On the last day of 1969, a reconnaissance team from the top-secret Studies and Observations Group (SOG) was inserted by helicopter into a North Vietnamese staging ground in northeastern Cambodia known as Base Area 702. Enemy gunners were waiting, and shot them off both their primary and alternate landing zones. The next day, the same team walked into Laos from South Vietnam, only to run into another North Vietnamese force. They called for an extraction and were pulled out under heavy fire.
On 9 January 1970, another Recon team in the same area bumped into an enemy force near the end of an eight day mission. Two U.S. team members were killed during a running firefight and the rest were eventually extracted. A SOG Bright Light rescue team later recovered the bodies.Running cross-border operations was always extremely dangerous, but by early 1970, the beginning of the U.S. military’s twilight in Vietnam, they were getting worse. Nowhere was this truer than along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where Command and Control North (CCN) - the Danang-based SOG reconnaissance and exploitation forces responsible for all of eastern Laos and the DMZ - faced thick North Vietnamese patrols and unprecedented amounts of anti-aircraft fire during infiltration and exfiltration. So heavy was the flack that enemy gunners had made several map grid squares all but impossible for helicopter insertions.
Guy Butler - www.butlerimage.co.uk
In response, SOG had groped for new methods of running the North Vietnamese gauntlet. One suggestion came from William “Billy” Waugh, a SOG Sergeant Major known for his daring and usually unorthodox schemes. He raised the possibility of using parachutes to gain entry into the hottest real estate the Ho Chi Minh Trail had to offer. More specifically, Waugh had a High-Altitude Low-Opening (HALO) freefall jump in mind.
While taking up the HALO idea, Waugh found a firm ally in Colonel Dan Shungel, the Special Forces officer perhaps best known for his role in the battle at Lang Vei near Khe Sanh in January, 1968. Since February 1970, Shungel had taken over as commander of SOG’s Ground Studies Group, known as OP 35, which was responsible for reconnaissance missions into Laos, Cambodia and the DMZ. Billy recalls that Colonel Shungel literally put his military career at stake in order to get MACV to accept the concept of a HALO mission by selected SOG personnel. A freefall enthusiast after receiving HALO training during his prior posting at Fort Bragg, Shungel that summer brought over a
trio of skydivers to quietly flesh out Waugh’s concept. The first, Ray Henson, was an experienced HALO jumper who had been on the US Army’s demonstration team. The second, Tony Appelton, had also amassed a considerable number of freefalls. The last, Melvin Hill, had been Shungel’s HALO instructor. Of the three, only Hill had a previous SOG tour; the others had yet to run recon missions.
In this detail shot you can see the T-10 reserve chute (missing the metal handle at the moment) as well as the UZI SMG, which was supplied with a detachable silencer. Guy Butler - www.butlerimage.co.uk
Once in country, Shungel’s three parachutists were shunted off to temporary assignments until OP 35 was granted formal approval to begin a HALO program. For Hill and Henson, that meant desk slots at the Liaison Service – the South Vietnamese counterpart to Op 35 – where they assisted with an assortment of administrative duties. Appelton went to Ban Me Thuot to join Waugh, then serving as Sergeant Major for SOG’s Command and Control South (CCS), which was responsible for cross border missions into Cambodia. For the time, Appelton was assigned to Recon Team (RT) PLANE, arguably one of the best teams on the CCS roster. Comprised of Rhade Montagnard tribesmen,
PLANE had gained a solid reputation for achievements like bringing back not one, but four PAVN snatches on a single Cambodian foray (all subsequently died from wounds sustained in their capture). In July 1970, CCS closed down, and by August or September 1970, Waugh was asked by Shungel to take over Recon Company at CCN and continue recruiting for the HALO team.
About a month later, Shungel and Waugh were given the green light to create their HALO team. First they yanked Appleton and Hill from their temporary assignments and directed them towards the OP 35 training compound (inter-compound) at Camp Long Thanh, just east of Saigon. Next, the search began for indigenous volunteers. Appleton brought four, stripping RT PLANE of its best Rhade members, Tiak Bya-Ya, Noe Nie-Ya, Wak Nie-Ya, and Klu Bay-Ya. Three Vietnamese volunteers joined them, at the insistence of the Liaison Service.
The budding HALO team was completed when Staff Sergeant Cliff Newman and Sergeant First Class Sammy Hernandez volunteered. Newman was the One-Zero (team leader) for CCN’s RT OHIO; Hernandez was RT OHIO’S One-One (assistant team leader). Both had considerable hours running recon missions. Sammy came up from Project DELTA, a strategic reconnaissance operation in the northern half of South Vietnam that had closed earlier in the year. On their first mission together in Laos, the team hit a road crew and blew up a bulldozer that was repairing the trail. Cliff and Sammy both stated that they don’t remember volunteering…but do remember that Waugh told them that he
had “a good deal” for them. They also knew that Waugh wouldn’t ask anyone to go on a mission that he wouldn’t go on himself.
