Behind enemy lines in Vietnam

Mark Bills took this picture of one of his Montagnard recon teams with several of his American teammates. The Montagnards were particularly good jungle fighters who hated the Vietnamese. Photo provided by Mark Bills

John Rambo has nothing on Mark Bills.

The Venice, Fla. dentist was once a member of an elite, secret Army Special Forces group dropped behind enemy lines during the Vietnam War.

It was in his other life more than 30 years ago. He survived 22 highly classified intelligence-gathering missions while serving in the ill-fated war. Bills came home to a country that didn’t appreciate his exploits or the war in which he fought.

He went on to college and dental school. For the past 22 years, he has had a dental practice in Venice.

Three decades ago, Bills was an Airborne Ranger, Green Beret and a member of the Special Forces. He was assigned to Command and Control North Military Assistance Command Vietnam’s Studies and Observation Group. In short S.O.G.

“We were counter-intelligence,” he said. “Six or eight of us were dropped way behind enemy lines to conduct P.O.W. snatches, check out enemy movement and do wire taps. We tried to get a handle on what was coming south in Vietnam.

“Everything we carried was sterilized. We had no dog tags, and there were no labels on our clothing,” Bills explained. “We carried nothing to indicate we were U.S. soldiers, even though it was very obvious we were.

“We knew if we were captured we would be shot as spies. The enemy hated the S.O.G. group. We had a $5,000 to $10,000 price on our heads,” he said.

A captain and team leader of one of these Special Forces groups, Bills and an American first lieutenant, who served as his executive officer, would be flown by helicopter behind enemy lines with four to six Montagnard tribesmen.

Members of a six-man recon team practice an “Action Drill” in Vietnam. This was a drill so all members of the team knew what to do if they were ambushed by the enemy. The first thing they did was get out of the area with all of its members as quickly as possible. Photo provided

Members of a six-man recon team practice an “Action Drill” in Vietnam. This was a drill so all members of the team knew what to do if they were ambushed by the enemy. The first thing they did was get out of the area with all of its members as quickly as possible. Photo provided

“The Montagnards, the hill people of Vietnam, were recruited by us. They hated the Vietnamese. They thought it was marvelous they got paid to kill ‘em,” Bills said.

When they went out, the group was scheduled to spend a week on the ground. They took everything they needed with them.

“In those days, I weighed 165 pounds and carried 135 pounds of gear. Besides my car-15 (a collapsible stock version of the M-16 rifle) I wore an old Browning Automatic Rifle belt in which I carried 36, 20-round magazines of ammunition for my rifle, two 30-round clips taped end-to-end in my car-15, a .357 magnum Smith & Wesson pistol, a little M-79, 40-millimeter grenade launcher, a bandolier of high explosives and phosphorous grenades, some C-4 explosives, smoke grenades, a knife, water and food.

“By the time you add it all up, you’ve got a pretty heavy load,” Bill said.

“The area of Northern Laos we operated in had some very nasty mountain terrain. There were only so many places you could put a team in or land a helicopter. After a while the enemy had us figured out.

“They got pretty sophisticated tracking us,” he said. “When they figured out where we were trying to go, they called in their hunter-killer teams of 100 to 200 people or more that would come after us.”

After the first three or four days on the ground, thing usually got complicated for the team. Although the probes were designed to last seven days, they almost never did. If they stuck it out behind enemy lines for a week, they receive a star for valor. There weren’t too many of them handed out.

“Anyone who got shot, we’d carry out with us. We didn’t leave anyone behind.

“The Montagnards were Buddhist. They had to have a body or their soul wandered the earth aimlessly.

“We’d never leave our partner behind. We’d both die before we’d leave the other Ranger,” Bills said with conviction.

“Special Forces are a really unique group of people. These were professional soldiers. They were all pros. Some of those guys I worked with had been in the Army longer than I was alive. It was probably one of the finest moments in my life,” Bills said.

“In Vietnam you got pretty good at this after a while,” he added. “You either got good or you got dead.”

When it was time to get out of Dodge in a hurry, a Huey helicopter would fly in and hover with a couple of ladders flapping loose as members of the recon team climbed aboard. Photo provided

When it was time to get out of Dodge in a hurry, a Huey helicopter would fly in and hover with a couple of ladders flapping loose as members of the recon team climbed aboard. Photo provided

Trouble was many of the young soldiers in the regular Army who were sent to war in Southeast Asia lacked training.

“A lot of our guys got killed in Vietnam because of inexperience and stupidity. Often times, it wasn’t their fault. It’s just what happened,” he said.

“The enemy didn’t have better soldiers. They were just better-trained than the average American soldier,” Bills said. “Not only did the enemy know the terrain, but they had been fighting much longer than our unseasoned Americans.”

By the time Bills got to Vietnam, as a member of the Special Forces, he had three years of training. He had a fair idea of front line conditions.

Even so, he said, “It still dries our mouth out pretty well when you’re dropped behind enemy lines. Anyone who has ever been shot at will tell you they probably got the tremors.”

Among his keepsakes from Vietnam is a fading Polaroid picture of a young soldier sitting beside a bed with a carbine in his left hand, its muzzle covered with white tape to keep the mud out in the bush. Four fingers of his right hand are sticking through a hole in the green poncho he’s holding.

The photo is of Bills, who looks hardly old enough to shave.

“It was taken right after an intelligence mission we went on,” he said.

“Our assignment was to verify the existence of a truck park and tanks they were going to move into South Vietnam,” Bill said. “We were given the coordinates of the park and put into the general area where it was supposed to be located.

