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, 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 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
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
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
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
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.
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.