Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group

Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group

Infobox Military Unit
unit_name=Military Assistance Command, Vietnam - Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG)

caption=Never assigned an official crest or patch, SOG personnel accepted this unofficial self-designed insignia
dates= 24 January, 1964 - 1 May, 1972
country= United States
branch= U.S. Joint High Command Multi-service
type= Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force
role= Strategic reconnaissance, covert action, psychological warfare
size= Brigade +
commanders= Clyde Russell
Donald Blackburn
John Singlaub
Steven Cavanaugh
John Sadler
garrison= Saigon (HQ)
Detachments: Command & Control North (CCN) Da Nang
Command & Control Central (CCC) Kontum
Command & Contorl South (CCS) Ban Me Thuot
nickname= SOG, MACSOG
mascot= "Old Blue"
battles=Vietnam War:
Tonkin Gulf
Operation Steel Tiger
Operation Tiger Hound
Tet Offensive
Operation Commando Hunt
Cambodian Incursion
Operation Lam Son 719
Operation Tailwind
Easter Offensive
decorations= Presidential Unit Citation
The Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) was a highly classified, multi-service United States Special Forces unit which conducted covert unconventional warfare operations prior to and during the Vietnam War. Established on 24 January 1964, the unit conducted strategic reconnaissance missions in Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), Laos, and Cambodia; carried out the capture of enemy prisoners, rescued downed pilots, and conducted rescue operations to retrieve allied prisoners of war throughout Southeast Asia; and conducted clandestine agent team activities and psychological operations.

The unit participated in most of the significant campaigns of the Vietnam War, including the Tonkin Gulf Incident which precipitated American involvement, Operation Steel Tiger, Operation Tiger Hound, the Tet Offensive, Operation Commando Hunt, the Cambodian Campaign, Operation Lam Son 719, and the Easter Offensive. The unit was formally disbanded and replaced by the Strategic Technical Directorate Assistance Team 158 on 1 May, 1972.


The Studies and Observations Group (aka SOG, MACSOG, and MACV-SOG) was a joint unconventional warfare task force created on 24 January 1964 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a subsidiary command of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). The unit would eventually consist primarily of personnel from the United States Army Special Forces, and also from the United States Navy SEALs, the United States Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and elements of the United States Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance units. The Special Operations Group (as the unit was initially titled) was in fact controlled by the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities (SACSA) and his staff at the Pentagon. [These officers included Major Generals Victor H. Krulak, USMC (1962-1964), Rollen H. Anthis, USAF (1964-1966), William R. Peers, USA (1966-1967), William E. DePuy, USA (1967-1969), John F. Freund, USA (1969-1970), and Brigadier Generals Donald D. Blackburn, USA (1970-1971), and Leroy J. Manor, USAF (1971-1973).] This arrangement was necessary since SOG needed some listing in the MACV table of organization and the fact that MACV's commander, General William Westmoreland, had no authority to conduct operations outside territorial South Vietnam. This command arrangement through SACSA also allowed tight control (up to the presidential level) over the scope and scale over the organization's operations. [MACSOG Documentation Study, Appendix B, pps. 354-355.] The mission of the organization was

"to execute an intensified program of harassment, diversion, political pressure, capture of prisoners, physical destruction, acquisition of intelligence, generationof propaganda, and diversion of resources, against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam." [ Annex A to MACV Command History, 1964, p. A-1.]
These operations (OPLAN 34-Alpha) were conducted in an effort to convince that nation to cease its support of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or derogatively, "Viet Cong") insurgency in South Vietnam. Similar operations had originally been under the purview of the CIA, which had carried out the emplacement of agent teams in North Vietnam utilizing air drops and over-the-beach insertions. Under pressure from Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, the program, along with all other agency para-military operations, was turned over to the military in the wake of the Bay of Pigs Invasion operation in Cuba. [citation
first = William | last = Colby | authorlink = William Colby
title = Honorable Men

Colonel Clyde Russell (SOG's first commander) had difficulty in creating an organization with which to fulfill his mission since, at the time, United States Special Forces were unprepared either doctrinally or organizationally to carry it out. [citation
first = Richard H. | last = Shultz
title = The Secret War Against Hanoi
pages = 42-48
The commanders of SOG were Colonels Clyde Russell (1964-1965), Donald Blackburn (1965-1966), John Singlaub (1966-1968), Stephen Cavanaugh (1968-1970), and John Sadler (1970-1972), all of whom were U.S. Army Special Forces officers.
] At this point the mission of the Special Forces was the conduct of guerrilla operations behind enemy lines in the event of an invasion by conventional forces, not in the conduct of agent, maritime, or psychological operations. Russell expected to take over a fully functional organization and assumed that the CIA (which would maintain a representative on SOG's staff and contribute personnel to the organization) would see the military through any teething troubles. His expectations and assumptions were incorrect. [MACSOG Documentation Study, Annex N to Appendix B, B-n-4-10.] The contribution of the South Vietnamese came in the form of SOG's counterpart organization (which utilized a plethora of titles, finally ending with the Strategic Technical Directorate [STD] ).

After a slow and shaky start, the unit got its operations underway. Originally, these consisted of a continuation of the CIA's agent infiltrations. Teams of South Vietnamese volunteers were parachuted into the north, but the majority were captured soon after their insertions. Maritime operations against the coast of North Vietnam picked up after the delivery of Norwegian-built "Nasty" Class torpedo boats to the unit but, unfortunately, these operations also fell short of expectations. They did, however, help to precipitate the escalation of the conflict in Southeast Asia.

