I arrived in Pleiku, Vietnam on January 3, 1969, and was assigned to the 189th Assault Helicopter Company. The following day I was in the cockpit of a UH-1H receiving an in-county orientation flight. The very next day I flew my first combat mission in South Vietnam, a combat assault of a company sized unit of the 4th Infantry Division.

During the next two weeks I flew combat assaults and extractions, material resupply, medical evacuations, transfer of personnel, and other routine support missions throughout Pleiku Province. On January 17th I was assigned to a new mission called the Omega Mission. I was informed that this mission was classified as “secret” and that it was not to be discussed outside the aircraft. I received no other briefings on the mission, nor was I asked to volunteer for the mission. These missions included the insertion and extraction of Special Forces teams on long range reconnaissance patrols, or LRRPs. It soon became obvious that most, but not all, of these missions were being flown into the southern portion of Laos. These were all high-risk, challenging missions.

On February 2, 1969, I was transferred to the Avenger Gunship Platoon and continued to fly Omega Missions in a different role. However, the missions were now called FOB. Throughout my tour, different mission names would appear. Examples were B-50, 5th Special Forces LRRP, Command and Control Central, Prairie Fire, OP35, B-52, Daniel Boone, Command and Control South, and 4th Division LRRP. The combat troops we flew into the jungle also came with different names such as reconnaissance patrols, long range reconnaissance patrols, spike teams, Mike Strike, Bright Light, Hatch Forces, and Special Forces. We were simply told where to put them, and did our best to get them out of the jungle when they got in trouble. We were never briefed on the specific mission, or the results when the mission was completed. We just did our job. We flew into the “Tiger’s Mouth” and back out again, and again, and again.

Most of the feats of the men on the ground, and the helicopter crews that supported them, were never told, and medals, well deserved, never awarded, because the missions were classified secret or top secret and “we were never there”. The American public, and even the Congress of the United States, would not be made aware of the “secret war” until September of 1970. However, those early reports were dismissed, and military files remained classified until the mid-1990s.

Many of us who flew those missions have very vivid memories of places, events, and the radio call signs of teams, Forward Air Controllers (FACs), and air support. Names like RT New Mexico, Ohio One Zero, The Bra, The Boot, Leg Horn, Covey 64, Head Hunter, Spad, Dollar Lake, Base Area 609, Juliet 9, and Panther Lead. Specific airfields and Special Forces Camps, like Dak To, Ben Het, Dak Seang, Dak Pek, and Duc Co, are etched in our memories.

Like many Vietnam veterans, as soon as I left military service, I put the war behind me. I concentrated on reintegrating back into civilian life. It was time to pursue my career as a Civil Engineer, raise a family, and buy a house. I became passionate about Oregon country and was challenged by steelhead fishing, white water boating, wilderness elk hunting, and mountain climbing.

After forty-five years working as an engineer, I retired and moved to Sisters, Oregon. On Memorial Day 2015, my wife and I attended a memorial service in the city park. For the first time since I had returned from Vietnam, I saw a community genuinely honor its veterans. The honor and respect demonstrated by school age children, and adults alike, began a process of re-evaluating the value of my own military service.

Not too long afterward, I was in Bend and decided to visit a Barnes and Noble Book Store. I wondered over to the War Section and there found a book with the title “Chicken Hawk”, by Robert Mason. Mason was a Warrant Office helicopter pilot and flew for the 1st Calvary Division in 1965-66 (The 189th AHC lost a WO1 Gary Mason in 1969). Later I found a second book titled, “Beyond the Limits”, by Tom Johnson. Johnson was a Warrant Officer pilot and flew with the 101st Division in Vietnam in 1967-68. These stories sparked my interest in possibly writing my own story of my tour of duty.

A few months later I found a third book that really caught my interest. The book was titled, “SOG-The Secret War of America’s Commandos in Vietnam” by John Plaster. Suddenly with the background information provided by Plaster, FOB started to make some sense. All the places, names, and events had context. The official Department of Defense documents, and therefore, the true stories of the Secret War remained classified until the mid- 1990’s. This book was published in 1997. We can now tell our story.

