From left Steve Perry, Mick Tucker and George Sternberg FOB 1 May 1968
We have been speaking to SOG veteran Steve Perry, who has agreed to do an interview for us. He also have a new book out called Bright Light : Untold Stories of the Secret War in Vietnam.
Modern Forces: What made you join Special forces and then apply for SOG, did you know what it was before you joined?
Steve Perry: I enlisted with a group of three other friends from Southern California in the Fall of 1968. We were young college students who were quite athletic. We were hikers, mountain climbers, hunters, scuba divers, skiers and surfers. We were quite patriotic and considered it our civic duty to enlist in the armed forces and to serve our Country wherever they might send us. We were intrigued by posters we had seen on campus concerning Special Forces and so the four of us formed a sort of pact that we would all enlist together and sign up for Special Forces. I describe our enlistment and what happened to my three friends in the first chapter of my book. Each of us had our own motives for enlisting and signing up for Special Forces. I saw it as a challenge worthy or going for and with my belief that our fighting in Vietnam was to free the oppressed, it fit perfectly with my desire to serve. Freedom of religion in Vietnam was a big factor to me. I had learned that the communist from the North did not allow free practice of religion and this was indeed worth fighting for. While serving in South Vietnam I befriended both Catholics and Buddhists among the local population. Many were slaughtered for their beliefs and practice of religion after the US left South Vietnam.
SOG was another story. I arrived at Special Forces headquarters just before Christmas of 1967. I waited for there in Nha Trang for several days before my orders came through assigning me to MACV SOG. I had never heard of SOG during my two years in training but was happy to climb on a C130 headed north to CCN. From Danang I was sent to FOB1 in I Corps. I was a trained SF medic and the CO at FOB1 told me that I would be assigned to the dispensary since I had a critical MOS but gave me the option to volunteer for an ST (Note this was at least a year before the strike/recon teams were referred to as RTs.) I thought about the Colonels offer overnight and was the lone volunteer to serve on an ST the following morning. I was assigned that day as the One One on ST Idaho with Glen O. Lane as my One Zero and Tim Kirk as the One Two. Others that I remember on ST Idaho at that time were Zero One Mr Tu, Zero Two Hiep Nugen, point man Ha and also Sau, Phuoc and Trang.
Modern Forces: Which teams did you run with and in what role?
Steve Perry: I was One One on ST Idaho from December 1967 thru March of 1968. I ran a total of six missions with ST Idaho before being transferred to ST New Jersey as One Zero in late March. Ron Zaiss was my One One and I think I ran a total of three missions with ST New Jersey. In May of 1968 I volunteered and was selected as a strap hanger with ST Oregon to participate in the Bright Light mission looking for Glen Lane and my other good friends on ST Idaho. One Zero was Mike Tucker and One Two was George Sternberg. The ill fated rescue attempt is fully covered in “The Last Dance” which is the last chapter of my book. After being wounded on the Bright Light I was assigned to complete my tour with medical duties in the FOB 1 dispensary.
The day Steve left FOB 1 for the US, from left George Sternberg, Steve Perry, Mike Tucker and Joe Abriele
Modern Forces: What kept you and the other team members going over the fence knowing the odds were so stacked against the teams?
Steve Perry: We were very well trained and and most of us, I believe, “feared no evil” because we were engaged in a just and noble cause. Our equipment and weapons were superior and our will was strong.
Modern Forces: Were your indigenous team members Montagyard, Nung or Vietnamese?
Steve Perry:Most of my indigenous team members were Vietnamese. Some of them like Mr. Tu had migrated with his family from southern China, to escape communism.
Modern Forces: Did any of them make it out to the States and if so have you ever been in touch?
Steve Perry: Yes, several survived the war and made it home to the US. I am in touch today with my old Zero Two from ST Idaho Hiep Nugyen and also Cowboy (see photo below), Khanh Doan. Cowboy approached the SOA BOD in Las Vegas for assistance in whatever needs to be done politically and or financially to help bring other Vietnamese SOG veterans such as Sau (from ST Idaho) out of Vietnam and into the United States. I stand ready to assist in this effort in any way possible.
