Major George Quamo,
SOG, and Khe Sanh
©2012 Peter Brush
Introduction and Background
In May 1968, President Lyndon Johnson presented the Presidential Unit Citation to the 26th Marine Regiment for their “extraordinary heroism in action against North Vietnamese Army forces during the battle for Khe Sanh.” Officially, for the Marine Corps, Khe Sanh was one of the most crucial battles of the war, and their account of the battle “is basically a story about Marines.” Although both Johnson and the Marine Corps acknowledge the role of supporting units, Khe Sanh is intimately associated in history with Marines. However, U.S. Special Forces (USSF) were the first American troops at Khe Sanh, and Special Forces and Special Operations Group (SOG) personnel were present throughout the battle. This article is about SOG Major George Quamo, one of the most important and interesting Americans at Khe Sanh. Quamo was described in superlatives by those who knew him, a “super man,” athletic, brilliant, and charismatic, ‘a kind of “Lawrence of Arabia of Vietnam.”’
Originally, Khe Sanh was a village located on Route 9, the northernmost east-west highway in South Vietnam. In the early 1960s the Americans and South Vietnamese became concerned about Communist infiltrationfrom the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. On July 8 1962, a U.S. Army Special Forces A Team was sent to Khe Sanh. Their mission was to monitor enemy infiltration and train the local Bru Montagnards. They occupied an abandoned French position near the village just off Route 9. Later that year a Vietnamese engineer unit constructed an airstrip at Khe Sanh. In 1964, the A Team abandoned their original position and established a base near the airstrip. The Special Forces unit at Khe Sanh also established a presence at Lang Vei, six miles to the west along Route 9, next to the Laotian border.
The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) continued to move troops into the area. In September 1966, a Marine battalion was sent “in response to an expected major offensive by the NVA to overrun Khe Sanh.” The Marines constructed a base north of the village and Route 9. In April 1967, the Marines fought a major battle against NVA forces who sought to seize the base.
During December 1966, the Special Forces unit at Khe Sanh (Detachment A-101) relocated to Lang Vei. On May 4 1967, a NVA force attacked the Lang Vei camp, overcame its defenses, destroyed much equipment, and killed many personnel including the Special Forces commander and executive officer.
On January 24 1964, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, activated the Special Operations Group (later changed to Studies and Operations Group). The purpose of SOG was to conduct covert operations in order to deter the North Vietnamese from supporting the conflict in South Vietnam and violating the neutrality of Laos. In October 1965, SOG was authorized to send US personnel on cross-border operations into Laos. Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) were designated as launch sites for these operations.
FOB-1 was at Phu Bai, with a satellite launch site at Khe Sanh. The Khe Sanh SOG site was at the old French position constructed by Special Forces in 1962. It was too small and too “public” for SOG’s covert operational needs. The decision was made to move to the nearby Marine base and construct a new position. This base, which became FOB-3, was built in October 1967 by Navy Seabees of Detail JULIETT from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 10. FOB-3 became operational on November 1, 1967.
Major George Quamo
George Quamo was born on June 20 1940 in Lynn, Massachusetts, the son of Albanian immigrants. Quamo grew up in Averill Park, near Albany, NY. He was a standout athlete in high school, either MVP or captain of the football, basketball, and baseball teams. He was class president and colleges attempted to recruit him. Instead, Quamo enlisted in the Army on October 23 1958. He completed training at Fort Benning, GA. He attended Officer Candidate School, was commissioned a second lieutenant, and assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, as an infantry officer. He subsequently attended Jump School, Ranger School, Vietnamese and Thai language schools, Special Forces officer training, parachutist training, Pathfinder School, and the Infantry Officer Advanced Course.
In 1963 Quamo was sent to Vietnam as an advisor to the South Vietnamese Army. He was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry in action on March 27 1963 “while moving through heavy enemy fire to put a friendly machine back in action and rallying the Vietnamese troops he was advising.” In March 1964, Quamo became a SOG team commander. He returned to the U.S. where he received a two-year college equivalency in 1966. He arrived at Khe Sanh the following summer, and was promoted to major on October 1 1967.
