John Plaster’s riveting account of his covert activities as a member of a special operations team during the Vietnam War is “a true insider’s account, this eye-opening report will leave readers feeling as if they’ve been given a hot scoop on a highly classified project” (Publishers Weekly).
Code-named the Studies and Observations Group, SOG was the most secret elite US military unit to serve in the Vietnam War—so secret its very existence was denied by the government. Composed entirely of volunteers from such ace fighting units as the Army Green Berets, Air Force Air Commandos, and Navy SEALs, SOG took on the most dangerous covert assignments, in the deadliest and most forbidding theaters of operation.
In SOG, Major John L. Plaster, a three-tour SOG veteran, shares the gripping exploits of these true American warriors in a minute-by-minute, heartbeat-by-heartbeat account of the group’s stunning operations behind enemy lines—penetrating heavily defended North Vietnamese military facilities, holding off mass enemy attacks, launching daring missions to rescue downed US pilots. Some of the most extraordinary true stories of honor and heroism in the history of the US military, from sabotage to espionage to hand-to-hand combat, Plaster’s account is “a detailed history of this little-known aspect of the Vietnam War…a worthy act of historical rescue from an unjustified, willed oblivion” (The New York Times).
SOG 1 COLBY’S SECRET WAR IT WAS A MISERABLE sea yet navigable despite the looming islands and the swells that propelled the heaving 38-foot junk. February was well into North Vietnam’s monsoon season, and when there weren’t full-fledged typhoons there were squalls and showers, day after day, wretched conditions for small craft like this junk—but people must eat, so fish must be caught.
Despite the modern times—February 1961—the bobbing boat had been hand built in the Vietnamese tradition, crafted by the very half dozen men who manned her. Wooden hulled and two masted, above deck she had just a small squarish wheelhouse aft, and like all North Vietnamese fishing boats, displayed proudly Communist red sails; they were her only propulsion. And because she lacked modern navigational instruments, her captain steered as had his ancestors for ten generations, by the stars. But in tonight’s overcast it was not his knowledge of the heavens but his familiarity with the towering limestone islands around them that allowed him to steer closer to the seaside town of Cam Pha.
Two nights earlier they’d passed the glowing horizon that was Haiphong, North Vietnam’s major port city, and this evening during a quiet sunset they almost could see the hazy mountains of Kwangsi Province, China, some 40 miles northward.
No other fishing boats braved tonight’s squalls or teased the darkened reefs and shoals. On so miserable a night, surely no government craft could come to their rescue if they were swamped.
But on the other hand, neither would a Communist Swatow-class patrol boat stop them and make difficult inquiries, which actually was their main concern. Despite its authentic appearance, this junk had been built not in North Vietnam, but 800 miles away at Vung Tau, South Vietnam. And while the men who made and manned her were once simple fishermen, in more recent years they’d become refugees who fled the Communists; and even more recently they’d been trained by CIA paramilitary officers who also had financed this entire expedition.
When at last his junk reached calmer, leeside waters behind a jagged island, the captain called up a thin, middle-aged man from below. Several crewmen lowered over the side a small woven basket boat crammed with a radio and provisions, and off he went: Agent Ares, the CIA’s first long-term North Vietnam–based operative, had been successfully landed.
The man to whom Agent Ares ultimately reported was as much his opposite as was imaginable. Catholic, Ivy League, with intelligent eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses, William Colby looked and sounded more like a corporate executive than the CIA’s Saigon station chief. Comfortable in a bow tie and business suit on even the sultriest tropical days, the man who oversaw this expanding covert enterprise hardly appeared to be a rising CIA star and longtime veteran of the secret wars.
In 1944 then-Lieutenant William Colby had parachuted into Nazi-occupied France as one of the OSS’s most elite operatives, a Jedburgh officer, to help the Resistance disrupt German defenses behind the Normandy beaches. A year later he was sabotaging Norwegian rail lines to prevent German units from reaching the Reich before its collapse. While several of his OSS colleagues became founders of U.S. Army Special Forces, Colby joined the new postwar civilian intelligence agency, the CIA. His career progressed steadily.
