James D. McLeroy
SOG OP 35
In January, 1961 President Kennedy ordered the CIA to begin unconventional warfare (UW) operations against North Vietnam. Because of the Cuban invasion fiasco in April of that year,
he ordered all CIA paramilitary and UW programs transferred to the Pentagon. In early 1964, the Pentagon created the Studies and Observations Group (SOG), a top-secret, joint-services unit with a cross-border UW mission in Southeast Asia.
SOG was commanded by Army colonels and was a formal component of Westmoreland’s Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). COL John Singlaub, the CO (“Chief”) of SOG in 1968, was a key member of Westmoreland’s staff in the 101st Airborne Division and was personally selected by Westmoreland to command SOG. Singlaub briefed Westmoreland weekly on all SOG’s activities, but was not officially subordinate to him.
The “Chief” of SOG, Singlaub in 1968, reported to a Pentagon officer called the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities (SACSA). The SACSA reported to the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All of SOG’s cross-border missions had the implicit or explicit concurrence of the Secretary of Defense and the President.
SOG was designed by veterans of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in WW II, when the OSS was the UW tip of a conventional military spear. Behind the OSS was a large, conventional force attacking the main enemy to decisively defeat it. SOG was also like a UW spear tip, but unlike the OSS, there was no spear behind the tip. The SOG teams were fighting alone with no strategy for victory against vastly greater numbers of NVA troops in NVA territory.
Neither GEN Westmoreland nor GEN Abrams, the two MACV commanders from 1964 to 1972, included SOG in their operational planning, because they did not command it and were not
allowed to operate in Laos and Cambodia. In addition, Abrams was viscerally opposed to the concept of elite military units in general.
The cross-border missions of SOG’s Operation 35 (OP 35), “Ground Studies Branch”, were its main activity in terms of the number of men and aircraft committed to it and the number of enemy casualties produced by it. All the covert OP 35 troops were given a cover assignment to the overt 5th Special Forces Group.
Their top-secret mission required them to live separately from other U.S. troops, however, including other SF troops. Many men in the 5th SF Group and SOG knew each other from previous SF training or SF assignments. They all wore the green beret, but the SOG men were discouraged from fraternizing with anyone outside of SOG. Ironically, SOG’s cross border missions were not a secret to the NVA. They were only a secret to other U.S. troops and the U.S. media.
SOG’s OP 35 had three forward operating bases (FOBs) in three of the four Corps Tactical Zones (military regions) of South Vietnam. FOB 4 in I Corps was on a beach in the Marble Mountain area of the Tiensha Peninsula on the eastern outskirts of Danang. The SF I Corps headquarters was fairly close to it on the same beach, but the SOG men and 5th SF men had separate living and recreational facilities.
In late 1968, FOB 3 in Khe Sanh was abandoned. FOB 4 near Danang was re-designated Command and Control North (CCN); FOB 2 near Kontum was re-designated Command and Control Center (CCC); FOB 1 in Phu Bai was transferred to CCN; and a new FOB was opened in II Corps at Ban Me Thuot designated Command and Control South (CCS).
Most SOG recon-commando teams consisted of three SF men and between four and nine carefully selected and trained indigenous mercenaries, usually Montagnards and Nung. There were also some ethnic Vietnamese and Cambodian teams, but different language groups were not intermixed on the same team.
Op 35’s reconnaissance-commando teams had several missions, but the main one was to locate NVA troop units, convoys, bases, and supply depots on the Ho Chi Minh Trail network in eastern Laos and Cambodia and direct air strikes on them. In 1968, they usually did not have to search for NVA troop units; on almost every mission they encountered large numbers of them.
In addition to its cross-border reconnaissance teams, OP 35 had U.S.-led indigenous platoons and companies called Hatchet Forces. They occasionally made short incursions into eastern Laos and Cambodia to raid and ambush NVA targets. Most Hatchet Force troops in I Corps were Nung, and in 1968 most of their operations were on the Vietnam side of the border.
OP 35 combat actions were a classic example of the principle of war called economy of force, and as force multipliers they were extraordinarily effective. By 1968, the NVA were sacrificing
thousands of their troops in fanatical efforts to kill or capture the SOG teams at all costs. No matter how many NVA troops the SOG teams killed, however, and no matter how much war materiel they destroyed, the NVA always replaced their losses as quickly as possible.
Few U.S. ground combat actions in the war were as hazardous as SOG’s cross-border missions. In 1968, the number of Purple Heart medals awarded to SOG recon men was more than the total authorized U.S. troop strength of OP 35’s three recon companies. That year fifty-six U.S. SOG men were killed; 214 were wounded, twenty-seven were missing, and twenty-nine helicopters were shot down.
The same year, 133 indigenous SOG troops were killed, 481 were wounded, and fifty-five were missing. During the eight-year American Phase of the Second Indochina War 163 U.S. SOG men were killed and eighty more were missing (presumed dead). Some 12,000 men served in the SF in South Vietnam, but only 2,000 of them served in SOG. Those 2,000 suffered more than half of all the SF fatalities and eighty-five percent of all the SF missing-in-action cases in the war.
Twelve entire SOG recon teams disappeared after insertion and were never heard from again. Forty-nine U.S. SOG troops, together with some of the brave pilots and air crewmen supporting them, are still unaccounted for. By 1968, OP 35 no longer had enough volunteers to replace its increasing losses and conduct its increasing number of missions. Men from the 1st SF Group on Okinawa, the 10th SF Group in Germany, and the 7th Group at Ft. Bragg were assigned to OP 35, whether or not they wanted that notorious assignment.