The SOG unit at FOB-3 engaged in “Special Projects,” a plan to create a guerrilla force that would operate in the area where the Ho Chi Trail entered Laos from North Vietnam. This force was to be made up Laotian soldiers from Bataillon Voluntaire 33 (BV-33), located at a camp in Laos along Route 9 just over the border, about 13 miles west of Khe Sanh. The force at BV-33 was financed by the Central Intelligence Agency. The South Vietnam-Laos border along Route 9 was porous and not well defined. SOG teams, code named PENNSYLVANIA, entered Laos to meet with BV-33 personnel and observe NVA units operating in the area.
Initially, Master Sergeant Charles “Skip” Minnicks was team leader of PENNSYLVANIA. Quamo was sent to replace him. Minnicks was 38, the oldest SOG team leader; Quamo was 27 and probably the youngest SOG major. According to Minnicks, Quamo “looked like a kid! Here comes this new Captain. I resented him! And I made it apparent. And he called me into his tent, and he just sat me down, and we just talked. And he made me aware of my short-comings! He really did.” Eventually, Minnick came to admire and respect Quamo without limit, “as did everyone who came into contact with him.” According to another soldier who knew Quamo, “The people around him were just magnetized by him, and if you didn’t have the magnetism, he somehow transferred it to you.”
The NVA buildup in the area continued. According to Minnicks, “We knew that there was a huge, strong force.” NVA plans for the upcoming Khe Sanh battle included the establishment of fortified positions at Co Roc mountain, part of a ridgeline that ran roughly parallel to the border. In mid-January 1968, a SOG team including Minnicks and Quamo climbed to the top of Co Roc. From there they could see Khe Sanh Combat Base and Lang Vei. They discovered numerous caves and extensive NVA positions, but no NVA: apparently the enemy had already moved most of their forces closer to Khe Sanh. One complex contained 500 bunkers, including one large enough to be a regimental command post. While reconning the area, a team member was shot three times in the stomach by an NVA soldier. Major Quamo asked the Marines at Khe Sanh to send an evacuation helicopter. SOG was authorized to operate in Laos; the Marines were not, and their mission did not include crossing the border. The reply was “there will be no air extraction with the Marine helicopters at Khe Sanh.” Quamo lost his temper, berating the Marines on the command radio network. A Marine pilot, Major Charles Upshaw, heard Quamo’s profanity and launched his helicopter in a full fog. Although Upshaw and his H-34 crew successfully extracted the SOG team, that inability of the Marines and Army to coordinate their activities was but a portent.
The tactical area of responsibility of the Marines at Khe Sanh covered a large area, and included the base itself, adjacent FOB-3, various American military units in Khe Sanh village, several Marine hill outposts, and the new USSF camp at Lang Vei. During the period July-August 1967, NVA forces in the Co Roc-Lang Vei area were estimated to be at least one battalion. Due to its location on the Laotian border, the vulnerability of Lang Vei to NVA attack was obvious. Consequently, on September 18, the Marine command issued Operations Plan 5-67 which tasked the Marines with the mission of coming to the aid of Lang Vei if attacked: “a ground force of a reinforced rifle company would be committed” plus additional forces as necessary. In November 1967, the Marines sent a rifle company from Khe Sanh to Lang Vei to determine direct routes through the jungle. Selecting paths that avoided well-used trails in order to avoid ambush, it took 19 hours to make the trip.
By late 1967 NVA in the Khe Sanh area were estimated at 22,000. Counting additional troops in Laos and the central DMZ, total NVA strength was estimated at 35,000-40,000. Major General Rathvon Tompkins, commander of the 3d Marine Division, recommended the Lang Vei position be abandoned. US military headquarters in Saigon insisted it be retained. On January 6, a Marine forward observer was sent to Lang Vei to register artillery defensive fires. At 0530 on January 21, the NVA began shelling the combat base, beginning the famous battle. Khe Sanh village was overrun that afternoon, followed by the BV-33 camp on January 24. Flying overhead in a helicopter, Major Quamo observed the Laotian survivors of BV-33 as they moved down Route 9. This group included 500 soldiers, 2,200 dependents, and a number of water buffalo. Quamo arranged with Special Forces headquarters in Da Nang to have food, ammunition, and building materials sent to help rebuild the destroyed positions at old Lang Vei, which were occupied by BV-33 personnel. With Khe Sanh village in NVA hands, Lang Vei was cut off from Khe Sanh Combat Base via Route 9.
