By Mark Knapp
It took a lot of bloodshed to make it possible for me to sit at home and read about the jungles of Vietnam, write about the Second Amendment and hold forth on sundry other topics. Come to think of it, the only reason you and I can own guns and shoot without asking anyone’s permission is because of a trail of blood that runs from through the American Revolutionary War right up to the Mountains of Afghanistan.
The trail runs right through the jungles of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Many are convinced that Vietnam wasn’t worth the cost. Cut the Vietnamese people that experienced the oppression of Communism know otherwise.
I recently met Ken Snyder at a dinner party and we started talking about how he and his wife like to get out and do some shooting. My ears really perked up as soon as he mentioned his experience as a Loach helicopter pilot. Even in the age of helicopters and other mechanized warfare there are warriors in our midst that are akin to famous scouts like Kit Carson and Daniel Boone and I already knew the story about Loach pilots from having once read a nice little volume entitled Low Level Hell.
The true story of Loach pilot, Hugh Mills, Jr., is worth reading. He and other scout helicopter pilots like Ken would fly along enemy trails below the tree line and report back signs of the enemy during the Vietnam War. The Loach scouting helicopter gained its nickname from the acronym LOH which stands for OH-6 Light Observation Helicopter.
To my surprise, Ken had taken over command of the Scout Platoon from Hugh Mills upon completion of Mills’ second tour in 1972. Ken told me:
“My tour with C/16 Cav was after the Mi Li massacre and the rules of engagement were somewhat restrictive. I know this is going to sound crazy, but the things you do when you’re young! We would aggressively pursue the enemy and expose ourselves deliberately in order to draw their fire. Once they made that mistake, then their a** was ours! We carried super bombs (2 one pound sticks of C-4 taped to a concussion grenade), the door gunners had an M-60 hanging from a bungee cord in the back as well as a large assortment of grenades (fragmentation, white phosphorus, various colored smoke, cs tear gas) at their disposal and several thousand rounds of ammo. Our 7.62 mm electrically fired mini-guns carried several thousand rounds also; additionally, the pilot carried a CAR-15 and 38 caliber pistol. I’ve observed several LOH pilots fire their pistols at the bad guys while flying with their left hand.”
When we visited and his wife Judith at their home, I started looking at the books on the coffee tables in his home- books like SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam. I asked Ken why he had so many books about the legendary Special Operations Group (code named Studies and Operations Group to make it seem like a liaison to academia).
It turns out that, before he flew helicopters, Ken already had served his country in Vietnam as a “One Zero”, team lead for a SOG Recon Unit. He and two other Americans worked with a group of about five Montagnards, the mountain people of Vietnam that hated the South Vietnamese as much as they hated the North Vietnamese.
Ken, who grew up in Rockport, Wash. near Sedro-Woolley, joined the Green Berets and arrived in Vietnam just as Military Assistance Command Vietnam began to take over certain covert programs from the CIA. He and other Green Berets were invited to meet with a mysterious recruiter who would only give them some idea of how much danger was involved and then give anyone that wanted to leave the opportunity to walk out of the room with no questions asked. Ken stayed and later learned that the mission involved inserting teams like Ken’s into Laos and Cambodia in such a way as to maintain deniability. Even their cigarettes had to be Asian in order to maintain the legal fiction that they were not operating within the U.S. chain of command. Some Recon Teams even operated deep within North Vietnam.
Ken seemed to favor the CAR-15 and tells me the teams had just started getting red dot sights in 1969 when he was completing his tour of duty. I started looking at pictures of the CAR-15 on the internet and realized that it wasn’t too much different than my new Rainier Urban Combat rifle that Aristotle sold me for competition in tactical rifle matches.
I get kind of excited talking about my light weight little RUC because last fall I went up to the range in Custer, Washington to shoot my Rock River service match rifle on the “Jungle Run” that I heard about from other USPSA shooters. When I got to Custer I immediately met the guy who had started the tactical rifle matches at Custer, David Howlett. David, who also founded the United States Tactical Rifle Association, helped me get through the trails, rabbit warrens and mazes that challenge even experienced veterans of such events. The first thing I realized was that my fixed 3X sighting system on a heavy, full-size AR with an A2 buttstock is not effective for engaging targets at close quarters. That is what lead to purchasing my RUC rifle which- as far as I can tell- is a direct descendent of the CAR-15.
