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Florida Voices: Vietnam Veterans | Ray Harris, MACV-SOG, 1969 to 1970

Raymond Harris’ service was unlike that of any other veteran interviewed for this series. He was a member of a unit called MACV-SOG, or Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Special Operations Group. His job was “running recon,” gathering intelligence about North Vietnamese military operations, often behind enemy lines. Harris later wrote a novel about MACV-SOG, “Break Contact, Continue Mission,” and then worked in a warzone again as a private contractor in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our conversation took place Aug. 24, 2017, at his home in Gainesville.

(My name is) Raymond D. Harris. Birthday is Dec. 22, 1947, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

What is your educational background?

After (my time in) Vietnam, in 1970, I came down and was accepted into the University of Florida. I had two years of college up in Rock Island, Illinois, where I was living. Finished my college education with two B.S. degrees in journalism.

How did UF get on your radar?

Probably because it was the number one party school sometime that year.

When did you enlist?

I enlisted in the Army, just for a regular straight-year tour on September 22, 1967. When I was in what they call advanced airborne infantry training, an individual came in. That’s the only thing I knew I wanted — to go airborne. There was a cachet about it ever since the 101st Airborne in World War II. A gentleman came into our training area at a place out in the woods called Camp Crockett at Fort Jordan, Georgia. He was wearing the Green Beret with a white flash, which meant he was with their training group. He gave a talk and invited all of us to take a test, which we did. I think five or six percent passed, and I was one of the lucky ones to do so. After jump school that spring, I went immediately to Fort Bragg and was given an option of five different military job descriptions — MOS’s. I chose demolition engineering. When I got done with that training in August 1968, I was stuck at Fort Bragg. They put me with the 7th Group, which was just local… They would not let any of us out. I was an E4, same as a corporal in the old days. They had me doing KP (kitchen patrol). I was just so disgusted with it. I made a request to go to Vietnam; a lot of us had, but they were holding us in.

I was very lucky in the fact that I had a chance to go on a six-week training course up at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, which is not too far from the Pentagon. Inside the Pentagon was a lady in charge of all Special Forces transfers. Although I had put in requests for transfer to Vietnam, they had been denied at the local level. This lady’s name was Billye Alexander. Nobody got past Billye Alexander. She owned transfers. About five or six of us took my old Corvair and drove over to the Pentagon, and were able to find her. We all requested to go to Vietnam, so she could cut through these denials back at Fort Bragg.

Sure enough, that happened. We didn’t all go to the same places. I was the only one to go to Kontum. I stayed with SOG (MACV-SOG Military Assistance Command, Vietnam - Studies and Observations Group) for a year, running recon out of Kontum.

Can you tell me when you first remember hearing about a conflict in Vietnam?

That would have been the Tonkin Gulf and Maddox in 1964. It continued to build. Television was right there — Walter Cronkite, right there, letting you know what’s going on. During the years I went to Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, it became more and more evident with the draft that people who were not in college were going to get drafted. Some people would do anything. There’s some really dishonorable things you run across.

Did you encounter some of those?

Not personally, but when I think about people like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton getting their deferments — Trump played sports all his time when he was in school and then got deferred because he shopped a doc and got a bone spur — it’s just not right.  I knew that if I left college, and time was coming up, so I simply said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m going to leave. I’m going to go into the Army, because I’m not going to be drafted.’ A draft assignment was only two years, but if you wanted to be low man on the totem pole, you were that. When I got out, I was a staff sergeant, which is absolutely unheard of in the regular Army. But when you worked with Special Operations Group, they conducted waivers in time in grade and time in service. When Special Forces first got its beret from (President John F.) Kennedy, even to apply, you had to be a staff sergeant with 12 years’ time and service — just to apply. As they got used up in Vietnam, they realized they need new people. They did what any career NCO would have hated, which was to bring in new guys like me. But by the time I started running recon, all of the teams were now run by short-timers. I know of no instance where any of us fell down on our duties. We performed the same fashion, the same dedication, as these guys who had chosen the military for a lifetime career. I just couldn’t handle the military life. It was just too regimented for me. But coming back as a special forces staff sergeant, I could have retired in 20 years as a command sergeant major, perhaps. But I just did not want that.