Soon after Colby’s 1959 appointment to the ever more important Saigon station, there began a troubling reappearance in South Vietnam of old Communist Viet Minh fighters who had emigrated to the North in 1954, after the French-Indochina War.
At its April 1959 15th Plenum, the North Vietnamese Communist Party Central Committee had voted in secret session to return covertly to South Vietnam thousands of such Viet Minh veterans. These infiltrators were to work with party cadres who’d remained in South Vietnam to execute a conquest intended from its inception to be deniable and thus undercut any rationale for foreign intervention. To infiltrate on such a scale, the Central Committee created a special Army unit, the 559th Transportation Group—the numbers commemorating its May 1959 founding—which in tandem with North Vietnam’s Trinh Sat secret intelligence service would train people and move them southward. From his headquarters in North Vietnam’s Ha Tinh Province, the infiltration commander, Brigadier General Vo Bam, cautioned, “This route must be kept absolutely secret.” Therefore, when the first group headed south in August 1959, they wore untraceable peasant garb and carried captured French weapons.I
The returning Viet Minh marched 10 miles each day among busy detachments of Army engineers sent to improve and expand these simple foot-paths they called the Truong Son Route because it meandered through a similarly named mountain chain. Westerners would call this network the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
CIA station chief Colby found gathering information about the Truong Son Route difficult. Indeed, this landlocked Laotian wilderness was largely unmapped, with misty valleys so blanketed by jungle that flyovers and aerial photos disclosed nothing. To find what was there required putting men on the ground.
The CIA recruited French coffee planters at Khe Sanh on South Vietnam’s northwest frontier to travel every few weeks along Route 9 to the quiet village of Tchephone, Laos, 30 miles away. Despite keeping their eyes peeled, the planters brought back little intelligence because infiltration parties were small and crossed Highway 9 at night.
The incoming Kennedy administration expanded Colby’s covert effort to detect Communist infiltration and insinuate an expanded network of CIA saboteurs and agents into North Vietnam. National Security Memorandum 52 authorized the CIA to employ Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs to train and advise the South Vietnamese who would execute Colby’s covert missions.
Technically the Green Berets and SEALs weren’t working for the CIA—they worked for CAS, an innocuous cover whose initials stood for Combined Area Studies. At the seaside resort town of Nha Trang, American Special Forces trained South Vietnamese 1st Observation Group commandos to explore the growing Ho Chi Minh Trail; during 1961 and 1962, the 1st Group mounted forty-one recon operations into the Laotian infiltration corridor, but its teams were too cautious to learn much. The CIA-funded Mountain Scouts penetrated Laos, too; however, these courageous but illiterate Montagnard tribesmen could not comprehend map reading and couldn’t associate what they discovered with a recordable location.
Meanwhile, in Danang, the SEALs trained junk crews to land secret agents in the North and organized a civilian raiding force, the Sea Commandos, for hit-and-run coastal attacks. Soon the Sea Commandos began across-the-beach raids on North Vietnam, to plant a clever weapon designed by SEAL Gunners Mate Barry Enoch. Enoch rigged a packboard with four cardboard tubes—each containing a 3.5-inch antitank rocket—wired to a delay mechanism, so a raider could slip ashore at night, aim the packboard toward, say, a radar station, activate the timer, then paddle back to a waiting boat. The raiders would be long gone by the time the North Vietnamese got their sunrise surprise.
After several successes, some raider junks were intercepted by enemy Swatow patrol boats, whose automatic cannons and heavy 12.7mm machine guns made quick work of the flimsy wooden craft.
Although SEAL Gunners Mate Enoch devised a host of clever junk armaments—from hidden rocket launchers to .50-caliber machine guns concealed in 55-gallon drums—it soon reached the point that junks were just too vulnerable to ply North Vietnamese waters. The CIA began a search for faster boats, and turned as well to aerial infiltration via a new South Vietnamese Air Force unit.
To command the clandestine VNAF squadron that would penetrate the North, Colby sought out a flamboyant pilot with a thin Clark Gable mustache and a penchant for black flight suits. Though only thirty years old, already he was a colonel and commanded Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Air Base and seemed willing to fly anything, anywhere—but did that include piloting unmarked C-47s deep into North Vietnam? Colby asked.
