  was  during  this  period  that  the  first  cross-­‐border  reconnaissance  missions  

were  employed  in  the  Vietnam  War.    Recognizing  that  whatever  was  happening  in   Laos—aerial  reconnaissance  had  failed  to  deliver  reliable  intelligence—required  the   serious  attention  of  American  strategists,  Defense  Secretary  Robert  McNamara   resolved  to  send  teams  drawn  from  the  Army  of  the  Republic  of  Vietnam  (ARVN)   and  trained  by  US  Special  Forces  troops  on  reconnaissance  missions  across  the   Laotian  border.    Despite  warnings  from  a  senior-­‐ranking  Special  Forces  officer  that   the  missions  would  fail  unless  Green  Berets  were  assigned  to  lead  the  units,   McNamara  ordered  the  teams  formed  and  ready  to  deploy  within  thirty  days.     These  reconnaissance  operations,  codenamed  Leaping  Lena,  were  administered  

by  the  CIA  and  trained  by  Special  Forces  soldiers  from  the  5th  SF  Group.    The  eight   teams  were  each  manned  by  five  Vietnamese  commandos,  and  were  inserted  into  


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drop  zones  along  Highway  92  in  Laos  between  24  June  and  1  July  1963.11     Unfortunately,  all  eight  teams  were  intercepted  by  NVA  troops  operating  inside   Laos,  with  the  majority  of  their  members  either  killed  or  captured.    Only  four  of  the   original  forty  men  escaped  back  to  South  Vietnam.12    In  the  aftermath  of  Leaping   Lena’s  failure,  it  was  clear  that  the  NVA  had  a  substantial  presence  in  Laos,  but  no   one  could  be  sure  exactly  what  the  Communist  forces  were  doing  in  the  area.    The   task  of  finding  out  would  be  handed  to  SOG  and  its  new  commander,  WWII   unconventional  warfare  specialist  Col.  Donald  Blackburn.  

Formation  and  Order  of  Battle  
  The  initial  demand  for  an  enhanced  special  operations  capacity  in  Vietnam  

stemmed  from  high-­‐ranking  generals’  disapproval  of  the  unconventional  warfare   tactics  then  employed  by  Special  Forces  units  in  Vietnam.    Rather  than  training  the   Vietnamese  to  fight—the  hallmark  of  unconventional  warfare—Major  General   William  B.  Rosson  in  particular  argued  for  an  expansion  of  theater-­‐wide  U.S.  covert   operations.  This  resulted  in  Operations  Plan  34A,  which  called  for:   1. An  expansion  of  the  Vietnamese  1st  Observation  Unit,  which  tasked   indigenous  troops  with  covert  and  clandestine  operations  against  North   Vietnam  with  support  from  the  CIA  and  Army  Special  Forces.   2. CIA  and  Special  Forces  training  of  reconnaissance  teams  to  be  infiltrated   into  southern  Laos,  where  they  units  would  locate  and  attack  NVA  bases   and  lines  of  communication,  all  under  “light  civilian  cover.”   3. Establishment  of  company-­‐sized  (100-­‐150  man)  Vietnamese  assault  units   for  deployment  against  targets  too  large  for  the  reconnaissance  teams.                                                                                                                  

The exact number of men assigned to these units is unclear in the literature. The numbers presented here are from Mike Guardia. Shadow Commander: The Epic Story of Donald D. Blackburn - Guerrilla Leader and Special Forces Hero. Havertown, PA: Casemate, 2011. Print, p. 166. Unfortunately even Guardia’s text has some discrepancies regarding the Leaping Lena teams; I have reported his most consistent numbers. 12 Ibid.


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4. The  development  of  the  South  Vietnamese  Army’s  capability  to  launch   light-­‐infantry  (“Ranger”)  raids  into  North  Vietnam.   5. Regular  flights  over  Communist-­‐held  areas  for  the  dissemination  of   propaganda  materials  to  both  harass  NVA  forces  and  help  maintain   morale  of  anti-­‐Communist  residents  of  North  Vietnam.   President  Johnson  approved  Op  Plan  34A  in  January  1964,  and  on  24  January  SOG   was  born  out  of  General  Order  6  from  the  Military  Assistance  Command-­‐Vietnam   Headquarters.    According  to  Adams,  MACV-­‐SOG  was  to  be  a  “joint  unconventional   warfare  task  force  responsible  for  special  operations  in  Burma,  Cambodia,  Laos,   North  and  South  Vietnam,  and  border  areas  of  China…it  was  to  be  the  joint  service,   unconventional-­‐war  task  force  for  Southeast  Asia…”13    Given  the  CIA’s  failure  to   expand  its  operational  mandate  under  NASM  52  beyond  South  Vietnam,  the  SOG   operations  were  the  first  truly  theater-­‐wide  American  covert  and  clandestine  during   the  Vietnam  War.     Unfortunately  the  new  command’s  relationship  with  MACV  headquarters  was  

rocky  from  the  start.    Despite  SOG’s  direct  subordination  to  MACV  headquarters  in   Saigon,  the  command’s  missions  required  approval  from  the  Joint  Chiefs  of  Staff.    In   practice  this  approval  was  delegated  to  the  Special  Assistant  for  Counterinsurgency   and  Special  Activities  at  the  Pentagon,  and  resulted  in  a  significant  lag  between  the   opening  of  a  window  of  opportunity  for  a  decisive  covert  operation  and  the  actual   approval  and  execution  of  that  operation.    Several  sources  also  indicate  that  the   MACV  command  staff  was  hesitant  to  place  its  full  confidence  in  the  poorly   understood  special  operations  units  assigned  to  SOG.    As  a  result,  SOG  was  never   constituted  as  a  formal,  independent  task  force.14   Perhaps  even  worse  than  this  command  relationship,  staff  officers  assigned  to   SOG  did  not  enjoy  the  support  and  cooperation  of  the  CIA,  despite  the  Agency’s                                                                                                                  
13 14

Adams, p. 118. Ibid, p. 119.


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previous  experience  running  covert  operations  in  the  theater.    The  few  CIA  officers   assigned  to  SOG  were  restricted  to  the  Psychological  Operations  section,  where  they   had  little  impact  on  the  majority  of  SOG  missions.    Even  more  problematic,  the   position  of  SOG  deputy,  or  01,  was  reserved  for  a  CIA  liaison  officer,  but  Langley   never  assigned  an  officer  to  the  post.    Some  sources  even  go  so  far  as  to  suggest  that   the  CIA  wanted  to  “keep  its  distance”  from  SOG.15    The  combination  of  these  two   factors  meant  that  the  new  SOG  command  was  forced  to  begin  its  operations  in   Southeast  Asia  without  significant  support  from  its  predecessor  or  its  higher   headquarters.  

Figure  2:  SOG  Organizational  Structure.    The  Ground  Studies  Group,  SOG  35,  was  the  branch  responsible   for  cross-­border  reconnaissance  operations.  

 Organization   The  SOG  command  was  initially  assigned  six  officers  and  two  enlisted  men,  led   by  Col.  Clyde  R.  Russell,  who  had  served  with  the  101st  Airborne  Division  during   WWII,  but  lacked  real  experience  fighting  unconventional  warfare.    Drawing  from                                                                                                                  

Adams, p. 119-120.


