Category Archives: SF History and Lore

The “Proximity Fuzed” RPG that wasn’t

In Russia, the improved RPG-7 replaced the RPG-2 in 1961, but it took years for the improved antitank weapons to filter to the Soviet Union’s client states and it took even longer to get to Soviet-supported terrorists and insurgents, even the ones that the USSR recognized militarily, like North Vietnam. When the new AT weapon emerged, it was immediately a threat to American and Republic of Vietnam aircraft, especially low- and slow-flying helicopters.

Here’s the story of a Air Force special operations helicopter gunship pilot’s nerve-wracking experience, while covering a South Vietnamese Air Force recovery of a Vietnamese reconnaissance team. The RT came from TF3AE, the command that replaced Command and Control South in Vietnam. We draw the story from Fred Lindsey’s fantastic doorstop, Secret Green Beret Commandos in Cambodia. (We’ve mentioned the book before). You can find it on page 670-671, and it’s worth reading for the adventure of it, before we start discussing dry RPG facts.

03/26/71 Recon, TF3AE ARVN RT Rescued With Air Support by 219″ VNAF Kingbees and
20th SOS Gunships: AC CPT Charles D. Svoboda DFC (2OLC) with co-pilot LTC Harmon
Brotnov; AC CPT Jim Schuman SS.
The only details of this event are from the remembrance of CPT Svoboda’s and [his] DFC citation. In his written recollection he notes:

It was on my first week on the mission as an aircraft commander. My copilot was my brand new squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brotnov, who was on the mission for the first time, and my gunners were this new “student” gunner and a highly experienced instructor gunner. Jim Schuman was flying lead, and I was flying on his wing. We were called out for
a team taking extremely heavy fire. We arrived at the location, and were briefed by the FAC on where the team was (we certainly don’t want to hit our own troops). We saw a very unfriendly situation, with a rather large landing zone, with the team on the south, and Charlie on the north. Unfortunately. Charlie was ensconced on a long, low ridge, overlooking the LZ and the team. We hated going below the enemy, as we could not fire upward through our own rotor blades. If we flew high, we were sitting ducks. If we flew low, with Charlie on a ridge, above us, we could only make short bursts of gunfire in his direction by banking the aircraft in the opposite direction, and raising the rotors above the path of our own minigun bullets.

Jim (Gunship lead) directed that we make an ‘aggressive’ entry, meaning that we would dive toward the LZ, and toward the enemy, firing rockets and miniguns at maximum rate of speed (4.000 rounds per minute). Jim was checking out a new pilot, allowing him to fly, and the new pilot lost the target, forcing his bird to cease-fire. He told me of this, and I told him that I still had the target, and would assume flight lead, so that he could then roll in on my rockets and become my wingman.

We made an aggressive dive, after which the FAC radioed “Cease Fire, you’re hitting the team.” We always feared this! Guns firing 4,000 rounds per minute each, along with rockets, can tear up a group of soldiers ferociously. And my new commander was my copilot!

I ordered both birds to cease firing, and we began flying “cold” passes over the LZ, between Charlie and the team. We did this several times, and I could see what appeared to be cigarette lighters flashing in the shadows on the ridge. I could also hear static on the radio, which we had learned was caused by the static field of many closely passing bullets. But we continued to hear explosions, with the FAC yelling for us to hold our fire. Damn it, we WERE holding our fire, and we were hanging ourselves out doing it. I spoke to Jim, and said we had better silence the ridge or it would silence us. He agreed, and despite the directives from the FAC, we shot the hell out of the ridge. But they were everywhere. As I cleared the LZ on one pass, below many of the trees, I fired a couple of rockets. One does not usually fire rockets so low, because there is no time to achieve stabilized flight, allowing one to aim. Therefore, they frequently zoom off into oblivion. But we had learned to “lob” rockets by pulling up on the collective just before firing. This would cause the rocket stabilizing fins to hit the air with an upward load, causing causing them to fly upward initially, then to arc downward because of the aerodynamic load on the fins.

My copilot appeared to be mesmerized by his first combat action, about as hectic as one could be. I called for him to flip the weapon selector switch from guns to rockets (they could not fire simultaneously, because the one trigger activated whichever weapon was selected for firing). He was frozen, so I had to take my eyes off the horizon for a millisecond and change the setting. This was hazardous because we were flying through the trees, dodging around the higher ones, trying to keep from being shot down. One minor mistake would be fatal for all. We tried to avoid passing over the same spot on succeeding passes, to keep Charlie from drawing a bead on us, but because of the ridgeline, we were forced to repeat ground tracks. We passed around one taller tree a couple of times, and I cursed the tree. On the following pass I fired a rocket to keep the bad guys’ heads down, and it knocked the tree down. Colonel Brotnov was flabbergasted, as was I. To this day I wonder if he really believes that I did that intentionally!

It turns out that the rockets into the team which were blamed on us were actually new shoulder-mounted Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG’S) being fired at us as we passed over the LZ between the team. The original RPG’s were designed for light armor and infantry, and had contact fuses. This new version was designed for helicopters, and had contact AND proximity fuses. Luckily, none must have passed close enough to us to detonate, but many passed by us, exploding among the team we were protecting. A few also exploded in the LZ, causing the tall elephant grass to catch fire. The flames were about as high as we were flying, and were spreading out in ever increasing circles. On one pass over the LZ, when I passed through the smoke, the other chopper was coming directly at us, only about 50-100 feet away, with closure speed of over 200 mph. Luckily we both broke quickly and in opposite directions, and the gunner said he thought he could reach out and touch the belly of the other chopper. Finally, the firing from Charlie cut down, and we called the slicks to come in for a pickup.

We said they would have to wait awhile because of the fires in the LZ. All of a sudden the team ran THROUGH these very high flames, leaping into the smoking ash left by the expanding fire. The slicks came in, one at a time, landed in the smoking ash, raising a huge, black ashen cloud, and picked up the team. We escorted them out of the area. Then, as the slicks headed for home, Jim and I returned to the site, expending the remainder of our rockets and ammo on the ridge line.