With selection complete, HALO training was set to begin. SOG, however, did not have a HALO school of its own. That, combined with a desire to keep the training a secret, led SOG headquarters to request that instruction take place on Okinawa under the auspices of the 1st Special Forces Group. The approval came immediately, and on 16 October 1970, the SOG HALO team, together with Billy Waugh, readied themselves to leave Long Thanh. Shungel dubbed the team RT FLORIDA, after his home state, and ordered Henson to lead the men through the airborne course. On their way to Okinawa on the C-130E, a liaison officer from SOG, a major who apparently hadn’t been briefed very
Front view of our recreation of a SOG Halo team member prior to jumping, note the Tropical Rucksack worn beneath the T-10 Reserve Shoot. We would be interested to know exactly how this was attached the jumper if you have any information please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org
thoroughly, kept eyeing the HALO equipment and finally asked where the static lines were. The team explained that they were going a little higher and would not be using static lines. On Okinawa, training took a toll on the freefall team. Klu Bya Ya, RT PLANE’S M-79 man, landed in the water off Ishima Island on his first jump and promptly quit. All but one of the Vietnamese also dropped out. Most tragic of all was the death of Tony Appleton, who took his own life with a pistol over
family problems. Prior to leaving Okinawa, the press had suspicions that Special Forces were training Montagnards and managed to take a long distance photograph of Hernandez wearing a bunny helmet and parachute harness. Evidently they thought Sammy was one of the Montagnards.
The Okinawa phase completed, what was left of RT FLORIDA returned to Long Thanh. There they practiced ground operations and did some night HALO jumps, attempting all the while to keep their HALO specialty a secret. Wok Nie Ya, PLANE’S zero one, shot himself in the foot. During one of their training jumps into War Zone D, Waugh busted his ankle and had to drop out as a team member of the first HALO mission. On one of their early morning jumps near Long Thanh, the team missed the drop zone and were scattered over the aviation company’s compound. The First Sergeant of the company had just awakened and stepped outside his orderly room only to be greeted by Sammy, who landed
on the roof of the orderly room. The First Sergeant later stated, after he recovered from his heart attack, that he thought Sammy and the other jumpers were North Vietnamese invaders.
Rear view of the chute equipped team member, please note this is not the correct parachute.
Up at CCN, meanwhile, Danang had already preceded its planned HALO mission with a low-level, static line jump. Chosen for the operation was RT ASP, once comprised of former North Vietnamese soldiers called hoi chanhs, but now thoroughly diluted with South Vietnamese recruits. ASP’s One-Zero was Garret Robb, and he liked to run alone with his Vietnamese. For this particular mission, Robert Ramsey, a training sergeant, joined Robb with CCN’s recon company, and two of his indigenous team members.
Shortly after midnight on 8 September, RT ASP chuted up for their low-level parachute insertion into a region on the map known as Target Gridsquare Echo, just west of the Demilitarized Zone. They were set to jump at 400 feet from a C-130E Combat Talon. None of the four wore reserve chutes. As Robb remembers it, “We exited the plane at 0400 hours, and dropped short near a North Vietnamese basecamp. We were below a ridge, while the North Vietnamese were up along the ridge. They started looking for us at daybreak. We managed to call in a few air strikes before a Huey from Quang Tri picked us up at 1000 hours.”
With ASP’s successful recovery as precedent, CCN made final preparations for RT FLORIDA’s freefall. By that time, the team was reduced to six: Hill, Newman, Hernandez, Tiak B-ya, No Nie and a Vietnamese warrant officer named Thao. From these six, Hill was senior man and would be FLORIDA’s team leader.
FLORIDA’s jump would be the first combat HALO in the history of the U.S. Army, so SOG wanted the best equipment possible. Unfortunately, there was not much in the military inventory that fit the bill, leaving the team little alternative except to improvise. To help, Master Sergeant Frank Norbury, one of the most respected freefall instructors at Fort Bragg, was dispatched to Long Thanh to lend his assistance. Together with another freefall specialist, Master Sergeant Harry Denny, he created the Norden Light: an illumination device (rigged from a light-wand used in air traffic control on the ground) fixed to the back of the main parachute pack tray. A second Norden Light was attached to the top of
the canopy at the apex. The Norden Light was connected to the power source by commo wire (WD-1), which ran down the suspension line to the power source under the reserve parachute. Two toggle switches were used to turn the lights on and off. One was carried in the palm during freefall and the other was mounted on the reserve parachute. However the Norden Light would not be used by RT FLORIDA on the first jump, as there were still some flaws with the commo wire breaking when the parachute was deployed. Cliff used a VS-17 panel under the bungee bands on the backpack of the parachute on their training jumps.
