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Operation Tailwind -- The Truth

By: Gene Warfield

Date Posted: 1998-08-21

In September of 1970, 16 Green Berets and 110 Montagnard allies from Project SOG entered Laos on a mission code-named Operation Tailwind. Their objective: create a diversion to attract the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) away from another besieged allied force.

A recent CNN - Time Warner report has seriously misrepresented this mission and the brave men of Project SOG alleging the objective was to kill American defectors; that there were women, children or other noncombatants on the battlefield; and that Sarin Nerve Gas was used.

CNN contacted pilots and soldiers involved in the operation who told reporters the mission had nothing to do with defectors; no Sarin gas had been used; and no civilians were killed or even encountered. Art Bishop piloted an A-1 Sky Raider carrying Cluster Bomb Units (CBU-19) which dispersed tear gas during the operation. He personally told CNN reporter Peter Arnett that Sarin Nerve Gas was not available and not used. Despite these accounts, CNN presented a sensationalized story supported by only one man, former Lt. Robert Van Buskirk, arrested and jailed in Germany for illegal weapons and narcotics sales, who claimed to have repressed memories of the episode. CNN's original report did not mention the convictions or the "repressed memory".

The damage CNN has caused to the men of SOG is irreparable. These soldiers risked their lives on an incredibly dangerous assignment. Their actions were clandestine so the American public heard little about their deeds. It is sad and ironic that CNN targeted this particular group for such a piece of journalism; branding them war criminals. The reporting and the half-hearted retractions have angered many veterans of the then top secret organization; not to mention almost every active duty and former Special Forces soldier in the world.

The most important fact overlooked in CNN-Time's extensive eight month investigation is that if the US military had used Sarin Nerve Gas in the Vietnam war, the North Vietnamese, People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union would have used this information to achieve the biggest propaganda coup of the cold war and broadcast that information all over the world. The Vietnamese government has denied that the US ever used Chemical or Biological Weapons during that war.

Iraq has already seized upon CNN-Time's misinformation and is using the false report for their own propaganda purposes. Even with the conclusion of a thorough investigation by the US Pentagon, fully 50% of letters published in the August 3rd Time Magazine believe there is a cover up by the US Government.

The accusation that Sarin Nerve Gas was used has a particular impact in Japan because of Aum Shinri Kyo's Tokyo subway attack using that very chemical agent. These accusations adversely affect the reputations of SOG veterans living in Okinawa and of the Special Forces Battalion located here. More important, this is the Journalistic equivalent of writing a story about a man accused and acquitted of arson but failing to report that the same man rescued 20 people from the burning building.

The real story of Operation Tailwind has yet to be accurately explained by any Newspaper or Broadcast News Program, even though official documents were declassified over two years ago and members of that mission are very easy to contact through the Special Forces Association, the Special Operations Association and the A-1 Sky Raiders Association.

By every measure, Operation Tailwind was a complete success. SOG destroyed a large cache of NVA rockets, captured enemy documents that saved American lives, engaged the NVA to create a diversion and saved an allied military unit.

To understand Operation Tailwind, you must first understand SOG -- the most secret and elite US military unit in the Vietnam War. The very existence of this unit was carefully concealed and even denied by the US government. The American public was unaware of their activities and they received little reward or recognition for their valiant and heroic deeds.

Soon after William Colby became Saigon's CIA Station Chief in 1959, the Communist Viet Minh (or Viet Cong) reappeared in South Vietnam. The Central Committee of North Vietnam created the 559th Transportation Group -- the numbers commemorate the May 1959 founding -- to work with the Trinh Sat secret intelligence service to train agents and cadre in Guerrilla Warfare, espionage and move them into the south. They created and improved the Troung Son Route (or Ho Chi Minh Trail) to move personnel, equipment and vehicles into the south.

Collecting intelligence on the route using aerial observation and photography was difficult because of the thick jungle canopy. National Security Memorandum 52 authorized the CIA to employ Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs to train South Vietnamese agents to infiltrate into North Vietnam to conduct reconnaissance and sabotage. The first missions used only indigenous personnel -- no Americans were inserted. On December 15th, 1963, Operations Plan-34A was issued by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Under this plan, the Military Assistance Command - Vietnam (MAC-V) organized Army Green Berets, Navy SEALS, and USAF Air Commandos to form SOG -- the Studies and Observation Group -- a supposed gathering of quiet analysts devoted to academic study. SOG's charter authorized American led operations into North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with contingency planning for northern Burma and China's Kwangsi, Kwangtrung and Unnan Provinces, plus Hainan Island.

