SOG and the 23d TASS

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

NOTE: My info is based on the launches from the CCN/MLT 3 areas, and from actual knowledge from 1968-1970. It must be pointed out that CCS used their FACs in a different way, i.e., the FAC usually flew by himself, controlling all air assets, and dealing with the team on the ground. Up north, we had a “rider”, an Army type, usually an experienced recon man, who assisted the FAC, and dealt with the ground team.

SOG reconnaissance teams performed various missions “across the fence” from various locations in SVN, and Thailand. SOG stood for Studies and Observations Group, part of MACV. The HQ was located in Saigon, with Command and Control (C&C) detachments at DaNang, C&C North or CCN; Kontum, C&C Central or CCC; and Ban Me Thuot, C&C South or CCS. Each of these had Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) and launch sites, or launch teams. Mobile Launch Team 3 (MLT 3) was the SOG “backdoor” launch team, ostensibly for periods when weather made launch/recovery from SVN sites impracticable. During this time, few Army helicopter pilots possessed the all weather or instrument flying IFR tickets. However, USMC gunship pilots from HML 367 (SCARFACE or EAGLE CLAW) out of Phu Bai did have the qualifications, and were frequently used by FOB 1 to fly as FACs and to lead the KINGBEE H-34s from VNAFs 219th Squadron on those occasions where the emergency dictated an immediate launch for a Prairie Fire Emergency. Prairie Fire was the code name for the SOG operations in the northern half of the AO (Area of Operations), while Daniel Boone was the code name for the southern AO.
Missions included road/trail/river watches, prisoner snatches, wiretaps, sensor emplacement, and Bright Light (POW Recovery) missions. Other missions were assigned based on the needs of commanders of other units. There were other elements to SOG, such as Market Time, which involved Navy and Air Force elements, and other SOG OP (Operations) detachments such as OP 34 and OP 32. The Naval elements did cross- beach missions, and other maritime operations. They were located at Monkey Mountain FOB in DaNang. The FOBs and MLTs of the C&Cs frequently inserted or extracted the OP 34 teams. There was enough compartmentalization of these various operations so that one hand did not usually know what the other was doing, for obvious security reasons.
Missions were developed at SOG HQ and transmitted to the appropriate C&C for implementation. At the C&C, these missions were developed into plans, and team(s) assigned for conduct of the operation. A Reconnaissance Team (RT) usually consisted of three US Special Forces, and up to 10 indigenous personnel. The US team leader was known as the 10, his assistant the 11, and the radio operator the 12. Team Leaders had the leeway to alter the team composition. Sometime, the 12 would not be part of the team, with the 10 opting to carry the radio himself. The US team members did their planning, and conducted training and equipping of the team for the specified mission, drawing on the many resources of the FOB, launch site, and SOG. SOG made available through their channels, whatever assets that would be needed for a mission. For example, FOB 1 at Phu Bai had a daily package assigned which included two COVEY FACs from the 20th TASS at DaNang, two UH-1 gunships from HML 367 (USMC, Phu Bai) and three KINGBEE H-34s from the VNAF 219th. Frequently, UH-1 slicks from the FIREBIRDS, the 101st Airborne Division, and other Army units were fragged to fly support. And, from time to time, CH-47 Chinooks from Army Aviation, and H-46 Sea Knights from the 1st Marine Air Wing would be assigned for larger troop lift requirements. The site at NKP was primarily given air asset support on a daily frag from 7th AF to the 56th Special Operations Wing. This package included two NAIL FACs, three helos (H-3 or H-53 from the 21st SOS KNIVEs) and four A-1s from the squadrons of the 56th on a rotational basis.
Once a team had completed training, it was desirable for the 10 to fly an initial VR with the FAC. Handheld photos were taken of the ingress route to the target, egress route, check points, the selected Helicopter Landing Zone (HLZ), and any other objects that would be of use to brief the team and air assets that would be in a supporting role. A six-kilometer by six-kilometer “No Strike” box was put on the center of the target, before the team was inserted, and activated shortly before insert of the team. This was a safety measure designed to prevent an inadvertent strike on the team by friendly aircraft. To the best of my knowledge, this worked very well. The boxes always showed up on the situation maps at 56th SOW Tactical Operations Center, and none of the teams was ever attacked by friendly aircraft.The mission FAC and team were briefed as soon as possible on the plans and date for insert. On the day of the insert, all assets were briefed and shown slides from the RT leader or FAC VR. After making final preparations, the FAC and rider for the insert would take off for the area of the intended insert, flying a route that would not be so direct as to give a hint of where they were going to insert. After determining the WX was good enough, and a scan of the intended HLZ, the FAC would radio back for the other assets to launch. At NKP, we had even developed a “silent” insert technique, where no radio transmission took place from take off until the team was on the ground and broke (radio) squelch to let the insert aircraft know they were okay. Captain Jay Merz of the 21st SOS flew the lead helicopter on the first of this type insert. I think I was in the FAC aircraft, and we were orbiting several miles away from the HLZ. The 21st birds were in and out of the HLZ before I could get back to the actual insert site.