Robert Shippen, Cowboy and Bruce Johnson SOAR 2009
Modern Forces: You were a medic so did you take this role in a recon team, and if so what kit did you carry and how (must have been heavy with everything else)
Steve Perry: I volunteered to serve on an ST. As One One, I concentrated more on weaponry, ammunition, explosives, radios, maps, charts etc. I did carry one IV bag with Normal Saline, a sterile suture kit with hemostats etc and a small supply of Morphine and some basic meds. Each team member carried a few battle dressings and I did as well.
Steve in the FOB 1 Lab
Modern Forces: How did you prep for a Brightlight mission, did the team wait with all gear prepped and what was a typical turnaround time. What were the mechanics of a mission?
Steve Perry: Bright Light missions should have been a spur of the moment thing. A pilot was down or a team was in trouble and everyone had to get it together and be ready to fly right away. Delay always happened in these matters due to the Area of Operation etc. The Bright Light mission I describe in “Bright Lights Big City” was to attempt rescue of two pilots shot down near Hanoi. Approval for the mission had to come from the highest levels in Washington before MACV would put boots on the ground in North Vietnam. If I remember correctly, the team was suited up and ready to go within a few hours of our initial briefing but it was days before authority was given to fly the heavily armed teams to NKP Thailand for launch. Upon arrival at the Air Force Base at NKP, it was another twenty four hours before the Air force had its air assets lined up and ready to take us to Hanoi. The teams felt bad because the pilots had been on the ground for what we believed was an unreasonable amount of time before the politicians could decide to put us on the ground.
In my second Bright light, it was a little different. A team (St Idaho) was in bad trouble and called for help. It took S2 two days before ST Oregon was put on standby and launched on the mission. The recon men of FOB1 would not leave anyone behind and insisted that the Bright Light team be sent out. Even so, the trail was pretty cold by the time we inserted on that mission. I might add that official government accounts do not match what some of us remember from that mission and the early contact with the team. A lot of good men were lost with ST Idaho on that target.
Modern Forces: Did you have a weapon choice or preference?
Steve Perry: I enjoyed taking just about every weapon that we had in the armory out to the range to light off a few hundred rounds and see how I liked each of them. In the end, I preferred the CAR 15. I found it far superior to the AK-47, the Sten Gun, the Grease Gun, the Swedish K and the Thompson. I had different reasons to exclude various weapons for my own personal carry weapon. Some were too heavy, some just did not carry the punch of the CAR 15 and some were plain junk. I did carry a Swedish K with a silencer on one prisoner snatch mission.
Modern Forces: Did you ever carry a back up weapon, if so what was this?
Steve Perry: I always carried a back up weapon. This varied as the arms room asked us to try out something new or different on occasion. Normally I carried a Browning High Power as well as a sawed off M-79 with canister rounds. I also carried an experimental 13mm rocket pistol on two missions. On the second go a small piece of dirt got into the barrel somehow and the rocket projectile stuck in the barrel and burned up all its fuel. The side flash from the weapon burned my hand and wrist and thus ended my testing of new weapons. While on classified courier orders to Danang or Saigon I would carry a Browning 25mm pocket pistol in addition to my Browning 9mm.
Modern Forces: Did you or your team ever carry any foreign weapons, AK47 or RPD? And if so how were magazines/drums/belts carried?
Steve Perry: See above
Steve Perry and Bruce Johnson, SOA reunion Las Vegas 2009
Modern Forces: Did you have a standard equipment set-up in your team?
