Remembering the Legacy of Billy Waugh Through His Watches

Remembering the Legacy of Billy Waugh Through His Watches

Former CIA Paramilitary Officer Billy Waugh passed away at the age of 93 exactly one week ago; but we don’t mourn his death–instead we celebrate his incredible life of service in the best way we know how–through his timepieces.

William “Billy” Waugh is the Forest Gump of CIA and Special Forces with a larger than life personality and an uncanny knack for adventure. At the conclusion of WWII he attempted to enlist in the United States Marine Corps at age 15. His age got in the way, but three years later, in ‘48, he successfully enlisted in the United States Army, launching a career that would become nothing short of legendary in the Special Operations community. 

Billy Waugh Hunting the Jackal Rolex
(Photo Credit: James Rupley)

In the very year Waugh enlisted, North Korea, along with Israel, became recognized nations. The US-led Berlin Airlift was underway in response to a Soviet blockade, and Czechoslovakia had fallen to communism. By the time Waugh retired in 2005 at age 75 from the CIA, the entire geopolitical landscape had been dramatically reshaped–and Waugh’s half a century of service had played a part in that change. He deployed to the Korean, Vietnam, and Afghanistan wars as well as numerous covert operations throughout the globe.

Billy Waugh Rolex
Waugh’s Rolex, Photo Provided by Waugh’s widow through Ric Prado and Tom Marshall.

Waugh wore several watches throughout his career, including at least three iconic Rolexes and a Seiko 6309. They were crucial parts of his kit and can be seen on his wrist from pictures in Vietnam, Sudan, Cuba, Afghanistan, and in his retirement as he speaks to the next generation of warriors.  Like many stories here at W.O.E., it’s never strictly about the watches. The watches we cover are simply a token–a memento–that stand in to represent incredible tales of servitude and sacrifice. Billy Waugh’s watches are no different. They represent key moments in a life dedicated to the Special Operations community.

The Missing Rolex, Vietnam:

In 1954, after serving in Korea, Waugh earned his Green Beret and joined the 10th Special Forces Group in Bad Tölz, in what was West Germany at the time. The same year the Vietnam war kicked off, and Waugh found himself right at the center of the conflict for a number of years. Eventually Waugh joined Special Forces A-team A-321, an “Operational Detachment Alpha” serving with 5th Special Forces Group.  The ODA conducted a night raid on a Viet Cong compound in Bong Son, in Binh Dinh Province. The area was littered with Viet Cong, North Vietnamese and other Communist forces including the Chinese and that left Waugh and his teammates thoroughly outnumbered. A fire fight broke out and the ODA was hit hard. Most of Waugh’s teammates were injured in the fight, including Waugh. He described the situation in his book, Hunting the Jackal.

Billy Waugh Special Forces
Waugh as a young Special Forces Master Sergeant, 1964 (Photo Crédit: Hunting the Jackal)

I took another bullet, this time across the right side of my forehead. I don’t know for sure, but I believe the bullet ricocheted off the bamboo before striking me. It sliced in and out of a two-inch section of my forehead, and it immediately started to bleed like an open faucet. It sounds like the punch line to a bad joke, but you know it’s a bad day when the best thing about it is getting shot in the head.

Miraculously Waugh was still alive, but in bad shape. 

All that mud had baked on me like a crust. The leeches were everywhere. The bones on my leg were sun-baked. The dried blood on my forehead made it tough to see, but I didn’t need my eyes to understand I was naked. They’d (the North Vietnamese Army) come across that paddy and stripped me of my clothes, my Rolex watch, my gear–everything. 

Eventually Waugh's teammates found him and brought him to safety. The road to recovery was long, but for his valiant efforts, he was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.  While we can’t say for sure, this Rolex was likely a Submariner ref. 5513 or GMT ref. 1675, both popular in the SF community and could then be purchased for “a month's salary.” 

