Special Forces training was long and arduous for a young man eager to get into the war and prove his manhood. I could hardly believe I was supposed to wear the Green Beret as a trainee. Though it did not have a unit flash (the unit patch worn on the beret over the left eye), just a plain old green hat, it was the real thing.
Throughout my training, I remained in awe of those giants wearing the colors of the 7th, the 3rd, the 10th. On occasion, we'd see the 5th. The 5th SF had a flash of black with a yellow diagonal band striped with three red lines. The fifth was in Nam, and the ones we saw were either coming or going. Seeing the fifth flash sent a chill down my spine.
In '69, talk of the war was the only topic of off-duty BS sessions. Instructors laced their instruction with stories from the war. We newbies passed those stories around like baseball trading cards. The most coveted were of the projects; CCN, CCC, CCS, Delta, and Omega. We took most stories with a grain of salt. We weren't really sure the projects existed. The subject was taboo.
I was with a group of students from our heavy weapons class, shooting the shit in a Bragg beer garden. The letters CCC and CCN were being tossed about wrecklessly. A figure loomed over our table and slapped the beret from the speaker's startled head. We all looked up to an angry fifth flash. The flash said, "If you stupid fuckers plan to wear that beret, you better learn to keep your God Damn mouths shut!" In the dead silence that followed, we learned.
Months later, I earned my right to a glorious death, proudly sewed on my fifth flash, and packed my bags for "The Nam."
I will never forget the day I saw my first SOG man. I was one month in-country and walking through the SF headquarters compound at Nha Trang with Top Kemner, our team sergeant. Top was an old Asia hand--been there since Diem Bien Phu, I think. Top took a liking to me right from the start. It bothered me that he treated me more like a son than a qualified member of the team.
We were on our way to finance when a sergeant passed us wearing the gaudiest pocket patches. They were big, full of color, and very flashy. By that time, everyone wore subdued patches and rank insignia. This guy stood out like a daisy on a putting green. Top noticed my puzzled look and said, "CCN. He runs recon. That skull patch with the fire burst backing is the SOG patch. The Cobra on the right pocket is the team patch."
This did not make a lot of sense to me and I bravely pressed for an explanation. He said, "They don't wear that in the field. It's mostly for the Yards. It builds team esprit. The Yards love flashy uniforms. C&C Yards get whatever they want. In the future, I'd advise you not to gawk with your tongue half hanging out. Some of those guys are a little touchy. If we're lucky, we might see some REMF captain give him a ration of shit. I once saw one lift a second louey by his lapel, bite the brim of his ball cap, spit it to the ground and say, 'That answer your question, Casey?'"
Later in my first tour, while touring with the band, I got to see and play all three C&C sites. The compounds were located at Da Nang, Kontum, and Ban Me Thout. Those men were animals. They flat scared the hell out of us. If you saw the bar scene in the "Blues Brothers," imagine that without the chicken wire. Try to keep a beat to "Smoke on the Water" with a spoonless grenade rolling about your feet. Removing the blasting cap from a hand grenade and tossing it into the lap of a newbie was a favorite practical joke for those whacky guys. Boy, what fun-loving pranksters.
Slightly disappointed for having survived my first tour, and feeling I needed to compensate for playing in a band, I volunteered for another with SOG. After getting a top secret clearance, I was off to Long Thanh near Saigon for One Zero school.
The team leader of a SOG recon team is designated the one zero. The second American was the one one, the third was the one two. The head Yard, Nung, or Cambode was the zero one and so forth. The typical team at CCC consisted of three Americans and nine Yards. If a mission required the full complement, a one zero might be heard to say, "Were going in with the whole nine Yards."
One Zero school was the SOG commando school. Here you learned the ins and outs of cross border recon, direct action missions, sabotage, and POW snatches. The class was small. Mine was eighteen and represented men from SF, Charlie Rangers, Navy SEALs, and Aussie SAS. Both officer and enlisted were treated the same. I graduated as the honor graduate from my class, got a plaque and everything. I strutted back to Kontum.
First Lieutenant Bob Howard, former SFC and CMH recipient, the Recon detachment CO, congratulated me and introduced me to my one zero, Mike Sheppard of RT Montana. Mike's first words to me were, "The last two honor grads we got here weren't worth a shit. One got his team blown away; the other got ran off. Welcome to Montana, put these patches on your jungle fatigues. As soon as you get your shit squared away, I'll take you to the team house to meet the Yards." [It was almost as tough as getting accepted into the bar at VWar-l] :-)
The Yards knew how to welcome an honor graduate even if they didn't know what one was. They liked my muscles, blond hair and blue eyes. They flipped over my name. Seems Sonny is a common Yard name. My chest got patted and I was christened Y Sonny Eban. I got the feeling that at least somebody on that team wanted to keep me from getting killed. Eventually, Sheppard and Bentley warmed to my presence and overlooked my accolade. I mailed the plaque home and never brought it up again.
