9 SOG Recon men vs

10,000-man NVA division

Lynne M. Black, assistant team leader on RT Idaho, is being inspected by Lt. Gen. Richard Stilwell at CCN April 1969. To Black's left is RT Idaho Interpreter, Nguyen Cong Hiep, and to his right is Nguyen Van Sau, Counterpart Team leader.

By John Stryker Meyer


One of the more amazing stories to emerge from the eight-year secret war during the Vietnam War took place on October 5, 1968, west of the A Shau Valley, one of the deadliest targets run by recon teams based at the top secret compound in Phu Bai, FOB 1, run under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group, or simply SOG.

Earlier in 1968, the communist North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had inflicted severe losses on SOG recon teams running missions in the A Shau Valley and west of it in Laos. That valley was a key location where enemy troops and supplies were funneled down the notorious Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam to take the war into major cities in the northern sector of South Vietnam, Hue, Phu Bai, and Da Nang. Earlier in the war, three Green Beret A Camps were overrun by NVA and Pathet Lao troops. By the fall of 1968, NVA gunners were bringing in more anti-aircraft weaponry and special, highly-trained sapper units were created to hunt down SOG recon teams. The communists offered what amounted to a “Kill An American” medal for any NVA soldier that killed a SOG recon man.

As the weather cleared over the A Shau Valley on Oct. 3, 1968, the brass assigned recon team ST Alabama to run a target just southwest of the A Shau Valley. Specialist Fourth Class Lynne M. Black Jr., a combat-hardened paratrooper who served one year earlier in the war with the 173rd Airborne Brigade was introduced to a new team leader. The sergeant was appointed team leader of ST Alabama only because he had more rank than Black, who had more experience in fighting the NVA than the sergeant. Black was introduced to the new One-Zero and they were ordered to fly a visual reconnaissance (VR) over the target.

VRs were flown as close to the launch date as possible and usually in a small, single-engine observation aircraft flown by two Vietnamese pilots. In this case, the VR was flown two days before the target launch date of October 5, 1968. Black and the new One-Zero (code name for team leader) flew in the rear seat of the small aircraft. The primary and secondary landing zones had been selected when the aircraft was hit by 12.7mm heavy machine gun fire.

Suddenly the cabin was sprayed with blood. A 12.7mm round had ripped through the floor, struck the co-pilot under the chin, hitting with such force that his helmet slammed against the ceiling and ricocheted into Black’s lap — still containing part of the co-pilot’s bloody head.

The pilot slammed the small aircraft down to treetop level and returned to South Vietnam. Black, unable to move or open a window, puked into the helmet. That night, there was a fair share of jokes in camp about Black’s “puke and brain” salad.

Saturday morning, October 5, there was no laughing when the South Vietnamese-piloted H-34 helicopters (code named Kingbees), flew west across South Vietnam from Phu Bai, near the China Sea, over the A Shau Valley into the target area. The weather was clear in Phu Bai, but cloudy over the AO.

During that flight, Black remembered how the launch commander had said this mission would be a cakewalk. Staff Sgt. Robert J. “Spider” Parks and Staff Sgt. Patrick “Mandolin” Watkins, however, knew that it was a tough target where the NVA had previously run out FOB 1 teams. Additionally, there were no new landing zones for the team insertion. For this target, Watkins was the Covey (code name for Forward Air Controller) rider in the Air Force O-2 Cessna, piloted by Air Force Captain Hartness.

ST Alabama’s insertion started smoothly, as the first Kingbee landed quickly with the One-Zero, One-One (assistant team leader) and three Vietnamese team members quickly exiting the aircraft.

As Black’s Kingbee spiraled downward toward the LZ, he observed an NVA flag planted atop a nearby knoll. From his days in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Black knew that the presence of an NVA flag meant that there was at least a regiment of NVA soldiers in the area. The knoll was surrounded by jungle. On the west side there was a 1,000-foot drop to the valley floor below.

The numbers didn’t compute for Black – approximately 3,000 NVA against nine ST Alabama men?

Several AK-47s opened fire before the Kingbee’s wheels touched down. Nonetheless, Black and the remaining three Vietnamese ST Alabama team members exited the H-34. As the Kingbee lifted off, the NVA gunfire increased significantly and moments later, the laboring Sikorsky H-34 crashed.

Although this was Black’s first SOG mission into Laos, code named, Prairie Fire, he knew the odds were stacked against ST Alabama. He and the South Vietnamese point man on the team, Cowboy argued vigorously for an immediate extraction. The team had been compromised. The element of surprise was gone. The other American, who had not gone through the Special Forces qualification courses at Ft. Bragg, remained silent.

“No!” said the new One-Zero. “I’m an American. No slant-eyed SOB is going to run me off!” Watkins offered the One-Zero a chance to extract. The offer was declined. The team was to continue.

The team leader then committed a major faux pas: he ordered the point man to walk down a well-traveled trail away from the LZ into the jungle. Black, Cowboy and the point man, Hoa, argued against heading down the trail. The first rule of SOF recon was to never use trails, especially well-traveled ones.

Three camouflaged Sikorsky H-34s from the South Vietnamese Air Force’s 219th Special Operations Squadron flying en route to inserting a team into Laos in October or November, 1968, from FOB 1, the top secret SOG compound in Phu Bai. At least two were shot down Oct. 5, 1968 flying in support of ST Alabama. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Herman)


The One-Zero pulled rank and ordered the team to move down the trail, with Hoa leading the way and the elder Green Beret following a short distance behind him. The trail wound into the jungle, and curved to the left. ST Alabama moved cautiously. As the team went down the trail, it moved parallel to a small rise on its right that was about 10 to 20 feet above the team. On it, an NVA colonel had quickly assembled a force of 50 NVA soldiers, who set up a classic L-shaped ambush.

The qu