By Bob Donoghue.
A Green Beret assigned to Spike Team Tiger with Military Assistance Command Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) based at FOB-3 Khe Sanh in April 1968 describes a mission to locate the 304th NVA Division in Laos.
I was assigned to Spike Team Tiger as a replacement for SSG Gary L Crone who was killed by small arms fire on 29 January 1968 on Hill 471 while clearing out NVA Forward Observers. The Siege of Khe Sanh had started on 21 January 1968 and Hill 471 was located 2.3 kilometers due South of FOB-3 and the Combat Base. NVA artillery spotters used Hill 471 to adjust fires onto the base.
Image: Left – SSG Gary L. Crone, Right – map of Khe Sanh
SFC Lloyd G “OD” O’Daniel was the One-Zero assigned to the team. He was highly experienced veteran SOG Operator. A mission came down for ST Tiger. Due to heavy casualties all the teams were forced to be creative locating and filling out the Teams. Some personnel were even borrowed from FOB-1 and FOB-4. A good example was “OD” who was assigned to ST Tiger as the One-Zero but was also working with the S-3 in Operations. Because of OD’s dual responsibilities he assigned SFC Kara Garland as the One- Zero and SFC Samuel Hernandez as the One-One. OD then came and told me that I was not going on the mission due to my lack of experience. SGT Charles Willoughby was to be the One-Two. I was pissed. Sam and I were sharing a sleeping bunker together. It was freezing at night and we only had a poncho liner. We were spooning for a few weeks until we got some blankets on a resupply drop.
Photo: SFC Lloyd “OD” O’Daniel eating popcorn in bunker.
When the team returned from the mission Sam told me that Willoughby was coming off the team and I was now the new One-Two. It seems that while on the mission Sam had found a candy wrapper that had been dropped on the ground. This was a big No No. Earlier, another team’s commo man lost the teams SOI, it had slipped out of his cargo pocket. The Signal operating instructions (SOI) are issued for the technical control and coordination of communications for the team. They include radio call signs, frequencies, code-words, and visual signals. Losing a SOI means that every team, aircraft, FOB headquarters would need to destroy their current SOI and request a new one. The person who lost the SOI was removed from SOG.
Several weeks went by when ST Tiger was alerted for an upcoming mission. It seems that the 304th NVA Division was missing, and ST Tiger would try and locate it by conducting an area recon North of the Xe Pon River along Highway 9 inside Laos. OD came by and briefed us. Tiger would deploy with three Americans and four Bru tribesmen. Due to the 53 years since I was there, I cannot remember which Bru we took but I believe they were the four in the photos displayed below. Garland and I would be picked up by a Kingbee and fly an aerial recon of the AO. We would need to locate two Infill Landing Zones, one as the Primary and a second for the Alternate. Exfiltration landing zones would also be needed.
At first light a Kingbee landed at the Khe Sanh airfield and after a quick briefing and equipment check we were on our way. For security reasons we did not overfly any potential landing zones. However, the exfiltration area was thick jungle and we decided to use an old bomb crater. On the flight back to the border I observed a few old triangular defensive positions. They were small compared to anything I had seen in the past. Back at the FOB we were debriefed by the S-2 who explained that what we saw was an old secret CIA/SOG program known as Project Elephant, BV-33. It started years earlier as part of White Star and then turned over to Special Projects. Finishing up with the S-2 brief we returned to our team and started packing rucksacks, test firing weapons, and doing a commo check. The mission would start the next day.
The Kingbee H-34 picked up our team at the airfield about two hours before sunset. Our flight took us South near Lang Vei then West North West across the border. Staying about 15 klicks North of Highway 9 and the Xe Pon River we soon reached our AO (Area of Operation). Our infiltration landing zone was a small clearing of elephant grass. As we approached the LZ I was overcome with a healthy amount of fear. My legs started shaking and I was afraid that everyone in the chopper would see that I was scared. Seconds later I was on the ground heading for the tree line. The team formed a perimeter and as the sounds of the Kingbee faded off into the distance I called Covey and gave the all-clear sign. I was now calm with just a healthy amount of fear. We listened for several minutes for any sounds of enemy movement but there was not any. Darkness was soon approaching, and we found a thick area of undergrowth that we crawled into for the night. Midnight came and I made a commo check by squelch to Moonbeam. Moonbeam was a C-130 that flew all night over Laos. One click of the handset from me would be answered by two clicks from Moonbeam.
First light began day two. I had a 0800 commo check to make with Hillsboro, this was made by squelch. Hillsboro was the daytime C-130. Our old French map showed that we had two ridge lines to cross before being able to observe the Xe Pon River valley. The afternoon would reveal the truth, there was three ridge lines to climb. Just before reaching the top of the last ridge or hilltop we came to a high speed trail. It was about 12 feet wide, concealed from the air and several strands of commo wire running along the side. The team had no wiretap equipment, so we left it alone, backed off, and continued down towards the road (Hwy 9). We found a good spot to observe the road and river and took a break. Garland and I got together and wrote a Sitrep (Situation Report) which I had to encrypt and send to Hickory (our radio relay site) by PRC-25 (FM).