The pilot smiled and said, “When do we start?” The gutsy flyer eventually would head his country’s Air Force and go on to be South Vietnam’s president—Nguyen Cao Ky.
Ky recruited his best pilots, but months of training would precede their first operational flight. To help them, the CIA brought in Nationalist Chinese instructor pilots with hundreds of missions over mainland China very similar to what Ky’s men would fly—100 feet above the treetops, at night, under 30 percent moonlight.
CIA air experts at Takhli, Thailand, were tasked to help Colby plan the North Vietnam aerial penetrations; he couldn’t have found a more capable group. Colonel Harry “Heinie” Aderholt, likely the most experienced special operations officer in the Air Force, had just finished the CIA’s Tibet airlift, where unmarked C-130s had penetrated Chinese-occupied Tibet to parachute supplies and guerrillas to the pro-Dalai Lama resistance. On loan to the CIA for secret projects since the Korean War, Aderholt’s Thailand-based organization had just been redirected to support the CIA’s expanding guerrilla force in Laos, using Air America planes, when the infiltration analysis job was assigned.
Assisting Aderholt was probably the CIA’s finest aerial infiltration planner, USAF Major Larry Ropka. Studious, intense, a perfectionist, Ropka had planned all the Tibet flights, and if not one plane was lost, it was largely because he applied his whole being to such a task.
With 90 percent of the North’s population arrayed along its coastal lowlands and Red River Valley, Major Ropka could see that any approach from the Tonkin Gulf—the “front door”—was certain to be met by MiGs and antiaircraft guns. Therefore, he planned aerial infiltration routes through the less populated mountainous border with Laos—the “back door”—where terrain masking and electronic confusion were most effective.
To improve the “back door,” Ropka had Air America planes in Laos climb to 5000 feet, where they would appear on North Vietnamese radar, fly a “back door” approach, then descend to low level, below radar, and turn back to Thailand. After dozens of false alarms, the North’s air defense network would stop alerting fighters and antiaircraft units, and wouldn’t be able to distinguish between Ropka’s feints and the real infiltration flights, which were soon to begin.
Meanwhile, the agents to be inserted were being instructed at Camp Long Thanh, 20 miles east of Saigon, where Green Berets and CIA officers taught them intelligence and sabotage techniques, rough-terrain parachuting, weapons handling, Morse code and survival—skills to sustain them for years in North Vietnam.
By late spring 1961, the graduate agents were ready to join Agent Ares, who by now was regularly tapping out Morse code messages to a CIA communications center in the Philippines. But unlike Ares—a “singleton,” or lone operator—the new operatives would land in teams of three to eight men. They would lack the luck of Ares.
The first airdropped group, Team Atlas, never came up on its appointed frequency; the plane that delivered them disappeared. Colonel Ky personally flew the next airdrop mission, inserting Team Castor deep in North Vietnam. Three months later Hanoi held a much-publicized trial for three Atlas survivors. Then Team Castor went off the air, and CIA handlers realized Teams Dido and Echo were under enemy control, so they were played as “doubles.” The last team parachuted into North Vietnam in 1961, Team Tarzan, was presumed captured.
Despite such losses, at least Colby now had an infrastructure for conducting his secret war that he could improve and build upon. But something beyond Colby’s control unexpectedly came into play: Two months after Agent Ares paddled ashore, another CIA expedition landed half a world away, in a debacle forever to be known by the name of its locale, the Bay of Pigs. The catastrophic failure of the Cuban-exile landing so embarrassed President Kennedy that he appointed General Maxwell Taylor to learn what had gone wrong. The Taylor Commission concluded that the Cuba project had escalated beyond a size manageable by the CIA. It recommended a worldwide review of other CIA enterprises to learn if any had grown beyond intelligence operations, and if so, to switch them to military control.
William Colby’s growing secret war fit the commission’s criteria perfectly; during the summer of 1962 the CIA agreed to transfer these Southeast Asian programs to the military in eighteen months, dubbing it Operation Switchback. But on the very day scheduled for Switchback—1 November 1963—South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown. Then three weeks later, President Kennedy was assassinated, further delaying the transfer. And the military had yet to create a unit to absorb the CIA programs.
