SOG – A Photo History of the Secret Wars

Published on
December 7, 2022
Review Author(s)
Book Author(s)
Maj John L Plaster USAR (Ret)
Other Publication Information
Hard Bound, 8.25” x 10.25”, 407 pages
Company: Casemate Publishers - Website: Visit Site
Provided by: Casemate Publishers - Website: Visit Site

Founded in 2001, Casemate is a major specialist publisher and book distributor in the North American market. Casemate offers print and digital books to the public and to libraries through a variety of channels, platforms, and vendors, as well as traditional and online retailers. Casemate has grown to become the leading publisher in the fields of military history, defense studies, and military science in the USA. Casemate has a burgeoning publishing list covering subjects as diverse as Roman History and today's current conflicts.

Major John L. Plaster, USAR (Ret.), served three 1-year tours in Southeast Asia with the top-secret Special Forces covert operations unit, MACV-SOG. Qualified as a paratrooper and a Green Beret weapons and communications NCO, he led intelligence-gathering recon teams deep behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Leaving Vietnam as a staff sergeant, due to his extensive combat experience he received a direct commission as a reserve officer. Under the GI Bill he attended the University of Minnesota, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. In 1983 he co-founded the National Guard Sniper School which quickly became a major national training program, instructing hundreds of students from all military services and many law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the U.S. Customs Service, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Spanish Foreign Legion. After retirement he continued to instruct for police agencies. He twice served as the Chief of Competition for the U.S. and European Military and Police Sniping Championships, personally designing the targets and running the matches. In addition to guest lecturing at various Special Operations schools and the U.S. Army’s Command & General Staff College, he has authored a number of books.

This tome represents a new edition of this classic illustrated history of the operations and operatives of MACV-SOG in the Vietnam War that was first published in 2000. In 1972 the U.S. military destroyed all known photos of the top-secret Studies and Observations Group, with the intention that details could never be made public. But unknown to those in charge, SOG veterans had brought back with them hundreds of photographs of SOG in action and would keep them secret for more than three decades. I counted 560 black and white photographs, 141 color photos, 21 black and white drawings, and fifteen color maps. The front cover features a color photograph of a SOG Huey with a special flexible aluminum ladder used for insertions and extractions.

Officially known as the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG, or often just SOG) was a highly classified special operations unit in Southeast Asia that conducted convert operations. Established on January 24, 1964, SOG participated in most of the major campaigns of the Vietnam War. This included strategic reconnaissance missions, rescue operations, and psychological missions. SOG was composed of special operations personnel from the Army (Green Berets), Navy (SEALS), USAF, and the CIA. Additionally, many South Vietnamese and Cambodians served, along with Chinese Nationalists and Norwegians. The key was everyone and everything was stripped of any identification as to their nationality or source. Many of their operations centered on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, although nothing was really out of bounds. SOG was renamed the Strategic Technical Directorate Assistance Team 158 as part of the Vietnamization effort on May 1, 1972. Most of the SOG’s clandestine activities were not revealed until Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers in 1971 that revealed some of the SOG early activities until the dam broke with the Senate hearings in the 1990s on Vietnam War POW/MIA issues.

The sections include:

  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
    • Chapter 1: Colby’s Covert War
      • The CIA’s Junk Fleet
      • Covert Agents and Airdrops
      • Long-Term Agent Teams
      • CIA Agent Team Insertions in North Vietnam
      • Reconnaissance in Laos
    • Chapter 2: Switching Back—SOG Is Born
      • Creation of SOG
      • Chief SOG
      • Counterinsurgency Support Office
      • SOG and the Tonkin Gulf Incident
      • Leaping Lena
      • SOG’s Amazing Nasty Boats [Page 030]
      • Get Out Of Jail Free Card
    • Chapter 3: Shining Brass
      • Recon in Laos
      • One-Zero
      • The First Mission
      • More Missions
      • Lost Legend: Larry Thorne
    • Chapter 4: Unfolding the Mysteries of the Trail
      • Shadowy Origins
      • The Binh Tram System
      • Base Camps and Base Areas
      • Constructing and Hiding the Roads
      • Trucks and Convoys
      • Repairing the Highways
      • Bicycles, Porters, and Beasts of Burden
      • Antiaircraft Defenses
      • NVA Haven: Laotian No-Bomb Lines
      • Project Igloo White
      • Arc Lights on the Falls
    • Chapter 5: Blackbirds and Night Skies
      • First Flight Detachment
      • The Blackbirds
      • Blackbird Combat Missions
      • First Flight’s Unofficial Emblem
      • The Fulton Skyhook System [Page 080]
      • The Missing Stray Goose
    • Chapter 6: Special Helicopters and Special Crews
      • The Kingbees
      • The Green Hornets
      • Lt. Jim Fleming, Medal of Honor
      • Pony Express: The 21st SOS
      • U.S. Helicopter Units That Flew for SOG
      • A Jolly Green’s Medal of Honor
      • Mustachio and Cowboy
    • Chapter 7: FACs and Fighters
      • Coveys and Covey Riders
      • SPADs and Zorros, Hobos and Sandys
      • Fast Movers
      • S-P-A-F and Project Ford Drum
      • The Awesome AC-130 Spectre
      • SOG FAC Aircraft
      • Lost Covey Riders
    • Chapter 8: Recon Equipment and Weapons
      • Basic SOG Weapons [Page 133]
      • Suppressed Submachine Guns
      • In Praise of the CAR-15
      • The CAR-15 vs the AK
      • Suppressed Pistols and Rifles
      • Heavy Weapons and Heavy Teams
      • Other Unusual Weapons and Devices
      • Recon Man’s Basic Gear
      • Passive Signaling
      • A Chief SOG Gunfighter
      • SOG’s Silver Pistol
      • SOG’s Amazing Rocket Pistol
      • SOG’s Preferred Combat Knives
    • Chapter 9: Recon Missions
      • Area and Point Recon
      • Road and River Watches
      • Wiretaps
      • Bomb Damage Assessment
      • Planting Beacons and Sensors
      • SOG’s First Medal of Honor
      • Prisoner Snatches
      • Dick Meadows: Snatcher Extraordinaire
      • The Ashtray Missions
      • Prisoner Snatch Statistics
      • Ralph Rodd’s Prisoner Snatch
    • Chapter 10: NVA Counterrecon Forces and Tactics
      • Evolution and Layering
      • Special Counterrecon Forces
      • Man’s Best Friend?
      • How the NVA Typically Hunted a Team
      • Killers of Americans
      • The Pathet Lao
      • Listeners and Moles
      • Chief SOG Cavanaugh and NVA Counterrecon
    • Chapter 11: Recon Tactics and Techniques
      • Countertracking
      • Disguising Their Tracks
      • Immediate Action Drills
      • Confusing the Enemy
      • Stealth
      • RON Procedures
      • Diversions
      • Desperate Men
      • Perfect Jungle Camouflage
      • Escaping Enemy Pursuers
      • Evading Sweeps and Drives
      • Contact
    • Chapter 12: Getting Teams In and Out
      • Getting Them In
      • Song of the Nightingale
      • Strip Alert
      • Getting Them Out [Page 207]
      • Playing Ball
      • String Extractions
      • Gunship Pilots
    • Chapter 13: HALO: The Ultimate Infiltration Technique
      • The First HALO Team
      • Subsequent CCN HALO Jumps
      • CCC HALO Jumps
      • The Missing Jumper
      • Static-Line Jumps
      • Chief SOG John ‘Skip’ Sadler
      • HALO Team Weapons
    • Chapter 14: The Recon Ethic
      • A Free Association
      • Memorializing Lost Comrades
      • ‘Hey, Blue’
      • SOG’s Indigenous Personnel
      • Lost Recon Teams
      • No Geater Love: John Kedenburg
      • Bravest of the Brave: Bob Howard
      • Special Forces: Longest Running Gag
      • Above and Beyond: Fred Zabitosky
      • The Indefatigable Billy Waugh
    • Chapter 15: Into Cambodia
      • Rules of Engagement
      • The Daniel Boone Area
      • Projects Omega and Sigma
      • The Seaport of Sihanoukville
      • The Secret Cambodian Bombing
      • Momentous Developments
      • Mad Dog Shriver The Man The Myth
      • Roy Benavidez, One-Man Bright Light Team
      • Franklin ‘Doug’ Miller, One-Man Assault Force
      • The Press Exposes SOG
      • The Green Beret Murder Case
      • Babysan Davidson
    • Chapter 16: Hatchet Force Operations
      • Hatchet Force Raids
      • The Ordeal of Charles Wilklow
      • Reconnaissance in Force
      • Blocking the Trail
      • Lost Hatchet Force Commanders
    • Chapter 17: Operation Tailwind
      • Hatchet Force Men on Operation Tailwind
      • The Tailwind Affair
      • Tailwind’s Gallant Medic
    • Chapter 18: Bright Light Rescues
      • Early Bright Lights
      • Bright Light Teams
      • Seal Rescue Attempts
      • Frustrations
      • One Bright Light
      • SOG’s Longest Bright Light
      • The Tragedy of Sebastian Deluca
      • SOG’s Combat Recon Platoons
      • Tom Norris and the Rescue of Bat-21
    • Chapter 19: The Greatest Raid of All
      • Target: Son Tay
      • Selection and Training
      • Presidential Approval
      • Showtime [Page 335]
      • Mock-Ups and Models
      • Special Weapons at Son Tay
      • ‘Such Magnificent Men’
    • Chapter 20: SOG in the Defense
      • Defense at Kham Duc
      • Radio Relay Sites
      • Sappers!
      • Sapper Attack Casualties
      • Jon Cavaiani Fights for Hickory
      • The Last Stand of RT Kansas
      • SOG Support to Lam Son 719
    • Chapter 21: SOG’s Darkest Programs
      • Agent Deception Programs
      • Paradise Island
      • Project Eldest Son
      • The Forger’s Art
      • Black Radio
      • Strata Teams
      • Treacherous Traitor: Agent Francois
  • Afterword
  • The Cost
  • Remembering SOG’s Fallen
  • SOG Distinguished Service Cross Recipients
  • Glossary
  • Index

