Platoon Hatchet Force, Alpha Company, Command and Control Central (CCC) Studies and Observations Group (SOG) 25-29 November 1970; Laos
CPT Joseph L. Pultro
From 25-29 November 1970 MSG Ziobron’s SOG element, Alpha Company (Hatchet) Command and Control Central (CCC), was embroiled in a heavy four day battle that ended with the extraction of the element, one American Special Forces Soldier Killed in Action, five Montagnards Killed in Action, all American team members severely wounded, and all of the Montagnards wounded. While MSG Ziobron’s four day battle was successful due to many actions by these men, the doctrinal characteristics of the offense stand out. Due to his ability to be audacious, concentrate his fire power, surprise the enemy, and control the tempo of the fight, MSG Ziobron was able to maneuver his element and fight out of a regimental size enemy that was in pursuit of them. Because of this, they were able to successfully retrograde away from the enemy, surviving long enough to be extracted.
“The Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Special Operations Group (MACVSOG) was formally activated on 24 January 1964 by MACV General Order No. 6 as a separate staff section under the Commander United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam (COMUSMACV).” (Gillespie 11) Its name was officially changed to Studies and Observations Group (SOG) for cover purposes shortly after its inception. The SOG was birthed from Operations Switchback, when all of the covert operations that were being conducted by the CIA were moved to the Department of Defense. (Gillespie 8)
The SOG encompassed all of the “Black Ops” in Vietnam to include unconventional warfare, psychological operations, clandestine operations, and cross border operations. Cross border operations consisted of missions in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam utilizing Recon Teams (RT), and Hatchet Companies. The Recon Teams were mainly tasked with infiltrating across the board to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance on NVA movement from North Vietnam through Laos/Cambodia into South Vietnam. They were also tasked with harassing the enemy, disrupting enemy movement and patrols, search for evidence of American POWs, “snatch” EPWs, and locate/destroy cache’s; they were to “nip and slash at the NVA at every opportunity.” (Plaster 1: 32) A lot of these operations were de-classified a few years ago, however, some things in SOG History still remains classified. (Ziobron) Under OPSPLAN 35 cross border operations were laid out and approved. (Turkoly-joczik 47-52)
The SOG was task organized differently than conventional units, tailoring their organization to the adaptability that was needed in order to be successful with the most dangerous clandestine missions of the Vietnam War. South Vietnam was divided into three command areas: Command and Control North (CCN), Command and Control Central (CCC), and Command and Control South (CCS). The two main types of elements they operated with were Recon Teams (RT) and Hatchet Forces. Recon Teams usually consisted of three Americans: Team Leader, Assistant Team Leader, and Radio Telephone Operator (RTO)--and a squad to section size element of Indigenous forces. These RTs conducted cross border reconnaissance/surveillance to monitor NVA movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail Network. They would also conduct sabotage operations, disruption operations, and destruction operations. The Hatchet Forces usually were Platoon to Company size and they were the direct action strike force that brought enormous amounts of fire power to wipe out enemy elements. They were used in deliberate operations to destroy enemy forces across the border and also as a reactionary force to reinforce RT’s who needed help. They were so clandestine that they went across the border with little to no equipment that was American made or that could be traced back to the United States at all. (Plaster 1: 30-36)
These cross border operations into Laos were code named “prairie fire.” Prairie fire was also the call sign used in a situation when a SOG element was about to be overrun. (Plaster 1: 78)
On November 24, 1970 MSG Ziobron was coming off of a mission and eating his breakfast, still in his soiled uniform, when he was told that they were going to get ready to go out again, this time with a larger element than usual. He was the leader for a Recon Team just receiving the mission to accompany a platoon Hatchet force into Laos to search for U.S. POWs and to disrupt any enemy NVA with whom they came into contact. (Ziobron)
Even though Ed had just come off his previous mission of manning forward Radio Relay Site LEGHORN, he was rearing and ready to go, as were his friends and colleagues Sergeants Zabrowski and Conkin. This is what they did for their country, and they loved it. MSG Ziobron’s team was to lead the Hatchet force by 500-1,000 meters, just as they traditionally had done in the past. This would allow them to deceive the enemy into thinking the enemy they were a smaller element if they came into contact. It would also give the Hatchet Force enough time and space to flank or maneuver into position in order to engage and destroy the enemy. (Ziobron)
They were inserted by helicopter in Attopeu Province, Laos approximately 20 miles northwest of Ben Het, and 9 miles north-northeast of radio relay sight LEGHORN. (Plaster 2: 275) This location was originally marked “CLASSIFIED” on the award recommendation, and all official documents referencing this mission.