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his  conventional  background,  Russell  organized  SOG  along  traditional  military  lines,   with  separate  divisions  for  various  administrative  activities.     As  the  command  developed,  its  force  structure  eventually  included  an  

assortment  of  special  operations  units,  including  Army  Special  Forces  (Green   Berets),  Navy  SEALs,  Reconnaissance  Marines,  and  CIA  agents,  in  addition  to  a  large   complement  of  indigenous  mercenaries  including  Vietnamese,  Chinese  Nungs,   Montagnards,  and  Cambodians.    Given  the  clandestine  nature  of  the  unit  it  is  hard  to   tell  how  many  operational  personnel  were  working  for  SOG  at  any  one  time,  but  in   1970  the  command  had  383  authorized  personnel  (down  from  394  at  the  end  of   1969).    However,  total  contributions  from  the  Army,  Air  Force,  Marine  Corps,  CIA,   and  indigenous  groups  brought  up  the  total  to  10,210  personnel  reporting  to  the   SOG  chief  in  Saigon.16    According  to  Adams,  the  vast  majority  of  these  personnel— which  the  author  refers  to  as  “2,000  Americans  and  8,000  Vietnamese”—were  from   the  US  Army  and  Vietnamese  Special  Forces  units.    The  personnel  assigned  to  SOG   from  branches  other  than  the  Army—aside  from  small  numbers  of  US  Navy  SEALs   and  their  Vietnamese  counterparts—were  primarily  support  staff,  including  the  air   and  maritime  transportation  components  of  SOG.17,  18  

16 17

Gillespie, p. 197. Adams, p. 119. 18 According to Col. Francis J. Kelly, the US Marine Corps’ contribution to special operations missions in Vietnam came largely before the creation of SOG, running from 1962-1964. (See, Kelly, Francis J. Vietnam Studies: U.S. Army Special Forces 1961-1971. Washington: Department of the Army, 1973. Print, p. 162.)


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Figure  3:  Map  of  three  operational  SOG  headquarters.  

  SOG  eventually  established  three  operational  headquarters:  Command  and   Control  North  (CCN)  in  Da  Nang,  Command  and  Control  Central  (CCC)  in  Kontum,   and  Command  and  Control  South  (CCS)  in  Ban  Me  Thuot  (see  map  above).    These   headquarters  were  serviced  by  forward  operating  bases  (FOBs)  strategically  located   within  a  short  helicopter  ride  of  insertion  sites  close  to  the  Cambodian  and  Laotian   borders.19    All  of  these  sites  were  closely  compartmentalized,  with  strong  cover   stories  to  keep  their  covert  operations  secret.    The  CCC  insertion  site  at  Dak  To,  for   example,  was  home  to  an  American  engineer  battalion  and  emergency  medical   bunker,  providing  plausible  deniability  to  its  secondary  role  as  a  base  to  refuel  and   rearm  helicopters  flying  in  support  of  SOG’s  cross-­‐border  missions,  and  as  a  staging   ground  for  those  insertions.    The  insertion  sites  also  housed  “Bright  Light”  units:   recon  teams  staged  for  emergency  extractions  and  personnel  recovery  missions                                                                                                                  

By the end of the war SOG operated six FOBs throughout South Vietnam (Guardia, p. 170).


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behind  enemy  lines.20    Thus  SOG  teams  rotated  from  major  SOG  installations  directly   to  these  covert  insertion  sites,  executing  missions  and  returning  back  to  their   headquarters,  sometimes  after  only  a  few  hours  on  the  ground,  but  occasionally   after  weeklong  operations  in  enemy  territory.  

Figure  4:  Aerial  view  of  Command  and  Control  North,  Da  Nang.  


Combat  forces  at  the  regional  command  and  control  “hubs”  were  organized  into  

reconnaissance  teams—when  John  Plaster  arrived  at  Kontum,  eighteen  teams  were   fully  manned  with  an  additional  six  authorized  but  without  sufficient  manpower  to   go  into  the  field.    Each  team  was  composed  of  three  American  operators—in   Plaster’s  case,  all  Green  Berets—and  nine  indigenous  soldiers,  and  named  for  an   American  state,  for  example,  RT  Texas  or  RT  California.    Other  SOG  regional   command  centers  used  different  naming  systems;  recon  teams  from  CCS  at  Ban  Me   Thuot  were  named  for  tools,  while  those  based  at  CCN  were  named  for  poisonous   snakes,  like  RT  Copperhead,  led  by  Ricardo  Davis  until  his  death  in  Cambodia.                                                                                                                    

Plaster, p. 46.


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Recruitment  and  Training     John  Plaster’s  memoir  of  service  with  SOG  provides  a  ready  example  of  the  

dedication  shown  by  the  men  who  volunteered  for  service  with  the  unit.    After   enlisting  in  the  Army  at  age  18,  fresh  out  of  high  school,  Plaster  attended  Airborne   School  at  Fort  Benning,  Georgia  before  being  selected  to  attend  Special  Forces   training,  following  a  similar  pipeline  to  modern  18X  enlistees.21    After  intensive   training  with  the  Special  Forces  Training  Detachment  at  Fort  Bragg,  Plaster   deployed  to  Vietnam  with  the  5th  Special  Forces  Group,  initially  assigned  to  a  Signals   Company.    At  the  behest  of  an  old  friend,  Plaster  faked  his  orders  and  volunteered  to   go  to  Command  and  Control  North,  hoping  to  find  his  way  into  SOG.    Upon  arrival,   Plaster  and  the  other  new  men  were  briefed  by  the  CCN  commander,  Lt.  Col.  Jack   Warren,  who  made  the  implications  of  running  covert  operations  in  Vietnam  crystal   clear:   “You  will  not  keep  a  diary  or  journal,”  [Warren]  ordered.    “Your  letters  are   subject  to  censorship.    You  are  forbidden  to  tell  anyone  outside  here  what  you   are  doing.    We  train  Vietnamese  and  Montagnards,  that’s  all.    On  paper  we   belong  to  the  5th  Special  Forces  Group.    In  reality,  we  work  for  SOG.”22   Unfortunately,  the  men  who  finally  made  their  way—either  by  selection  or   accident,  as  in  Plaster’s  case—to  join  the  ranks  of  SOG  were  in  general  ill-­‐prepared   for  covert  warfare.    Pre-­‐mission  training,  like  almost  every  other  aspect  of  service   with  SOG,  was  informal  and  largely  based  on  the  whims  and  past  experiences  of  the   team’s  One-­‐Zero.23    Recon  teams  were  generally  allowed  one  or  two  weeks  to                                                                                                                  

The U.S. Army 18X program—also referred to as direct entry or Initial Accessions—provides young men the opportunity to enlist specifically to attend the Special Forces Assessment and Selection program. 22 Plaster, 29-30. 23 One-Zeros were recon team leaders, in charge of two other Americans (referred to as OneOnes and One-Twos, denoting their rank in the team hierarchy) and several indigenous mercenaries, usually Vietnamese, Montagnard, or Cambodians recruited and funded by SOG money. Plaster explains that rank was irrelevant in the choice of a One-Zero: “Some One-Zeros were not their team’s highest-ranking man… Here in SOG, rank did not determine leadership; experience and ability meant far more than the stripes or bars a man wore.” (Plaster 37). The author offers several examples of SOG officers, including a lieutenant colonel in charge of


Mullikin  13  

prepare  for  missions,  but  the  training  they  conducted—at  least  according  to   Plaster—rarely  progressed  beyond  basic  immediate  action  drills.    Newly-­‐ constituted  teams,  or  teams  reformed  with  only  one  or  two  veterans  remaining  from   their  previous  iterations,  were  given  a  brief  three  weeks  to  bring  their  indigenous   soldiers  up  to  speed,  forming  a  mission-­‐ready,  “green”  team  despite  significant   language  and  cultural  barriers.24   Equipment,  Weapons,  and  Logistics     Much  like  modern  American  special  operations  forces,  SOG  units  succeeded  in  

part  due  to  the  tools  they  carried  into  combat.    In  addition  to  basic  small  arms   (which  sometimes  performed  poorly  in  the  field)  SOG  commanders  leveraged   significant  external  assets  to  move  their  units  around  the  unit’s  secret  battlefields  in   Laos  and  Cambodia.     Plaster  encounters  the  SOG  transportation  network  early  upon  his  arrival  in  