Do you recall when you first arrived in country and what your initial responsibility was?

I got in country down at Cam Ranh Bay, and there was a fear factor going on… When the Army needed troops, they would shanghai people. You’d just be picked out and say you’re going to the 3rd Infantry Division or wherever. It was the worst nightmare any Special Forces member could think of, and Na Trang was just 20 miles up the coast, which is where the Special Forces headquarters was at. We debated for a night just going AWOL, showing up there, and pleading stupidity. We had heard they were plucking SF people out and sticking them with what we derisively called ‘leg units’ – non-airborne. Surprisingly, the fellow that was giving out these orders I recognized from my basic training. I got together and talked with him, and he said, ‘If anything comes down my way, I’ll make sure to let you know.’ We had a leg up on that. Nothing happened, thank God. I went up to Na Trang. What I didn’t find out until years later was that Mrs. Alexander liked the fact people would come to find her. Because of that, she liked to put them in SOG, because SOG was top secret and she felt people would do a good for them. Normally, you had to volunteer six times to be where I was at. You had to volunteer for the Army, you had to volunteer for airborne, you had to volunteer for Special Forces, you had to volunteer for Vietnam, you had to volunteer for MACV-SOG, and you had to volunteer for recon. Mrs. Alexander cut that one out. I didn’t have to volunteer for SOG; I was going to it automatically. I went to one of three compounds that they had in the country. Command and Control North was in Da Nang. Their launch site was someplace further north of there, but that’s where they were stationed along the coast. Their area of operation was the lower border of North Vietnam and northern Laos. I was stationed at Command and Control Central, which was in a town called Kontum, which was about 30 miles from what they called the Tri-Border Area. Our missions entailed lower Laos and upper Cambodia. There was another unit, the smallest unit, Command and Control South, down at Ban Me Thuot, which handled strictly Cambodia. When I came into the unit, I was put on recon. The man who was in charge of recon at the time, the NCOIC, was the most decorated man in the history of the Army. His name was Bob Howard. He had just gotten done with the mission about two months before. Finally, they awarded him the Medal of Honor. He’d been put in for it two other times, and they’d been downgraded to Distinguished Service Crosses. He was a hard nut. He put me on Team Arkansas — our teams were named after states — and I had difficulties with the lieutenant in charge of that team. I got off that team and went to Team Iowa, which is where I spent the bulk of that year, moving from radio man, from second in command, on up to team leader in December 1969.

The teams were made up of three Americans and five or six Montagnards (mercenaries). Some years they were larger. The Montagnards were a Malao-Polynesian people, basically… and we would go in on missions. Some of them would be area recons, where you would stay maybe seven or eight days behind enemy lines. Some might be a linear recon where they would want you to walk a straight line. Some might be to destroy something they had spotted. But most of the time it was just trying to find out what was there. All up and down the Laotian and Cambodian borders were areas where they had truck depots, fuel depots, barracks, things like that. The North Vietnamese never wanted to stay in one place too long because they’d get found out by our teams, and they’d get bombed. Many times, you’d come across places that were occupied, and the chase was on. They had about three divisions held back along those borders — about 50,000 men — simply looking to hunt down our teams. Sometimes it went hot and sometimes it cooled off. I know the year before I got there, 1968 was a horrific year for Kontum. They lost over 20 people. In my year, we lost 10 or 11. The one thing about running recon is that as long as you can move, you’re OK. If they’re chasing you, and you can move. But God help you if you have a wounded you have to carry. It slows you down and eventually, you get surrounded, and it’s Fort Apache and you’re dead. That would happen a lot of times to people… Command Control North (CCN) would have teams that would get off the helicopters, and the helicopters would fly five miles off, and once the team got away from the landing zone, which was normally a bomb crater in the trees or something like that, they would signal, ‘Good day,’ which was the signal that we’re OK, off the LZ, and moving on with the mission. Many of their teams never had a chance to offer that report. CCN was a pretty hot spot.

Do you recall the first time you got dropped in?

