On New Year’s Eve, 1968, at the top-secret SOG base camp at FOB 1 in Phu Bai, Camp Commander Maj. William Shelton ordered extra base security based on reports of a planned VC or NVA attack that night. Months earlier, VC agents had placed markers on the roof of the lounge, which VC or NVA mortarmen could use as target guide-ons. A day or two earlier, a Green Beret NCO had found a camp worker carefully counting his steps as he walked away from the clubhouse—a common practice for mortarmen or artillerymen to improve their accuracy against a proposed target.
That night in the Green Beret Lounge, as we prepared to ring in the New Year, the jukebox blared, the drinks flowed, the men played the slot machines, and the pot-limit poker stakes were high. But there was an edge to the evening’s festivities because of the intel reports and Shelton’s order to close it early in case of enemy activity.
Before the club closed, the conversation around our poker table turned to a FOB 4 team, RT Diamondback, that was on the ground in the MA target, in Laos, west of S. Vietnam. The Green Berets on the team, SSG James M. Hall, Specialist Fourth Class Wayne L. Hawes, and Michael J. McKibban, were unhappy about having to run a target on New Year’s Eve. I knew Hawes from our days in Special Forces Training Group and considered him a good recon man. The others I knew only slightly.
Around 2200 hours, SSG Robert J. “Spider” Parks told us that he and the Covey (SOG forward air controller) pilot were going to fly into the team’s AO at midnight to wish the men a “Happy New Year.” While Spider’s O-2 was over the target area, the mortarmen at FOB 1 lit up the sky with flares of various colors and other rudimentary explosive devices, welcoming in the New Year. When he returned to base, Spider told me he gave the team holiday greetings and a reminder that they were in Laos. The only enemy activity we had at FOB 1 was from a poorly trained VC mortar crew that lobbed some mortar rounds at us, but they landed in the ARVN compound to the south of FOB 1 instead.
Early in the morning of 1 January, 1969, Spider left FOB 1 for a commo check with RT Diamondback, got a team OK and returned to Phu Bai. Later in the morning, however, the team radio operator requested a tactical extraction from the AO because there was a lot of enemy activity around the team. The O-2 Air Force pilot and Spider quickly returned to area of operations over the MA target. Spider regained radio contact with Hawes, who was speaking clearly but quietly about enemy activity in the area.
As Hawes was speaking to Spider, he heard a sudden burst of AK-47 fire and screams. Then silence. For a long time Spider was unable to raise anyone on the radio. He knew something was terribly wrong. Finally, an indigenous team member spoke on the radio. He said the Americans were dead, but the indigenous members of the team had survived the attack.
Back at FOB 1, at around 1200 hours, someone from the commo shack came into the club and said a Vietnamese team member from RT Diamondback was on the radio, talking to Spider. That was very bad news. Several of the recon team members in FOB 1 headed toward the commo shack. Before we got there, Tony Herrell, a veteran recon man, came around the corner with more bad news.
“They were hit by (NVA) sappers. It doesn’t look good,” he said. As always, when a team was in trouble, several team members pulled out their PRC-25s, attached a long antennae, and monitored any radio traffic they could pick up. The only news this first day of the New Year was bad. We could hear the Covey rider patiently talking to the Vietnamese team members on the ground. They were obviously shaken.
It appeared the Americans had been slow to react to the quick, deadly sapper attack. In a matter of seconds, the sappers killed the three SF troops and chose to leave the South Vietnamese team members alive. The news about the sappers was a triple dose of bad news:
- First, we had three dead Green Berets.
