Prairie Fire Operations
The first series of U.S.-sponsored cross-border operations took place in 1964 under the code name ‘Leaping Lena.’ The South Vietnamese Government under the supervision of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted these activities. Unfortunately, Leaping Lena was a failure and was terminated.5 When created in 1964, the SOG benefited from the Leaping Lena experiences and established a policy that called for the use of both indigenous and U.S. personnel for operations conducted in Laos and Cambodia. An analysis of the Leaping Lena operations had shown that if a team was to accomplish its mission and meet the high standard of intelligence- gathering and reporting required by the SOG, it would have to be with U.S. supervision and leadership. The presence of the U.S. personnel on the teams insured accurate and reliable intelligence.
The Montagnards of Vietnam’s Central Highlands were especially helpful in the cross-border operations since their tribal affiliations crossed international boundaries. This factor was particularly useful when the OPS-35 teams conducted patrols in Laos and northern Cambodia, both countries having sizable Montagnard populations along the South Vietnamese border. To a lesser degree, Cambodians born in South Vietnam (called Khmer Krom) fulfilled the same purposes when SOG conducted operations in certain regions of Cambodia. At one SOG site (Hobarge Tours), an entire reaction company of Khmer Krom was never to participate in an operation in Cambodia according to official policy. Official policy notwithstanding, Khmer Krom troops may have engaged in OPS-35’s cross-border operations just as they did in other unconventional activities. Another of the minority groups used by OPS-35 in its cross-border operations was the Nungs, mercenaries who were one of the most effective of all the ethnic-minority paramilitary forces.
To provide the SOG and the United States some form of plausible denial (albeit weak) for personnel who might be captured, the SOG units frequently had maps printed with distorted international boundary lines. In a further effort to conceal the nature of its operations, it was SOG’s policy to report its casualties as having occurred in South Vietnam. To ensure operational security, American personnel conducted the planning activities for OPS-35. The OPS-35 element had no counterpart relationship like that between the 5th SFGA and the Vietnamese Special Forces, Lac Luong Dac Biet (LLDB).
The name of the first series of SOG patrols into Laos was ‘Shining Brass’ (later renamed ‘Prairie Fire’) conducted between 1965 and 1969. These patrols began when intelligence reports indicated that the Ho Chi Minh Trail was expanding to meet the increasing demand for men and material in the South.6 To determine the nature and location of these activities in Laos, the OPS-35 forces conducted reconnaissance missions with units known as ‘Spike Teams’ comprising six to twelve men (two to four U.S. personnel and four to eight indigenous personnel).
The U.S. Congressional Record of September 1973 revealed the increasing frequency of Prairie Fire missions when it disclosed that between September 1965 and April 1972, SOG conducted 1,579 reconnaissance patrols, 216 platoon-sized patrols, and three multi-platoon-sized operations in Laos.7 These missions deployed from U.S. Special Forces CIDG camps such as Kham Duc, Khe Sanh, and Kontum. The camp at Khe Sanh was particularly valuable. It was an important facility that regularly supplied vital information on North Vietnamese activity in Laos.
The North Vietnamese did not overlook the importance of Khe Sanh. They were aware of the patrols sent into Laos to monitor their activities. In 1968, North Vietnamese forces had nearly overrun Khe Sanh and Kham Duc. From these and other camps along the border, American-led teams of Indochinese mercenaries regularly infiltrated into Laos. These units had assigned missions in zones that extended 20 kilometers into the Laotian interior. The terrain in these areas was extremely difficult, and they measured their movement in meters not kilometers. Using the least accessible regions as points of infiltration enabled the OPS-35 teams to enter the target areas with less chance of discovery by enemy patrols. After a team had infiltrated the area, it then moved to its specific reconnaissance site. Occasionally the team monitored its target for as long as ten days to gather maximum intelligence.
To support its ground reconnaissance activities, the SOG maintained a communications site 20 kilometers inside the Laotian border. The teams used the outpost to transmit and relay messages between launch sites and the teams in the Laotian countryside.8 The site’s radio capability permitted the SOG teams to conduct their missions at the extreme limits of their 20-kilometer target zones and still have communication with the OPS-35 command, regardless of the terrain and distance. With the extended communications capability the teams could call on fighter bombers to engage targets of opportunity anywhere in the operational area, and it permitted the teams to call for extraction when they were in a tenuous situation.
Although there are no available records that indicate which of the Indochinese ethnic groups constituted the largest portion of SOG’s mercenary force, it is likely that the Montagnard’s comprised the majority of the indigenous personnel. Montagnard mercenaries were regularly employed on SLAM operations. These operations were risky affairs that frequently brought heavy casualties to friends and foes alike. In September 1970, 150 indigenous troops and 10 U.S. SOG personnel infiltrated into Laos near the Ho Chi Minh Trail with the mission of luring several NVA battalions into an area where fighter-bomber aircraft could attack them. The operation was a success and allegedly, the Communist forces lost 500 men killed in the battle. The SOG force lost a dozen men killed and 40 to 50 others wounded. The New York Times reported the details of the action and revealed, for the first time, that the United States was conducting secret military operations in Laos. The article noted that the Department of Defense (DOD) had denied that such activities were taking place and had declared, ‘There are no United States ground troops in Laos. Four months later these same sources admitted that reconnaissance teams were operating inside Laos…’but only in an intelligence-gathering role.