Gulf of Tonkin incident

While conducting an electronic intelligence collection mission within four miles of the North Vietnamese coast on 2 August 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox (DD-731) was attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by three P-4 torpedo boats of the North Vietnamese Navy. The American vessel was undamaged and the U.S. claimed that one of the attacking vessels had been sunk and that the others were damaged by U.S. carrier-based aircraft. On the night of 4 August, after being joined by the destroyer USS Turner Joy (DD-951), "Maddox" reported to Washington that both ships were under attack by unknown vessels (assumed to be North Vietnamese). [Edwin Moise: "Tonkin Gulf," pps. 73-93. Dr. Moise's account should be compared to the official Navy version, which was essentially the one given to Congress. See Edward Marolda and Oscar Fitzgerald, "The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict", Vol. 2: "From Military Assistance to Combat, 1959-1965." Washington DC: U.S. Naval Historical Center, 1986.] This second unprovoked attack led President Lyndon B. Johnson to launch Operation Pierce Arrow, a preplanned aerial attack against North Vietnamese targets on 5 August. Johnson also went to the United States Congress that same day and requested the passage of the Southeast Asia Resolution (better known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) asking for the unprecedented authority to conduct military actions in Southeast Asia without a declaration of war.

Johnson's announcement of the conflict with the destroyers did not mention that SOG "Nasty boats" had been conducting operations within the same geographic area as "Maddox" on nights previous to both attacks. On 1 and 2 August Laotian aircraft, flown by Thai pilots, had carried out bombing raids within North Vietnam itself and a SOG agent team had been inserted into the same relative area and detected by the North Vietnamese. [Moise, pps. 67-68] Hanoi, which may have assumed that all of these actions signaled an increased level of aggression, decided to respond (in what it claimed as its territorial waters). [The North Vietnamese claimed a 12-mile reach for its territorial waters. "Maddox" was instructed not to approach closer than eight miles from the coast and four miles from offshore islands. It is instructive that similar patrols off the coast of the PRC were not allowed to approach within 15 miles of the coast or 12 miles from offshore islands. Moise, p. 51.] Thus, the three P-4s were ordered to attack the "Maddox." The second incident, in which "Maddox" and "Turner Joy" were claimed to be attacked, never took place. [Ibid., pps. 106-142.] Although some confusion reigned at the time of the second attack, the facts were clear to the administration by the time it went to Congress to obtain the resolution. When confronted by Senator Wayne Morse (who had discovered the existence of SOG's 34-Alpha raids), McNamara lied to him, stating "Our Navy played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, and was not aware of any South Vietnamese actions." Yet both Commander in Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC) and he were well aware of the possible connections, at least in the minds of the Hanoi leadership. citation
first1 = Robert S. | last1 = McNamara | first2 = Brian | last2= VanDeMark
title = In Retrospect
publisher = New York Times Books
year = 1995
page = 137
] These events were not disclosed until the publication of the "Pentagon Papers" in 1970.

The last aspect of SOG's original missions consisted of psychological operations conducted against North Vietnam. The unit's naval arm picked up northern fishermen during searches of coastal vessels and detained them on Cu Lao Cham Island off Da Nang, South Vietnam (the fishermen were told that they were, in fact, still within their homeland). [MACSOG Documentation Study, Annex A to Appendix C, pps. 21-81.]

The South Vietnamese crews and personnel on the island posed as members of a dissident northern communist group known as the Sacred Sword of the Patriot League (SSPL), which opposed the takeover of the Hanoi regime by politicians who supported the People's Republic of China (PRC). The kidnapped fishermen were well fed and treated, but they were also subtly interrogated and indoctrinated in the message of the SSPL. After a two-week stay, the fishermen were returned to northern waters.

This fiction was supported by the radio broadcasts of SOG's "Voice of the SSPL", leaflet drops, and gift kits containing pre-tuned radios which could only receive broadcasts from the unit's transmitters. SOG also broadcast "Radio Red Flag," programming purportedly directed by a group of dissident communist military officers also within the north. Both stations were equally adamant in their condemnations of the PRC, the South and North Vietnamese regimes, and the U.S. and called for a return to traditional Vietnamese values. Straight news, without propaganda embellishment, was broadcast from South Vietnam via the "Voice of Freedom", another SOG creation. [Shultz, pps. 148-154.]

These agent operations and propaganda efforts were supported by SOG's air arm, the First Flight Detachment. The unit consisted of four heavily modified C-123 Provider aircraft flown by Nationalist Chinese aircrews in SOG's employ. The aircraft flew agent insertions and resupply, leaflet and gift kit drops, and carried out routine logistics missions for SOG.

"Shining Brass"

On 21 September 1965 the Pentagon authorized MACSOG to begin cross-border operations within Laos in areas contiguous to the South Vietnam's western border. [MACV Command History 1965, Annex N, N-VIII-4] MACV had sought authority for the launching of such missions (Operation "Shining Brass") since 1964 in an attempt to put boots on the ground in a reconnaissance role to observe, first hand, the enemy logistical system known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail (the Truong Son Road to the North Vietnamese). [The only book-length history of the trail system remains John Prados' "The Blood Road." Information can also be gleaned from "Victory in Vietnam," the official Vietnamese military history of the conflict.] MACV, through the Seventh Air Force, had begun carrying out strategic bombardment of the logistical system in southern Laos in April (Operation Steel Tiger) and had received authorization to launch an all-Vietnamese recon effort (Operation "Leaping Lena") that had proven to be a disaster. [MACSOG Documentation Study, Appendix D, p. 11-15.] U.S. troops were necessary and SOG was given the green light. In November the first American-led insertion was launched against target Alpha-1, a suspected truck terminus on Laotian Route 165, 15 miles inside Laos. [Terrence Maitland, Peter McInerney, et al: "A Contagion of War," Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1983, pps. 123-128.] The mission was deemed a success, but the operations in Laos were fraught with peril, and not just from the enemy. William H. Sullivan, U.S. ambassador to Laos, was determined that he would remain in control over decisions and operations that took place within the supposedly neutral kingdom.

