U.S. Special Forces
5th Special Forces Group Beret Flash
Nam Dong, Lang Vei, Dak To, A Shau, Plei Mei - these
were just some of the places Special Forces troops
fought and died for during their 14-year stay in South
Vietnam. It was a stay that began in June 1956 when
the original 16 members of the 14th Special Forces
Operational Detachment entered Vietnam to train a
cadre of indigenous Vietnamese Special Forces teams.
In that same year, on October 21, the first American
soldier died in Vietnam - Captain Harry G. Cramer
Jr. of the 14th SFOD.
Throughout the remainder of the 1950s and early 1960s,
the number of Special Forces military advisors in
Vietnam increased steadily. Their responsibility was
to train South Vietnamese soldiers in the art of counterinsurgency
and to mold various native tribes into a credible,
anti-communist threat. During the early years, elements
from the different Special Forces groups were involved
in advising the South Vietnamese. But in September
1964, the first step was taken in making Vietnam the
exclusive operational province of 5th Group when it
set up its provisional headquarters in Nha Trang.
Six months later in February, Nha Trang became the
5th's permanent headquarters. From that point, Vietnam
was mainly the 5th's show until 1971 when it returned
to Fort Bragg.
By the time the 5th left Southeast Asia, its soldiers
had won 16 of the 17 Medals of Honor awarded
to the Special Forces in Vietnam, plus one Distinguished
Service Medal, 90 Distinguished Service Crosses, 814
Silver Stars, 13,234 Bronze Stars, 235 Legions of
Merit, 46 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 232 Soldier's
Medals, 4,891 Air Medals, 6,908 Army Commendation
Medals and 2,658 Purple Hearts. It was a brilliant
record, one that was built solely on blood and sacrifice.
Not to be overlooked, other Special Forces training
teams were operating in the 1960s in Bolivia, Venezuela,
Guatemala, Columbia and the Dominican Republic. Counter-insurgency
forces of the 8th Special Forces Group conducted clandestine
operations against guerrilla forces, carrying out
some 450 missions between 1965 and 1968. In 1968,
Special Forces were involved in tracking down and
capturing the notorious Cuban revolutionary, Che Guevara,
in the wilds of south-central Bolivia.
Southeast Asia, however, was to remain the Special
Forces' primary focus. Through their unstinting labors,
Special Forces troops eventually established 254 outposts
throughout Vietnam, many of them defended by a single
A-team and hundreds of friendly natives.
The Special Forces earned their reputation in places
like Song Zoai and Plei Mei, where the Viet Cong and
North Vietnamese threw everything they had at them
but found out that wasn't enough. They won their Medals
of Honor in places like Nam Dong, where Captain Roger
H.C. Donlon claimed the war's first Medal of Honor
for his actions on July 5, 1964, when he led Nam Dong's
successful defense against a Viet Cong attack, despite
sustaining a mortar wound to the stomach. "Pain,
the sensation of pain, can be masked by other emotions
in a situation like that," Donlon recalled. "I
was fighting mad right from the start; I also felt
fear from the start ... fear anybody would feel. It
got to the point where we were throwing the enemy's
grenades back at them. Just picking them up and throwing
those grenades back before they could blow."
Back home in America, a confused public searching
for heroes in a strange and unfamiliar war quickly
latch onto the Special Forces. John Wayne made a movie
about them, Barry Sadler had a number-one hit song,
"The Ballad of the Green Beret", and the
Green Beret took its place along side the coonskincap
and cowboy hat as one of America's Mythic pieces of
But fighting in remote areas of Vietnam - publicity
to the contrary - wasn't the only mission of the Special
Forces. They were also responsible for training thousands
of Vietnam's ethnic tribesmen in the techniques of
guerrilla warfare. They took the Montagnards, the
Nungs, the Cao Dei and others and molded them into
the 60,000-strong Civil Irregular Defense Group (CIDG).
CIDG troops became the Special Forces' most valuable
ally in battles fought in faraway corners of Vietnam,
out of reach of conventional back-up forces. Other
missions included civic-action projects, in which
Special Forces troops built schools, hospitals and
government buildings, provided medical care to civilians
and dredged canals. This was the flip side of the
vicious battles, the part of the war designed to win
the hear and minds of a distant and different people.
But although the Special Forces drew the allegiance
of civilians almost everywhere they went, the war
as a whole was not as successful.
President Lyndon Johnson had committed the first
big conventional units to the war in March 1965, when
Marine battalions landed at Da Nang to provide perimeter
security to the air base there. Then in June, the
Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade entered the country,
followed in July by the 1st Air Cavalry Division.
From then on, a continual stream of Army and Marine
units flowed into Vietnam until they numbered over
500,000 by 1968. But although American conventional
forces scored successes in every major battle they
fought, there was still no clear end in sight to a
war many Americans back home regarded as a quagmire.
So in 1969, after President Richard M. Nixon took
office, the United States began its withdrawal from
Vietnam, a process known as Vietnamization. Gradually
the Special Forces turned over their camps to the
South Vietnamese. On March 5, 1971, 5th Group returned
to Fort Bragg, although some Special Forces teams
remained in Thailand from where they launched secret
missions into Vietnam. But by the end of 1972, the
Special Forces role in Vietnam was over.