“Once we were put on the ground behind enemy lines, the first thing we wanted to do was get the hell out of the area. We found a trail that was kinda headed the way we wanted to go and just bogeyed. Because we were in enemy terrain, we didn’t want to stay on the trail too long.

“The second day, it started to rain as we got off the trail and moved through some rather dense jungle. The rain was great because it muffled our movements.

“As we were moving along the side of a hill in the mud and jungle, I slipped and fell, burying the muzzle of my rifle wrist deep.

“We stopped for a few minutes to give me time to throw my poncho over a bush, sit down underneath it and clean my weapon.

“We had two enemy trackers behind us we didn’t know about. They had been following us in the rain for some time.

“I was just about finished reassembling my rifle. I racked the bolt and released the mechanism fairly noisily. That was a big mistake.

Mark Bills sticks his finger through a hole in a poncho shot off his head by an enemy AK-47 rifle. Photo provided

Mark Bills sticks his finger through a hole in a poncho shot off his head by an enemy AK-47 rifle. Photo provided

“When the lead tracker heard my rifle bolt slam close, he opened fire. He shot the poncho right off the top of my head. If the 7.62 round from his AK-47 that punched a hole in my poncho had deflected an inch, it would have taken the top of my head off.

“I had no rounds in my rifle so I grabbed for my pistol. By then, the little people (Montagnards) killed the guy who shot at me. The second tracker got away.

Within minutes, the intelligence team was ambushed by more enemy soldiers. Bills knew they were in trouble judging from the amount of fire coming their way.

The best defense was to escape the area as quickly as possible. But that was a tall order because they were surrounded by an enemy battalion that knew exactly where we were.

As Bills said, “Six people don’t fight anyone.”

Their only means of escape was tactical air support. But that was more than 1 ½ hours away. All they could do was hold on and hope.

“Since nobody was hit, we fought our way up to the top of the hill,” he said. “Then we called in fighter planes. We knew there was a helicopter landing zone about a half mile away. If we could get to it, we might escape.

“When the A1-4E Spads and the F-4 jets arrived, they worked napalm and heavy stuff all the way around us. What we learned was that the enemy would crawl right up to our perimeter and stay underneath the barrage. Then they would throw hand grenades to take you out.

“Those A1-E4 prop jobs above us were some lovely people. They carried a lot of ordinance—cannons and mini guns and all that suff.

“They bombed the hell out of everything between us and the landing zone. We made a run for it and got out.

“There was a time, between 1968 and 1970, when our unit sustained 100 percent casualties. That meant everybody in the unit was either killed in action, missing in action or wounded,” Bills said.

In his case he sustained two minor wounds, one in the head and the other in the leg.

“I’m not anything special at all. I just did what a lot of other guys did better. I had a lot of luck.

“As a consequence, I don’t take myself too seriously any more. I figure I’m way ahead of the game.

“I had a friend in Vietnam who had been a member of a Special Forces group who had just completed his tour and was on his way by helicopter to catch a plane home. His chopper was shot down and he was killed.”

Bills looked at the old war photos scattered on the desk before him.

“When the sand runs out on you, the sand runs out,” he said.

Special Forces outfit receives ‘Presidential Unit Citation’

A Presidential Unit Citation for “extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy” was awarded to members of the Army Special Forces Studies and Observation Group assigned to Military Assistance Command in Vietnam.

This is the unit a Venice dentist, Dr. Mark Bills, served with in Vietnam. He was a young captain who led an intelligence team deep behind enemy lines on 22 surveillance mission in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

“Army regulations state the unit as a whole must display the same degree of heroism that would warrant the award to an individual of the Distinguished Service Cross,” according to the information on the Internet about the award.

“Receiving this unit Citation is like getting the Distinguished Service Cross, which is right under the Medal of Honor,” Bills said. “I don’t feel I deserve it. But I know a lot of guys who do.”

“Studies and Observation Groups performed secret missions such as training indigenous people in guerrilla warfare and sending teams, sometimes consisting of a few as eight men, deep into enemy-controlled territory,” according to the information on the ‘net.

“There was little or no recognition of what they did because their operations, at the time, were highly classified,” according to Maj. John Plaster (Ret.) who researched declassified documents about these operations.

Eighteen Studies and Observation Groups were wiped out by the enemy. Some 25 team members are listed as “Missing in Action.” No members of any of these teams returned as prisoners of war after the Vietnam conflict was over.

The citation was authorized by former President Bill Clinton. It covers the entire period S.O.G. operated from January 1964 to April 1972.

Lt. Gen Doug Brown, commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, hosted the ceremony. Guests included Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former S.O.G. commanders, Medal of Honor recipients and many veterans of these units.

Bills’ File

Name: Mark Bills
Age: 58 (at time of interview)
Hometown: Peoria, Ill.
Currently: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: 1966
Discharged: 1970
Rank: Captain
Unit: Special Forces, 5th Special Forces, CCN-MACVSOG
Commendations: Two Purple Hearts, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars with “V” for Valor, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, six Air Medals, Senior Parachute Badge, Vietnam Gallantry Medal with Silver Star, Vietnam Special Forces jump Wings, two Vietnam Service Medals

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla.  and is republished with permission.

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Click here to search Veterans Records and to obtain information on retrieving lost commendations.

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Comments

  1. My father, Walter Wayne Melton, served with MACV-SOG Team Hawaii in 1968. Glad to say he is alive and living in North Carolina. I’m very proud of each of you!

  2. I went through AIT with Mark and later served with him in 10th Group along with Bob De Groff. Hope life has been good to him. He earned it.

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