CPT Svoboda was an Air Force officer, a gunship pilot in the 20th Special Operations Squadron. The “slicks” were Sikorsky UH-34s, obsolete piston-powered helicopters flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force’s 219th Squadron, “King Bees.”

A gathering of SF RT guys and their air support guys is always interesting, because the aircrews think the recon teams were nuts to do what they did, but the RT guys know the copter crews were nuts to come get them.

Now, this is a very stirring story of action and audacity. You can almost smell the shellbursts of the RPGs. Thing is: RPGs don’t have proximity fuzes. (There is a Chinese “airburst” round for use against infantry, but it bounces off the ground before it detonates, and it postdates the war). So why did Captain Svoboda think they did? It goes back to a fundamental difference between the RPG-2, or B-40 as it was known to most during the Vietnam War (from the Chinese export stencil on the ammo), and the improved RPG-7. The RPG has become one of the most universal systems in war; there’s even a US-made, Westernized version we provide to allies under MAP.

But the initial mass-produced version, the Ruchnoi Protitankoviy Granatomyot-2 (“Hand AT Grenade Launcher”), was a reusable improvement of the German Panzerfaust and like its disposable ancestor, its designers’ watchword was simplicity. Indeed, US Army intelligence manuals on the Soviet Army at the time described it only as an “antitank weapon of the improved Panzerfaust type,” and lacked any photo or sketch of it.

It had no optical sights, just a flip-up pair with a front bead and rear ladder. It was a straight tube with sights and a grip piece, no shoulder rest, blast shield or cone. The RPG-2 was made in Russia from about 1948 to 1961, and in China from about 1956 to about 1970. And — important from our point of view — the warhead, which showed its later Panzerfaust ancestry, had a simple contact fuze and no self-destruct mechanism.

The RPG-7 was introduced to the Soviet Army in 1961 and into the Vietnam War sometime in 1967 or 68, although it remained outnumbered by RPG-2s until the last, 1975, offensive. It had iron and optical sights and considerably improved range (we’ve hit stationary tank-size targets on the range at 800m; practical combat range on moving armor is probably half that). Most interesting for our present purposes, the PG-7 warhead has not one, but three means of initiation:

  1. Piezoelectric contact fuze in the warhead nose (“1″ in the illustration);
  2. electric contact fuze between inner (“2″) and outer (“3″) cones of the warhead;
  3. pyrotechnic timed self-destruct mechanism (“8″).

pg-7v_of_rpg7_sect

All three fire the charge (“6″) from its base, creating a Munro Effect jet made up of hot gases and the molten copper alloy charge liner (“4″). The self-destruct mechanism detonates the round if it hasn’t hit anything in five seconds, by which time the round has covered 900-920m.

rpg7 training aid

That’s what was happening to CPT Charles Svovoda, his copilot LTC Harmon Brotnov, and his wingmen and the other US and RVN airmen on this mission. Airbursts of RPGs around them certainly seemed like the proximity fuzes they knew from enemy 37mm and 57mm anti-aircraft artillery.

It is possible that the airbursts’ threat to the rotorcraft was coincidental, but it is also possible that the NVA were deliberately using the self-destruct mechanism for its airburst effect; this is something Islamic terrorists would develop into a fine art in the nineties and the oughts, but it would certainly be consistent with what we know of the leadership and initiative of the North Vietnamese forces that they could have been doing this 20 years earlier, over Cambodia.

We can’t blame them for thinking they were facing “a new version, made for helicopters.” In any event, we concur with Fred Lindsey, who wraps up this post by quoting the citation for Svoboda’s Distinguished Flying Cross from this flight:

He was participating in aerial flight as a UH-1N helicopter Gunship Commander near Due Lap, RVN …CPT Svoboda made repeated firing passes at low level in support of a long range reconnaissance patrol which was under heavy opposing automatic weapons fire deep in hostile territory. The extremely accurate and devastating firepower from CPT Svoboda’s helicopter allowed the rescue of the entire patrol…

per Hqs 7th Air Force Orders dtd 09/24/71.

Captain Svoboda survived the war; along with the DFC, he received 10 Air Medals for combat missions in 1970 and 1971.

For more information on the RPG, look at this previous Weaponsman post, or this quite excellent history by Dan Shea in Small Arms Defense Journal. We cannot overstate the quality of the Shea article; it’s really good and accurate.

A Different Auction: some Vietnam, USSR, Japanese militaria

If these patches are authentic, something we can't judge, there's a lot of collector interest.

If these patches are authentic, something we can’t judge, there’s a lot of collector interest. One of them appears to be an original RT Habu patch. Patches like this were not worn in the field, where team members were “sterile,” but on “party shirts” back on base.

We occasionally mention gun auctions on here, and we’re behind on getting word to you on some new ones with some very great rarities on offer. But we interrupted our normal schedule to notify you of an auction with some Vietnam and other rare militaria.

A small Pennsylvania auction house, Savo Auctioneers, is offering these items and similar ones (plus a lot of beer-company bar signs and other odds and ends) in an auction tomorrow. You can find the key stuff, including the address and how to set up for phone bid, at the link below:

THU, AUG 14 @ 5:00 P.M.

Preview @ 1:00 P.M.

ANTIQUES & COLLECTIBLES, VINTAGE BEER & LIQUOR ADVERTISING, MILITARIA, JEWELRY, DEPT 56, BOXLOTS & MORE

via Auction: Thu, Aug 14 @ 5:00 P.M. at Savo Auctioneers, LLC.

We’ll have a few more pictures below, with captions of our own.

SF recon patches - savo

Two RT patches in this lot. The Lang Vei patch rings false to us — not sure why. The 11 RRU (“Radio Research Unit”) was not SF, but an ASA formation. All ASA used the cover name “Radio Research” in Vietnam. Task Force 1 Advisory Element (TF1AE) was the new (cover) name for CCN, after SF “officially” left Vietnam in 1971; this “Commo” patch would have been the base station guys, the RTs’ vital link to the world — and support. 

SF recon patches 2 - savo

The RT Fork patches look like original ones, but what’s “CCM”? And the chrysanthemum patch, we have no idea at all about.

Vietnam patches

Mostly Marine and Navy patches, but there’s an RT Habu patch in this lot.