The civil war that raged intermittently between the communist-dominated Pathet Lao (supported by North Vietnamese troops) and the Royal Lao armed forces (supported by the CIA-backed Hmong army of General Vang Pao and the aircraft of the U.S. Air Force) compelled both sides to maintain as low a profile as possible. [Vang Pao and his troops kept up the fight against the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in northeastern Laos. In the south, Lao irregular forces were supported by CIA-trained Thai Police Aerial Reconnaissance Unit (PARU) forces, which would number about 18,000 by the conflicts end.] Hanoi was interested in Laos due only to the necessity of keeping its supply corridor to the south open. The U.S. was involved for the opposite reason. Both routinely violated Laotian neutrality, but both also managed to keep their operations out of the limelight. [Two fine histories of the rather bizarre events in Laos are Roger Warner's "Shooting at the Moon" and Kenneth Conboy with James Morrison: "Shadow War."] Ambassador Sullivan had the unenviable task of juggling the bolstering of the inept Lao government and military, the CIA and its clandestine army, the U.S. Air Force and its bombing campaign, and now the incursions of the American-led reconnaissance teams of SOG. [Shultz, pps. 214-215, 226-228.] His limitations on SOG's operations (depth of penetration, choice of targets, length of operations, etc.) led to immediate and continuous enmity between the embassy in Vientiane and the commander and troops of SOG, who promptly labelled Sullivan the "Field Marshall." [John Singlaub with Malcolm McConnell: "Hazardous Duty," p. 311.] The ambassador responded in kind.

Regardless, MACSOG began a series of operations that would continue to grow in size and scope over the next eight years. The Laotian operations were originally run by a Command and Control (C&C) headquarters located at Da Nang. The teams, usually three Americans and three to 12 indigenous mercenaries, were launched from Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) located in the border areas (originally at Kham Duc, Kontum, and Khe Sanh). [MACV Command History 1965, Annex N, N-VIII-8.] After in-depth planning and training, a team was helilifted over the border by aircraft provided by the U.S. Marine Corps (who operated in the I Corps area) or by dedicated South Vietnamese H-34 Kingbee helicopters of the 219th Squadron, which would remain affiliated with MACSOG for its entire history. [MACV Command History 1966, Annex M, M-III-2-2.] The team's mission was to penetrate the target area, gather intelligence, and remain undetected as long as possible. Communication was maintained with a Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft, which would provide liaison with Air Force fighter-bombers if the necessity, or the opportunity to strike lucrative targets, arose. The FAC was also the lifeline through which the team would communicate with its FOB and through which it could call for extraction if it became compromised.

By the end of 1965, MACSOG had shaken itself out into Operational Groups commanded from its Saigon headquarters. [Ibid., M-I-A-1.] These included Maritime Operations, which continued harassment raids and support for psychological operations (via kidnapped fishermen); Airborne Operations, which continued to insert agent teams and supplies into the north; Psychological Operations, which continued its "black" radio broadcasts, leaflet and gift kit drops, and running the operation at Cu Lao Cham; the new "Shining Brass" program; and Air Operations, which supported the others and provided logistical airlift. Training for SOG's South Vietnamese agents, naval action teams, and indigenous mercenaries (usually ethnic Chinese Nungs or Montagnards of various tribes) was conducted at the ARVN airborne training center (Camp Quyet Thang) located at Long Thanh, southeast of Saigon. Training for the U.S. personnel assigned to recon teams (RTs) was conducted at Kham Duc.

"Daniel Boone"

During 1966 and 1967 it became obvious to MACV that the North Vietnamese were utilizing neutral Cambodia as a part of it logistical system, funneling men and supplies to the southernmost seat of battle. The unanswered question was on what kind of scale was the enemy making use of Cambodia? The answer shocked even the most hardened intelligence analysts. The mercurial Prince Norodom Sihanouk, desperately trying to balance the threats facing his nation, had allowed Hanoi to set up shop in Cambodia. Although the extension of Laotian Highway 110 into Cambodia in the tri-border region was an improvement to its logistical system, North Vietnam was now unloading communist-flagged transports in the port of Sihanoukville and simply trucking its supplies to its Base Areas on the eastern border. [The high wire act maintained by the prescient Sihanouk and his relationship with the North Vietnamese is well described in William Shawcross' classic "Sideshow," pps. 63-66.]

In April 1967 MACSOG was ordered to commence Operation "Daniel Boone", a cross-border recon effort in Cambodia. Both SOG and the 5th Special Forces Group had been preparing for just such an eventuality. The 5th had gone so far as to create Projects "Sigma" and "Omega", units based on SOG's "Shining Brass" organization, which had been conducting in-country recon efforts on behalf of the Field Forces, awaiting authorization to begin the Cambodian operations. A turf war now raged between the 5th and SOG over missions and manpower. [MACSOG Documentation Study, Annex H to Appendix C, p. 11.] The Joint Chiefs decided in favor of MACSOG, since it already successfully conducted covert cross-border operations. Operational control of "Sigma" and "Omega" was handed over to SOG. [ibid.]

