SHOT OUT OF LAOS

SOG Runs Into Heavy Traffic on Uncle Ho?s Highway

By:  John "Tilt" Stryker Meyer, One Zero of Spike Team Idaho

 

Target: E-8 (See Target

Command and Control: MACV-SOG, 5th SFGA.

Area of Operation: Laos.

Mission: Primary--Capture NVA Soldier.

  Secondary--Wiretap NVA communications lines.

  Alternate--Look for American POW.

Target Team: Spike (ST) Idaho.

Date: 8 November 1968.

Launch Site: Phu Bai, FOB #1.

Insertion Aircraft: Kingbee, Vietnamese-piloted H-34 helicopters.

Lead Ship: 10-U.S. team leader: John ?Tilt? S. Meyers.

      11-U.S. assistant leader, John E. Shore;             01-VN team leader, Sau; and 02-team                   interpreter, Hiep.

Second Ship: 12-third American, Henry H. King, III; 03-pointman, Son; 08-tailgunner, Cau; and     09--M79 man, Tuan.

Third Ship: Backup.

Assets on Site: 2 A1E Skyraiders, 1 0-2 Covey, 2 UH-1B Huey gunships, and F-4 Phantoms on     call.

Operation Command Center: MACVSOG, Phu Bai, FOB #1.  

OUR patrol order was simple and straightforward, but it was a long way from the whole story.  By early November 1968, Spike teams in Forward Operating Base (FOB) #1 had taken a beating.  Teams from MACV-SOG running missions into Laos found it harder to penetrate the Prairie Fire area of operation (AO).

Enemy trackers were getting better and Charlie kept installing more 37mm antiaircraft guns, which were extremely effective against choppers.  In addition, the NVA began putting spotters on LZ.  Because the number of good LZ was limited, they?d booby-trap some of them.  Intelligence reports had warned all teams about the deadly helicopter booby traps regular Army troops had encountered on LZ in Vietnam.  These booby traps, initiated by thing trip wires, triggered firing devices that included every thing from hand grenades to 250-pound bombs hidden on the LZ.  Nonetheless, the brass in Saigon and the S-3 (operations) boys at FOB #1 never relented in trying to get a team on the ground in the Prairie Fire AO.  The reasons were simple: Intelligence reports said the NVA had more than 40,000 people maintaining the Ho Chi Minh Trail complex in Laos and Uncle Ho?s troops were sending an every increasing number of troops, along with supplies and weapons, down the network of hidden trails.

Because of the endless escalation of NVA activity in Laos, Saigon had an equally endless appetite to get as much intelligence from the AO as possible.  For several days before ST Idaho drew the Echo 8 target, our team had set a record of sorts by getting shot out of more LZ than any team in Phu Bai . 

Setting that record--no one actually counted the number--was a draining, often deadly exercise which would run like this: As the team leader, I?d get a target in the morning, the covey (0-1 observation aircraft pilot), if he had time, would pick primary, secondary and alternate LZ.  We?d load up on the Kingbees (H-34 helicopters), go into the primary LZ and get shot out, then get shot out of the secondary and alternate sites.  Because the flights to the Prairie Fire AO were so long, we?d have to fly back to Phu Bai, refuel, eat lunch, get another target and try it again-with identical results in the afternoon.

After four days of being run out of LZ, ST Idaho was beat.  The fatigue of being airborne for so long and then flying into an LZ and either getting shot out of it or spotting enemy personnel, which compromised the mission, was exhausting.

On the fourth day, we got blown out of the three LZ int he morning.  While the team ate lunch, the S-3 told me the afternoon target would be Echo 8.  Shortly after receiving the assignment, I found the man flying covey for us, SFC Robert J. ?Spider? Parks, and told him the news. 

At the time, Spider was joking with a couple of guys in the club.  When I said Echo 8, the smile drained from his face and he warned: ?Don?t forget what happened to Lane.  Be extra careful out there.  Charlie has his fucking act together there, and we still don?t know what happened to Lane.

Lane was Sergeant First Class Glenn Lane.  In May 68, Lane was the leader of ST Idaho when it was inserted into Whiskey 2, a target a few klicks away from Echo 8.  After Lane?s team was inserted, the radioman gave a team OK.  That was the last anyone ever heard from them.  For two or three days, numerous coveys tired to raise Lane or anyone from his team.  The way it looked, ST Idaho simply disappeared.

When ST Oregon ran a ?Brightlight? mission (a heavily armed recon team that carried no food and little water as it searched for a missing team or team members), the team couldn?t get off the LZ.  They were hit hard by NVA troops firing American weapons and using American hand grenades instead of the less reliable Chicom grenades.  Every team member of ST Oregon was wounded[i].

