In 1958, 101st Airborne Division commander Major General William Westmoreland gave Korean War Medal of Honor recipient Major Lewis Millet an important assignment. His task? Establishing a condensed, but intense, patrolling and raiding school for the division. Westmoreland was concerned that his division’s paratroopers needed more intensive training in raiding and reconnaissance patrolling, but was aware that the U.S. Army Ranger School was unable to provide training on the scale he envisioned for an entire division.
General Westmoreland chose the name “Recondo” for his school. The “Recon” half of the new word was clear enough, but there is still some lingering debate over the “do” part. Most soldiers younger than General Westmoreland assumed the name was a combination of recon and commando, but some sources say that General Westmoreland’s original intention was that the “do” came from the WWI nickname for American soldiers, “doughboys.”
To a generation accustomed to Pillsbury TV commercials featuring the fat and giggly Pillsbury Doughboy, that was absolutely unacceptable. Whatever General Westmoreland originally intended, to everyone else, “Recondo” has always stood for “reconnaissance commando.” When he later became commandant of the U.S. Military Academy, General Westmoreland also instituted a less intense program of Recondo training at West Point. Later, in Vietnam, General Westmoreland played a major part in establishing the most famous Recondo school of them all—MACV Recondo School.
When conventional U.S. troop units began deploying to the Republic of Vietnam, the men of Project Delta (B-52) and its predecessor, Project Leaping Lena, had already honed their skills and gained experience in conducting reconnaissance and other special operations in Vietnam, as well as in training indigenous troops in these arts. It soon became evident that the conventional units would need a reconnaissance capability beyond their organic cav troops and infantry battalion recon platoons.
In September 1966, the 1st Brigade 101st Airborne Division sent 10 paratroopers through Delta’s training program, and soon other units were begging to send some of their soldiers through the course. By August 1966, things were getting out of hand. Delta’s CO went to Colonel Kelly, who at this time was reorganizing and expanding 5th SF Group’s intelligence operations, and in the process of organizing and bringing online Project Omega (B-50), Project Sigma (B-56), and a group recon school.
In the midst of all this, Project Delta was also training LRRPs for the conventional units. Colonel Kelly went to General Westmoreland (by then MACV’s commanding general), and on July 1st, 1966, Major A. J. Baker was given the job of forming and commanding the MACV Recondo School, based on Delta’s recon experience and the 101st’s Recondo School. From that beginning, the MACV Recondo School at Nha Trang was on its way.
But all that is history, and that history is well chronicled in Tom Halliwell’s “A History Of The MACV Recondo School,” still available in PDF. It is a wonderful work of history, full of information, photos, and detailed information about the training schedules, requirements, patrol procedures, historical facts, a list of Recondo instructors/advisors and cadre, and a similar list of Recondo graduates. Halliwell’s “History” is a priceless source for anyone interested in American special operations history. Halliwell’s history is a history, but this article is more of a grateful paean from an old Recondo School graduate.
MACV Recondo School at Nha Trang
Although it was based on Project Delta’s training and experience and the 101st Airborne’s Recondo School, and although it has heavily influenced many subsequent military training and selection and assessment programs, 5th SF Group’s three-week, three-phase MACV Recondo School at Nha Trang was like no other American military school. There almost certainly will never be another one like it. A man could get killed in Recondo School, and a man could find it necessary to kill another man—all as part of the curriculum. That’s a feature they don’t have at Harvard, Yale, or Stanford.
To get into the school, a soldier had to be a volunteer with a combat arms MOS. He had to be in excellent physical condition. He had to already have at least a month spent in-country, with six months remaining after graduation. He had to have actual or anticipated assignment to a LRRP unit, though cav scouts, battalion recon soldiers, and certain others (such as the USAF PJ in my class) were often accepted into the course. A Recondo student had to be proficient in general military subjects, so said USARV regulation 350-2, and the majority met those criteria. One of the first lessons new Recondo students learned was that SF set a high standard, and duds, slackers, and the unready were quickly eliminated from the course.
The first week consisted of demanding physical training, including the notorious rucksack runs (with a 30-pound sandbag, four canteens of water, load-bearing equipment, weapons, and ammunition), and long days of intense classroom and hands-on instruction in land navigation, patrol procedures, medical training, intelligence, communications, escape and evasion method, and other relevant subjects.
One of the highlights of the first week was the “bear pit”: a sandbag-lined hole in the ground where students squared off for some hand-to-hand practice. The Koreans among us were usually warned not to use taekwondo in the pit. The hours were long and fatiguing, but falling asleep in the classroom could be cause for immediate dismissal from the course. Pop quizzes and examinations were frequent, and what free time the students had was best used in studying the handout sheets for the next examinations. All this was made pleasant by the excellent food in the Recondo School mess hall. SF personnel might have had complaints about the Special Forces Mess Association, but the students generally agreed it was the best military chow they’d ever had.
