No book is more aptly titled than Uncommon Valor: The Recon Company that Earned Five Medals of Honor. This is an in-depth analysis of the American warriors who staffed the most covert and unique small-unit operations of the Vietnam War.
The reconnaissance company’s parent organization, the ubiquitous Studies and Observations Group (SOG), was mandated to conduct a variety of operations in North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Author Stephen L. Moore focuses on the day-to-day operations of one SOG reconnaissance company based at Forward Operating Base 2 in Kontum, South Vietnam, located in the Central Highlands. This particular unit was the most highly decorated unit in the war, accumulating five Medal of Honor decorations, eight Distinguished Service Crosses, and an unparalleled number of Silver Stars, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts. It suffered 100 percent casualties. The epic descriptions of almost daily heroism truly boggle one’s mind.
Teams were overrun and in some cases totally wiped out. Yet SOG troops came back for more and more. U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam-SOG, in 1969, documented that the ratio of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers killed to each Green Beret lost was 150-to-1, the highest documented kill ratio of an American unit in the war. The majority of SOG personnel were Green Berets. One, Robert Howard, was wounded 14 times, received eight Purple Hearts and was written up for the Medal of Honor after three missions. He received his Medal of Honor in 1971.
SOG was not recognized by the U.S. government until 2001 when, finally, it was presented with a Presidential Unit Citation.
Operating in small teams of five to 10 men, consisting of two or three Americans and the rest either Nungs or Montagnard tribesmen, SOG operatives tapped NVA communication lines, sabotaged NVA ammunition, called in airstrikes on enemy convoys and other targets, and snatched prisoners, among other “black” operations. They went into denied areas with no identification, no unit designations, no rank, so the U.S. government could deny U.S. involvement, though that fooled no one.
In many cases, the author notes, “the SOG teams went in under enemy fire and were pursued by NVA trackers from the moment they inserted into the jungle. They remained on the ground for days or even more than a week at a time with meager rations and only the ammunition each man could carry, often engaging platoon- to division-sized enemy forces until the surviving members could be extracted by helicopter.”
Giving credit where credit is due, Moore ties in how air operations inserted teams into the fire …and pulled them out of the fire. If not for the heroics of helicopter pilots and winged aircraft, SOG would have been eliminated once the NVA formed units specifically designed to track down and kill SOG teams.
In retrospect, Moore, perhaps inadvertently, goes a long way toward proving that the warrior’s desire to fight surfaces in some due to an innate desire to engage in combat, not just because of brotherhood and attachment to fellow troopers. SOG personnel repeatedly went into high-risk situations often not knowing other team members other than to give a “hi-howdy.” And they kept going out on missions, often until wounded or killed.
Moore deserves high marks for interviewing more than 100 SOG operatives in the course of researching this book, which could easily serve as a subject for a score of movies or several TV series if we were not in a time of political correctness. It is a must-read for the serious student of unconventional warfare.
This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of ARMY magazine and is reprinted with permission.
Lt. Col. Robert K. Brown, U.S. Army Reserve (Ret.), is the founder of Soldier of Fortune magazine. He served with the 1st Infantry Division and as a Special Forces political warfare officer and Special Forces A-Team leader in Vietnam. He is the author with Vann Spencer of I Am Soldier of Fortune: Dancing with Devils
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