By John Stryker Meyer
During the eight-year secret war in Vietnam, when Green Beret-led reconnaissance teams and company-sized elements ran top secret missions across the fence into Cambodia, Laos and N. Vietnam, many of those missions were compromised before the Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group units landed on the ground, Soldier of Fortune magazine has learned.
Exactly how many missions were compromised, how many Green Berets and their courageous indigenous counterparts were killed or wounded in action, as a result of these heinous actions, will never be known, due to the highly classified nature of SOG, its tightly compartmentalized command structure and extremely narrow channels of intelligence and counterintelligence reporting.
Thus, one of the hidden horrors of running highly classified missions where intelligence reports were delivered promptly to the White House is: there are few paper trails to follow and the truth about the degree of compromise, if ever documented, will likely never be known.
More than 20 years ago Soldier of Fortune magazine was the first publication in the country to print stories about the highly classified and deadly SOG missions. Recently gathered information from four separate sources confirmed the long-held fears of many SOG Green Berets who ran what many believe were the deadliest missions during that war where casualties exceeded 100 percent among SOG soldiers.
And, it’s important for yesterday’s warriors to know about the compromises, and with the hope that tomorrow’s warriors and command structures will be more diligent to guard against possible compromises in future covert operations.
Russians on the ground
Evidence of Russians and their commie pals in Laos, North Vietnam and the DMZ was reported early.
SOG recon man Charles Berg said that when he flew visual reconnaissances in that area of Laos and the DMZ in 1967, he observed Russian aircraft on more than one occasion. During one flight, “I told my pilot to get close to it because I wanted to shoot it down with my CAR-15,” Berg said The pilot didn’t oblige, “but, we knew those bastards were there.”
During an operation in Laos in November 1968, run out of FOB 1, Phu Bai, (Recon Team) RT Idaho, heard Russian pilots on their radio conducting aerial resupplies to their men and their NVA allies in Laos.
In November and December 1968, SFC Pat Watkins was flying Covey (the SOG Forward Air Controller) for FOB 1 missions over Laos and the DMZ, where he regularly encountered English-speaking North Vietnamese on the day’s operational FM frequency.
“It got so bad,” Watkins told SOF in October ’08 interview, “that when we arrived over the AO, they’d greet me on the radio. I told them to stop playing that Vietnamese music on our frequency and at least play some rock and roll.
“However, it got real serious when we went operational working with a team on the ground. Then, they’d interfere with our radio transmissions. If we told the team to go up two clicks (on their PRC-25 FM radio) or down two clicks (on the radio frequency dial) the NVA would do the same thing.”
In early December, 1968, George “Boo” Miller, a Marine gunship pilot with HML-367, received a call on his UHF frequency from an English-speaking man during a SOG extraction who knew the famous Marine gunship crew’s call sign: “Scarface.”
“He called me several times during the extraction of an FOB 1 recon team,” Miller told SOF in October ‘08. “I had run out of ammo and rockets and was making low passes so my door gunners could continue to fire on the enemy and to throw hand grenades at them.”
During one of those last passes, Miller observed a Russian officer in the DMZ, just east of the team’s LZ.
“I’ll never forget it. He was wearing a large, white male in a gray-colored uniform with red epaulets on his shoulders,” Miller said. “He was standing in the middle of a small clearing just east of the team. My co-pilot also saw him when we made a second pass to confirm what we had seen.”
However, when he returned to “fire him up,” the Russian, “was gone.” After successfully extracting the team, Miller reported his sighting to a marine general at Vandergrift base. He heard nothing further on that sighting.
About six months later, during a mission in the DMZ, Lynne M Black Jr., the One-Zero (team leader) of RT Idaho and his One-One (assistant team leader) Doug “The Frenchman” LeTourneau observed a white male, bathing with a few women in a stream at the bottom of a large series of mountains. The Russian was too far away for their weapons and Black couldn’t muster up any tactical air assets to nail him.
A month later, on another DMZ target, LeTourneau received a call on his FM PRC-25 radio that he’ll never forget. Speaking in English, with an accent a Caucasian male said, “RT Idaho. Come in RT Idaho.”
Because it was near noontime, LeTourneau thought it might be Covey doing a routine commo check. The only problem, there was no Covey in the Area of Operations.
Thirty-nine years later, LeTourneau told SOF, “I’ll never forget that radio call for many reasons. Out of the blue, the voice broke radio silence, spoke English, he knew our team name, he knew my name and Black’s name and he knew our codenames. That really blew me away.”