South  Vietnam,  when  he  is  ordered  to  board  a  plane  to  Kontum,  then  a  forward   operating  base  under  the  command  of  Command  and  Control-­‐North,  but  later  home   to  Command  and  Control-­‐Central.    He  describes  the  C-­‐130,  normally  a  standard   transport  craft,  but  specially  modified  in  this  case  for  SOG  operations:   Nicknamed  a  “Blackbird”  because  of  its  distinct  black  and  forest  green  paint   scheme,  the  plane’s  nose  bore  a  folded  yoke,  part  of  a  special  apparatus  for   extracting  secret  agents  from  the  ground.    Its  U.S.  insignia  were  painted  on   removable  metal  plates,  so  they  easily  could  be  taken  off.    Inside  the  C-­130,  the   cargo  compartment’s  forward  third  was  curtained  off  with  a  warning:  TOP   SECRET.    Squeezed  into  the  remaining  seats  was  a  smorgasbord  of  passengers—

reconnaissance units at Kontum, going into the field under the command of young Staff Sergeants serving as One-Zeros. 24 While almost all indigenous recruits to SOG had previously served with and been extensively trained by other U.S. forces—generally Special Forces teams operating throughout South Vietnam—their ability to serve effectively with SOG recon teams left much to be desired. Plaster recounts using toy soldiers to teach basic infantry tactics to Montagnard mercenaries who were generally illiterate, learning tasks by rote, and lacking basic mathematic skills, which they overcame by counting “one, two, three, many…” (Plaster, 162).


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Chinese,  Vietnamese,  Americans  in  civilian  clothes,  armed  and  unarmed  Green   Berets,  and  nondescript  Asians  whose  nationality  I  could  not  even  guess.25   With  concerns  over  deniability  relaxed  by  around  1970,  SOG  also  had  a  hand  in   developing  close  air  support  tactics,  specifically  for  the  AC-­‐130  gunship,  a  heavily   armed  ground  attack  aircraft  that  has  been  deployed  by  USSOCOM  for  close  air   support  missions  in  Afghanistan  and  Iraq,  and  as  part  of  the  NATO  intervention  in   Libya  in  March  2011.   In  terms  of  personal  field  kit,  SOG  units  were  initially  highly  restricted  in  terms   of  the  weapons  and  gear  they  could  carry  into  the  field.    In  order  to  maintain  the   United  States’  plausible  deniability  of  sending  troops  into  technically  neutral  Laos   and  Cambodia,  recon  teams  deploying  across  the  border  were  “sterile”—they   carried  untraceable  gear,  wore  Asian-­‐made  uniforms  without  nametapes  or  rank   insignia,  and  carried  no   identification  cards  or   dog  tags.    SOG  teams   often  deployed  with   foreign  weapons,   including  AK-­‐47s  and   British  and  Swedish   silenced  submachine   guns.    If  the  units  came   into  heavy  contact  on  the   ground,  they  were   essentially  on  their  own;   early  SOG  missions  were  
Figure  5:  RT  Maine,  1970.  Dressed  in  NVA  fatigues  and  carrying  mostly  foreign   weapons,  this  recon  team  is  ready  to  depart  from  CCC.  

not  allowed  access  to  tactical  air  support,  a  critical  feature  of  modern  small-­‐unit,   especially  special  operations,  tactics.    These  restrictions  were  later  relaxed,  allowing   more  and  more  SOG  operators  to  carry  American-­‐made  weapons—the  CAR-­‐15,  a                                                                                                                  

Plaster, 28.


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forerunner  to  the  modern  M4  carbine,  was  a  recon  favorite—and  to  rely  on   helicopter  gunship  and  fighter  support  in  extreme  emergencies,  provided  the   limited  assets  dedicated  to  cross-­‐border  support  were  available,  and  not  occupied   with  other  teams’  emergencies.  

  Between  1967  and  April  1972,  “OPS-­‐35  [the  reconnaissance  group  responsible  

for  cross-­‐border  missions]  conducted  1,398  reconnaissance  missions,  38  platoon-­‐ sized  patrols,  and  12  multi-­‐platoon  operations  in  Cambodia.    During  the  same   period,  it  captured  24  prisoners  of  war.”26    Given  the  size  of  the  unit,  and  the  combat   attrition  that  constantly  kept  manpower  at  sub-­‐optimal  levels,  the  sheer  number  of   missions  run  by  SOG  is  extremely  impressive.    SOG  teams  in  the  field  also  displayed   uncommon  valor;  Jerry  “Mad  Dog”  Shriver,  for  example,  once  famously  replied  to  an   officer  concerned  that  he  was  about  to  be  overrun  by  calmly  stating,  “No  sweat.    I’ve   got  ‘em  right  where  I  want  ‘em—surrounded  from  the  inside.”27       Despite  these  extreme  cases  of  bravado,  SOG  operations  were  among  the   deadliest  in  the  war—according  to  Meyer,  “The  unit  experienced  an  incredible   casualty  rate  of  exceeding  100  percent  -­‐  meaning  that  at  one  time  or  another,  every   man  serving  in  that  unit  was  wounded  at  least  once…”28    The  danger  associated  with   service  in  SOG  came  largely  from  the  unit’s  high  operational  tempo  and  widespread   area  of  operations,  which  was,  for  the  most  part,  restricted  to  austere,  denied  access   areas  behind  enemy  lines.    SOG  teams  conducted  land,  sea,  and  air  operations  in   North  Vietnam,  Laos,  and  Cambodia—areas  forbidden  to  most  other  American  units.     Furthermore,  SOG  teams  had  a  role  in  every  major  event  of  the  conflict,  including                                                                                                                  

Capturing an NVA soldier was the ultimate coup for a SOG recon team, providing higher command with a rare opportunity to interrogate a prisoner, and earning the returning team a weeklong R&R in Taiwan. Unfortunately the act of securing a prisoner was incredibly difficult; prisoners were often killed in the inevitable “run and gun” firefight that erupted after a recon team secured its prize. 27 Plaster, p. 21. 28 John Stryker Meyer, Across the Fence [Kindle Edition], SOG Publishing, 2011.


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“the  Gulf  of  Tonkin…  air  operations  over  North  Vietnam…  the  Tet  Offensive…  the   secret  bombing  and  ground  incursion  into  Cambodia,  the  Phoenix  Program,  and  the   Son  Tay  Raid.”29    While  individual  units  were  given  a  week  of  “stand  down”  time30   after  a  mission,  the  limited  number  of  teams  available  to  SOG  commanders  meant   that,  at  any  one  time,  multiple  teams  from  each  regional  headquarters  were   deployed  behind  enemy  lines.    At  an  operational  level,  sheer  weight  of  numbers   made  SOG  operations  extremely  dangerous.   The  situation  was  more  complex  at  the  tactical  level.    Due  to  demands  from   higher  headquarters  in  Saigon,  officially  mission-­‐ready  teams—teams  that  were   sometimes  poorly  prepared  and  lacking  in  sufficient  unit  cohesion—were  often  sent   into  the  field  with  dire  consequences.    According  to  Plaster,  “You  could  say  they  died   from  bad  luck  or  bad  field  craft,  but  I  thought  they  died  from  too  little  time,  not   enough  chance  to  learn  from  mistakes—in  SOG,  just  one  mistake  and  you  could  be   dead.”31    While  this  statement  is  likely  true  for  any  combat  operation  in  any  war,  the   isolation  of  SOG  teams  operating  outside  South  Vietnam  raised  the  stakes  of  the   game.    For  SOG  operators,  especially  recon  men,  death  was  not  a  distant   afterthought,  but  a  statistical  inevitability.    On  average,  a  recon  team  leader—a  One-­‐ Zero—had  been  on  roughly  eight  missions  prior  to  taking  command  of  a  team.     Given  the  high  casualty  rate  of  SOG  reconnaissance  units,  five  more  missions  and  the   young  sergeant  was  a  senior  team  leader  and  almost  a  statistical  anomaly.     According  to  Plaster,  “by  the  time  he  had  twenty  missions  behind  him,  it  was  a   wonder  that  he  was  still  alive.”32    The  best  available  statistics  for  SOG  casualties  note                                                                                                                  
29 30

