MACV-SOG Recon Elements Required a Tough Tool To Support Operations, So They Turned To Seiko
Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG or just SOG) recon men required a robust and non-attributable timepiece to accomplish their mission. They turned to Seiko, known as the ‘Toyota of Watches’. Three distinct Seiko references in total were used by MACV-SOG operators. We spoke with former SOG legend John Stryker Meyer–“Tilt”--about the role these Seikos played in the missions he took part in. As with anything clandestine, there’s plenty of misinformation and speculation out there. Meyer served as a primary source that helped us cut through the hearsay and get to the facts surrounding the shadowy MACV-SOG Seiko references.
When it comes to tools actually used in the field, there are few watch manufacturers more present than Seiko. Seiko, after all, is the “Toyota of watches”– they’re cheap and reliable utilitarian tools. For the same reasons Toyotas are a common sight in modern conflict zones, Seikos have adorned the wrists of hard men in hard places for decades.
One of the most well-known examples of Seiko’s presence in the intelligence and SpecOps world is the Vietnam-era “MACV-SOG Seiko,” procured using black budget funds and issued to SOG operators as sterile and untraceable equipment. Seiko’s cult-like following combined with military historian’s fascination with SOG has made the MACV-SOG Seikos incredibly collectable.
In an effort to go deeper and seek the truth, we spoke with former SOG legend John Stryker Meyer–“Tilt”-- about his experience with the MACV-SOG Seikos, and he would know–he was issued one.
Meyer and Lynne Black Jr. in November 1968 with their CISO-issued Seikos. Note, the watch is worn on the inside of the wrist on his strong hand, a habit he picked up in training. (Photo Credit: Meyer)
John Stryker Meyer is a former Green Beret and legend in the special operations community. He’s devoted much of his later life to preserving the SOG heritage and documenting his experiences for future generations. Even after 50 years, he still remembers his Seiko well. It was one of the many tools he used to carry out his duties and execute the mission.
When it came to equipment, SOG recon men were issued the most innovative tools, often custom tailored for clandestine and covert reconnaissance. Meyer received his watch from S4 unit supply specialists after arriving “in country” in April 1968. There was no fanfare, the issue process of the watch was no different from that of a CAR-15 rifle, a tiger stripe camo uniform and a PCR-25 radio: it was part of the standard kit. Meyer believed that the watches were issued in 1967, but of course when dealing with minute details from so long ago, it’s hard to say with certainty. Unfortunately, after the Vietnam conflict Meyer lost his watch while body surfing in the early 1970s, but it was likely the first of the three models, ref. 6619-8060.
Meyer recalls the Seiko being issued on a black tropic strap and due to the bright glow of the tritium dial, he wore the timepiece on the inside of his right wrist, noting that “the luminous dial was so bright that SOG recon men had to cover it with gloves or black electric tape at night.” Meyer preferred the watch over the Rolex Submariners many of his fellow SF soldiers purchased, because of the bright tritium lume and the practical day/date function. It was a tool, and as he recalled over a half century later, “even in the pitch black jungle, I knew when to make communication checks with the airborne command aircraft– usually at midnight, or at 2 a.m.” For MACV-SOG operators like Meyer, timing was everything.
Meyer said that some of his fellow Recon Company soldiers added a Waltham Clock Company (W.C.C.) compass to the strap, but he preferred the traditional compass around his neck. When asked about some of the myths surrounding the Seikos, including the notorious internet rumor that they were provided as rewards for capturing an enemy POW, Meyer simply called it “bullshit.” He admitted, in a casual manner that only someone with firsthand experience is qualified to divulge, that the real reward for capturing a POW was $100 and a week R&R, not a Seiko watch. (Of note, in 1968, $100 could buy you over a dozen Seiko 5s.)
Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG or just SOG) was an elite Special Operations unit during the Vietnam War from 1964 until 1972 and was responsible for carrying out unconventional warfare tactics. The group was multi-service, with personnel from U.S. Navy SEALs, Air Force and Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance, but relied heavily on Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group. SOG missions included covert and clandestine operations, reconnaissance, sabotage, wiretaps and intelligence collection in South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. SOG’s success was in part due to their make-up: one to two Americans partnered up to nine indigenous troops. In order to accomplish their covert and deniable mission, SOG required unique training, authorities and equipment, including durable and sterile timepieces.
