RT Maine

RT Maine
RT Maine

his was Recon Team Maine at CCC in late summer of 1969. David Baker (10) is front right. Back row on the right is Sherman MIller, and I’m standing in the center of the back row. The deep bond between the Special Forces soldiers and the Montagnards who fought with and for us (our team was nearly all Jarai) really was powerful–loyalty unto death, no man left behind. What an honor and privilege it was to serve with the kind of men who found their way to SOG. De Opresso Liber!

Alhough SE Asia could be very hot indeed, the military thoughtfully saw to air-conditioning, as you see in this photo of Recon Team Maine coming out of a Cambodian mission “on strings.” The date was unforgettable for me, as September 22, 1969 happened to be my 20th birthday; it also was nearly the date of my death. Chase medic Clarence Long took this amazing photo of RT Main high above Laos; I’m on the left, holding an injured Montagnard team member, Nhut, and to my right is another Yard, Andre, and below him was 10 David Baker. Baker’s lower down because in SOG, the team leader was the first man on target and the last man out of it. 

RT Maine
RT Maine
This was CCC’s Launch Site at Dak To, though sometimes we’d launch out of Dak Pek or Dak Seang or Ben Het as necessary. RT Maine stood Bright Light duty at Dak To and Dak Pek and Ben Het, ready to go to the aid of teams in trouble or to rescue downed aviators. In this photo the square building to the left was the Commo Shack. Bright Light teams bunked in the canvas-covered wood-sided long building to the right. That building had been the morgue for the 173rd Airborne during it’s big battle out of Dak To. Given SOGs high casualty rate, it seemed appropriate that we lived in a morgue. The old control tower for Dak To is the taller structure to the right, but it wasn’t used. Big rubber bladders of JP4 and avgas were left near there so aircrew could refuel as they landed. Everyone needed to be ready to launch within minutes if a “Prairie Fire” distress call came in or an aircraft went down. Bright Light weeks just were part of the texture of life for a SOG Recon Time. If anyone was in trouble, no matter how bad, there never was any question about people standing ready to help, however risky such an attempt might be.
It was necessary for the U.S. to play cat-and-mouse games with Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the ruler of supposedly neutral Cambodia. Though he denied helping the NVA, he didn’t mind letting them operate the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Cambodia in return for money. When SOG intel learned via agent report that Prince Sihanouk would be meeting in secret with the regional NVA Commander in this lovely pagoda, it was decided to rattle the Prince’s cage a bit over his activities with the NVA. Thus came a Project Ford Drum mission to CCC: even though the meeting site is a good ways into Cambodia, can you fly past the secret meeting in a Bird Dog just to let the Prince know that 1) we know what you’re doing, and 2) SOG could just as easily have killed your ass, so behave yourself! The SPAF pilot was a smart-ass Irishman (redundant, I know) with brass balls named Frank Doherty who’s just about to publish his memoir. Yours truly, Pentax in hand, made the foolish request of Frank, “Do you think you could give as a really low pass since they carelessly left the door half open?” See the following photo to see what the mad Irishman did with our Bird Dog.
RT Maine
RT Maine
Well, put two Irish guys in a SOG airplane deep into Cambodia and this is what results. How the Doherty managed to fly his plane this low down that tiny Cambodian street is a good question. With very ;high-speed film in my camera, I leaned out the window and took this photo through the half-opened doorway to the meeting room. I think it’s safe to say that none of the VIPs attending that secret meeting will forget that day, nor will Frank nor I. Our trust little Bird Dog reached a speed known as PMP during that low pass (Point of Maximum Pucker. On our return I asked Doherty how he’d known that there weren’t any wires strung across the little street. “His answer was pure SOG: “I didn’t.” What amazingly valiant aviators we had supporting Special Forces operations against their all-important Ho Chi Minh Trail. We honor you all for your courage and skill. SPAF, by the way, stood for the Sneaky Pete Air Force.
We were doing Ford Drum flights day after day, searching out enemy facilities so that we could call in devastating air strikes with real precision. Because the NVA were masters of camouflage, it wasn’t easy at all to find their hidden facilities. Light was best right after dawn, and the crews of their anti-aircraft gun emplacements tended still to be dozing, giving you chance to sneak past without warning. We had to fly so low that the Bird Dog’s wheels (fixed, not retractable) were nearly brushing the jungle canopy. You had to get the intelligence photos on the first pass, as any second passes tended to be fatal. About half of the SPAF Bird Dogs were shot down. Here you’re looking down at the roof of an NVA headquarters facility that was masterfully camouflaged. Photos such as this–after being done up in The CCC S-2 Photo Lab–went to SOG HQ in Saigon, then straight to CINCPAC HQ in Hawaii (Commander-in-Chief Pacific), and from there to the Joint Chiefs in D.C. We were told that some of the really exciting photos were shown to SECDEF (Secretary of Defense) and to the President himself, who monitored war progress carefully. Briefings are one thing, but snazzy close-up photos that they can see and touch carried real weight. Project Ford Drum was set up so that sizeable enemy units could be found from the air by tree-skimming Bird Dog aircraft and then hit hard with tactical airstrikes. When successful, such Ford Drum flights meant that our precious Recon Teams wouldn’t need to be sent into that target to find enemy HQ and troop and trucking faciities. Ford Drum was extremely successful, but with SOG’s emphasis on compartmentalization and need-to-know secrecy about operations, many of our people didn’t really know that Ford Drum was being flown so heavily. Enemy ground fire could be really heavy, but the SPAF pilots were highly skilled aviators and we used tactics that we called “One pass and haul ass!” One of our CCC photographers tried for a second pass over a target; he was killed and the Bird Dog was so badly shot up that it barely could make it back to the Dak To Launch Site. Not enough has been said about the Sneaky Pete Air Force pilots who risked their lives again and again to accomplish SOG intelligence missions. Because our low-birds flew so low, we sometimes had machine-gun fire come DOWNWARDS through the plane as enemy gun crews were forced to fire their 12.7mm heavy machine guns down below their hill top positions. And yes, in their SPAF-hunting zeal, sometimes they’d hammer their own troop positions. 
