By John Stryker “Tilt” Meyer and John Peters
Book Review by North County Times Staff Writer Gary Warth
"The secret war: Vet pens second book on covert campaigns in Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam."
As the Vietnam War becomes a distant memory for many Americans, at least one local veteran is doing his part to tell people about another war they may have never even known.
J. Stryker Meyer, an Oceanside resident and North County Times columnist, is a former Green Beret who served two tours of duty with Special Forces, which fought covert operations in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam during the years of the Vietnam War.
Meyer, 61, who was told he could not talk about his experience for 20 years, has now written about his experiences in two books published by RealWarStories.com: "Across the Fence" (2003) and, most recently, "On the Ground" ($24.95).
Both are subtitled "The Secret War in Vietnam." The cover of his newest book also states: "They were wounded or killed in places where they never went."
"Vietnam was 40 years ago, and today, there's a lot of people who don't know where Vietnam is," Meyer said. "Today, a lot of people don't know about the Vietnam war, and especially the secret wars."
The book, which includes several photos Meyer accumulated from friends over the years, has many first-person accounts of several chilling encounters with enemy forces in Laos.
"I never took pictures," he said. "We couldn't keep diaries, and we signed a document saying for 20 years, we would talk to no one about these missions. And that meant no pictures, no diaries. I was pretty much lame-brained and followed the rules. Fortunately, some friends of mine didn't."
As he set out to write the book, Meyer found he didn't need a diary. Narrow escapes, fiery gun battles and other encounters with the enemy were not memories easily forgotten, he found.
In the introduction to his book, Meyer revealed how shackled he sometimes is to the war his country would not acknowledge for years.
Describing a tranquil scene of his daughter practicing piano at home while he gazed at some wind-swept trees in the distance, Meyer wrote how the image triggered a flashback to North Vietnam.
"We made for a stand of trees about 100 meters away, although the thick vegetation made it agonizingly slow," he wrote. "My throat felt parched and tight from moving so quickly. I knew every second that ticked past decreased the odds of us getting out."
The flashback continued, and Meyer described seeing trees swept by the wind of approaching helicopters as he reloaded and emptied his rifle. His daughter's voice snapped him out of the flashback.
"We don't always know when or why, but these memories come back to us, reminders of what we did and who we were in another time," he wrote.
Although his memories are vivid, Meyer turned to his friend and former Green Beret John Peters for help, as he thought Peters could tell his own story better. Peters not only wrote his own chapter, but edited, rewrote and contributed so much to the book that he was given a co-author credit. Meyer said the new book reads more like a novel than his last book because of Peters.
"He's one of these scary-bright people," Meyer said about serving with Peters. "He was fearless."
The book is not a historical perspective of why America crossed the Vietnam border for a secret war. Rather, it's the story of the men who fought the war, often with the help of the Bru, members of the Montagnard tribe, whom Meyer described as "just four months out of the jungle and loincloths." The Bru were 14 to 18 years old. and, while not skilled in modern warfare, were an asset to the Americans because of their fierce hatred of the North Vietnamese, who had driven them off their ancestral lands.
In one chapter, Meyer's description of the Laotian countryside is a startling juxtaposition of the brutality he saw in combat.
"Moving north along the ridgeline, we began gradually descending, often encountering one beautiful new vista after another," he wrote. "The mountain atmosphere sparked fond memories of skiing in the Rockies and hiking, without a gun, along the Presidential Range in New Hampshire's White Mountains."
At noon that day, his team found an area overrun with thousands of wild orchids, which reminded him of ones he saw selling for $5 to $50 back home in a New Jersey flower shop. The men ran through the field like happy children, he wrote, picking the flowers and sticking them in their hair, teeth, behind their ears and in buttonholes.
About four hours later, Meyer and his small team came across North Vietnamese Army soldiers. Meyer radioed for air support and three other men on his team ambushed the approaching enemy. The Americans were trapped for a while, and Meyer described his air support as "the most beautiful napalm dive I'd ever seen."
Meyer writes matter-of-factly about gun battles and said he has no idea how many enemy he killed during his two tours, but even during the heat of battle his conscience at times was triggered.
