MACV-SOG: The Vietnam-Era Special Operators You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Photo Credit: United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC)
Photo Credit: United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC)

You’ve heard of the elite Navy SEALs and Green Berets who conducted guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operations, trained local troops and quashed enemy uprising in Vietnam. However, you’ve likely never heard of MACV-SOG, comprised of members from both forces, as well as the CIA. Together, they made up a unit more covert than any other during the war.

MACV-SOG was tasked with undertaking various forms of unconventional warfare in Vietnam, including reconnaissance and rescue missions, psychological warfare and capturing enemy prisoners. They conducted a number of covert operations, which had a profound effect on the outcome of the conflict.

MACV-SOG’s top-secret beginnings

MACV-SOG, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group, was established on January 24, 1964. It was made up of members from the US military’s most elite forces: Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Air Force commandos, CIA operatives and those who’d served in the Marine Corps’ reconnaissance units.

MACV-SOG actions in Vietnam were controlled by the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities at the Department of Defense, as it gave them the ability to conduct missions outside of South Vietnam. Control of the group was eventually given to the US military.

MACV-SOG patch
Having never been assigned an official logo, the members of MACV-SOG created their own. (Photo Credit: MACV-SOG Soldier / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Much of MACV-SOG’s work was conducted in North Vietnam, which had to remain top secret, as the official American position was that US forces weren’t fighting outside of the South. The group also spent time conducting operation in Laos and Cambodia, due to the importance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

Given the extremely dangerous nature of the work they undertook, MACV-SOG was comprised entirely of volunteers. Their work was so dangerous, in fact, that the casualty rate for operatives was 100 percent – they knew they’d either receive a Purple Heart for their actions or come home in a body bag.

Unidentifiable Americans

Given the top-secret nature of their operations, MACV-SOG had very particular uniform requirements designed to make them unidentifiable as Americans. They donned the tiger stripe camouflage commonly associated with the South Vietnamese, and they didn’t carry any ID, including dog tags and patches. The Green Berets also didn’t wear their identifiable headgear.

MACV-SOG members standing together outside
MACV-SOG reconnaissance team, 1966. (Photo Credit: US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

As for weapons, MACV-SOG generally carried either a CAR-15 or AK-47, as well as M79 grenade launchers, all of which had their serial numbers removed, so they couldn’t be identified. Each was carefully attached to the individual in a way that would render any noise from their movement non-existent. The guns were carried with a canvas strap, while the M79s were attached with a D-ring covered in tape.

Operators also carried additional weapons, including fragmentation and V40 mini grenades. For many, their weapons of choice were as unconventional as the missions they undertook. One particular MACV-SOG member, Staff Sgt. Robert Graham, decided to use a 55-pound bow with razor-edged arrows, which he pulled out when his ammo ran low.

Ho Chi Minh Trail

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was the main area of operations for MACV-SOG, given its importance to the guerrillas they fought against. The group’s primarily role here was to be the boots on the ground, providing intelligence back to Saigon. They took photographs, stole enemy documents and bugged communication lines.

North Vietnamese soldiers walking along the Ho Chi Minh Trail
MACV-SOG photo showing North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops walking along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (Photo Credit: SOG / Joel D. Meyerson / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

These were extremely dangerous missions, and those tasked with running them were heavily aided by local forces, who made up the majority of a unit’s numbers – two to four Americans were typically paired with between four and nine South Vietnamese guerrillas. In an interview with History of MACV-SOG, Jim Bolen discussed the details of running missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, saying every one he ran took place along the network’s arteries.

There would be extensive enemy encampments attached to the trail, which housed thousands of soldiers. Two examples of these terrible odds were the mission on Thanksgiving Day 1968, which saw a six-man team face an enemy force of 30,000, and Frank D. Miller’s solo encounter with 100 NVA troops.

MACV-SOG operations behind enemy lines

In his interview with History of MACV-SOG, Jim Bolen also revealed that he and other operatives were responsible for planting seismic sensors along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which were monitored by Lockheed C-130E Blackbirds and would inform them of significant enemy movement.

Through this and other forms of reconnaissance, it’s believed MACV-SOG provided 75 percent of American intelligence about the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Donald Blackburn walking with other military officials in a MACV-SOG field location
Col. Donald Blackburn, commander of MACV-SOG, visiting a field location. (Photo Credit: US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

MACV-SOG had another purpose for operating along the Ho Chi Minh Trail: using it to get behind enemy lines to engage in prisoner snatching. This was considered one of the most dangerous missions. Prisoner snatching could be done as either the primary goal of a mission or a secondary one, should the opportunity present itself. Either way, it was heavily encouraged by superior officers.

Prisoner snatching behind enemy lines

MACV-SOG members were given $100 for capturing an enemy soldier, as well as R&R, while their local comrades were given new watches and other cash amounts. With this program in place, they captured 12 soldiers in Laos in 1966 and acquired important information from them, such as troop movements, sizes and base locations.

Michael Stahl sitting in a De Havilland U1-A Otter with two comrades
MACV-SOG operator Michael Stahl in a De Havilland U1-A Otter. (Photo Credit: IndianaJones1936 / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

In order to successfully snatch their prisoners, MACV-SOG had to get creative. Lynne Black, a MACV-SOG operator, figured out the precise amount of C-4 needed to knock out a man without killing him (you can imagine the test process). This required an operator to place the explosive along the trail and wait for an enemy combatant to walk near enough to remotely detonate the C-4, swoop in and leave with their unconscious target.

More from us: Despite Being Up Against 2,000 Enemy Troops, Bernard Fisher Risked His Life to Save a Fellow Airman

MACV-SOG was involved in many of the major engagements that took place over the course of the Vietnam War, including Operation Steel Tiger, the Tet Offensive, Operation Tiger Hound, Operation Commando Hunt and the Easter Offensive. Despite this, their involvement was largely kept a secret until the 1980s.

It took until 2001 for the group’s members to be formally recognized, with them being awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

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.