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MEMORIAL DAY 2003

Soldiers' Story: Their Heroism No Longer Secret

Veterans of clandestine war in Cambodia, Laos finally get chance to honor fallen comrades.

May 26, 2003|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

For decades, Maj. Gen. Dan Gibson and Col. Charles Cross kept the secret war to themselves.

Friends for 20 years -- sitting just feet apart in neighboring offices in Sacramento -- neither was aware the other had been involved in clandestine operations during the Vietnam War and neither had been able to openly honor the comrades who died in it.

Now, three decades after America pulled its ground troops out of Vietnam, Gibson and Cross have found renewed meaning in Memorial Day, a day set aside for remembrance of those lost in war.

Military records of the secret war in Laos and Cambodia were declassified this year, liberating the two old soldiers to discuss the clandestine operation and those who perished during it.

"It does me good to know they're finally getting recognized and their stories are being told," said Gibson of those who died in the operations. "We've been bound to secrecy for too long."

The two decorated California National Guard officers are Air Force veterans of the "Studies & Operation Group," a cover name for a stealth mission designed to rescue American prisoners of war, assassinate North Vietnamese officials and disrupt the Viet Cong supply lines that ran through Laos and Cambodia.

The secret war was largely unknown until several years ago when the first accounts were published detailing the efforts of the soldiers who fought and died in a mission that the government had refused to acknowledge.

Like other participants, Gibson, now commander of the California Air National Guard, and Cross, who oversees the Guard's plans for homeland security in the state, signed secrecy agreements more than 30 years ago forbidding them from discussing their roles in the secret war.

Both said they kept their word, never aware that the other had made a similar pledge.

About a year ago, Gibson casually mentioned "Prairie Fire" in conversation, to which Cross responded "Daniel Boone." They were code names known only to those who had participated in the detail. With the layer of official secrecy already peeled back, Gibson and Cross decided to start talking openly about the soldiers and airmen who died in the so-called "black operations" of the Vietnam War.

They started telling the men's stories.

"There were a lot of guys who died, but their stories were never told," Cross said. "Their families were only told they died in Vietnam. But their brave deeds saved thousands of American lives, and they died in Laos or Cambodia."

Special Forces Staff Sgt. William T. Brown of La Habra was one of the commandos who died in the war in Laos. He disappeared Nov. 3, 1969, midway through his third combat tour. His parents, in an interview six years ago when both were 80, complained bitterly that the government still had not told them the truth about how their son died.

Stanley L. Sandler, former Special Forces historian at Ft. Bragg, N.C., said, "The sad legacy of the secret war is that only the survivors really know the importance of the sacrifice of those who died."

"Memorial Day is an appropriate time to tell their story," he said.

According to published accounts, 2,000 U.S. commandos -- mostly U.S. Army Special Forces -- and 8,000 South Vietnamese pinned down about 40,000 communist troops in Laos and Cambodia through their raids. The allied forces were from MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group).

Laos and Cambodia, officially neutral in the war, were sanctuaries for North Vietnamese troops. But the United States used B-52 air strikes and SOG teams to counter enemy threats in both countries.

Gibson was a forward air controller flying an OV-10 for the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron from Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand. His job from September 1970 to April 1972 was to pick out landing zones in Laos for the SOG teams and coordinate tactical air support for teams in trouble.

Cross flew a UH-1P helicopter gunship for the 20th Special Operations Squadron, also known as the Green Hornets, from 1968 to 1969. He flew 988 combat sorties -- most of them in Cambodia -- during his year in Southeast Asia. Many missions were flown at night without night vision goggles, which had not been perfected at the time.

Each man was honored with combat awards, including multiple Distinguished Flying Crosses. However, their combat missions remained a secret.

It was only this year, after records were declassified, that Cross learned his squadron had been awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, the most prestigious combat award a U.S. military unit can earn. Gibson pinned the decoration on Cross' uniform at a ceremony in Sacramento.

But each man downplayed his own accomplishment, insisting that recognition be directed at those who fought and died on the ground.

"Until missions were declassified, it was hard to resist the temptation not to talk about these men," said Cross. "The fallen should've been given proper recognition long ago, but, like the good warriors that we were, we kept our mouths shut."

But with the secrecy lifted, Cross and Gibson are hoping Americans will learn more about the soldiers and airmen from SOG. Some of the soldiers' stories can be read at www.macvsog.org.

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