I asked Ken about the weapons he and his Recon Team (RT) used during the secret war in Laos and Cambodia. The armory provided SOG units with almost any weapons of their choice:
FOB2/CCC worked primarily in Laos around the Tri-border area during my tour (1969) with a few missions into Cambodia. We would equip one Yard with a M-79 grenade launcher. The 1911 in .45 ACP was really the pistol of choice. I carried an old .45 submachine gun a lot of the time (it could really reach out through the bamboo) and the 9mm Swedish K, although it didn’t have the knockdown power the .45 had. The CAR-15 (a shorter version of the M-16) was great simply because it was light weight. The Yards (Montagnards) had the same availability but their equipment was pretty much determined by the One Zero. We all carried at least one Claymore, half a dozen or more frags, several hundred rounds of ammo, one or more bandoleers of M-79 rounds, one or more bricks of C-4 and lengths of Det Cord with time pencils, etc. and rations for 7-10 days. The One Zero was issued a .22 caliber w/silencer for POW snatch.
A typical mission was intended to be 7 to 10 days duration. A team would be assigned an Area of Operation (AO) that was 10 km by 10 km in size and deep within enemy held territory.
One particular mission was several days from an insertion point and the team observed a highly travelled section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. If activity permitted, they were tasked with placing an anti-vehicular mine on the trail. The NVA were running hundreds of trucks down the Ho Chi Minh trail every month. Much of “trail”- just within the border of Laos- was actually a network of well maintained roadways through the jungle.
Ken, the team’s leader, observed the trail for more than twenty-four hours with little or no activity, Just before sundown, Ken positioned the team closer to the trail in preparation to emplace the mine. His team had no sooner set out Claymore anti-personnel mines when his right flank team member spotted the enemy coming up the trail. The enemy point detected the SOG team’s presence and immediately opened fire. The RT detonated claymores and killed several NVA less than 10 feet in front of them.
The remaining NVA dropped their packs and rice bags and scattered into the jungle. One of the RT Montagnards suffered an AK-47 round through his hip. Ken and his second in command carried the “Yard” across the small valley and up the ridge to a safer position. The wounded man thought the team was going to leave him and clung to Ken who had to pry his hands loose in order to get assistance carrying him to a landing zone where the team could be extracted. The team had been in the field about four days at this time and was pretty well spent.
Ken and his men moved up a ridgeline as darkness descended. The enemy had regrouped and NVA troops swarmed around the area looking for the RT to get some revenge. The team took cover in a bomb crater and radioed for the F-4s and A-1Es that provided close support. Ken could hear the bad guys yelling commands and maneuvering all around the SOG team’s position.
Within an hour, extraction helicopters were on station and attempted to land within the crater to take them out. The jungle was too close and the helicopters could not land even though one of the CH-34s-flown by a South Vietnamese pilot chopped the tops out of several trees trying to descend into the crater.
While taking heavy fire from all directions in total darkness, a Huey came in and hovered 100 feet over the team’s strobe signal and dropped ropes. Ken secured three of the Yards and Sgt. Pope, the American radio operator, onto the four strings and the Huey lifted off. All the while, AH-1G Cobra helicopters were firing into the perimeter to provide cover for the extraction.
A second Huey came in and Ken secured the wounded Montagnard, another SOG and himself onto the strings. The Huey lifted off with the four team members dangling below the helicopter- over 100 feet above enemy territory- in the dead of night with tracers flying around them. The wounded Yard was completely out of it with two morphine injections. They landed approximately 45 minutes later in South Vietnam at Dak Pek, a small outpost close to the Vietnam Laotian border. The wounded Yard later recovered and came back to the team after several months.
If we can just arrange for some helicopters to rope us into the Custer range for some friendly competition, I will live out my days in peace! But Ken tells me that his experiences described above were just a normal mission and SOG Recon Teams were surrounded by hundreds of enemy units on a regular basis.
Most of the American public would still be totally surprised to realize how large and well supplied North Vietnam was in 1969. Thanks to China and Russia they even had tanks! SOG teams executed their secret warfare because North Vietnam and its Communist allies were all but protected by the dictates of diplomatic and political reality that protected their refuges just outside of Vietnam’s borders but men like Ken Snyder even-upped the score. By killing as many as 150 of the enemy for every SOG that was lost.