Billy Waugh Vietnam
Waugh (left) in 1969 wearing what is potentially a replacement Rolex on a fabric strap and compass. (Photo Credit: Unknown)

After recovering, Waugh got back in the fight and joined the shadowy Military Assistance Command-Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG). Plenty of his work in this capacity is still classified, but it’s known that he helped train up Cambodian and Vietnamese forces in unconventional warfare tactics that would help disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail supply route and stymy the efforts of the Viet Cong. Additionally, Waugh became highly skilled in High Altitude Low Opening parachute jumps, known as HALO. This insertion platform allowed operators to enter hostile territory virtually undetected. Waugh led the last special reconnaissance mission in ‘71; Waugh and his teammates used the HALO platform to enter a denied territory held by the NVA. 

Custom Gem-set Gold Rolex Day-Date:

Waugh briefly retired from military service when the Vietnam War wound down and took a job with the United States Postal Service. But Waugh wasn’t meant for the USPS. He had more to give to the world of Special Operations. Before he knew it, he was back in the fold. 

In the mid-1970’s Edwin Wilson, formerly CIA, recruited Waugh and a few of his former teammates to train up Libyan special forces. Waugh thought this was a CIA-backed operation, but it turned out Wilson was acting outside an official capacity. Waugh's saving grace is that he was indeed recruited by CIA prior to his transition to Libya for Wilson’s project. The CIA tasked him with photographing and reporting on any interesting activity that he noticed while he was there. The USSR was heavily invested in Libya and was of interest to US security. He photographed and observed the soldiers he was training and various Surface-to-Air missile sites. 

Billy Waugh Special Forces Gold Rolex
Waugh’s Gold Rolex Day-Date with aftermarket diamonds. (Photo Credit: member of W.O.E. Community)

It was here that he reportedly purchased a gem-set gold Rolex Day-Date. According to a member of the W.O.E. community, Waugh told students of a recent Special Forces 18A course that he “purchased it in the late seventies in Libya for 13-14k.” But Waugh was well aware of the rise in value of Rolex watches. “Ya better believe that goddamn thing is worth about $25k or more now!” Waugh exclaimed when discussing the watch. 

Billy Waugh Rolex Diamonds
Waugh’s Rolex, Photo Provided by Waugh’s widow through Ric Prado and Tom Marshall.

We’ve had pictures of this watch for over a year but didn’t publish them for a simple reason: we surmised the authenticity of the watch may have been questionable.  However, we reached out to several vintage watch experts who said they believe the watch is likely real but modified with aftermarket diamonds on the bezel and dial. This style of modification was relatively common during the period. Rolex even launched its own service creating bespoke pieces for discerning clients in the ‘60s and ‘70s with custom gem-setting.  While we can’t establish a concrete history of the watch, the diamond-set gold Rolex is perfect for an old school SF operator.  Waugh was also famous for wearing an SF pendant on a gold chain and gold rings.  This watch can be seen frequently on his wrist after retirement, the bracelet is stretched and scratched after decades of hard use.

Billy Waugh Special Forces
(Photo Credit: Nick Stubbs / US Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Post Libya:

After his Libya stint Waugh was assigned to the Kwajalein Missile Range in the Marshall Islands to survey and report on Soviet maritime activity in the area.

In 1991 he returned to Africa, this time to Khartoum, Sudan to survey and track Usama Bin Laden, who was relatively unknown to the public but of interest to the US intelligence. Waugh’s assignment was to survey the activities and patterns of life of Bin Laden. According to a contact that discussed the assignment with Waugh, he would “conduct his surveillance under the guise of going for a jog around the living area of bin Laden and his guards, frequently ‘flipping those bastards the bird or pretending to shoot them by pointing finger guns and imitating pulling the trigger’ while they watched him conduct his run. Waugh mentioned pushing up the request to kill bin Laden as it didn’t make sense to him to burn more time watching him. That request was denied and he wrapped up his surveillance shortly thereafter.” 

Billy Waugh Carlos the Jackal Egypt
Waugh in Cairo, Egypt late 1990s (Photo Credit: Waugh)

The subject of much of Waugh’s book, Hunting the Jackal, is Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, known as “Carlos the Jackal.” Waugh was assigned to track him down after Sanchez had evaded a number of intelligence agencies around the world after committing murder in a number of countries and playing a role in terror attacks.

Waugh set up a surveillance site, tracked and photographed The Jackal for some time before turning over the intelligence to the French, who conducted the capture mission. 