Now that formally classified information was available to the public, it was possible to begin putting together the big picture of which FOB was a part. The United States involvement in Indochina began at the end of the French Indochina War in 1954. The US Government provided direct support for the South Vietnamese government in their struggle against communist North Vietnam. In January 1961 President Kennedy ordered the CIA to begin unconventional warfare (UW) operations against North Vietnam. At the same time, new military capability was being developed to counter the growing insurgency in the Vietnamese country side. Thus, the Army Special Forces were born. The CIA also began operating out of Cambodia. These units provided growing evidence that the North Vietnam were by-passing the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), that divided North and South Vietnam, by transporting men and materials through Laos. This network of roads and trails would become known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

In early 1964, the Pentagon created the Studies and Observation Group (SOG), a top-secret, joint-services unit with a cross-border UW mission in SE Asia. SOG was commanded by a full colonel and was initially a formal component of Gen. Westmoreland’s Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). The “Chief of SOG”, while technically part of the MACV staff, 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 SOG’s cross-border missions had the implicit concurrence of the Secretary of Defense and the President (Johnson and Nixon).

MACV-SOG had many components. These components were designated Operations 31-35. These included conventional and unconventional warfare activities such as infiltration into North Vietnam, maritime operations, psychological operations (PSYOPS), and ground reconnaissance. The largest component of SOG was the cross-border missions of Operation 35, “Ground Studies Branch”. In May of 1965 the first Forward Operating Base (FOB1) was established near Kham Duc in I Corp. This was the first launch site. Actual ground operations began on September 25, 1965. In May 1966 a second Forward Operating Base was established at Kontum (FOB2). Two other bases would be established in 1967, FOB3 at Khe Sanh, and FOB4 at Marble Mountain near Da Nang, as SOG concentrated on the I Corp area and northern Laos. These initial operations in Laos were called Shinning Brass. In 1967 they were renamed Prairie Fire.

During 1966 and 1967 it became obvious to MACV that the North Vietnamese were using neutral Cambodia as part of their logistical system. Additional roads were being built to connect the road and trail system in Laos to their system in Cambodia. In April 1967 MACV-SOG 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.

In 1964 and 1965 the 5th Special Forces Group created Detachment 52, Project Delta, in Nha Trang. The mission of Project Delta was to conduct special reconnaissance missions inside South Vietnam and operated in overt support of I Field Force, II Field Force, and major Divisional units. The missions were conducted under operational control (OPCON) of a division or larger command. In short order, two additional Detachments were formed, B-50 (Project Omega) and B-56 (Project Sigma).

The recon teams that we inserted and extracted normally consisted of three US Special Forces and five to seven indigenous commandos. In addition, we inserted reaction and exploitation forces of up to thirty personnel. Their missions generally fell into one of the following:

a.       Conducted covert reconnaissance of NVA men, material, and munitions,

b.      Collected intelligence for tactical and strategic exploitation,

c.       Planned and directed air strikes on high value targets, during Operation Commando Hunt

d.      Conducted bomb damage assessments,

e.      Utilized reconnaissance in force against material depots,

f.        Captured enemy personnel for intelligence exploitation,

g.       Employed wire tapping of enemy communication lines,

h.      Mined enemy transportation routes,

i.         Executed hunter-killer missions against high value targets.

In September of 1967, FOB5 was launched at Bam Me Thout, in the central Highlands. At this point both Project Omega and Project Sigma were handed over to MACV-SOG and, in essence, became staff augmentation to meet the increasing demand for reconnaissance teams for both Prairie Fire (Laos) and Daniel Boone (Cambodia).

By November 1968 the FOB locations in I Corp were consolidated and were re-designated Command and Control North (CCN). FOB2 at Kontum was designated Command and Control Central (CCC), and FOB5 at Bam Me Thout was designated Command and Control South (CCS).

By 1969 the North Vietnamese had worked out their doctrine and techniques for dealing with the SOG recon teams. The communists had begun to organize and develop specialized units that would both drive and then fix the teams so that they could destroy them with superior force. They also began to use anti-aircraft artillery more often and more effectively.

Few U.S. ground combat actions and air operations in the war were as hazardous as SOG’s cross border missions. In 1968 fifty-six SOG personnel were killed, 214 were wounded, and twenty-seven were listed as missing, and twenty-nine helicopters were lost. The same year 133 indigenous troops serving on SOG teams were killed, 481 were wounded, and fifty-five were missing. Twenty entire reconnaissance teams disappeared after insertion and were never heard from again.

During 1969, the year I flew these missions, 404 recon missions and 48 exploitation force operations were conducted in Laos. During that year 20 Americans were killed, 199 wounded, and 9 went missing on Prairie Fire alone. Casualties among the indigenous commandos was 57 killed, 270 wounded and 31 missing. The casualties on Daniel Boone were similar.

On April 5, 2001 MACV-SOG was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for valor. This is the equivalent of every man receiving the Distinguished Service Cross. While the recognition is well deserved, it is unfortunate that the helicopter pilots that supported them, and through their dedication and courage saved many lives, go unrecognized.


189th AHC

The Secret War of South East Asia

By:  Cpt. David Lee