Even before the U.S. military deployed significant forces to Vietnam, Army Special Forces operators were on the ground advising and training South Vietnamese troops. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Green Berets fought and trained in Southeast Asia.
Out of the approximately 3.2 million American troops that deployed to Vietnam, 20,000 were Green Berets, who participated in thousands of missions that ranged from reconnaissance patrols to company-size raids to covert cross-border operations. For its courage and aggressiveness, the Army Special Forces Regiment paid a heavy price, losing approximately 900 men in the jungles and paddies of Southeast Asia.
But August 23, 1968, is by far the worst day in terms of casualties for the Special Forces Regiment not only in Vietnam but throughout its storied history.
A Secret Unit Fighting a Secret War
Although most Green Berets served in their operational detachments throughout the country, a few hundred joined a highly classified outfit, the innocuous-sounding Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG).
MACV-SOG was established in 1964 as a covert joint special operations organization tasked with conducting cross-border operations in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and North Vietnam—where U.S. troops weren’t supposed to be according to successive administrations.
SOG was composed of Army Special Forces operators, Navy SEALs, Recon Marines, Air Commandos, and a loyal cadre of local mercenaries.
RELATED: MACV-SOG, THE SPECIAL OPERATIONS UNIT YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
During its eight-year secret war (1964-1972), SOG performed some of the most dashing special operations in U.S. military history, mainly targeting the infamous Ho Chi Minx Trail, a ground-level and underground complex stretching for hundreds of miles from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam, which the North Vietnamese and Vietcong used to fuel their fight in the South.
Divided into three geographical subcommands— Command and Control North (CCN), Command and Control Central (CCC), and Command and Control South (CCS)—SOG worked closely with the U.S. Intelligence Community and military commanders.
It was in one of CCN’s main bases that the worst day in Army Special Forces history unfolded.
“We Came Here to Die”
August 23, 1968.
Forward Operations Base (FOB) 4, a top-secret special operations base, was brimming with life. The day before, dozens of Green Berets had appeared in front of their promotion boards, while SOG was holding its monthly staff meeting on base with commanders and intelligence and operations officers from all operations bases present. Many Green Berets from both groups had stayed on FOB 4 overnight. Meanwhile, a SOG command and control staff had recently relocated from the Da Nang Air Base to FOB 4, further swelling the numbers of Green Berets in the base. No one suspected that in the next hours they would be fighting for their lives in what ended up being the worst day in Army Special Forces history.
Located on the north side of Marble Mountain, a natural feature with five peaks interspersed by flat land, FOB 4 was a staging point for many top-secret cross-border operations.
The North Vietnamese knew that very well, however, and decided to attempt the unthinkable: overrun the SOG base and kill as many Green Berets and local mercenaries as possible. Spearheading the attack would be the fearsome sappers.
By U.S. standards, North Vietnamese sappers could be considered special operations troops. They received six months of advanced training on assault tactics, demolitions, and clandestine infiltration. Throughout the war, they established a name for themselves as a fearsome opponent. But that reputation came at a deadly cost. North Vietnamese sappers were fanatical communists that would eagerly sacrifice themselves in an attack. With elements of the Japanese Kamikaze, the communist sappers were known to attack a target fully expecting to be killed in the process. They often displayed this brutal determination by wearing white headbands that had written in blood, “We came here to die.”
“[The Viet Cong sappers] were dedicated. Remember the headbands: ‘We came here to die.’ And they did. We learned they had planned the attack for over a year, including hitting on a moonless night,” John Stryker “Tilt” Meyer told Sandboxx News.
A legendary SOG operator, Meyer completed two combat tours with SOG, surviving many harrowing missions across the fence. Equally importantly, he has immortalized his experiences and those of his comrades in a series of books. He has also written one of the most authoritative accounts of the attack on FOB 4.
During the early morning hours of August 23, a battalion of Viet Cong and a platoon of communist sappers entered the base. Their attack had been carefully timed with the new moon cycle to give them absolute darkness.
