Cambodian Incursion, 1970 — Part Three
By How Miller
I wrote about the overt operations that were carried out during the Cambodian Incursion of 1970. By some measures it was the most successful allied operation of the Vietnam War. While President Nixon was accelerating an ongoing push to turn all combat activities back over to the South Vietnamese, it was clear that the odds of the South’s survival would be greater if the NVA sanctuaries in Cambodia could be eliminated, and their weapons and supplies destroyed. Much of the allied military was frustrated by having their hands tied and not being able to attack the NVA in Cambodia where they would launch military operations into the South and return to rest and rearm unhindered. On March 18, 1970, the Cambodian government changed to one more friendly to the West. That gave Nixon the opportunity to strike. The U.S. and South Vietnamese Armies, Navies, Marines, and Air Forces all participated, in cooperation with the Cambodians. The NVA was temporarily displaced, huge amounts of weapons, ammo, and other supplies were captured, and the friendly government of Cambodia was saved from the communist attack. What was left to discuss were the secret actions that weren’t revealed for about thirty years.
Since early 1964, MACV-SOG had been secretly gathering intelligence “across the fence” in Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam and contributing to slowing down the flow of communist men and materials headed to South Vietnam. This was extremely dangerous work and a very high number of men — Green Berets, Seals, and Commandos from the line units, and “support” people like helicopter crews, and the support gunships and bombers, paid the ultimate price doing it. SOG had three primary subunits: CCN(orth), CCC(entral), and CCS(outh). CCS was tasked mostly with recon and interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk trails in eastern Cambodia. Their small teams of typically two Americans and about four indigenous men such as Montagnards, Nungs (Chinese), or Cambodians would be inserted, often by helicopter, to an LZ in the middle of enemy territory. Usually, their aim was to not be discovered and to gather intelligence or capture enemies for interrogation. They then would be extracted by helicopter. As time went on, the NVA got better at watching insertion LZ’s and bringing teams under fire and bringing up reinforcements quickly. They even introduced teams that specialized in hunting SOG elements. Sometimes entire teams would be killed or captured. Lots of teams had to be extracted under heavy fire, occasionally multiple times on the same day. In his book, Secret Green Beret Commandos in Cambodia, CCS Commander, LTC Fred Lindsey, noticed that, by April, insertions were consistently difficult. While this was going on, he received reports of four locations where Cambodian Army (FANK) troops had been cut off from the rest of their army. He was hoping there might be an opportunity to support those troops and help them contribute to defeating the communists. He selected CPT Spoerry to do an aerial recon and try to make contact by dropping messages with instructions on how to connect with us. The captain made drops at two locations, one at Ba Kev, due west of Pleiku, and another a lot further south in territory that likely had more VC / NVA activity. Nothing was ever heard from the southern site, but at Ba Kev CPT Spoerry saw apparently emaciated troops lying alongside a rough airstrip, waving at him as if inviting him to land. This was a waystation the NVA had been using on their trip south, to the west of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Based on this information, Lindsey set in motion a plan to try to turn the troops at Ba Kev into an effective fighting force-A Team style, while also helping their higher headquarters several kilometers to the west at LaBan Siek, with plans to turn helping that HQ over to the Vietnamese Special Forces.
SGM Waugh 1970
This is something any Green Beret would be glad to do, but was quite out of character for the super-secret, get in and get out, SOG unit to undertake. He selected the experienced CPT Spoerry, who was fluent in French, which most of the Cambodian officers spoke, to be the Ba Kev team C.O. and sent for SGM Billy Waugh. Billy, as he is often referred to, went on to have a long and heralded career even after he retired from SF, as is described in his book Hunting the Jackal, and highlighted in Annie Jacobsen’s Surprise, Kill, Vanish, LTC Lindsey relates, “SGM William D. “Billy” Waugh had come from stateside hospitalization to the SOG Hqs sometime in January ‘70. After several months there, Waugh was personally selected by COL Schungle to be the 1SGT of the CCS Recon Company. He arrived at CCS in early March.” Waugh recalls, ‘I was aware that many at CCS did not like this, but I didn’t have time to worry about it, because COL Dan Shungle had mentioned to me that Recon Company at CCS was in need of some prodding, and prod we did.” LTC Lindsey noted, “We already had a good 1SGT in Recon Company with MSG Joe Brock and Billy had no love for deskwork, so Brock remained 1SGT and in effect SMG Waugh became the ‘Recon SGM’ and that seemed to work well, as that was Waugh’s forte. He gave a good boost to our recon retraining effort. In Recon, rank did not matter. Whoever was the most qualified, was in charge. Waugh was a warrior who spent very little time at the base camp.