The first mission was launched in September and construction was begun on a new C&C to be located at Ban Me Thuot, in the Central Highlands. The RTs inserted into Cambodia faced even more restrictions than those in Laos. Initially, they had to cross the border on foot, had no tactical air support (either helicopters or aircraft), and were not to be provided with FAC coverage. The teams were, therefore, to rely on stealth and were usually smaller in size than those that operated in Laos. [Annex G to MACV Command History, 1967, G-IV-4.] "Daniel Boone" was not the only addition to SOG's size and missions. During 1966 the Joint Personnel Recovery Center (JPRC) was initiated. The mission of the JPRC was to collect and coordinate information on POWs, escapees and evadees, to launch missions to free U.S. and allied prisoners, and to conduct post-search and rescue (SAR) operations when all other efforts had failed. SOG provided the capability to launch "Brightlight" rescue missions anywhere in Southeast Asia at a moments notice. [A thorough description of the history of the JPRC is found in George Veith: "Code-Name BRIGHTLIGHT."]

The Air Operations Group had been augmented in during the same year by the addition of four heavily-modified C-130 Hercules ("Combat Spear") aircraft of the 15th Air Commando Squadron, which supplemented the C-123s ("Heavy Hook") of the First Flight Detachment already assigned to SOG. Another source of aerial support came from the CH-3 Jolly Green Giant helos of D-Flight, 20th Helicopter Squadron ("Pony Express"), which had arrived at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base during the year. These helicopters had been assigned to conduct operations in support of the CIA's clandestine operations in Laos and were a natural for assisting SOG in the "Shining Brass" area. When helicopter operations were finally authorized for "Daniel Boone", they were provided by the dedicated support of the Huey gunships and transports of the U.S. Air Force's 20th Helicopter Squadron ("Green Hornets").

MACSOG reconnaissance teams were also bolstered by the creation of exploitation forces, which could either support the teams in time of need, or launch their own raids against the trail. They consisted of two (later three) "Haymaker" battalions (which were never utilized) divided into company-sized "Hatchet" forces which were, in turn, sub-divided into "Hornet" platoons. The commanders and non-commissioned officers of these forces were American personnel, usually assigned on a temporary duty basis in "Snakebite" teams from the 1st Special Forces Group on Okinawa.

By 1967 MACSOG had also been given the mission of supporting the new "Muscle Shoals" portion of the electronic and physical barrier system under construction along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in I Corps. SOG recon teams were tasked with reconnaissance and the hand emplacement of electronic sensors both in the western DMZ ("Nickel Steel") and in southeastern Laos. [Jacob Van Staaveren: "Interdiction in Southern Laos, 1960-1968," pps. 255-283 ]

Due to the disclosure of the cover name "Shining Brass" in an American newspaper article, SOG decided that new cover designations were necessary for all of its operational elements. The Laotian cross-border effort was renamed "Prairie Fire" and it was combined with "Daniel Boone" in the newly-created Ground Studies Group. All operations conducted against North Vietnam were now designated "Footboy". These included "Plowman" maritime missions, "Humidor" psychological operations, "Timberwork" agent operations, and "Midriff" air missions.

Never happy with its long-term agent operations in North Vietnam, SOG decided to initiate a new program whose missions would be shorter in duration, conducted closer to South Vietnam, and carried out by smaller teams. Every effort would also be expended to retrieve the teams when their missions were accomplished. This was the origin of STRATA, the all-Vietnamese Short Term Roadwatch and Target Acquisition teams. After a slow initial start, the first agent team was recovered from the north. Following missions were plagued with difficulties, but, after additional training, the team's performance improved dramatically. [Conboy and Andrade, "Spies and Commandos," pps. 187-196.]

Black year - 1968

1968 was a black year, not only for MACV but for MACSOG as well. The year saw not only the launching of the largest PAVN/NLF offensive thus far in the conflict, but the utter collapse of SOG's northern operations. Although the Tet Offensive was contained and rolled back, and although horrendous casualties were inflicted upon the enemy, the mood of the American people and government had turned irrevocably against an open-ended commitment by the United States. For most of the year MACSOG's operations centered around in-country missions in support of the Field Forces. Since the enemy had come out from his cover and launched conventional operations, the U.S. and South Vietnam lost no opportunity in engaging them. General Westmoreland, egged on by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, requested 200,000 more troops, under the stipulation that they would be utilized to conduct cross-border operations to pursue his reeling foe. [Stanley Karnow: "Vietnam, A History," New York: Viking Press, 1983, pps. 549-551.] This was the logical military move at this point in the conflict, but it was not to be.

Instead, President Johnson sought a way out of the commitment that he had originally escalated. Politically, this was a little late in coming, but Washington had finally woken to the dire predicament it found itself embroiled in. Johnson attempted to get Hanoi to reopen serious peace negotiations and the carrot in this attempt was the cessation of all U.S. operations against North Vietnam north of the 20th parallel. [Clark Dougan, Stephen Weiss, et al. "Nineteen Sixty-Eight," Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1983, pps. 136-141.] Hanoi had only sought an end to the air campaign against the north (Operation Rolling Thunder), but Johnson went one further by calling a halt to all northern operations, both overt and covert. This order effectively destroyed MACSOG's agent team, propaganda, and aerial operations. [MACSOG Documentation Study, Appendix C, pps. 99-100. See also interview of John Singlaub by Richard Shultz in "Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group" CD ROM compiled by Steve Sherman, Houston TX: Radix Press, 2002, pps. 16-19, 50-51.] In reality, for MACSOG, the point was moot. Suspicions abounded within the organization that Operation "Timberwork" had been penetrated by communist "dich van" agents. [John L. Plaster, "SOG," New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997, pps. 221-222.] The intelligence returns from the northern agent teams had been strangely lax and more than three quarters of the agents inserted had been captured either during or not long after their arrival. The fact that SOG had slavishly followed the CIA's failed formula for three years was not considered a contributing factor. The unit was more concerned over Washington's continuous rejection of one of the original goals of the operation, the formation of a resistance movement by possible dissident elements within North Vietnam. [Shultz, pps. 95-99.] Washington's stated goal in the conflict was a free and viable South Vietnam, not the overthrow of the Hanoi regime. And what if the program had succeeded? The best possible outcome would have been a repeat of the ill-fated Hungarian uprising of 1956, brutally crushed by the Soviet Union, and about which the U.S. could do nothing.