Spike Team Rattler, a SOG recon team, was sitting on the highest peak of Marble Mountain, enjoying a quiet night when suddenly a series of explosions rocked the night. Below them, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong sappers had breached FOB 4’s outer perimeter and were within the camp, hurling satchel charges in every building they could find.
Several of the plywood recon team buildings, transient barracks, the indigenous troops’ mess hall, and the base’s communications bunkers were destroyed in short order. As the structures burned, the enemy sappers, who were coming from the east, fired at anything that moved as they hunted for Americans and their partners to kill.
While all this mayhem was unfolding right below them, the men of ST Rattler were ambushed by North Vietnamese sappers who used ropes to climb to their observation post. Several American commandos and mercenaries were hit before they could repel the attackers.
RELATED: ST IDAHO, THE SPECIAL FORCES TEAM THAT DISAPPEARED IN THE JUNGLE
By this point, the situation in FOB 4 was dire. North Vietnamese troops running amok, while the Green Berets and their loyal partners could only field localized, and often individual, defenses. At one point, several communist sappers strapped with explosives stormed the base’s ammo depot and detonate themselves, creating a huge fireball. This would end being a characteristic of the North Vietnamese attack: communist sappers entering bunkers or buildings and detonating themselves in an attempt to kill as many U.S. troops as possible.
During the fighting inside the camp, one Green Beret had holed up in his barracks when a Viet Cong sapper in shorts came to the door. In a wild west moment, the American commando opened fire first but the communist sapper was a close second.
“I could feel the round snap the air around my eardrum. I raised my weapon just a tad and fired again. This time there was a thudlike [sic] sound as the VC fell to the ground,” the American commando told Meyer.
RELATED: THE AIR COMMANDO WHO DIED SO OTHERS COULD LIVE
Some Green Berets continuously lobbed illuminations rounds from a mortar that kept the base lit up, helping the defenders.
“We asked for continuous flares over Marble Mountain so we could observe any more mortars or enemy movement in the area. This worked out because we were able to stop any further enemy mortar fire from Marble Mountain into the FOB 4 for the rest of the night. The M-79 grenadier on the team would fire into any area that looked like a mortar could be located or at any enemy troops moving for the rest of the night,” a Green Beret defender told Meyer.
An AC-47 Spooky gunship came on station and after establishing contact with ST Rattler, which was still on top of Marble Mountain and had a vantage point of the action going on below, started blasting away with its M134 minigun. Then an AH-1 Cobra helicopter appeared and added its firepower to the defenses, stopping an attempted breakout of more than 1,000 North Vietnamese prisoners from the adjacent prisoner of war camp at one point.
Crucial in the defense of FOB 4 were the indigenous troops who served alongside SOG commandos. They fought valiantly and helped turn the tide of the battle despite suffering heavy casualties.
As the fighting slowly died down, the SOG commandos tended to their wounded, trying to evacuate the ones wounded the worst to a nearby naval hospital. But not even that was easy on that hellish night.
“As we barreled down the road the ambulance took a few rounds but no one was hit. Our next biggest concern was the Marine check point/roadblock at MCAS. We didn’t know how they would react to a vehicle racing down the road toward them in the dark,” a Green Beret told Meyer.
“Normally, once the roadblock was set up every night, the road was closed – so any traffic was considered unfriendly. When we thought we were getting close, the driver started flashing the lights; I hung out the window yelling as loud as I could, ‘Americans! Americans!’ I guess the strategy worked – they didn’t shoot. After a brief stop, they let us through and we made the rest of the trip uneventful.”
With dawn came the bad news: 17 Green Berets had been killed and several more wounded; SOG’s indigenous troops had also suffered heavy losses. But the SOG commandos were able to retrieve from a dead sapper North Vietnamese plans to attack a nearby Marine base on the next day, thus saving American lives even amidst a carnage of death.
