Thanksgiving Day Mission: Six MACV-SOG Commandos vs. 30,000 Enemy Troops

Photo Credit: US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Thanksgiving, a time for filling yourself with turkey, stuffing and potatoes in various different forms – unless you’re MACV-SOG, that is. Then it’s a time for a team of six commandos to locate 30,000 enemy troops in the Vietnamese jungle. That’s exactly how this elite force spent Thanksgiving Day 1968.

Military Assistance Command, Vietnam

MACV-SOG commander Gen. William Westmoreland walking with South Vietnamese military members
Gen. William Westmoreland, a commander with MACV-SOG, in South Vietnam, 1964. (Photo Credit: Nguyen Van Duc / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

MACV-SOG, full name Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group, was a top secret American force established in 1964. It was made up of elite voluntary troops from every branch of the US military, including Green Berets, Navy SEALs, CIA operatives, specially-trained Marines and Air Force commandos, along with local fighters.

The work MACV-SOG undertook in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and North Vietnam remained secret because the official position of the US government was that American troops weren’t fighting outside of South Vietnam, a fact they intended to keep secret. To ensure this, members were stripped of any items, clothing or markings that would identify them as American.

The vast majority of the missions undertaken by MACV-SOG were for reconnaissance purposes, generally along or near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which spanned from North Vietnam to the South, passing through Cambodia and Laos along the way.

John Stryker “Tilt” Meyer

John Stryker "Tilt" Meyer speaking at a podium
John Stryker “Tilt” Meyer led Strike Team Idaho during the MACV-SOG’s Thanksgiving Day mission in 1968. (Photo Credit: Skeet Shooter / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

John Stryker “Tilt” Meyer was one of the fearless men who volunteered to be an operative with MACV-SOG. He initially enlisted with the US Army in 1966, and soon after was accepted to Airborne School, where he was airborne certified.

By the following year, he’d graduated from the Special Forces Qualification Course, eventually becoming a member of MACV-SOG’s Spike Team (ST) Idaho. Meyer detailed much of his time in Vietnam in two books, Across the Fence: The Secret War In Vietnam (2003) and On the Ground: The Secret War in Vietnam (2007).

He was also one of the MACV-SOG commandos involved in the Thanksgiving Day mission in 1968, serving as a reconnaissance leader for a team of six. Aside from Meyer, ST Idaho consisted of four local mercenaries – Sau, Hiep, Phuoc and Tuan – as well as fellow American, John “Bubba” Shore.

30,000 missing enemy troops

US Army chaplain and MACV-SOG members knelt in prayer
US Army chaplain praying with members of MACV-SOG in a small village near Saigon, 1966. (Photo Credit: Wally McNamee / CORBIS / Getty Images)

By November 1968, US Intelligence was extremely concerned with any and all movements the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) made following the Tet Offensive. Launched the previous January, the NVA and Viet Cong orchestrated a number of surprise attacks against urban centers, with two primary aims: cause rebellion among the South Vietnamese population and force the US to scale back its efforts in the country.

In the months following the Tet Offensive, three NVA divisions had gone missing and someone needed to find out where they’d went. Insert ST Idaho. The 1st, 3rd and 7th NVA divisions totaled a staggering 30,000 or so troops and were part of a 100,000-strong force the Americans had been keeping an eye on. When they went missing along the Cambodian border, the concern was they were preparing to launch an attack on Saigon.

MACV-SOG’s Thanksgiving mission

Five helicopters flying over a group of American soldiers
Helicopters returning to Bù Đốp Special Forces Camp, where Strike Team (ST) Idaho set off from on their mission, 1970. (Photo Credit: PhotoQuest / Getty Images)

The task was simple enough: ST Idaho would enter Cambodia and locate the missing troops, after which they’d relay the information back to headquarters.

On Thanksgiving Day 1968, Meyer and his men waited in Bù Đốp Special Forces Camp, where the MACV-SOG team were delivered a Thanksgiving feast of turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes and cranberry rolls. A helicopter then arrived to deliver the men to Cambodia. This presented its own challenges, as they were only allowed to be brought 10 kilometers into the country via air and would then need to travel the remaining two kilometers on foot.

ST Idaho quickly disembarked the Huey and began their mission, searching for the missing NVA troops in the dense jungle. It didn’t take long for them to notice smoke, which they confirmed was from the soldiers they were looking for. The camp appearing empty, the MACV-SOG commandos began taking pictures and searching for important documents.

It appeared as though they’d successfully completed their mission – and rather quickly. Unbeknownst to them, however, they’d just walked into the middle of a 30,000-strong NVA encampment.

30,000 North Vietnamese versus six commandos

Richard Mooney helping a Regional Forces soldier adjust his M16 rifle
Richard Mooney of MACV-SOG Mobile Advisory Team 36 assisting a Regional Forces soldier with his M16 rifle, 1969. (Photo Credit: NARA Photo 111-CCV-459-62131 / SP4 James Alltey / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

It was Sau who alerted Meyer to the true danger they were in, saying gravely, “Beaucoup VC! Beaucoup VC!” Having only served for five months with MACV-SOG, compared to Sau’s three years, Meyer trusted the man’s instincts.

It wasn’t long after that the North Vietnamese troops began to close in from both sides, before opening fire. The MACV-SOG team planted a Claymore mine and ran for it. The enemy followed close behind, but ST Idaho fired back, throwing grenades and setting up trip-wired Claymores wherever possible.

The team’s salvation came in the form of US Air Force Bell UH-1P Hueys, operated by the 20th Special Operations Squadron. The helicopters opened fire on the advancing enemy soldiers with M60 machine guns and M134 miniguns. The helicopter was able to make it to the rendezvous point and the six men dove in as quickly as possible, setting up a final Claymore on the outskirts of the landing zone.

Making it out of the Thanksgiving Day mission alive

M42 Duster parked on a muddy road
M42 Duster at the MACV-SOG compound in Quảng Trị City, 1968. (Photo Credit: Sciacchitano / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Meyer later described the mad dash in his book, writing, “We had been moments away from a very violent death and we killed an untold number of NVA soldiers – soldiers who continued to earn our undying respect. I took no pleasure in killing the enemy. It was simply us or them.” They made it, however, with the Huey taking off before the NVA troops could reach them.

More from us: David Larsen Took On 50 Enemy Troops With Just An M60 Machine Gun

Successful in their mission, although a little worse for ware, the first thing ST Idaho did upon their return to base was visit the mess hall for a well-deserved second Thanksgiving dinner. Soon after, they were tracked down by the MACV-SOG officer who’d sent them on the mission, asking if they would join him for yet another Thanksgiving feast and discuss the mission. Meyer and Shore obliged, debriefing him over the well-earned meal.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.