No one ever heard from Lane or his ST Idaho again.  Two weeks after Lane disappeared, Spider was appointed 10 for Idaho and I became the 12--radio operator.  By November, Spider was flying covey and I was the 10, an E-3 filling an E-8/E-9 slot, which was not uncommon in 1968. 

With Spider?s warning ringing in my ears, I briefed the team.  Sau?s eyes lit up when I showed him the map and our latest target.  ?Number fucking 10 target!? he exclaimed.  He had been present at Lane?s final briefing, but didn?t run that fatal mission.  After we ate lunch, we boarded the Kingbees and headed west again.  Lane and the other missing members of ST Idaho, who remain missing today, haunted us.

En route to the target, Sider radioed me that he had found a good LZ on the side of a mountain.  Even as the 10, I carried the radio on ST Idaho.  There were too many cases of young radioman accidentally misdirecting air strikes onto their teams.

I sat in the door when we neared the target area and Shore crouched behind me.  When the Kingbee pilot spotted the LZ, the old H-34 suddenly went into a dying, diving swan act as he spiraled downward several thousand feet toward the LZ.

About 100 feet from the ground, the pilot revved the engine, ending the dead swan spiral, and flared out for a landing.  As we descended, I searched the LZ for booby traps and shore scanned the woodline.  For the first time in four days, there was no greeting party or booby traps.

The insertion was slick.  From the LZ, we found a narrow pass into the jungle which led to an enormous wooded area that looked more like the White Mountains of New Hampshire than a Southeast Asia jungle.

Because the wooded area was so open, I put the team on line and Sau reminded everyone to cover their own tracks as we advanced north up the mountain.  Instead of moving cautiously as we normally did in dense jungle, I had the team march as quickly as possible.  As we moved up the mountain, I radioed Spider with a ?team OK.?

Usually, after receiving a team OK, Spider would silently fly out of the target area.  On that day, he warned: ?Be careful...I?m going to fly over another team [which had launched from Mai Loc] and I?ll be back in an hour.  I?ll stay over target until I hear a click team OK from you.?

A click team OK was merely breaking squelch twice quickly on the PRC-25 handset.  Without speaking, we minimized the NVA?s radio direction finding (RDF) capabilities.

I wanted to get as far away from the LZ as quickly as possible.  For more than an hour we pushed up the hill, moving on line for at least 30 minutes before returning to more traditional in-line march.  Because we moved without taking a break, climbing straight up, the team was sucking gas.  We were still a long way from the top of the mountain, which was where I hoped to establish our rest [remain] over night (RON) site. 

         After about 75 minutes on the ground, Son, who was running point, and Sau, who was behind him, signaled ?trail ahead.?  Son and Sau moved forward for point reconnaissance while the rest of us caught our breath.  

Sau returned in a few minutes.  He said there was good news and bad news.  The good news was there were NVA walking casually along the east-west trail.  Some of them had AK-47s on their shoulders without magazines in them.  Speaking through Hiep, our interpreter, Sau said, ?I don?t think they know we?re here.?

The bad news was the trail was wide, as wide as two lanes on an interstate.

On the north side of the trail were telephone lines.  I told Sau I wanted to get across ASAP. Shore moved east and I moved west along the trail to provide security while the team crossed.

We crossed without incident and I moved the team about 100 yards north of the trail.  Sau climbed one of the telephone poles and started a wiretap on the phone lines.  Meanwhile, Shore, Son and Tuan moved down the mountain and put in our ambush explosives.

Again, the wooded area worked to our advantage; it wasn?t the thick sort of jungle where you couldn?t see 10 feet in front of you.  Team members could move quickly, yet had enough cover to avoid being seen from the road.

The ambush munitions consisted of two claymore mines facing the trail, with the inner killing arcs crossing in the center of the ambush.  Hours of practice installing and ambush paid off here.  They knew exactly how far apart the claymores had to be At the center of the claymores? killing zone, between the arcs of pellets they?d throw out, there was a zone big enough for one person to survive.  And exactly six feet from the trail, at that precise location, was a piece of C-4 plastic explosive which was powerful enough to knock unconscious the one person who survived the deadly claymore killing zone.

We knew the C-4 was the right amount because one of our fellow Green Berets practiced igniting different quantities of C-4 until he knocked himself out on our firing range at Phu Bai.

Then Son and Tuan placed flank security claymores at the eastern and western ends of the ambush zones for team security, and Cau put a claymore north of our team for rear security.