For us, naturally, the money stuff is the SF historical patches, but there are also some unusual Japanese orders and decorations, and some relatively common Soviet ones, often with award books number-matched to the medal as was Soviet practice.

Soviet V-J MedalThis Soviet medal is one you don’t see every day — a medal commemorating the Soviet victory over Japan (the USSR joined the war on Japan after the Nazis were defeated in Europe, after a long negotiation in which Stalin basically got everything he wanted from a dying FDR.  (Like all the images here, it embiggens). Most people don’t know that the USSR declared war on Japan, but they did. One result of that is North Korea, one of Vladimir Vladimirovich’s less tractable vassals to this day.

There are numerous other Soviet awards and decorations, most of them seemed at a glance to be common commemoratives (“70 Years of the Soviet Armed Forces,” that sort of thing). Many are in better shape than this somewhat worn and stained old soldier. They would look good on the wall with a Mosin.

unknown japanese medalAnd… while we’re on the subject of unusual medals, we know nothing about this except that it’s Japanese, and beautifully designed.

It looks a little like the Legion of Honor, but with undeniably Japanese artistic lines, quite unlike the parallel awards in Western lands.

There are several other Japanese medals in the auction. We don’t know if they’re wartime Imperial or postwar medals; the Empire was never very big on medals for common soldiers, but they tended to shine their generals and admirals up pretty well.

Now, we need to get to posting about some of the exotic firearms about to go on the block.

Hat tip, a Pennsylvania SF vet who treasures his anonymity.

The Mechanical Arts, the Liberal Arts, SF, and Survival

In the medieval period, philosophers imagined a division between the seven Liberal Arts, and the seven Mechanical Arts. To give you an idea of the weight they put on the two domains of knowledge, the Mechanical Arts were also known as the Servile Arts or Vulgar Arts.

During periods of world history in which most people had an arduous, demanding physical struggle to live, not to have to struggle was a marker of the upper class. Thus a snobbery evolved which derides work, and celebrates idle pursuits. But the Mechanical arts are, you will see, in all cases more immediately useful than the liberal arts, and in some cases they constitute applied knowledge that closely follows on some aspects of the Liberal Arts’ classroom learning. For example, you will master neither architecture nor warfare without a decent grasp of arithmetic and geometry; and the better you know those latter subjects the better equipped you are to study the former, for instance.

This is one division of the medieval Arts:

Mechanical Arts Liberal Arts
Clothes-making Grammar
Farming Rhetoric
Cooking Logic
Architecture & Building Arithmetic
Warfare, Military Arts Geometry
Commerce / Business Music
Metalworking Astronomy

What’s interesting to us is the degree to which all those skills are needed in a typical SF COIN, FID or UW mission. But the most practically applicable ones, of course, are the Mechanical Arts. Every SF man can pull his weight in all of these and stands out in some of them. One is reminded of the distinctly non-medieval thinker, science fiction author Robert Heinlein, and this famous quote from his character Lazarus Long:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

During a tour downrange, an SF guy will check off most if not all the above. Except the die gallantly bit, one hopes.

Recently, a professor type, Lewis Dartnell, has published a book called The Knowledge. His concept, or conceit, is this: what would you need to know to reboot civilization after some variation of TEOTWAWKI? We suspect that, so long as you didn’t lose sight of the knowledge that certain knowledge and how-to had existed, whether big picture (“the scientific method”) or small picture (“how to make gunpowder from natural materials”), the knowledge could be recovered in less time than it took society to establish it for the first time.

Still, one remembers that we stand on the shoulders of all who have come before us. TEOTWAWKI is something, like a gunfight, that is often better avoided entirely, than handled in the best manner possible. But, like a gunfight, you may not have a choice about whether it happens, just about how you play it.

To end on an up note,  his blog also turned us on to this cartoon:

From what we’ve seen of the strip, it’s a pretty consistent hoot.

As far as his thick-as-bricks interlocutor is concerned, nobody expects the Spaniel Inquisition.

Returning for a moment to Lewis Dartnell, his website has many interesting posts and links, such as this one of adventure and science-fiction novels that involve rebuilding a society from nothing, and that were published from 1719 to 1912, and are thus in the public domain and free for downloading. Some of the books are famous in themselves (Robinson Crusoe, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Time Machine), and others are lesser-known works of famous authors like Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and Jack London.

We’re reading the Jack London work, The Scarlet Plague, in iBooks. It tells of an epidemic that erased civilization in 2012, as told by an old man, desperately trying to pass on civilization to his savage hunter-gatherer grandsons. A sample:

“Returning to the corner, I found the two robbers were gone. The poet and his wife lay dead on the pavement. It was a shocking sight. The two children had vanished—whither I could not tell. And I knew, now, why it was that the fleeing persons I encountered slipped along so furtively and with such white faces. In the midst of our civilization, down in our slums and labor-ghettos, we had bred a race of barbarians, of savages; and now, in the time of our calamity, they turned upon us like the wild beasts they were and destroyed us. And they destroyed themselves as well.”

Excerpt From: Jack London. “The Scarlet Plague.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=2CC04B4AAB96855983001EB5ECF5B583

We have, indeed, bred a race of barbarians and savages, but the idea of “labor ghettoes” is amusing. In the real 2010s, we pay them to be idle, because, in part, their labor would have no value.

In London’s book, the absence of The Knowledge, of the Mechanical Arts, makes it impossible to rebuild civilization in time to save the Liberal Arts, of which the elderly protagonist was a professor:

But it will be slow, very slow; we have so far to climb. We fell so hopelessly far. If only one physicist or one chemist had survived! But it was not to be, and we have forgotten everything. The Chauffeur started working in iron. He made the forge which we use to this day. But he was a lazy man, and when he died he took with him all he knew of metals and machinery. What was I to know of such things? I was a classical scholar, not a chemist.. The other men who survived were not educated.

….all that was lost must be discovered over again. Wherefore, earnestly, I repeat unto you certain things which you must remember and tell to your children after you. You must tell them that when water is made hot by fire, there resides in it a wonderful thing called steam, which is stronger than ten thousand men and which can do all man’s work for him. There are other very useful things. In the lightning flash resides a similarly strong servant of man, which was of old his slave and which some day will be his slave again.