Spotting a sniper with a rifle-propelled grenade (RPG) climbing into a tree, Meyer wrote that he put the man in his sights of his CAR-15, a Colt submarine gun. For the first time in his 16 months of missions, Meyer extended the stock of the collapsible gun to stabilize his aim for a far shot. While many of the men he had shot were not even visible through the thick forest, Meyer could clearly see this target.
"It was the one time in Vietnam where I actually had a soldier in my sun sights for several minutes," he said. "I could see him in a tree maybe 200 yards away. I could see him pick up the RPG. At one point, one of my guys moved and he saw him. He put his round in his RPG and I had this moment where I thought of my third-grade Sunday School teacher saying, 'Thou shalt not kill."
Meyer wrote that he silently hoped the sniper would back down, but as he watched him aim at one of his men, he fired his shot.
"In a troubling way, it seemed unfair, or unsportsmanlike," he wrote. "But war is not designed to be a sporting contest. If the situation were reversed, I had little doubt what he would opt to do."
Meyer and his fellow troops were often in such kill-or-be-killed situations. Three chapters of his book are dedicated to a firefight that cost the lives of 18 Green Berets, the biggest single-day loss in the history of Special Forces.
After two tours of duty and clashes with a commanding officer who he said almost got him killed, Meyer left the Army and Vietnam. He never returned to either, but said he would one day like to visit Vietnam.
11/11/7 Contact staff writer Gary Warth at (760) 740-5410 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ON THE GROUND: The Secret War In Vietnam
By John Stryker “Tilt” Meyer and John Peters
Book Review by Ray Calafell
Although memories fade with time, there are some that will immediately jump back into your consciousness with the hair-trigger of a scent, a sound, and in the beginning of this second book by CCN recon man Tilt Meyer, a misty rain over windswept treetops springs such a memory while listening to his youngest daughter play the piano at her private lesson. His mind is transported to a place and time very distant from the pleasing sounds of his beloved little Alaina’s melodies and to a world where his life could have ended, guaranteeing that hers would have never begun. Such is the plunge on which the author takes his reader right from the start of this action-filled book of the memories of some of CCN’s recon men as they take the fight right to the North Vietnamese Army on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Tilt has managed to get some of the other, usually tight-lipped recon men of MACV/SOG’s Command and Control North detachment to open up to him and to finally put to paper and thus preserve for the ages more stories of their many close calls, and oh so many more acts of unheralded bravery. Some of his, and co-author John Peters, best writing is reserved, as it should be, for his first-person narratives of their own struggles with the rear-echelon troops that are so eager to impose their will on the men whose lives they put at risk, and the conflict it causes within courageous men who undertake these missions more for themselves than for any vain glory. However, that is not to say that he neglects the numerous stories of the other recon men of CCN. To the contrary, Tilt has devoted the majority of this second book to many previously untold stories of men and teams that have previously been unknown to all but the very few who participated in these missions. This is good, since history waits for no man, and as we get older and fewer, these stories will die with us.
Perhaps one of the most significant stories put to paper in this book concerns the events of August 23, 1968, when a large contingent of NVA sappers caused the single largest loss of life for the men of SOG. This attack on the DaNang compound has been previously written about in at least two other books. However, I can assure you that no more historically-accurate description of this “night in Hell” exists. The events of that terrible night have been meticulously detailed by the men who were there and each of their stories has been masterfully woven into the tapestry which the authors reveal to the reader for the first time anywhere. They have managed to piece together the many separate, eye level events as experienced by the survivors, added the observations of the recon team that was pulling security on top of Marble Mountain, and the after-action investigations by both the Army and the Marine Corps which showed the extent of complicity in the attack by the villagers around Marble Mountain, the South Vietnamese military police (QC) and even some of the indigenous camp guards. This series of events make for the single best after-action report you will ever see regarding this battle. This alone makes the book indispensable for any
Another important aspect of the book is its continuing documentation of the bravery of the “little people” that fought and died alongside our men. Their memories and names are forever preserved, something that Tilt has made a significant part of his book. These men had names and faces that should never be forgotten, and now they will not. One of the bravest, and already known to those who may have read other books on SOG missions, is the intrepid Captain An, Kingbee pilot extraordinaire. The whop - whop of the old warhorse Captain An piloted was familiar to teams on the ground and under fire . . . and no more pleasing sound to the ears of a recon man existed, since An never refused a mission to recover a team under withering fire and on the verge of annihilation. It is therefore not surprising that several more of Captain An’s exploits are documented within these pages.
