A Green Beret recalls the Christmas Day mission that was almost his last

Stavros Atlamazoglou
Air Force UH-1P Huey helicopter Cambodia
US Air Force Bell UH-1P helicopters fly into Cambodia in 1970. US Air Force/Capt. Billie D Tedford
  • During the Vietnam War, US special operators conducted covert raids deep inside Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam.

  • Their missions took them to places where US troops weren't supposed to be and often close to disaster, like one Christmas Day mission for John Stryker Meyer and his team.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

While the US military fought tooth and nail to stop the Communist tide in South Vietnam, a small group of special-operations troops took the fight across the border to the North Vietnamese Army.

Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) was a top-secret outfit composed of Special Forces operators, Navy SEALs, and Air Commandos.

Their mission was to conduct

covert cross-border operations deep inside Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam, where no US troops were supposed to be.

SOG had a 100% casualty rate - everyone was wounded, sometimes multiple times, or killed.

How the NVA stole Christmas

John Stryker Meyer Vietnam Army Green Beret
John Stryker Meyer and Lynne Black, his second-in-command, on the range before an operation. Courtesy Picture

Christmas 1968. Recon Team ST Idaho was tasked with locating and destroying a fuel pipeline inside Laos. It was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail complex, which the NVA and Vietcong relied on to continue their guerrilla war in South Vietnam.

John Stryker "Tilt" Meyer, then only 22 years old, was ST Idaho's One Zero, or team leader. Alongside him were two more Green Berets and three indigenous personnel.

Just shy of a month earlier, on Thanksgiving Day, ST Idaho had barely survived a cross-border operation in Cambodia.

Reports of heavy anti-aircraft concentration in the area complicated the mission. A few weeks earlier, NVA anti-aircraft fire had downed a SOG helicopter, killing everyone aboard.

Usually, helicopters would fly at higher altitude and suddenly drop on 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 intelligence indicated was far from 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 mind-blowing bravery and coolness under fire - both lifesaving traits when literary hundreds of NVA troops were firing at them. Their airmanship was a rare point of comfort for the SOG operators.

As they made their final approach to the LZ, a few locals spotted the helicopter, raising concerns that the team would be compromised - residents of the undeclared war zone had little choice but to cooperate with the NVA.

The team landed on a knoll in a canyon bordered by mountains. Because of the area's geography, they couldn't rely on fixed-wing air support in case of an emergency.

South Vietnam air force H-34 Kingbee helicopter
Capt. 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 whole area was covered by thick, 10-foot tall elephant grass that stalled the team's progress as they looked for high ground on which to spend the night.

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 came whizzing at them.

ST Idaho debated if it was possible to lose the NVA and continue their mission but ultimately deiced against it. Meyer declared a "Prairie Fire" - the codeword for troops in contact that would redirect every available aircraft to their position - and called for immediate extraction.

ST Idaho began moving back to the LZ.

The SOG operators could hear noises coming from all directions except the northeast. The elephant grass prevented them from seeing anything or hearing properly, but Meyer suspected the NVA was trying to surround the team before it reached the LZ.

Then, a forward observer flying above the team warned them that an urgent intelligence report stated that NVA troops might be coming from the northeast.

"This was the first and only time in SOG's history that a team had received a tactical intel update," Meyer, who participated in some jaw-dropping operations and lived to write about it, told Insider. "It had never happened before."

What ST Idaho didn't know was that a few miles from them, another SOG team that was under fire had intercepted an enemy radio transition - with a radio that had been shot four times - detailing the NVA's intent to ambush ST Idaho from the northeast.

ST Idaho adjusted its path and continued its slow progress, throwing grenades at any noise they heard, nightmares of previous close-calls on their minds.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

Bargewell ii (John Stryker Meyer)
Meyer's SOG Recon Team Idaho in Da Nang April 1969. John Stryker Meyer

All of a sudden, smoke began engulfing the team's perimeter - the NVA was setting the elephant grass on fire in an attempt to smoke ST Idaho out or burn them alive.

Gusts of wind fueled the fire that was coming from all sides. With the helicopters still minutes away, the SOG operators tried everything to stop the inferno, even using strips of C-4 explosives to knock back the flames momentarily. Thick black smoke choked and blinded ST Idaho, but the SOG operators could see enemy troops advancing close behind the flames.

Then the Kingbees arrived, but conditions on the ground kept them at bay.

"The smoke was thick [and] made it difficult for him [the pilot] to see our LZ," Meyer told Insider. "It felt as though we were trapped in some sort of 'Twilight Zone' episode, with the smoke and fire rushing up the mountain, enemy soldiers firing at us, and salvation within sight but out of reach."

With agonizing slowness, the H-34 touched down in the apocalyptic scene. The wash from its rotor blades helped clear the air around the team as it boarded the chopper, pushing the flames and smoke back at the NVA. Moments after takeoff, ST Idaho's perimeter was overrun by flames.

Although no one was killed

, ST Idaho's desperate firefighting attempts in enemy territory left the team members with scorched eyebrows, singed hair, and some minor burns.

Just another day in SOG.

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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