Meanwhile Hanoi stepped up its infiltration, causing Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to order a series of covert attacks on North Vietnam to “make it clear to the leaders of the North that they would suffer serious reprisals for their continuing support of the insurgency in South Vietnam.” Under OPLAN-34A, issued 15 December 1963, McNamara intended to send only a symbolic message, limiting targets to “those that provide maximum pressure with minimum risk.”
Despite McNamara’s insistence that OPLAN-34A missions commence 1 February 1964, it wasn’t until 24 January that Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), finally organized the covert unit to take over the CIA programs; soon it would be the largest clandestine military unit since World War II’s OSS. Commanded by an Army colonel, it would include elements of all services, from Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs to USAF Air Commandos, operating as SOG, the Special Operations Group, a descriptive label that made a mockery of security. A few months later the unit was renamed, yet its acronym remained SOG, only now, SOG stood for Studies and Observations Group, a supposed gathering of quiet analysts devoted to academic study.
The Studies and Observations Group was not subordinate to MACV or its new commander, General William Westmoreland; it answered directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in the Pentagon, often with White House–level input. Only five non-SOG officers in Saigon were even briefed on its top secret doings: Westmoreland; his chief of staff; his intelligence officer (J-2); the Seventh Air Force commander; and the commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam.
SOG’s charter authorized operations from South Vietnam and Thailand into Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam, with contingency planning for northern Burma and China’s Kwangsi, Kwangtung and Yunnan Provinces, plus Hainan Island. Officially SOG would answer solely to an office in the Pentagon’s high-status E Ring called SACSA, the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities, a two-star general whose small staff responded only to the Joint Chiefs’ operations officer (J-3), with unprecedented direct access to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Any money SOG needed would be buried in the Navy’s annual budget.
Heading SOG’s secret war and bearing the title Chief SOG was a World War II paratroop officer who’d come into Special Forces in the 1950s, Colonel Clyde Russell. A veteran of combat parachute jumps in France and Holland with the 82nd Airborne Division, Colonel Russell became Secretary of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, then commanded the Europe-based 10th Special Forces Group, then the 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
With OPLAN-34A allowing no time for contemplation, Russell’s Saigon staff fell back on the tried and true and structured SOG like the old OSS, into air and maritime sections—because these are the ways agents are transported—plus a psychological operations section similar to the OSS Morale Operations Division.
The CIA offered Colonel Russell the agency’s unique logistic channels for exotic hardware, such as suppressed weapons and wiretap devices, via the agency’s top secret Far East logistics base at Camp Chinen, Okinawa. Nearby was another office created by Operation Switchback, CISO, or the Counterinsurgency Support Office, which provided specialized logistics aid to SOG and Special Forces.
Another CIA contribution was a clandestine C-123 transport squadron from Taiwan, flown by Nationalist Chinese pilots, to replace the less capable Vietnamese-flown C-47s. Known as the First Flight Detachment, these four SOG airplanes bore removable U.S. insignia and formerly had flown with Nationalist China’s top secret 34th Squadron, which had been penetrating mainland China for more than a decade, inserting and resupplying agents and dropping CIA sensors. The 34th Squadron’s U-2s had flown over China since 1960, spying on the Lop Nor nuclear test site and Kansu missile range. First Flight’s C-123s had proved a tough target for SAMs and MiGs, penetrating the mainland two hundred times.II
Each First Flight plane had a backup USAF crew for flights in South Vietnam; the Chinese piloted deniable missions into North Vietnam and Cambodia. Though SOG’s Chinese pilots carried South Vietnamese ID cards, they spoke hardly a word of that language, and only a handful of Vietnamese officials even knew they were in the country.
USAF Lieutenant Colonel Bill Rose spent two tours with First Flight, eventually serving as its U.S. commander, and found the Chinese crews solidly professional. Another First Flight veteran, Colonel Don Radike, admired their guts, recalling, “We had one navigator, for example, who had been shot down on the Chinese mainland seven times and walked out every time. What could I possibly tell him about survival?”
In addition to the covert Chinese squadron, the CIA turned over its three-year-old long-term agent program, which by 1964 had airdropped twenty-two teams into North Vietnam. Of these only four teams—Bell, Remus, Easy and Tourbillon—plus the singleton Ares—remained intact.
