Our latest interview is with Joe Parnar who was a Special Forces Medic who joined the Army in 1966 and arrived in Vietnam during 1968. He ran recon as well as chase medic on missions.
Modern Forces: Tell us about your background and military service
Joe Parnar: I was born in April, 1943 and grew up in Gardner, MA, a small manufacturing town in North-Central, Massachusetts. My father was a laborer and worked in furniture manufacturing.
I was in my junior year at the University of Massachusetts in the spring of 1966, when I got into a heated discussion at a local pub over the War in Vietnam with some of my fellow students. I had a pro war stance and one of my opponents in the discussion accused me of hiding from the draft like all the other students. In front of all my friends I said I would quit school and join the Army. When I woke up sober the next day, I knew the only way I could face my friends would be to follow through with my pledge. I withdrew from school and enlisted in the Army for airborne infantry, mainly on the recommendation of a friend with whom I worked during the summers and also because one of my mother’s cousins had served in the airborne in WWII and received a purple heart. I was pro war because of the influence of John F. Kennedy and Vietnam represented to me “supporting any friend, opposing any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
Modern Forces: What made you join Special Forces and then apply for SOG, did you know what it was before you joined?
After graduation from Special Forces medics training in Dec., 1967, I volunteered for Vietnam and an assignment with MACV SOG. None of our medic’s class graduates initially received orders for Vietnam so I went to the Pentagon and sought out Mrs. Billye Alexander to get on the manifest to go to Vietnam. When she announced there were openings on the manifest for SOG in April of 1968, I asked to be put on the manifest for that. It was sheer peer pressure that prompted me to do this, as I knew if I told any of my fellow medics I had the opportunity to volunteer for SOG and turned it down, they would have called me the biggest candy ass in the world. About the only thing I knew about SOG at that time was that there was such a unit and it was the hairiest assignment in Vietnam, but had no idea what they did or what their mission was. SOG was the best kept secret at Ft. Bragg at that time.
Joe Parnar: During Advanced Individual Training (AIT) geared to airborne infantry at Ft. Gordon, GA, I was tested for and given the opportunity to volunteer for Special Forces training. I always figured it would be better to fight alongside individuals who wanted to be in the battle as opposed to those who did not, so Special Forces, all of whom are volunteers, seemed like a wise choice.
Modern Forces: Which teams did you run with and in what role?
I also straphung on a mission with RT Florida in December of 1968. One-Zero Ralph Rodd and One-Two Ken Worthley took along myself, Dan Harvey, and Craig Davis as Straphangers on an unsuccessful prisoner snatch attempt in Cambodia from Dec. 30, 1968 to January 3, 1969. Photo of the team on the airstrip at Dak To after the mission is in the photo section.
Joe Parnar: I was initially assigned to Spike Team Texas under One-Zero Clarence “Pappy” Webb and One-One Paul Morris. Pappy pulled some strings and was able to have me swap places with a medic he had on his team that wanted off recon. I was the One-Two, or radio operator on the team. It was only to be for 3 months until that medics DEROS came up. I trained with Texas for about 3 weeks and then got transferred to ST Ohio with One-Zero Robert Kotin, also as the One-Two..
Kotin was the only American on Ohio at that time. He got a suspected malaria attack on our first walk out practice mission and was medevac’d to Pleiku. SSG Tommy Carr then took over as the Ohio One-Zero. I ran a half dozen missions with Carr & Ohio, all in Vietnam before having to go back to the dispensary in September 68’. My replacement on RT Ohio in September of 1968 was SSG Luke Dove.
Modern Forces: From reading your book (SOG Medic) you went through Special Forces Medical Training, how did this get used on recon missions? Did you carry a medical kit?
Joe Parnar: The medical training was helpful in that we had problems with a variety of ailments on missions. During my missions with Ohio, there were several suspected cases of malaria. I say suspected because malaria was present in Southeast Asia and any fever of 102 degrees or higher aroused malaria suspicions. It required microscopic blood testing to verify the presence of malaria, so in the field we treated high fevers as if they were malaria. We also had problems with diarrhea, constipation, headaches, etc.
Modern Forces: If so what would be carried in the medical kit?
Joe Parnar: Medical equipment I carried included combat dressings, a couple of hemostats, a thermometer, tape and a few triangular bandages. The medical kit contained mostly meds. Included were Chloroquin to reduce fever from suspected malaria. I carried betadine for antiseptic (and to make tape stick), polymagma and lomotil for diarrhea, something for constipation (don’t recall what), aspirin for pain & mild fever, and Darvon for more severe pain and headaches. I also carried morphine for severe pain control. Several of the indigenous personnel carried cans of blood expander, serum albumin. On chase medic duty I carried a more extensive medical kit and a 1000 cc bottle of Ringer’s Lactate for a blood expander.
Modern Forces: In your book you describe being a “Chase Medic” can you describe these missions for our readers?
Joe Parnar: Our recon missions generally launched with four helicopters. One or two of them were the insertion (or extraction) choppers depending on the size of the team; one was for backup; and the fourth was designated the Chase ship. It was on this ship the Chase Medic rode. If someone on the ground was wounded, the Chase ship would go down to make the pickup so the chase medic could give lifesaving first aid to the wounded until the chopper could get them to the nearest medical facility in Vietnam. For FOB2 missions, the nearest facility was the 4th Division Medical Facility at the airstrip at Dak To. There were Army MD’s at this facility who would take over.
