On pay day Nov. 1, 1969, Green Beret Gunther Wald could not play in his favorite pay-day pot-limit poker game because he was preparing to launch with his team into Laos for a top secret mission as the team leader of Reconnaissance Team (RT) Maryland, based at Da Nang, Command and Control North (CCN) base for another mission during the eight-year secret war fought during Vietnam War.
As we walked through the white sand at CCN from the Mess Hall, the then-staff sergeant told me that he couldn’t play poker, but taunted me to be sure to win a lot money so he could win it from me when he returned from this mission.
Tragically, none of the three Green Berets on RT Maryland, Wald, Sgt. Bill Brown and Sp4 Don Shue, returned from that mission on Nov. 3, 1969.
On Aug. 30, 43 years later, at Arlington National Cemetery, the remains of those three Special Forces soldiers will be interred with full military honors, together for eternity in the hallowed grounds of Arlington.
What lead to this much delayed memorial service began during the early morning hours of Nov. 3, 1969, Reconnaissance Team Maryland was inserted into the eastern side of Savannakhet Province, in Laos. The team consisted of three U.S. Special Forces soldiers and six Montagnard troops. Wald was the team leader, Bill Brown was the assistant team leader and Shue, was the radio operator. The team’s mission was a general reconnaissance of that area to determine if reports of increased troop activity were accurate.
Special Forces SFC Terry Lanegan was flying with the Forward Air Controller when RT Maryland was inserted without incident. Lanegan flew over the team twice during the day. The last time he spoke to Shue was shortly before 3 p.m., when the team was on Yen Ngue Hill in the Huong Lap Village.
Shortly after Lanegan left the area, enemy soldiers attacked the team: Brown was hit by AK-47 fire and Wald and Shue were mortally wounded by enemy fragmentation grenades, according to the final report issued by the Department of Defenses’ Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii.
The accounting command’s report was based partly on interviews with the North Vietnamese troops who attacked Team Maryland.
In 1969, bad weather prevented searchers from entering Savannakhet Province to search for RT Maryland. Finally on Nov. 11, a search team got on the ground in the target area and located Sergeant Shue’s web gear. But they found no evidence of Wald, Brown or Shue’s bodies.
The fate of RT Maryland was reported through the chain of command to the White House, but there was no report to the public. Other than those senior officials and only fellow Green Berets at CCN knew that RT Maryland had been lost and could not be recovered. Shue was 20. His father had signed a waiver enabling him to enter the Army when he was 17. He died a few years later, a father with a broken heart and a heavy conscience.
Families of the soldiers were only told only that their loved ones were missing in action during combat in South Vietnam. Ten years later, officials told the families that the soldiers’ status had been changed to presumed killed in action. Thirty years late, in 2009 – after Sergeant Shue’s mother had died — a farmer in Laos found human remains which J.P.A.C. officials determined were the three Americans from RT Maryland: Wald, Brown and Shue. Forensic reports confirmed that teeth recovered from that area matched the fated Green Berets dental records. They also recovered Shue’s cigarette lighter.
I knew all three of those Green Berets. Wald and Brown had served with me at FOB 1 in Phu Bai during 1968. When I returned for my second tour of duty assigned to CCN, I met Shue and was duly impressed with his quick humor and handsome good looks, He could have been a poster boy for the Green Berets in 1969.
Instead, like all of us, he, Wald and Brown chose to work in complete secrecy.
Even the official name of our unit was cloaked in the secrecy of bureaucratese: Military Assistance Command-Vietnam Studies and Observations Group — or SOG, as we knew it.
Because our missions were top secret, and because we had signed agreements with the government promising not to talk or write about SOG for 20 years, I knew that I couldn’t go home and tell Wald, Brown or Shue’s parents what had really happened to their sons, or where they were actually killed nor that they served on mission that generated the highest casualty rate during the Vietnam War, exceeding 100 percent casualties, including men killed in action and wounded in action more than once. (Some SOG veterans received seven Purple Hearts during their tours of duty in SOG.)
Compounding that gnawing frustration was the knowledge that if I was killed in Laos, my family would be kept in the dark. And, if our reconnaissance team had a successful mission, I couldn’t sit down and tell my folks about how we wire-tapped enemy phone lines, placed Air Force sensors along jungle trails and roads to monitor enemy movement or killed enemy troops during brutal battles deep in the jungles of Laos, Cambodia or North Vietnam.
The large majority of men who volunteered to serve in Special Forces did so knowing they would live in a secret world where simply knowing about a successful mission was one’s reward. There would be no bragging rights. There was no phalanx of media to tell our story.
It was Special Forces, operating in the dark, far away from public knowledge and snoopy reporters.
This was the method of operation for the Quiet Professions.
Since the Laotian farmer found the remains, the first of the trio of KIA Green Berets to return home was Shue. On April 29, 2011, a flag-draped casket rolled down a cargo ramp underneath the Delta Airlines jet that flew Sergeant Shue’s remains from Hawaii to Charlotte. The casket was greeted by a Special Forces honor guard, Green Berets he had served with in Vietnam and Shue’s family members.
Brown’s remains were returned to the United States in September.
Wald’s remains will return from Hawaii this week.
The trio of fated Green Berets are scheduled for burial at Arlington National Cemetery Thursday Aug. 30, with full military honors.
There will be at least a dozen Green Berets who served with Wald, Brown and Shue, including Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell. Bargewell ran at least one mission with Wald in 1968. Thursday, Bargewell will be representing the Special Operations Association, which was formed by the Green Berets who ran top secret missions for SOG during the eight-year secret war.
This service will also provide closure the Navy veteran Michael Buetow, who is the son of Wald. Buetow never met Wald, but knew of him and grew up only knowing the tiny fragments of information that his mother had heard through secondary information. Also, Mike Buetow’s son Gunther Buetow is presently serving in the Army. It was unclear whether or not he would be able to leave his assignment for the memorial service.
In addition, Wald’s half-sister, Frau Heike Deucker is flying in from Germany to attend the service, according to government spokesmen. Wald’s parents divorced in the ‘60s and moved to Germany. Thus Deucker will have closure for the half-brother she never met.
To the men who fought in the secret war, we are grateful that Wald, Brown and Shue are home.
But we are also reminded that there are still more than 50 Green Berets assigned to SOG who fought in the secret war in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam and remain listed as missing in action, grim reminders of how deadly that war was. So deadly, indeed, that the casualty rate for many special operations teams exceeded 100 percent – a statistical anomaly made possible when soldiers were wounded more than once in the line of duty.
For all of us, Aug. 30 will be a somber day, a good day because after 43 years, Wald, Brown & Shue will, for the first time, be together into perpetuity.
Footnote: SOG was so deeply classified that when SOG operators, including Navy SEALs, Air Force Pararescue personnel and aviators from the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, the presentation occurred 29 years after the secret war ended in 1972.
On April 4, 2001 at a small ceremony at Ft. Bragg, N.C., a Presidential Unit Citation- the equivalent of a Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest military.
Author: John Stryker Meyer
J. Stryker Meyer served two tours of duty with Special Forces during the secret war in Southeast Asia, and has written two non-fiction books about SOG, “Across The Fence: The Secret War in Vietnam – Expanded Edition”, and “On The Ground: The Secret War in Vietnam.” Both are available as e-books through his website: sogchronicles.com