He was well respected by the Recon Teams — he had fown Covey Rider on SOG recon missions before joining us. Waugh had a world of experience. He joined the Army and was with the 82nd Abn in early ‘51, then was in the Korean War and returned from there in Dec ‘52. He joined the SF at Bad Tolz in Germany in ’54 and he entered Vietnam in 1962 “when the 5th SFG” first arrived in country. He made the rank of Sgt Maj in ‘69; and when he was in Okinawa in March ‘65, with TDY to 5th SFGA in RVN, he fought the NVA for the first time in the Battle of Bon Song where he was severely wounded and won the Silver Star. After long hospitalization, he went back to RVN in ’67 assigned to CCN as MLS coordinator and Covey Rider where he participated in the disastrous raid on Oscar 8 in Laos that was aimed at killing NVA Defense Minister General Vo Nguyen Giap. It was while Billy was checking on the training at the Long Thanh Training Camp near Saigon that Lindsey called Waugh to come to he office of OP35 commander (Lindsey’s boss) with combat gear in hand. When he asked Billy if he was willing take on the task at Ba Kev, Billy replied that he would kill for that assignment. In fact, he later said that it was the most satisfying period of his SF career. At this point it was not clear whether the FANK at Ba Kev would be friendly, or if he would be walking into a trap.
Meanwhile Lindsey made preparations to set a blocking force to the north of Ba Kev under CPT Vincill. Lindsey’s best recollection is that this all happened around April 26th, a few days before Nixon announced the “Incursion,” and a few days after the April 20th lifting of the ban on Tac Air in support of CCS missions. And though they were committing a large number of personnel to the Ba Kev operation, CCS still had to perform its normal functions. So, they borrowed teams from CCC and CCN to do the job. Lindsey recalls, “Then we moved the 1st Exploit Company with CPT Jon Ross up near the border west of Pleiku in case we needed immediate strong reinforcements. Then we later inserted CPT Carl Vincill’s 2nd Exploit Company into Cambodia to the NE of Ba Kev. They were to go into the area that had recently been scoured by an ARVN Divisions part of the Allied invasion. Vencill’s Exploit Force was to then act as a diversion and interdiction or blocking force; and capture prisoners and be able to provide any reinforcement of Ba Kev if needed. We used the VNAF H-34s and the 187th AHC out of Camp Holloway for helicopter support for the Ba Kev and the Exploit Company missions.
“We used RVN AF H-34 Kingbee helicopters for all our movements into Cambodia. At the on-set, we were still forbidden to use USAF planes or our Army choppers, since we were not officially supposed to have US troops in Cambodia. That did not change until President Nixon announced our invasion of Cambodia by our conventional units. We had the 24-hour Airborne C&C aircraft — a C-130 that was crammed full with communications equipment. It’s ‘call-sign’ was Hillsboro (& Moonbeam at night). They were based out of NKP, Thailand to direct U.S. jet fighters or the Specter C-47 or C123 gunship for air support. They were on station 24 hours a day. Also, when we made the insert and if Waugh had run into trouble, we were ready with our normal Green Hornet USAF gunships and lift squadrons for any extraction necessary. We also planned for the movement of other support units to back up several contingencies for the contact at Ba Kev.”