Surprisingly, I don’t. Yeah. What would happen… you’d be in the helicopter for 30 or 40 minutes and you’d fall asleep. You think you’d be scared witless, staring out, with your weapon ready and all that. Just fall asleep. When it was time, what they’d do was have gunships come in, with no team on them. M-60s out both doors, and the helicopters up above would give insertion instructions to the teams below. The forests over there at that time were full and complete. There were very few open areas where a helicopter could land.

I did conduct two missions on a place called the Golf Course much later in the year. Beautiful place. I still have no idea why it was an open area several kilometers long. It may have been at one time a tribal village area and then was abandoned. I saw no evidence of that, but gorgeous area.

This happened to me twice because I went in to try to rescue members of a downed helicopter, where they would put you in on strings, where you would have a harness and rings, wrapped around rope and rappel in. I did that twice in one day, which was my 22nd birthday, Nov. 22, 1969. We got one guy out on that. We never found the second guy, and that’s the reason they sent us back in… I suspect the poor young man’s body was underneath the wreckage of the helicopter. There was more tragedy with that because one of the pilots flying out on what they called a McGuire Rig — just a loop being brought up through the trees — slipped out and fell 4,000 feet to his death.

Later in the war, sometimes they would drop what was called a daisy cutter. That was a 15,000-pound bomb with a 15 or 18-foot extension on the front so that when that extension exploded, it would blow everything away for 100 yards. The way the forest was thick in a lot of places… you would have trouble climbing out of it. You’d have to clamber over all this fallen debris…

They started SOG in 1964 and kept it under that name until 1972. When they first started inserting teams, the North Vietnamese didn’t know what to do. They certainly didn’t know where all the holes in the jungle were because they were concentrated right along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. If you found a hole that was six miles away from there, inserted, and within three days were up observing trucks going down the trail, they couldn’t put people back there. What they ended up doing eventually is putting out scouts. If they knew they had holes in the trees that had been used before… they would coerce Laotian tribesman working with them and would have relays of these people sitting on LZ’s, which were few and far between. Many times when you came in, you were immediately being tracked. That was the thing you had to try to avoid. Some people did it by literally finding a trail and running down a trail. I never had the brass to do that. The main thing was to try to slip away as quietly as you could. All of our equipment was sterile equipment (bearing no identifying markings). We never carried dog tags. We were not American soldiers. If we were captured, nobody knew who we were. We carried sterile weaponry — at least they did in the beginning… Any kind of weapon that was not of U.S. manufacture, because they wanted total deniability that you were American. Our backpacks, equipment — none of it was American. Some of the webbing was American.

What weapon were you provided?

Just a straightforward M16. Surprisingly, I’d never seen one until I got to Vietnam. That’s how rare they were. By the time I got there, people had started to complain and say we either can’t find these weapons, or they just got sloppy and lazy. So that original dictate of having foreign weaponry slowly slid off the table. By the time I was there, almost everyone was carrying an M16. These things are organic. They grow in different directions. It depends what they feel is going to work. If there are difficulties in doing something, and you find out that violating that particular edict is not getting you into trouble, then you violate it more and more. We never carried dog tags, so they still had that plausible deniability… They could always say this was stolen equipment.

Hear more stories from this series, "Florida Voices: Vietnam Veterans"

You don’t remember your first mission, but do you remember the first enemy contact you had after you were dropped in?

Oh, golly, yeah. You would find areas over there with brush so thick that there would be just no way you get through it. No way. And then on the other side of the mountain, you’d come out with areas that had tree trunks three feet thick, rising 60 feet to the first branch. The triple canopy up there was so heavy that the lower canopies could not grow. It was almost like a cathedral — an organic cathedral. We came across places with bamboo as thick as a man’s thigh. When you ran in those mountains, it was not jungle. It was not too far different than if you were up in original growth Appalachia, because it was high. It was not steamy, southern jungle.

Most of the time, you stumbled into things. Sometimes, people got killed that way, quite frankly… Bill Stubbs got killed that way. They sat down to take a break on his team and literally did not know they were within 10 feet of a bunker complex. He got hit with 15 or 20 bullets. They could not recover his body. A special team went in the next day to try to recover it, but it was not there. Who knows what they might have done with it. Might have hung it up as trophy back at their main base or whatever. I don’t know.

