On this day 57 years ago, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), activated the “Studies and Observation Group” which became known simply as SOG.
MACV headquarters in Saigon issued General Order 6, which created a highly secret new organization, Joint Special Operations Task Force to execute clandestine operations. SOG, was approved by President Lyndon Johnson three years after President Kennedy had called for covert actions against North Vietnam.
MACV-SOG was first activated on January 24, 1964. It was commanded by an Army Special Forces colonel but would be comprised of troops from all the services: Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Air Force, Marine Corps Force Recon, as well as CIA personnel — as SOG would soon be conducting most of the Agency’s covert operations in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia — were all part of the organization.
SOG was controlled by the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities (SACSA) and the staff at the Pentagon because MACV Commander General William Westmoreland was not authorized to conduct operations or activities outside of South Vietnam.
SOG missions included strategic reconnaissance, direct action, sabotage, personnel recovery, psychological operations (PSYOP), counter-intelligence, bomb damage assessments, and maritime operations that covered the coastal areas of North Vietnam.
After trying to stand up Vietnamese-only operations across borders (“Leaping Lena”) proved disastrous, American SOG operators were given the green light to conduct cross-border operations.
The first such operation took place in October 1965. Its target was a truck terminus inside Laos that was a hub for the so-called “Ho Chi Minh Trail.”
The mission was undertaken by two Americans and four Vietnamese and was highly successful. A total of 88 bombing sorties were conducted as part of the mission, with numerous secondary explosions reported. However, it resulted in SOG’s first death, Captain Larry Thorne, who died in a helicopter crash. Thorne had fought communists under three different flags.
SOG headquarters was located in Saigon. However, subordinate commands were located in various forward operating bases, with command and control camps, launch sites, training centers, and radio relay sites in all four U.S. Corps Tactical Zones. By late 1967, MACV-SOG had grown and split into three separated subordinate commands: Command and Control North (CCN), Command and Control Central (CCC), and Command and Control South (CCS). CCN, at Da Nang, was the largest in size and conducted operations in Laos and Cambodia. CCC, at Kontum, also operated in Laos and Cambodia. CCS, based at Ban Me Thout, was the smallest command and control unit and operated in southern Cambodia.
The teams would evolve as well. They would be normally comprised of three Americans, and between three and 12 indigenous troops (Vietnamese, Montagnards, or ethnic Chinese Nungs), depending on the mission.
The chain of command consisted of an American team leader (one-zero), followed by the assistant team leader (one-one), and a radio operator (one-three). Indigenous personnel were listed by seniority as zero-one, zero two, etc.
Teams carried a mishmash of American and captured weapons, equipment, and uniforms. Teams were inserted via helicopters. Communications were relayed through a Forward Air Controller (FAC) fixed-wing aircraft.
Unlike the JSOC troops of today, the SOG warriors had none of the technology-based items to give them an advantage over their adversaries.
Not long ago, I spoke with one of SOG’s best, author John Stryker Meyer. He told me that other than the aircraft, SOG’s enemies usually had better equipment. “We’d have given anything for a pair of NODs (night vision goggles),” Meyer said. He added that the communists normally could and would listen in to all of their radio transmissions.
In an interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune a few years ago, Meyer recounted his last mission in 1970.
“We were on the ground for a few hours and made a light contact. We could not move the way I wanted to and made another contact — not a firefight but we were compromised,” he said. “I wanted a tactical extraction, but my request was denied. A colonel I’d argued with denied my request for a tac extract, which every One-Zero could do. An NVA came through the elephant grass — really young kid who looked like a student. He never moved his AK. I had my CAR-15 pointed right at him. He just backed out and went away. I called in Sky Raiders for direct gun runs and they pulled us out on ropes.”
During their eight-year campaign against communist forces, SOG suffered horrible casualties, with a rate that exceeded 100 percent, meaning that many of their members were wounded more than once. It was the highest casualty rate since the Civil War.
But the kill rate for SOG warriors was an incredible 158-1. Twelve SOG warriors were awarded the Medal of Honor: nine Green Berets, two Navy SEALs, and an Air Force pilot:
- Staff Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez (awarded from President Ronald Reagan)
- Staff Sergeant Jon Cavaiani
- First Lieutenant James P. Fleming (USAF 20th Special Operations Squadron)
- First Lieutenant Loren D. Hagen (posthumous), CCN/TF1AE
- Sergeant First Class Robert L. Howard (awarded on his third separate recommendation)
- Specialist 5 John J. Kedenburg (posthumous)
- Staff Sergeant Franklin D. Miller (5th Special Forces Group)
- Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris (Navy SEAL)
- Sergeant Gary M. Rose (awarded by President Trump in 2017)
- First Lieutenant George K. Sisler (posthumous)
- Engineman Second Class Michael E. Thornton (Navy SEAL), STDAT-158
- Sergeant First Class Fred W. Zabitosky
In addition, 22 members of SOG were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. Of the nearly 300 Americans still declared MIA from the war in Vietnam, 50 of them were Green Berets who disappeared while on SOG missions.
Vietnamization scaled back SOG’s missions and President Johnson ordered all operations into North Vietnam stopped. The 5th Special Forces Group, where the vast majority of SOG’s warriors came from, was rotated back to the United States in March of 1971. On April 30, 1972, SOG was deactivated.
However, it wasn’t until April 4, 2001, that the U.S. Army officially recognized the bravery, integrity, and devotion to duty of the SOG warriors by awarding the unit a Presidential Unit Citation during a ceremony at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.