RVN AF H-34 Kingbee
A Good Welcome After a Rough Start
Lindsey continues, “We planned to launch Waugh’s team from our northern launch site at Duc Co that had been used previously for many team insertions on strictly intelligence gathering missions. We were not sure if the Cambodians were going to welcome us with open arms or start shooting at us, so we had all kinds of rescue teams cocked and ready to go in case we had to pull Waugh and his team out under fire. However, the team had a rough time getting to the launch site.” Billy Waugh remembers going to Duc Co via Cam Ranh Bay in a C130 that got all shot up and barely made it. “Just before landing at Duc Co, to continue the insert that afternoon from Duc Co to Ba Kev, we were shot up in the C-130 Blackbird, with the Crew Chief being WIA, the hydraulics totaled in the C-130, and only by the skill of the pilot / co-pilot, the bird gained altitude, then few to Cam Ranh Bay where the runway was foamed for a landing there. There were between 45 and 55 holes in the port wing of the C-130, and the horizontal stabilizer was just about shot of. This had to have been from a NVA 51 Caliber weapon just outside of the SF Camp at Duc Co. My team — the CCS Team, was removed from the C-130, then with a dozen MPs surrounding us, we were moved into a hangar there in Cam Ranh Bay, with heavy guards all around our group. About three hours later, probably at 1300, we were picked up by two H-34s, from the hangar in Cam Ranh Bay, then flown to Duc Co, where we landed, prepared with a last-minute briefing, then flown by H-34 to Ba Kev. We landed probably around 1500 (a guess on this), and made contact with Col. Lindsey.” Lindsey: “Fortunately the team was welcomed with ‘open arms’ by a raggedy and desperate bunch of Cambodians. Waugh introduced himself [in his best rudimentary French], to the senior Cambodian Battalion Commander.”
Cambodian Bn CO LTC Savuth
(Photo Courtesy of Fred Lindsey)
Waugh gives a wonderful description of his meeting with LTC Um Savuth. “This man was in his mid-fifties, with a sharply lined, weathered face. He walked slowly, with the aid of a cane, and stood perhaps five feet, four inches tall. He had a deep scar near his hairline that looked suspiciously like it was caused by a gunshot wound. His skin was markedly yellowed, which told me the colonel was most likely suffering from jaundice caused by malaria…. he was armed with a Chinese pistol in a leather holster attached to a French pistol belt. His uniform, though worn, was clean. He held himself as tall as possible, and my first impression was that I had come across a furiously proud man. More than a thousand troops and their extended families lived in the vicinity of the compound. All contact with Phnom Penh ceased shortly after the ‘coup d’etat and his twice-weekly food supply drop ceased four weeks before our arrival.”
Waugh presented his credentials with a letter from Chief SOG and some gifts to include beer. They broke the ice with some warm Budweiser. Waugh notes, “After we dispensed with the formalities, Colonel Savuth looked at me with his yellowed, tired eyes and asked a simple question: ‘What can you do to protect us?’ I was ready for this. We knew our presence would spark the attention of the NVA, and the colonel did not wish the wrath of the NVA to descend on his unit. I had alerted the C-130 airborne CP, call sign Hillsboro, to our presence in the BaKev region. We were prepared to answer the colonel’s question in an emphatic, spectacular way “I turned to Colonel Savuth and pointed to the surrounding mountains. ‘Pick a spot.’ I told him. ‘Somewhere at least four hundred meters away, where you would like to see a display of U.S. might.’ Savuth pointed to the east, approximately eight hundred meters from the airstrip, to a wooded knoll. ‘Do you see that?’ he asked me. I related an approximate eight-digit grid coordinate to the USAF pilot flying with LTC Lindsey and requested a ‘Sky Spot’ — two 250 kilo high-explosive bombs — to be dropped on the coordinate of the knoll immediately. “Within five minutes, two fighter aircraft far above, neither seen nor heard by the Cambodians, dropped their ordnance directly on the target. The bombs were not visible to any of us during their descent, so the explosion was a riotous surprise that took the breath away from the Cambodians, including Colonel Savuth. As the mountain erupted in fame and smoke, a huge roar rose from the soldiers. They stood along the airstrip and clapped, laughing uproariously and reliving the moment with those around them. I felt a wave of giddy relief food over me. The USAF fighters that were used by our CCS FAC to put on that bombing demonstration were a part of our air cover for the insertion. Waugh continues, “COL Savuth was impressed with this Combat Sky Spot. We moved (the team) into the camp and near the Colonel’s shack there. Lindsey called me, during the hours of darkness, and was pissed that I did not come up on the radio. I must have been too beat to have heard the FAC bird, because I do not normally fail, in keeping Lima/Charlie Commo.”