Because of the top-secret nature of the MACV-SOG, no official memorial service was held in Vietnam for the fallen Green Berets.
The 17 Green Berets who were killed on that fateful day are:
- SSG Talmadge Horton Alphin, Jr.
- PFC William Henry Bric III
- SFC Tadeusz Marian Kepczyk
- SFC Donald Ray Kerns
- SGT James Thomas Kickliter
- 1LT John Edward Miller
- MSG Charles Raymond Norris
- SGM Richard Epps Pegram, Jr.
- 1LT Paul Douglas Potter
- MSG Rolf Ernst Rickmers
- SP4 Anthony John Santana
- MSG Gilbert Arthur Secor
- SGT Robert Joseph Uyesaka
- SSG Howard Steven Varni
- SFC Harold Robert Voorheis
- SFC Albert Marion Walter
- SFC Donald Walter Welch
Michael Donnelly says
I just ran across this Article. I was in the USMC 5th Communications Compound North of MAG 16 which was immediately North of the Special Forces Compound. We heard and saw the initial explosions. Our React Platoon, of which I was a part came to that area in support. We dug in just West of the Special Forces Fences. I watched the Evacuation by Helicopter of wounded from what is referred to in the article as the Crows Nest. The skill of the Pilot to hold that Helicopter perfectly still while hovering off the edge of that peak, with the back ramp down in order to evacuate wounded to save lives was amazing. It stays with me to this day. The explosion on the adjacent Peak, just to the West shook everything. A jet air strike between and just past those peaks went directly over our heads. I was unaware of the loss of so many Special Forces Personnel and am deeply saddened by that information. May they rest in honored peace. From a Marine: Semper Fi
Charles Pfeifer says
I was there! Blown out of my hootch with a hand grenade, I landed in the sand outside of the front door. Thanks to a mattress I covered myself with, I was only knocked senseless for a few minutes. Then I grabbed my Car, my web gear and as many grenades I could carry….then I helped lead the counterattack. I killed many NVA that night and took NO prisoners! Bad night!!
COL, SF, LEBD says
This is a message for Captain Jay Bowden… I have been searching for an SF Captain who was killed in Vietnam between 1965 and 1969… His last name may have been Jung… His much younger half brother, SFC Joseph Jung, was one of the 5th Special Forces “Horse Soldiers” of the Afghanistan Campaign in 2001… Unfortunately, Joe died in November of 2021 from multiple cancers contracted while sleeping in a Russian nuclear weapons storage bunker at the beginning OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom)… Several other SF operators, from the same time period, and had slept in that same bunker, have died from the same cancer exposure… Just asking…! Thank you..
Can anyone help to clarify following:
Was it likely that there was a secret FOB 4 Special Forces base at Marble Mountain which is only 10 km south of the largest US Air Base in Vietnam? Just asking…
Also some claim that Marble Mountain was a secret Vietcong stronghold from 1965 onwards…
MR Q says
That was a bigger NVA operation than has been written about ..there was more action going on south of marble mountain ..at the same time …what Marine Base was to be hit the next day ??
Melody Madsen says
My brother was Howard Steven Varni. I was 10 years old when he was killed. I always have and always will think of him as a hero. Did anyone know him? Or have any information about him?
