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What To Wear?

In 1968-1969 Vietnam, I was part of a MACV SOG Unit, a recon unit with missions “across the fence.” That was the term used to describe going across the border into North Vietnam and the countries of Laos and Cambodia. Areas where the U.S. Military was not supposed to be. Our purpose for these missions was to track and record what the NVA was doing, their supply routes, etc. 

The jungles of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were dense. They were called triple-canopied jungles. The trees were 400 feet high with three levels of leaf covering, taller trees above that, and even higher trees above that. It was relatively dark in the middle of the day, like twilight dark. 

There were few rules for the SOG Teams, teams of men that ranged from four-to-12 per team. Since Americans were not supposed to be in these regions, the U.S. Army didn’t regulate what you wore. If you were caught or killed, the U.S. Government would deny sending you there. They always maintained deniability. There really was no limit to what we could do. If you wanted to wear tropical tops with your standard-issue pants, you could. There was no dress code like the regular military had. You wore whatever you felt was the best camouflage. We all learned quickly to camouflage our uniforms with pieces of branches, twigs, and leaves. 

In 1968 and 1969, the standard uniform for the U.S. Military was jungle fatigues, but they were O.D. (olive drab green); there was no pattern or anything on them. So, when you were out in the jungle, you stood out. 

The South Vietnamese Army and some of their elite forces, like the Korean ROK special forces guys, wore a tiger stripe pattern uniform. These uniforms provided really good camouflage in the South Vietnam Jungles, which were lighter and less dense. But the U.S. Army OD green and the South Vietnamese Army tiger stripe uniforms stood out in the Northern Vietnam Jungles. 

It is important to remember that there were two classes of Vietcong. The Vietcong from the north were well-trained, extremely good soldiers.

Then, there were Vietcong from the South, mostly local recruits, many of whom had never even fired a weapon before. They would be given a weapon and six rounds and be told, “Okay, go kill an American.”

I brought this up because it was the Northern Vietcong we needed to emulate to maintain anonymity. The Northern Vietcong wore black uniforms, so we began to dye our uniforms black. 

When we were up there, Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam, the Vietcong didn’t expect us there. We weren’t supposed to be there. The U.S. Government advertised that we didn’t go there, that the area was “off limits” to U.S. forces. So, if a Recon Team came across a group of NVA (North Vietnamese Army), they would have a split three or four seconds before the NVA realized that they were not one of them.

We dressed like them, used the same weapons as them, like Chinese and Soviet weapons, and even our gear was NVA gear. The only thing we didn’t wear were their boots. We couldn’t fit in them. We had regular jungle boots but with two different types of treads.

They also had additional features; one was strapped to the boot to make it appear you were walking barefoot. The other had steel plating in the bottom of the boot, so bungee sticks couldn’t pierce the boot if you stepped into a bungee pit. 

The other crucial item of clothing we used was our gaiters. They were worn over the boot to protect us from snakes, leeches, and the highly dense underbrush of the jungle. 

When NVA saw a recon team from a distance, they would think we were one of them. The clear giveaway would be the mere size of the American Soldier. We were much taller than any NVA soldier. Their average height was 5 feet or something. 

The Montagnards, a hill tribe people from Vietnam, worked alongside U.S. special forces and acted as point guards because they looked Vietnamese. So, when they dressed like the NVA, it wasn’t easy to distinguish them. We never put a big American at the front. 

We were all experts with their weaponry. Most of the weapons were silenced. We had Swiss K SMGs (Swedish K submachine guns) that were small enough to break down and go into the back of our packs. They were silenced, and our pistols were silenced. We used pistols a lot. We also used their RPDs (RPD machine gun, Soviet), which we would cut down so they were easy to maneuver in the jungle. 

On our first day of training for the SOG team, we were told that there was a 200 percent casualty rate. You knew when you went out, you would get shot up. But, when you were in those northern countries, no one could help you. If you were in the South and ran into trouble, you would call in a “hatchet team,” which were large teams of Montagnards and American soldiers who would come in to get you. But, if you were in Laos, Cambodia, or North Nam’, your only contact with the world was through Covey (Coveys flew missions to support ground forces). The Covey was a plane that flew around up there, and that is the only thing you had radio contact with. 

At night, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, so you would have a pre-planned sleep area to go to. The Covey would leave at night. They would fly back to the base, trade off pilots, refuel, or whatever. But, at night, you were truly alone up there. First thing in the morning, you would get on the radio to contact Covey to tell them where you were moving. 

The smaller teams didn’t have medics. Doctors were flying around up there where Coveys was, in helicopters and such, who could get to you pretty quick. However, it wasn’t good for the helicopters to enter the area. The Vietcong would have 300 to 500 people sitting in tree huts whose whole job was to watch for helicopters coming in.

As soon as a helicopter tried to land, it would be swarmed, boxed in from all sides by the enemy. You had to get out of the open area real quick. When in the jungle, it might take us all day to move a thousand meters, but in the open, we moved fast. 

There were no time constraints. You would be given OPS orders and instructions to stay until your mission is completed. Most of the time, our orders were to monitor a section of road or trail and report what was coming down those pathways.

An example would be monitoring a route where you witness a truck convoy of 20 or so pass by. You would radio in the visual, using whatever code names you were assigned, and report their direction of travel. Then, there would be B52s up ahead, waiting about an hour or so from when you radioed in to blast them out. If they were lucky, they would hit the convoy. If they weren’t, they just blew up a bunch of jungles for no reason. 

It was a blessing and a necessity that we could wear what we wanted on those missions in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. Without those freedoms, we would have been easily detected by the enemy and far less effective.

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