But my recollections of combat blur, because they were so much the same… Ken Snyder was in charge of Team Iowa. This was not my first mission, but my first mission with Iowa. We got off the helicopters and headed off into the brush. Gave them a ‘good day,’ and Ken sat down. I said, ‘What in the world is going on?’ The tactic was get away from the LZ as fast as you can. It wasn’t until 30 years later I found out he had such a stupendous hangover from the night before. We moved out of that position, and within 45 minutes ran into a hasty ambush. When you’re in thick jungle like that, you don’t see a lot. You might see brush shake, but very seldom do you get an absolutely good eye contact with a human body. It’s shots in the air, going back and forth. We knew we were compromised, so Ken called for a ‘prairie fire,’ which was an emergency extraction. We ended up having another firefight on the way to the LZ, same landing zone. It was really heavy brush. We couldn’t find it. The covey pilot in the little plane above us said, ‘I’ve got a little Wooly Pete underneath my wing. I’ll put it on the LZ.’ Wooly Pete is white phosphorus, and they’re mostly used for marking things. He rolled over, fired that thing, and all of a sudden, the bamboo right on top of us exploded, and all of these sparks of white phosphorus are coming down. The Montagnards are rolling all over the place, and he comes up over the radio and says, ‘Oops. I missed.’

But most of the time when you were discovered, you ran. It wasn’t like a run down the road or anything like that. It was more like a fast trot or walk. If you got him from the front, what you would do is the team would split half and half. You had a corridor down the middle. The point man would fire off a complete magazine, drop his magazine and go. The first magazine was expendable. The other 19 or 20 that you had, you had to save. Then the next man would do the same, then the next man, etc. As soon as you got hit from the front, there was a barrage of around 200 rounds coming your way that’s going to keep your head down…

I was very lucky. None of my teams got wounded. None of them. I can’t say if that’s due to any level of skill or luck. Vietnam was very much like a car accident.

How many of these did you go on?

That also would be a foggy memory except for one thing. I was awarded the air medal for the length of time flying over enemy territory, which I believe is a minimum of 25 hours, and as a result of that, every mission was logged as far as what date it was, the length of time it was, and how many missions it was. Some of our missions lasted just a day — a blowout. Some of them lasted up to 10 days. In the summer came the monsoons. There was a three-month period where no teams in Kontum ever went out. If they got in trouble, the helicopters would not be able to find their way below the clouds and bring them out. Literally, for three months in Vietnam, I did nothing but local missions. Those were just to keep us honed up.

I did 14 missions. That’s all. A real old-timer would have 20-25. It just depended on how many teams. We had 15 teams at Kontum. They were always constantly rotating in and out. You could figure on receiving a mission order once every 4 weeks. Once a month, maybe less.

Between those was not R&R. What was it?

You trained every day except Sunday. A lot of it was like muscle memory. If you put blindfolds on your team and told them to change out magazines, you’d learn a lot. Teaching the Montagnards how to disassemble their weapon.

Phil, one time, ended up having a North Vietnamese soldier on the other side of a huge tree from him. He threw a grenade around the other side, and it came flying back at him with a four-second fuse. He was able to get it out of his way before it went off, but the next time he held that fuse for two full seconds after he pulled the pin, then threw it. Not all of those fuses lasted four seconds, so every time you did that, you reduced your chances of doing it successfully. Those were the kind of things you learned…

My dad had given me a pair of World War II Army leggings when I was a kid playing army in the woods with my friends. I remembered that. One of the problems we had over there was that our pants would pull out of our jungle boots. And leeches would come in. God, almighty, these leeches were nasty. They would come at you like an inchworm. They were silent. You didn’t know anything about them until all of a sudden you had this lump of sticky mush on your leg. As a result, I wrote my dad and asked him to go down to an Army surplus place and buy 10 leggings for Team Iowa. He did that, and sent them to me, and the next mission we went out on, I was getting bombarded by everyone in the compound. Where did you get those? How can I get them? I had my dad buy up every one… He said there were guys tipped upside down in these bins so delighted to help someone going into Vietnam. I ended up selling two or three hundred pair of these leggings, only within our compound. Yet these dolls are coming out wearing our leggings.

