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Nakhon Phanom During The Secret War 1962-1975

21st Special Operations Sq


Text & Pictures Contributed By Colonel Robert Arnau (USAF Retired)


The 21st SOS was initially sent to NKP to support operation Igloo White. The units initial primary mission was to precisely place electronic sensors in Laos along the routes and areas used by the North Vietnamese Army to move men and materials to South Vietnam. These sensors were to be part of what was then known as McNamaras Line.

When sensor placement was begun using CH-3Es early in 1968, it quickly became apparent that the areas were too heavily defended to permit sensor placement by helicopter. After several helicopters were lost, the sensor placement mission was transferred to fighters early in 1969. At that time, the 21st SOS primary missions became the support of Operation Prairie Fire and the support of the CIA counter insurgency operations in Laos. Secondary missions included support of civic actions programs, nighttime local area reconnaissance and logistical support of units in remote locations.



Prairie Fire

Prairie Fire was a top-secret operation run by MACVSOG at Saigon to gather intelligence by inserting Special Operations teams into Laos along the "Trail". (These missions were code named "Shining Brass", prior to 1967.) MACVSOG was not under MACV but was under the command of and reported directly to the JCS! During the Vietnam monsoon (the dry season in Thailand & Laos), Army helicopters had great difficulty infiltrating / exfiltrating the teams due to weather. In 1968, the 21st was assigned the task of getting teams in and out during the Vietnam monsoon season. A MACSOG detachment named "Heavy Hook", was established at NKP to run the program.

The team to be inserted was flown into NKP on a "black" MC-130 from Nha Trang. Teams were normally comprised of two Special Forces troops (Green Berets) and four Montagnard "mercenaries". This whole operation was so covert that mission frag orders were top secret as were the mission briefings! Teams were inserted into very remote, small LZs which were usually in rugged high karst areas near the Trail. The high LZ altitudes and temperatures had a pronounced adverse effect on CH-3E performance that compounded mission difficulty. A Heavy Hook Special Forces member riding with a Nail FAC selected, reconnoitered and photographed the potential LZ's. Those pictures as well as Heavy Hook and Nail opinions were used in selecting potential in-fil sites.


Knife 51 (Holt & Hughes) was shot down near the DMZ while dropping sensors. Knife 52 (Dunn & Barbin) rescued them. The Wing Commander, Col White, was flying the lead A-1 escort. A-1s provided covering fire while the rescue was made.

Picture provided by Lee Johnson

21st SOS Over The Fence