….There is another little device that men inevitably will rediscover. It is called gunpowder. It was what enabled us to kill surely and at long distances. Certain things which are found in the ground, when combined in the right proportions, will make this gunpowder. What these things are, I have forgotten, or else I never knew. But I wish I did know. Then would I make powder, and then would I certainly kill Cross-Eyes and rid the land of superstition—

Many writers of apocalyptic fiction make it seem like it would be almost fun. In fact, it would be a miserably long slog

Jon Cavaiani at the LD

We write with great regret that Jon Cavaiani MOH, one of the 18 or so SF MOH recipients from the Vietnam unpleasantness, is waiting with Barb by his side to cross over sometime soon.

If you didn’t know Jon, you truly missed something, and not just because of this:

He ordered the remaining platoon members to attempt to escape while he provided them with cover fire. With one last courageous exertion, S/Sgt. Cavaiani recovered a machine gun, stood up, completely exposing himself to the heavy enemy fire directed at him, and began firing the machine gun in a sweeping motion along the two ranks of advancing enemy soldiers. Through S/Sgt. Cavaiani’s valiant efforts with complete disregard for his safety, the majority of the remaining platoon members were able to escape. While inflicting severe losses on the advancing enemy force, S/Sgt. Cavaiani was wounded numerous times. S/Sgt. Cavaiani’s conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism and intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Army.

He has fought the rare cancer, and the ravages of time, with the same bold spirit he brought to the fight against the North Vietnamese Army and the battle to imbue that spirit in following generations of Special Forces soldiers, which is where we came to know him.

Here’s a 2011 interview with the man:

(The reference to South Vietnam in the video is what the

His Medal of Honor award was initially posthumous, because the last American off the site saw him go down hard under a barrage of mortar rounds, and it was only after the award was written and approved that intelligence learned from monitoring DRVN communications that he had survived into captivity. As he was captured in Laos, the DRV did not report him captured, but the US insisted on his return with the other POWs and he and eight or so other named POWs whose cases were raised by Kissinger himself were transferred from DRV captivity in Laos.

While in captivity, he infiltrated a collaborators’ group, the Peace Committee, under command of the camp Senior Ranking Officer, and conducted psychological operations to disrupt their collaboration. He would have been a key witness in the court-martials of the collaborators, had Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird not gotten cold feet about prosecuting the traitors after one disloyal Marine killed himself.

He had a long recovery from his combat wounds (which were never treated by his North Vietnamese captors) and the privations of two years of Vietnamese captivity. As a guest of the North Vietnamese he lost literally most of his body weight, over 100 pounds. As the guest of the Army Medical Activity, he not only returned to Special Forces fitness but he also met and married the love of his life, an Army nurse, thereby causing chaos in rank-conscious Army protocol — where do you seat the sergeant whose wife is a captain (and they became a sergeant-major married to an, IIRC, lieutenant colonel)? The answer is, when the sergeant received the MOH, you find a way to make it work.

Jon never drew attention to his medal, and was uncomfortable with hero worship. He always insisted that he wore the medal on behalf the real heroes — the ones whose deeds went unseen, unrecorded and unrewarded, and who never came home.

After the war he served as the quietest of professionals, and commanders came to know him as a guy who could be depended on to accomplish any task with silent efficiency. His name did come in for cursing at one point, though: circa 1980, 10th Special Forces Group commander Colonel Paris D. Davis assigned Cavaiani a special project: to find a 12-mile rucksack route that ended on at least a mile of up hill. Jon did just that, through a process that can only be described as walking-in-search-of-misery and later received a gag gift from the CO: a pair of battered combat boots, bronzed like baby shoes and mounted to a plaque. Later, many a young troop would slog up the long hill towards the end point at the TASC building, grumbling that he’d like to get his hands on the guy that laid out the course. And some older sergeant would grumble back, “Good luck with that, Nguyen already gave it his best shot.”

One of the high points of Jon’s career was his service as Command Sergeant Major of the 1st SF Operational Detachment — Delta. Originally, he was rejected for the position in the low-profile unit, not because he was in any way unsuitable, but because his MOH raised his profile too much. He forcefully made the point that he was the antithesis of a glory seeker, and the unit commander reconsidered. During that period, no one heard a peep out of Cavaiani, except the other guys in the unit with him, and no one noted his absence (if they did, they assumed he’d retired). When he did retire, he pursued learning, and teaching, and finally spoke about his Medal — always to make the point that he was standing here as a substitute for the real heroes who rest in quiet graves in Arlington, or in places unknown in far jungles and mountains.

Now this remarkable life is drawing to a close, ended by a disease that couldn’t be defeated with all the spirit that beat down everyone from the North Vietnamese Army to a Delta commander who feared an MOH recipient in his ranks would be something like the circus coming to town. He had a team, as always, at the end: his wife Barb, brilliant physicians from Stanford, many old SF guys who did what they could. (Shout out, particularly, to Dick James, who acted as a shock absorber between Jon and Barb and the concerned SF community at large).

You may not have known Jon Cavaiani, but when that bright spirit transitions sometime in the next days, you may rest assured that the sun is a bit dimmer, the stars a light-year further, the very equator a mile shorter for his absence.

Ave atque vale.

 

On Jon Cavaiani:

PBS’s American Valor.