The PT and the studying continued in the second week. There was also instruction and practice in rappelling from a tower and from helicopters, using McQuire rigs, and using rope ladders for patrol insertion and extraction. Then, students were taken off to either Duc My Ranger Camp or Hon Tre Island for a four-day FTX that included immediate-action drills, the use of supporting arms and close air support, and familiarization with allied and enemy small arms. The weapons training was great fun, but after loading just one magazine, most students were grateful that the M3 Grease Gun was obsolete.
In the third week, things got serious. The graduation exercise called “You Bet Your Life” was a real-world long-range reconnaissance mission, usually into the Dong Bo mountains, where there were plenty of enemy combatants. These missions could be deadly. A few students and advisors were killed or wounded on these missions, as were a considerably higher number of enemy troops. No one in my class was killed, but I remember wondering with a few other students if a student killed on his graduation mission would be awarded a posthumous Recondo number and arrowhead patch.
The quality of instruction and leadership at MACV Recondo was of a level that very few of the students had ever experienced. Among the instructors/advisors were some of the best-trained and most experienced reconnaissance men to ever run a long-range patrol. SFA Chapter 78 member Brad Welker was a member of the Recondo School cadre, and he still speaks with awe of some of the men he worked with. He remembers when the idea of sending a very experienced senior SF recon NCO on a five-day mission with five men from different units, coming from different AOs, who hardly knew each other, was “controversial.”
It may have been controversial at SF, but among Recondo students there was no controversy. I know at least a couple hundred MACV Recondo graduates, and I have never heard anything but praise and gratitude for the school, and deep and abiding respect and admiration for the advisors who instructed us and lead us. Even some of the instructor/advisors we most admired were visibly in awe of some of the old NCOs one might run into at the Recondo School.
Just after graduation in May, 1968, a couple of fellow graduates and I—19- and 20-year-old spec-four LRRPs from the 101st and 173rd—turned the corner after leaving our classroom and almost collided with two much older SF NCOs, who turned and gave us a nod, then resumed their conversation.
Feeling as though we had infringed on something far above our level, we backed away and were making a hasty retreat when we encountered one of the instructor/advisors we most admired, SSG Kenneth McMullen. SSG McMullen told us that the taller man was MSG Bill “Pappy” Craig, former team sergeant at Lang Vei and now with the Combat Orientation Course while recuperating from his wounds. The shorter man—maybe even shorter than me—was MSG Paul “Small Man” Tracy, the Recondo School’s NCOIC of instruction.
We could see that SSG Mullen had the same sort of respect approaching awe for these two men that we had for him. Decades later, in a telephone interview, Paul Tracy reflected on his career and said that one of the things in which he took the most pride was his time as NCOIC of training at MACV Recondo. Without the MACV Recondo School, most of the LRRP/Rangers of the Vietnam War would have been inadequately trained and equipped and would have been trying to perform long-range reconnaissance patrols and other special operations on an ad hoc basis.
During the existence of the MACV Recondo School, from 1966 to 1971, 5,395 men were admitted to the school, and 3,357 graduated as Recondos. Most of the students came from the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps, but 269 Koreans, 193 Thais, 130 Vietnamese, 22 Filipinos, and 18 Australians graduated from the course. Although it may be difficult to quantify such a thing, their influence on their own units and service branches must surely be enormous.
But surely the greatest influence of the MACV Recondo School was on the U.S. Army. Recondo School was a great recruitment program for SF. SFA Chapter 78’s current president Bruce Long, and current sergeant at arms, Mark Miller, are among those who were inspired to join SF by their experience at MACV Recondo. Former Chapter 78 president Ramon Rodriquez began his SF career as a member of the Recondo School cadre. But MACV Recondo’s greatest influence was on the Rangers. Like previous ranger units, from the mid-1600s to the Second World War, the LRRP (or LRP) units were raised in a theater of war and organized and trained in a theater of war.
The success of the LRRP units that were formed into the 75th Infantry Regiment (Ranger) in February, 1969, owed an enormous debt to SF and the MACV Recondo School. And though for some reason it puzzles and annoys many Vietnam veterans, and it is probably not politically correct to say around Fort Benning these days, it is a historical fact that the 75th Infantry Regiment (Ranger) became today’s 75th Ranger Regiment. During the Vietnam War, the Ft. Benning Ranger School was heavily tasked with training infantry officers and unable to do much for the Rangers manning the recon teams in Vietnam.
The Commando Depot in Scotland that had trained so many World War Two Rangers was long gone. But the LRRP/Rangers who served in Vietnam had the now legendary MACV Recondo School. Although their missions and cultures differ, the historical lineage of U.S. Army Special Forces and U.S. Army Rangers are very much entwined, and it is not too much of a stretch to say that without SF and the Recondo School, there very likely would be no 75th Ranger Regiment today.
A simple thanks just doesn’t say enough.
—Kenn Miller, Recondo #1096
(Featured image courtesy of specialforces78.com)
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