I’ve received many inquiries about the equipment that I and fellow Special Forces soldiers carried when we ran top-secret reconnaissance missions into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam during the eight-year secret war under the aegis of Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), or simply SOG. Most are curious about the state-of-the-art weaponry, communications, and surveillance equipment that we tested at the time—some of which we used in the field.
First, I turned to Lynne M. “Blackjack” Black Jr., to see what he carried as a conventional infantryman in South Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade during 1965 and 1966. After his tour of duty with “The Herd,” Black returned to Vietnam and served on various recon teams from 1968-1970 at FOB 1 and later, CCN.
Referring to his time in the 173rd, Black said, “When we went out on patrol, the enemy could hear us coming a mile away. The canteens were metal, with a metal chain that attached the black plastic cap to the body of the canteen. The metal canteen sat inside of a metal cup. As we walked, that chain would bang on the canteen, and the canteen sometimes rattled inside the metal cup. A squad of guys sounded like a Chinese drum line. Our weapon sling swivels would bang on the weapons, providing even more noise. Dog tags would rattle as we walked.”
The paratroopers also wore metal helmets with the paratrooper chinstrap and plastic helmet liners. Many paratroopers smoked and used Zippo lighters, which had a distinct, metallic clicking sound when opened and closed. They also wore jewelry, such as silver- or gold-colored watches and rings, and carried entrenching tools and L-shaped flashlights that attached to the upper web gear and often got caught in the brush. At night, if available, they would drink beer or soda from tin cans that had to be opened with a can opener, as there were no pull tabs on drinks at that time.
The infantrymen also carried sleeping bags, gas masks, bayonets, personal knives, and rubber ponchos that were rolled and folded onto the back of the pistol belt. It provided a cushioned seat for sitting, but also a hiding place for small snakes, leeches, spiders, and other jungle insects and creatures. Some paratroopers carried the Claymore mine, a hand generator, a PRC-25 radio, compass, maps, and a protractor. The basic ammo load for the M-16 or M-14 was 200 rounds plus hand grenades. Some wore heavy armored vests that absorbed water and were hot as hell, often quickly dehydrating the young soldiers.
The early paratroopers also wore their jump boots that Black called “fungus factories.” Jungle boots, with canvas sides and a metal plate in the sole, were standard issue when I arrived in South Vietnam in April 1968. The early paratroopers also wore military-issued underwear that caused rashes and infections, and socks that caused a foot fungus that some are still fighting today. It wasn’t until a visit from the secretary of state, who developed the fungus, that a cream was developed to fight it.
Nearly everyone smoked in those days. Five cigarettes were packed in neat little packs with each C-Ration meal. The smell of American cigarettes in Southeast Asia was unmistakable.
Louis J. DeSeta also served with the 173rd in 1967 before he volunteered for SOG duty.
“We were noisy as hell in the 173rd. We used to carry those metal ammo boxes that always banged against the metal canteens. Even taking a drink of water with the metal canteen made a metallic noise that could be heard off in the distance. A lot of us carried a poncho, but often didn’t use it in the field because they were so noisy when you unfolded them. And, once it started to rain, the rain hitting them gave off a different noise that the enemy could hear. SOG was just the total, complete opposite. We carried nothing that made any noise. Everything was taped down or tied down.”
DeSeta and Black agreed that the men who served in the early phases of the war had to learn what not to do and pass along their lessons learned to the FNGs.
Stuff we didn’t carry in SOG operations
To avoid rashes, infections, and fungus, Black and I didn’t wear underwear or socks. No SOG recon men wore helmets, helmet liners, or armored vests of any sort. Most of us didn’t carry entrenching tools, bayonets, sleeping bags, hammocks, ponchos, poncho liners, or air mattresses because they added weight to our total load. I weighed my gear on a small scale once at Phu Bai, and it weighed approximately 90 pounds. No one on ST Idaho carried an M-16, an M-14, or a 9mm weapon as his primary weapon.
For all missions, we never carried any form of identification: no dog tags, no military ID cards, no letters from home—nothing with any personal information on it. Our uniforms were sterile: No rank, no unit designator, no jump wings, no CIB, or South Vietnamese jump wings were displayed. Our green beret remained at FOB 1. We took extreme measures to ensure that our anonymity remained intact to provide deniability to the U.S. government in the event we were killed or captured. We cut out the section of a target map to carry to the field, thus only showing the grid in the target area, with no further information about the map or the cartographers who produced them. Additionally, we never smoked or cooked in the field.
In part two we’ll go over the weapons and gear that we carried and upon which our lives depended on.