Ground missions belonged to the Green Berets -- the Army's Special Forces -- who eventually established three Forward Operations Bases (FOBs) on South Vietnam's western border. Each FOB was called Command and Control with the location added as North, Central and South -- abbreviated as CCN, CCC and CCS. Each FOB had a headquarters, support element and two types of Operational Units -- Reconnaissance Teams and Hatchet Forces. The Reconnaissance Teams were comprised of up to three Green Berets and nine Montagnards, a French word describing the Jarai, Rahde, Sedang and Bru hill tribes as Mountain People. The Hatchet Force was a company size raiding unit, consisting of 16 Green Berets and more than 100 Montagnards.

Operation Tailwind was conducted by a Hatchet Force based at the CCC Compound at Kontum and was one of SOG's most successful missions. In August of 1970, the CIA's senior War-Planner in Bangkok met with Colonel Skip Sadler, (Chief SOG). The CIA Officer explained that, atop the Bolovens Plateau in Laos, Hmong mercenaries were engaged in Operation Honorable Dragon -- a mission to recapture a strategic strong point from the NVA-- and that the Hmong were meeting heavy resistance. If Honorable Dragon failed, what remained of southern Laos would soon be dominated by the communist NVA.

The CIA asked SOG to insert a Hatchet Force 40 miles away from the Bolovens Plateau into the NVA's major rear-echelon facilities, create a diversion and draw the enemy away from Operation Honorable Dragon. The target was 20 miles beyond SOG's authorized area of operations so the CIA had to obtain permission from the US ambassador in Vientiane for SOG to go in.

The Hatchet Force (Company Bravo at Kontum) were alerted on September 4th, 1970. Captain Eugene McCarley, a former NCO, led the operation. The insertion point was too far away for UH-1 Helicopters so SOG selected a USMC CH-53 Sea Stallion outfit based in Danang.

With 12 Marine Corps AH-1 Cobra gunships as escort, the three USMC CH-53s picked up the Hatchet Force; 16 Americans and 110 Montagnards on September 11th, 1970, refueled at Dak To and departed for Laos at noon. Operation Tailwind was underway.

The 15 helicopters paralleled the Vietnam-Lao border for 50 miles. As they turned west into the high mountains, enemy gunners began tracking them and fired heavy machine guns. Inside the huge cargo compartments several Yards (Montagnards) were badly wounded during the flight. The choppers slowed and descended in a wide orbit while the Cobra Helicopters fired white phosphorous rockets to mask them from anti-aircraft guns. As they landed the shooting almost stopped. The ramp doors dropped and the Hatchet Force trotted out to a wood line as the Sea Stallions lifted away. During the next four days, USMC AH-1 Cobras, USAF A-1 Sky Raiders or AC-130 Specter Gunships were always overhead, protecting the Hatchet Force.

The Hatchet Force aggressively advanced northwest. Any hesitation would allow the NVA to fix their position and attack. As long as they were moving, they kept the initiative. As they departed the Landing Zone (LZ) they heard field telephones ringing and moved toward the sound. They encountered an NVA squad who fired a few rounds and fled. Then the Point Squad reported bunkers a quarter mile from the LZ.

Two platoons formed a defensive perimeter while several squads moved to see what they had found. It was a 500 meter long line of earthen bunkers filled with thousands of six foot long 122mm and 140mm rockets used for bombarding bases in South Vietnam.

Craig Schmidt and Jim Brevelle placed a plastic explosive charge in each of the 20 bunkers, linked them with det cord and duel primed the charges with 30 minute time-delay detonators. The Hatchet Force had moved 1000 meters west when an explosion shook the ground followed by thirty secondary explosions. Rockets continued to cook off for 12 hours.

The Hatchet Force shot it out with an NVA platoon for an hour, backed off, called in air strikes and moved west. Several Yards were wounded so they secured an LZ for Medical Evacuation. Before the helicopter arrived, 150 NVA massed and assaulted. The Hatchet Force fought them off, the Air Force and Marines hit the enemy with air strikes and, carrying their wounded, they moved west again.

At sunset the NVA expected the Hatchet Force to stop for the night. To prevent the enemy from massing superior forces, they continued to move. All night the Hatchet Force met NVA squads, and each time either strikes from USAF AC-130 Gunships or a quick assault forced them aside. The whole night they marched deeper into Laos -- posing an ever larger threat to the NVA and performing their diversionary mission. By dawn nine Americans and even more Yards were wounded. The Hatchet Force medic, Gary Rose, patched them up and kept them going.

Just after sunrise, they met five NVA in a delay position. Then, forty enemy hit their left flank, supported by mortars and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). The Hatchet Force fought through the delay position and called in air strikes on the others.

By midday the Hatchet Force was walking a ridge a half mile above Highway 165. They could see hundreds of NVA and a dozen trucks on the road. McCarley called in USAF A-1 Sky Raiders, which destroyed the trucks and scattered the infantry.