MSG Ziobron’s team, along with the Hatchet platoon, was flown from SOGs FOB II in Kontum (CCC) to their launch site at Dak To, and from there into Laos. “The five American Green Berets on the mission were Lt. Goldstein, SFC Bean, SGT Conkin, SGT Zabrowski, SGT Ziobron.” (Zabrowski 2012) The rest of the force was composed of 36 Montagnard Para-military Indigenous Soldiers. (Scalise 1)
Upon their infiltration MSG Ziobron took point, as he did during this entire operation, and moved up a large mountain. On November 26, 1970, during their ascent of the mountain, they heard voices talking up ahead of them; a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) element was moving directly towards them. Knowing the only way to survive this, MSG Ziobron assaulted the 7-8 man NVA element head on. He maneuvered the squad effectively and managed to cause the enemy to retreat up the mountain, despite the fact that the NVA had been reinforced by another 15-20 man element. The NVA fired B-40 Rockets and small arms at Ziobron’s team but failed to stop the SOG men. Ed Ziobron was wounded in the face and leg by rocket fragments. That night they set up defensive positions on that mountain top right where the NVA had previously occupied, and MSG Ziobron marked their positions for TAC AIR. This location made the Montagnards uneasy because there was a cemetery close by, and they were occupying “warm” enemy positions. (Zabrowski 1971/2012)
On November 27, 1970, just after daybreak, the SOG men moved down the mountain and immediately realized that they were being tracked and followed by NVA. They set down multiple booby traps including toe poppers, claymores, and bouncing betty’s, along their trail in order to disrupt and slow down the enemy. The SOG patrol knew they were slowing the enemy down based on their assessments of the timing of the explosions when the NVA set off the traps. During their movement, LT Goldstein was injured during a fall down a steep embankment. As darkness crept up on them, they set up a defensive position for the night in an area with taller vegetation. (Zabrowski 1971/2012)
The next morning, November 28th, they received contact from an NVA force that was firing B-40 Rockets crew served machine guns. MSG Ziobron was again, wounded. His squad assaulted pushing the enemy back, while calling in strafing fire from Cobra Gunships. MSG Ziobron, himself, fired numerous Light Anti Tank Weapons (LAWs) at the enemy forces. MSG Ziobron carried the radio on his person during the entire operation. At this time during the battle, he coordinated for MEDEVAC and ammunition re-supply. The gunships allowed the SOG men to break contact long enough to bring in a MEDEVAC for LT Goldstein and some others. MSG Ziobron refused evacuation. Once LT Goldstein was MEDEVACd MSG Ziobron took over as the leader of the patrol. SFC Bean outranked Ed, however Ziobron’s experience outweighed Beans; an interesting dynamic that was a norm in SOG. (Conkin1971/2012)
It is important to note that during this four day engagement there were two other “Prairie Fire” emergencies happening in different areas that taxed the air support that was available. (Thorne)
The men moved out and eventually took contact from the front. MSG Ziobron was on point and initially identified the NVA force, and assaulted it with great ferocity. They discovered a very large cache of rice and supplies for the NVA and were instructed by higher headquarters to destroy it. They set C4 charges and destroyed the cache. At this point MSG Ziobron informed higher headquarters that they would need an extraction, something that was denied them earlier, because the NVA would know their exact position as a result of the cache destruction. (Zabrowski 1971/2012)
They began to move to their HLZ for extraction and came upon a trail. They agreed that they would take the trail for a short time, but eventually they made contact with another NVA element but broke contact. They continued to move to the HLZ, as they would need to be there before dark if they were to be extracted. At approximately 1600 they came into contact with a large NVA force, later assessed to be an NVA base camp of Regimental sized element. During this engagement, MSG Ziobron was shot through his right Achilles tendon, rendering him unable to walk. He crawled during the rest of the operation, always in the lead. They took cover in a heavy jungle area with fallen trees preparing a defense and conducting a counter attack. (Conkin 1971/2012)
During this time, MSG Ziobron directed numerous air strikes within meters of their position. He continued to lead the platoon size element even though he could only crawl and kneel. Sergeants Zaborowski and Conkin were also injured during this time; SGT Conkin’s injury being in his head. Also, during this time, SFC Bean started to “lose” it and none of the other SOG men really knew what he was doing. It was during this engagement that MSG Ziobron conducted the most audacious assault during this operation. He took as many munitions he could carry and flanked to the Northeast, by himself, throwing grenades and shooting his weapons, destroying multiple enemy positions. He did this approximately 30-40 times, each time going back for more munitions. (Ziobron)
The enemy did not hold back. They launched chemical munitions at them causing the SOG patrol to dawn there gas masks for approximately ten minutes. The SOG patrol continued to counterattack the NVA and, due to the air strikes MSG Ziobron directed, they were able to break contact. As they retrograded down the mountain they were being chased and fired upon. The enemy was “reconning by fire” and the only thing they could do was wade chest deep in a river throughout the night (Zaborowski 2012) They remained chest deep in the river for the majority of the night. It was during this time that MSG Ziobron contacted a C-130 gunship to conduct diversionary attacks. It worked; the enemy started to move towards the area where the air strikes were occurring.