The beauty of the book is that because Tilt has made it an anthology, the stories provide the reader with a broad set of experiences from different perspectives. Some of these are macabre, such as the chapter dealing with a deadly encounter with a bouncing betty mine. Others are humorous, such as the incident involving taking the little people to an outdoor showing of 1951's “Little Big Horn” with Lloyd Bridges and the not-unexpected ending - and I am not speaking of the film’s ending! Several deal with taut, gripping, life-and-death missions into Oscar 8, the deadliest map reference for a SOG team . . . with the bottom-line being: Oscar 8 by any other name was still Oscar 8.
Military history readers are fortunate that so many of SOG’s warriors are excellent writers, otherwise these snapshots of a time in history when young men strapped on their gear and headed into the mists of the deadliest jungle in the world at that time would have been lost forever. Tilt Meyer’s flashback, put down on paper, has added some well-crafted photos to the SOG album . . . one that his beloved little Alaina will be able to show her children one day and say: this is what MY daddy did in that war, so very long ago.
ON THE GROUND: The Secret War in
By John Stryker "Tilt" Meyer and John E. Peters
A book review by Colonel Longgrear
Meyer and Peters both served in Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observations Group AKA Special Operations Group, the super secret Special Forces (SF) organization that operated behind enemy lines in
On The Ground is a first-person account by and about “Green Berets" that led these small recon teams. They wore sterilized uniforms, carried sterilized weapons and equipment and were wounded or killed in places where they never went. When the secret war ended eight years later in 1972, most of SOG's official records were destroyed. The cloak of secrecy remained over SOG for 29 years until April 4, 2001. On that date, a Presidential Unit Citation was awarded to SOG and its support units.
First person accounts are very rare in the SF community for a number of reasons. First, writers don't naturally lean toward death defying organizations such as SF. Secondly, close to 50 percent of these special warriors did not survive combat. Percentage wise, they suffered the highest casualty rate of any military organization in the Vietnam War. Thirdly, because the cloak of secrecy prevented any "would-be writers" from telling their story for 37 years, many of the survivors had died before the TOP SECRET classification was lifted.
Meyer and Peters have a unique ability to put the reader at the Forward Operating Base, in the helicopter, or back-to-back with them while fighting to make it out of the jungle alive one more time.
My favorite chapter in the book is Chapter 7 "Cry Havoc". It is a detailed report on one of the saddest events in the history of SF. August 23, 1968 has gone down in the halls of infamy as the most embarrassing day in Special Operations history. To me, it is worse than the failed attempt by Delta Force at rescuing the hostages in
Tilt and Peters, being the loyal team players that they are, do not point out the failures by the SF leadership at FOB 4. They write the chapter with the passion and emotion that he and Peters write the rest of the individual war stories in the book. But, for a collector of Spec Op books, it helps one understand what happened and why it happened.
In telling the story the authors go from individual to individual as the battle proceeds, detailing each of the brave warrior's actions. These stories are so harrowing On the Ground reads more like fiction than fact.
Another example of that passion and emotion can be found on page 89 in Chapter 10 "A Very Bright Idea".
“While we kept an eye on the ropes descending through the trees, the NVA mounted a desperate last charge towards us. Tuan and Hiep triggered their claymores and the rest of us opened up with all we had. Somehow in the midst of all the tumultuous activity, the four indig all managed to rig themselves a 'Swiss seat' using the six-foot long pieces of rope we carried (just for that purpose). Bubba and I now tried to do the same, but it wasn't easy to wrap a rope around my waist under fire. But we both managed to do it while the indig held off the enemy and began to hook up for the lift out.
We were getting low on ammunition, grenades, and claymores. If we didn't make it out, it was going to be a very long night. In fact, I was sure we couldn't survive the night no matter what kind of air support managed to reach us. It was now or never."
If you are reading this magazine I guarantee you will want On the Ground. It will be a collector's item someday. OK, maybe you're not reading the magazine, you're just looking at the pictures. This book has 48 rare pictures (all during the Vietnam War). If you order it directly from Tilt it will be autographed which will make it personal and even more valuable. Don't miss this rare chance to get a Spec Ops book from the actual SF operator. Tilt has assured me that every one that sends him an e-mail at email@example.com and orders a copy because they read about it in this magazine, he will autograph it. So don't delay, write today. Tell Tilt the Colonel said hello.