Modern Forces: What kept you and the other team members going over the fence knowing the odds were so stacked against the teams?
Joe Parnar: I would say peer pressure. In one of John Plaster’s books he quotes a SOG recon man as saying “I would rather die than have my friends think I was chicken shit.” I think that generally sums up how we all felt.
Modern Forces: Can you recall a mission that stands out?
Joe Parnar: Yes. On December 19th, 1968, we had a Cobra gunship from the 361st Aerial Weapons Company, the “Pink Panthers” get shot down along the Dak Xou River along the left side of the “Bra.” The “Bra” was the double curvature of the Dak Xou river that resembled a woman’s’ bust. It was in close proximity to the deadly target areas Juliet 9, Hotel 9, and India 9 and had the junctions of Highways 96, 110, and 16 just to the south of the “Bra.”. It stands out in my memory because I lost my first patient that day. My efforts to revive the Co-pilot/Gunner, Ben Ide, were unsuccessful. We did get the Pilot, Paul Renner, successfully out before the NVA could capture him.
Modern Forces: Were your indigenous team members Montagnard, Nung or Vietnamese?
Joe Parnar: Team Texas was Vietnamese, possibly Nung. Ohio was one of the few mixed teams. We had 3 Montagnards, 2 Jarai and 1 Rhade, with the balance of the team being Vietnamese.
Modern Forces: Did any of them make it out to the States and if so have you ever been in touch?
Joe Parnar: None made it to the States to my knowledge. Mock, a Rhade Montagnard and our team M-79 grenadier, was later killed on a mission with another team. The team interpreter on Ohio in July to September of 1968 was Nguyen Phung Tho. He later transferred to ST Florida with Ralph Rodd and William Kendall and he lost his foot on a mission on October 14th, 1968. Bill Kendall writes about the mission in his interview. The last time I saw him in Vietnam was when Rodd brought him into the dispensary in early 1969 to see if we could get him an artificial foot. Tho still lives in Kontum. I have talked to him on the phone several times. His home got flooded when the Typhoons swept through Vietnam a year or so ago. He has 8 children. I got a Christmas card from him in December, 2010. I am including a photo of him and several other Ohio indigenous personnel taken around May of 1968 by Robert Kotin.
Modern Forces: Did you have a weapon choice or preference?
Joe Parnar: The Car-15 would have been my preference. When I was there you pretty much had to be on a recon team to get one. Most teams had either M-16’s or Car-15’s so it made sense to carry a weapon with common ammunition. Also you could carry a lot more .223 ammo than 7.62. The lower weight and shorter length of the Car-15 made it my weapon of choice.
Modern Forces: Did you ever carry a back up weapon, if so what was this?
Joe Parnar: I always carried an Army .45 cal. pistol in a shoulder holster. I only carried 2 clips of ammo, however. It was more of a “take a few enemy with you when you save the last round for yourself” scenario.
Modern Forces: Did you or your team ever carry any foreign weapons, AK47 or RPD? And if so how were magazines/drums/belts carried?
Joe Parnar: When I straphung on a prisoner snatch mission with RT Florida with One-Zero Ralph Rodd and One-One Ken Worthley in December of 1968, I carried an M-79 grenade launcher for my primary weapon and a silenced Swedish-K submachine gun for the prisoner snatch. I carried whatever the teams basic load of M-69 Rounds was in bandoleers (one over my shoulder) and about a half dozen 30 round magazines for the Swedish-K in my rucksack.
Modern Forces: Did you have a standard equipment set-up in your team?
Joe Parnar: Standard equipment set-up was up to the One-Zero. He also dictated which pockets he wanted what carried in i.e. maps, code book, notes, etc. I never got concerned with these details as I was never a One-Zero. I never wanted to become one either. There was too much responsibility in the position and I was content to be a One-One or One-Two.
Modern Forces: Did your team(s) have any unique traditions or quirks in its equipment set-up?
Joe Parnar: The teams I was involved with had no unique traditions or quirks in their equipment setup that I was aware of..
Modern Forces: Empty mags...after emptying a mag during contact did you guys swap it back into a pouch or shove the empties down the front of your shirt? When training we favor the latter when re-enacting and its what the British Army tend to do?
Joe Parnar: I put empty mags down the shirt front.
Modern Forces: Its well known that SOG used black spray paint to camouflage uniforms and equipment I have seen a picture of RT New York in Frank Greco’s second book that appears to show gear camo’d with green and black spray paint. Did you ever see this type of green/black spray paint in use?
Joe Parnar: I remember teams using it but not any of the teams I went out with. I think the practice may have become more common in 1969 & later.
Modern Forces: Did you ever see the US issue ERDL camouflage being used by SOG on cross-border missions?
Joe Parnar: When I straphung with RT Florida in December of 68 we had standard issue camo sticks with us. I used them on that mission.
Modern Forces: What did you do when you left the army, was this a career for you?
Joe Parnar: I went back to finish my education as a physical education major at the University of Massachusetts. Then worked for 25 years as a purchasing agent with Simplex Time Recorder Co. in Gardner, MA, retiring in 1996.
SOG Medic: Stories from Vietnam and Over the Fence: by Joseph Parnar and Robert Dumont
Joes book can be bought from the Paladin website and is well worth the read.