At Camp Long Thanh, near Saigon, SOG inherited a couple of dozen agents-in-training, whom a SOG officer found “unmotivated, lacking any zeal to serve, and of generally poor, untrustworthy quality.” As a SOG officer coldly confides, most trainees were “not capable of going anywhere and we had to get rid of them; at the same time, we couldn’t turn them loose in South Vietnam because they’d been briefed and rebriefed on operations in North Vietnam.” The solution was to do with them exactly what they had been trained and paid to do: parachute into North Vietnam. In May, June and July 1964, they were airdropped as Teams Boone, Buffalo, Lotus and Scorpion. All were captured. The few quality agents-in-training reinforced the in-place Teams Remus and Tourbillon. SOG began recruiting fresh agents for a twenty-one-week training program at Camp Long Thanh. It would be a slow start.
OPLAN-34A perplexed Russell, because deniable attacks on objectives having little military value did not make sense. “I don’t feel that the objectives of OPLAN-34A were clearly spelled out,” Russell later explained, “so we didn’t know exactly what we were trying to do.” But this was not his only problem.
Each proposed OPLAN-34A operation had to weave its way between Defense, State and the White House for approval, with each stop liable to change, restrict or delay SOG plans. Colonel Russell found this “a tremendous operational handicap,” and complained that, “By the time we got it back, we were out of implementation time and the restraints were too many and too frequent.”
Impatience was driving the program. McNamara had called for the first OPLAN-34A raid by 1 February 1964, incredibly, just seven days after SOG’s founding. Such insistence instigated perhaps the strangest episode of Vietnam’s covert war.
To support OPLAN-34A’s hit-and-run coastal attacks, the CIA had replaced its old junks with 88-foot high-speed Norwegian Nasty-class PT boats, bringing in former Norwegian skippers to help SOG SEALs instruct the new Vietnamese crews. Developed for 47-knot runs from Norway’s fjords to nip at passing Russian ships, the Nasty PTFs (Patrol Type, Fast) were light, heavily armed and bat-out-of-hell fast, the naval cigarette boats of the 1960s. Accustomed to tiny runabouts and junks, however, the Vietnamese simply couldn’t master the Nastys’ tricky high-speed maneuvers.
Within SOG’s Naval Advisory Detachment—a dozen SEALs from Detachment Echo, Seal Team One; a few sailors from Boat Support Unit One at Coronado, California; and five Marine Force Recon men—were plenty of eager volunteers to crew the Nastys for raiding the North, but political deniability absolutely precluded using Americans; indeed, throughout the war no SEALs ever would be allowed north of the 17th Parallel.
But, a SOG staff officer shrewdly observed, the Norwegians weren’t Americans. However, any Caucasian at the throttles of a covert boat in Asian waters flew in the face of plausible denial—How could a Norwegian possibly explain his attacking the coast of North Vietnam? But in the rush to get the raids under way the absurd became the acceptable; thus, due to impatience, SOG’s first covert attacks on North Vietnam would be led by Norwegians.
On the night of 16 February 1964 three Norwegian-piloted Nastys attempted to land Vietnamese frogmen to demolish a bridge, but heavy coastal fire drove them away, aborting the mission. A few nights later another swimmer demolition was attempted, but it, too, failed, with eight Sea Commando swimmers lost.
By early summer the swashbuckling Scandinavian skippers began displaying a tad too much joie de vivre for their sedate SOG superiors. As one warned, “They were getting in trouble in Danang, and there were definite fears in Washington circles that the whole program would be blown because these . . . people were getting involved with Vietnamese girls and the police in Danang.” With new urgency, Vietnamese boat crews were prepared to take over from the Scandinavians, but not before the latter got in a final few licks.
By July, SOG’s Nastys and Sea Commandos had demolished five targets in North Vietnam, followed by two hit-and-run, over-the-beach attacks on 9 and 25 July. On 30 July, SOG launched its biggest bombardment ever, employing five Nastys against radar sites so far north they were closer to Haiphong than to Danang, an action SOG headquarters praised as “well executed and highly successful, with secondary explosions.”
