A Green Beret recalls the Christmas Day mission that was almost his last
US Air Force Bell UH-1P helicopters fly to Cambodia in 1970. U.S. Air Force / Capt. Billie D Tedford
During the Vietnam War, US special operators carried out covert raids deep into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam.
Her missions took her to places where US troops shouldn't be a disaster, like a Christmas Day mission for John Stryker Meyer and his team.
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While the US military fought with all their might to stop the communist flood in South Vietnam, a small group of special operations troops fought across the border with the North Vietnamese army.
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The Vietnam Study and Observation Group (MACV-SOG) was a top-secret team made up of special forces operators, Navy SEALs and air commands.
Their mission was to conduct
covert cross-border operations deep in Laos, Cambodia and northern Vietnam, where no US troops should be.
SOG had a 100% casualty rate - everyone was wounded, sometimes multiple, or killed.
How the NVA stole Christmas
John Stryker Meyer and Lynne Black, his deputy, on the line before an operation. Courtesy of image
Christmas 1968. The ST Idaho Reconnaissance Team was tasked with locating and destroying a fuel line in Laos. It was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail complex that the NVA and Viet Cong relied on to continue their guerrilla warfare in South Vietnam.
John Stryker "Tilt" Meyer, then only 22 years old, was ST Idaho's One Zero or team leader. Next to him were two other Green Berets and three indigenous workers.
Less than a month earlier, on Thanksgiving Day, ST Idaho had barely survived a cross-border operation in Cambodia.
Reports of high air defense concentrations in the region made the mission difficult. A few weeks earlier, an NVA anti-aircraft fire had shot down an SOG helicopter, killing everyone on board.
Usually helicopters fly at great heights and suddenly fall onto the landing zone or LZ. But now the H-34 Kingbee helicopters would fly as close to the ground as possible and straight to the LZ, which was in a remote valley that the intelligence indicated was far from the NVA positions.
ST Idaho was in the hands of the best. The pilots of the 219th South Vietnamese Air Force, an elite unit that supported SOG missions, were known for their breathtaking bravery and coolness under fire - both life-saving qualities, when literary hundreds of NVA troops fired at them. Her flying skills were a rare consolation for the SOG operators.
As they finally approached the LZ, some locals spotted the helicopter and voiced concerns that the team could be compromised - residents of the undeclared war zone had no choice but to work with the NVA.
The team landed on a hill in a mountain-lined canyon. Due to the geographic location of the area, they could not rely on fixed-wing air support in an emergency.
Captain Nguyen Van Tuong of the 219th South Vietnamese Air Force in his H-34 Kingbee. Tuong was the pilot who saved ST Idaho. Courtesy photo
The entire area was covered in thick elephant grass 10 feet high, which hampered the team's progress as they looked for a hill to spend the night on.
After patrolling for a few minutes, the Point Man spotted something and let out a sudden burst of fire. The NVA fired back. Soon, rocket-propelled grenades were racing towards them.
ST Idaho debated whether it was possible to lose the NVA and continue its mission, but ultimately against. Meyer declared a "Prairie Fire" - the code word for contacted troops that would redirect any available aircraft to its position - and requested an immediate extraction.
ST Idaho returned to the LZ.
The SOG operators could hear noises from all directions except the northeast. The elephant grass prevented them from seeing or hearing anything properly, but Meyer suspected that the NVA was trying to surround the team before it reached the LZ.
Then a forward observer flying over the team warned them that an urgent intelligence report said NVA troops might be arriving from the northeast.
"This was the first and only time in SOG history a team received an Intel tactical update," Meyer, who participated in some mind-boggling operations and lived to write about them, told Insider. "It had never happened before."
What ST Idaho didn't know was that another mile below them, another SOG team under fire had intercepted an enemy radio transition - with a radio that was shot down four times - in which the NVA intended to target ST Idaho from the northeast to ambush has been described in detail.
ST Idaho adjusted its path and continued its slow progress. He threw grenades at every sound they heard, previous close-up nightmares in their minds.
From the pan into the fire
Meyer's SOG Recon Team Idaho in Da Nang April 1969. John Stryker Meyer
Suddenly, smoke engulfed the team - the NVA set the elephant grass on fire to smoke out ST Idaho or burn it alive.
Gusts of wind fueled the fire that came from all sides. With the helicopters minutes away, the SOG operators tried everything to stop the inferno, even using strips of C-4 explosives to repel the flames for a moment. Thick black smoke choked and blinded ST Idaho, but the SOG operators could see enemy troops advancing close behind the flames.
Then came the Kingbees, but the ground conditions kept them in check.
"The smoke was thick and made it difficult for him [the pilot] to see our LZ," Meyer told Insider. "It felt like we were trapped in some kind of 'Twilight Zone' episode where smoke and fire rushed up the mountain, enemy soldiers shooting at us, and the rescue in sight but out of range."
The H-34 landed on the apocalyptic scene with excruciating slowness. The wash off the rotor blades helped purify the air around the team when they boarded the helicopter and pushed the flames and smoke back onto the NVA. Shortly after launch, the ST Idaho perimeter was inundated with flames.
Though no one was killed
ST Idaho's desperate fire extinguishing attempts in enemy territory left team members with burnt eyebrows, scorched hair and some minor burns.
Just another day in SOG.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a special operations defense journalist, a veteran of the Greek Army (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army Headquarters) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.
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