Eric Puckett says
My father was Harold J Puckett, a Marine Special Forces Recon soldier during Vietnam who was awarded the Marine Accomodation for Valor in Combat during the war for saving his point mans life by drawing fire on himself when they were ambushed. When I read the paper that was a recommendation for the medal that was written by the man who’s life he saved I asked him how it happened and my father said, “I didn’t do anything but what I was trained to do. It came naturally. I was scared to death and the training took over. I hardly remembered what happened the day after it was all a blur.” He told me very few stories about his time there but ones he did tell me always were missions that crossed into laos or Cambodia which makes me wonder if he was part of the regiment written about here. The story I’ll always remember most was when he said they were in Cambodia and had to find high ground because night was coming and they weren’t going to make it back in time so they decided to find high ground and go back the next morning. When they got to high ground which was discribred about exactly how the picture looks on the beginning of this article, a big hill with flat land all around it for miles he said. At the top was a graveyard. Once they made it there they spotted enemy forces, some ungodly number that I can’t remember how many regiments he said but he gave me a number and claimed they called it into brass who said they were mistaken. That there was no possible way that many enemy soldiers were there without the brasses knowledge. He said that night was the closest to death that he came to during his years in Vietnam. Said he melted 6 machine gun barrels mowing down enemy soldiers who spotted them. All night long they defended the high ground. He said they had to have killed well over 500 enemy soldiers that night, they lost a single man and during emergency evac the next morning they were helecoptered out with the Zipline they would hook to themselves and be hanging as they were flown out of the hip zone. The hooked the casualty up first and as they were lifting out his line was hit(the dead soldiers) and he dropped back down to the battle field. What happened the next morning dad called the worst surprise attack in the history of special forces when the same enemy soldiers surprise attacked multiple special forces bases and I wonder if my dad’s story didn’t happen the day before this attack because as I was reading this I could hear my father’s story and they match up almost identically. I mean EXACTLY. The picture up top was exactly how I pictured my fathers discription. How could I find out if my father was part of this secret regiment? His name was Harold J Puckett. He was special forces Marine Recon and definitely was in this vicenity. He passed away last month and this article brought him and his words, one of the very few stories about his time in Vietnam he ever told me. After the story he told me the reason he told me that was because that was the day that me, my brother, and my sister came the closest to never existing and throughout his life he’s always remembered that day and thanked God for allowing him to make it through it so me and my siblings could have a chance at life and we should be thankful because a lot of the men he faught beside had their futures erased and their children were never given the opportunity to exist which is very sobering. To know that in the late 1960s in a country halfway around the world almost 20 yrs before I was born my and my siblings existence was almost erased and makes u want to live a good life as a way to honor the ones that should have gotten to live but never did because their future father was killed in a conflict they most likely had no clue what it was over. I’m sorry for your loss of your brother. Hopefully we don’t have to endure another war like Vietnam ever but the way the greedy billionaires that fund both sides of conflicts all over the world throughout history are we are doomed to repeat history over and over until we annulate the entire human race eventually.
…ok? the man you replied to is asking about his brother Howard Steven Varni, nobody asked for a biography of your father
Your brother is mentioned in John Plaster’s excellent book about his service with MAC/SOG. “Secret Commandos, Behind enemy lines with the Elite Warriors of SOG”.
Hello, I have information for you, but rather send it in an email.
Melody, do you have email ?
Look up “ The MACV SOG
historical page” on Facebook and post this. There are original members in the group and can provide background. Good luck in your search.
george E. Hand IV says
Splendid read, Stav…
Anamarie C Doan says
My uncle, Kenneth Howard Sage aka “Butch”, served as a Green Beret medic for 3 tours in the jungle. He passed away on 2 JAN 2015 due to AO- related cancer. Is there anybody who might remember him? I’m trying to get as much intel as possible so I have a history to pass on to my son..
Nguyễn Văn Linh says
Thank you Vietnamese heroes! Clear my nation of evil war criminals like Green Beret who raped and mutilated Vietnamese women!
george E. Hand IV says
Thank you all for dying quietly — it hurts the Green Beret’s ears.
xin cam en ong lam.
Ken Shannon says
Really?? Read up on the Apache that Hathcock killed!
You did the same to your own people
Jolan Hall says
Does anyone recall my Hungarian father Josef Szalma ? He was there between 60/63
US Special Forces Team . He passed away last year 😔 …
Scott Johnson says
RIP Bob “Charlie Mustache” Johnson
Archie Williamson says
Kerns was our replacement radio operator after Frankie Dooms was medevaced.
Somehow. Kerns seemed “out of place “ in SF. He wore his hair ln a ducktail, his pack of cigarettes in the rolled up sleeves of his t shirt.
