Special Forces – the Green Berets – whose motto is De oppresso liber (“To liberate the oppressed”) take pride in accomplishing their missions well and without fanfare; thus their nickname “the Quiet Professionals.” Within that select fraternity, one unit that fought in the Vietnam War stands out for being, in the words of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry H. Shelton, who served as a captain in that unit in 1967, “the quietest of ‘the Quiet Professionals.’” Beginning in October 1964 and continuing for more than five years, this unit – Detachment B-52 of the 5th Special Forces Group – conducted the longest-running and most successful deep-penetration reconnaissance and counterintelligence operation in the war.
Despite the high number, tempo, and risk of its missions, the unit lost only 19 men killed and 12 men missing in action. That extraordinary statistic is matched by another achievement.
When the operation concluded in 1970, the unit, never numbering more than 100 officers and enlisted men at any one time, would become the most highly decorated unit of its size in the Vietnam War, and the second most highly decorated unit in the conflict.
Few people knew of the unit then, and fewer today know the story of Project Delta, Detachment B-52, 5th Special Forces Group.
Project Delta was a “lessons learned” result of its predecessor, the failed Operation Leaping Lena. Leaping Lena recon teams, composed of Vietnam Special Forces (VNSF) and the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG – usually Montagnards and Nungs), proved incapable of providing high quality, accurate reconnaissance intelligence.
Reorganized and renamed Project Delta, the operation now had 5th Special Forces Group in command and some of its members, Detachment B-52, assigned to lead individual teams.
“For freedom’s cause in lands far gone, Remember brave men called recon.”
– excerpt from the poem “Recon” by James R. Jarrett, Project Delta Recon Team Sergeant
In December 1964, Project Delta ran its first operation, inserting three teams, each composed of five men (two Special Forces, three VNSF/CIDG) in separate locations in the Viet Cong-held Ninh Hoa Peninsula about 40 miles north of the growing U.S. military facilities at Cam Ranh Bay. Team Three was able to accomplish its mission, bringing back important intelligence and a prisoner. The other two teams were detected as soon as they landed and had more adventurous experiences. Team One was extracted after a running firefight with the enemy. Three members of Team Two – Sgt. First Class Henry M. Bailey, Staff Sgt. Ronald Terry, and a wounded VNSF soldier – got separated from the rest of the their team and wound up spending two harrowing nights hiding from the enemy. The closest available landing zone was 50 meters from their hideout – and on the other side of a village that housed two Viet Cong platoons.
Their escape is described in the book The Ether Zone: U.S. Army Special Forces Detachment B-52, Project Delta. Author R.C. Morris, who served as executive officer for the 5th Special Forces Group Operational Detachment 106 in 1966, wrote, “Just before dawn the two exhausted troopers, supporting the wounded VNSF recon man between them, simply stood and strode through the middle of the enemy encampment. They had counted on the darkness and rain to fool the VC into mistaking them for their own comrades. The gutsy ruse worked; they waved to a guard hunkered down, smoking a cigarette, and he nonchalantly gestured in return!” Despite receiving fire from the surprised Viet Cong, the rescue helicopter successfully extracted the three men. Bailey then called in an air strike that almost wiped out the VC.
This first mission was a complete success. Fewer than 20 men had disrupted an entrenched Viet Cong network, almost destroyed a reinforced VC company, and punctured the myth of Viet Cong invulnerability. And, by proving that properly led VNSF and CIDG personnel could perform admirably in combat, it boosted morale in the South Vietnamese Army command.
Project Delta ceased operations on June 30, 1970. Among the many decorations Detachment B-52 soldiers received were two Distinguished Service Crosses, 18 Silver Stars, 58 Bronze Stars with V devices, 53 Purple Hearts, the Valorous Unit Award, the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, the Republic of Vietnam Civil Actions Honor Medal with Palm, and the Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon. In addition, 5th Special Forces Group soldiers would receive 17 Medals of Honor (eight posthumously), the Presidential Unit Citation, and other high honors.
On March 5, 1971, the 5th Special Forces Group service in Vietnam officially ended when its colors were returned to Fort Bragg, N.C.