 

UPDATE

SFA and SOA contacts inform us that Jon passed on at 0600 PDT today. SOA sent the following bio (not sure its source, but it quotes SOA’s “Tilt” Meyer, a former RT one-zero):

SGM Jon R. Cavaiani (US Army – Retired) (MOH) died today, July 29, 2014 in Stanford, CA after a prolonged illness. By his side was his wife, Barbara.
Born in England, Cavaiani came to the United States with his parents in 1947 at age four. Though initially classified 4F, due in part to a severe allergy to bee stings, Cavaiani eventually joined the Army from Fresno, California, shortly before becoming a naturalized citizen in 1968.
He went to Vietnam in 1970 with the US Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) and by June 4, 1971, he was serving as a Staff Sergeant in Task Force 1 Advisory Element, USARV Training Advisory Group. This “advisory group” was formerly an element of the top secret and clandestine unit, MACV-SOG. On that day, near Khe Sanh, his outpost came under intense enemy attack. Cavaiani organized the unit’s defense and, when evacuation by helicopter became necessary, he voluntarily stayed on the ground and directed the aircraft, which successfully evacuated most of the platoon. Cavaiani and a small group were left behind. During a major enemy attack the next morning, he ordered the remaining men to escape while he stayed and provided suppressive fire to cover their retreat. He was captured and spent the next two years as a prisoner of war.
Jon R. Cavaiani was released by the Provisional Government of Vietnam on April 27, 1973.
President Gerald Ford presented Cavaiani with the Medal of Honor during a ceremony on December 12, 1974. Cavaiani later reached the rank of Sergeant Major before retiring from the Army in 1996.
According to John “Tilt” Meyer, president of the Special Operations Association and former member of MACV SOG’s RT Idaho, “Jon remained very active in the Medal of Honor Society and the Special Operations Association and continued throughout his life to serve his nation and his community.” Meyer continued, “Jon was an integral part of both the Medal of Honor Society and the Special Operations Association. His friends, family and brothers in arms will miss his broad smile and quick wit, but mostly we will miss his ever present willingness to help others.”
The City of Philadelphia is planning a memorial and arrangements and further information will be posted as they become available.

UPDATE II

We didn’t realize this, but Jon was the last surviving SOG ground branch MOH recipient. Thanks to Bob Noe of SOA for the information. One USAF and two USN SEAL recipients who received their medals for actions with SOG are still with us. (Technically, Jon and the SEALs got their awards after SOG was disbanded; they were assigned to successor organizations, in Jon’s case the “Task Force 1 Advisory Element”).

Some thoughts on Military Traditions

SF Patch

For over 30 years this was all an SF man wore on his left shoulder — unless he was Ranger-Q’d. Vietnam SF soldiers did not get the SF Tab (they are eligible for its award, retroactively, but SF men of the 50s, 60s, 70s and start of the 80s didn’t get them at graduation).

Some military traditions come to endure for a very long time; they survive the rise and fall of units, complete service branches, and even nations and empires. Military units today conduct ceremonies and maintain traditions that date back at least to the Roman Empire.

Some of this is just transmitted in human experience, even through social and political revolutions. The French army today has some traditions that predate the revolution. The Russian army today, likewise has some traditions from the previous Soviet army, and some from the Tsarist army before that. And all are inheritors of some of the traditions of the Romans: unit standards or guidons, marching in ranks, saluting.

Then, there is the interesting comparison of the tradition that takes hold, and the tradition that fails to take hold. For example, when he was Chief of Staff, Rick Shinseki tried to get the US Army to celebrate an Army Birthday. He was mindful of the tradition of the Marine Corps Birthday, which has long taken hold of the Marine Corps, and is a reason (or an excuse, for those who need no reason) for Marines past and present to get together with their mates and celebrate their traditions of service. The imposed tradition of the Army Birthday never took hold; it was one more of the ideas you get when you not only invite the Good Idea Fairy into the conference room, you make him Chief of Staff.

Shinseki went on to head the VA, which is all you need to know about his traditions.

This weekend, we’re attending an event that is one of those organic traditions that has just grown, and has survived many decades, outliving some of the original instigators, even though it’s a very small tradition. It’s interesting because it’s unique, so far as we know, in the Special Forces and world Special Operations community.

The Team Dive started as an excuse for members of an Army Reserve Special Forces Team to get together on a non-drill weekend, catch up, and not incidentally do a dive for lobsters in the cold waters off the North Shore of Massachusetts. A number of dope deals were necessary to make this happen: they had to fix things with the Environmental Police, with the site of the dive, with the local authorities, and with the Revolutionary War fort that is absolutely closed to camping at all times, except when the Green Berets come, once a year. It’s all legal and all on the up and up (yes, the men have lobstering permits for that one weekend, and yes, they only take legal “bugs”). But it’s a minority group in the minority group, and many people who are not members went out of their way to make it the successful tradition it has now “always” been.

Some years the lobsters are plentiful. Some, they are scarce (and somebody takes the Drive of Shame to a fish market). The beer is always plentiful; as the old guys drink less, the young guys pick up the slack. The story telling is prodigious, and one of the things that makes old guys like us turn out is the grim knowledge that he who is not there to tell the story is certain to be the subject of discussion.

Nobody is sure when the Team Dive started; the best guess is sometime in the 1980s. There’s a 20-year anniversary, but it’s just the 20-year point of somebody finally keeping track. Since a typical military career is 20 years, and some guys were already retired when they came to the first one, there will be members from their 20s to their 80s, each eager to hear what’s up with the others, and to meet old friends and teammates that he hasn’t met yet.

What we think is unique is this event’s nature as a longitudinal event on a team scale. There are reasons a reserve team, not an active one, came up with this, but we know it took a lot of luck and survived many near-death experiences to be here for us today.

Your “outside” life doesn’t come in here, too much. We’ve had FBI agents and ex-cons sitting at the same table, carpenters and CFOs, teachers and technicians. Here, the stories are of night jumps and over-the-horizon swims, of violent injury and long recovery, of guns we liked and guns we respected, of the difficulty making commo when you knew the Russians could DF you in 10 seconds — and when they’d jam you sometimes, just to let you know they were on duty that night, too. There will be tales of Vietnam and Afghanistan and maybe Iraq, along with tales of the Last Good Deal in Oslo or Guayaquil or Spanish Town, Jamaica.

Some of the tales will be true, some will contain a germ of truth, and some, the listeners will listen politely to.

The tradition survived the retirement of the original members; it even survived the end of the Army Reserve Special Forces, the dissolution of the original team, ODA 111, A Co. 11th Special Forces Group, the erasure of their team house and the very street it was on from the map as the area was redeveloped. The men who served on the team when it was disbanded in 1994 found themselves, mostly, on the same new team in the Army National Guard, and so that team became the torchbearers of the tradition. By that time, someone had already figured out it was important to keep the old-timers in, and so team members from the 1960s to the 2010s were arriving from across the country last night.