Textbook perfect.  With the ambush set up, Shore and I started joking about where we?d spend our bonus and extra R&R.  MACV-SOG had promised that all team members who captured a live NVA soldier would get a cash bonus and a five-day R&R anywhere in the world.

We had good reason to dream.  Sau and Hiep, who spoke French, English, Vietnamese and understood some Laotian, were monitoring the wiretap.  As we sat on the north side of the trail, we observed several more NVA soldiers, including an officer, walking casually without realizing we were contemplating snatching their bodies for a quick trip to Saigon.

When Spider returned, I could barely control my enthusiasm.  I told him to scramble the Kingbees and give me a precise time on target (TOT) at our primary LZ because we?d have one live NVA package.  Because it was an open air transmission, the NVA POW portion of the message was in code, just in case Charlie was monitoring our frequencies.

Then things turned to shit.

?Don?t move!? Spider cautioned. ?Don?t move! Don?t breath! Don?t fart! Don?t do nothing,? he said in an unusually nervous voice.

Before I could ask why, he continued, ?I?m at 10,000 feet and I can?t see you.  You?re simply socked in.  Right now we couldn?t find a mountain down there, let alone a spike team.  Cool it.  Don?t do anything.  And above all, don?t make contact until this weather breaks.?

Then I remembered seeing a bank of clouds to the west as we inserted.  As I looked up, the jungle/forest we were in was over 200 feet tall and blocked our direct sunlight so we couldn?t tell what the sky looked like.

We hard tanks moving north of our position and dogs from the direction of our LZ.  All of a sudden, people on the trail started running.  No more casual Sunday walks without weapons.  A squad of NVA walked past, moving west.  Ten I though about Lane.  Spider?s last warning.  ?Don?t move.  Don?t do anything,? was ringing in my ears.

Within minutes, we heard the first shots fired by scouts who were working with the dogs.  It was obvious the damn dogs were heading north and had found our scent.

I ordered the ambush disarmed and repacked.  I told Sau to run the wiretap as long as possible.  He had it rigged so he could pull it down with a quick jerk on the wire.

The tanks that were north of us sounded like they were heading west, so we moved east.   Before we left, Cau placed large quantities of ground black pepper in the area where we had set up our ambush, to foul the noses of the dogs.

We continued to move east around an enormous mountain as the activity continued to escalate behind us.  At approximately 1800 hours we encountered a mountain creek that ran south down the hill, that had lots of water in it and steep embankments on each side.

We jumped in the creek and moved north, upstream, for 15 minutes without pause.  Because of the heavy cloud cover, darkness was beginning to set in.  Sau, who had been running missions for five years, agreed that it was best to move as long as we could.

Occasionally the team would stop and all eight members walked up the embankments and into the jungle, setting false trails for the dogs to follow.

By last light the team was exhausted, hungry and wet.  Spider said the weather had worsened.

As we moved up the east embankment, we could hear dozens of truck south of us, apparently moving along the trail where we had set up our ambush hours earlier.

Sau climbed the biggest tree around to see what was going on.  He said the trucks were bringing hundreds of NVA troops along the road where we had set up our ambush.  And they were heading north up the mountain with lanterns, looking for us.

We ate our dehydrated rations in shifts.  At midnight, the NVA and their dogs were still coming up the mountain.  At 0130 hours, Sau said he could see the lanterns approaching our team.

Around 0300 hours, the lanterns got low on fuel and most of the NVA finally turned around and went back down the mountain, except for two soldiers who had walked up the creek and past us.  After they walked past us I GAVE Hiep, who had a bad cigarette cough, a bottle of cough syrup to suppress any coughs because the damp weather, wet ground and walking in the creek had irritated his throat.

As the two NVA were returning down the mountain past us, walking in complete darkness, HIEP coughed.  Then one of the NVA started crawling up the embankment toward me.  I was facing the creek, sitting up.

The NVA soldier was good.  He only moved when the wind stirred the trees.  During one windy movement, the NVA soldier touched the sole of my jungle boot.  I heard him gasp.

It was pitch black.  I couldn?t see him.  I wondered if he could see my CAR-15 pointing at him.

I didn?t dare shoot.  I was playing the biggest game of hide-and-seek in my life and I didn?t want to alert this Charlie?s buddies, most of whom were walking down the mountain, as to where we were.

When the wind next blew, he crawled back down the embankment.  By 0400 hours, he and his buddy were heading down the stream. At first light, we moved northeast up the mountain, which seemed like the largest mountain on earth.  We moved all day, reaching the top near last light.  ST Idaho was beat.  The jungle we moved through was thick but not dense.  Climbing all day had been tough on all of us.  The only contact we had was when Son and Sau did a brief area recon and ran into some woodcutters-who quickly ran away.

