During the summer of 1968, Tom Cunningham was like every Green Beret at FOB 1; he had volunteered to join Special Forces, volunteered to go to South Vietnam, and after arriving in Southeast Asia, volunteered for the secret war conducted Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam, run under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam–Studies and Observations Group, or simply SOG. Cunningham’s route to SF and SOG, however, was unique.

While attending advanced infantry training at Ft. Ord, California, his orders to proceed to Officer Candidate School upon graduation changed. The Army told the OCS candidates that they had to re-qualify for OCS based on new criteria. To Cunningham, it appeared as though the Army had changed those rules in order to get more men to go to South Vietnam. When the rule changes were announced, Cunningham was among approximately 200 men who went to the SF recruiter, volunteering to join the Green Berets. He was one of seven men selected from that group.

After completing the first phase of training, he went on to Phase II, as he was preparing to become a communications specialist. It was there Cunningham found that commo drove him nuts, so he switched to demolitions.

During Phase II, he met John T. Walton, an SF medic from Bentonville, Arkansas. Walton shipped out to Vietnam while Cunningham wrapped up his SF training in Phase III.

When he landed Cam Ranh Bay, Cunningham learned there were orders shipping him to a conventional Army unit. He wasn’t impressed. The SF liaison told him the only other option open for SF troops at the time was C&C. Cunningham went through the MACV Recondo School at Nha Trang. The training was invaluable. It helped new arrivals adjust to being in-country and got them out into the bush. When the training cadre at Recondo School learned that Cunningham and a few other SF troops were heading to Phu Bai, they gave them extra instruction in immediate-action drills and escape and evasion tactics.

Cunningham flew to Da Nang, where he and his fellow new arrivals boarded an H-34 Sikorsky, piloted by South Vietnamese aviators of the South Vietnamese Air Force 219th Special Operations Squadron. The trip to FOB 1 in Phu Bai, 10 miles south of Hue, was unforgettable. The pilots, knowing that Cunningham and his peers were new in-country, flew a few feet above the road, popping up over trucks, dikes, and hills along the way to FOB 1. That got everybody’s attention. But it wasn’t over yet.

This is an H-34 Sikorsky helicopter flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force 219th Special Operations Squadron while supporting secret SOG missions into N. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the secret war conducted during the Vietnam
An H-34 Sikorsky helicopter flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force 219th Special Operations Squadron while supporting secret SOG missions into N. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

After flying past the Phu Bai Airport and the Second ARVN training compound, which were located to the east of Highway 1, the H-34 suddenly surged upward and abruptly rolled to its right in a hard turn, which left the right door of the helicopter facing straight down toward the ground. Before the startled newbies could recover, the Kingbees swooped toward FOB 1, clipping tree tops with the front struts of the piston-driven choppers. The Kingbees pulled one more hard right turn and flared dramatically onto the helicopter pad for FOB 1.

Shortly after checking in at the S-1 shop, Cunningham met Wilbur “Pete” Boggs, the team leader (One-Zero) of ST (Spike Team) Louisiana. Recon teams were codenamed spike teams in 1968. Boggs had just returned from flying a visual reconnaissance over a target in the A Shau Valley designated A Shau 2. Boggs needed a radio operator for the team and asked Cunningham if he’d like to join ST Louisiana. Boggs gave Cunningham a tour of the camp and introduced him to the team as the new radio operator. Cunningham was surprised. He hadn’t had a lot of time, but then again, he figured that was the way things operated at FOB 1.