Most came to SOG the same way. All had to prove themselves on in-country missions. Those who stayed on an operational team saw action unlike any inside Vietnam. Across the fence (our metaphor for the boundary of Svn) it was a totally different war. On the other side of the fence, we were the VC and they operated in division-sized elements with air, arty, and tank support. Across the fence, you had no friends and no place to go but up. Across the fence, the enemy rode in trucks, walked the trails, and slept in bunkers. Across the fence was a very lonely place. Many crossed the fence and were never heard from again.
The losses were staggering. The operational force from all three detachments never would have filled out a company formation in the typical division. Although we were only ten percent of the Special Forces contingent to vn, we accounted for over half the SF KIA and eighty-five percent of the MIA. We had more Congressional Medal of Honor winners than most infantry brigades. Of the seventeen earned by SF, eight were from SOG.
CMH recipients are rare--living ones rarer still. Some people go through their service and never see one. I stood in a morning formation of less than thirty men with two of them--Bob Howard and Franklin Miller. Talk about feeling dwarfed by giants.
These men did a remarkable job, and they did it in total anonymity. In addition, they did it without the protection of the Geneva Convention. Cross border missions were conducted sterile. That means, no rank or insignia, no dog tags, no id, no nothing that could identify them as a members of the US military. Consequently, the enemy was fully within their rights to treat captured SOG members as spies. We all knew what that meant. Surrender was never an option.
The greatest fear we had was to be so badly wounded that the team would have to leave without you. Pacts were made between team members to do the unthinkable. The unthinkable was done.
The second worst fear was being declared MIA. We knew that MIA was KIA, but our families would always hold out hope. Under the rules, unless a body is recovered, even if witnesses saw the guy get blown away, he went down as an MIA. Pacts were made for that, too. Some promised to cut of their buddy's head when we learned the hard way that a hand was not enough. You can still live without a hand. Others promised to tell the next of kin the truth. Sheppard had a simple solution: If twelve go in, twelve come out or none come out. When I signed on to that philosophy, I became an accepted member of RT Montana.
Montana was not unique in this approach. Many teams fought to the last man and called in air strikes on the team location. We were so outnumbered across the fence, that we called ourselves Christians. The enemy were lions. I remember hearing about the demise of RT Arkansas as the one zero made his last situation report, "Lions four, Christians zero." Shortly after that, the radio went silent.
When a team went down, their team house--silent, empty, a tomblike reminder--was anathema to the living. Teams got resurrected after a decent interval. Some teams have been wiped out repeatedly. McMike arrived at Kontum a month after I departed. He told me that Montana's team hooch was an empty shell when he got there.
It amazes me that we did what we did. For those who fought in South Vietnam, who lost friends to mines and booby traps, who suffered from acts of sabotage, who tried to fight back at an elusive enemy who always seemed to slip away, perhaps you can take solace from our activities.
We did recon, of course, but in addition we gave the enemy a dose of their own medicine. We mined their trails and planted false orders that moved units under B52 strikes. We found ammunition stockpiles and doctored rounds to explode in mortar tubes or in gun barrels. Some of their grenades blew up in their hands. We also destroyed much of their stockpiles and poisoned their food. We showed them how it is done by true professionals, and they hurt from the lesson.
I watched a news documentary a few years back. The reporter interviewed the Southern NVA force commander. He asked what US unit gave him the most problem. Without hesitation, he said, "The mercenary teams led by US solders that penetrated the borders." He went on to explain that their activities forced him to place one-hundred thousand troops along the length of the Ho Chi Minh trail to protect supply lines. That was one-hundred thousand troops that were not hassling our troops. Not bad economy of force.
We knew how important our mission was. We knew why it had to be a secret. We understood the risks and we made the sacrifices without notoriety. We could not even talk about what we did for ten years after leaving. I signed a document that threatened long jail time and a stiff fine for saying anything for a ten year period. America never knew until recently.
MACV SOG was a part of that war from beginning to end. It was MACV SOG commando teams that attacked coastal defenses in North Vietnam that precipitated the Gulf of Tonkin incident. SOG teams operating out of bases in Thailand continued to operate long after the US exodus. I was in vn when the Green Berets went home. They went home in card board boxes. The men that wore them stayed. It was a somber formation when we took off our coveted berets and donned baseball caps. The job, however, remained the same.
Shortly after that, Kent State happened. The next morning, we stood in formation sporting our new hats embroidered, "Ohio National Guard."
Yes, we had our heroes. The men that flew us in; and, more importantly, flew us out, were our heroes. The Army pilots and crew that flew support missions for SOG operations flew under the most hazardous conditions. When they crossed the fence, they entered air space so laced with sophisticated anti-aircraft that fast movers had trouble. Imagine facing AAA and quad 37s in a chopper. They did, and they died. Heroic rescues were as common as five dollar whores. Vietnam had a lot of five dollar whores.
How we kept our spirits up, I will never understand. Death and loss were always present. Our own, a constant specter. There is no sound so loud as the silence from a radio.