JACK W. SERIG, Sr.
"Rat Pack 16" 10/66-3/67
Another Look At Covert Actions In Indochina
By Jack W. Serig, Sr.
Published in VHPA Newsletter, May/June 1999
The November/December VHPA Newsletter feature article, "Pilots Rewarded With Laos Mission," submitted by Harry Nevling and William Ailes, brought back vivid memories of the day I reported to my unit assignment in early November 1966, my second tour in South Vietnam.
I was surprised to learn that the unit had just lost an UH-1D "slick," shot down over Laos, all occupants killed in action. My first confused thoughts: "What were we doing in Laos?" … "Was our war being expanded into areas unfamiliar to the American people, and certainly to me," 14 years a soldier at the time?
To recover the bodies from the shot-down chopper the next day, my unit commanding officer, Maj. Bill Griffin, led the air assault part of the recovery effort, carrying a 40--man Special Forces Mike Force team commanded by an experienced Special Forces infantry officer. The combined air/land assault team set down in Laos, recovering the 10 deceased personnel - 6 Special Forces team members and our unit's 4 air crewmen. [ See 281st KIA webpage, Incident Date 661202 ] But not with-out cruel, predictable, enemy cunning.
The communist enemy had booby trapped several of the 10 deceased beneath the armpits and the crotch areas. But our SF rescue team, professionals that they are, looked for, found, and defused, the secreted explosives. It was small consolation to know that our recovered sol-diers would not be carried on the rolls as missing in action.
Maj. Griffin advised me that his policy would not allow me to participate in the recovery mission into Laos because, having just arrived, I lacked the local checkouts required. Our unit, the 281st Assault Helicopter Company, 10th Aviation Battalion, had a unique assignment - operationally assigned in direct support of 5th Special Forces Group at Nha Trang. Supporting them meant inserting and extracting their Mike Force unit or elements of the unit, providing close air support with our gunships during insertions and extractions all over South Vietnam, routinely carrying passengers and cargo between far-flung Special Forces camps and evacuating wounded.
On occasion, our pilots and crewmen were asked to "volunteer" for missions into Laos for undetermined lengths of time. These missions were controlled and directed by the Studies and Operations Group (SOG)*, headquartered in Saigon.
When our "volunteer" aircrews were preparing for mis-sions into Laos, they were required to "sanitize" them-selves. That is, no identification, no dog tags, no personal effects that would identify them as American military, and no insignia. Aircraft, weapons and accouterments likewise were "cleansed."
The possibility of our government being blamed for mil-itary incursions into countries we weren't technically sup-posed to be in was somewhat lessened by the "cleansings," assuming casualties and downed aircraft would occur. On the other hand, our military "volunteers" could be, and would be, treated as spies, if captured, because our government would not admit responsibility for these covert missions.
There was an unwritten, covert-related rule, made known to all of us, that if lost on such a mission, we would be persona non-grata, disclaimed by our government, because people and equipment could not be allowed to be identified as "American." Upon being shot down or crashing, if we weren't imme-diately rescued nor our bodies recovered, we would be car-ried as MIA, unless "hard evidence" would allow other abbreviations like "KIA" or "POW." Fortunately, our unit's personnel and choppers always came back.
I personally never "volunteered" for missions into Laos, considering a wife and five children waiting at home for my hopefully safe return from the "legal war" occurring within both Vietnams. Besides, flying Special Forces missions within the legal boundaries of South Vietnam could be hot enough to dis-suade many of us not to volunteer for the additional uncer-tainties of Laos. With the knowledge we have today that our covert "vol-unteers" did intrude into Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam routinely, as occurred in my unit with respect to Laos, surely there were covert-related survivors from aircraft shot down.
Sen. John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran himself, as chairman of the Senate committee looking into MIA/POW potential for survivability several years ago was correct in his comments in a Miami Herald arti-cle, that: "The Pentagon was knowingly wrong in asserting in April 1973 that there was no reason to believe Americans remained behind after the release of U.S. prisoners of war."
Requiring "hard evidence" that there were POWs left behind was a cop-out by official, political Washing-ton. The "hard evidence" should be the files of the U.S. forces' units operating in and over Laos and Cambodia, who reported their personnel losses when and where they occurred, unless covered up by some higher authority. Even if the percentages of POW survivability were min-imal, considering the long war and large numbers of people operating in the covert areas over many years, common sense alone would tell us that there were probably live POW survivors when the war ended. Other evidence is perhaps entrapped within the minds of those who operated covertly, and survived, who have not yet told all they know.
As the result of long-term political ineptitude with regard to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, our armed forces ended up fighting three enemies. First, the remarkably persistent and resilient commu-nists' forces we confronted in all of the war-torn areas of Indochina. Second, the extreme adversarial relationship those American servicemen found prevalent in many of our bitter citizens (the toughest to stomach). And finally, the political reality that we could not depend on our politicians to bring the combined forces and power of our great nation, and that of all our allies, to convince world opinion to help us bring all of our POWs home when the war ended. Our politicians, once understanding the war was impos-sible to win, on retreating, surely, left POWs behind.
Our losses in Vietnam, South and North, were bad enough. But the extreme, painful experiences suffered by the families, friends and comrades-in-arms of Americans missing in Laos and Cambodia, "spying" for their country as loyal "volunteers," is unconscionable. Let us hope and pray that patriots such as Sen. Kerry will finally bring the correct answers home to its deserving citizenry.
NOTE: In their book "Secret Intelligence," the authors, Ernest Volkman and Blaine Bagget state: "But secret wars involve real problems of accountability and control, the two areas that were to cause much trouble for America's secret war in Indochina. The first alarm rang in 1964, when the secret war was expanded yet again, this time by cre-ation of the Studies and Operations Group (SOG), which combined personnel from the Green Berets, the CIA, and the four military services in an organization that was to conduct subversion, sabotage, and other covert operations in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It was under a broad mandate known as OPLAN 34-A, which authorized SOG to conduct 'clandestine operations in denied areas.' In other words, SOG commanders could do just about what they wanted."
Jack W. Serig Sr.
9021 SW 140th St.
Miami, FL 33176-7108