From hitchhiking at age 15 in order to join the WWII effort to hunting Bin Laden in his 70s in the mountains of Tora Bora the story of Billy Waugh is straight out of a Hollywood movie; but it is entirely true.
Billy Waugh had two long careers, one in Special Forces and the other in the CIA as a paramilitary operations officer. In total, he served for more than 50 years as a special operator.
A Hitchhiker’s Attempt to Join the Military
Waugh was born in Bastrop, Texas on December 1, 1929. He was bitten by the bug to join the military during World War II. In 1945, he met a pair of Marines who had just returned to Texas from fighting in the South Pacific. So, at the age of 15, he decided to enlist. Somehow, he got the idea that you could enlist at the age of 16 in California, so he set off hitchhiking for Los Angeles.
He got only as far as Las Cruces, New Mexico when he was stopped by a police officer. He was put to jail for having no identification and refusing to give his name. Eventually, he was released and returned to Bastrop.
Waugh decided to throw himself into high school until he was old enough to enlist. He graduated with a grade point average (GPA) of 4.0 from Bastrop High School.
Billy Waugh in Vietnam and Special Forces Service in MACV-SOG
Waugh eventually joined the military in 1948, but he enlisted with the Army, not the Marines.
After going through basic training at Ft. Ord, California, Waugh went through jump school in December 1948.
He re-enlisted in 1951 to get an assignment with the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team (Rakkasans), which was then fighting in Korea.
After the Armistice ended the Korean War, Billy Waugh was assigned to Germany. There, while riding on a train, he met a couple of NCOs from the 10th Special Forces Group. They explained the opportunities that existed for NCOs in the unit and what Special Forces (SF) were all about. Waugh volunteered and entered the training pipeline, earning his Green Beret and joining the 10th Special Forces Group (10th SFG) in Bad Tölz, West Germany.
During the early 1960s, Special Forces A-Teams were being sent to Southeast Asia to train indigenous tribesmen for the joint SF/CIA Civilian Irregular Defense Program (CIDG).
In Waugh’s first tour in 1961, he trained tribesmen in both South Vietnam and Laos. In the same year, he began his first tour with the CIA’s Special Activities Division, being on loan from the Special Forces. It wouldn’t be his last.
In 1965, his A-Team (A-331) and his CIDG unit conducted a raid on a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) unit compound in Bong Son, in Binh Dinh Province. Intelligence gave the Special Forces troops an estimate of a few hundred NVA troops in the area. This was a gross miscalculation, In reality, there were more than 4,000 troops in the area, including Chinese regular troops bolstering the NVA and Viet Cong.
During the raid, Billy Waugh found himself out of grenades and nearly out of ammunition. On the way to the predetermined exfil point, he was hit in the knee by a Soviet-made RPK.
Crawling along a levee, he was hit again in the foot and ankle. Reaching his medical aid bag, he gave himself a shot of morphine but this did little for the pain.
The CIDG and SF troops were soon in danger of being overrun. At that point, Waugh was shot in the head and knocked unconscious.
In an excerpt from his book, Hunting the Jackal, Waugh described what transpired,
“I took another bullet, this time across the right side of my forehead. I don’t know for sure, but I believe the bullet ricocheted off the bamboo before striking me. It sliced in and out of a two-inch section of my forehead, and it immediately started to bleed like an open faucet. It sounds like the punch line to a bad joke, but you know it’s a bad day when the best thing about it is getting shot in the head.”
The NVA overran the position. They believed Waugh was dead and helped themselves to his gear, Rolex watch, and clothes, stripping him naked before leaving him there and moving on. His teammates found him and got him to safety. For his conduct, Billy Waugh was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart — his sixth, for that operation.
He spent the remainder of 1965 and part of 1966 recovering from his wounds at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC. However, as soon as he was released from the hospital, Waugh was right back in Vietnam.
Waugh joined the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG). This was a unit composed of special operators from all the services, but mostly Green Berets. It conducted dangerous missions deep in enemy-occupied territory.
A Casualty Rate of Over 100 Percent
While working for SOG, Waugh helped train Vietnamese and Cambodian forces in unconventional warfare tactics to fight against Communist forces in the region.
Waugh was the senior NCO of MACV-SOG’s Command & Control North (CCN) based at Marble Mountain on the South China Sea, outside of Da Nang. Waugh held the command sergeant major position during the covert unit’s transition and name-change to Task Force One Advisory Element (TF1AE). He spent the remainder of the war working for the unit.
The price for conducting these “over the fence” operations was high. The casualty rate for SOG forces was over 100 percent. In an interview about SOG with a Miami newspaper, Waugh said, “If you were going up there, you were either going to die or get shot all to hell. Everyone in the outfit was wounded once, twice, three times.”