When Black looked at his dumbfounded One-One in 1969, he grabbed the handset and said, “Who is this?”
The mystery man told Black that he knew where the team was located, and that he and his friends were going to find the RT Idaho men and kill or capture them. He said that he had six-digit coordinates on a map where RT Idaho was located.
Black’s response was instant: “Let me help you motherfucker, here are my eight digit coordinates. This is exactly where I am.”
“I know who you are Blackjack and I’m going to get the Frenchman, too. I’m bringing my friends to get you.”
Black told him: “I know your mother, asshole, she fucked hundreds of Russian pigs to get your KGB assignment, except you’re dumb like your mother and they sent you to the DMZ instead of the U.S.”
At that precise moment, RT Idaho was near the top of a severely steep mountain. Even a dumb Russian knew that mounting an attack against a SOG team with high ground would result in many casualties. No attack was launched. Obviously compromised, RT Idaho was extracted from the LZ by H-34 helicopters (Code-named Kingbees) piloted by South Vietnamese pilots, under heavy enemy gunfire. Black was flown to Saigon where he gave a full report – what, if any action was taken on it remains a mystery.
Russia’s “Secret War” in Nam
The second confirmation of Russians in Nam, first surfaced on the Internet earlier this year, when reporter James Brown of Russia Today covered the first public reunion of the 3,000 Russians who fought in the USSR secret war in Vietnam. The segment that he recorded was released on the Internet and can be found at this site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wprT66Yjxs.
Held in Zarya, outside of Moscow, the reunion marked the Russian secret war they fought from 1965 to 1973, hence the celebration of their 35th anniversary of when their official involvement ended in Nam. They were the Soviet Union’s “forgotten soldiers” veterans of a war their government denied involvement in for nearly 20 years.
Only now, long after the old communist regime collapsed in 1991, have officials – both Russian and North Vietnamese – admitted that more than 3,000 Soviet troops fought against the Americans in Vietnam.
One of those Russian veterans, identified by Russia Today as Nikolay Kolesnik, said, “We were known as a group of military experts. The commander was the senior expert. Thus, technically there were no Russians in Vietnam. The only thing we knew we were Soviet people … Soviet soldiers, …we had to do whatever it took to stop the (U.S.) air raids…”
Ironically, SOG’s Russian counterparts had their own plausible deniability, a political subtlety not lost on SOG members who ran all missions in Indian territory without any identification for their deniability if captured or killed.
Lee Cong Niem, a Vietnam veteran of the Vietnam War, told Russia Today that the communists in North Vietnam “…have a lot of respect for Russian equipment and Russian experts.”
Confirmation of Communist connection
The third confirmation of Russians in Nam that provided further details of Ivan’s penetration of SOG operational radio transmissions was provided exclusively to Soldier of Fortune by a member of the U.S. Intelligence Community who asked SOF to neither report his name nor the exact agency that employed him for more than 15 years. SOF has independently confirmed his employment with that agency.
This operative told SOF that in the early years of his intelligence employment he worked closely with East Germans and Czechs during the last years of the Cold War in Europe – before the wall came down. Those men had worked with the Russians who had served in Vietnam during the Russian secret war in Southeast Asia. The officer spent lengthy periods of time during the middle and late 80s behind enemy lines running clandestine operations covertly in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, where he eventually developed a rapport with several communists.
A key element of this covert operation involved working with members of the East Bloc/Warsaw pact military forces bartering almost anything they could get their hands on and swapping it for materials they could sell. During those years the officer used his mechanical engineering skills and experience to earn credibility and acceptance while working closely with the communists.
“The black market didn’t operate with currency at that time, as it was useless in Eastern Bloc countries,” the operative told SOF. Instead of currency, he traded American blue jeans, racing goggles, gloves, T-shirts and brightly colored logo stickers for FORMAT (Foreign Material) such as radios, chemical protection gear, Geiger counters, radar bits, pilot helmets, Russian Starlight scopes and many critically sensitive items that remained classified.
A top priority for that operative was obtaining “anything that was aircraft-related, such as data recorders, black boxes, flight charts, training and evaluation manuals and anything on techniques.”
In the late 80s, infiltrating into Eastern Bloc countries wasn’t difficult, because the border guards were there to keep people in, the operative told SOF. “We’d infiltrate with materials to trade for FORMAT hardware and items, take them back to our safe house near the border, and Russian officers would smuggle all of the items into West Germany for us, for a price. Then, from there, we’d transport the booty to stateside.”