Some will dive. Some will drink. Some will do both (in order, please. So far we have a perfect safety record and have one surface for every submersion).

If you wanted your team to have a team dive (or hunt, or whatever) you couldn’t just copy the way ODA 111 does it. You’d have to start, and let the tradition grow, and see where it wound up, which wouldn’t be where you expected. But it would be a good thing, as long as it did what traditions must do: percolated from bottom up, rather than be commanded from top down.

Why SOG RTs Ran Without Medics

SF_CrestIn our review of Gentle Propositions by JS Economos, we mentioned in passing that one of the myriad details Economos got right was, “why not many medics ran recon.” This stirred a little discussion in the comments, with Medic 09 (a former IDF medic) asking:

[Y]ou piqued my curiosity to ask for a spoiler (as a once-recon-medic from elsewhere): why don’t (didn’t) many medics do recon? I suspect today things are different?

Vietnam SF vet Tom Schultz replied:

In response to Medico 09 can only remark on my unit at my time. (VN68) Medics in too short supply and bluntly had skills and training too valuable to be risked on a recon team. Nothing to complete a successful recon requires any medical training. We had no shortage of a medics volunteering to do so but they ere always turned down. When the shit hit the fan, though they were the first on the ‘go get ‘em’ chopper.

That was more or less what Economos had said, and we elaborated (some typos corrected):

As Tom has already noted, medics were in short supply in SF in Vietnam, including in SOG. Medics were needed in several critical missions, including in the dispensary at the FOB (generating healthy teams to launch on recon was the main mission of the FOBs), as “chase medic” on helicopters (having an SF medic on the bird saved many a life), or sometimes standing “bright light” alert (although this last was often done by Recon Teams without medics).

SF Medics were not only in short supply in SOG, but in every time period in SF history. The reason is the medic course (once 91BxS, now 18Dx) is the longest and hardest MOS course in Group, not excepting the officer course (actually one of the easier MOS phases) or the operations and intelligence course (now the 18F intel course) which has usually been reserved for soldiers who already have a base SF MOS. The medic course is ~18 months long (and always was) and is demanding in terms of intellect required, effort required, and ability to master specific skills. SF guys are all special (it says so right on their uniform shoulders now!) but the docs are really special.

Now under the Joint SOF Medic Training schema all SOF medics get trauma medicine equivalent to the SF medic’s. But the SF guy also gets communicable disease, epidemiology, and many other specialties that are required in the UW environment and not in direct ground combat. Most every medic will treat a combat wound, but the SF guy also has to diagnose and treat cholera!

Secret CommandosAgain, that’s based not so much on what Economos wrote but on what we’ve heard from scores of guys who were there running recon, and that’s why it impressed us that Economos, who as far as we know is not an SF, let alone SOG, vet, knew that.

But we happened to get even more corroboration, from someone who should know: LTC (Ret). Fred S. Lindsey. Lindset has written a remarkably thorough book, one of the life’s work variety, about CCS, called Secret Green Beret Commandos in Cambodia. Here’s what Lindsey (whom we don’t know personally) says about medics and RTs, after introducing the CCS Medical Section and its duties to care for the roughly 1,000 men of the FOB and the indigenous men’s family members:

We are fortunate to have SGT. Don McIver’s fine memory to describe the details of the medical staff and the facilities. He notes the following upon his arrival in late July 69. “Changes in the mission and responsibilities of the medics had changed in recent months. Two medics were KIA on recon missions, at least one of which involved the medic serving on a recon team. It was SFC Jerry Shriver’s team that was wiped out in Cambodia on 24 April and medic SGT Ernest C. Jamison was KIA on that mission. Only three weeks later on 23 May, another medic, SGT Howard S. Hill, was KIA on another mission. Word came down from the Tactical Operations Center (TOC): no more medics on Recon; they are too valuable and too few. In a sense this was correct. Medical Specialist training lasted 42 weeks with tactics and techniques phase 1 and phase 2 adding another four weeks onto each end of the training cycle. Weapons, Communications, Operations and Intelligence, Engineers: each of these MOS-specific courses lasted 16 to 18 weeks plus the T&T’s tacked on. Less than a third of medics who started the course finished including those who may have been “recycled” to begin a particular course of study again and to graduate with the next class. It was estimated in 1968 that it cost $130,000 to training SF medic! In my experience, I was in the Army for 18 months before finally completing my training – Basic through the Q Course – before being assigned to the 7th Group.” ….

“With only nine medics and the prohibition against medics going on Recon missions, medical supervisor SFC [Jerry L.]Prentner begin reorganizing the medical clinic, commonly called the dispensary, and medic duties…. Schedules were made to allow medics to serve in three equal capacities: (1) Dispensary duty including sick call, emergencies, and patient treatment and ward supervision; (2) ground operations with the two company-sized Hatchet Forces (one with Montagnard troops, the other with Cambodians); (three) flying Chase Medic for either the MLSN or MLSS [Mission Launch Site North/South -Ed.]. The Chase Medic rode in the first evacuation helicopter or Slick, because that helicopter usually picked up the wounded. Those assigned North typically flew out of BMT [Ban Me Thuot --Ed.]. Those assigned South would stay at the MLSS at Quan Loi for periods of the week to a month or more. That’s where we earned our “air miles” for Air Medals (if we were counting!), inserted and pulled out Recon teams on “hot” and “cold” extractions, and got our “emergency medical treatment” experience treating the wounded. No lack of excitement for the medics!”

Lindsey notes that the Chase Medics on the helicopters often deserved, but seldom received, valor awards. Here’s his explanation:

Our medics were unbelievably heroic and professionally qualified. I would not have hesitated to have them remove my appendix, if the case warranted. Their heroics in the field, especially in the Chase Medic role, were very impressive. Unfortunately and shamefully, our medics did not get nearly the valor award recognition that they deserve. CCS was very poor in this regard, including when I was the CO. We were just so damn busy fighting the war over a 200+ mile border frontage. Always a fire to put out or crash to recover. Part of that problem was that the aviators seldom knew who the SF guy was riding along with them. They wrote up all the crewmembers for tons of awards that were well deserved, but very seldom a recommendation for the Chase Medic. That was most often done by the Launch Officer who was on the forward support site (FSS) duty that day, who rode along in the C&C ship. Likewise, the medic seldom knew who the pilots and gunners were in their chopper. Everyone rotated. Though belated and insufficient, we hope that our book will help give them proper recognition.