In case his family reads this, he did tend to use foul language. Angry about the hippies back home.
My favorite memory of Richard was the way he dealt with so many CIDG tapping into his buried commo lines.
One afternoon about 1700 he told us that we needed to unplug our lamps, radios or tape recorders ….before 1900. I guess he also warned the VNSF ( daiuy Chan was the camp commander
After he was sure we had, he firewalled all three diesel generators
In effect frying every radio and tape deck ( that belonged to the CIDG )
I suppose it was a little too boring for him on an A team. So he left for danang and ( I’m assuming ) volunteered for SOG.
John L Ryan says
Communists? they didn’t even know how to spell that word
They were nationalists who had been fighting since the 30s to get rid of foreign armies in their country
First against the French
Then against the Japanese
Then after Japan surrendered against the Japs again (because France reached the Japs to fight the Viet nationalists
Then against the French finally defeating them in 1954
Then fighting the Americans until 1975
Hogh Gewalt says
Your knowledge of history seems to be quite lacking, if you believe that Vietnam did not know what the word “communism” meant. Prior to the end of World War II, that was probably true of the Vietnamese fighting against the Japanese and then the French. However, that was no longer true after 1954. The tragic mistake made by the US after World War II, was backing the French rather than supporting Ho Chi Minh who had appealed to the US for support. He had even famously appeared at the Versailles conference after World War I to make a similar appeal on Vietnam’s we have to Woodrow Wilson. Again he was rebuffed in favor of the French. It was Ho Chi Min himself who started the Communist party in Vietnam, With the support both of the Chinese and the Russians. The country of North Vietnam after the French were defeated in 1954, was founded entirely on Communist ideology and it was throughout the entire society. Every unit of Vietcong and North Vietnamese army had political cadre who indoctrinated their troops with the “benefits” of marxism and subsequently communism. As such come up both forces after 1954 were thoroughly indoctrinated, ideological and dedicated Communists. Given that this was in the middle of the post World War II cold war, it should come as a surprise to no one that the US opposed them. That was the predominant reason why we were there! Even modern Vietnam is a thoroughly Communist, one party, state. They have instituted reforms over the last 40 years and it becomes more Western friendly because they’ve turned against the Chinese. But during thevwar, and especially after the fall of Saigon in 1975, they were just as brutal and oppressive as any other Communist country. Why do you think so many South Vietnamese fled the country after 1975? It was because unlike the ones that stayed behind, they didn’t want to end up in “Communist reeducation camps.” Unfortunately, we can’t go back and change previous decisions. But Vietnam was a thoroughly dedicated Communist country. And they were actively supported by both Russia and Communist China. Once that happened, the US fighting in Vietnam was a done deal. And in hindsight, the “domino theory” that the US had at the time turned out to be absolutely correct, as all 3 countries bordering Vietnam were taken over by the Communists. The only thing that could have changed that was if Ho Chi Minh had renounced communism after 1954 when North Vietnam was founded. But that didn’t happen.
Glory the brave defenders of the people of Vietnam. Glory Ho Chi Minh and his brave warriors who bravely defended their villages, towns and cities against brutal imperialist aggression. Glory to a free and prosperous Vietnam, death to the enslavers.
