by John Stryker Meyer
During the eight-year secret war in Vietnam, when Green Beret-led reconnaissance teams and company-sized elements ran top-secret missions across the fence into Cambodia, Laos and N. Vietnam, many of those missions were compromised before the Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group units landed on the ground. Exactly how many missions were compromised, how many Green Berets and their courageous indigenous counterparts were killed or wounded in action as a result of these heinous actions, will never be known, due to the highly classified nature of SOG, its tightly compartmentalized command structure and extremely narrow channels of intelligence and counterintelligence reporting.
Thus, one of the hidden horrors of running highly classified missions where intelligence reports were delivered promptly to the White House is: there are few paper trails to follow and the truth about the degree of compromise, if ever documented, will likely never be known.
Recently gathered information from four separate sources confirmed the long-held fears of many SOG Green Berets who ran what many believe were the deadliest missions during that war where casualties exceeded 100 percent among SOG soldiers.
It’s important for yesterday’s warriors to know about the compromises, with the hope that tomorrow’s warriors and command structures will be more diligent to guard against possible compromises in future covert operations.
Russians on the ground
Evidence of Russians and their commie pals in Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam and the DMZ was reported early. “We had reports of the Russians that went back to 1967,” said Lt. Col. Roy Bahr, the commander of SOG FOBs 1, 2 and 3 through 1968/1969. “We knew the communist Vietnamese didn’t have the sophisticated equipment to monitor our recon teams in the field, so we assumed that sort of assistance came directly from Russia.”
During an operation in Laos in November 1968, run out of FOB 1, Phu Bai, (Recon Team) RT Idaho, heard Russian pilots on their radio conducting aerial resupplies to their men and their NVA allies in Laos.
In November and December 1968, SFC Pat Watkins was flying Covey (the SOG Forward Air Controller) for FOB 1 missions over Laos and the DMZ, where he regularly encountered English-speaking North Vietnamese on the day’s operational FM frequency.
“It got so bad,” Watkins said in a recent interview, “that when we arrived over the AO (Area of Operations), they’d greet me on the radio. I told them to stop playing that Vietnamese music on our frequency and at least play some rock and roll.
“However, it got real serious when we went operational working with a team on the ground. Then, they’d interfere with our radio transmissions. If we told the team to go up two clicks (on their PRC-25 FM radio) or down two clicks (on the radio frequency dial) the NVA would do the same thing.”
In early December, 1968, George “Boo” Miller, a Marine gunship pilot with HML-367, received a call on his UHF frequency from an English-speaking man during a SOG extraction who knew the famous Marine gunship crew’s call sign: “Scarface.”
“He called me several times during the extraction of an FOB 1 recon team,” Miller said in October ‘08. “I had run out of ammo and rockets and was making low passes so my door gunners could continue to fire on the enemy and to throw hand grenades at them.”
During one of those last passes, Miller observed a Russian officer in the DMZ, just east of the team’s LZ.
“I’ll never forget it. He was a large, white male in a gray-colored uniform with red epaulets on his shoulders,” Miller said. “He was standing in the middle of a small clearing just east of the team. My co-pilot also saw him. We made a second pass to confirm what we had seen.”
However, when he returned to “fire him up,” the Russian, “was gone.” After successfully extracting the team, Miller reported his sighting to a marine general at Vandergrift base. He heard nothing further on that sighting.
About six months later, during a mission in Laos, Lynne M Black Jr., the One-Zero (team leader) of RT Idaho and his One-One (assistant team leader) Doug “The Frenchman” LeTourneau observed a white male, bathing with a few women in a stream at the bottom of a large series of mountains. The Russian was too far away for their weapons and Black couldn’t muster up any tactical air assets to nail him.
A month later, on another DMZ target, LeTourneau received a call on his FM PRC-25 radio that he’ll never forget. Speaking in English, with an accent a male said, “ ‘RT Idaho. Come in RT Idaho.’”
Because it was near noontime, LeTourneau thought it might be Covey doing a routine commo check. The only problem, there was no Covey in the Area of Operations at that time.
Forty-nine years later, LeTourneau said, “I’ll never forget that radio call for many reasons. Out of the blue, the voice broke radio silence, spoke English, he knew our team name, he knew my name and Black’s name and he knew our codenames. That really blew me away….in addition to that he didn’t mention the name of a SOG medic who had run a few missions with RT Idaho previously, but had derosed (returned to the US) out a few days before that mission. So that commie bastard knew that he was not on that mission with us.”
When Black looked at his dumbfounded One-One in 1969, he grabbed the handset and said, “Who is this?”
The mystery man told Black that he knew where the team was located, and that he and his friends were going to find the RT Idaho men and kill or capture them. He said that he had six-digit coordinates on a map where RT Idaho was located.
Black’s response was instant: “Let me help you motherfucker, here are my eight digit coordinates. This is exactly where I am.”
“I know who you are Blackjack and I’m going to get the Frenchman, too. I’m bringing my friends to get you.”
Black responded without missing a beat: “I know your mother, asshole, she fucked hundreds of Russian pigs to get your KGB assignment, except you’re dumb like your mother and they sent you to Southeast Asia instead of the U.S.”