Tactical Airsoft & MilSim
ACROSS THE FENCE: The Secret War In Vietnam
By John Stryker “Tilt” Meyer
Anyone interested in the Vietnam War in general, and the secret war in particular, will appreciate this well-written narrative of a SOG warrior’s first tour of duty at FOB 1, the Phu Bai launch site for what would eventually be known as CCN. The author, whose nickname “Tilt” comes from his days as a youngster playing pinball machines in Trenton, New Jersey, is an educated, skilled writer who has taken what others might recite as cold facts and woven a taut, suspenseful series of episodes from one of the deadliest years in the history of the Studies and Observation Group. The history of this war will not be told by one book, but Tilt has added an important piece to what one day will be a total picture of the Second Indochina War.
The book opens with Tilt’s arrival in country and his journey to Phu Bai, where he lands just in time to witness the disappearance of Spike Team Idaho into the maws of the North Vietnamese Army in Laos. As he checks in, gets his gear, and becomes familiar with the small camp, the tension builds as continued silence from the field signals the worst possible fate for the veterans on ST Idaho. The gravity of the situation, both for the missing team and for the Bright Light team that is given the duty to go back in to see what happened, is palpable. The events which follow and the inescapable conclusion reached by the team leader of the Bright Light leave no doubt in the mind of the young Green Beret that he has joined a dangerous outfit - just as the folks back at Training Group warned him. Regardless of his realization, the fact that he confronts his mortality and chooses to go on is testament to his courage, a courage which will be needed in spades as he begins his seasoning in earnest.
As he undertakes his first missions, and as close calls get closer and closer, Tilt witnesses (and the reader experiences with him) men under stress who react in expected, and quietly respected, ways. It is no shame for a recon man to pull himself off a team after a particularly dangerous mission where the reaper’s scythe has missed him by centimeters. A couple of examples of extraordinary courage under fire by team members followed by their decision to leave the team humanize the stories, since the reader must wonder, “What would I do under similar circumstances?” It is this aspect of the book which gives it a richness which is often lacking in war memoirs. In one particularly chilling example (especially for anyone who ever rode out on a “string”) involves Tilt’s extrication from a hot insertion point in which he is forced to use a Swiss seat. Because of the stress of the situation, he fails to secure his second D ring and as soon as the helicopter takes off, Tilt begins to . . . well . . . tilt. Not humorous at all to be dangling upside down from 4,000 feet as your Swiss seat begins to make its way off your waist, down your hips, down your knees . . . . My hands were dripping with sweat as he related this event.
Although the majority of his missions were into the Prairie Fire AO, his team volunteers to go south for a few missions into the Daniel Boone AO as a result of a special request from Saigon. Those of us who served in the mountains of I Corps always thought the guys who served in the lowlands had it easy - no lung-bursting humps up the mountains. Well, Tilt and his guys had the same idea, until they realized that flat also meant not much cover or concealment. Lucky for them that the Green Hornets of the U.S. Air Force 20th Special Operations Squadron were always nearby, since these flatland missions were literally “hit and run.”
One aspect of the book which the reader will come to appreciate is Tilt’s honest respect and admiration for the Vietnamese members of his team and for the courageous Vietnamese pilots of the 219th Special Operations Squadron, RVNAF, who time after time came into hot LZ’s to pull RT Idaho out of death’s grip. These old Kingbees with their outdated Browning .30 caliber machine guns hanging out the side were often the only reason teams made it out of Laos. To characterize the pilots who flew these missions as “cool under fire” is an understatement. A funny anecdote with a Marine corps “Scarface” pilot underscores the danger all of these pilots faced when picking up a recon team from Laos: the officer complains to Tilt that every time his helicopter picks up a team, it gets all shot up. Not that he minds picking them up, just that it takes him off the flight line while getting repairs!
This book belongs in the library of any serious student of the war. It gives added depth and understanding to the mission of SOG, and more importantly, of the men who were charged with this thankless mission. It may have taken over thirty years for these stories to come out, but what is important is that they are coming out and being recorded so that the protected will begin to know and more importantly, never forget.
Ray Calafell (10/21/03)