SGM Billy Waugh conducted the first combat High Altitude, Low Opening (HALO) jump, into enemy territory in October 1970. Waugh also led the last combat Special Reconnaissance parachute insertion by American Army Special Forces HALO parachutists into denied territory on June 22, 1971.
After the U.S. troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, Waugh, a veteran of 7.5 years of combat deployments, was to be reassigned to the 10th Special Forces Group. Nevertheless, he told the Army to change his orders or he would retire.
The Army had no need for Special Forces — and never liked the unit, to begin with — so they told Waugh to retire. And thus he did.
Waugh retired from active military duty at the rank of sergeant major (E-9) on February 1, 1972.
Billy Waugh Returns to the CIA
Waugh went back to Texas and worked for the U.S. Postal Service. But for someone who was used to the adrenaline rush of combat with SOG, a postman’s job wasn’t for him.
But in 1977 his career would refocus.
He and three other retired Special Forces operators were recruited to train Libyan Special Forces troops. The men believed that this was a CIA operation, but the more they learned, they realized that it was not. Instead, it was a private operation run by an ex-CIA operative named Edwin Wilson.
Wilson would later be convicted of attempted murder, illegally selling arms, explosives, and ammunition to a foreign country, and was sentenced to 53 years in prison.
However, just prior to deployment, Waugh was approached by an active CIA agent who asked him to take photos of people, places, and anything else of value. This was a needed bit of insurance for Waugh in case things went wrong.
He took pictures of the men he was training with and of SAM (surface to air missile) sites. He then passed them on to the CIA.
Waugh was in Libya in 1979 when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was overrun. Libya was no longer safe for him and he escaped to Frankfurt, Germany.
The new heads of the CIA under the Carter administration outwardly didn’t want anyone like Waugh in the fold any longer. So, Waugh took a job as the deputy chief of police at the U.S. Army Kwajalein Missile Range in the Marshall Islands. The force was tasked with stopping the Soviets from stealing classified information on the U.S.’s missile technology.
Tracking Bin Laden and Hunting the Jackal
But in the late 1980s, the agency came calling again. So, Billy Waugh ended up in Khartoum, Sudan, hunting a then-unknown terrorist and terror organization. The man was Osama bin Laden and the group was al-Qaeda.
At that time, bin Laden was not a major target, so Waugh was told to watch and report on his activities. He got within a few feet of him several times.
“I was within 30 meters of him,” Waugh said to Air Force journalist Nick Stubbs during an interview in 2011. “I could have killed him with a rock.”
In 1993, Waugh and a team of CIA operatives set up a surveillance mission to try and locate the wanted terrorist, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka the infamous “Carlos the Jackal.”
No one had photographed the Jackal for 10 years. But Waugh’s team tracked him down and set up a surveillance point across the street from his house. They monitored Carlos’s routine and eventually, the French came in, raided the house, and captured the Jackal.
After 9/11, Waugh had one last fight in him. Having so much knowledge about bin Laden, he convinced the agency to deploy him to the mountains of Afghanistan. Waugh deployed with ODA-594 of the 5th SFG.
The men hunted for the notorious terrorist in the Afghan mountains outside of Tora Bora. At 71 years of age, when any thoughts of being an operator are long past for warriors, Waugh was on the hunt one final time.
“If the mind is good and the body is able, you keep on going if you enjoy it,” Waugh said in the interview with Stubbs. “Once you get used to that, you’re not about to quit. How could you want to do anything else?”
Because of security restrictions, no one (other than Waugh) knows in how many classified operations he participated.
Billy Waugh is rightly a legend in the special operations and paramilitary community.
His awards and decorations consist of :
- Combat Infantryman Badge (two awards)
- Special Forces Tab
- Master Parachutist Badge
- Military Freefall Jumpmaster Badge with gold combat jump star (5 combat jumps)
- Vietnam Parachutist Badge
- Silver Star
- Legion of Merit
- Bronze Star Medal with three bronze oak leaf clusters
- Purple Heart with seven oak leaf clusters
- Air Medal
- Army Commendation Medal with Valor device and three oak leaf clusters
- Army Presidential Unit Citation with oak leaf cluster (one award in 2001, SOG)
- Good Conduct Medal (7 awards)
- Army of Occupation Medal
- National Defense Service Medal with one bronze service star
- Korean Service Medal with three campaign stars
- Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal
- Vietnam Service Medal with Arrowhead device and six service stars
- Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation
- Vietnam Presidential Unit Citation
- Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation
- Republic of Vietnam Civil Actions Medal Unit Citation
- United Nations Korea Medal
- Vietnam Campaign Medal
- Republic of Korea War Service Medal
Editor’s Note: Two of the pictures have been removed from the article as they mistakenly captioned another man as Billy Waugh. We apologize for the confusion.