A secret warrior's secret war in Laos
By LEE WILLIAMS | Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 20, 2018
As the ancient Sikorsky H-34 helicopter carrying an elite six-man reconnaissance team was spiraling down toward a landing zone in Laos, right before the pilot was about to power up and flare for a landing, the South Vietnamese team leader spotted a thin wire stretched across the ground. He warned the helo's door gunner who quickly told the pilot to abort the landing.
The recon team, Spike Team Idaho, composed of four South Vietnamese rangers and two American Green Berets, would later find that the wire was attached to a 500-pound bomb, which would have shredded the thin-skinned helicopter and the men inside.
John Stryker Meyer served with Spike Team Idaho for 19 months while assigned to the highly classified Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group, which was better known as MACV-SOG or simply SOG.
The unit's innocuous title was designed to throw off curious journalists, since all of its cross-border missions were classified top secret up until the 1980s.
"Occasionally a reporter would come by our compound," Meyer said. "We'd chase them away and tell them 'Leave or die.'"
Meyer "ran recon" into Laos out of SOGs Forward Operating Bases in Phu Bai and Da Nang, then part of the Republic of South Vietnam.
He served during 1968, a year that was a meat-grinder for the small unit, when it suffered a 100 percent casualty rate. Nearly every Green Beret assigned to SOG was wounded at least once.
More than half were killed.
Fifty never came home and are still classified as missing in action.
But for every man they lost during the "secret war" in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam, SOG commandos killed an average of 158 enemy soldiers. Today, SOG's 158:1 kill ratio remains the highest of any American military unit.
SOG was not for the novice or the draftee. Its recon team members were drawn from the U.S. Army Special Forces – the Green Berets.
The intelligence that SOG teams brought back often landed on the president's desk.
Meyer will be the featured speaker at the Fifth Annual Florida Fun Shoot on Feb. 16 at the Sarasota Gun Club, a sporting clay charity event which benefits veteran's charities, law enforcement and first responders. Meyer also will speak at the sponsors' party for the shoot, which will be held Feb. 15 at Sarasota's Founder's Club.
Meyer entered the Army in 1966 after "it took me nearly two years to flunk out of college."
"The book came out that summer," he said of Robin Moore's "The Green Berets," adding, "I knew what I wanted to do."
Basic training, advanced infantry training and jump school were followed by the Special Forces Qualification Course in December 1967.
"I liked it," he said. "It was basic stuff, a lot of phase one things you've got to learn: land nav (navigation), hand-to-hand, march at night, stay off trails and out of the swamp."
All of the Special Forces instructors had spent time in Vietnam.
They warned him and the other trainees about volunteering for "projects."
"Several guys several times said we needed to go to an A-Team first," Meyer said. "Then, once we'd gotten the lay of the land, we could think about projects."
The primary mission of the Green Berets has always been unconventional warfare – using a 12-man Special Forces A-Team composed of engineer, weapons, medical, communications, intelligence and other specialists to teach and lead an indigenous fighting force.
At that time, SOG and other top secret units broke the A-Team mold and were classified as "special projects."
Meyer didn't heed the advice.
"Once I got to Danang we were told they were looking for volunteers – period. I didn't know anything about SOG, but by then the John Wayne movie was out," Meyer said. "We were told if we joined we couldn't talk about it for 20 years. I signed on, got the briefing and headed to SOG."
Meyer was first assigned to SOG's Spike Team Idaho as a radio operator.
The team usually consisted of two or three Americans and four to six South Vietnamese.
SOG didn't throw its newest member straight into harm's way.
"We did a lot of training first. To this day I'm amazed at the amount of training we were able to do before we were running missions," he said. "It all paid off. We had this one mission where they literally stacked up the dead. We killed so many people they were literally stacking up the dead and hiding behind them. Our training was crucial."
By October 1968, Meyer became the team leader, known at a "One-Zero." To this day, many SOG One-Zeros have become legendary, but Meyer is quick to credit his counterparts.
"The Vietnamese on my team were so good we didn't bother to get a third American," he said. "We really respected them. We had a special recruiting program through SOG. They'd come from the Vietnamese Rangers or other units. We had three guys on my team who'd come down from the north in 1954, after Dien Bien Phu. They were tough, hard as nails, fearless. Sau became our team leader on the Vietnamese side. I ran the team, but I never did anything without talking to Sau."
The team's missions consisted of wiretapping enemy communication lines, blowing up fuel lines, installing electronic ground sensors, other intelligence gathering and "POW snatches" – capturing an enemy soldier and bringing him back for interrogation.
The missions all began with a helicopter insertion.
"When you'd fly out, it was beautiful. The jungle areas were emerald green – stunningly beautiful. As you got further north there were these waterfalls. If this was a tourist spot they'd have made a killing," Meyer said. "At the (Laotian) border, the door-gunners would test-fire their weapons. That would jar you back. Now you were going to war. As we were landing, Sau or the point man would be looking at the wood line for any enemy activity. We'd spiral in and then bang – hit the ground and get moving – run right into the jungle single file. We'd move for 10 minutes and then rest for 10 minutes, listening.
"We operated in triple-canopy jungle," Meyer said. "The key thing is moving and listening. The jungle would provide auditory clues. We never got on any trails. Trails were something we'd cross but never use. We had some teams who'd dress up as NVA (North Vietnamese Army). They could walk down trails."
SOG always took casualties, but by 1968 things got worse.
"By then, they were beginning to send out NVA sappers who were trained to do one thing: hunt, find and kill SOG teams," Meyer said. "One team got hit by sappers. They killed all the Americans and left the indigenous alive as a warning. That was the first time we knew we'd lost a team in Laos due to sappers."
Meyer's last recon mission was in April 1970.
"We were on the ground for a few hours and made a light contact. We could not move the way I wanted to and made another contact – not a firefight but we were compromised," he said. "I wanted a tactical extraction, but my request was denied. A colonel I'd argued with denied my request for a tac extract, which every One-Zero could do. An NVA came through the elephant grass – really young kid who looked like a student. He never moved his AK. I had my CAR-15 pointed right at him. He just backed out and went away. I called in Sky Raiders for direct gun runs and they pulled us out on ropes."
After his discharge, Meyer returned to college and graduated from Trenton State College in New Jersey, where he was editor of the school paper for two years. He spent 10 years as a journalist at the Trenton Times, spent eight years at the San Diego Union and then 15 years at the North County Times in Oceanside, California.
Meyer has written several books about his war experiences.
He still lives in Oceanside with his wife, where he remains very active in veterans' affairs.
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