Cambodisan Col Neaksam, Cmdr at La Ban Siek, with
ARVN COL Nghia (Photo Courtesy of Fred Lindsey)
On getting the “all clear” from Waugh, LTC Lindsey few in the next day and brought in another chopper with CPT Spoerry and an augmentation to the team and some basic supplies. He met Col. Savuth who had assembled his “motley crew” in parade formation. They had no standard uniform. Some wore boots, or tennis shoes or were barefoot. Very few wore helmets. Their weapons were generally obsolete and of all kinds. Their motor pool included old vehicles from five different nations. The team got to work immediately, improving the security posture, beginning recon and other infantry training. Ace commo man Melvin Hill arrived and got the whole camp 5 by 5 to CCS. They brought in a medical team, including doctors to improve the health of the troops and their dependents. During that visit one of the doctors told Billy that LTC Savuth was suffering so badly from three types of malaria that he would not survive many days without being medevacked for treatment. So after a full camp ceremony, transferring command to his subordinate, Major Thant, Savuth left for treatment. Waugh described an early recon mission, during which a four-man team captured an NVA soldier alone on the trail. Each of the four were given the equivalent of $20 reward in Cambodian Riels. That, along with how well the camp performed the next night in repelling an attack by two enemy mortar teams, raised the camps morale sky high. The mission was moving towards its objective of acting as a hindrance to the NVA all the way to the Ho Chi Minh trail to the east.
CPT Vincill’s blocking force found a large rice storage that they destroyed. A bivouac area of twenty-two large structures was destroyed and its large ammunitions cache was evacuated and sent to FANK forces at Ba Kev. Also, throughout the PB operations, “Pole Bean” items of defective ammunition, and demoralizing letters, diaries and small black radios were emplaced at various points. SOG Target Area 702, that was occupied by the PBO and several RTs during this period, had thirty-nine targets struck by 190 TAC AIR sorties. Results: five-hundred structures destroyed/damaged, seventy-three bunkers destroyed/damaged, and fifty-two secondary explosions. This, of course attracted the attention and ire of the NVA. Eventually, higher ups were receiving so much info that the NVA intended to wipe the camp out, that a written offer was delivered in person by Vietnamese General Lon, the Vietnamese equivalent to Chief SOG, to LT Um Ari of the Ba Kev outpost in a meeting in II Corp HQ in Pleiku. The offer was made to convoy everyone in the camp across the border to South Vietnam, where their weapons would be collected. CCS was not keen on that idea, yet. So, training and operations continued until Savuth returned much healthier, and he agreed that he would continue operations as planned until Waugh and Spoerry told him it was time to go.
