American Spartan: An Afternoon With Billy Waugh By: Tom Marshall

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INTERVIEW WITH A LEGEND

Photos by Brian Butler

A video of our interview with Billy Waugh can be found on RECOIL.TV and on the RECOIL YouTube channel.

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Any warrior worth their salt will tell you combat is a team sport, and they’re absolutely right. But just like in any team sport, there are people who not only survive but thrive in it. Their ability and willingness to perform at the highest levels under the hardest conditions seem effortless and, through that lens, almost superhuman. The Bible has Samson. Classic Greek literature has Achilles. The HALO video game franchise has Master Chief. America has Billy Waugh. 

Waugh started his career as a paratrooper in Korea, before he transferred to Special Forces and was sent to Vietnam. There, he eventually served with the MACV-SOG program — the first of many such programs in which military special operators teamed up with the CIA to accomplish strategic objectives — continuing without pause into the dawn of the Global War On Terror. 

Waugh conducted the first-ever combat HALO jump into enemy territory, as well as the last combat parachute jump of the Vietnam War. Once retired from Special Forces as a Command Sergeant Major, he went to work for the CIA, participating in the hunt for some of America’s most well-known enemies, including Carlos the Jackal and Osama Bin Laden. 

With Special Forces in Vietnam.

In 2001 at the sprightly age of 72, he deployed to Afghanistan as part of a CIA Jawbreaker team. We recently spent an afternoon with Waugh, 92 years old at time of writing, to hear — in his own words — stories from a career that reads like an encyclopedia of America’s covert conflicts around the globe.

AND IT BEGAN THERE …

Before all of that, Waugh grew up in Bastrop, Texas, a town of about 400 people at the time. Waugh describes his mother as “very bright and very strict.” A graduate of UT and a schoolteacher, he remembers that “she didn’t take sh*t from anybody, especially me. But she raised me right and taught me how to get along with people.” 

That latter skill would serve him handily in the intelligence world later. But first, he ran away from home to join the Marine Corps at the tail end of World War II. To do so, he hitchhiked west from Texas toward California, getting arrested in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He remembers calling his mother from jail in Las Cruces, with no money, to explain where he was. “We ended up getting along fine,” he said of the fallout with his mom. “She was an explorer-type lady, herself. And it began there. That was in … the late ’40s.”

Talking us through his story of rescuing a downed Navy pilot near Khe San during his time in SOG in Vietnam.

He eventually wound up in the Army, not the Marine Corps, and “went to Korea the first chance I got.” After a brief tour in Korea, Waugh deployed to Vietnam as part of the infamous Studies and Observations Group (SOG). 

Shrouded in secrecy during the war, Waugh describes SOG’s mission as such:

“That meant you were going top secret into Hanoi. You were going to chart Hanoi and other places they would send you. And you weren’t going to get killed. And you weren’t going to get captured. Or your ass was going to jail.”

SOG’s mission eventually extended into Laos and Cambodia, as well as North Vietnam. We know from other source material that, as a unit, SOG’s casualty rate was 100 percent — every single person who served in SOG’s ranks was eventually wounded or killed in action. Waugh himself was awarded a total of eight Purple Hearts during his time in Vietnam, both with SOG and 5th Special Forces Group.

SOG wound up taking on other missions aside from their core task of deep reconnaissance and surveillance. Waugh recounted a story of rescuing a Navy pilot whose aircraft, an F-8 Crusader, crashed in the jungle near his SOG firebase about 20 kilometers south of Khe San. He watched the aircraft streak over their base on its crash descent. So Waugh, along with two other SOG men, grabbed their gear and took off into the bush. 

“We had to pull him out of the trees. From where we were launching, he was about 30 kilometers south, and he’d come out by parachute. I did not realize he was a bird colonel. But I saved him on the rope. I had to hook him into this [rescue harness], and I had to treat him pretty rough to do it. I’d take the snap links and smack ’em together, and I know it pained him. But he didn’t say sh*t. Well, he better not or I’d tell him ‘get off my goddamn gizmo.’”

A plaque for his service in Vietnam.

It turned out later that pilot was what Waugh described as a “full bird colonel” (a Captain in Navy parlance) who was the Navy’s regional commander for that area at the time. Waugh explained:

“About three or four days later he came back … he was the Naval Commander of that particular area from Okinawa down. 

And he called and said he’d like to talk to me. I said, ‘Goddamn you’re a friggin’ bird colonel!’ The pilot said, ‘You didn’t know that?’ and I said ‘No, I didn’t know that. If I did I’d have treated you with a little more respect.’ But he responded, ‘You saved my ass, Billy, and I’m happy about it.’”

