28 November 1970
18,000 Feet Over Laos
The ramp of the C-130 began to drop. The sound of wind and engines howling in the black Laotian night greeted the six men of S.O.G.’s Recon Team Florida as they moved to the edge. All of their recent training, over a month’s worth, brought them to this moment. Team leader, or One- Zero Staff Sergeant Cliff Newman, Sergeant First Class Sammy Hernandez, and Sergeant First Class Melvin Hill made up three of the six. The others were two Montagnards and a South Vietnamese Army officer. As they stood there, all saw the vast expanse of sky stained with dark gray clouds and knew they’d be jumping into rain. It didn’t matter. The time was now.
“Go!” came the command. With that, they stepped off and plunged into the darkness. The Americans more than the others realized they were making history. The first H.A.L.O. jump ever made in combat was under way.
H.A.L.O., or High Altitude Low Opening, was discovered in 1957 as a means to quickly insert Special Forces teams into a combat zone as secretly as possible. The object was to exit above 10,000 feet, freefall to between 1000 and 2000 feet, deploy the parachute and steer to the landing zone. Many may think that all the years in Vietnam gave ample opportunity to try such a thing, yet only now, as the war was winding down, did the brass see a credible opportunity to attempt it.
The mission called for RT Florida to drop into Laos right on top of the enemy, link up in the jungle and tap into a communications wire used by the North Vietnamese Army. If successful, much valuable intelligence awaited. If not, and the team could remain undiscovered, it still would prove HALO’s viability. Either way, time was pressing because their first try had been scrubbed due to the enemy somehow getting hold of information telling of the location, date of drop, and even names of the team members. Confident now there were no such leaks, they at last had received the go ahead. And as the team plummeted through the night stung by hundred mile an hour raindrops, they focused only on the task at hand…To reach the ground safely and find each other in this dreadful weather.
Pulling their rip cords at 1500 feet, the speed of rain slowed and they glided silently among gusting currents until they reached what they assumed was the drop zone. Some managed to hit and roll on the ground, while others snagged in trees. Unbuckling their harnesses, they immediately activated homing devices and tried to locate each other, but were too far apart. Miles in some cases. They decided to carry on and form into four elements. Hernandez and Hill were by themselves and would act independently, Newman located a Montagnard and so did the South Vietnamese officer. As the rain kept pelting them, they started on their way through the jungle toward an area they would search for the telephone line. All were uninjured, but they came down nearly six miles from their intended drop zone.
After sunrise, a forward air controller entered the area and made contact. The overcast sky was still pouring heavy rain and high winds swept through the jungle. Through it all, the men plodded on, determined to reach the wire, moving over and down steep hills and through thick vegetation. At one point, Hernandez heard voices and later engines belonging to bulldozers working on a dirt road. Gunshots suddenly rang out. This was the NVA‘s method of saying they located an intruder. He crouched, ready to fire his weapon. No one approached him. He saw some NVA heading away from his position. He soon realized they were hunting not for him, but for something to eat.
The rest of the team experienced similar encounters. They heard voices or saw enemy troops, but remained undiscovered. The real enemy so far was the weather. The thick blanket of clouds precluded any extraction by air in case of an emergency. The wet chilled the men’s bodies as they continued looking for their target, which seemed more and more nonexistent. Another three days passed. Nothing found. More patrols walked by within earshot, still unaware of RT Florida’s presence. The team needed more time.
The brass had other plans.
On the fourth day, the weather cleared and lots of shooting echoed near each element. The NVA were having target practice, but apart from that, the enemy was oblivious to the fact the team was nearby. Nevertheless, fearing they might be pressing their luck, SOG headquarters decided that staying in the area would be too risky and ordered an immediate extraction.
They contacted the elements and directed them toward four landing zones, and soon HH –3 Jolly Green Giant helicopters from Thailand swooped in at treetop height and began lowering jungle penetrators, a heavy device designed to poke through thick canopies of trees and reach the ground. While each member was being pulled up, F-4 Phantoms and A-1 Skyraiders dove in around the teams dropping bombs and firing cannon to ward off any pursuit. Once all the men were aboard, the choppers applied full throttles and sped from the area.
Their journey took them to the Thai border base of Nakhon Phanom, which served as a U.S. Special Forces installation. The weary team debarked, stowed their gear and headed to be debriefed. In the questioning, no one understood why the line was never found. They had the intelligence nailed and were certain of results. Then it suddenly dawned on the planners. Someone somewhere had compromised them again. The most secretive unit in Southeast Asia had a mole running about with access at the highest levels. Until found, they knew every mission could be jeopardized. At this time though, finding him was beyond the abilities of the base and lay square at the feet of headquarters in Saigon.
For RT Florida, that was a different mission for a different kind of man. They had completed theirs. They left the briefing room, showered, had a beer and headed for a welcome sleep. They took consolation in knowing that even though they didn’t find the wire, they had roamed around amid thousands of enemy without the slightest hint of detection. H.A.L.O. worked, and they were the first to show it did. Their efforts paved the way for future jumps during the war and beyond, whenever someone needed a quiet way to insert into the enemies backyard.