At that precise moment, RT Idaho was near the top of a severely steep mountain. Even a dumb Russian knew that mounting an attack against a heavily-armed SOG recon team with high ground would result in many casualties. No attack was launched. Obviously compromised, RT Idaho was extracted from the LZ by H-34 helicopters (Code-named Kingbees) piloted by highly skilled, fearless South Vietnamese pilots, under heavy enemy gunfire. Black was flown to Saigon where he gave a full report. What, if any action was taken on his report remains a mystery.
“We never got an answer to that question,” Lt. Col. Bahr said. Although he was in Kontum at that time, scuttlebutt about the incident has made it to his S-2 shop. “We knew our teams were up against extreme odds, we just never realized how serious the security within SOG communications had been compromised.”
Russia’s “Secret War” in Nam
The second confirmation of Russians in Nam, first surfaced on the Internet 12 years ago, when reporter James Brown of Russia Today covered the first public reunion of the 3,000 Russians who fought in the USSR secret war in Southeast Asia. The segment that he recorded was released on the Internet and can be found at this site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wprT66Yjxs
Held in Zarya, outside of Moscow, the reunion marked the Russian secret war they fought from 1965 to 1973, hence the celebration of their 35th anniversary of when their official involvement ended in Nam. They were the Soviet Union’s “forgotten soldiers” veterans of a war their government denied involvement in for nearly 20 years.
Only now, long after the old communist regime collapsed in 1991, have officials – both Russian and North Vietnamese – admitted that more than 3,000 Soviet troops fought against the Americans in Vietnam.
One of those Russian veterans, identified by Russia Today as Nikolay Kolesnik, said, “We were known as a group of military experts. The commander was the senior expert. Thus, technically there were no Russians in Vietnam. The only thing we knew we were Soviet people … Soviet soldiers, …we had to do whatever it took to stop the (U.S.) air raids…”
Ironically, SOG’s Russian counterparts had their own plausible deniability, a political subtlety not lost on SOG members who ran all missions in Indian territory without any identification for their deniability if captured or killed.
Lee Cong Niem, a Vietnam veteran of the Vietnam War, told Russia Today that the communists in North Vietnam “…have a lot of respect for Russian equipment and Russian experts.”
Confirmation of Communist connection
The third confirmation of Russians in Southeast Asia that provided further details of Ivan’s penetration of SOG operational radio transmissions was unearthed by a member of the U.S. intelligence community who requested anonymity, and to not identify the exact agency that employed him for more than 15 years. SFA Chapter 78 member Doug “The Frenchman” LeTourneau – who suddenly passed away on July 26, independently confirmed the agent’s story and employment history several years ago.
This operative told The Sentinel that in the early years of his intelligence employment he worked closely with East Germans and Czechs during the last years of the Cold War in Europe – before the wall came down. Those men had worked with the Russians who had served in Vietnam during the Russian secret war in Southeast Asia. The officer spent lengthy periods of time during the middle and late ‘80s behind enemy lines running clandestine operations covertly in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, where he eventually developed a rapport with several communists.
A key element of this covert operation involved working with members of the East Bloc/Warsaw pact military forces bartering almost anything they could get their hands on and swapping it for materials they could sell. During those years the officer used his mechanical engineering skills and experience to earn credibility and acceptance while working closely with the communists.
“The black market didn’t operate with currency at that time, as it was useless in Eastern Bloc countries,” the operative said. Instead of currency, he traded American blue jeans, racing goggles, gloves, T-shirts and brightly colored logo stickers for FORMAT (Foreign Material) such as radios, chemical protection gear, Geiger counters, radar bits, pilot helmets, Russian Starlight scopes and many critically sensitive items that remained classified.
A top priority for that operative was obtaining “anything that was aircraft-related, such as data recorders, black boxes, flight charts, training and evaluation manuals and anything on techniques.”
In the late 80s, infiltrating into Eastern Bloc countries wasn’t difficult, because the border guards were there to keep people in, the operative said. “We’d infiltrate with materials to trade for FORMAT hardware and items, take them back to our safe house near the border, and Russian officers would smuggle all of the items into West Germany for us, for a price. Then, from there, we’d transport the booty Stateside.”
Over time, the U.S. intelligence operative ingratiated himself with the communists and eventually began hearing about the Russian, limited-proxy secret war in Vietnam helping the Vietnamese who they called “Yellow Monkeys.”
“At that point in time, I didn’t really know that much about SOG,” the operative said. “Because I was an American, they wanted to impress me, so I let them fill in the blanks. In general, they wanted us Americans to know they didn’t like being there. They said a large percentage of the USSR troops were artillerymen, mostly Ukrainians, who specialized in anti-aircraft defenses and operating radar around Hanoi.