Hogh Gewalt says
That’s some nice revisionist history you’ve got there, Minja! Except you forgot to mention all the Communist “aggression” that took place to get North Vietnam where it was in the 1st place. And certainly after the take over of the South in 1975, the Communist regime that ruled all of Vietnam was every bit as brutal and repressive of dissidents as were the Russians and the Chinese in their time. The only reason Vietnam is free and prosperous now is because they started to reform and turn away from communism. Although it is still essentially a one party Communist state. They obviously started to learn the lesson after fighting their own war in the late seventies against the Chinese themselves. As I said to the other poster earlier, if Ho Chi Minh had just renounced communism after 1954, the whole thing wouldn’t have been necessary. The only thing that made Vietnam an important fight during the cold war was the effort to stop the expansion of communism. Luckily, especially the last 20 years, Vietnam has been strengthening its ties with the West. Because they know that the Chi comes are not their friends. You think this would have been obvious to them at the time, considering that they had spent many centuries being dominated by the Chinese long before they were a Communist state. Do you would do well to keep all of this rhetoric about “foreign aggressors and foreign domination” in perspective. But I’m guessing they don’t teach those parts of Vietnamese history and Vietnamese schools anymore because it doesn’t serve their Ideological agenda. When you close it up to the US historic foes during the cold war, don’t be surprised if it blows back on you. Hopefully come up Vietnam will continue its more pro Western stance and finally be able become a free, prosperous, and democratic country. Market reforms are great. But Vietnam is still essentially a one party nominative Socialist country.
Charles Pfeifer says
I was there that night! After being blown from living quarters by an NVA hand grenade, I recovered in the sand outside of my hootch and went back inside to recover my Car-15, my web gear and multiple hand grenade grenades. From that point, I methodically proceeded to neutralize the NVA attackers. I killed dozens mostly with my hand grenades. Although wounded slightly, I recovered to end the NVA assault.
I killed 225 VC with a Bic pen that night
george E. Hand IV says
I heard about you, brother… that action took place in Long Dik Provence.
Dang that’s crazy you single handedly took out 1/3 of the reported enemy KIA.
Maria Cruz says
Would you happen to remember Joseph Pedone? Is so, can you share what you knew of him? when you return back to the States he was never the same . he suffered from ptsd. he wound up homeless a lot and the VA did not recognize ptsd of the time . I was told he was the only who survived in his platoon. He was just 17 when he enrolled to serve.
Parker Auburn says
A crock. I was there. As I came back there after several days on the hospital ship Sanctuary, I was told 17 SF had died. 32 enemy died in or leaving the camp. And many more that had run to a nearby town.
Deb Nelson says
THANK YOU SINCERELY BEYOND MY DEPTHS OF APPRECIATION TO EVERY SOLDIER! I’m FREE BECAUSE OF U!
Our 2 close friends who were brothers were killed: Leonard McQuinn & Byron. Their poor depressed mom committed suicide. WAR AFFECTS EVERYONE. 😢
Pat Jungling says
My husband, Ron Jungling, was a medic at FOB 4. His hatchet force consisted of Chinese Nungs, and he flew chase out of FOB 4. We know he was at FOB 4 when it was over-run, but he didn’t tell us much more than that. He died in December 2020. Does anyone remember him?
Charles Pfeifer says
Yes! I remember him. Captain Chuck Pfeifer
Kathleen McNulty says
Do you remember Edward McNulty? He may have been a Major at the time.
Trooper/Rev Gary C Cope says
Has any MACV SOG soldiers served with my great friend and Virginia State Trooper friend, A R Adkins. (Ray ) from Wise County VA. He is deceased now but was known by the NVA as The Ghost. I loved him as a blood brother. His grandson is my God Son
Is there anyone out there that served with Brian Leroy Buker?
Elliott Black says
I have some information about Sgt. Buker. Contact me.
Captain Jay Bowden says
I was there that night . In fact I was writing a report that was suppose to be sent to Saigon . I was in the TOC , a cement bunker with a big steel door. I believe there was one other person in the bunker.l got a call from another command bunker in our compound saying ,”there in the camp “ I believe I sounded the alarm. There was a pice of plywood covering a spot where an air conditioner was and it was torn off by a zapper and in came a grenade . It went off , and then am AK -47 appeared in the window and fired a burst of shells. I received a slight wound and stayed in the bunker until daylight when my commanding officer showed up .It was a terrible night with a terrible loss of life. I still have a very vivid picture of that night.
Much respect to you, Captain.
Very excellent, Stavros! Even though this was 52 years ago, it is still a real gut punch when you think of the brave warriors lost.