Restoration Workbench – The Two Year MACV-SOG Seiko Restoration

This story started innocently enough on an Instagram chat…

Hi. I’ve got a Seiko question for you. I need some hands for this watch…

Looks like a good example – what’s wrong with the hands?

Oh that’s just a reference photo. LOL. I have bought a bit of a fixer-upper. Here’s the watch I have bought…

A photo of the watch actually purchased quickly followed.

The watch as purchased

This watch probably needs no introduction to Seiko collectors or military watch aficionados. It is a Seiko 6619-8060, made in 1967 and issued to US soldiers deployed to Vietnam as part of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG).

Fixer-upper is not a word that really belongs in any conversation about a watch. The difference between a restorable watch and an unrestorable watch is not always clear cut. You need to know what parts are still available or can be remade and at what cost. If the watch belongs to someone else, then it’s important to set expectations. In this case, the missing hands would not present a problem. These particular hands were used on a massive number of Seiko 5 watches in the mid-60s. (Which makes it all the more bizarre to see examples with the wrong hands on them but I digress).

A Special Ops Seiko

The MACV-SOG Seikos of the latter 1960s were a series of specific 6619 and 6119 references procured in Vietnam for the US Military. The MACV-SOG was a secret special ops unit that conducted covert missions during the Vietnam war. It’s members took care not to stand out and, so the story goes, they rebuffed the standard mil-spec issued Swiss watches in lieu of locally sourced Seikos that would draw less attention. That’s one version of the story… the other is that while the soldiers expected Rolexes, Ben Baker, head of the Counter Insurgency Support Office (CISO), whose job it was to source the hardware needed for the mission, could get Seikos for $8 each and so that is what he issued. The dials were unique to the military versions featuring a charcoal sunburst background with fully-lumed numerals. Other than these specifics, the watches were standard Seiko 5 models.

Seiko 6619-8280
Seiko 6619-8280 from April 1967, the first of the MACV-SOG Seikos. Source: Adventures In Amateur Watch Fettling

The MACV-SOG models are the 6619-8280 and 6619-8060 from 1967, the 6119-8100 from 1968 and the 7005-8030 from 1970 onwards. There is clear evidence that all but the first model were procured officially by CISO for the members of MACV-SOG. The exact history of the first model is a little less clear with some claims that the soldiers bought this model themselves in early 1967 before the Seikos became official issue. There’s first-hand evidence that all four models were used specifically for covert missions by MACV-SOG.

MACV-SOG members John Meyer and Lynne Black Jr. in November 1968
MACV-SOG members John Meyer and Lynne Black Jr. in November 1968. Meyer is wearing his 6619-8060 with the dial in the inside of hist wrist. Source: Watches of Espionage

You can read more about the MACV-SOG and the Seikos they wore here, here and here.

The movement is the least of our concerns

All of the movements in these MACV-SOG watches were standard Seiko movements and so while parts are no longer made, there are plenty of both NOS parts and parts watches in good condition to handle any issue with the movement.

The watch in question was missing a hand, its bezel and crystal. The damage was consistent with a watch that had received a frontal impact. With the crystal dislodged, the bezel would have separated from the case. The hands could easily have been dislodged during such an impact and there seemed to be two fair sized dents in the dial (not obvious in the seller’s photos) to support this conclusion.

The case appeared to be the correct one but these watches were originally supplied on tropic rubber straps so the bracelet was possibly a later addition.

If I manage to find all of the parts would you be interested in doing the restoration?” was the next question.

Yes, I could do the restoration

Now, at this point you might be wondering why someone would buy such a watch, devoid of many of its parts, and why I would agree to take on such a project. Well the MACV-SOG Seikos are rare in any condition. They were probably only bought/supplied in their hundreds and were never expected to last 50 years. They are also highly collectible because of the history. So when one gets the chance to buy one, or the remains of one, the proposition can be very tempting.

The plan was to find a regular 6106 dress watch to provide any movements parts we needed as well as ordering a new handset and bezel for the 8060. I’d supply the crystal from my stash of crystals and then we should be good to go.

It took one month for spare hands and a new bezel to arrive from Thailand.

Houston, we have a problem

With all the parts supposedly gathered, the owner sent everything on to me. Now, the US Postal Service is probably not the best in the world but generally, over the years, I have found them reliable if sometimes a little slow. They have never lost anything of mine, but sometimes things go AWOL for a while and no-one really knows why or where they go. This case was no exception… the parcel disappeared for a month or two and when it arrived it clearly had a story to tell.

Battered USPS box

We never found out where the parcel disappeared to, but it certainly did not simply travel four hours up Interstate 95 from Washington DC to New York as it should have. Wherever it had been for several weeks, it came looking like it had fought another war.

Excellent internal packing meant that there was zero damage to the watch or the components inside. However, there was one major issue immediately apparent when I opened the beaten up package: there was no chapter ring. This presented a major setback. The chapter ring is unique to that model being black, which meant a replacement would be hard to find. Every other 6619 with a chapter ring seems to have a silver one.

