Aviators flying support during the secret eight-year war in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam had their heroic efforts erased by a small federal government agency in 2013, SOFREP has learned.
During that top-secret cross-border war fought from 1964 to 1972, Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy aircraft supported Green Berets and their indigenous counterparts running reconnaissance and other classified operations deep behind enemy lines under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam—Studies and Observations Group, or simply SOG.
The secret war was a high-risk security operation hidden from the press, the public, most members of Congress, as well as the family members of special operations forces who ran these top-secret missions. SOG operated outside the normal chain of command, answering directly to the White House and a key staff member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
So secret were these missions, it took 29 years after SOG’s closure in 1972 for these warriors to be recognized publicly for their extreme courage, sacrifice, and tremendous losses. This official recognition finally came in the form of the Presidential Unit Citation (PUC), the unit award for valor, equivalent to the Distinguished Service Cross—our nation’s second highest individual award for valor, second only to the Medal of Honor.
The SOG PUC was presented in a public awards ceremony held on April 4, 2001 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. That PUC was awarded to SOG personnel “for extraordinary heroism” by Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White. In the written narrative of that award, it explained why SOG units received it “for extraordinary heroism, great combat achievement, and unwavering fidelity while executing unheralded top-secret missions deep behind enemy lines across Southeast Asia.”
The narrative named a few Air Force units that supported SOG: the 1st Flight Detachment, the 15th Air Commando Squadron, the 15th, 20th, and 90th Special Operations Squadrons, and the South Vietnamese Air Force’s 219th Special Operations Squadron. It also cited Navy SEAL operations along the coast of North Vietnam under the command of the U.S. Navy Advisory Detachment based in Da Nang, one Navy EC-121 aircraft and crew based in Saigon, and Marine Corps personnel assigned to SOG headquarters staff in Saigon and Da Nang.
After describing many of the SOG missions performed by these warriors during the secret war, the citation turned briefly to acknowledge the unnamed air units that supported the ground troops:
“Supporting these hazardous mission were Special Operations Group’s own United States and South Vietnamese Air Force transport and helicopter squadrons, along with U.S. Air Force forward air controllers and helicopters units of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines Corps. These courageous aviators often flew into and through heavy fire to extract Special Operations Group operators from seemingly hopeless situations, saving lives by selflessly risking their own.”
But it didn’t name any of the Army or Marine Corps units.
The insult to SOG aviators
During the eight-year war, numerous American helicopter units flew these high-risk missions across the fence into enemy territory supporting SOG teams. Hundreds were killed and wounded supporting these missions. Some units, such as the 101st Assault Helicopter Battalion, the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), the Muskets of 36-C from the Americal Division, the 176th Aviation Company, and Marine Corps Huey gunships and Cobra gunships from HML-367 (Scarface) to name but a few were assigned to fly SOG missions regularly. However, they and dozens of other aviation units that supported SOG were not mentioned by name in the PUC citation or narrative.
Over time, airmen from these and other units went back to the Army seeking to have their military records reflect their time serving in the deadly SOG missions. In reaction to the aviators and crew members seeking just recognition, bureaucrats from the Army Human Resources Command—Award and Decorations Branch took an extreme measure: They had a new general order written and approved in 2013.
Under General Order 2013-07, the following words were removed from the original General Order 2001-25: “…and helicopters units of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines Corps.” That was the only mention of Army and Marine helicopter units who fought so valiantly during the secret war.
“The U.S. Army Center of Military History requested that Army Human Resources Command—Awards and Decorations Branch make an administrative clarification by removing the phrase, ‘and helicopter units of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps,” said Ray Gall, public affairs officer for the Army’s Human Resources Command. “This phrase generated numerous requests for the award’s amendment since the award’s approval because numerous aviation unit elements were on call to support MACV-SOG on a rotational basis,” he added. “These units were neither part of MACV-SOG nor formally attached or assigned to it, and are therefore ineligible for inclusion on the PUC. The PUC recognized only the organic elements and formally attached or assigned units.”
He said service members not mentioned in the PUC narrative “would be recognized for their efforts in their own unit awards and individual decorations.” Many of the units that supported SOG 40-plus years ago no longer exist, and the ones that are operational today are deployed or in training for present-day assignments.
The PUC change was carried out quietly and surreptitiously without any notification to the handful of surviving SOG veterans or aviators, nor to SOG personnel who helped write it and who took it up the chain of command 15 years ago for review prior to it being approved. Retired Maj. John Plaster, the key author of the PUC, and MG Ken Bowra—both of whom ran SOG reconnaissance missions—assisted in getting the first PUC approved. Both men said they were not notified prior to the new 2013 PUC being issued. They learned about the redaction from a SOFREP correspondent.
In a recent interview with Plaster, he said, “I never heard from anyone about this change and I certainly don’t understand how anyone can change it and why anyone would change it.”
Reaction to this bureaucratic slap in the collective face to Army and Marine Corps aviators who supported SOG missions drew immediate and heated reactions.