Repeat volunteers for OP 35’s recon teams were the most elite of all Special Forces soldiers, and the motivation of such men was as special as their missions. The challenge and pride of gambling their lives against far greater odds and repeatedly winning by skillfully evading their enemies, killing them, and surviving to do it again and again was emotionally addictive to some.
Despite the potential consequences of repeatedly taking such risks, a life on the razor’s edge as a prestigious member of a small band of truly elite warriors with much more freedom than that of almost all other soldiers was far more valuable to them than a longer and more normal life. Their motto was: “You have never lived, until you have almost died.” The unspoken corollary of that motto was, “The more you have almost died, the more you have really lived.”
John Plaster, a three-year veteran of SOG’s OP 35, described its special attraction as: ” … the allure of secret operations ….” “… that tingle of outwitting the enemy in his own backyard.”
“… accepting inevitable death made everything easier.” “I accepted that I would die running recon.” “… and with that my fear evaporated.”
Of the seventeen SF men who received the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War eight were in SOG. In the seventy-man recon company at FOB 4 (CCN) two men received the Medal of Honor and three received the Distinguished Service Cross. In the sixty-man recon company at FOB 2 (CCC) five men received the Medal of Honor, which made it proportionally the most highly decorated U.S. unit in the war. When its top-secret history was finally declassified and the exceptional heroism of its covert warriors was revealed, SOG was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, the highest U.S. valor award for a military unit.
U.S. Army Special Forces in South Vietnam
The Truong Son range and the highland plateaus of central Vietnam were originally inhabited by eighteen major groups of some thirty indigenous tribes called Montagnards (mountain people).
Compared to the culture of the lowland ethnic Vietnamese they were politically, economically, and technologically disadvantaged. Most lowland ethnic Vietnamese despised the primitive, dark-skinned tribesmen with unintelligible languages, and most Montagnards hated and feared the arrogant, often exploitive ethnic Vietnamese. The relatively few ARVN troops in the Central Highlands could not defend the Montagnards from VC control, and they did not trust the Montagnards’ loyalty enough to give them weapons to defend themselves. The U.S. advisors to the South Vietnamese government knew that with no anti-Communist forces in that strategic area, the VC would increasingly use it for infiltration routes, guerrilla bases, food, recruits, and forced laborers.
In an attempt to prevent that use and develop the Montagnards’ paramilitary potential, the Saigon CIA station organized the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG). Twelve-man SF A-teams were assigned to CIDG camps in the highlands to help the local Montagnards with self-defense and “area development” projects, later called civic action. The main activities of the SF teams were equipping and training the CIDG troops to protect their villages from local VC attacks and organizing practical projects to improve the villagers’ basic standard of living. CIDG troops led by SF teams and armed with surplus WW II weapons were capable of defending their villages against small bands of VC terrorists and guerrillas.
By 1964, however, regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalions were infiltrating into South Vietnam to train, augment, and lead increasingly large, combined VC-NVA units. The VC squads
became VC-NVA platoons, and VC platoons became VC-NVA companies. The guerrilla tactics of local VC bands soon became the semi-conventional tactics of mobile VC-NVA battalions. The CIDG camps were not fortified to withstand mass attacks by such forces, and the CIDG were not trained or equipped to defend their villages and camps against them. The CIA realized that local patrols of CIDG troops to protect their villages from VC guerrillas were inadequate for the rapidly growing VC-NVA threat in the border regions.
As the infiltration of NVA troops increased, the SF mission in the Montagnard highlands evolved from village defense and local civic action to include border surveillance and interdiction. It was an impossible mission for the SF teams and their CIDG troops to accomplish, however, for six reasons.
First, the SF teams were not allowed to command the CIDG troops and could only “advise” the LLDB teams, who were the official commanders of the CIDG camps.
Second, in the vast, jungle-covered Truong Son mountain range between South Vietnam and Laos it was not difficult for the infiltrating NVA troop units to avoid the isolated CIDG camps. Most LLDB commanders of those camps were equally eager to avoid the NVA infiltrators. A few LLDB teams were skilled, motivated, honest, and brave, but many more were corrupt, cowardly,
unqualified, and unmotivated.
Third, most LLDB teams were composed of lowland ethnic Vietnamese, whose appearance, culture, and language were radically different from those of the CIDG Montagnards. The contempt of most LLDB teams for Montagnards as racially inferior savages and the historic exploitation of the tribesmen by the ethnic Vietnamese caused mutual mistrust and hostility.
Fourth, in some remote mountain areas there were not enough Montagnards to recruit for the CIDG border camps, and in other areas the local Montagnards were too primitive and elusive to be organized as soldiers. To fill the void, inmates in city jails were sent under guard to serve as CIDG border troops. They were more like minimum security prisoners than combat soldiers.
Fifth, some of the CIDG troops were covert VC infiltrators. They collected intelligence on the camp defenses, passed that information on to VC agents outside the camp, and initiated attacks
on the camps from the inside. VC intimidation often prevented local villagers from giving the CIDG camps advance warning of VC attacks from their observations of the VC preparations.
Sixth, even in areas with enough Montagnards to recruit, they had critical problems as border interdiction troops. Their tribal culture, rudimentary military training, WW II surplus weapons, and poor LLDB leadership were very inferior to the military culture, training, leadership, and weapons of the regular NVA troops infiltrating South Vietnam in 1964. With few exceptions, the combat performance of most CIDG troops against VC/NVA units was conspicuously weak.