About midnight, the sky cleared.  There wasn?t a cloud anywhere.  We made radio contact with Batcat, codename for the airborne command ship that flew over the Prairie Fire AO 24 hours a day.  I told him we were going to say on the mountaintop all day, especially if the weather got bad.  We gave Spider a team OK and healed our hiking wounds.

That night, while monitoring different FM frequencies, we picked up a Russian transmission. 

A few months before this mission, we had heard about the Russians and Chinese working in ?neutral? Laos, but this was the first time we had audio proof.  Ivan was on the air, live at midnight.  I tried to raise Batcat but couldn?t.

With the long antenna on the PRC-25, I moved to the east side of the mountain and tried to contact Lemon Tree, a radio site manned by MACV-SOG personnel.  Again, no luck.

While I was on the radio, Shore came around to my side of the mountain, his eyes wide open.  ?You?ve got to see this to believe it.  I think we?re in the TwilightZone,? he said.

As I monitored the Russian conversation, I walked around to the west side of the mountain.  Shore just pointed west toward another one of the huge Laotian mountains, which was lighting up like a massive Christmas tree.

It was after midnight.  The Russians were on our radio.  Soon we could hear Ivan?s plane.  Off to the west, the side of that mountain was lighting up brighter than Broadway in the Big Apple.  Weird!

The Russians were flying in a resupply to the lighted side of the mountain.  From our distance, the area appeared to be bigger than several football fields tacked together.

For several minutes ST Idaho simply stood there in amazement, gazing at the incredibly brilliant lights made all the brighter by the stark darkness of the cloudless jungle night.

By the time I raised someone on the radio, Ivan?s plane had turned around and headed north.

When I issued our first verbal report, the radio operator was incredulous: ?You saw what?  Where? The pilot was speaking what language??

To complicate matters, in the morning when Spider flew over asking for further details on our sighting, we learned that our map was missing a couple of mountains in this particular range, which made it more difficult to report where we were and where Ivan?s DZ was.

By 0700 we were socked in again.  We hadn?t heard the dogs in over 24 hours, so I sent Sau and Son out to find the tank trail while Shore and Tuan went out to find some water.  During the night, my tooth had fallen apart, and I was in much pain.  Because King was carrying a slide-action 40mm grenade launcher, I kept him on the hill with me.

Shore and Tuan observed some woodcutters hacking away on the large trees, cutting out one of their slash-and-burn fields that were so plentiful in the mountainous areas of Laos.  They returned to the hill by noon.

Son and Sau searched for several hours before spotting some trackers.  Shortly after seeing them, Sau and Son heard the dogs and returned to the hilltop.

Sau felt it was only a matter of time before the trackers pinpointed us and so he urged moving.  Ten minutes later we were heading down the backside of the mountain.  After descending about 1,000 feet, we moved west, back toward the direction we had come from.  During our travels we crossed several trails that weren?t on the map but were heavily used.

At last light, we found a series of huge boulders that were reminiscent of Stonehenge in Britain.  There were limited entrances into this rocky area and no one could launch a mass assault against us if they pinpointed us.

About midnight, ST Idaho was collectively shocked out of its sleep when we heard barks from what sounded like the largest dogs in the world.

Before moving out of the RON at first light, Sau reinforced the eastern entrance to the stone area with mines and pepper.

Spider was overhead early and I told him we wanted to be extracted ASAP.  After getting a fix on our location-Sau climbed a tree and flashed a mirror at him--Spider pointed us toward an open area big enough for an extraction.

He returned in 30 minutes with bad news: Because the weather had finally broken, S-3 at Phu Bai ordered him to insert another spike team before they extracted us.

A few minutes later, we heard two mines explode at our RON site.  It felt good to hurt Charlie with his own tactics.

By 0900 we had located the LZ and secured it.  As we heard the dogs again, I learned that another spike team had declared a Prairie Fire emergency after making contact with the NVA.  They had casualties and needed an immediate extraction.  Meanwhile, the other ST was inserted.

I sent Sau and Son back down our line of march to the LZ and had them set up some more mines. 

By 1100 hours the other team had been extracted and Spider was overhead, taking ground fire from north of the LZ.  When the first Marine Corps? UH-1B gunships arrived, I worked them north of our LZ.  They each took several hits.  When the A1E Skyraiders made passes, they also took hits from small arms fire that sounded like AK-47 rounds.  During the second A1E gun-run, Sau ignited the first claymore in the face of an NVA scout.  Sau blew the second claymore and returned to the LZ, reporting more NVA troops right behind him.