That three months you have between coming back from Vietnam and going to UF, how was that initial time back in the states?

My folks, of course, were delighted. It was a little strange. I never had anybody in an airport accost me or anything like that. I know for a fact that sort of thing happened. Maybe the fact I was wearing the beret and was a staff sergeant would have perhaps intimidated someone from doing that. I made a choice that when I got back, I was going to try to retrieve my life. I’d done my duty. It was for them — whoever they are — but now it was for me. I spent that summer lounging around, kind of lost in Rock Island, Illinois, where my folks were living. I did some traveling, bought a Sunbeam Alpine GT. Little British car. Don’t know why. Wouldn’t be able to get parts for it or anything. But I had had other friends come home just before me.

I enjoyed the University of Florida, but quite frankly I should have taken the money I saved and probably bought a rental house here in the city and started building a business like that. I can’t say that. My education at the University of Florida got me my job with Merrill Lynch. If I had walked in with no college education, I would not have gotten that job, which was so kind to me. But I was kind of surprised how few people were Vietnam vets back here.

Sometimes, it can be a small world. When I was at Loc Ninh, I kind of palled up with the guy who was the medic there. We just got along well. When I was back at the University of Florida, a friend said, ‘You know, there’s a guy in my chemistry class who’s got this great big knobby gold ring that says Special Forces on it. I got a phone number, and I called the guy up. We’re kind of like scorpions, checking the pinchers. Are you real or fake? He said, ‘I spent my time at Loc Ninh.’ I said, ‘I used to come in and out of Loc Ninh all the time.’ He said, ‘What do you do?’ I told him what I did, and he said the only guy I remember doing that was Morales and his partner. I said, ‘I was Morales’ partner!’ Fifteen minutes later, I was up at his apartment on 16th Avenue, having a beer. We eventually moved into Frederick Gardens with some other people we knew. About a year later, he said, ‘I’ve got to get going. I’ve got some people coming up because there’s a girl that’s in the hospital, and her parents are coming up.’ There’s a knock on the courtyard door, and I meet this man and woman and two little girls and make my goodbyes. Two years later, I meet my wife. Turns out she was the girl in the hospital. She and Steve (Veltry, the Special Forces friend) had actually gone out a few times, and I had shaken the hand of my father-in-law, but he died before I met his daughter. Sometimes, the world can get very small.

How did your service change you as a person?

It’s given me a sense of internal pride. I can’t say it’s allowed me to be a huge success or anything, but it has given me a sense of myself… It gives you an internal attitude that pretty much, you can face a lot of things. If I had been a combat veteran of a regular Army group, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to go ahead and work as hard as I did to find work in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I was scheduled to go home around the end of February 1970. But the Army didn’t need short-timers back home. They didn’t want you tying up supply lines. They had a program called the early out program. It was a deal with the devil in that if they gave you three more months in Vietnam, they’d let you out as much as six months early. I’d already been approved by the University of Florida for attendance. The first semester was that fall. It started in August. I didn’t get out until late September, so I backed myself into that. I’ll get out almost five months early, I’ll give you three months over here. I’d run recon and thought I’d be getting into something a little less dangerous. I can get into that later, but a lot of Vietnam was like a car accident. Wrong place, wrong time. I was down along An Loc in the rubber plantations that surrounded the airfield, right when a rocket attack came in. You couldn’t hide. It was just like World War I. It’s either right on your head or 100 yards away. I suspect that, other than some times I was running recon, was probably the most fearful I was because you just could not tell what was going on. You had no control. Maybe control was the issue — if you had a sense of control.