Vietnam, 1968. Pictured; left to right; Sau - Vietnamese Team Leader, Meyer, Hiep - Interpreter, Black (Photo credit: Meyer)
SOG Seiko 5s: There are three generally agreed Seiko references that were carried by SOG personnel during the conflict: 6619-8060 from circa 1967, 6119-8100 from circa 1968 and 7005-8030 from circa 1970. There is some indication that the first reference (6619-8060) were purchased by soldiers on the economy and the latter two were issued from 1968 onward. While this may have been the case, according to Meyer, he was issued his watch in early 1968, which would suggest 6619-8060 were also issued, at least in small numbers.
Conrad “Ben” Baker–a man who Meyer would later describe as SOG’s “Q,” a reference to the fictional character responsible for outfitting James Bond with the latest gadgetry– was Deputy Director of Counter Insurgency Support Office (CISO). In this role, Baker managed the procuring of equipment for SOG forces and was respected by the troops. He is credited with developing and procuring tailor-made equipment: everything from SOG knives, clothing, indigenous rations and most relevant for this discussion, watches.
Baker, who was based out of Okinawa, would ultimately settle on the Japanese-produced Seiko as the supplier for watches. While their Japanese production–not USMIL–issuance–offered some plausible deniability, the rationale behind the decision may have been budgetary, rather than a spooky cover story. Years later, Baker would tell Meyer, “at one point, every team wanted 12 or 13 Rolex watches, the Oyster model I believe. They got Seiko watches instead that cost $6 or $8 apiece.”
There are confirmed examples of MACV-SOG forces owning each of the three references, and while most modern day pictures show nylon straps, historical photos mostly show black tropical straps, something Meyer remembered as more “plastic” than rubber.
A rare photo of all three references, chronologically from left to right. Period correct Waltham Clock Company (W.C.C. compass on Ref 6619-8100). (Photo Credit: @timely_moments)
Seiko Sportsmatic 5, Ref. 6619-8060, circa 1967: Known for the graphite sunburst dial, the 36mm steel case features a 21 jewel 6619 movement and depth rating of 50 meters.
6619-8060 (Photo credit: Hodinkee Shop)
Seiko 5, Ref. 6119-8100, circa 1968: This second reference is almost indistinguishable from the previous reference, with slight changes to the dial, a chrome case and “Seiko 5” on the dial. It has a chrome-plated case and a steel caseback.
Issued watch of Kyle Dean, who served in Vietnam in 1969.
(Photo Credit: Running Recon: A Photo Journey with SOG Special Ops Along the Ho Chi Minh Trail)
Ref. 7005-8030, circa 1970: Round in shape and with a black dial, the third reference has a date only feature and was issued in smaller numbers until MACV-SOG’s deactivation in April 1972. It is highly sought after by collectors.
CISO Deputy Director Conrad “Ben” Baker and his personal 7005-8030 (Photo Credit: Jason Hardy)
In addition to these references, there are indications that other models were issued by CISO, including at least one documented 1968 Seiko 6106-8100 dive watch. Meyer also confirmed that many of his comrades purchased Rolex watches from the PX that were to be used as a potential bartering tool during escape and evasion.
While the prices of the MACV-SOG Seikos have recently skyrocketed to well over $1,000, for those interested in purchasing a modern version, the SNK381K1 is as close as it gets. At 37mm, it is smaller than most modern watches, but throw it on a green nylon strap, add a tactical compass, and you can play the part.
Tilt, thank you for sharing a part of your story with us and for everything you have done and continue to do for our community. It was an honor to meet you in person and present you with the “W.O.E.” coin.
This Dispatch is in honor of the 1,582 Americans who are Missing and Unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War, of whom over 50 were Green Beret’s from the Secret War. If you would like to support them and their families, please consider a donation to the National League of POW/MIA Families.