King climbed a rock and pumped out six quick rounds of HE toward the area the NVA were in.  Shore and I fired HE rounds from our sawed-off M-79s.  The 40mm barrage slowed the NVA troops long enough for the extraction ships to come into the LZ. 

And for our first time, slicks from the 101st Airborne Division extracted us from our target.  We were used to Kingbees and knew most of the pilots on a first-name basis.

The 101st pilots were good, too.  They came right in.  Fortunately, Spider had alerted us about the slicks and I told Shore and King that they had to be the first people to approach the ship until they had alerted the doorgunners to the fact that five of our men were Vietnamese.

The extraction was quick. We took several hits on the way out.  As we pulled off the ground, the area north of the LZ lit up with dozens of flashes from AK-47s and SKSs.  As the gunships laid down final suppression fire during our extraction, the windshield was blown out of one aircraft and the second chopper took more than a dozen hits.

When we got back to FOB #1, a major from S-3 chewed me out for panicking and asking for an extraction.  I explained about Lane; I told him about the NVA that were closing in on us; the number of hits the gunships took on the extraction; my broken, painful tooth; the fatigue of our team; the joy of being socked in for five days; and that we could have at least one NVA POW had Mother Nature cooperated.

He didn?t care.  He gave me a new target for the next day.

I went back to my room and picked up a news magazine with a picture on the front page about the latest anti-war protester stateside.

Insane.

Whose side were they on?  They didn?t get to see Charlie like ST Idaho had.

I went to the dentist, got my tooth pulled, drew new rations and PRC-25 batteries.

The next day, ST Idaho got shot out of five LZ.

[i].(Note: the following narrative is provided by RL Noe regarding the lost team:  23 May 68‑ Glenn Oliver Lane, SFC E‑7 Tm Ldr, of Odessa, TX; Robert Duval Owen, SSG E‑6 Radio Operator of Chatham, Mass; Nine Chinese Nung members names and ranks unknown of RT Idaho operating in Laos west of A Loui.. USASF, FOB‑I, Phu Bai, Ops 35 are listed as KIA or captured, MIA Presumptive finding of death and one indigenous Recovery/Search team member of RT Oregon KIA. On May 20th, a 12 man recon team was inserted during the morning hours and at 1024 hours made their last radio contact reporting they could not talk because they had NVA all around them. On May 22nd, another 12 man recon team was inserted [RT Oregon] and detected an area about 50 meters away which showed signs of a fire fight with concussion grenades had exploded. This second team was attacked by a Company size element and was extracted with one indig killed and 7 members wounded.)  

   LANTERNS IN LAOS  

The crachin--a cold, damp fog that covered the Annamite Mountain along the Laos-Vietnaman border--turned our three-day patrol in the hills northwest of Khe Sanh more miserable than usual in March 1967.

It had been a fairly typical patrol.  There was little sign of the NVA and there had been no contact.  We?d humped all day through rugged terrain and thick brush with packs so heavy our shoulders were rubbed raw.

Normally one didn?t look forward to the sun going down in Vietnam, but under the circumstances we did.  Rest at last.

That lasted until somewhere around midnight, when I looked out to the west through a hole in the fog and saw an entire damn mountain light up.  The whole platoon was up real quick and staring out incredulously at the sight of what appeared to be hundreds of NVA moving around with lanterns on a slope way off to the west toward Laos.  Our platoon commander and platoon sergeant got busy under a blanket with a map and flashlight trying to figure out just which one of the sores of ridge lines out to the west to try to get some arty called in on, while the rest of us just watched in utter amazement.

We couldn?t come up with any reasonable explanation for why the NVA would light up what had to be a major concentration of their forces.  The arty never arrived--I don?t think I ever learned why? and after an hour of so the lanterns were extinguished.

We wrote it off to the ?dinks? just trying to mess with our minds and forgot about it.  Over the years I?ve told the story numerous times when the talk drifted around to the weird things one saw at night in Vietnam.

Then reading Issac Staats (John S. Meyers)? ?Shot Out of Laos? some 20 years later I came across the section describing the NVA lighting up lanterns to search the mountain for the SOG patrol, and I realized what I had seen that night.

Back then I knew there were some Army guys doing weird things but never had any idea there were running around over in Laos.

Now I now that it was not a little NVA psy-war but a desperate game of hide and seek in the hills.  I hope those SOG guys made it.

--Jim Graves