Gillespie, 258. Post-mission “stand down” times were good for both informal discussions of effective recon tactics and blowing off steam from the stress of recon missions. SOG operators had access to seemingly endless beer and hard liquor at their base NCO clubs, which were funded by selling alcohol illegally to underage American troops. While these rowdy weeks off perpetuated the stereotype of SOG men, and Special Forces soldiers as a whole, as undisciplined and unreliable, the process of “hot washing” missions immediately after their conclusion has been formalized among modern American special operations units, especially Delta Force and the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (SEAL Team Six). 31 Plaster, p. 48. 32 Plaster, p. 51.


Mullikin  17  

that  over  the  course  of  nine  years  of  covert  operations,  163  men  were  killed  in   action  with  an  additional  80  listed  as  missing.33,  34   The  danger  of  SOG  missions  lay  not  only  in  the  jobs  they  were  expected  to  do,   but  also  in  the  logistics  of  inserting  and  extracting  men  by  helicopter  deep  behind   enemy  lines.    Teams  were  frequently  inserted  only  to  immediately  come  under   heavy  fire,  as  was  the  case  with  Jerry  “Mad  Dog”  Shriver’s  final  mission,  in  which  his   recon  team  was  inserted  to  a  landing  zone  only  to  meet  immediate  overwhelming   fire,  leading  to  the  deaths  of  three  American  soldiers.35       Hoping  to  minimize  the  casualties  incurred  when  recon  teams  were  in  “Prairie   Fire”  emergency  situations—in  danger  of  being  overrun  by  NVA  forces—Sergeant   Major  Charles  T.  McGuire,  an  instructor  at  the  MACV  Recondo  School,  developed  the   “McGuire  Harness”  to  rapidly  extract  men  from  landing  zones  without  needing  to   actually  pull  them  up  into   a  hovering  extraction   helicopter.    Essentially   Swiss-­‐style  rappelling   seats,  McGuire  Harnesses   were  used  effectively  in   the  field  in  emergency   scenarios.    Unfortunately,   the  time  spent  dangling   beneath  helicopters  while   still  subject  to  NVA   ground  fire  exacted  its  toll                                                                                                                  
33 34

Figure  6:  SOG  soldiers  practice  another  extraction  method  -­  climbing  out  on   rope  ladders.  

Gillespie, p. 258. If these statistics seem grim, consider them from the NVA perspective—by 1969 SOG had achieved a kill to loss ratio of 150:1 (Guardia, p. 177). 35 Plaster, p. 127; Jack Murphy, “The Legend and Truth of Jerry “Mad Dog” Shriver,” SOFREP (1 October 2012) <> [Accessed 2012.11.20].


Mullikin  18  

on  SOG  recon  men;  Plaster  tells  the  story  of  RT  Vermont’s  attempted  rescue  of  a   missing  SOG  operator  on  the  ground  in  Laos,  when  First  Lieutenant  Jim  Birchim  was   lost  after  flying  in  a  McGuire  rig  for  an  hour  and  a  half.36     The  extreme  valor  shown  by  SOG  operators  in  the  field  ensured  that  Purple  

Hearts  were  not  the  only  medals  won  by  men  assigned  to  the  recon  teams.    Sergeant   (later  Colonel)  Bob  Howard—according  to  Plaster  the  most  decorated  U.S.  soldier   since  WWII—was  nominated  for  the  Medal  of  Honor  twice  before  finally  winning   the  award  on  his  third  nomination;  he  also  won  two  Distinguished  Service  Crosses,  a   Silver  Star,  four  Legion  of  Merit  awards,  four  Bronze  Stars,  and  eight  Purple  Hearts.        

Figure  7:  Bob  Howard  carries  an  NVA  prisoner  of  war  captured  by  RT   Texas  away  from  the  helicopter  landing  pad.  


  SOG  operations  under  the  first  Chief,  Col.  Russell,  were  limited  in  scope  and  

failed  to  generate  any  new  intelligence  on  NVA  operations  outside  South  Vietnam.     Col.  Donald  Blackburn  immediately  expanded  Russell’s  operations  upon  taking   command  of  SOG  in  May  1965,  two  months  after  the  first  American  combat  troops                                                                                                                  

Plaster, p. 57.


Mullikin  19  

were  sent  to  South  Vietnam,  and  almost  a  year  after  the  failure  of  the  first  US-­‐ sponsored  reconnaissance  missions  into  Laos.   Operation  Shining  Brass37     Blackburn  immediately  ordered  “a  study  for  cross-­‐border  operations  designed  

to  focus  on  a  more  immediate  problem—the  infiltration  coming  down  from  the   North.”38    Blackburn’s  plan  called  for  small  “training  teams”  to  be  inserted  across  the   Laotian  border  to  reconnoiter  the  Ho  Chi  Minh  trail—at  the  time  understood  to  be   little  more  than  a  mountain  path.    Eventually  Blackburn’s  plan  became  known  as   Operation  Shining  Brass,  and  it  was  to  be  executed  in  three  phases:  first,   reconnaissance  teams  would  locate  NVA  logistical  corridors  in  Laos  and  report  back   with  that  intelligence;  a  company-­‐sized  “exploitation  force”  would  then  be  deployed   into  the  area  to  eliminate  the  critical  targets  identified  in  Phase  1;  in  the  third  phase,   American  and  indigenous  personnel  assigned  to  SOG  would  infiltrate  Laos  and   organize  units  of  Laotian  natives  to  fight  against  the  NVA.39    While  the  Joint  Chiefs   were  hesitant  to  approve  of  the  plan,  Shining  Brass  was  eventually  given  a  green   light  on  21  September  1965.    After  establishing  the  parameters  of  the  operation,   Blackburn’s  first  reconnaissance  team  inserted  into  Laos  on  18  October  1965.40    By   the  end  of  the  year,  eight  missions  had  been  launched  into  Laos,  six  of  which  had   returned  with  significant  intelligence  on  NVA  movements  in  the  area.     While  Blackburn  was  forced  to  relinquish  command  of  SOG  on  1  July  1966—SOG  

commanders  were  only  allowed  to  serve  one-­‐year  tours—he  later  stated  “I  don’t   think  there’s  any  question  as  to  the  effectiveness  of  the  Shining  Brass  Operation…  It                                                                                                                  
37 38

Later renamed Operation Prairie Fire. Col. Donald Blackburn, quoted in Guardia, p. 167. 39 Guardia, pp. 168-169. 40 The US Ambassador to Laos, William Sullivan, was wary of the political ramifications of American soldiers operating inside Laos. Sullivan initially restricted the movements of SOG teams to “boxes” of roughly ten to fifteen square kilometers, and tried to prevent SOG teams from utilizing round-trip helicopter insertions. By sheer force of personality, Blackburn convinced Sullivan of the necessity of helicopters, but it wasn’t until the intelligence value of the recon missions had been substantiated that Sullivan allowed an expansion of their area of operations inside Laos. Guardia, pp. 169-170.