Side view of the parachute chute equied team member
More improvisations followed. The parachutes were standard T-10, modified to a 7-gore TU to improve maneuverability. For timing devices - which automatically deployed the main chute at a designated altitude should the parachutist fail to do so - SOG procured Czech-made KAP III timers, which were far more reliable than the standard U.S. alternative. Also procured was Tierra Spray (it has since been deemed a biohazard), a green florescent mixture that, when coated on a freefall team, would allow them to see each other while falling through the darkness. It actually didn’t work that well. Finally, the CIA loaned a homing beacon to be carried by Newman. Each team member would carry a
transistor radio which, when tuned to the right frequency, allowed them to converge on Newman on the ground.
By the third of November, RT FLORIDA was ready. As the team gathered at the CCN isolation area in Danang, however, US intelligence sources began to suspect that the mission was already compromised and the mission was postponed a couple of days. Again, signs pointed towards compromise and the mission was postponed for several more days. This time, a radio intercept showed that the North Vietnamese not only knew of the mission and the drop zone coordinates, but also the names of everyone in RT FLORIDA, to include Billy Waugh, who wasn’t jumping.
Faced with a serious leak in its operational security, OP 35 was forced to change drop zones. The new target was 40 kilometers south of Khe Sanh and 15 kilometers inside the Laotain border. Although the region was rugged and sparsely populated, it was well known for its dense anti-aircraft protection. And if there were any doubts about North Vietnamese vigilance, they were dispelled when Hill made a visual reconnaissance of the area in a Nail OV-10, only to have the windshield shot out of the plane.
During the final week of November, RT FLORIDA again suited up to jump. This time, on the suspicion that the leak had occurred in Danang, the team assembled in Long Thanh. At 0200 hours on 28 November 1970, the six RT FLORIDA members filed aboard a C-130E Combat Talon Black Bird. Frank Norbury, recovering from malaria, got out of bed to act as jumpmaster. Heading north, the aircraft rose to 17,000 feet and crossed into Laos. Five minutes from drop-time, the team did its equipment check and found that the light on Hill’s (the One-Zero) altimeter had burned out. This meant that he would not know when to deploy his chute. Improvising, Hill tried dousing the front of his body with Tierra Spray, but still could not get enough illumination to see the altimeter.
A photo of the MOD Longmore Training site
Unwilling to abort the mission, Hill and the rest of the team moved to the edge of the tail ramp. Employing Combat Skyspot, a navigational system using ground-based radar positions, the C-130E crew came up on the drop zone. With a hand signal from Norbury, RT Florida stepped off the ramp and into the night.
As he had practiced many times before, Newman would exit first, followed by the rest of the team. Within 2,000 feet, however, the team hit rain clouds and lost sight of each other. Hill, who could not see his altimeter, remembered from the team’s weather briefing that the first of two cloud layers ended at 4,000 feet, at which time he began counting before pulling his ripcord. But he opened his chute too soon and drifted from the rest of the team.
Once on the ground, problems continued to mount. The drop zone turned out to be buried under six inches of water, and when Newman set up his homing device, it shorted out. Worse, the Combat Skyspot navigational system, supposedly highly accurate, had put the team a dozen kilometers off its intended target.
Separated on the ground, in enemy territory, with poor weather closing in, and without maps of the area, RT FLORIDA’s members focused on staying alive. Climbing an adjacent hill burned away by a lighting strike, Newman ran into Tiak Bya-Ya (now living in Hope Mills, NC), one of the two Rhade on the team, and the two tried to raise a Covey Forward Air Control (FAC) plane on the radio. The other Rhade, No Nie-Ya, managed to link up with the Vietnamese warrant officer. Hill and Hernandez were both alone. This was not the first or last time that Hernandez would find himself alone in the enemy’s backyard.
