If any good came out of American involvement in the Vietnam War, it was that both hawks and doves now agree that the troops of that war were treated poorly when they returned home. The early 1970s saw many protests against the war on college campuses and in our nation’s largest cities. At least one person called a Vietnam vet a murderer, and that person was me.
I was 16 in 1972. Liberal politics and music interested me: George McGovern’s candidacy for president, John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas…War is Over.” I was greatly affected by Neil Young’s song “Ohio,” written after four students were killed at Kent State University in May 1970 during a protest against President Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia.
But I was naive then and—like some antiwar activists—lacked the maturity to distinguish between the government that “made” war and those sent to fight it.
Fortunately, a few years later I learned about a student organization that understood the difference. Voices in Vital America (VIVA) was a Los Angeles–based group formed in the 1960s to counteract campus antiwar protests. In 1970 VIVA member Carol Bates Brown, who was in the California chapter, started an initiative to promote awareness of prisoners of war by making and selling metal POW bracelets engraved with the name, rank, service branch and date of loss. VIVA distributed nearly 5 million bracelets, selling them for $2.50 to $3 apiece and raising enough money to purchase untold millions of bumper stickers, buttons, brochures, matchbooks, newspaper ads and the like to draw attention to the missing service personnel.
Around 1976 I bought one of the bracelets, or was given one, on a visit to Washington, D.C. Inscribed on it was “SFC Billy R. Laney, USA, 6-3-67, LAOS.” I began a search for Sgt. 1st Class Laney in 1990 to find out what happened on June 3, 1967. I wanted to know if he ever made it back home. I reviewed hundreds of pages of documents about Laney and the events of that June day.
I bought a list from a company called Find People Fast that provided the contact information for Laneys all across the country (remember, this was before Internet databases!). I probably wrote 50 letters to Laneys. One respondent sent me a page from a family directory that showed a Billy Laney, which was my first real clue.
I found out that Billy Ray Laney was born on Aug. 21, 1939, in Blanch, Alabama. He married in 1958 and had three children. Laney joined the Navy in October 1956 and served until Aug. 2, 1960. The next day, he joined the Army. By February 1967 his principal duty was operations and intelligence specialist.
Laney was a Special Forces member of an organization set up by the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and called the Studies and Observation Group. MACV-SOG, or simply SOG, was a covert operations group that incorporated units from all branches of the military, including Navy SEALs, Air Force special operations squadrons, Marine Corps reconnaissance units and Army Special Forces troops, the famed Green Berets. Laney was in the Command and Central Detachment, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces.
During my research, I found the name of a soldier who was on the same mission as Billy Laney on June 3, 1967: Sgt. Maj. Billy Waugh, a retired Special Forces officer and CIA Paramilitary Operations officer with more than 50 years of service. Waugh was key to uncovering what really happened to Laney, and finally I was able to piece together the story of the events leading to that tragic day in Laos.
In June 1967 Laney was part of a Strategic Air Command/SOG operation that targeted the North Vietnamese Army in an area code-named “Oscar-8,” a rugged, jungle-covered mountainous region in eastern Laos about 12 miles southeast of Khe Sanh. That area was the source of more than 1,500 National Security Agency radio intercepts in one 24-hour period. “The rise in radio transmissions intended for Hanoi high command led SOG to believe NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap was paying a visit to Oscar,” according to Waugh, who wrote about the mission in his book Hunting the Jackal.
Oscar-8 “was the absolute headquarters of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, period,” Waugh told me. It contained the largest supply warehouse for NVA outside Hanoi and was a critical transportation area. Waugh said, “The objective [of the Oscar-8 operation] was to kill Giap and all other enemy forces along the way,” using the Strategic Air Command and SOG.
First, B-52s would drop 900 high-explosive bombs onto the target area. Within 15 minutes of the last bombing, Marine CH-46 helicopters would drop off an 80-man SOG commando unit, called a Hatchet Force, consisting of Americans and Nung tribesmen, to assess the situation and gather intelligence. “The actual defensive position and helicopter-landing zone consisted of a very large bomb crater,” according to a July 3 memo from the Marine Aircraft Group, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. “It would only accommodate a single aircraft, so the CH-46s had to go in one at a time.”
Laney landed on June 2 with SOG forces on the first transport copter, piloted by Major Richard E. Romine. But a mistake in timing authorized the insertion before a command helicopter could sweep the target zone for an initial assessment. Consequently, the commando unit found itself surrounded and under attack. “The B-52 bombing had done significant damage, but it clearly had not destroyed the NVA defenses,” said Waugh, who was at the target area in a fixed-wing aircraft when the Hatchet Force troops and chopper crews loaded at Khe Sanh.
That night Laney and the SOG force hunkered down and waited for a possible pickup. After a tactical airstrike at dawn on June 3, three CH-46s came to get the unit.
Romine, the flight leader, flew the first Marine copter in. “Upon being reassured that the surrounding enemy was neutralized by airstrikes, I decided to make the entry into the landing zone after briefing my flight to take sufficient interval so that I could assess the situation prior to their approach into the zone,” he said in a July 3 report from the Marine Aircraft Group to the Marine Corps commandant.
The major managed to pick up eight Nungs but had trouble when he tried to lift out of the bomb crater landing zone. “Almost immediately the number two engine quit,” he reported. “I managed to make a controlled crash approximately 150 feet from my objective.”