Mullikin  20  

identified  and  located  the  so-­‐called  Ho  Chi  Minh  ‘trail  network’”  along  which,  in   October  1965,  the  NVA  had  deployed  roughly  30,000  logistical  and  support  troops,   not  including  the  roughly  4,500  NVA  combat  troops  infiltrating  South  Vietnam  along   the  trail  each  month.41    Gen.  Westmoreland,  the  MACV  commander,  was  equally   impressed,  and  SOG  operations  were  significantly  expanded  in  1966  and  afterward.   Operation  Daniel  Boone42     By  1967  the  Group’s  successes  in  Shining  Brass  had  been  so  well  received  that  

the  program  was  expanded  to  include  Cambodia  in  missions  initially  known  as   Operation  Daniel  Boone.    For  roughly  a  year,  Projects  Sigma  and  Omega  had  been   running  missions  into  Cambodia,  resulting  in  significant  disputes  between  the  5th   Special  Forces  Group  and  SOG.    In  “pitches”  to  the  Office  of  the  Secretary  of  Defense,   the  Joint  Chiefs,  and  the  State  Department,  both  organizations  claimed  they  should   take  the  lead  in  running  reconnaissance  missions  in  Cambodia.    SOG  won  out,   claiming  that  the  5th  Group,  operating  under  the  authority  of  the  Military  Assistance   Command-­‐Vietnam,  lacked  authorization  for  operations  outside  South  Vietnam.     SOG  took  over  Sigma  and  Omega  on  3  September  1967.43   Several  new  SOG  bases  were  established  to  manage  the  missions  in  Cambodia,   including  Command  and  Control  South  at  Ban  Me  Thuot.    According  to  Turkoly-­‐ Joczik,  “From  1967  through  April  1972,  OPS-­‐35  conducted  1,398  reconnaissance   missions,  38  platoon-­‐sized  patrols,  and  12  multi-­‐platoon  operations  in  Cambodia.   During  the  same  period,  it  captured  24  prisoners  of  war.”44   Stand-­Down  and  Operation  Commando  Hunt     The  1968  Tet  Offensive  left  NVA  and  Viet  Cong  forces  operating  in  South  

Vietnam  decimated,  and  the  operation  was  an  undeniable  military  victory  for  the  US                                                                                                                  
41 42

Guardia, pp. 171-177. Later renamed Operation Salem House. 43 Gillespie, pp. 122-123.   44 LTC Robert L. Turkoly-Joczik, "SOG: An Overview." Special Operations.Com. N.p., n.d. Web. 2012.11.20. <>.


Mullikin  21  

and  South  Vietnam.    Unfortunately  the  political  fallout  in  the  United  States  was   considerable,  leading  to  a  major  turning  point  in  the  war.    While  officers  assigned  to   MACV  universally  agreed  that  “the  communists  should  be  pushed  to  the  wall”  by   intensified  bombing  campaigns,  assaults  into  NVA  sanctuaries  in  Cambodia  and   Laos,  and  possibly  even  threatening  the  North  with  a  ground  invasion,  the  Joint   Chiefs  and  President  Johnson  disagreed.    In  return  for  an  agreement  from  Hanoi  to   “seriously  negotiate”  Washington  terminated  the  bombing  campaign;  all  of  SOG’s   northern  operations  were  terminated  as  well.45     With  the  bombing  campaign  suspended,  NVA  forces  were  sending  more  troops  

and  materiel  down  the  Ho  Chi  Minh  trail  than  ever  before.    With  an  increasing   number  of  aircraft  available  for  bombing  missions,  Air  Force  units  were  given   permission  to  launch  more  sorties  against  the  NVA  targets  traveling  along  the  trail   as  part  of  Operation  Commando  Hunt.    SOG  units  were  tasked  with  assessing  the   results  of  these  missions,  resulting  in  a  significant  increase  in  the  unit’s  operational   tempo.    The  men  assigned  to  these  “bomb  damage  assessment”  (BDA)  missions   eventually  came  to  “despise  and  even  fear”  them;  often,  the  aerial  view  of  the  effects   of  this  massive  bombing  was  deceiving,  and  recon  teams  were  frequently  greeted   with  well-­‐organized,  functional  fighting  units  upon  their  insertion.    The  results  of   these  contacts  often  resulted  in  heavy  casualties,  as  was  the  case  with  a  24  April   1969  raid  on  the  headquarters  of  the  Central  Office  for  South  Vietnam  (COSVN),   which  American  strategists  understood  to  be  the  main  command  of  communist   forces  operating  in  the  South.    In  this  raid,  SOG  lost  at  least  three  men  and  suffered   dozens  of  wounded.46   Operation  Lam  Son  719     The  intelligence  gathered  by  SOG  reconnaissance  missions  conclusively  proved  

that  the  logistical  support  of  NVA  units  operating  in  Laos  and  Cambodia  was  a  key                                                                                                                  
45 46

Gillespie, pp. 132-133. Those killed on this raid included SOG legend Jerry “Mad Dog” Shriver. Gillespie, pp. 181-182.


Mullikin  22  

reason  behind  the  communists’  success  in  South  Vietnam.    Both  American  and  South   Vietnamese  strategists  agreed  that  an  attempt  to  interdict  the  NVA  supply  lines   across  the  border  had  to  be  made.    The  initial  plans  for  an  attack  across  the  border   to  disrupt  the  communist  safe  havens  were  developed  at  MACV  headquarters  in   Saigon  in  early  December  1970.     SOG  teams  were  barred  from  participating  in  the  attack,  however,  for  two  

reasons:  the  US  Senate’s  Cooper-­‐Church  Amendment  to  the  1970  Foreign  Military   Sales  Act,47  which  prohibited  US  ground  forces  from  participating  in  the  mission  at   all;  and  the  fact  that  all  available  helicopter  assets  in  the  theater  were  tied  up  in   support  of  the  conventional  South  Vietnamese  attack.     Unfortunately,  Lam  Son  719  was  too  little,  too  late.    Without  the  support  of  

American  ground  troops,  the  South  Vietnamese  offensive  (launched  on  8  February   1971)  stalled  and  was  eventually  repelled,  forced  to  withdraw  on  25  March.    Despite   SOG’s  exhaustive  efforts  to  reconnoiter  the  Trail,  and  Col.  Blackburn’s  initial  plan  to   send  SOG  troops  into  the  area  to  cut  the  Trail  with  the  help  of  indigenous  guerrillas,   the  Group  never  got  the  chance  to  execute  that  mission.48   Transition  to  Strategic  Technical  Directorate  and  Withdrawal     In  anticipation  of  the  US  disengagement  from  the  war,  both  the  MACV  staff  and  

senior  South  Vietnamese  military  leaders  began  transitioning  the  burden  of  combat   operations  to  South  Vietnamese  forces.    SOG  operations  in  particular  were  slowly   drawn  down  in  1970-­‐1971,  with  operators  continuing  to  perform  BDAs,  gather   intelligence,  and  direct  air  strikes  until  the  final  SOG  recon  mission  was  launched   into  the  Ashau  Valley  (one  of  the  Ho  Chi  Minh  Trail’s  key  entry  points  into  South   Vietnam,  and  the  primary  target  of  the  Operation  Lam  Son  719)  in  December  1971.  


The original amendment passed in the Senate, but was defeated in the House. A revised version was passed by both houses and enacted on 5 January 1971.   48 Gillespie, pp. 227-228.