Some American writers on the subject (including many ex-SOG personnel) blamed the failure of the operations on the penetration of the unit by enemy spies, and this was probably true to a greater or lesser degree. [This view is supported by Sedgwick Tourison in his "Secret Army, Secret War" and by MACSOG veteran John Plaster.] Others, however, laid more of the blame on the operational ineptitude of SOG, which simply continued to repeat a failed formula. [These authors include Kenneth Conboy and Dale Andrade in their "Spies and Commandos" and Dr. Richard Shultz."] Changes to the infiltration program (in the form of the diversionary Operation "Forae"), spurred by suspicions at headquarters, had come only as late as 1967. [MACSOG Documentation Study, Appendix C, p. 79.]

The security apparatus of North Vietnam had decades in which to learn to cope with not only the CIA's program, but with the unconventional and covert operations of its French predecessors. The CIA had been loath to conduct such operations in the north, since similar operations in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and the PRC had been abject failures and North Vietnam was considered an even tougher target to penetrate. [Conboy and Andrade, pps. 80-84 and Tourison, pps. 100-101.]

North Vietnamese security forces simply captured a team, turned its radio operator, and continued to broadcast as though nothing had happened. Supplies and reinforcements were requested, parachuted in to the requesting team's location, and were likewise captured. During the period 1960-1968 both the CIA and MACSOG dispatched 456 South Vietnamese agents to either their deaths or long incarcerations in northern prisons. [Tourison, pps. 331-340.] Hanoi continued this process year after year, learning SOG's operational methods and bending them to its purpose. In the end, it was running one of the most successful counterintelligence operations of the post-Second World War period.

"Commando Hunt"

With the deflation of its northern operations (although the JCS demanded that SOG retain the capability of reinitiating them), SOG concentrated its efforts on supporting "Commando Hunt", the Seventh/Thirteenth Air Force's anti-infiltration campaign in Laos. By 1969 the Ground Studies Group was running its operations from C&Cs at Da Nang for operations in southeastern Laos and at Ban Me Thuot for its Cambodian operations. That year they were joined by a new C&C at Kontum, for operations launched into the triborder region of the "Prairie Fire" and the northern area of "Daniel Boone", which was renamed "Salem House" that year. Each of the C&Cs was now fielding battalion-size forces, and the number of missions rose proportionately.

Command and Control North (CCN), commanded by a lieutenant colonel, utilized 60 recon teams and two exploitation battalions (four companies of three platoons). Command and Control Central (CCC), also commanded by a lieutenant colonel, utilized 30 teams and one exploitation battalion. During 1969 404 recon missions and 48 exploitation force operations were conducted in Laos. [MACSOG Documentation Study, Appendix D, p. 96.] To give an example of the cost of such operations, during the year 20 Americans were killed, 199 wounded, and nine went missing in the "Prairie Fire" area. Casualties among the Special Commando Units (SCUs - pronounced Sues), as the indigenous mercenaries were titled, were: 57 killed, 270 wounded, and 31 missing. [Annex F to MACV Command History, 1969, p. 77.] Command and Control South (CCS), also commanded by a lieutenant colonel, consisted of 30 teams and an exploitation battalion. Since the use of exploitation forces was forbidden in Cambodia, these troops were utilized in securing launch sites, providing installation security, and conducting in-country missions. During the year, 454 reconnaissance operations were conducted in Cambodia. [MACSOG Documentation Study, Appendix E, p. 50.]

The teams were ferried into action by the H-34 Kingbees of the South Vietnamese 219th Helicopter Squadron and assorted U.S. Army aviation units in the "Prairie Fire" area, and by the U.S. Air Force helos of the 20th Special Operations Squadron in the "Salem House" area. By the end of 1969, SOG was authorized 394 U.S. personnel, but it is useful to compare those numbers to the actual strengths of the operational elements. There were 1,041 Army, 476 Air Force, 17 Marine Corps, and seven CIA personnel assigned to those units. They were supported by 3,068 SCUs, and 5,402 South Vietnamese and third-country civilian employees, leading to a total of 10,210 military personnel and civilians either assigned to or working for MACSOG. [MACV Command History, 1970, Annex B, p. 20.]

The mission of the Ground Studies Group was to support the sensor-driven Operation "Commando Hunt", which saw the rapid expansion of the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail. This was made possible by the close-out of "Rolling Thunder", which freed up hundreds of aircraft for interdiction missions. Intelligence for the campaign was supplied by both the recon teams of MACSOG and by the strings of air-dropped electronic sensors of Operation "Igloo White" (formerly "Muscle Shoals"), controlled from Nakhon Phanom. ["Commando Hunt" and SOG's role in it are described in detail in Bernard Nalty's "War Against Trucks," the official Air Force history of the campaign.] 1969 saw the apogee of the bombing campaign, when 433,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Laos. [Ibid., p. 138.] SOG supported the effort with ground reconnaissance, sensor emplacement, wiretap, and bomb damage assessment missions. The cessation of the bombing of the north also freed the PAVN to reinforce its anti-aircraft defenses of the trail system and aircraft losses rose proportionately.

