A Green Beret recalls the brutal Thanksgiving Day mission he barely survived after running into 30,000 enemy troops

Stavros Atlamazoglou
Vietnam War SOG special operations
A SOG recon team getting ready for another cross-border operation in Cambodia. Courtesy picture
  • As Americans at home sat down for Thanksgiving dinner in 1968, a team of special operators was setting out to solve a deadly puzzle in Cambodia.

  • US intelligence had lost track of tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops, and with memories of the Tet Offensive still fresh, American commanders wanted to know where they were and what they were doing.

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During the Vietnam War, the US military had a covert special-operations unit that conducted cross-border operations in Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam.

Composed of Army Special Forces operators, Navy SEALs, and Air Commandos, and other personnel, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) took the fight to the enemy without hesitation.

SOG teams were primarily tasked with strategic reconnaissance deep behind enemy lines and would often end up fighting against overwhelming superior enemy forces. The unit's 100% casualty rate meant a SOG assignment came with a body bag or a Purple Heart, sometimes multiple ones.

Complicating matters, the US adamantly denied its troops operated outside South Vietnam. Accordingly, SOG operators wore sterilized uniforms and carried weapons without serial numbers - for all intents and purposes, they weren't Americans when they crossed the border.

Where is the NVA?

Vietnam War SOG special operations
ST Idaho, with John Stryker Meyer in the back, a few days before the operation. Courtesy picture

As Americans at home sat down for Thanksgiving dinner in 1968, John Stryker Meyer and his team of operators, ST

Idaho, were called in to solve a deadly puzzle.

Army intelligence and the CIA had lost track of the 1st, 3rd, and 7th North Vietnamese Army divisions, totaling 30,000 troops, somewhere on the South Vietnam-Cambodia border.

US intelligence estimated that more than 100,000 NVA troops were in Cambodia, and SOG headquarters was worried that the missing NVA were preparing to launch another attack on Saigon or overrun one of the Special Forces A camps in the area.

The NVA had recently attacked several A camps, and the Tet Offensive in January that year had caught American forces off-guard across South Vietnam.

It fell on Meyer and his team to locate the missing NVA, and if they got the opportunity, to snatch an enemy soldier alive.

Vietnam War SOG special operations
A SOG team reconnoiters the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. SOG

ST Idaho - a six-man team of two Americans and four indigenous operators - went in packed.

They carried CAR-15 rifles, sawed-off M-79 grenade launchers, detonation cord to clear landing zones, dozens of M-26 fragmentation grenades and Claymore mines, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. In the field, firepower was life.

For the Claymores - small boxes with C4 explosive and hundreds of small metal balls - the team carried five- and ten-second fuses. In case they were compromised and running toward a landing zone, they would drop the Claymores and pull the fuse. The NVA were often so close behind that those fuses were barely long enough.

ST Idaho was used to operating in Laos. In Cambodia, however, the game was played differently.

The State Department had imposed strict limitations to the rules of engagement there. The teams couldn't rely on fixed-wing aircraft for close air support or use white phosphorus, and they could only go 20 km from the border.

ST Idaho, however, found consolation in the Air Force's 20th Special Operations Squadron. Nicknamed the "Green Hornets," these airmen flew the UH-1P Huey, a better version of the helicopter also in use by the Army.

More importantly to ST Idaho was the Green Hornets' arsenal, which included rockets, M-60 machine guns, and M134 mini-guns with tens of thousands of rounds.

A Thanksgiving to remember

Vietnam War UH-1P Huey helicopter
A Green Hornet UH-1P Huey with all its armament. Courtesy picture

On Thanksgiving Day, the team was inserted without incident and began patrolling. After a few minutes, they sighted smoke and moved toward it.

They were soon in the periphery of a huge enemy base camp, but the NVA weren't home. As the point man, one of the indigenous operators, scouted for the enemy, Meyer snapped pictures.

Suddenly, the point man shouted, "Beaucoup VC!" Although Meyer couldn't spot any enemy, he trusted his indigenous teammate and gave the call to withdraw. As he did, the NVA arrived.

Seemingly hundreds of enemy soldiers came pouring in from the south and north. The team leap-frogged toward their landing zone, planting Claymores, lobbying grenades, and firing their CAR-15s as they went. Despite their casualties, the NVA kept running after them.

ST Idaho set up a hasty perimeter around the LZ, waiting for the Green Hornets. As more and more NVA appeared, the cavalry arrived.

The Huey gunships put down a devastating rate of fire that kept the NVA at bay long enough for ST Idaho to climb up the helicopters. As Meyer's Huey was getting ready to lift off, a lone NVA soldier broke through the hail of fire and stopped feet away from the chopper.

Air Force UH-1P Huey helicopter Cambodia
Bell UH-1P helicopters from the 20th Special Operations Squadron fly into Cambodia, around 1970 US Air Force/Capt. Billie D Tedford

"I remember watching the clumps of mud from his boots slowly kicking upward toward the rotors as the door gunner and I hit him in the chest with a burst of gunfire," Meyer told Insider.

As the choppers rose, several more NVA burst into the perimeter, firing at the Americans. Meyer threw a white phosphorus grenade as a parting gift. Minutes later, ST Idaho was safely back on base. They had found the missing divisions.

"It was one of the most terrifying missions of my 19 months in SOG," Meyer told Insider.

That says a lot, given the hair-raising operations that Meyer participated in and has written about. But ST Idaho wouldn't have made it without the Green Hornets.

"Nothing gave us more satisfaction than getting our SF brothers out when they got in trouble, which was almost all the time," Alfonso Rivero, a Green Hornet gunner, told Insider. "The feeling of camaraderie and brotherhood among all of us SOG people remain to this day. Nothing like it."

Despite barely surviving, the team's morale was unaffected.

"We were very sober at first, realizing how close we came to getting whacked," Meyer said. "We took pride in accomplishing the mission, but there was no braggadocio about it. We went in again two days later."

Just another day in SOG's secret war.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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