Mullikin  23  

In  an  attempt  to  keep  up  intelligence-­‐gathering  operations  based  on  the  SOG   model,  the  Group  was  replaced  by  the  Vietnamese  Strategic  Technical  Directorate   (STD),  a  unit  manned  by  Vietnamese  Special  Forces  soldiers  and  supported  by  a   group  of  155  Special  Forces  soldiers.    Unfortunately  several  members  of  the   minority  ethnic  groups  that  served  alongside  the  Americans  in  SOG  refused  to  work   with  the  Vietnamese,  resulting  in  a  significant  loss  of  institutional  knowledge  of   running  cross-­‐border  reconnaissance  missions.    While  many  former  SOG  operators   remained  in  Vietnam  working  with  the  STD,  the  majority  of  those  who  had  run   reconnaissance  missions  with  the  Group  transitioned  elsewhere.    Unfortunately  the   STD  generally  struggled  to  execute  operations  on  the  SOG  model,  and  collapsed   when  the  last  SF  soldiers  withdrew  in  March  1973.49   Presidential  Unit  Citation     The  Studies  and  Observations  Group  was  awarded  the  Presidential  Unit  Citation  

(Army)  on  4  April  2001.    The  ceremony  hosted  all  the  former  commanders  of  SOG   still  alive,  and  all  former  members  of  SOG  remaining  on  active  duty.    Portions  of  the   citation  are  reproduced  below:   The  Studies  and  Observations  Group  is  cited  for  extraordinary  heroism,  great   combat  achievement  and  unwavering  fidelity  while  executing  unheralded  top   secret  missions  deep  behind  enemy  lines  across  Southeast  Asia.    Incorporating   volunteers  from  all  branches  of  the  Armed  Forces,  and  especially,  US  Army   Special  Forces,  SOG’s  ground,  air,  and  sea  units  fought  officially  denied  actions,   which  contributed  immeasurably  to  the  American  war  effort  in  Vietnam.  […]   Despite  casualties  that  sometimes  became  universal,  SOG’s  operators  never   wavered,  but  fought  throughout  the  war  with  the  same  flair,  fidelity,  and   intrepidity  that  distinguished  SOG  from  its  beginning.    The  Studies  and   Observations  Group’s  combat  prowess,  martial  skills  and  unacknowledged   sacrifices  saved  many  American  lives,  and  provided  a  paragon  for  America’s   future  special  operations  forces.50                                                                                                                       49 Adams, p. 127.  

Qtd. in Gillespie, p. 264.


Mullikin  24  

Strategy:  the  Group’s  Overall  Impact  on  the  War  
SOG  reconnaissance  missions  were  essentially  tasked  with  developing   intelligence  and  disrupting  the  NVA  safe  havens  in  Laos  and  Cambodia,  where   communist  forces  had  evicted  local  inhabitants  and  set  up  massive  rear-­‐area   logistical  systems,  which  were  used  to  resupply  and  reinforce  NVA  combat  units   fighting  in  South  Vietnam.    According  to  a  retired  U.S.  Army  Lieutenant  Colonel,   Department  of  Defense  analysis  claims  that:     SOG  operations  provided  a  considerable  amount  of  intelligence  data  to   Washington  and  Saigon  on  North  Vietnamese  troop  movements  along  those   portions  of  the  Ho  Chi  Minh  Trail  that  were  patrolled  by  the  OPS-­35  forces.   Because  of  these  reconnaissance  efforts,  U.S.  planners  had  a  fairly  clear  picture   of  enemy  forces  in  the  sanctuaries  and  along  the  trail  by  early  1969.51   Unfortunately  higher  command  often  misinterpreted  the  intelligence  supplied   by  SOG  recon  teams,  using  the  information  to  justify  the  expansion  of  operations   that  had  little  positive  effect  on  the  ground.    A  perfect  example  of  this  phenomenon   were  the  initial  bomb  damage  assessment  (BDA)  missions  following  the  Nixon   Administration’s  commencement  of  strategic  bombing  missions  along  segments  of   the  Ho  Chi  Minh  Trail  in  Cambodia.    After  inserting  with  RT  Illinois  to  perform  a  BDA   of  the  third  site  targeted  by  Operation  Menu,  Plaster  tells  of  being  overwhelmed  by   enemy  fire  despite  the  obvious  signs  of  a  massive  aerial  bombardment.    In  the   team’s  debrief:   All  we  could  say  was  that  these  hard-­core  NVA  were  right  there  where  the   bombs  had  hit,  which  apparently  pleased  the  Air  Force  and  the  Nixon   administration.    As  a  result,  the  secret  bombing  would  be  expanded,  so  that  by   year’s  end  nearly  1,000  B-­52  sorties  would  have  dropped  almost  27,000  tons  of   bombs  in  northeast  Cambodia  alone.52   Instead  of  questioning  the  effectiveness  of  the  bombing  given  the  fact  that  NVA   troops  managed  to  not  only  survive,  but  also  retain  their  fighting  capabilities  despite   heavy  aerial  bombardment,  the  Pentagon  and  members  of  the  Nixon  Administration                                                                                                                  
51 52

Turkoly-Joczik. Plaster, p. 130.  


Mullikin  25  

chose  to  use  RT  Illinois’  assessment  as  proof  that  their  targeting  was  correct,  and   thus  the  bombing  was  achieving  its  goal  of  destroying  NVA  logistical  infrastructure.     Furthermore,  SOG  commanders’  hands  were  tied  when  it  came  to  using  their  

unit  to  its  full  potential.    Beginning  with  Col.  Blackburn  in  1965,  SOG  commanders   petitioned  the  Pentagon  to  give  SOG  permission  to  “create  and  sponsor  a  front   organization  within  South  Vietnam  that  would  mirror  that  of  the  communist-­‐ dominated  National  Liberation  Front…”  such  an  organization  could  be  used  as  “a   springboard  for  a  real  resistance  [guerrilla]  movement  in  the  North.”53    Despite  the   incredible  potential  such  a  movement  might  have  offered  American  strategists,   Washington  repeatedly  refused  the  requests.    Apparently,  senior  American  defense   officials  “could  never  seem  to  comprehend  that  [they]  could  carry  out  covert   operations  on  one  hand  while  denying  them  on  the  other.”54    This  is  just  one   example  of  the  way  conventional  military  strategists  and  civilian  national  security   officials  failed  to  recognize  the  full  potential  of  SOG  as  an  asset  for  unconventional   warfare.   The  episodes  recounted  above  are  case  studies  in  the  strategic  effectiveness  of   the  Studies  and  Observations  Group;  when  their  missions  were  effective  in   gathering  intelligence,  that  information  was  subject  to  misuse  and   misinterpretation.    Despite  the  strengths  of  the  men  assigned  to  the  unit,  especially   in  terms  of  foreign  internal  defense,  conventional  commanders  were  unwilling  to   consider  the  potential  benefits  of  unconventional  warfare.    This  blatant  misuse  of   the  men  and  the  results  they  produced  speaks  to  a  significant  problem  with  the   Vietnam-­‐era  U.S.  military  at  the  staff  level.    Thus,  despite  the  extreme  bravery  shown   by  the  men  assigned  to  SOG,  the  unit’s  overall  impact  on  U.S.  behavior  during  the   war  was  negligible.    According  to  Gillespie:   MACSOG  and  its  operations  failed  to  achieve  the  goals  that  its  masters  set  for  it.     This  occurred  not  because  of  a  lack  of  effort  or  initiative  on  the  part  of  the  unit                                                                                                                  
53 54

Gillespie, p. 42. Ibid.