Steve Perry: Yes, Standard was two M79 for the Vietnamese and the rest carried the CAR 15 with 500 rounds loaded in magazines. Most of the magazines were carried on the web gear in empty canteen covers. Each American carried a side arm and most also a cut off M-79. Each man also carried m26 grenades, smoke and sometimes CS gas grenades. Each man carried a claymore and depending on the nature of the mission a few LAWs were also strapped to the rucksack. On special missions, several of us would also carry a block of C4, blasting caps and perhaps det cord as well. We carried little food and little water but a whole ration of whoop ass. The equipment was very heavy and burdensome and I cannot imagine humping all that weight on flat ground today let alone the steamy mountainous jungles of South East Asia.
Modern Forces: Did your team have any unique traditions or quirks in its equipment set-up?
Steve Perry: I liked to invent explosive gadgets and carried a six foot piece of linear mine with a ten second fuse on most missions. This would be lit off and thrown in a tree if we were being chased. I also carried a white phosphorus grenade on my web gear right near my face. This was unnerving to a lot of helicopter crews and others who had witnessed what WP can do to human flesh. This was the grenade that I would arm and lay on if badly wounded and left by the team. When an enemy rolled me over the WP surprise would cook dinner and hopefully finish me off in the process. It was a trick I learned from One Zero Glen Lane who always carried a frag at the top of his web gear for the same intended use. Thank God I never had to use the White Phosphorus.
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?
Steve Perry: Empty mags were of no concern and were dropped wherever they were ejected from the weapon. Expended LAW tubes on the other hand were crushed or otherwise destroyed so that the enemy could not use them against us as an improvised mortar tube.
Modern Forces: Did you carry a side arm and if so how was is carried, you often see them in books but can’t seem to see any holsters (hip or shoulder) in the pictures I have?
Steve Perry: I always carried a cutoff M-79 as well as a pistol, usually a Browning 9mm. The M-79 was carried in a modified Swedish K magazine pouch and the Browning was in a traditional holster on my right hip. Both weapons were attached to my web gear.
Modern Forces: Do you mean this Swedish K case or the SMG case?
Steve Perry: It was like the SMG mag case. We altered it by cutting off the flap so that it was open on the top and this made it sort of like an open holster. After I completed your questions I remembered another quirk about what I carried. Instead of a traditional kbar or Randall fighting knife I carried an indigenous “banana knife”. This had a rather thick blade and was carried down the center of my back, attached to my rucksack with the handle exposed near the back of my neck. It could be used for fighting but was most useful as a sort of mini machete to hack out a quick clearing. I carried it along the spine as a sort of armor from projectile spinal injury.
Modern Forces: It's 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?
Steve Perry: I have never heard of the use of spray paint. In 1967-1968 FOB1, the American ST members would borrow mamasan’s wash basin and sort of tie die new OD jungle fatigues with black clothing dye. The next step was to wash and dry the fatigues and remove all the labels. The dyed fatigues were put in mamasan’s wash basin again and that nasty 95% DEET insect repellant was sprayed all over them until they were pretty well soaked. Next the fatigues were washed several times to remove the excess DEET. And now your redesigned black/green uniform was ready to go to war. The other step that I learned from my One Zero was to take the new jungle fatigue shirt to town and have the local tailor add zippered pockets below each breast pocket and on each shoulder. The extra pockets provided secure storage for morphine, code sheets, topo maps and an extra for your choice of provision. If the rucksack and web gear were lost somehow, the material in these pockets were essential to get you home. The URC 10 radio was carried in the two breast pockets with the wire running around the neck under the collar.
Modern Forces: What did you do when you left the army, was this a career for you?
Steve Perry:After getting out of the hospital and returning to FOB1, and was not being able to run missions due to my physical condition at the time, I decided that I would take an early out and return to college in Southern California. I DEROSed in August or 1968 and passed through FOB4 just two days before it was overrun. I completed two years at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California and then transferred to Cal State Fullerton. I continued my studies for about two years before dropping out of school and becoming a union Carpenter. This work led to an appointment as representative of the General President of the Carpenters Union. I retired as a senior organizer for the Carpenters in Northern New England. In my years as a Carpenter’s union official I was able to use my medical training while working as an Occupational Safety and Health Specialist.