From Phu Bai, the troop carrying helos usually launched under the watchful guidance of the Marine gunships of HML 367 (SCARFACE or EAGLE CLAW) and headed for the HLZ. If all went well, the helos arrived at the HLZ, and it was normal for the gunships to prep the HLZ with HE rockets. Sometime later, while working out of Camp Eagle, the 2nd Bn, 77th Arty ARA was providing gunship support for some of our inserts. They gave us the idea to use flechette rockets, which eliminated the explosive announcement on the HLZ. They were pretty effective, and it seemed for a long time, their use cut down on the number of quick detects by NVA trail watchers. Then, the troop carriers would land the RT if there was no opposition on the HLZ. The team, well rehearsed and aware of the terrain and foliage on the HLZ, would “un-ass” the helos, and quickly fade into the jungle. The gunships and other helos would depart the HLZ, and head for an orbit area several miles away. The FAC would orbit some distance away and wait for the RT to give an okay. This was usually a couple of breaks of squelch (clicks of the transmit key), and later with the secure FM radios, a whispered message. The procedures from NKP varied only slightly, in that we used the A-1s of the 56th SOW for escort and HLZ prep instead of helicopter gunships. If all went well, all assets were released by the FAC to return to the launch site for strip/ pad alert until somewhere around 3–5 p.m. The FAC would make a late afternoon communications check with the RT, and check with ABCCC (Hillsboro, Moonbeam, Alleycat, etc.) to ensure they were aware the team was on the ground and the no-strike box was activated.
Sometime in late 1969, or early 1970, Lieutenant Colonel Bud Knapp, Commander of the 23d TASS, and Colonel Chapman, Commander of the TAS Group visited me at the bar in Heavy Hook (NKP). They were running short of O-2s for all the missions in Laos, and wanted to know if we would be willing to swap for OV-10s. Arguing that my FAC rider (observer) had to be seated next to the pilot, I was hesitant. Over several beers, they finally convinced me to try the OV-10s, and conceded to putting HE rockets back on the OV-10s for our mission. Later, the mission FACs had machineguns put back in the sponsons, with the admonition to NOT duel with the AAA. Very important factor. Since the NAIL FAC was usually first on the scene of a Prairie Fire emergency, the HE rockets could keep the NVA at bay until some A-1s or other TAC air arrived with more ordnance. That concession made the difference, and at about 0400, I agreed to give the OV-10 guys their shot.
Captain Wally Wallace was ‘da man’ assigned to show us what they could do for us. I sent my senior FAC rider, Sergeant First Class Jim ‘Twiggy’ Sweeney (deceased) up for the first go. He came back with a thumbs-up. The problem of not being next to the pilot had been solved. If he wanted to pinpoint something on the ground, rather than pointing to it on a map, the pilot would give him the stick, and he would point the nose of the aircraft at the desired target. He recommended that we go to the OV-10 for our mission FAC aircraft due to better survivability, better communications package, and the HE rocket capability. With the HF radio, we could encode or KAC a mission report and send it directly to SOG in Saigon, rather than relaying back to NKP for decoding, and putting it on the TTY, a big time saver. I flew the next mission with Wally, and that settled it. We went to the OV-10, and the O-2 guys (Hank Haden, Jerry Stubblefield, Sam Batram) were disappointed. God bless them. I remember so many stories of all the things they did, I hated to lose them. They were always part of the team. The new guys were (forgive me if I don’t get everybody included here, but gray hair must be part of the loss of brain cells). Wally Wallace, Dick Hall, Fred Parrot, Larry Casey, Jim Latham, Bob (Panther) Pierce, Rusty Heft, Fred Pumroy, and Bill Sanders (MIA). These are the only names I can call up from the cobwebs right now.
Captain Bill Sanders (NAIL-44) was shot down west of the DMZ on 30 June 70, along with my FAC rider, Sergeant First Class Al Mosiello. Mosiello was recovered that same day.
Once on the ground, the teams did their jobs. Our NAIL FACs monitored daily, but at night, the teams usually only had contact with the ABCCC birds, or with the BAT CATS. Any of the 23rd or 20th TASS FACs who were flying night missions could also monitor and assist the teams. It happened with some regularity. Our teams were almost always outside the range of friendly artillery, so USAF assets were essential in keeping our guys alive, and bringing them home. There were so many acts of bravery on the part of these aircrews, that it would take pages to relate the stories. Jim Henthorn has some of the info, Bob Noe of the Special Operations Association has some, and lots of us have them in our failing memories.