Mullikin  26  

or  its  personnel,  but  because  of  the  inherent  flaws  in  U.S.  political/military   strategy  during  the  conflict.    Other  problems…were  exemplified  by  MACV’s  and   SACSA’s  inability  to  adapt  MACSOG  to  fit  their  strategy.  …  SOG  could  have   served  as  both  pathfinder  and  spearhead  for  an  attack  on  the  Trail  system  by   larger  conventional  forces.    Thanks  to  unchanging  political  restrictions,   however,  that  was  never  going  to  happen.   In  the  end,  despite  the  significant  intelligence  SOG  delivered  to  strategic  planners  in   Saigon  and  Washington,  and  the  effectiveness  “commando”  raids  had  in  instilling   fear  in  NVA  rear-­‐echelon  troops,  SOG  failed  to  fully  exploit  its  successes  in  the  field.     There  is  no  evidence  that  any  decisive  actions  were  taken  by  SOG  itself,  or  by   conventional  forces  based  on  intelligence  gathered  by  SOG  reconnaissance  missions,   to  destroy  the  NVA  supply  routes  along  the  Ho  Chi  Minh  Trail.    Given  that  disrupting   and  dismantling  that  logistical  infrastructure  was  a  key  objective  for  the  Group,  we   must  chalk  up  SOG’s  efforts  as  admirable,  but  ultimately  a  failure.  

The  Group’s  Impact  on  Modern  Special  Operations  Units  
SOG  was  the  first  American  joint  command  with  a  special  operations  mission  set,   making  it  in  some  ways  a  theater-­‐specific  forerunner  to  the  U.S.  Special  Operations   Command  (SOCOM)  established  16  April  1987  after  the  failure  of  Operation  Eagle   Claw.    The  Studies  and  Observations  Group  pursued  theater-­‐wide  operations  by   deploying  various  special  operations  units,  in  addition  to  coordinating  the   cooperation  of  those  units—such  as  Special  Forces  recon  teams  and  the  special  Air   Force  task  units  that   inserted  them  behind   enemy  lines—in  the   execution  of  thousands  of   small-­‐unit  missions.    At  the   command  level,  then,  SOG   began  writing  the  blueprint   for  the  kind  of  operations  

Figure  8:  Billy  Waugh  (left)  and  an  unnamed  pilot  prior  to  a  HALO   jump  into  enemy  territory.  


Mullikin  27  

run  with  such  high  success  rates  by  SOCOM  and  the  Joint  Special  Operations   Command  (JSOC)  in  Afghanistan  and  Iraq.    Fortunately,  many  stalwart  SOG  veterans   were  still  serving  when  American  special  operations  were  formalized  under  SOCOM   and  JSOC,  helping  to  guide  those  organizations  in  their  efforts  to  formalize  American   special  operations.    At  the  unit  level,  the  establishment  of  Delta  Force  in  1977  and   SEAL  Team  6  in  1980  relied  on  the  advice  of  many  men  who  “made  their  bones”  in   SOG,  especially  the  famous  American  covert  warrior  Billy  Waugh.55,  56    Others,   including  Col.  Charlie  Beckwith  (the  founder  of  Delta),  Col.  Jerry  King  (founder  of  the   Intelligence  Support  Activity),57  and  Commander  Richard  Marcinko  (founder  of   SEAL  Team  6)  also  cut  their  teeth  on  special  operations  work  in  Southeast  Asia,   making  the  warriors  serving  with  modern  SOF  units  something  like  the  military   grandchildren  of  those  that  fought  with  SOG.   SOG  also  began  the  initial  development  of  tactics,  techniques,  and  procedures   that  have  come  to  dominate  American  special  operations  deployments.    In  his   conclusion,  Gillespie  notes,  “The  methods  and  techniques  developed  and  utilized  by   SOG  in  Southeast  Asia…were  adopted  by  Delta  [Force]  and  have  become  standard   operational  practices.”    For  example,  SOG  commander  in  chief  Col.  John  Sadler   authorized  the  first  combat  HALO  jump  on  28  November  1970,  ordering  Spike   Team58  Virginia,  composed  of  three  American  non-­‐commissioned  officers  and  three   Montagnard  fighters,  to  insert  behind  enemy  lines  by  jumping  from  14,000  feet.     While  the  team  members  were  scattered  six  miles  from  their  planned  drop  zone,                                                                                                                  
55 56

Gillespie, p. 260. Billy Waugh retired from the U.S. Army as a Special Forces Sergeant Major in 1972, and later went on to serve in the CIA’s Special Activities Division. He served in the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom), and Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom). With SOG, Waugh had a role in the first and last combat HALO insertions in Vietnam. Waugh was one of the first CIA paramilitary officers to deploy to Afghanistan where, at age 71, he worked with Northern Alliance leaders to topple the Taliban and appeared at the Battle of Tora Bora. Between his Special Forces and CIA careers, he has spent more than 50 years running covert operations on behalf of the United States. He is the recipient of a Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, four Bronze Stars, eight Purple Hearts, and four Army Commendation Medals. 57 For more information on this important human intelligence-gathering special mission unit, see Michael Smith. Killer Elite. New York, NY: St. Martin's, 2007. Print. 58 Another term for a recon team.


Mullikin  28  

they  survived  five  days  on  the  ground  without  alerting  NVA  units  to  their  presence,   and  were  successfully  extracted  from  four  locations  on  2  December.59    Additionally,   SOG  teams  virtually  wrote  the  book  on  small-­‐unit  search  and  rescue  operations  and   strategic  reconnaissance.    With  these  historic  developments  in  mind,  we  can  clearly   say  that  despite  the  Group’s  failure  to  strategically  impact  the  war  in  Vietnam,  its   role  in  the  formation  of  modern  special  operations  units  is  unparalleled  and   critically  important  for  today’s  unconventional  warfighters.  

The  men  assigned  to  the  Studies  and  Observations  Group  in  Vietnam  fought   courageously,  but  their  hands  were  tied,  tactically  and  operationally.    In  the  field,   the  stringent  requirements  set  out  by  Washington  to  keep  SOG  missions  deniable   and  covert  left  the  operators  themselves  alone,  with  little  outside  aid.    Operating  in   small  units,  SOG  recon  teams  were  consistently  outnumbered  and  outgunned—for   the  men  on  the  ground,  simply  surviving  the  mission  unscathed  counted  as  a  victory.     Unfortunately,  statistically  speaking  every  SOG  operator  suffered  serious  injuries,   calling  into  question  the  strategic  necessity  of  such  costly  missions.   At  the  operational  level,  MACV  strategists  failed  to  take  advantage  of  the   potential  force  multiplier  offered  by  SOG.    By  relying  on  indigenous  forces  to   conduct  the  more  diplomatically  untenable  operations  of  the  war,  SOG  troops  were   never  allowed  to  deliver  a  decisive  blow  to  the  NVA  logistics  infrastructure  they’d   surveyed  over  hundreds  of  reconnaissance  missions—essentially  the  exact  mission   they  were  initially  meant  to  execute  under  Col.  Blackburn’s  vision  for  the  third   phase  of  Operation  Shining  Brass.    Furthermore,  MACV  officers  failed  to  recognize   the  potential  benefits  of  unconventional  warfare,  remaining  distrustful  of  important   tactics  that  could  have  drastically  changed  the  outcome  of  the  war.  