Rolex 1675 “Pepsi” GMT-Master:

Billy Waugh Rolex GMT Pepsi Special Forces
Rolex GMT on Waugh’s wrist in retirement. (Photo Credit, Recoil Magazine and Tom Marshall)

We have previously said that a GMT-Master is the perfect watch for a CIA Case Officer, and this is especially true for an old school operator like Billy Waugh.  This reference is likely from the 1970s around the time Waugh would have been recruited by the CIA.  Unfortunately, we are unable to confirm the details of when he acquired the watch and if it was worn operationally in any capacity, though given Waugh’s life, it is reasonable to assume this is the case. Waugh has been photographed wearing the watch, including during a recent interview with Recoil Magazine.

Rolex GMT 16710 Special Forces
Rolex GMT on Waugh’s wrist in retirement. (Photo Credit, Recoil Magazine and Tom Marshall)

September 11th, 2001:

After the September 11 attacks, Waugh, then 71, deployed to Afghanistan as a member of the CIA’s Northern Alliance Liaison Team –codenamed JAWBREAKER.  The Rolex was left at home and Waugh can be seen wearing a digital Suunto watch, similar to that worn by CIA team leader J.R. Seeger, as documented in “Digital Watches Of Espionage.”  As previously discussed, the digital tool-watch was a far more effective tool for the modern day fighter, even a SOG veteran like Waugh.  

Despite his age, Waugh was well suited for the initial mission into Afghanistan, given his time tracking Usama bin Laden in Sudan in the ‘90s and his decades of combat and intelligence experience.  He would celebrate his 72nd birthday in Afghanistan.

Billy Waugh Afghanistan MP5
Gardez, Afghanistan January 2002, wearing a Suunto (Photo Credit: Hunting the Jackal, Waugh)

In total, Waugh would be awarded one Silver Star, four Bronze Stars for Valor, four Commendation Ribbons for Valor, fourteen Air Medals for Valor, two Combat Infantryman badges and eight Purple Hearts.  We can also assume Waugh was awarded numerous classified commendations from CIA.

As previously discussed, this reflection is less about Waugh’s watches and more about the man who wore them.  Billy Waugh served the nation with the most difficult assignments for both the US Army Special Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency.  This is our way to memorialize that service and honor his sacrifice.

Fair Winds and Following Seas

Billy Waugh Cuba Skydiving Seiko
Waugh sky diving in Cuba wearing a Seiko 6309 at an astonishing 89 years old. (Photo Credit: Annie Jacobson) 

For additional information, read Waugh’s “Hunting the Jackal” and watch the interview with Waugh by Recoil Magazine.  Thank you for Tom Marshall and an unnamed member of the W.O.E. community for providing pictures and additional background on the pieces.

Read Next: Vietnam MACV-SOG Seikos: Setting The Record Straight   

12 comments

I had the privilege of serving with CSM Waugh in 60-61 with the 2nd 503 ABG Combat Team on Okinawa. He was the weapons platoon Sgt. We knew that we had someone special in charge. Even at that time he was ‘running through life with his hair on fire’. Un-be-known to him, he was affectionally known to us as “Billy Bad Ass”. To this day I still have fond memories of CSM Waugh.

Jim Petit

Sometimes men like this exist solely to inspire other young men to go out into the world and do brave and dangerous things. What an amazing life to lead.

IDV

Should have been noted that the action in Vietnam where Billy was wounded in the head is the same battle where Col Paris Davis (then a CAPT I think ) earned the Medal of Honor, which he was only recently awarded. Billy is not named specifically in the MOH Citation, just listed as one of the soldiers Capt Davis dragged to safety.

Billy was so nonchalant in his book about the incident " I was awarded my 6th Purple Heart ". I mean, where are the stories about the first five???? And the fact he spent just over 7 years in Vietnam boggles the mind.

A rare breed of man.

John

Great article on an epic life. “Surprise, Kill, Vanish”, by Annie Jacobsen prominently features Billy Waugh.

Anonymous

Great post, just a small typo, this caption, “Gardez, Afghanistan January 2022, wearing a Suunto (Photo Credit: Hunting the Jackal, Waugh)” is probably 2002?

Joseph

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