RT Maine
RT Maine
We were doing Ford Drum flights day after day, searching out enemy facilities so that we could call in devastating air strikes with real precision. Because the NVA were masters of camouflage, it wasn’t easy at all to find their hidden facilities. Light was best right after dawn, and the crews of their anti-aircraft gun emplacements tended still to be dozing, giving you chance to sneak past without warning. We had to fly so low that the Bird Dog’s wheels (fixed, not retractable) were nearly brushing the jungle canopy. You had to get the intelligence photos on the first pass, as any second passes tended to be fatal. About half of the SPAF Bird Dogs were shot down. Here you’re looking down at the roof of an NVA headquarters facility that was masterfully camouflaged. Photos such as this–after being done up in The CCC S-2 Photo Lab–went to SOG HQ in Saigon, then straight to CINCPAC HQ in Hawaii (Commander-in-Chief Pacific), and from there to the Joint Chiefs in D.C. We were told that some of the really exciting photos were shown to SECDEF (Secretary of Defense) and to the President himself, who monitored war progress carefully. Briefings are one thing, but snazzy close-up photos that they can see and touch carried real weight. Project Ford Drum was set up so that sizeable enemy units could be found from the air by tree-skimming Bird Dog aircraft and then hit hard with tactical airstrikes. When successful, such Ford Drum flights meant that our precious Recon Teams wouldn’t need to be sent into that target to find enemy HQ and troop and trucking faciities. Ford Drum was extremely successful, but with SOG’s emphasis on compartmentalization and need-to-know secrecy about operations, many of our people didn’t really know that Ford Drum was being flown so heavily. Enemy ground fire could be really heavy, but the SPAF pilots were highly skilled aviators and we used tactics that we called “One pass and haul ass!” One of our CCC photographers tried for a second pass over a target; he was killed and the Bird Dog was so badly shot up that it barely could make it back to the Dak To Launch Site. Not enough has been said about the Sneaky Pete Air Force pilots who risked their lives again and again to accomplish SOG intelligence missions. Because our low-birds flew so low, we sometimes had machine-gun fire come DOWNWARDS through the plane as enemy gun crews were forced to fire their 12.7mm heavy machine guns down below their hill top positions. And yes, in their SPAF-hunting zeal, sometimes they’d hammer their own troop positions. 
RT Maine
When we’d zoom in low over the tree tops we’d sometimes catch an NVA patrol out in the open. Photos were nice, but leaning out of the Bird Dog window with your CAR-15 blazing was, frankly, a whole lot more exciting. Here you see a badly wounded NVA officer who couldn’t make it into the treeline. His back is toward the viewer and he’s looking over his right shoulder as we make our second pass. In SOG, we rightly regarded killing enemy soldiers as being the sincerest form of criticism. Others in the patrol were wounded but able to flee into the woodline. Our second pass was not good news for this gentleman. Few in SOG hated the NVA; we saw them as disciplined soldiers who were fighting for their cause just as we were fighting or ours. SF operations are extremely professional in tone, and emotions such as hatred dangerously destroy one’s decision-making skills. This particular enemy officer was a soldier and he died like one that day in their Cambodian sanctuary. Pistols don’t do well against CAR-15s
Cambodian jungle near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Summer, 1970. Dawn Patrol, Snoopy would have called it. Leave CCC at oh-dark-thirty and drive your jeep with lights out and weapons ready to the Kontum airfield. Refuel at Dak To Launch Site, then launch into Laos or Cambodia for one more exhausting day of America’s Secret War. Coming in low and fast over the target area right after sunrise, when the low sun angle made things more visible. SOG Intel suspected that there might be two enemy batallions well-hidden in that part of Cambodia, and CCC Recon Teams would have to go in to find them if our Ford Drum Bird Dogs couldn’t. In the dawn light, you cansee the NVA commo lines as they cross the stream and follow the high-speed trail. Later in the day you couldn’t see them, believe me. Why did they matter so much? Because only batallion-sized NVA units had such hard-wire commo between them. So, having found them, we could trace them from the air until we’d located both enemy units in their camouflaged lairs. Then came helpful group therapy by AIE Skyraiders or F-4 Phantoms (“Push ’em up, set ’em up, we’re coming in HOT!” the fighter pilots would laugh as they began their attack runs on the newly discovered targets). A good day’s work, really–death and destruction dealt out to the enemy and fewer CCC Recon men would risk being wounded or killed by going in against such deadly odds. About the only real drawback to this nifty little Ford Drum plan: the two Bird Dogs sometimes got the piss shot out of them by enemy gunners who well understood the terrible tactical air power that the lightly-armed Bird Dogs could bring to bear if they weren’t brought down. It was very rude of them to try so hard to shoot us down before we could summon up our fire-breathing friends, but at least their lime-green tracer fire looked pretty as it rose toward us.. How can I say enough about these truly heroic SPAF pilots who put their tired asses on the line day after day. I just wish that their families could know the extent of their valor and sacrifice. Honor and respect to the Sneaky Pete Air Force, men who volunteered for these really deadly missions.
RT Maine