By 1969, PAVN had also worked out its doctrine and techniques for dealing with the recon teams. Originally, the communists had been caught unprepared and had been forced to respond in whatever haphazard manner local commanders could organize. Soon, however, an early warning system was created by placing radio-equipped air watch units within the flight paths between the launch sites and Base Areas. Within the Base Areas, lookouts were placed in trees and platforms to watch likely landing zones while the roads and trails were routinely swept by security forces. PAVN also began to organize and develop specialized units that would both drive and then fix the teams so that they could be destroyed. By 1970, the communists had created a layered and effective system, and SOG recon teams found their time on the ground both shortened and more dangerous. The mauling or wiping out of entire teams began to become a less uncommon occurrence. [John Plaster: "SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars," pps. 187-191.]

Cambodia during the Vietnam War

Since his election in 1968, President Richard M. Nixon had been seeking a negotiated settlement to the Vietnam War. In 1970, he saw an opportunity to buy time for the Saigon government during the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops that began in the previous year. He also sought to convince Hanoi that he meant business. That opportunity was provided by the overthrow of Cambodia's Prince Sihanouk by the pro-American General Lon Nol. [citation
title = Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon,and the Destruction of Cambodia
first = William | last = Shawcross
pages = 112-127

Nixon had escalated U.S. involvement Cambodia by authorizing the secret Operation Menu bombings and by the time of Sihanouk's ouster, the program had been in operation for 14 months. [citation
first1 = Arnold | last1 = Isaacs | first2= Gordon | last2 =Hardy | first3= MacAlister | last3= Brown
title = Pawns of War
publisher = Boston Publishing Company
year = 1987
page = 89
] Lon Nol promptly ordered North Vietnamese personnel out of the country and then began military operations against them when they refused to leave. Nixon then authorized Operation "Rockcrusher", a series of incursions by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces that began on 30 April. [citation
first = John | last = Shaw
title = The Cambodian Campaign
pages= 36-37, 61, & 166
] With intelligence on PAVN Base Areas in eastern Cambodia gleaned from MACSOG, huge stockpiles of North Vietnamese arms, ammunition, and supplies were overrun and captured. In May, Operation "Freedom Deal", a continuous aerial campaign against PAVN and the Khmer Rouge was initiated. [MACV Command History 1970, Annex B, p. 24-27.] SOG recon teams in Cambodia now had all the air support that they needed.

As a result of U.S. political reaction, on 29 December the Cooper-Church Amendment was passed by Congress, prohibiting participation by U.S. ground forces in any future operations in either Cambodia or Laos. U.S. participation in Cambodian operations (which were already being turned over to all-Vietnamese teams) ended on 1 July 1970 and the same stipulation was to apply in Laos no later than 8 February 1971 (the only qualifications to the restrictions, in both operational areas, were in case of either POW rescue missions or aircraft crash site inspections). [Annex B to MACV Command History, 1970, pps. 230, 236.] Although unknown to the U.S. public,Clarifyme|date=April 2008 many MACSOG veterans participated in Operation Kingpin, the Son Tay POW camp raid carried out in North Vietnam on 21 November 1970.citation
first = Benjamin | last = Schlemmer
title = The Raid
publisher = Harper & Row
year =1976
] The attack force was commanded by Colonel Arthur "Bull" Simons, who had created SOG's cross-border effort in 1965.

By 1971 the U.S. was steadily withdrawing from Southeast Asia. As a test of Vietnamization, Washington decided to allow the South Vietnamese to launch Operation "Lam Son 719", the long-sought incursion into Laos whose aim would be the cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. MACV and the South Vietnamese had been planning just such an operation as far back as August 1964, but the concept was continuously turned down due to the fallout that would have been incurred by the invasion of supposedly "neutral" Laos. The Laotian government (supported by Ambassador Sullivan and the State Department) was, needless to say, adamantly opposed to any such operation.Fact|date=April 2008 On 8 February, 16,000 (later 20,000) South Vietnamese troops, backed by U.S. helicopter and air support, rolled into Laos along Route 9 and headed for the enemy logistical hub at Tchepone.citation
first = Keith W. | last = Nolan
title = Into Laos
publisher = Dell
year = 1986
] Unlike the Cambodian incursion, however, the enemy stood and fought, gradually mustering 60,000 troops. By 25 March, the South Vietnamese forces retreated. Ironically,Clarifyme|date=April 2008 MACSOG's role in the operation was only peripheral. Recon teams conducted diversionary operations prior to the invasion and helped cover the South Vietnamese withdrawal, but they were otherwise forbidden from participation in the very operation that both MACSOG and MACV had come to consider its "raison d'etre." [Plaster, "SOG," p. 317-324.]

Regardless, both the Cambodian and Laotian incursions had spread the conflict, in both countries, to new levels of violence and intensity. In Laos, PAVN cleared their logistical corridor to the west for security reasons and increased their aid and support for the Pathet Lao. Fighting that once was seasonal became continuous and conventional. [Warner, pps. 198-302, 306-314.] The Cambodian genocide began under the PRC-backed Khmer Rouge, which also had the backing of the exiled Sihanouk, took over the conflict against the inept central government. Not even Hanoi was happy with this state of affairs, since North Vietnam despised the Cambodian communists and had attempted to form their own Cambodian military force. [Issacs, Hardy, & Brown, pps. 87-88.]