Over time, the U.S. intelligence operative ingratiated himself with the communists and eventually began hearing about the Russian, limited-proxy secret war in Vietnam helping the Vietnamese who they called “Yellow Monkeys.”
“At that point in time, I didn’t really know that much about SOG,” the operative said. “Because I was an American, they wanted to impress me, so I let them fill in the blanks. In general, they wanted us Americans to know they didn’t like being there. They said a large percentage of the USSR troops were artillerymen, mostly Ukrainians, who specialized in anti-aircraft defenses and operating radar around Hanoi.
“But, there were some who traveled further south and worked with North Vietnam’s communications specialists. They told me they had monitored SOG radio transmissions from Leghorn and Hickory.” [Leghorn was the first radio intercept/relay point opened on a mountaintop in southern Laos in early 1967. First called Eagle’s Nest, it was operated by SOG men from FOB 2 in Kontum until the end of the secret war in 1972. Hickory was a radio relay site, where recon teams from FOB 1, 3 and 4 could reach from the Prairie Fire AO on FM frequencies. The NVA overran it in June 1971. Staff Sgt. Jon Cavaiani was awarded a Medal of Honor defending that site.]
The operative said, “The Russians had tremendous respect for SOG operators, but they couldn’t understand why the U.S. didn’t use more sophisticated commo equipment or at least encryption communications equipment in Vietnam.”
As the operative accumulated time behind enemy lines, he met more higher-ranking communist officials, including a special operations instructor of the highest level who had experience with Soviet operators that had worked in Vietnam, Angola, Cuba, Egypt and other countries. This high-level source told the operative about one Soviet officer trained in special operations who functioned as a foreign military advisor.
That special operator would listen to SOG radio frequencies and hear Spike teams call in air strikes using open frequencies with basic code words, the U.S. operative said. This Soviet operator had the capability to speak to SOG teams. Trained in Cuba before being assigned to Laos as a communications expert, he spoke Spanish and English. (He later commanded Cuban troops in Angola where he was killed around 1979.)
“The bottom line,” the U.S. intelligence operative told SOF, “The Russians and the NVA know a lot about SOG recon teams. They also knew, and I couldn’t tell how often, where the team’s LZs were. They knew many of the SOG recon teams by code name, especially in Laos, where the teams from Kontum and Da Nang, Phu Bai and Khe Sahn ran missions across the fence.”
The Saigon spy
The U.S. intelligence officer also learned one more nugget of information: “I was told that there were enemy agents in the highest command levels of SOG in Saigon. Their cover was so deep, it was never exposed during the Vietnam War.”
That fact confirms many One-Zeros’ suspicions that there was a mole, or a spy in SOG headquarters.
Additionally, during a 1996 Hanoi television show, Maj. Gen. George “Speedy” Gaspard, was shocked when he saw an individual he knew as “Francois” receive Hanoi’s highest military honor for his years of service as a spy in SOG. Gaspard, who had several tours of duty in Vietnam and in SOG, knew “Francois” and was “shocked” when he saw the program. Francois had access to highly sensitive information while employed by the U.S.
Author and SOG recon man John L. Plaster, has a photo of Gaspard standing with “Francois” in Saigon when Gaspard had no idea of the spy’s real role for the NVA. That photograph of Gaspard and “Francois is on Page 463 of Plaster’s book: SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars, by Paladin Press Book.
“There’s no question that he hurt SOG operations,” Gaspard said. “Again, how do you gauge it all? When you look at the success rate of STRATA teams by comparison, you can see why they succeeded. We were disconnected from Saigon and we didn’t have the NVA and Russians working against us.”
Gaspard took over STRATA operations in October 1967, directing its missions into North Vietnam through September 1968. The unique aspect of STRATA, which operated under OP34B, the teams launched out of Thailand, flying in Air Force helicopters. The Air Force performed all insertions and extractions without pre-mission reports to Saigon. During Gaspard’s tenure at STRATA 24 teams were inserted into North Vietnam on various intelligence-gathering missions. Only one and a half teams were lost during that period of time that involved inserting and successfully extracting more than 150 STRATA team members during that time.
“Again, a key part to our success was having our separate chain of command and not telling Saigon. We worked with the Air Force on a need-to-know basis.”
In summation, SOF Publisher Robert K. Brown, a former Green Beret who served in Vietnam said, “The men of SOG were amazing. Now that we’ve learned about how an untold number of missions were compromised, yet they somehow managed to carry on, makes the SOG legend all the more remarkable.”