Khe Sanh and Lang Vei
When the fighting began, the Marine Fire Support Coordination Center was swamped with over 3,000 possible enemy targets within a 15 kilometer radius (artillery, headquarters, anti-aircraft weapons, bunkers, supply dumps). Major Quamo, at FOB-3, on his own initiative, went to the Marine command center to offer his assistance. He had a land line laid to provide a continuous flow of information to the Marines. Quamo knew the locations of NVA positions quite well. Deep inside the Tactical Operations Center at FOB-3 was a communications section. Here four North Vietnamese defectors monitored NVA radio networks and provided translations of intercepted messages. Although the Marines provided security for the soldiers at FOB-3, the two units followed different chains of command. Instead of forwarding information to Saigon, where it would be evaluated, condensed, and then sent to the Marines, Quamo was able to provide information directly and promptly. According to Marine Major Jerry Hudson, the 26th Marines regimental intelligence officer, “Quamo really saved us during the first few days of the attack by giving us all sorts of significant information.”
The NVA shelled Khe Sanh continuously. 61 Americans were killed in the first 15 days. In the early morning hours of February 6 the combat base was receiving about six incoming enemy rounds per minute. By contrast, things were quiet down Route 9 at Lang Vei. According to the USSF camp executive officer, Lieutenant Miles Wilkins, “We had very little enemy contact. They basically just left us alone.” The situation changed drastically just after midnight on February 7. NVA tanks began rolling over the Lang Vei perimeter defenses, driving into the camp along Route 9 from both directions. At the same time, NVA 152mm artillery at Co Roc was firing at the Marines at Khe Sanh. NVA forces attacked both the new Special Forces camp and the old position where the Laotians had dug in. The American soldiers put up a spirited and heroic defense against a vastly superior NVA force, but by about 0300 the NVA mostly controlled the camp. The USSF soldiers were essentially trapped in their command bunker, where they remained throughout the night. Captain Frank Willoughby, commander of A-101, radioed the Marines at Khe Sanh to fire an artillery barrage on his position, and to execute the relief plan.
The Marines at Khe Sanh felt any relief force moving down Route 9 would undoubtedly be ambushed (in fact, documents taken off a dead NVA office later in the battle indicated they hoped a relief column would be sent so they could destroy it). A helicopter assault was ruled out because the NVA had positioned their tanks to fire on the only suitable landing zone. Lastly, and most important, the Marines knew any force they could send would be vastly outnumbered by the NVA. Consequently, the Marines refused to provide a relief force.
Major Quamo had been up all night at FOB-3 listening to the fighting on the radio net. Quamo discussed the situation with the FOB commander, Major Lucius Campbell, who declined to become involved. At about 1000 hours Quamo went to the Marine Combat Operations Center where he learned no Marine relief force would be sent. Furious, Quamo returned to FOB-3 and asked for volunteers. He vowed, “We’re going to do something. We’re going to get something done!”
Fourteen USSF volunteers plus forty Bru soldiers went on standby. Several Marine CH-46 helicopters were at Khe Sanh preparing for a resupply mission. Without authorization, Quamo alerted the Marine helicopter pilots of his plan to launch a rescue operation into Lang Vei. At 1500 hours, official authorization was received. The resupply mission was cancelled and the Marine pilots went to FOB-3 for a mission briefing. At 1700 hours, the rescue force departed for Lang Vei, where they rescued the 16 Special Forces survivors. According to Minnicks, who was part of the rescue team, “I thought that Quamo should of got a Medal of Honor for what he did at Lang Vei. He coordinated the whole thing.”
In March 1968, Lieutenant Colonel Roy Bahr became commander of FOB-3. Bahr had high praise for Quamo, describing him “one of the most outstanding officers with whom I have served” and “highly respected by seniors and subordinates alike.” However, there was one exception to the high regard felt for Quamo. On April 5 1968, General William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, visited Khe Sanh and FOB-3. According to Bahr, it was obvious Westmoreland and Quamo knew each other, and there was “an intense, palpable animosity from General Westmoreland to Major Quamo,” which puzzled Bahr.