A search was immediately launched for the missing team. Looking in the wrong vicinity, however, it took three days before a Covey (Al Mosiello, flown by Jim Lathham, later a POW and Commander of the Thunderbirds) finally broke through the clouds and made visual contact with Newman. The team members were glad to see friendly aircraft, but it also alerted the North Vietnamese to the presence of a SOG team. Enemy patrols approached, forcing RT FLORIDA to call in repeated A-1 Skyraider strikes from Nakhon Phanom, Thailand.Two days of poor weather kept rescue aircraft on the ground. It was not until 2 December that a pair of CH-53 helicopters attempted an exfiltration. Hill recalls that the team had chosen to use the URC-10 survival radios, as their prime means of communications. This later proved to be a saving grace decision. Hill’s radio was soaked enough that he lost voice communications. Al Mosiello, an old radio
operator, was able to remain in contact with Hill by Hill sending CW (Morse Code) to the Covey Mosiello responded, and relaying to Newman by voice to maintain intra-team communications. Newman then provided team directions and intentions to the Covey. Rendezvousing with the orbiting Covey, the choppers headed for four separate pick-up locations to collect the men. While retrieving Hill on a jungle penetrator, small arms fire rang out from the triple canopy, hitting Hill in the right shin with a spent round. The other lifts were completed without incident and returned to NKP Thailand.
RT FLORIDA proved that HALO could be used to get a team in and out alive. SOG concluded that, “as a means of entry this technique was considered proven, since an active enemy search was not made to locate the team.” Better yet, nobody was killed, so Shungel and Waugh continued to expand their pet project. By the beginning of 1971, Frank Norbury, assisted by Harry Denny, Cliff Newman, Melvin Hill, George Zacker, and a handful of other HALO specialists, had established a freefall course at Long Thanh and began training a mixed class of Americans and South Vietnamese.Cliff Newman remembers another humorous antidote that took place when the school was set up.
Colonel Shungle wanted to make a jump. Cliff spotted the C-130 from 12,500 feet. As Cliff did a standing landing in front of the PIO people from Saigon, Colonel Shungle went into the woods. When they made contact with him by radio, Cliff clearly remembers the transmission: “Tell Newman to assume the position of attention and do not leave the drop zone!” Cliff recalls, “I figured I had my second butt-chewing coming from him.” (The first had been when Cliff took his team members to Saigon prior to the first insert for a night of partying.) “After Shungle went into the woods, Melvin gave
me a rotten carrot to improve my eyesight.”
After a dozen more students were trained, a decision was made in the late spring to form a second HALO team. Billy Waugh, the recon company Sergeant Major at CCN, decided to have just four Americans on the team. Because on the previous jump, considerable time had been wasted trying to assemble on the ground. This time each member was to be equipped with two radios to continue his mission independently if necessary. Chosen as team leader was Captain Larry Manes, who headed CCN’s recon company and had been a freefall instructor at Long Thanh earlier that year. Three others, Specialist Six Noel Gast, Staff Sergeant Robert Castillo, and Sergeant John “Spider” Trantanella were
from the HALO-qualified RT IDAHO. Sergeant First Class Charles Wesley, from Recon Company was the standby jumper, but was called on emergency leave the night before the jump. Sergeant Jesse Campbell would now be the stand by jumper.During the pre-dawn hours of 7 May 1971, Captain Manes’ team moved to Danang airfield and
boarded a C-130E. By this time, restrictions leveled against SOG prevented Americans from entering Laos, so their target was a new North Vietnamese supply trail just inside the South Vietnamese border midway between the Ashau Valley and Khe Sanh. At 18,500 feet, the team jumped in pairs. Manes, with a Ranger Eye Panel (illumines tape) attached to the back of the parachute container, and Gast, covered with Tierra Spray, exited first. Murphy’s Law quickly intervened. Gast, who had armed his toe poppers, landed hard on his rucksack causing one of the mines to detonate and wounding Gast in the buttocks (earning himself the nickname Half-Assed Gast).
John (Spider) Trantanella remembered the jump this way. “We used supplemental oxygen by breathing off the oxygen hoses from the console until told to standby. We did not have oxygen masks that were used for normal HALO jumps. Robert and I exited the ramp holding onto each other. I remember I was inverted and my KAP-3 activated around 4,000 feet. There was valley fog and I could not see the ground, but trees protruded through the fog. After checking my canopy, I looked around and saw a canopy about 50 to 100 feet below and to my front. I kept my eyes on the canopy following his moves. He was losing altitude faster than I, as he penetrated the ground fog, I took a last bearing
on his position. All of a sudden, there was a flash, as if a hand grenade went off. Thinking that the North Vietnamese had spotted us, I immediately turned away from the flash. As I entered the fog, I pulled down on the rear risers preparing to land. When I regained my composure (breath) I cut myself free from the harness and parachute. Since it was BMNT, I could not see anything but high weeds and shrubs. I started crawling towards the area I presumed was the flash. I came across several makeshift huts. Still moving, I heard nothing but calm.”
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