The American withdrawal from South Vietnam began to directly effect MACSOG only in 1972. Although U.S. personnel were forbidden to conduct operations in either Laos or Cambodia, its teams of mercenary SCUs continued those operations (in the newly renamed "Phu Dung"/"Prairie Fire" and "Thot Not"/"Salem House" areas). The organization did, however, maintain its strength in U.S. personnel, who continued to conduct in-country missions. It was also continuously tasked by the JCS with maintaining forces in readiness to once again take up northern operations if called upon to do so.

The "Nguyen Hue Offensive", launched by PAVN forces on 30 March 1972 (called the Easter Offensive by the U.S.), made cross-border operations a moot point anyway. [The Easter Offensive is well-described in Dale Andrade's "Trial By Fire," New York: Hippocrene Books, 1995.] As with Tet, all of MACSOG/STD's efforts were concentrated on in-country missions to support the Field Forces. The massive conventional attack, backed by armour and heavy artillery, caught the southern allies by surprise and quickly rolled over Thua Tien and Quang Tri Provinces. The situation was exacerbated by the launching of two smaller PAVN offensives, one of which advanced from Cambodia and aimed at the capital of Binh Long Province at An Loc, while the other overran the frontier outpost of Dak To in the central highlands and headed for the provincial seat of Kontum.

The massing of enemy forces, however, provided U.S. and South Vietnamese aircraft with lucrative targets, and a deluge of ordanance fell upon the invading enemy. [David Fulghum, Terrence Maitland, et al, "South Vietnam on Trial," Boston: Boston Publishiung Company, 1984, pps. 142-159.] Although fierce fighting raged in all three areas, it become evident that the offensive was running out of steam. President Nixon, hoping that the Chinese and Soviets would not interfere (and ruin their chances for improved relations with the West), authorized the resumed bombing of North Vietnam (Operation "Linebacker") after a four-year lull. [John Morocco, "Rain of Fire," Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985, pps. 128-133.] On 8 May, the day after the fall of Quang Tri City, Haiphong and other North Vietnamese ports were mined. South Vietnamese forces then launched a masterful counteroffensive which retook Quang Tri, but it lacked the strength to push its enemy completely out of the country.

Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Dr. Henry Kissinger, were still attempting to conclude negotiations with Hanoi, but South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu was being intransigent. He needed reassurance that the U.S. would continue to militarily support his country after the signing of a peace accord and the total withdrawal of U.S. forces. On the evenining of 18 December, Nixon unleashed Operation Linebacker II, the so-called Christmas Bombing throughout North Vietnam by B-52 Stratofortress bombers. This finally convinced Thieu to resume serious negotiations. [A revealing description of one of the most callous military operations ever ordered by an American president is described by Stephen Ambrose in "The Christmas Bombings" in Robert Cowley, ed. "The Cold War," New York: Random House, 2005.]

In late March 1971, when the 5th Special Force Group was redeployed to the U.S., American Special Forces personnel assigned to the three Command and Control units were ordered to don black baseball caps when in garrison, rather than wear their Green Berets, and the Command and Control elements (CCN, CCS, & CCC) were renamed Task Force Advisory Elements (TF1AE, TF2AE, & TF3AE). They originally consisted of 244 U.S. and 780 indigenous personnel each, but they were quickly drawn down by the elimination of the exploitation forces. [Ibid., p. 337.]

For SOG, Vietnamization was finally nigh. On 1 May 1972, the unit was reduced in strength and renamed the Strategic Technical Directorate Assistance Team 158 (STDAT-158). [MACV Command History 1971-72, Annex B, p. 11.] The Ground Studies Group, was disestablished and replaced by the Liaison Service Advisory Detachments. SOG's air elements stood down for redeployment, the JPRC was turned over to MACV and redesignated the Joint Casualty Resolution Center, while the psychological operations personnel and installations were turned over to either the STD or JUSPAO. [Ibid., pps. 216, 300, & 383.]

The function of STDAT-158 was to assist the STD in a complete takeover of SOG's operations. [USMACV Strategic Technical Directorate Assistance Team - 158 Command History, 1 May 1972 - March 1973, pps. 15-17.] The operational elements had already been absorbed and were expanded by the inclusion of troops from the now-disbanded South Vietnamese Special Forces. The task of the American personnel was now to provide technical support (in logistics, communications, etc.) and advice to the STD. [Ibid., pps. 15-19.] This the unit did until its disbandment on 12 March 1973. [Ibid., p. 18.] The South Vietnamese General Staff, strapped for cash and equipment in the final stand-down period, never utilized the STD in a strategic reconnaissance role. Instead, the STD's units were launched on in-country missions until the dissolution of their parent organization in March 1973.

In January 1973, President Nixon ordered a halt to all U.S. combat operations in South Vietnam and, on the 27th of that month, a peace accord was signed by the belligerent powers in Paris. On 21 February, a similar accord was signed on Laos, ending the bombing of that country and instituting a cease fire. On the 29th, MACV was disestablished and remaining U.S. troops began leaving the south. On 14 August the U.S. Air Force ceased its bombing of Cambodia, bringing all military actions by the U.S. in Southeast Asia to an end.


The U.S. military (and MACSOG personnel) kept tight security over knowledge of the unit's operations and existence until the early 1980s. Although there had been some small leaks by the media during the conflict, they were usually erroneous and easily dismissed. [MACV Command History 1970, Annex B, pps. 127-137.] More specific was the release of documents dealing with the early days of the operation in the "Pentagon Papers" and by the testimony of ex-SOG personnel during congressional investigations into the bombing campaigns in Laos and Cambodia in the early 1970s. [U.S. Senate, Hearings before the Committee on United States Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad of the Committee on Foreign Relations, "United States Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad, Kingdom of Laos." 91st Congress, First Session, 1970 and Hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, "Bombing in Cambodia," 93rd Congress, First Session, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973.] Historians interested in the unit's activities had to wait until the early 1990s, when MACSOG's Annexes to the annual MACV Command Histories and a Pentagon documentation study of the organization were declassified for the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs' hearings on POW/MIA affairs. [U.S. Senate, Records of Senate Subcommittee on POW/MIA Affairs. Working Papers of Sedgwick Tourison, last revision, March 15, 1993. Charles E. Schamel Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.]