“But, there were some who traveled further south and worked with North Vietnam’s communications specialists. They told me they had monitored SOG radio transmissions from Leghorn and Hickory.” [Leghorn was the first radio intercept/relay point opened on a mountaintop in southern Laos in early 1967. First called Eagle’s Nest, it was operated by SOG men from FOB 2 in Kontum until the end of the secret war in 1972. Hickory was a radio relay site, where recon teams from FOB 1, 3 and 4 could reach from the Prairie Fire AO or DMZ targets on FM frequencies. The NVA overran it in June 1971. Staff Sgt. Jon Cavaiani was awarded a Medal of Honor defending that site.
The operative said, “The Russians had tremendous respect for SOG operators, but they couldn’t understand why the U.S. didn’t use more sophisticated commo equipment or at least encryption communications equipment in Vietnam.”
As the operative accumulated time behind enemy lines, he met more higher-ranking communist officials, including a Special Operations instructor at the highest level who had experience with Soviet operators who had worked in Vietnam, Angola, Cuba, Egypt and other countries. This high-level source told the operative about one Soviet officer trained in Special Operations who functioned as a foreign military advisor.
That Special Operator would listen to SOG radio frequencies and hear Spike teams call in air strikes using open frequencies with basic code words, the U.S. operative said. This Soviet operator had the capability to speak to SOG teams. Trained in Cuba before being assigned to Laos as a communications expert, he spoke Spanish and English. (He later commanded Cuban troops in Angola where he was killed around 1979.)
“The bottom line,” the U.S. intelligence operative said: “The Russians and the NVA knew a lot about SOG recon teams. They also knew, and I couldn’t tell how often, where the team’s LZs were. They knew many of the SOG recon teams by code name, especially in Laos, where the teams from Kontum and Da Nang, Phu Bai and Khe Sanh ran missions across the fence.”
LeTourneau added in late 2018, “I tell you just how bad it was, they kept files on us. Our source said he saw the file on me and on RT Idaho. Can you imagine that?! For example, they had the mission I ran with RT Virginia with Gunther Wald as the One-Zero, where we planted the explosive device in a fuel drum that was floating down a river in Laos. That drum exploded with a powerful eruption when we were being extracted on strings. The shock waves hit us and the extraction choppers. The Russians had that mission in my file. They also had mention of that incident with Lynne and me talking to that Cuban commie SOB.”
The Saigon spy
The U.S. intelligence officer also learned one more nugget of information: “I was told that there were enemy agents in the highest command levels of SOG in Saigon. Their cover was so deep, it was never exposed during the Vietnam War.”
That fact confirms many One-Zeros’ suspicions that there was a mole, or a spy in SOG headquarters.
Additionally, during a 1996 Hanoi television show, Maj. Gen. George “Speedy” Gaspard, was shocked when he saw an individual he knew as “Francois” receive Hanoi’s highest military honor for his years of service as a spy in SOG. Gaspard, who had several tours of duty in Vietnam and in SOG, knew “Francois” and was “shocked” when he saw the program. Francois had access to highly sensitive information while employed by the U.S.
Author and SOG recon man John L. Plaster, has a photo of Gaspard standing with “Francois” in Saigon when Gaspard had no idea of the spy’s real role for the NVA. That photograph of Gaspard and “Francois is on Page 463 of Plaster’s book: SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars, by Paladin Press Book.
“There’s no question that he hurt SOG operations,” Gaspard said. “Again, how do you gauge it all? When you look at the success rate of STRATA teams by comparison, you can see why they succeeded. We were disconnected from Saigon and we didn’t have the NVA and Russians working against us.”
Gaspard took over STRATA operations in October 1967, directing its missions into North Vietnam through September 1968. The unique aspect of STRATA, which operated under OP-34B, the teams launched out of Thailand, flying in Air Force helicopters. The Air Force performed all insertions and extractions without pre-mission reports to Saigon. During Gaspard’s tenure at STRATA 24 teams were inserted into North Vietnam on various intelligence-gathering missions. Only one and a half teams were lost during that period of time that involved inserting and successfully extracting more than 150 STRATA team members during that time.
“Again, a key part to our success was having our separate chain of command and not telling Saigon. We worked with the Air Force on a need-to-know basis,” Gaspard said in a 2008 interview with the author.
Last But Not Least
Last, but certainly not least was two Navy security breeches that intelligence experts agree had a tremendous impact on compromising SOG commo in the field as well most levels of top secret communications by Navy and Army intelligence crypto communications at that time.
On Jan. 23, 1968 North Korean armed forces seized the USS Pueblo, a “Banner-class” environmental research ship that was a spy ship designed to capture enemy intelligence signals, with specific orders to intercept and conduct surveillance of Soviet Navy activity in the Tsushima Strait and to gather signal and electronic intelligence from North Korea. One Naval intelligence officer said the Russians pushed North Korea to seize the Pueblo, and as soon as it was docked in North Korea following its capture, Russia agents seized the encryption devices aboard the ship.
What was unknown at the time was that U.S. Navy warrant officers John Anthony Walker had contacted Russian authorities which began the notorious Walker spy ring that provided the necessary codes used in conjunction with the seized encryption devices that enabled the Soviets to read all top secret communications for several years without U.S. authorities being aware of the breech in security.
Reprinted courtesy of The Sentinel