Joe Parnar and Robert Dumont’s SOG Kontum: Top Secret Missions in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, 1968–1969 (Casemate, 304 pp. $37.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle), as its subtitle indicates, tells the story of MACV Studies and Observation Group covert missions operating out of a Special Forces Forward Operating Fire Support Base near the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Those SOG teams made their way into Laos and Cambodia to conduct reconnaissance, rescue downed pilots, carry out psychological operations, and reduce the flow of arms and personnel down the winding trail.
The MACV/SOG program was the largest covert operation undertaken by the American military since World War II. It was disbanded in 1972 and most of its records destroyed.
One of the first books about the program was John Plaster’s SOG: The Secret Wars of American Commandos in Vietnam, which came out in 1997. Parner and Dumont’s book is something of a sequel to Plaster’s book. The two books do a good job of replacing the lost records and serving as tributes to the SOG operatives, their allies, and their helicopter crews.
SOG units usually consisted of three grunts and a group of indigenous warriors, mostly Montagnards. The authors interviewed many veterans and the book is filled with their eyewitness accounts.
The book concentrates on missions launched from FOB Kontum, which was near the tri-border area. Former Vietnam War Green Beret Parnar and researcher/writer Dumont cover weapons, uniforms (with no insignia), and gear in the irintroduction.
Then they go on to describe the missions. A typical one started with insertion by helicopter. Most of the missions involved scouting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Many resulted in problems that required emergency evacuations. These problems often were unplanned encounters with larger enemy units.
The format of the book works well. The move from one eyewitness account to the next is seamless. There are many pictures of the SOG members and maps. What stands out is that many of the missions went wrong and triggered enormous efforts to rescue the Americans and their Montagnards.
The book is a tribute to the SOG personnel and to the helicopter crews who risked their lives picking up endangered units. Medics also come off as heroes. The indigenous soldiers are given their due. The enemy is depicted as a worthy adversary.
My main takeaway is how U.S. military leaders were willing to lose more lives to rescue small numbers of Americans or even a dead American.
Also, I could not help but wonder whether the missions were worth the deaths. I cannot believe they had much of an impact on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Twelve SOG teams disappeared when radio contact ceased; 407 team members were killed in action and 49 are missing in action. Eight SOG men received Medals of Honor and, in 2001, SOG received a Presidential Unit Citation.