Tag Archives: Vietnam War

SOG OP 35 and U.S. Army Special Forces in South Vietnam

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.

The North Vietnamese Army

By James D. McLeroy

At various times and places the Second Indochina War (1959 to 1975) displayed some of the characteristics of a South Vietnamese revolution, insurgency, guerrilla war, and civil war. Primarily, however, it was always an incremental invasion of South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese Army, at first indirect and covert, then direct and overt.

In 1945, Ho Chi Minh and his guerrilla forces quickly seized control of the North Vietnamese government in the power vacuum left by the surrender of the occupying Japanese army. Ho then proclaimed himself President of the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). After the 1949 victory of Mao Tse-tung’s army in the Chinese Civil War, Ho went to China to ask Mao for military aid. Ho’s irregular Viet Minh forces were then fighting the conventional French forces attempting to reclaim their former control of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia).

Mao gave the DRV not only weapons, but also military training, logistical support, technical troops, and secure bases in southern China. In 1951, General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the Viet Minh forces, went to China to arrange the assignment of a resident Chinese Military Assistance Group in the DRV. Without massive Chinese aid the Viet Minh forces could not have defeated the French forces and won the First Indochina War (1946-1954) at the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu.

In the Second Indochina War (1959-1975) against the South Vietnamese and U.S. forces the initial North Vietnamese strategy was again an adaptation of Mao Tse-tung’s three-stage, rural-based, protracted attrition model. The first stage was squad and platoon-size terrorism and guerrilla tactics. The second stage was company and battalion-size semi-conventional, mobile tactics. The third stage was regimental and division-size conventional, positional tactics.

In the Second Indochina War the NVA fought a strategically offensive, total war to conquer South Vietnam and achieve military hegemony in Laos and Cambodia. President Johnson’s refusal to allow Westmoreland to fight a strategically offensive war in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam, where the NVA were fighting it, forced him to fight a strategically defensive war limited to South Vietnam.

Johnson always feared the entrance of China into the war (as in Korea). For that reason, he refused to approve a large-scale U.S. invasion of eastern Laos and Cambodia to destroy the NVA’s sanctuary bases and permanently block the Ho Chi Minh Trail network. For the same reason he also refused to approve a truly strategic, unrestricted, sustained air campaign to destroy the physical capability of North Vietnam to receive Soviet supplies.

Westmoreland knew that his defensive attrition “strategy” was only a grand tactic, but he had no alternative. He knew that pacification of South Vietnam would be impossible, as long as large VC and NVA troop units had protected sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia and unlimited Chinese and Soviet war supplies delivered through the Ho Chi Minh Trail network in Laos.

He knew that the only way he could seize and hold the strategic initiative was by invading Laos and Cambodia to destroy the NVA’s base areas and permanently block the Ho Chi Minh Trail network. Without unlimited logistic support from the USSR and a constant supply of troops from North Vietnam, the NVA would lack the physical capability to conquer South Vietnam, regardless of their indomitable will to do so.

In the long term it was politically futile to rely on an offensive operational strategy based on an attrition grand tactic limited to South Vietnam as a substitute for an offensive grand strategy to achieve a decisive victory in Indochina. The political futility of relying on an attrition grand tactic is irrelevant, however, to the factual question of the short-term effectiveness of the attrition tactic itself.

The fact that Westmoreland’s large-scale tactics were often operationally inefficient does not imply that they were also tactically ineffective. In all the large battles from 1965 to 1968 his use of combined-arms firepower to produce mass enemy attrition was, in fact, tactically effective, usually devastatingly so.

By the end of 1968, U.S. and ARVN conventional forces had effectively destroyed the VC main combat forces. In the first half of 1972, ARVN conventional forces, supported by U.S. airpower and augmented by regional and local civilian self-defense forces, decisively defeated the NVA’s second conventional invasion of South Vietnam. By the end of 1972, South Vietnamese and U.S. counterinsurgency forces had also eviscerated the VC civilian infrastructure.

Both the internal and the external war for the survival of the Republic of Vietnam had been temporarily won. After the NVA’s crushing defeat in 1972, the decisive destruction of their bases in Laos and the permanent blockage of the Ho Chi Minh Trail network would have made it impossible for the NVA to recover. An offensive grand strategy would have enabled both of those tactics.

Instead, the hard-earned conventional and counterinsurgency victories of the ARVN and U.S. forces were deliberately forfeited by the anti-war Democrat majority in both U.S. Houses of Congress. The ARVN, militarily depleted by the NVA invasion in 1972, were critically weakened by the radical 1973 Congressional reductions in U.S. military aid, including basic ammunition. They were then fatally crippled by the 1974 Congressional prohibition of all U.S. military activity in Southeast Asia, including U.S. air support of ARVN forces from bases in other countries.

In 1975, the modern, Soviet-equipped NVA forces invaded South Vietnam again in a mass, armored Blitzkrieg, exactly as North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. With no concern for U.S. air counterattacks, no need for any VC guerrilla fighters, and no attempt to win any “hearts and minds”, they quickly defeated the demoralized, inadequately equipped ARVN forces.

Two years after all U.S. forces had been withdrawn from South Vietnam, the NVA, not the Viet Cong, conquered South Vietnam with modern, conventional forces using conventional tactics and weapons, not with guerrilla forces using unconventional tactics and weapons. They had been planning to do so since 1959 and had unsuccessfully attempted to do so three times before (in 1965, 1968, and 1972). They finally won their American War strategically in America, as they always believed they eventually would, by political default, not tactically in South Vietnam by combat victories over U.S. forces.

As Ho Chi Minh predicted, they won it by resolutely daring to continue losing battles like Khe Sanh tactically at an unsustainable military cost longer than the irresolute U.S. Congress dared to continue winning such battles tactically at an unsustainable political cost. The paradoxical battle of Khe Sanh – a tactical success for the U.S. military in the short term, yet a strategic failure for the U.S. government in the long term — was the largest of many Pyrrhic victories in a tragic, seven-year failure of U.S. national leadership.

The DRV, neither democratic nor a republic, was a Stalinist police state controlled by Le Duan, First Secretary of the ruling Lao Dong Party and leader of its Political Bureau (Politburo). From 1960 until his death in 1986, he was the de facto commander and chief strategist of the DRV. By 1967, the DRV’s titular President, Ho Chi Minh, was merely an aged and ailing figurehead, whose only political power was the prestige of his name as the founding father of the DRV.

Le Duan was not a charismatic dictator. He was a Machiavellian manipulator, who ruled the DRV collectively through its multilayered committee system. The most important one was the five-man Subcommittee for Military Affairs (SMA) of the Central Military Party Commission. It was subordinate only to the Politburo led by Le Duan. The other members of the SMA were Le Duan’s long-time deputy, Le Duc Tho, and three North Vietnamese Army (NVA) generals with overlapping offices in the Ministry of Defense.

They were Vo Nguyen Giap, Minister of Defense and NVA Commander; Nguyen Chi Thanh, senior Political Commissar of the DRV’s Viet Cong (VC) forces in South Vietnam; and Van Tien Dung, Giap’s deputy and Le Duan’s protege. In 1967, Nguyen Chi Thanh died, and Le Duan replaced him with Le’s close friend, Pham Hung. Those six key men, dominated by the militant zeal of Le Duan, controlled the DRV’s grand strategy in its sixteen-year war to conquer the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and achieve military hegemony in Laos and Cambodia.