By this time, the team was getting seriously low on water. Climbing the third ridgeline had taken more time and consumed more water than we had calculated. Mission planning had been based on 2 ridgelines to cross, not three. Covey asked if we needed a water resupply. We did not want to bring attention to us, but we could not hump hills without water. Our problem was solved when Covey informed us that a large thunderstorm was headed our way. We stretched out a ground cloth and soon a heavy downpour drenched us, and all our canteens were refilled, the storm had moved on, and the sun soon dried us off. Traveling due West, paralleling the road, movement was now hindered by Wait a Minute vines. They are called this because as you move through them, they wrap around your body, weapon, rucksack and then take a minute to untangle yourself. We crossed several small streams and trails heading North from the valley. Several of these trails had commo wire along their side. Each one had to be noted in our notebook as to location, direction, size, and anything deemed important like the commo wire.
Day Two was ending when in the distance we heard a single gunshot. This could only mean that a tracker had picked up our trail and was signaling. A dense thicket was found which would be our overnight resting spot. Claymore mines and a few Toe Poppers were emplaced around our thicket. The 1800 hour commo check was made, and Covey was told about the Signal Shot. During the night there was quite a few displays of 37mm anti-aircraft rounds going off to the West. The team maintained a 50% alert status until daybreak.
As soon as there was enough light, the Toe Poppers and Claymores were recovered. SFC Garland ordered two Bru to recon our back trail while we packed up, made a commo check, and looked over the map. The Bru returned having not spotted anything. Our movement today was to continue moving West while paralleling the road and river. The dirt road had numerous bomb craters in and around it. Truck tire tracks could be seen weaving around the bomb craters. During the afternoon, several rifle shots were heard behind us. Our Primary Exfil Landing Zone was just a few clicks to the Northwest. Covey was contacted and we requested an Exfil. There was movement coming towards us from the Northeast. Covey called back stating that another team was in contact declaring a Prairie Fire emergency. He asked if we could hunker down, remain overnight and he promised to get us out at first light. We agreed to the new plan.
Enemy movement continued getting closer. Due to the proximity of this movement, I grabbed the PRC-25 and called the Marine artillery unit at Khe Sanh requesting a fire mission. In a few minutes I had incoming 155mm rounds landing to our Northeast. There was a problem. The 155’s were firing at maximum range. The trees were so high that the shells were detonating in them spraying us with shrapnel and wood splinters. I closed out the fire mission as the team finished emplacing claymores around our position which was a large thicket with several large trees laying on top of it. Our alert status was 100% as we could still hear enemy movement toward our Northeast. After midnight, it became quiet.
At first light, Covey came up on the radio to brief us about our extraction. There would be a Kingbee and 2 Marine Huey UH-1E’s gunships. Contact with the aircraft would be by signal mirror. The Exfil LZ was about 300 meters from our location. Two Bru were sent out to recon the LZ. One returned and gave an all clear. The Team movement to the LZ was uneventful. We notified Covey that we were ready for pickup. Soon we heard the helicopters, and a gunship pilot requested a mirror flash to show our location. Since the wind was from the North, we asked that the Kingbee land from the South. The Team was positioned on the East side of the LZ as the H-34’s door was on the Right side. Well, the Kingbee came in 180 deg’s opposite of our request causing a dangerous run around. Half the Team had to carefully avoid the tail rotor. With everyone safely loaded Garland was the last to load and the Kingbee lifted off and headed East to Vietnam and Khe Sanh.
Arriving at Khe Sanh there was a large crowd meeting us and handing out beers. The team was given an hour to cleanup and eat something for breakfast. Of course, the only food available was PIR’s, Lurp’s, and C rations. The rest of the morning was taken up at the operations bunker with our debriefing. ST Tiger came away from this as a successful mission. Four days on the ground with no casualties. Elements of the 304th NVA Division were proven to be in the area our artillery strike had hit. This was backed up by Signal Intelligence the next day. Myself, I was no longer a Cherry having completed my first mission and I became a permanent team member of ST Tiger.
Author: Bob Donoghue is a retired Special Forces Master Sergeant who served in 3rd, 5th, 11th, and 20th Special Forces Groups during his 31-year long career. He was medically retired in 1999 due to a military parachuting injury he experienced in 1997. He served two tours in Vietnam for which he received multiple awards to include the Silver Star and Purple Heart. After his military service he worked as a contractor in Iraq with SOC-SMG and later as an intelligence mentor with the Emergency Response Unit (Iraqi Ministry of Interior) while employed by USIS.
Images: All photos, maps, and images provided by the author.
This story was originally published by the “History of MACV-SOG”, April 30, 2021. Republished with permission of author.