“Sometime after being hit and before I crashed,” Romine added, “I broadcast a mayday and informed the flight to break off and not attempt the extraction at that time.”
The other rescue helicopters did not hear the transmission, however, “for reasons unknown to myself,” Romine reported. The No. 2 helicopter successfully retrieved a group of soldiers, mostly from a Nung platoon, but encountered automatic-weapons fire and was hit several times. The No. 3 helicopter, piloted by Captain Stephen P. Hanson, also attempted a troop pickup.
Hanson’s CH-46 loaded 15 passengers, including Laney and SOG sergeants Ronald J. Dexter and Charles F. Wilklow. As the chopper took off, however, Hanson unknowingly turned into the heaviest concentration of NVA forces. “We began to receive fire as soon as we lifted off,” Wilklow said, “and it became more intense.” The aircraft veered out of control, broke in half and landed about 4½ feet above the ground, suspended by jungle foliage.
The door gunner, Lance Cpl. Frank E. Cius, was able to get off a few hundred rounds from his machine gun before the impact, which knocked him on his back. Dexter, Wilklow and a couple of Nungs were in good enough shape to engage the North Vietnamese. Laney was wounded in the back before they got on the chopper, according to Wilklow. After the crash, “I noticed SFC Laney under a seat,” he said. “He had a badly broken ankle in addition to his previous wound. When I started to examine him, he said, ‘Please don’t touch me.’ I don’t recall seeing or hearing any more from him after that.”
Out of ammunition and shot in the leg, Wilklow crawled away from the wreckage, looking for Dexter, and passed out. Unknown to him, Dexter, Cius and nine of the Nungs had formed a perimeter about 200 meters from the downed aircraft. Enemy fire continued after the crash with heavy streams of bullets coming in the helicopter windows.
From the next morning, June 4, until late in the afternoon, gunships and fixed-wing aircraft pummeled Oscar-8 in preparation for additional troop pickups and resupply attempts, which continued late into the day. Dexter, Cius and the Nungs had been forced away from the area, and reconnaissance overflights the next day failed to reveal any survivors at Oscar-8, so further extraction efforts were called off.
Billy Ray Laney was officially reported as missing in action on June 3. Other reports indicate that Dexter, Cius and the Nungs were captured on June 5. Wilklow, who had crawled away from the landing zone with an injured leg, was also captured and wound up in an NVA base camp but escaped on the fourth day. The next day, against all odds, Wilklow was spotted by Waugh, on an airborne observation mission, and rescued.
“The raid on Oscar-8 had been a disaster,” wrote Robert Gillespie in his book Black Ops Vietnam: An Operational History of MACVSOG. “Seven aircraft had been shot down. Twenty-three Americans—SOG team members, USAF pilots and Marine helicopter crewmen—were lost, along with about 50 of the Nung raiders.”
By all accounts, including those from NVA personnel, Sergeant Dexter died in captivity on July 29, 1967. Marine Corporal Cius was released on March 5, 1973, during Operation Homecoming. He now lives in New York and is very active in veterans issues. Sergeant Wilklow’s son told me that his father died in July 1992 after a long fight with cancer.
On March 20, 1978, following a review of Laney’s missing person’s status, the Army made a determination to change his status from missing in action, June 3, 1967, to dead, as of March 20.
Sergeant Laney’s remains were recovered later from the Laos crash site and positively identified through DNA testing in 1999, as were those of Captain Hanson, who also died on the ground in Laos. On Oct. 5, 2000, Laney’s remains were returned to Alabama, and there was a grand ceremony in Huntsville, where his widow and children and an assembly of country music stars, politicians, veterans and many others paid homage to him.
According to the Birmingham News: “Every veterans group in the United States was represented. A camouflage rifle, helmet and ammo belt were propped near the coffin, while a black and white photo of the young soldier looked out from the center of a wreath.” Laney, 27, was buried in the New Home Baptist Church Cemetery in Houston, Alabama. He received many service awards including two Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars.
When I was researching documents related to Laney’s military service, I came across a memo from MACV to the 5th Special Forces Group commanding officer, dated June 28, 1967—just 25 days after Oscar-8—informing him that the MIA Board had made a determination that Laney’s status be changed from MIA to KIA as a result of hostile action. This, for reasons unknown, was never done. In the interim, Laney’s wife and parents were provided with practically no information. His wife even received a Postal Authorization Card in 1972 permitting her to send a Christmas package to her husband.
Even though the Oscar-8 operation has been labeled a failure by some, I am extremely sensitive to any suggestion that Laney’s service, or that of the other Americans who died in Oscar-8, was meaningless. Had this Special Forces operation succeeded in its objective to kill General Giap, it can be argued that North Vietnam’s military would have been crippled. The war might have ended sooner, saving more than 38,000 American lives lost in the Vietnam conflict in the following six years.
Near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery is a memorial to U.S. special operations forces, dedicated in 1995. It’s a gray marble stone, set flush to the ground under a large oak tree. Etched on it are words from Isaiah 6:8, which include the phrase, “Whom shall I send?” Waugh answers that question in an essay he wrote around 1999 titled “Closing Reflections”: “And the Lord said, Who will go, who will fight for me, and the young Special Forces man, who was with his family, stepped away from his family, saying, ‘I will go, send me.’ ” RT
Maggie Ruth retired from Chautauqua County, New York, as an environmental cleanup project manager. She writes investigative pieces that focus on American historical figures and events.