The siege of Khe Sanh ended in April. The Marines began discussions on closing down the base. FOB-3 had been engaged in classified activities and possessed top secret documents. Colonel Bahr, having received no orders to relocate FOB-3 and its personnel, became concerned about remaining if the Marine force departed. He was afraid FOB-3 could become another Lang Vei. Bahr instructed his intelligence officer, Captain Hammond Salley, to write a top secret report. This report outlined the consequences of abandoning Khe Sanh and FOB-3 and asked for clarification of FOB-3’s future mission. Bahr gave the report to Major Quamo with instructions to hand carry it to USSF headquarters in Da Nang. At 1535 hours on April 14, Quamo boarded a U-17 airplane with two Vietnamese pilots. The U-17 made contact with air control at Da Nang soon after departing. At 1645 hours, contact was lost in the vicinity of Da Nang. An extensive search was launched, with no results.
Speculation began soon after the disappearance. According to Minnicks, some overzealous CIA analysts considered Quamo might be a spy who had flown to North Vietnam. The CIA sent investigators to interview people who had worked with Quamo and search his belongings, which made Minnicks furious. Major Hudson and others wondered if Quamo was on a secret mission and not really dead. Quamo’s remains, along with those of two Asians, were discovered in 1974 by a Vietnamese woodcutter in the mountains. He was quietly buried in Arlington National Cemetery on October 21, 1974.
FOB-3 at Khe Sanh was demolished in June 1968. Remaining FOB-3 personnel were transferred to other FOB’s at Phu Bai, Kontum, and Da Nang.
USSF Detachment A-101 relocated to Mai Loc on June 24, 1968.
Khe Sanh Combat Base was officially closed at 2000 hours on July 5 1968.
On April 14 2007, Senator Hillary Clinton attended a dedication in Averill Park, NY, of the Major George Quamo Post Office Building.
NOTE ON SOURCES: I relied heavily on the works of Rev. Ray W. Stubbe, especially Pebbles in My Boots, Vol. 2. (2011). Ray was a navy chaplain at Khe Sanh during the 1968 battle. Over the years he has amassed a 100,000 page archive of documents relating to Khe Sanh. Everyone interested in Khe Sanh owes a debt to Stubbe’s research and scholarship.
http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=28879#axzz1mH89ivh8. Accessed 2/14/2012.
 Moyers S. Shore, The Battle for Khe Sanh (Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1977), v, x.
 Ray W. Stubbe, Pebbles in My Boots, Vol. 2: a Selection of Miscellaneous Writings including "Special forces at Khe Sanh," "The 1967 Hill Battles," "Khe Sanh Glossary," Selected Letters and Miscellaneous Writings, "The Wounded Healer" (Wauwatosa, WI: R. Stubbe, 2011), 28.
 John Prados and Ray W. Stubbe, Valley of Decision: the Siege of Khe Sanh (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 13.
 Pebbles, 5.
 Pebbles, 10.
 Gary L. Telfer, U.S. Marines in Vietnam : Fighting the North Vietnamese 1967 (Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1984), 44.
 Robert M. Gillespie, Black Ops, Vietnam: the Operational History of MACVSOG (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 10-11, 49.
 Pebbles, 38-39.
 Pebbles, 28-30. This is the source for biographical and service information on Quamo. Service information is from his service record.
 Descriptions of Quamo are from Pebbles, 20, 30.
 Pebbles, 20, 33-34.
 Pebbles, 62.
 Shore, 67.
 John Prados and Ray W. Stubbe, Valley of Decision: the Siege of Khe Sanh (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 270-271. Peter McDonald, Giap: The Victor in Vietnam (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), p. 279.
 Ray W. Stubbe, Khe Sanh (unpublished manuscript dtd 6 June 1989, 309.
 Pebbles, 29, 60.
 Ray Stubbe, Battalion of Kings : a Tribute to our Fallen Brothers Who Died Because of the Battlefield of Khe Sanh, Vietnam (Wauwatosa, WI : Khe Sanh Veterans, Inc., 2005), pp, 113-148. Pebbles, 63-64.
 William R. Phillips, Night of the Silver Stars: the Battle of Lang Vei (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 90.
 Shore, 67-68.
 Pebbles, 69.
 Harve Saal, SOG, MACV Studies and Observation Group: Behind Enemy Lines (Ann Arbor, MI: Edwards Brothers, 1990), vol. 4, 228-231.
 Pebbles, 69.
 Pebbles, 78.
 Pebbles, 80.
 Pebbles, 81-82.