As you might surmise, we find Lindsey’s book a treasure trove of valuable information. There is a great deal of errata to the book posted at http://www.ccs-sog.org/, also.

Book Recommendation: Gentle Propositions by J.S. Economos

Economos_gentle_propositionsWhile the title sounds like it ought to be The Great Lost Austen Masterpiece, the book is a masterpiece of a different kind. This is not a full review — we’re not through with the book yet — but at the halfway or so point, it’s so good that we wanted to share it with you.

Gentle Propositions is a tale of SOG recon in Vietnam, and what sets it apart from many such novels is the author’s attention to accurate detail while not losing sight of the purpose of any novel, to engage and entertain the reader. It has done that well; it’s been a rollicking ride through all phases of a recon man’s life, especially the operational ones: mission prep, training, mission execution, recon, reporting, chance contact and immediate action, routine exfiltration and the much hairier worst-case of withdrawal under fire.

He also doesn’t neglect the non-operational: camp life, getting to know the Montagnards, stand-downs, being weathered out, meeting other teams at the pad (and being met by other teams when you came out), losing friends, getting drunk. True details of weapons and patrolling SOPs come alive just as the SOG Recon Teams used them back in 1969-70, and true details of Montagnard village life and the cross-cultural bonds of Straw Hat (American) and Yards are just as alive.

It’s all here: The Lottery, the target area no one wanted; what happens when you land on an NVA base area in the immediate aftermath of an Arc Light; what a Covey Rider did and what SPAF stood for; why not many medics ran recon. He does not shy away from the thorny problem of what happened when a guy served to his limit, wherever it was, and his luck or courage were all used up. He does not tell you how it feels to lose friends “across the fence,” never to be recovered: he shows you.

Economos is not an SF vet, but there’s something interesting about this book: the blurbs on the cover are all, or almost all, Vietnam-era SOG recon soldiers. They like it and they’re a hard bunch to please. He nails little details that he only could have done if he met these men or interviewed many who had, details like Bob Howard’s smile.

Like Howard, real men of CCC recon appear in the book, always in character and appropriately, the only fictional bit is their actual interactions with Economos’s fictional characters. We postdate the Vietnam War by quite a bit but there were still many bit players, extras if you will, whom we served with later on, and it was a thrill to see them and to see that they were handled appropriately and respectfully.

Most people who read this book, if it’s half as successful as it ought to be, won’t know a couple dozen of the old SF guys namechecked in here, but it doesn’t matter, as Economos’s accuracy doesn’t detract from his plot or character development: it’s a book you can, and should, read for the thrill of the story, and just note to yourself before you dive in that it is a more accurate depiction of life in SOG recon than many books that sell as non-fiction.

It’s available on Amazon as Kindle or paperback. We read the paperback.

Quoth McRaven: If you want to change the world…

Admiral William McRaven, who should need no introduction to this audience, spoke at the commencement ceremony for the University of Texas this year; he himself was a Longhorn and was commissioned from the NROTC program there in 1977, so, like us, he had the grim experience of the Carter era tempered by the positive experience of Vietnam-vet mentorship. He spoke to over 8,000 graduates (we knew they did things big in the Lone Star State, but we had no idea, given our history with a bunch of little colleges nobody famous ever came from).

Personally, we’ve seen him speak extemporaneously, and he’s more powerful and effective than he is with this prepared speech. It’s about 20 minutes long; we have his ten lessons from SEAL training for those who want to change the world after the video, but they’ll be kind of cryptic without the context in the speech.

  1. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
  2. If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
  3. If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.
  4. If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.
  5. If you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.
  6. If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.
  7. If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
  8. If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.
  9. If you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.
  10. If you want to change the world don’t ever ring the bell.

The freshly-graduated Longhorns seem bemused by some of these points.

(We’ve put this in the “SF History and Lore” category, because even though McRaven is a frogman, and their selection and training is just as specialized as their maritime missions and unique history, the essential take-away is the same simple, but hard commitment that will get you through SFAS/SFQC just like BUD/S: don’t quit).

No, SOF Guys are not Psychopaths

crazy-guyLook, some guys will do anything to sell a book. Case in point, from the Telegraph:

Behaving like a psychopath could help you in your career and love life. It’s counterintuitive – who, after all, would hire Hannibal Lecter or want to date Norman Bates – but that’s the idea behind The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success, part popular science book, part self-help guide from Andy McNab and Oxford psychology professor Kevin Dutton.

“I wanted to debunk the myth that all psychopaths are bad,” says Dutton, who has explored this subject before. “I’d done research with the special forces, with surgeons, with top hedge fund managers and barristers. Almost all of them had psychopathic traits, but they’d harnessed them in ways to make them better at what they do.”

It was through this research that he met retired SAS sergeant and bestselling author McNab, who in tests exhibited many of these psychopathic traits, including ruthlessness, fearlessness, impulsivity, reduced empathy, developed self-confidence and lack of remorse.

via Why psychopaths are more successful – Telegraph.

Yes, if you are an airhead like Dutton, who thinks that normal manly traits at normal, if perhaps on the elevated side, healthy levels are psychopathic, you think this nonsense. And if you’re a guy who’s ego is its own brand, like McNab, a guy who depends on selling books to feed his family, you’re well advised to get psycopathic about self-promotion.

But we probably know more SOF guys (and their families) than we know non-SOF guys. Psychopaths? Great googly moogly, some people watch too much TV.

The Medicine that Sickened

All you have to lose is your mind.

All you have to lose is your mind. Other than that, this is great stuff.