- Second, intel reports team leaders had received earlier in the year about NVA sappers being a new, lethal force were now confirmed. Years later, SOG recon team leader John Plaster detailed how, on March 19, 1967, Ho Chi Minh personally visited a graduation ceremony in Son Tay, 30 miles east of Hanoi in N. Vietnam, of the first sappers brigade—then called the “Special Operations Forces in the Vietnamese People’s War.” The sapper brigade was the old, elite NVA 305th Airborne Brigade that was converted to night infiltrators renowned for raiding U.S. base camps wearing only shorts or loincloths while carrying satchel charges and an AK-47. Now, the NVA counter-recon units would operate as 100-man companies that split into platoons to sweep and hunt for SOG recon teams. NVA sappers had struck the FOB 4 top secret base in Da Nang on Aug. 23, 1968, killing 18 Green Berets and dozens of indigenous troops in a well-planned early-morning attack. This was the first time an NVA sapper team killed SOG men while on the ground, across the fence in Laos or Cambodia. The NVA had a North Vietnamese Order for Heroes Who Destroy Americans award, which we simply called the “American-Killer Award.”
- Third, by killing only the Americans, the NVA pulled off a major psychological coup. By leaving the Vietnamese team members alive, their survival would plant seeds of doubt and dissension between SF troops and our little people.
That tactic worked momentarily at Phu Bai. Some of the U.S. personnel in camp who didn’t work daily with the indigenous troops were openly questioning the loyalty of the Vietnamese team members. I went over to my recon team hootch and told the loyal, dedicated South Vietnamese men to be alert for any untoward comments from U.S. personnel in camp. I also asked them to learn as much as they could about the Vietnamese team members on RT Diamondback as quickly as possible. (Autopsies later revealed that the three Green Berets were killed from AK-47 rounds fired by the sappers. Indigenous team members carried CAR-15s, which fired 5.56mm ammo.)
I headed back to the comm center. On routine missions, the radio room took on an eerie silence after a team had been pulled out of a target. The only sounds in the comm center would be radio tones, hums, and static while the men waited for the helicopters to return to base. And whenever a team was hit as badly as RT Diamondback had been, the comm center took on an additional somberness. On this, the first day of 1969, it was tomb-like. Three Americans dead, no apparent intelligence other than the fact that we now knew the NVA sappers were as good as they had been touted in earlier briefings. For Herrell and me, it was a bitter pill to swallow because we had lost a good friend with a sharp sense of humor in Hawes. Forever. For several minutes we just sat there, deep in our own thoughts. It had been about 10 minutes since the pilots had called in to report that all RT Diamondback team members had been recovered.
Oddly, none of the aircraft extracting the team received any significant ground fire from the NVA. To me, that was a definite indicator that the NVA wanted to send a psychological message along with the carnage the sappers had wrought on RT Diamondback. On 30 November, we lost seven SF troops and an entire Kingbee crew. Thirty-two days later, we lost three Americans. And since this was a secret war, Walter Cronkite could tell viewers that he no longer believed in the war, but he couldn’t tell the American public about another day in SOG.
I stood up and started to walk out of the comm center. A war-weary voice broke the long silence in the comm center with a short, clear transmission: “Happy New Year.”
His words caught me off guard. On 1 January, 1969, the NVA had upped the ante, and the thought of going across the fence sent a sobering chill down my spine. I walked over to the club and had my first drink since August. Later, ST Idaho boarded Kingbees to launch into a MA target in another attempt to find the NVA gasoline pipeline. While we headed north to Quang Tri, the 101st Airborne Division choppers carried the six men of RT Diamondhead south to FOB 4. When the choppers landed on the helicopter pad, base commander Col. Jack Warren greeted it. He ordered every man in FOB 4 out to the launch pad. He was held in high regard by SF troops because he genuinely cared about his men. After the three corpses were unloaded from the helicopter, Warren gave a terse, teary-eyed speech to his captive audience. Warren warned everyone that if they were careless in the field, death could be the result. Then he bent down, opened a body bag and picked up a portion of a body of one of the dead Americans. Now he was crying and screaming at his men to never be careless in the field.
Warren was never the same after that. Nor were the SOG men who ran recon. The NVA had upped the ante. Regardless, the secret war continued until 1972. SOG had the highest casualty rate of the war, exceeding 100 percent, which included KIAs and SOG Green Berets like Bob Howard who received eight Purple Hearts, along with the Medal of Honor from a deadly action in Laos.
(Featured image: the author, left, and SSG Robert J. “Spider” Parks)