SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam, John L. Plaster, Penguin Group, New York, 1998, $6.99 paperback.
SOG was the acronym for Studies and Observations Group, a cover title for the Vietnam War’s covert special warfare group–essentially the OSS of Southeast Asia. They worked behind VC and NVA lines to scout enemy operations, disrupting those activities as much as possible. Each team consisted of three or four Americans and about 10 Montagnards. The Montagnards were hill people generally despised and long oppressed by the Vietnamese, and many hated all Vietnamese–the VC and NVA in particular. They were excellent soldiers and fighters.
Each heavily armed team was inserted either by helicopter or by parachute and used non-U.S. weapons to guarantee deniability. The teams kidnapped or killed their enemies, mined roads, rescued downed pilots, tapped telephone lines and vectored artillery and airstrikes against enemy troop concentrations and installations. During the eight years of its existence, SOG logged a combat record unequaled in U.S. history. The Vietnam War’s most highly decorated unit, with five Medals of Honor, was SOG’s understrength 60-man recon company at Kontum. No unit that size had been so decorated since the Civil War.
In the final perilous year of the war, after most U.S. troops had been withdrawn, SOG fought on alone. The Da Nang unit, with only 70 combat operatives, was awarded two Medals of Honor and three Distinguished Service Crosses. Purple Hearts were awarded at a pace unparalleled in 20th-century American wars. The unit suffered enormous casualties. Sergeant First Class Robert Howard survived the war as the most highly decorated American soldier. He received the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and numerous lesser awards, plus eight Purple Hearts. He was recommended for the Medal of Honor three times. Men who served with him said that he deserved all of the medals, two of which were downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star, the second- and third-ranking combat decorations.
It is hard to determine just how many SOG personnel were lost, since SOG’s operations were clandestine, conducted behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia when the United States was denying that its forces were operating there. Today, although the records remain imperfect, it is apparent that more than 300 SOG Americans were lost and 57 are listed as missing in action. Most SOG MIAs were bodies left behind when teams were about to be overrun. But a sizable portion of those missing–perhaps 15 or more–were captured, tortured and killed. None of them were returned, a grim testament to North Vietnamese vindictiveness toward those who dared to trespass in the NVA’s backyard. Hanoi still continues to deny any knowledge of these men and still insists it never had troops in Laos. Its postwar maps depict the Ho Chi Minh Trail as having been inside South Vietnam.
My own relationship with SOG was remote. As a C-123 squadron commander, I furnished volunteer crews for a “black” operation. The operation’s status was “need to know,” and I did not know, nor did I ask. I knew that teams flew unmarked airplanes in civilian clothes, but I knew nothing else. It is interesting, more than 30 years later, to find out what they were doing during their months of duty supporting SOG.
This is a fascinating book, written by an SOG operative who served three Vietnam tours and was wounded and highly decorated. SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam is well worth reading.
Colonel Calvin G. Bass
U.S. Air Force (ret.)