Bob Noe’s website: contains chronological lists by year of casualties, all services, for SOG missions. As folks like me wander into the site, they send Bob updates.

On completion of the RT mission, or after they made contact, an exfiltration would be called for. Most were done under fire. Bob Arnau (CH-3 pilot, 21st SOS) can attest to the “intensity” of these. There were no easy ones. After a successful exfil, the RTs were usually brought back to the Hook, for initial debrief. After that, a party ensued in the Heavy Hook bar. The RT members (US only) could quaff a few, and swap stories with the aircrews. The indigenous team members were required by treaty, to remain in the back room. We sent food and drink so they could have their own small celebration of life in a more subdued and dignified manner. The next a.m., the “Blackbird” C130 would arrive and take the RT back to their home base where they were further debriefed.
Heavy Hook personnel wore camo fatigues, and a black baseball cap. No rank, no US Army, and no nametags (plausible denial). We showed up at the parties at the Nail Hole, E4s thru Majors. We were part of the NAILs, and they were part of the HOOKs. The NAILs were always welcome at the many knee-walking parties at the HOOK. Anyone remember the infamous Christmas tree on the wall at the HOOK? And the party on Christmas Eve of ‘69? When a NAIL departed, he was subjected to the indignity of having his outer garments cut off. After getting dressed again, he was presented with his honorary Green Beret, and a Heavy Hook plaque. When one of my guys departed, he was given a beautiful 23d TASS plaque, and the “Order of the Brass Balls” certificate. Still have mine.
The importance of all of the FACs of the 20th TASS, 21st TASS and 23d TASS to the SOG mission was HUGE. They did the job with professional skill, bravery, and dedication. Without them, many of the surviving SOG recon team members would have not made it back. The SOG mission team was made up of many units, and many VERY dedicated people. None of them can ever be fully recognized, nor can any amount of appreciation be expressed that would be enough for their efforts. But, in my conversations with the recon guys, the FACs are always remembered with honor and respect for what they did, and who they were.
Personally, I consider it an honor to have flown with them, and to call them FRIENDS.