                                                                                                                59 Gillespie, p. 210.  


Mullikin  29  


In  strategic  terms,  the  Group’s  failure  lay  more  with  those  outside  its  command  

than  with  those  serving  as  senior  leaders  of  SOG.    The  organization  was  an   unconventional  force  operating  within  a  highly  bureaucratized,  conventional   military  that  was  distrustful  of  special  operations  units  in  general.    Despite  the   efforts  of  the  Group’s  admirable  enlisted  men  and  officers,  it  failed  to  have  a  major   impact  on  the  outcome  of  the  war.    As  Kelley  notes  in  his  conclusion,     The  ability  to  maneuver  and  conduct  battles  by  the  North  Vietnamese  was  not   impacted  to  any  great  degree  by  SOG’s  activities…  The  unconventional  war   effort  was  more  or  less  a  nuisance  to  the  North  Vietnamese.  History  shows  that   they  continued  to  maintain  control  of  their  rear  area  and  move  supplies  and   personnel  to  fight  the  war  in  South  Vietnam.  They  were  still  strong  enough  to   mount  a  major  offensive  in  1972  and  again  successfully  in  1975.  …  Had  SOG   operations  been  linked  to  the  conventional  fight  and  restrictions  lessened  or   dropped,  the  unconventional  war  effort  might  have  been  more  effective.60   Unfortunately  the  Group  never  got  the  chance  to  prove  its  full  capabilities.   It  is  important  to  note  that  the  scope  of  this  study  does  not  allow  for  a  full   investigation  of  all  aspects  of  the  Studies  and  Observations  Group.    Primarily  due  to   a  lack  of  information  on  the  other  units  manned  by  SOG—including,  for  example,  the   larger  Hatchet  and  Mike  Forces61—this  paper  has  focused  on  the  contributions   made  by  SOG  reconnaissance  teams  in  their  cross-­‐border  missions  into  Laos  and   Cambodia.    More  research  must  be  done  to  paint  a  complete  picture  of  the  impact   SOG  had  on  the  American  war  in  Southeast  Asia.    With  that  said  the  information   presented  here  is  sufficient  to  unequivocally  say  that  SOG  failed  to  have  a  decisive   impact  on  the  war.    However,  as  any  SOG  memoir  will  indicate,  that  was  not  in  any   way  the  fault  of  the  operators  themselves.  

60 61

Kelley, p. 66. Company-sized units deployed on relatively infrequent cross-border missions, often to strike targets identified by small-unit reconnaissance missions. These units also sometimes served as quick-reaction forces, similar to modern Ranger units’ support of other SOF missions. For example, in the five years that SOG units operated in Cambodia, full Mike/Hatchet Force companies deployed across the border only twelve times, compared to 1,398 recon team deployments in the same period.


Mullikin  30  

Finally,  given  the  similarities  between  modern  American  special  operations   forces  and  their  grandfathers  in  SOG,  it  is  important  that  modern  strategic  planners   take  care  in  their  reliance  on  special  operations  troops  and  the  capabilities  they   offer.    While  the  men  who  fill  the  ranks  of  modern  SOCOM  units  are  just  as   remarkable  as  those  who  fought  with  SOG  in  the  Sixties  and  Seventies,  the  example   of  MACV’s  misuse  of  SOG  proves  that  the  tactical  expertise  of  SOF  units  is  no   substitute  for  sound  strategy,  operational  planning,  and  a  well-­‐grounded   understanding  of  the  enemy  one  hopes  to  defeat.  



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Adams,  Thomas  K.  US  Special  Operations  Forces  in  Action:  The  Challenge  of   Unconventional  Warfare.  London:  Frank  Cass,  1998.  Print.   Delf,  Brian  and  Gordon  Rottman,  US  MACV-­SOG  Reconnaisance  Team  in  Vietnam,   (Oxford,  UK:  Osprey,  2011).   Gillespie,  Robert  M.,  Black  Ops  Vietnam:  The  Operational  History  of  MACVSOG,   (Annapolis,  MD:  Naval  Institute  Press,  2011).   Guardia,  Mike.  Shadow  Commander:  The  Epic  Story  of  Donald  D.  Blackburn  -­  Guerrilla   Leader  and  Special  Forces  Hero.  Havertown,  PA:  Casemate,  2011.  Print.   Kelley,  MAJ  Danny  M.,  “The  Misuse  of  the  Studies  and  Observations  Group  as  a   National  Asset  in  Vietnam,”  2005,  at  <­‐ bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA437021>.   Kelly,  Francis  J.  Vietnam  Studies:  U.S.  Army  Special  Forces  1961-­1971.  Washington:   Department  of  the  Army,  1973.  Print.   “MACV  Command  History”  (Report  from  the  DOD  and  Joint  Chiefs  of  Staff),   [Formerly  TOP  SECRET].   Meyer,  John  Stryker,  Across  the  Fence  [Kindle  Edition],  SOG  Publishing,  2011.   Moyar,  Mark,  Phoenix  and  the  Birds  of  Prey:  The  CIA’s  Secret  Campaign  to  Destroy  the   Viet  Cong,  (Annapolis,  MD:  Naval  Institute  Press,  1997).   Murphy,  Jack,  “MACV-­‐SOG:  RT  Maryland’s  Final  Mission,”  SOFREP  (29  August  2012)   <­‐sog-­‐rt-­‐marylands-­‐final-­‐mission/>  [Accessed  2   October  2012].   Murphy,  Jack,  “The  Legend  and  Truth  of  Jerry  “Mad  Dog”  Shriver,”  SOFREP  (1   October  2012)  <­‐legend-­‐and-­‐truth-­‐of-­‐jerry-­‐mad-­‐ dog-­‐shriver/>  [Accessed  2012.11.20].   Nolan,  Keith  William,  Into  Laos:  The  Story  of  Dewey  Canyon  II/Lam  Son  719;  Vietnam   1971,  (Novato,  CA:  Presidio,  1986).     Plaster,  John  L.  Secret  Commandos:  Behind  Enemy  Lines  with  the  Elite  Warriors  of   SOG,  (New  York,  NY:  Simon  &  Schuster,  2004).   Records  of  the  Military  Assistance  Command  Vietnam:  Part  1.  The  War  in  Vietnam,   1954-­1973,  MACV  Historical  Office  Documentary  Collection,  ed.  Robert  E.  Lester,   (Bethesda,  MD:  University  Publications  of  America,  1988).   Saal,  Harve,  SOG,  MACV  Studies  and  Observations  Group:  Behind  Enemy  Lines,  (Ann   Arbor,  MI:  Edwards  Brothers,  1990).   Smith,  Michael.  Killer  Elite.  New  York,  NY:  St.  Martin's,  2007.  Print.  


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Stanton,  Shelby  L.  Green  Berets  at  War:  U.S.  Army  Special  Forces  in  Southeast  Asia,   1956-­1975.  Novato,  CA:  Presidio,  1985.  Print.   Taubman,  Philip,  “The  Secret  War  of  a  Green  Beret,”  New  York  Times,  (article;   1982.07.04);  p.  18.   Turkoly-­‐Joczik,  LTC  Robert  L.  "SOG:  An  Overview."  Special  Operations.Com.  N.p.,  n.d.   Web.  2012.11.20.   <>.  

Figure  1:  Wikipedia  Commons,  2009.09.04.    Available  at   < SOG.jpg>.    Accessed  2012.11.20.   Figure  2:  From  Gillespie,  Black  Ops  Vietnam,  2011.   Figure  3:  Greene,  Larry.  CCN  Compound  2.  Digital  image.  MACVSOG.  N.p.,  n.d.  Web.   2012.11.20.  <>.   Figure  4:  Newton,  John.  RT  Maine,  70  @  CCC,  taken  at  FOB,  NVA  Dressed.  Digital   image.  MACVSOG.  N.  p.,  1970.  Web.  2012.11.20.   <>.   Figure  5:  Carrell,  Tom.  Rope  Ladder,  FOB  2.  Digital  image.  MACVSOG.  N.  p.,  1967-­‐ 1968.  Web.  2012.11.20.   < pg>.   Figure  6:  Nowak,  Richard.  Prisoner  Caught  by  RT  Texas.  Note:  Howard  came  to  the   helicopter  pad  when  the  recon  team  retuned,  he  picked  up  and  carried  the   prisoner  from  the  Huey.  Howard  was  not  on  the  mission  that  captured  this   prisoner.  Digital  image.  MACVSOG.  N.  p.,  1969.  Web.  2012.11.20.   <­‐Texas.jpg>.   Figure  7:  Waugh,  Billy.  Pre-­Combat  HALO  Insert.  Digital  image.  MACVSOG.  N.  p.,   1971.06.22.  Web.  2012.11.20.  <>.  

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