MSG Ziobron decided to move the patrol to the other side of the river and take up defensive positions for the remaining few hours of darkness. During the river crossing SFC Bean was swept down the river and everyone thought he had drown. He reappeared at their new position, right before the next morning, mumbling in coherent statements and missing his weapon. The other American SOG men tried their best to keep him quite during this period by reassuring him, as to not expose their position.
As the sun was about to rise on the final day, MSG Ziobron decided it was time to move his men. During the movement, SFC Bean walked off and was mortally wounded in the head by and NVA ambush. His body was later recovered by two Montagnards in the patrol.
Upon reaching their extraction HLZ, they took contact from three different enemy positions in the wood line. The enemy was starting to mass on them quickly. MSG Ziobron directed multiple F4 Fantom Air Strikes on the enemy positions for hours. Around 0900 the weather cleared up enough to get the EXFIL helicopters in. They held off the enemy long enough to be extracted, MSG Ziobron being the last man out.
If it were not for the audacious actions by Ed Ziobron, concentration of fire power, surprise, and his control the tempo of the fight, none of those SOG men would have made it out of the jungle in November of 1970.
During this four day operation MSG Ziobron’s Reconnaissance element surprised the enemy multiple times. During the first day of their operation when they were moving up the mountain, the lead element (MSG Ziobron’s RT) was out in front of the Hatchet Force by about 500-1000 meters, allowing the SOG patrol to surprise the enemy with the larger Hatchet Force and control the tempo of the fight. When they identified enemy forces in front of them, the recon team initiated contact surprising the enemy and conducting a full frontal assault on the NVA. This surprised the enemy so much that they started to move backwards and had to be reinforced by another 15-20 man element. Because of the surprise they bestowed on the NVA force they were able to control the tempo of the fight, by continuing to bring continuous fire on the platoon sized NVA force, pushing them up the mountain forcing them to retreat.
When they began moving on their patrol they again took contact from their front. MSG Ziobron’s team assaulted with great ferocity concentrating their fire power on the enemy positions and controlling the tempo of the fight. They never let the enemy get the upper hand; the SOG men kept the marked advantage by surprising the enemy and concentrating their fire power where it needed to be directed. They proceeded to destroy the NVA cache they found at that location with explosives; this alerted the enemy to the SOG patrols position. MSG Ziobron knew that this would not allow them to surprise the enemy any more during this operation so he called for extraction.
They controlled the tempo of the engagement but they also concentrated their fire power directly in front of them leaving the NVA to believe they were facing a much larger element. Once darkness started to fall they knew that they had to hold a defensive position over night. By setting in the former NVA positions it allowed them to defend the mountain without moving too far. They arrayed their weapons systems so that if they were to come under attack during the night, they could mass the effects of their fires to delay the enemy.
On the second day of their operations, when the SOG patrol started to move from their defensive positions, they realized immediately that they were being tracked and followed. During their retrograde operations, trying to reach a MEDIVAC/Re-Supply HLZ, they employed numerous traps in order to delay the NVA. They set out Toe Popper Mines, Claymores, and Bouncing Betty’s. These devices were set off by the NVA as they followed the SOG men. This slowed down the enemy tremendously allowing time and space to be increased between the SOG patrol and the NVA, and controlled the tempo of the fight.