While the camp was active, they were able to generate a tremendous amount of information and activity, along with the observations of the covering FACs, and many enemies and much materiel were destroyed as a result. For example, Lindsey comments: “Once Ba Kev really got up and running, our CCS FAC’s had more work than they could handle. CCS used ASA intercept reports to bomb VC / NVA transmitter sites at night, using the “Sky Spot”. Pleiku had a “SKY SPOT” radar to control the aircraft. II DASCC plotted the location and the aircraft was given a heading and speed to fy. “SKY SPOT” figured in all the variables and computed a release point for the aircraft. I recall one target, an NVA BN that was hit seven nights’ straight. On the eighth day, they had turned back north. This was probably one of our better operations that no one really knew about. “Finally, the word was out: The NVA was set to march against Ba Kev and eliminate it from the earth, period. So SOG pulled the plug to actuate the evacuation, to move everything and everybody east along Route 19 into Duc CO SF Camp. MSG Robert N. “Pop” Taylor brought his RT to reinforce the Ba Kev crew about two weeks prior to the evacuation. Most of our USSF Ba Kev team were evacuated back to BMT on 23 and 24 of June.” Lindsey never got to see the end phase of the operation, as it was time to go home and he had to prepare for the turnover of command. (He knew what was planned to happen, but was never told about the results until sometime later by COL Schungle back at the Pentagon.) In keeping with orders for our U.S. men to be out of Cambodia, SGM Waugh and a few other men withdrew to the Duc Co Launch Site on 30 June. Several days later, we don’t know the exact date, they were airborne in a H34 chopper to watch the whole evacuation from a H34 overhead.
Waugh’s heart-warming report follows, “This was billed by leaders of SOG (actually it was both the ARVN & American top brass in II Corp) as a humanitarian action, and a contingent of media arrived in Ba Kev to film the move of our fine Cambodian unit. The media was not informed of the circumstances leading up to the evacuation, and Colonel Savuth was told to brief his troops to remain silent regarding the presence and past presence of an American unit in their midst…. When the media assembled, we disappeared, and Colonel Savuth took control. …The trek began at first light ….’” The Cambodian Exodus H-34 choppers pulled out the last of Waugh’s team from Duc Co and they flew overhead. H-34s also helped evacuate “the lame and the old.”
Special Forces Camp Duc Co
Waugh described the scene as follows, “From my vantage point, this was the sight of a lifetime, a revision of the biblical Exodus story. Moving excruciatingly slowly, a long line of mankind and all his earthly possessions, spread out over more than five kilometers, trudged its way to a new life. The goats and cows fell behind, but they continued their slow and steady march east under the direction of several young Cambodian children — the children of our soldiers. “Eleven hours after departure, at roughly 1700 hours, the convoy reached the border with South Vietnam. When we moved back to SF Camp Duc Co, with our Army, Vehicles, Weapons, dogs, goats, cows, more than thirty Russian, British, and other make trucks and tracked vehicles, with a convoy of about 2K people; a ton of air cover, and media everywhere, we did it without a problem, thanks to everyone involved, and a pretty high priority backing by all in SOG. “Colonel Savuth ordered the trucks unloaded and sent back along the column to collect stragglers. Hot rice and chicken were fed to these fine people, and the older ones showed their appreciation by touching us, placing their hands together, and smiling their beautiful toothless smiles.”
Lindsey adds, “They were placed initially in a temporary camp set up just outside the Duc Co CIDG camp. The next morning Billy and Col. Savuth went inside the Duc Co SF camp. They met ARVN General Lu Lon and some other VIPs. After the VIPs left, Savuth said his goodbyes to Waugh. Billy presented Savuth with 20 cases of Budweiser.” Billy said, “I would never forget this mission or this man. The last known record of Colonel Savuth is from 1973. He is listed in the CIA Order of Battle as being a one-star general at the time.” Many of the CCS Ba Kev team went right to the hospital to recover from malaria. “At the end of the CCS Ba Kev operation, all of the evacuated Cambodian troops from the two Ba Kev Bns and Brigade Hqs units were re-equipped and retrained at Pleiku before being transported back to their capitol of Phnom Penh. We do not know the details of what happened to them after that. We do know that the training that our Ba Kev team conducted for Col. Savuth’s Bn was very well received. A number of our own Cambodian SCU elected to join the Cambodian army, many as officers. Exactly how many Cambodian soldiers received the subsequent MACV SF training, we learned about some forty plus years later with the research for this book. Little did we know that the FANK training would eventually cover 78 Cambodian Battalions! So, CCS can take credit for starting that ball rolling!”
Article from: The Sentinel Chapter 78
NEWSLETTER OF THE QUIET PROFESSIONALS
Cambodian Incursion, 1970 — Part Three
CCS Trains Cambodians