Malaria is a scourge. Today, thanks largely to the world DDT ban, it devastates Africa, killing two million or more every year, mostly children. (Thank you, Rachel Carson). But it is not only a devastator of populations, it’s a neutralizer of armies, too. History recounts how it has sunk one army after another. In the Seminole War in the early 19th Century, it thinned the ranks of invading white man and defending Indian alike; in World War II it killed Allied POWs and their Japanese guards with cruel neutrality.

The US Army first defeated malaria, along with yellow fever, while building the Panama Canal a century ago. This was one of the great public health victories in world history. (Those diseases, especially yellow fever, had defeated an earlier French attempt to canalize the isthmus). There was no inoculation or prophylactic — in Panama, they drained standing water and sprayed DDT to kill the mosquitos. Even after the victory of Panama, malaria was still a bitter enemy everywhere soldiers and Marines went: Phillipines, Haiti, even the southeastern US mainland.

The Army gained new experience of malaria in World War II in the Pacific and did not like it one bit. The crude quinines and synthetics of the era, like atabrine, were only marginally effective in preventing the parasite-borne disease. The fabled Merrill’s Marauders, the 5307th Composite Group (Provisional), had a single five-month (Feb-Jun 1944) combat mission, and at mission’s end, only two men were neither wounded nor sick; 66% of the unit (not the casualties) were casualties due to illness; the unit was disbanded, but that only brought the paperwork in line with what malaria (and malnutrition, thanks to dependence on the inadequate K Ration) had already done.

So at the outbreak of the Global War On Tourism, the US Army insisted on malaria prophylaxis for its troops deployed to Afghanistan, and later Iraq. Because the Army doesn’t do subtlety, they required all the deployed troops to take the drugs — even those living at 10,000 feet, well above the service ceiling of malaria’s mosquito vectors. The two drugs then used were the approved antibiotic doxycycline, which was restricted to aviators because of its cost, and the cheaper mefloquine, which had never been able to win approval because of its side effects. The hazards were certainly known in 2001; that year, a team of Army physician/researchers wrote that:

During the Vietnam War, mefloquine was developed by the US Army to counter chloroquine resistance in falciparum malaria, but its more general use by the traveling population revealed potentially serious neuropsychiatric adverse events.

While the Medical Corps knew the deal, the institutional Army’s answer to the side effects was to deny them. But mefloquine definitely messed with one’s Brain Housing Group. One common, and relatively mild, side effect was violent, bloodthirsty and disturbing dreams.

Federal drug officials have issued a strong new warning about a controversial anti-malaria medication once routinely given to U.S. troops, some of whom say it damaged them permanently.

The Food and Drug Administration ordered manufacturers of mefloquine hydrochloride to give the medicine a black box label, the agency’s strongest warning, reserved for drugs with significant risks of serious side effects. The FDA said that some neurological and psychiatric side effects can last for months or years after a patient stops taking the drug.

But the drug has long carried warnings tying it to dizziness, seizures, insomnia, anxiety, depression and strange dreams. One clinical trial found that 29% of travelers who took mefloquine experienced at least one of those side effects. There is also evidence suggesting a link to violent behavior, including suicide.

We can’t speak for suicide, obviously, but we had the dreams. Axe murderer dreams. We we were the axe murderer. The blogger for the American Legion’s Burn Pit, who goes by the historically literate term Mothax, has even more chilling memories.

I don’t know about the study, but anecdotally I can tell you I stopped taking mine and just risked the Malaria because the stuff messed me up so bad.  The first time my battle-buddy took it he was awake for 3 straight days, mostly watching CSI episodes the entire time.  I just had horrible nightmares, felt sick the whole time, and started hearing voices.

Again, that’s just anecdotal, but I heard a gazillion stories of a similiar like, so this honestly doesn’t surprise me at all.

via Feds issue warning about Lariam/Mefloquine | The American Legion’s BurnPit.

The bad dreams were extremely disturbing. To see that and raise it to “hearing voices” — boy howdy. We were told to stay on the stuff for six months after RTB (despite none of use having ever seen a living mosquito or any flying insect in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan or Pakistan) and we thing we speak for the whole unit in saying that we all destroyed the stuff one way or another as soon as we were away from the mandatory “Mefloquine Mondays” our medics led.

Merrill's MaraudersThis is not to reject the idea of malaria prophylaxis. Here’s are a couple of papers to read about the Marauders. (Merrill, by the way, fell early on, to heart attack and malaria, and the unit was led by Colonel Charles Hunter for most of the campaign, whose name you’ve never heard. “Merrill’s Marauders” was a name bestowed by journalists; the men knew it by its code name, Galahad, which is the title of Hunter’s memoir of the operation).

The two papers are from the mid-seventies and are not the last word on this subject, but they’re both worth reading:

Thompson, Robert J. Jr. Commander’s impact on preventing disease during military conflicts. This covers disease in general, but includes a case study on the 5307th. Thompson writes:

Disease was the major factor contributing to the demise of the Marauders. Before the campaign started U.S. planners recognized the severe medical threat posed by the Marauders’ area of operations. General Stillwell’s staff estimated that 85 percent of the Marauders would be lost before it finished its mission, with 35 percent killed and wounded and 50 percent evacuated with disease. Actual casualty statistics indicate that the Marauders lost only 14 percent killed and wounded but 66 percent to disease.

Gaither, John B. Galahad redux: an assessment of the disintegration of Merrill’s Marauders.

Gaither notes that malaria, which was pandemic in Burma at the time, attacked the unit on arrival. The 5307th had three battalions, originally, and about 2800 men. (One battalion came from volunteers from the Southwest Pacific theater of war, one of volunteers from the 33rd Infantry Regiment in the Caribbean, and one from volunteers from the Zone of the Interior, the Continental US.

Another omen that materialized durIng the training phase concerned the malaria rate in the newly arrived unit. While generally bad, the situation in the 3rd Battalion (the Pacific volunteers) was abysmal. Medical estimates projected a 12.8%. evacuation rate in the battallion, If three relapses were established as the crIteria for hospitalization.

The rate would actually be higher than that.

This long digression into Marauder history is simply to reinforce the idea we’re not blind to the military impact of unchecked malaria. But a medicine the inoculates you against malaria, but distorts, degrades and generally messes with your mind? That was always a bad idea.