Two days later the boat crews were resting in Danang when word came that North Vietnamese PT boats had attacked the U.S. destroyer Maddox, in what became known as the Tonkin Gulf incident. Although he made no reference to the SOG raids, of which he was informed, President Lyndon Johnson warned Hanoi that another high-seas attack would have dire consequences, and ordered the destroyer Turner Joy to reinforce the Maddox.
SOG Nastys bombarded another coastal radar the night of 3 August, and the next day came a second alleged clash, which became the rationale for the Congressional Tonkin Gulf Resolution and U.S. retaliatory bombing. The Rubicon had been crossed.
Though conspiracy buffs and revisionist historians later would claim SOG “lured” the North Vietnamese into attacking the Maddox, nothing could be further from the truth. With entire regiments now headed south along an expanding Ho Chi Minh Trail, Hanoi already was committed to a widening war; a few small boat raids or destroyers passing near its coast were as nothing compared to North Vietnam’s massive buildup in southern Laos.
But what was happening in Laos had remained largely a mystery in 1964. In April, Defense Secretary McNamara arrived in Saigon with another of his rush orders. “Out of a clear blue sky,” a senior Special Forces officer reports, “I was asked how soon I could launch operations into Laos. I tried to pin [McNamara] down as to what kind of operations and what the mission would be, since nobody had enlightened me or tied it into our planning that we had already submitted.” McNamara insisted the ARVN must recon west of Khe Sanh despite the Green Beret officer’s warning that unmotivated, half-trained Vietnamese couldn’t accomplish anything tangible without U.S. Special Forces leading them. McNamara agreed but still ordered the recon missions—code named “Project Leaping Lena”—and insisted they commence within thirty days. Despite hectic training, the first Leaping Lena teams could not be inserted until 24 June. Between then and 1 July, five teams, each with eight Vietnamese, parachuted into Laos. “We practically had to force them on the airplane at gunpoint,” a disgusted Special Forces Colonel Charlie Norton reported.
Leaping Lena’s results reached presidential adviser William Bundy in a terse report: “All of the teams were located by the enemy and only four survivors returned.” The survivors’ stories were shocked, confused and unreliable, although they reported crossing a network of trails and roads invisible from the air, some carrying truck convoys, and NVA everywhere.
More months passed with no significant intelligence from southern Laos despite telltale signs of a growing enemy presence. In early 1965, Air America pilot Jim Ryan photographed a new road from North Vietnam’s Mu Gia Pass into the Laotian jungle, sheltered beneath camouflaged latticework; the war was entering an ominous new stage, with bicycles giving way to trucks and the Ho Chi Minh Trail to a road system.
On 8 March 1965, while television cameras recorded the first U.S. Marine combat troops wading ashore at Danang, there was a quiet celebration at SOG’s Saigon headquarters. After years of inadequate intelligence, SOG at last was authorized to penetrate the Ho Chi Minh Trail, using not poorly trained, unmotivated Vietnamese but American Green Berets.
And SOG had a new chief en route to lead its secret wars, a highly respected Green Beret officer, Colonel Donald Blackburn, the legendary “headhunter” himself.
I. For the next sixteen years, Hanoi insisted it had no role in the fighting in South Vietnam.
II. First Flight evolved from the Civil Air Transport Service (CATS), a CIA airline founded in 1949 to evacuate Chiang Kai-Shek’s followers to Taiwan. In 1954 CATS resupplied encircled French paratroopers at Dien Bien Phu, then in 1958 supported a coup attempt against Indonesian strongman Sukarno. CATS’s thin cover side apparently became the well-known Air America while its deep cover side became Nationalist China’s 34th Squadron.
Major John L. Plaster was a retired US Army Special Forces soldier, regarded as one of the leading sniper experts in the world. A decorated Vietnam War veteran who served in the covert Studies and Observations Group (SOG), Plaster cofounded a renowned sniper school that trains military and law enforcement personnel in highly specialized sniper tactics. He is the author of SOG; The Ultimate Sniper: An Advanced Training Manual for Military and Police Snipers; The History of Sniping and Sharpshooting; and Secret Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines with the Elite Warriors of SOG, a memoir of his three years of service with SOG.
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