On the night they set up a defensive position so that they could MEDIVAC LT Goldstein and receive aerial re-supply by concentrating fire power and massing their effects. This allowed them to repel any attack that would come at first light. An attack did ensue and the SOG patrol was able to effectively counter attack the enemy by concentrating their fires and massing their direct fire weapons systems on the enemy, while at the same time coordinating air strikes and strafing runs from Cobra Gun Ships in order to neutralize the enemy force that was attacking them. This allowed the MEDIVAC/Re-Supply helicopters to land securely enough to extract the wounded and offload ammunition and rations
When they finally got to the HLZ, the enemy attacked from three different positions in the wood-line. The SOG patrol, again, concentrated their fire with their direct fire weapons systems onto the enemy positions, while at the same time calling in more air strikes. This disrupted the enemy enough to land the EXFIL helicopters taking all of the men out of the jungle.
When they started to move towards their HLZ for EXFIL they came into contact with the largest NVA force that they had yet to encounter and the enemy clearly had the upper hand on them. During this engagement those who had not been wounded up until this time had been wounded. The only way that they would survive this contact was to concentrate their fire power on the NVA and, audacity. During this time MSG Ziobron called in numerous air strikes on the enemy positions. They massed the effects of their direct fire weapons systems and the indirect fires from the air strikes onto the enemy positions. At this point MSG Ziobron executed the most audition action of the entire operations. He took as many hand grenades as he could and he flanked northeast, crawling on his hands and knees, destroying numerous enemy positions. He continued to do this around 30-40 times holding the enemy back. This allowed the SOG patrol to break contact and rush down the mountain to the river.
Once they were on the run being hunted by the NVA, MSG Ziobron called in diversionary air strikes. This was another audacious move that also surprised the enemy. He figured that this was the only way to divert the enemy to another area and allow them to retrograde to their HLZ. It worked; the enemy could be heard moving towards the diversionary strikes, allowing them to make it to the extraction point.
During this four day classified, “over the fence” operation, the enemy could have destroyed the platoon sized SOG element at every contact point. Because of the ability of the SOG men and Montagnards to concentrate their firepower, surprise the enemy multiple times in multiple ways, control the tempo of the fight, and execute audacious maneuvers, the SOG patrol was able to successful destroy numerous NVA elements and put time and space between them. If it were not for these actions, none of these men would have survived.
I met MSG Edward Ziobron when I was a candidate for Bravo Company, 2d Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group. I had previously spent the past 5 years on Active Duty with 18th Airborne Corp and 3/75th Ranger Battalion, and then I joined the National Guard in a full time capacity. When I decided to try out for Special Forces in the National Guard, Ed Ziobron was the SGM of the training detachment, chartered with assessing, preparing, and selecting candidates to go to SFAS and the Special Forces Qualification Course.
Ed Ziobron is a humble man and rarely spoke of his military experience. The only information on his background that most candidates knew was that he served in Studies and Observations Group (MACV SOG) in Vietnam as a Special Forces NCO. If prodded, he would speak of his experiences in limited fashion. This intrigued me to find out more.
Ed Ziobron served multiple deployments in Vietnam, but two of these were with SOG, in 1969 and 1970, as a “black side” Special Forces Operator. He had volunteered for and completed Special Forces training as a young 18 year old private. Only 9 candidates, out of the 128 who started, graduated. MSG Ziobron then went onto Vietnam to fight in multiple engagements during multiple deployments with SOG. (Ziobron)
The truth is, MSG Ziobron was nominated for the Medal of Honor (MOH) during his time with SOG. The recommendation was later downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). From 25-29 November, 1970 MSG Ziobron’s SOG element was embroiled in a heavy four day battle that ended with the extraction of the element, one American Special Forces Soldier Killed in Action, five Montagnards Killed in Action, all American team members severely wounded, and all of the Montagnards wounded.
The two other surviving noncommissioned officers (NCOs), SGT Zaborowski and SGT Conkin, will be awarded the Silver Star this fall at the SOG reunion. The awards will be presented to these brave men by MSG Ziobron.
Currently there is a gentleman, Neil Thorne, who is working to have MSG Ziobron’s Distinguished Service Cross upgraded to the original award recommended, the Medal of Honor. There is a three year statute of limitations from time of incident to the time of recommendation for the MOH. Currently there is legislation being introduced in order to allow for a time window to submit MOH recommendations for actions by Special Operations members between the years of 1940 up through the current date. Once this window is opened, then the upgrade packet (along with others) will be officially processed for consideration. (Thorne)
Through my conversations with MSG Ziobron and Neil Thorne; readings on SOG and their operations; and information provided in the original nomination, citation, affidavits, and upgrade packet; this analysis has been developed.