There were many topics that grabbed my attention. Two of them really stuck out though: Korean War PT Boats were acquired by the SOG initially and were redesignated PTF [Fast Patrol Craft], however they were obsolete from the start. PTF-1, the ex-PT810, was operated briefly before being sunk as a gunnery target in 1965. PTF-1 can be seen at the top of Page 30 where she is flying the American flag. In action, SOG boats displayed no markings or flags that could identify the boats. The bottom of the page shows PTF-2 [Foreground] and PTF-3 (background) practicing high-speed maneuvers. PTF-3 was a Norwegian Tjeld class PT boats that the SOG acquired five (and eventually 20] of early in 1964. Called the ‘Nasty’ Class, these Patrol Boats were the fastest craft on the water, getting up to 47 knots. Norwegian pilots were originally brought in to train the South Vietnamese, but they never quite got the hang of going that fast, and in the end the Norwegians were recruited to pilot the Nasty class speedsters. Interestingly, PTF-3, the first of the Nasty boats is being restored at Deland Naval Air Station Museum. Check out their Facebook page under “PTF-3 Restoration Project”.

Th Fulton Skyhook System (as seen on Page 080) will seem familiar if you remember the end of the James Bond movie, Thunderball. This B-17G, now owned by the Collings Foundation, sports a long clandestine history even before she was modified to carry the Fulton Skyhook. Designed by the grandson of Robert Fulton who had invented the first steamboat, the Clermont, the Fulton Skyhook was designed to rescue personnel where a landing was not possible. SOG modified their six MC-130s to mount the Fulton Skyhook system. Continuing the nickname “Blackbirds” [so named as their undersides were painted black and they were “off the books”], they succeeded the SOG’s C-123 transports. Another factor was that these MC-130 Blackbirds were the first military transports to carry FLIR [Forward Looking Infrared Radar].

Maj John L Plaster’s SOG is not a quick read, even though this is a photo history. There is still plenty of text in this photo essay volume, and it took me a week to read. It’s a shame that most of the history of the SOG was destroyed, because what is shown in this volume is quite revealing. Many of the aircraft and helicopters portrayed in this book are available in 1/72, 1/48, and 1/32 scales, along with some decals to support them. You may need to modify some of the details, but that’s modeling, right? If you are interested in Southeast Asia wars, this is an essential volume for both the aviation historian and the scale modeler.

My thanks to Casemate and IPMS/USA for the chance to review this great book.

Highly recommended!


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