I got out the end of May 1970 and spent the summer re-acclimating myself to civilian life and then came down to the University of Florida and attended college. As I say, I got out with degrees in journalism — one in advertising, the other in public relations. That was at a time when the very fact you had a college education was a benefit. It didn’t mean you necessarily were going to end up working in that field for the rest of your life. Fact of the matter is I ended up being a stockbroker here with Merrill Lynch for 14 years downtown. I left that business, and my wife gave me permission. She said, ‘You’ve always talked about SOG, but what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I think I want to write about it.’ I ended up writing a novel titled, ‘Break Contact, Continue Mission.’ It was well received. It almost didn’t get published because I had agents tell me Vietnam’s old news. If you were going to write this, you should have written it 15 years ago.

What year was that?

It came out in 1990. But of course I would have been violating all kinds of laws regarding top secrecy if I had written it at that time (1975). There was not much out at that time. Since then, a lot has been written. But these programs like Ken Burns’, I have no idea if they’ll even address the issue. This was a unit that was only maybe a couple thousand people at any given time, spread over the entire country.

What’s funny is that after I wrote the book, I bounced around doing a number of different things, but then we got involved with Iraq and Afghanistan and although I was against those wars, and I’m convinced that the only reason we got into those wars was because it was voted for by the very draft dodgers that escaped Vietnam. But I realized we were going to be making money over there. The book had not filled my pockets. I had spent a number of years writing adventures, mysteries, things like that. I’d always get close, but I could never find a mentor who would help pull me along and get me published. I invested probably half a dozen years into writing five or six books and promoting them myself. I’ve done it on and off since. Finally, I said, ‘OK, you’re an old man. You’re 59. What are you going to do?’ I went ahead and started getting jobs in the strike security forces, so I could brush up on the resume. I worked in Atlanta and up in Michigan, and finally in the early summer of 2007, I was hired on by an outfit called Armor Group North America… With them, I went over to Afghanistan and worked as a supervisor of Nepalese guards at the American embassy in Kabul. I was there for about four months, and then I got blood poisoning. Kabul is a filthy city. It’s just unbelievable how bad that is. In the early mornings going in, the trucks would swirl dust… but during the course of the day, it would swirl higher and higher and higher… then sift back down at night. I had blood poisoning and my lymphnode in my left arm was infected. I was given medical leave to come back home, heal up, and I did so. But I found out the medic over there had sandbagged me, said: ‘Not qualified for overseas duty.’ I came in country with the guy. Obviously, I was depressed. I put out my resume some more. Early that summer, I got hired by an outfit out of Tennessee — EODT, Explosive Ordinance Destruction Technologies. They used to handle the destruction of explosives, but then they found there was more value in making money in regular contracts like guarding American compounds. Americans did not want to put a soldier in a tower. That was a waste of resources and 30 years’ worth of expense for the United States Army. They would hire these companies and put Iraqis in the towers with weapons. As they became more and more cheap and greedy, they would go and hire Ugandans. At the very end, they were hiring Bosnians… And I worked the military gate for two years on night shift. The contract ended in October 2010, and I came home. Since then, I’ve basically been retired.

Was anyone in your unit more affected psychologically than you seem to be? You didn’t have as severe PTSD complex as some of the returning vets did?

I don’t think anybody came back without a bit of it. My wife and I go into restaurant, I sit at a table where I can face the door. I’m always aware of what’s going on around me. Always… My time in Special Forces in Vietnam informed my life. I am more aware of what’s going on around me. If that’s PTSD, then call it that. I just don’t know.

You never had any Agent Orange (exposure) trouble?

Agent Orange was all through our area, and the government has declared that anybody who was in Vietnam — the hell with it. You were exposed to Agent Orange. Just within the last three years, they’ve included ischemic heart disease, and I now have six heart stints put in my heart, which is bone-hard ischemic heart disease. So I’m on a 30-percent disability, something like that.

I can’t say we walked through areas that were literally dripping with it, but you saw areas that were really looking pretty scraggly. There were times when we were in the field at night, all of a sudden you’d hear, ‘boom… boom… boom… boom…’ — rolling thunder. We always hoped that, by God, somebody got it up on the line that, you know, don’t be bombing this area!

This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Ethan is the Managing Editor in the Innovation News Center, home to WUFT News.He is a Pennsylvania native who found a home reporting Florida's stories. Reach him by emailing emagoc@wuft.org or calling 352-294-1525.