Repainting the silver ring from the doner watch was an option but we’d lose the second markers. The donor ring seemed to be made of aluminum, so chemically darkening to a dark gray would also be possible. However, the black printed second markers were rapidly falling off the along with the clearcoat so it would just be plain aluminum devoid of markers anyway. We kicked that can down the road without making a decision.

I turned my attention to the dial. It had certainly seen better days, but if I am honest, it was still probably better than 80% of the ones in the watches I have seen for sale. The clearcoat was intact, as was all the lume, albeit dirty and starting to turn grey. There was no water damage but there were some deep scratches. Worst of all, the dial would no longer sit flat in the case due to the two serious dents in the dial.

Unrestored dial

The scratches were beyond my skill to remove – they were now part of this watch’s story. However, the dents I could deal with. I’ve done a little metal fabrication and metal bending in my time working on old cars, enough to understand how metal stretches when it deforms and the best way to get it back straight again.

My approach was essentially the same as if I was removing a dent in a vintage car panel. Instead of hammers and dolleys, I used wood sticks and a tiny anvil to carefully compress the metal where it had stretched and remove the dent. As with large scale panel beating, less is more and the trick is to go slowly. Once it was flat again I gave it a very careful clean and then gave the lume a light scrub to remove the surface grey. The result was more than acceptable, nicely highlighting the charcoal sunburst dial these watches are famous for.

Several months later…

Lack of parts is a vicious circle. I have seen the same effect in car restorations. Work that would take a week if all parts were on hand can take a year or more if there are delays getting parts. Generally, you don’t want things to hang around disassembled, be it a car or a watch. If it is, parts will get lost. It’s inevitable, no matter how careful you are. It’s a universal law like the law of lost socks. So knowing we had no chapter ring meant that the necessary service got pushed back and back while I serviced watches that had all their parts.

6619 movement
6619 movement dial side with day wheel removed

Finally, the MACV-SOG’s turn in the cleaner came around and the reassembled result was frankly disastrous. The balance was a little bent and the hairspring was also out of shape. The balance staff looked ok under a loupe but it ran terribly.

But this is why you have a parts watch. I put the parts watch on the timegrapher and without a single service in 50 years, it was running better than this cleaned and lubricated disaster of an original movement.

I had come from the postion of trying to preserve as much originality as possible in the watch but with hindsight I should have probably just serviced the parts watch movement instead and thrown out the original. For the next month, I would end up replacing most of the gear train with that of the parts watch until the watch was running straight and clean on the timegrapher.

6619 movement
Utilitarian 6619 movement with the automatic winding works and balance removed

Still no chapter ring

But we did have a restored dial, all the hands, a serviced and running movement and a cleaned case to put it all in. The parts manual gives the replacement crystal as a 325W06AN. This is the same crystal used in the 44KS and is a squarish-profile box crystal. I happen to prefer a crystal with a smoother, rounder profile such as the more common 325W04AN, but since we are aiming to restore it to original specification, the rarer 325W06AN was sourced.

I had long since stopped trying to find spare chapter rings. The usual parts suppliers had come up with nothing. We had not found anything that we were sure would fit. Even with a full set of scanned Seiko parts manuals, I still did not even have a part number for the elusive black chapter ring.

Seiko magic lever mechanism
The magic lever winding system with its off-center cam and specially shaped pawl levers

I don’t know what made me type in ‘6106 8060 MACV’ into eBay that night but when I did, I could not quite believe my luck. Sitting there on my laptop screen was a ‘Buy It Now’ auction titled “Vintage Seiko 6619-8060 Macv Sog Case Back & Bezel ” and inside the case with the correct chapter ring.

Now, it was not cheap but in the 14 months since the project started we had found 0, ZER-O, none, zilch, nada, rien, nothing until this moment, so the decision was really no decision. With this part, the watch would be 100% a 6106-8060 MACV-SOG again. The owner made an offer which was accepted and two weeks later, I had the case and the all-important chapter ring in my possession.

The restored dial surrounded by the correct black chapter ring

Having a second case and caseback confirmed that the NOS bezel that had been originally supplied was in fact the wrong part. However, that did not matter now as we had the correct part in hand as a bonus.

The watch however, had one last surprise for us.

Even though the timegrapher machine indicated that the watch was running +/- 10s per day in all positions, the assembled watch was losing minutes per day. It can be a little counter-intuitive but a timegrapher only measures the precision of the escapement and a watch is more than just an escapement.

It’s still possible for there to be an error in the time displayed if there is a problem with the transmission of power to the dial side of the movement. A worn cannon pinion had insufficient friction to accurately transmit the rotation of the movement’s center pinion to the minute and hour hands which meant they were turning more slowly than they should due to slippage. Problems such as these are annoying becomes they only become apparent after the watch has been re-assembled almost entirely.

Our parts watch was plundered one last time for a tighter cannon pinion and and with that, it was done. A rare and intriguing relic from the Vietnam war had been restored, albeit excrutiatingly slowly.

Restored seiko MACV-SOG
The completed restoration
MACV-SOG Seiko caseback