“Let me get this straight,” said Douglas L. “The Frenchman” LeTourneau, who ran SOG recon missions from September 1968 to September 1969 and had his recon teams saved numerous times from attacking enemy forces by Army and Marine aviators. “Some stinking, REMF bureaucrat, for the sake of bureaucratic expediency, went to the trouble to get an Army general order written and approved that removed 11 words from our PUC to make their lives easier while insulting every aviator who served on a SOG mission. From this administration, I’m not surprised.”
Attorney James R. Moriarty flew three tours of duty in Vietnam with Marine Corps VMO-2 gunships, which supported SOG missions in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. He said, “Many of the most courageous and successful missions of the Vietnam War were conducted in secret by Special Forces soldiers and indigenous personal operating in SOG missions across the fence. Because these missions took place in Laos and Cambodia, at great distances from conventional supporting troops, artillery, or naval gunfire, the air assets assigned to SOG took on an even more important role in supporting these brave men.
“The forefront of these air assets included Army and Marine helicopter squadrons, whose men bravely and at grave risk of loss of their own lives provided transportation, gun and rocket support, communications and, most of all to a desperate team trapped by the enemy, extraction and a return to base, sometimes in body bags. The enormous success of SOG in Southeast Asia simply could not have taken place without this support, and for some bureaucrat to come back decades after the war to remove the scant recognition these Army and Marine aviators received in the initial award of this PUC is beyond acceptable.”
Green Beret Mike Taylor ran SOG recon and company-sized missions into Laos and Cambodia and was a forward air controller over SOG areas of operations for more than 18 months. Few in SOG had more experience working with air assets assigned to SOG than Taylor, who retired as a lieutenant colonel and is presently chairman of the Special Operations Association’s POW/MIA Committee.
“I cannot comprehend any reason whatsoever that some anonymous, unnamed bureaucrat in the Army Board of Military Corrections, safe and warm in his cubicle in Alexandria, Virginia, forty-plus years after the war, would be moved to remove ‘helicopter units of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps’ from the SOG PUC,” said Taylor. “Certainly, no information came to light between the original award in 2001 and the amendment in 2013 to indicate that those brave, valiant, and selfless warriors did not, in fact, ‘support’ our ‘hazardous missions.’ They were essential to our mission accomplishment and, more personally, our survival.”
There are many corrections that the board might have made, Taylor said, pointing out that SOG is misnamed as “Studies and Observation Group” and, repeatedly, as “Special Operations Group” throughout. “But, such criticisms are insignificant,” he said. “The petty, small-minded deletion of the Army and USMC helicopter units is not. It is egregious. In fact, there are aviation assets that should be added to the narrative, such as the terrific support we received from the A-1 Skyraider units associated with MACV-SOG.”
Jeffrey J. “Crash” Makool was a crew chief with A Company “The Comancheros” of the 101st Assault Helicopter Battalion based out of Phu Bai. That unit’s primary mission was supporting SOG teams across the fence in Laos. Makool, who served from 1970–71, survived two helicopter crashes with The Comancheros supporting SOG missions in Laos when his choppers were gunned down by enemy fire.
“I was on the ground with SOG Green Berets twice when my chopper got shot out from underneath me. It was terrifying for me, and the Special Forces recon men were fearless. When my second bird crashed, my helicopter landed on top of me, knocking me unconscious. I’ll never forget it, waking up to Walter Martin. The tall Green Beret lifted the burning chopper off of me before the aviation fuel that was leaking on me ignited. It’s a total disgrace to every aviator who served in SOG and to those who never returned. I’m totally disgusted with the Army, the military, and our f****** government to denigrate us in such a manner. I have the original PUC hanging on my wall; it means I have all the love and respect from the men of MACV-SOG.”
Jack Tobin, president of the 10,000-member Special Forces Association said he was going to report this “bureaucratic disgrace” to the command staff of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command at Ft. Bragg and the Special Operations Command at MacDill AFB.
Rick Estes, president of the Special Operation Association, which was formed 39 years ago by SOG recon men and expanded to include aviators and other special operations forces including Navy SEALs, Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance, and Air Force Pararescuemen, added, “It’s simply beyond my comprehension why anyone would tamper with the PUC awarded to SOG in 2001. It’s nuts. It’s wrong.”
Taylor concluded, “This was such an unnecessary insult. What was the intent of this amendment? What did it accomplish? Shame on everyone involved in the initiation, approval, and publication of Department of the Army General Order 2013-07.”
As chairman of the SOA’s POW/MIA Committee, Taylor noted that today, there are approximately 260 aviators who remain listed as missing in action in Laos. At least 105 of them died in support of the eight-year secret war. Additionally, in Laos alone, there are 51 SOG Green Berets still listed as MIAs.
Every aviator and Green Beret interviewed by SOFREP agreed that removing those 11 words from the original 2001 PUC heaped the greatest insult upon the dead, the men killed in action during SOG missions.
Featured image: One of the few units mentioned in the PUC awarded to SOG in 2001 was the South Vietnamese Air Force’s 219th Special Operations Squadron which flew support for SOG during the entire eight-year secret war. Here, 219th pilot Capt. Nguyen Van Tuong, fellow pilots, and his crew chief stand in front of a Sikorsky H-34 at the SOG Quang Tri, S. Vietnam launch site in the fall of 1968 prior to inserting a SOG recon team into a target across the fence in Laos. The team is aboard the aircraft.