Waugh is also responsible for executing the first combat HALO jump during his time in Vietnam. HALO stands for High-Altitude, Low-Opening, a type of skydive where jumpers exit their aircraft above 30,000 feet, but don’t open their parachutes until below 10,000 feet. The idea is to minimize the radar signature of the jumpers, since the large silk canopies of the parachutes reflect radar very well. 

Waugh and fellow SOG men prepping for a HALO jump in Vietnam.

Of his HALO jumps, Waugh said:

“If I need to go by this waterhole, I know about where it is from altitude … I’m gonna make it over there with my parachute. And if you do that at night, who in the hell is gonna bother you?”

FROM JUNGLE TO DESERT

After Vietnam, Waugh was eventually recruited by the CIA for a series of operations spanning several more decades. His specialty for the Agency was close surveillance of high value targets (HVTs), which he often conducted alone. 

Waugh conducting low-profile operations on the Iranian border in the late ’90s.

“I had a method — I would take photos for about three weeks of areas we’d never been into before, of all the countries around Sudan, Egypt, and all of the countries of Africa. I became very good with small cameras … I learned how to brief well, and I was excellent with maps. It became a pleasure to do the work. If you get killed, that’s just tough sh*t.”

Waugh worked a number of different African countries, including South Sudan, Libya, and others, where he saw great successes.

“It started paying off immediately … taking sh*t up there [to the Pentagon] that had never been seen before, that the enemy had been using to track us … but all movement was at night, under the stars … none of the normal outfits would dare do anything so brazen as that. But once we started making captures and getting to target areas that couldn’t be gotten to otherwise, everyone wanted to start that type of outfit.”

One of Waugh’s more famous cases was hunting down freelance terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, more (in)famously known as Carlos the Jackal. 

Waugh with longtime friend and fellow CIA Paramility, Ric Prado, with a Billy Waugh signature knife.

“Now that took me awhile. Cofer Black told me, ‘I want you to go into Sudan or Egypt, and I want you to find Carlos … and I want you to chase him down and figure out how we can take him down without killing him.’ Killing him is easy. But what do you have once you kill somebody? You’ve got a dead body to take out too.”

As history played out, Waugh did finally manage to help capture Carlos alive. The story is covered in depth in Waugh’s book Hunting the Jackal, but he added this:

“We got him with three British aircraft. I told my boss ‘We need to take this asshole in’ … they were afraid to do anything, but they weren’t afraid to be the boss of a type of individual like I am to nab someone like Carlos the Jackal. Carlos the Jackal was well known in those days … to capture Carlos the Jackal was out of this world.” 

Perhaps one of the most pivotal and well-known operations Waugh ever took part in was the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The CIA was aware of Bin Laden’s growing presence in the world of international terror more than a decade before Sept. 11. In 1992, Waugh was tasked with following Bin Laden and collecting information on his whereabouts and activities.

Waugh with a Special Forces ODA in Afghanistan in October of 2001, at 72 years old.

Of this mission, Waugh says:

“Osama Bin Laden was staying part-time in Sudan, but he would stay where he could watch the U.S. aircraft come in and get their numbers. I knew where he lived, so I set up a deal where I could watch him from above, in another building that was about six or seven stories tall. I had to stay in there by myself because … all the other side has to do is see one somebody go in there they don’t know, and your ass is gone.”

While staying in Sudan, surveilling Bin Laden, Waugh was able to get much closer to Bin Laden than six or seven floors. In fact, he used to go jogging past Bin Laden’s house every morning. When we asked him about it, he said: 

“That’s absolutely right. He lived in an area that had about 30 houses in it … I jogged alone. We didn’t jog in pairs … It’s a good cover, because Americans do stupid things and jogging is stupid to them. So, they’re not gonna tag along with you, cause they don’t want any part of it.” 

Billy Waugh in Afghanistan in 2001.

This became such a regular occurrence that, at one point, Waugh told his superiors at the CIA that he was close enough to Bin Laden to kill him with a pencil. We asked him about that particular story, to which he replied:

“If I’d had to kill Bin Laden with a pencil, I would have driven it right through his eyes. Because if I went for his heart, I might miss that son of a bitch by 4 inches and just piss him off. ’Cause if you get a pencil stuck in you, you’re gonna react!” 

TRUE AMERICAN HERO

While Waugh himself would no doubt eschew the word “hero” to describe himself, few others come close to capturing the magnitude of sacrifice he’s made for the sake of people who continue to sleep peaceably in their beds as a result of his astonishingly hazardous work. 

The techniques he pioneered in special operations and intelligence tradecraft continue to be used by Americans operating at the tip of the spear today. In addition to the video version of this interview, we also highly encourage you to check out Waugh’s book Hunting The Jackal for more insight into the stories we touch on here. 

For the complete interview, take a look at RECOIL.TV or the RECOIL YouTube channel.

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