One early source of information (if one read between the lines) were the citations issued for the award of the Medal of Honor to MACSOG personnel (although they were never recognized as such). [U.S. Senate, Committee on Veteran's Affairs. "Medal of Honor Recipients, 1863-1978." Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, February 1979.] One USAF helicopter pilot, two U.S. Navy SEALs, and nine Green Beret earned the nation's highest award on SOG operations:

*Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez (who had to wait until he received his award from President Ronald Reagan)
*Staff Sergeant Jon Cavaiani
*Lieutenant James P. Fleming (U.S. Air Force 20th Helicopter Squadron)
*Lieutenant Loren Hagen (posthumous), CCN/TF1AE
*Staff Sergeant Robert L. Howard (awarded on his third separate recommendation)
*Specialist 5 John J. Kedenburg (posthumous)
*Staff Sergeant Franklin D. Miller
*Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris (Navy SEAL)
*1st Lieutenant George K. Sisler (posthumous)
*Engineman Second Class Michael Thornton (Navy SEAL), STDAT-158
*Sergeant First Class Fred W. Zabitosky

23 other members of the unit received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest award for valor. On 4 April 2001, the U.S. Army officially recognized the bravery, integrity, and devotion to duty of its covert warriors by awarding the unit a Presidential Unit Citation during a ceremony at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the home of U.S. Army Special Forces.



Unpublished government documents
*Joint Chiefs of Staff. Military Assistance Command Studies and Observations Group, "Documentation Study (July 1970)."
*US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Strategic Technical Directorate Assistance Team 158, "Command History 1 May 1972 - March 1973." Saigon: STDAT-158, 1973.
*US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group, Annex A, "Command History 1964." Saigon: MACVSOG, 1965.:Annex N, "Command History 1965." Saigon: MACVSOG, 1966.:Annex M, "Command History 1966." Saigon: MACVSOG, 1967.:Annex G, "Command History 1967." Saigon: MACVSOG, 1968.:Annex F, "Command History 1968." Saigon: MACVSOG, 1969.:Annex F, "Command History 1969." Saigon: MACVSOG, 1970.:Annex B, "Command History 1970." Saigon: MACVSOG, 1971.:Annex B, "Command History 1971-72." Saigon: MACVSOG, 1972.

Published government documents
* Military History Institute of Vietnam. "Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People's Army of Vietnam, 1954-1975." Trans. by Merle L. Pribbenow. Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2002.
* Nalty, Bernard C. "The War Against Trucks: Aerial Interdiction in Southern Laos, 1968-1972." Washington DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2005.
* US House of Representatives. Records of the House Committee on Armed Services. "United States-Vietnam Relations 1945-1967: A Study Prepared for the Department of Defense." Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1972.
* Van Staaveren, Jacob. "Interdiction in Southern Laos, 1964-1968." Washington DC: Center for Air Force History, 1993.

Memoirs and autobiographies
* Colby, William. "Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA." New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
* Plaster, John L. "Secret Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines with the Elite Warriors of SOG." New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974.
* Singlaub, John K. with Malcolm McConnell. "Hazardous Duty: An American Soldier in the Twentieth Century." New York: Summit Books, 1991.

Secondary sources
* Ambrose, Stephen. "The Christmas Bombings" in Robert Cowley, ed. "The Cold War: A Military History." New York: Random House, 2005.
* Brown, McAlister, Gordon Hardy, and Arnold R. Issacs. "Pawns of War." Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1987.
* Conboy, Kenneth and Dale Andrade. "Spies and Commandos." Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2000.
* Conboy, Kenneth with James Morrison. "Shadow War: The CIA's Secret War in Laos." Boulder CO: Paladin Press, 1995.
* Greco, Frank. "Running Recon: A Photo Journey with SOG Special Ops Along the Ho Chi Minh Trail." Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 2004.
* Moise, Edwin. "Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War." Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
* Plaster, John L. "SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars." Boulder CO: Paladin Press, 2000.
* Prados, John. "The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War." New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998.
* Saal, Harve. "SOG - MACV Studies and Observations Group (Behind Enemy Lines)." Four vols. Vol I. "Historical Evolution;" Vol. II "Locations;" Vol. III "Legends;" Vol. IV "Appendices." Ann Arbour MI: Edwards Brothers, 1990.
* Shaw, John M. "The Cambodian Campaign: The 1970 Offensive and America's Vietnam War." Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2005.
* Shawcross, William. "Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia." New York: Washington Square Press, 1979.
* Shultz, Richard H. "The Secret War Against Hanoi." New York: Harper Collins, 1999.
* Tourison, Sedgewick. "Secret Army, Secret War: Washington's Tragic Spy Operation in North Vietnam." Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
* Veith, George J. "Code-Name BRIGHTLIGHT." New York: Dell, 1998.
* Warner, Roger. "Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos." South Royalton VT: Steerforth Press, 1996.


*McGuire rig
*Fulton surface-to-air recovery system

ee also

*North Vietnamese invasion of Laos

External links

* [ Presidential Unit Citation article]
* [ MACV SOG Homepage]
* [ MACV-SOG KIA Lists by year (e.g. 1971)]

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