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Book Review

SOG by John L. Plaster

SOG

04 August 2005

Kenn Miller

Surely all readers have heard of MACV SOG, the grand ultimate special operations formation of the Vietnam War. But how many of us-including SOG veterans-really know the history of the so-called "Studies and Observations Group"?

Not many. There are some splendid novels by SOG vets, some equally splendid memoirs, and there is Harve Saal's multi-volume history of SOG. But never before has there been a single volume history like this book by SOG veteran John Plaster, and I can't remember when I've learned so much about Vietnam War special operations in one book as I have in this one.

It is almost all here-from agent insertions to recon missions, from Hatchet Force operations in Laos and Cambodia to maritime operations off North Vietnam, from black propaganda to air operations. I say “almost all” because this book covers so much it can't give use every step of every mission. And with SOG, every step of every mission is worth reading about. There are most certainly a number of errors that I'm not qualified - or cleared - to point out. I will leave that for others with better credentials to address. But in my opinion Plaster's SOG is comprehensive, detailed, well written and extremely exciting. This is not your normal book about pilots, commandos, loyal indigenous, idiots in the rear and determined enemies out in the field. It is all that, and more – just as MACV SOG was all you every figured it was, and more.

It is probably safe to say that you will not find a fuller compendium of first-rate true war stories than this - not in just one book, you won't, There's a simple reason for that. This is a wide-ranging book about MACV SOG, and SOG definitely saw some action.

Plaster makes the case that, considered as one Command, MACV SOG stands unique in American – and probably world – military history. The statistics certainly support this claim. The SOG recon company at Kontum, for example, always under strength at around sixty American, produced five Medals of Honour. In total there were twelve SOG Medals of Honour, including Navy and Air Force – and there unquestionably should have been more. Take Robert Howard, for example. He was awarded one MOH, and put in for two more. And then there was the chubby, bespectacled, supposedly non-combatant, sensor reader named Walton, whom Jon Cavaiani tried to put in for the MOH before he himself went on to earn his own Medal of Honour in an incredibly harrowing fashion. Awards and Decorations standards in SOG seem to have been unreasonably strict, and as individuals the men of SOG tended to accept unacknowledged and un-rewarded – which they usually were. Yet MACV SOG is arguably the most highly decorated formation in American history. It was also one of the deadliest, with a kill ratio of enemy to Americans killed reaching as high as 151 to 1. Put this statistic alongside a casualty (wounded, missing, dead) rate for Americans on the operational teams that often seemed to hover around 100%, and you will have some appreciation of both what level of enemy opposition SOG teams were facing, and what sort of men volunteered for SOG.

In modern America, the word, “legend” is usually misapplied to entertainers. In John Plaster's SOG you will read about some men who really did become legendary figures - despite the fact that their missions were about as secret and highly classified as it is possible to get. You will also read about a few real bozos – most of them officers – who had absolutely no business being in SOG. Being a gentleman, Plaster does not identify them by name, which is sort of a shame, because most of those people survived the war and they deserve the exposure. Still, Plaster make it very clear that even the best men could burn out and seek safer duty, with no onus attached to their decision. Among the saddest stories in this book is that of SFC Jerry “Mad Dog” Shriver, who just couldn't bring himself to give it up, even though he apparently knew the odds were about to catch up with him.

This is not a book that any recon veteran – weather he ran recon for SOG or for some slightly less extreme unit – is likely to read without feeling his guts clench on him, for almost every recon nightmare you've ever imagined – and some you haven't had yet – is to be found somewhere in this book. The writing is so good it puts you there, and the stories are often so horrifying you'll probably have to put the book down now and then, because your hands will be shaking. Remember, these are true stories. They can be terrifying, and they can be inspiring. They are always exciting.

The author of SOG, John Plaster, was himself a SOG recon man, but this is not his story of his tour. This is a serious history of some very serious special operations, and Plaster does not intrude himself in places he doesn't belong. Every now and then he mentions some of his own experience, but it always in context, and never written to show himself in a particularly heroic light, beyond the fact that he was a SOG recon man, which is enough to show that in his younger days Plaster himself must've been almost unnaturally brave – or crazy – or both.

There are stories here you won't find anywhere else. There is history here you can't find in one volume anywhere else – and couldn't have found anywhere before it was declassified. John Plaster has found them for us, put them in to one extremely readable piece of work, and I've got to say his SOG is a real prize. Because I got this book without the dust jacket, I don't know the price, but whatever they're charging for SOG it's not enough.

Buy SOG: The Secret Wars of America's Commandos in Vietnam from Amazon.com

This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.

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