Anyone who has ever seen a Hollywood blockbuster or watched an action TV show has heard of America’s elite armed forces, units like the Navy SEALS and Green Berets. There’s a good chance you’ve also read or watched a thriller about clandestine CIA operatives and undercover American black ops units. The men who do the missions no one else can.
During the Vietnam War, the US government created MACV-SOG, a unit that took men from all of America’s most revered special forces teams, and the CIA, to make up the ultimate covert team. This group was sent on some of the war’s most dangerous missions, taking them into the heart of enemy territory.
In the Beginning
MACV-SOG, or the Studies and Observations Group to give it its full, slightly less sexy name was created on 24 January 1964 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was a top-secret unconventional warfare task force made up of soldiers from the US military’s most revered elite forces: Green Berets, Navy SEALS, and even CIA operatives were all involved, amongst others.
But what is an unconventional warfare task force? Well, it essentially means the group was created to get their hands dirty and carry out the kind of missions the US would rather keep out of the light of day. Its mission was described as being:
“to execute an intensified program of harassment, diversion, political pressure, the capture of prisoners, physical destruction, acquisition of intelligence, generation of propaganda, and diversion of resources, against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.”
This boils down to the fact that the group’s purpose was to convince North Vietnam to stop sponsoring the Viet Cong (VC) in the South. Previously, the CIA had carried out these kinds of operations. However, following the disaster that was the Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba, the military had decided it was someone else’s turn.
So why all the secrecy? It wasn’t exactly a secret that America was fighting in Vietnam. Well, the United States’ official position was that American forces were only operating in the South and didn’t want to admit to anything else, fearing a public and international outcry. The fact that most of MACV-SOG’s work was done in the North as well as in nations like Laos and Cambodia meant it had to remain top secret.
The group got off to a shaky start. Its first commander Colonel Clyde Russell ran into several obstacles. He had expected to be taking over a fully functional organization, but the opposite was true. The special forces that comprised MACV-SOG were not ready doctrinally or organizationally for the kind of operations they were expected to carry out.
There were also inter-departmental problems. Russell had banked on the CIA playing ball by helping out the military during the transition. Despite their official cooperation, this didn’t really happen at first.
It would be an understatement to say the work of the MACV-SOG was dangerous. The group took the most perilous missions and as such the unit was made up completely of volunteers. The casualty rate was put at 100%, meaning everyone who volunteered expected to come back severely injured or not at all.
The nature of their work also meant the men had to be completely unidentifiable. If they were left behind no one was coming to get them. This was reflected in their uniforms and weaponry.
Members of the unit wore tiger stripe camouflage patterns most commonly associated with the South Vietnamese military and no forms of ID. No dog tags, no patches, no military insignia of any kind. The Green Berets didn’t even get to wear their favorite headwear.
As for weapons, the MACV-SOG got its own unique equipment. Typically, they either carried a CAR-15 (a new type of compact M-16 variant) or the iconic AK-47 (usually carried by their enemies). They also carried M79 grenade launchers, a single shot, break-action launcher.
All of the weapons had their serial numbers removed to prevent identification. To avoid noise while moving the rifles were carried with a canvas strap while the M79 was attached to a D-ring muffled with tape.
Besides this standard gear members of MACV-SOG were given almost free reign in what they carried in their loadout. Many of the men chose extremely unconventional weapons, like Staff Sgt. Robert Graham, who carried around a 55-pound bow in case he ran out of ammo.
For the most part, the Ho Chi Minh Trail (a network of roads and trails running between North and South Vietnam) was where MACV-SOG got most of its work done. Much of the time this was intelligence gathering, taking photographs, stealing enemy documents, and bugging their communication lines.
Working in the heart of enemy territory was immensely dangerous; MACV-SOG relied heavily on the aid of local South Vietnamese forces. For every two to four Americans involved in an operation, there were usually four to 9 South Vietnamese guerillas helping them.
Even with their allies, the MACV-SOG was heavily outnumbered. There were massive enemy encampments all along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, many of which housed thousands of enemy combatants. On Thanksgiving Day 1968, a six-man MACV-SOG team faced an enemy force 30,000 strong while on a solo mission, Frank D. Miller ran into 100 NVA soldiers all by himself.
MACV-SOG didn’t just operate along the trail for intelligence gathering, however. Its members were heavily encouraged to snatch as many prisoners as they could.
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American forces were given a $100 bounty for every enemy they captured as well as R&R time while their local allies were given new watches and smaller cash amounts. In 1966 alone the group captured 12 soldiers in Laos, milking them for important intel like troop movements, encampment locations and sizes, and base of operations locations.
However MACV-SOG’s most notable, and controversial mission was Operation Tailwind. Executed in September 1970 the mission’s goal was to disrupt a North Vietnamese Army base in Laos.
The mission encountered severe resistance and challenging conditions, leading to a risky “controlled break contact” evacuation. This extraction involved the use of gas cover, which sparked controversy due to its ethical implications.
During the mission, the US-led forces killed 54 enemy troops but did not escape unscathed. While official numbers are hard to find it’s believed three South Vietnamese members of the mission were killed and 33 were wounded. All 16 American operators were also injured with two CH-53 helicopters being shot down. The high casualty numbers have led to the mission being referred to as a “suicide mission.”
An Effective Unit?
MACV-SOG significantly impacted the Vietnam War by conducting covert operations that gathered vital intelligence, disrupted enemy activities, and weakened opposition forces. Their daring missions behind enemy lines forced the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to divert resources for defense.
Despite challenges, MACV-SOG’s actions provided strategic advantages to American forces by enabling a better understanding of enemy tactics. These operations also highlighted the complexities and risks of unconventional warfare. Ultimately, MACV-SOG’s efforts shaped the course of the conflict by contributing to intelligence-driven strategies and influencing the perception of special operations’ role in modern warfare.
It took an awfully long time for details of MACV-SOG’s legacy to reach the public eye. Ex-unit personnel were tight-lipped until the early 1980s and journalists and historians had to wait until the 90s to get any kind of accurate information.
This means many of the unit members didn’t get the medals they deserved for many years. The US Army didn’t officially recognize the extreme bravery of the unit until it was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in 2001.
Today, the unit’s history is a complicated one. Many now see the Vietnam War as a disaster, a conflict that America lost and arguably never should have gotten involved in. The fact the unit used controversial tactics and operated in areas it wasn’t officially meant to isn’t exactly well looked upon. On the other hand, many Americans see the war very differently, as a reminder of American might and its position as a superpower.
All of us should remember, however, that the politics had nothing to do with the brave men on the ground. They volunteered for some of the most daring and dangerous missions in US history, many of them dying for their country. However, we feel about the Vietnam War today we should never belittle or forget those who gave their lives.
Top Image: Colonel Blackburn, commander of MACV-SOG, visits a field team in Vietnam. Source: US Army / Public Domain.