SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars

By Tom Laemlein
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SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars

October 23rd, 2022

4 minute read

Major John L. Plaster, U.S. Army Reserve (retired), is a man who knows what he is talking about. Plaster is a veteran of three one-year tours in Southeast Asia, serving with the secret Special Forces unit MACV-SOG (which stood for “Military Assistance Command, Vietnam — Studies and Observations Group”). Even beyond his service during the Vietnam War, we owe him our thanks for his documentation of our Special Forces in that long and deadly conflict, and for detailing the history of American sniping in many other books and numerous magazine articles.

sog book cover
The “SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars” book is an unflinching look at the history of these conflicts through photos that have rarely been seen outside of very small circles.

When he left Vietnam as a staff sergeant, he was commissioned as a reserve officer. He also took advantage of the G.I. Bill and earned his degree in Journalism from the University of Minnesota. By 1983, Plaster had co-founded the National Guard Sniper School and developed it into a major training resource for military and law enforcement snipers of the United States and several allied nations. Along the way, John Plaster has written several important books, sharing his knowledge of sniping and the history of U.S. special operations in SE Asia with the rest of us.

Their Story

“SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars” (Casemate Publishers, 2022), gives us a rare look into the shadowy operations of the top-secret Studies and Observations Group. To provide some context of the importance of the photos that Plaster has assembled in this book, the U.S. military effectively destroyed all the official photos of SOG during 1972-73.

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The lightweight M16 rifle played an important role in many SOG operations. Image: NARA

As an experienced photo researcher, I can tell you that those images are gone without a trace, and without the efforts of John Plaster and his fellow veterans of MACV-SOG, we would know little about that important part of the Vietnam War. Working with a group of veterans, he created this 400-page book to offer readers a fantastic collection of more than 700 photos that would have otherwise remained unseen. Telling their own story, in detail, is SOG’s final battle, and that fact alone earns this newest edition of the book a place in your library.

m-16 suppressor in vietnam
Sionics suppressors fitted to various U.S. firearms in Vietnam. Plaster details how these were used by SOG teams. Image: Author’s collection

Major Plaster covers the full spectrum of the covert war in Vietnam, beginning with the birth of SOG, and the subsequent operations to map out and perform interdictions on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Details of the SOG recon missions and tactics are particularly revealing, as are those of the North Vietnamese counter-recon units and their tactics.

m60 helo vn
Airborne covering fire: The M60 machine gun mounted in UH-1 helicopters provided an air mobile platform of support fire. Image: NARA

Particularly interesting for The Armory Life readers are Plaster’s descriptions of the SOG’s many unique weapons — including the 13mm Gyrojet rocket pistol, a true James Bond weapon (shown in “You Only Live Twice”) in the hands of American covert ops men. Another Hollywood-like weapon of the SOG were the devious “Project Eldest Son” AK-47 and mortar rounds that exploded in the weapon when used, killing or maiming the NVA soldiers that used them. This was a part of SOG’s psychological warfare branch, working to drive a wedge of distrust between the North Vietnamese and their Communist Chinese weapons suppliers.

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SOG played a deadly game of hide and seek against the communists in Southeast Asia. Image: NARA

Plaster also discusses SOG’s all-important air assets, ranging from the C-130 Blackbirds and the many specialized helicopters modified for covert insertion and extraction to the powerful air weapons (including the AC-130 Spectre, armed with a twin Bofors 40mm gun along with a gyro-stabilized 105mm howitzer!).

ac-130 spectre special forces 1972 40mm
A serviceman prepares to feed the 40mm guns aboard an AC-130 “Spectre” over Southeast Asia during 1972. Image: NARA

This book easily earns the highest possible recommendation from me, not only for its fascinating content, but also for its great tribute to America’s unsung covert warriors in SE Asia. Thank you, gentlemen, for your dedication, courage and sacrifice.

To give you an idea of the breadth of images in Major Plaster’s book, but not to intrude upon any of the rare images published within, I’ve included a group of photos from my collection to support this article.

You can find your copy online at Amazon.com, at your local Barnes & Noble bookstore, or buy direct from the publisher at the link below. I cannot recommend this book enough, I am sure you will appreciate it just as much as I did.

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Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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