Later, to evacuate the worst wounded a USMC CH-53 arrived with two Special Forces medics, John Padgett and John Browne. Heavy fire hit the helicopter as it came in. Before the first casualty was aboard, enemy fire surged and the pilot had to climb away. As he banked right an RPG round hit the helicopter, punched through the bird's belly, the cabin and through a gas tank and spewing fuel on everyone but did not detonate. The chopper limped about five miles and sat down hard in the middle of an empty bunker area. 20 minutes later another CH-53 came in. While the crews and medics climbed ladders to get aboard, enemy heavy machine guns opened fire. The chopper flew away but, five minutes later, made a forced landing. The second CH-53 lost that day. Another helicopter rescued them. On the ground Gary Rose, the Special Forces Medic, was hustling to keep men alive, helping carry the worst cases himself. Several times he charged through enemy fire to treat fallen Yards and Americans.

The second night they had to rest. They dug in on a knoll overlooking the road, the highest ground they could find. NVA probes began just after dusk, mostly RPGs lobed from the darkness, answered by claymores and Specter gunship fire. Few men slept. One rocket burst near Craig Schmidt and Gary Rose. Both were hit with shrapnel and two Yards were severely wounded. Ignoring his injuries and enemy fire, Rose crawled over and treated them.

Believing the NVA would attack at dawn, the Hatchet Force moved out at 0400 hours. The men were exhausted. They had fought 15 miles cross-country since landing. They moved west for three hours when the Point took fire from a few NVA soldiers who fled into a bunker area. McCarley ordered an attack. After softening the NVA positions with air strikes and small-arms fire, the Hatchet Force advanced. Craig Schmidt and another squad leader, Manuel Orozco, got their Yards on line, and assaulted. The enemy abandoned the base camp except for two bunkers. While gunfire kept the NVA's heads down two Yards rolled grenades inside the two bunkers.

The base camp was seized, but friendly wounded had risen to forty-nine. The medic, also wounded, could barely keep up. The Hatchet Force searched the base camp and found 54 NVA bodies. In a large bunker 12 feet below ground they found walls covered with maps and hundreds of pounds of documents stored in footlockers and pouches. This was not just a base camp, it was a major logistical command center. They packed all the documents and, 30 thirty minutes later, moved west again. Behind them demolition charges went off, destroying four trucks. By this time, every American had been wounded twice.

The NVA stalked them relentlessly. On the third day Forward Air Controllers saw NVA units converging on the Hatchet Force from two directions. It was time to get out. To expedite movement they moved to a smooth road and poured on the speed. An NVA squad tried to delay them, but a quick air strike and aggressive assault ended that. Then came word that the Marine CH-53s would arrive within thirty minutes.

Just before the choppers arrived, the Hatchet Force encircled the LZ while a SOG Covey Rider (aerial observation aircraft) directed A-1 Sky Raiders to drop CBU-19 tear gas bomblets to blind the NVA anti-aircraft gunners.

Tom Stump, an A-1 Sky Raider Pilot awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for Operation Tailwind, said, "The ground fire was intense. We hit several enemy positions, and the Hatchet Force moved to an LZ for evacuation. Once there, two A-1 Sky Raiders dropped tear gas to disrupt ground fire. The NVA were so close that the Hatchet Force also received a large dose of the tear gas. There was heavy coughing because Hatchet Force members either did not have gas masks or were too wounded to wear them.

Clearly, if -- as CNN originally reported -- the gas dropped had been a deadly nerve agent, many of the Hatchet Force, especially those in front, would have been killed.

A USMC CH-53 departed with the worst wounded and the captured documents. NVA mortars began pounding the LZ. USAF F-4 Phantoms dropped a dozen napalm canisters in a single pass.

Rather than defend the threatened LZ, McCarley and two platoons moved to another LZ where suppressive fire and a sudden landing generated only moderate ground fire. A second platoon climbed into the USMC CH-53 and escaped. Hundreds of NVA descended from the hills and let loose a nearly constant barrage of gunfire and RPGs.

With his last platoon, McCarley again abandoned the hot LZ and moved to a new one. Marine Cobra Helicopters and USAF Sky Raiders fired ahead of and behind the last 40 Hatchet Force members as they moved, pounding the NVA with rockets, cannons and cluster bomb units.

The remaining Hatchet Force members were wounded, about to be overrun, and suffering from tear-gas inhalation. Enemy resistance remained high. When they reached an open field large enough to accommodate a CH-53, they were told that the helicopter's station time had almost expired -- get out fast or start evading. With the NVA close behind, they ran into the six foot high grass just as the helicopter landed. Captain McCarley was the last man to climb aboard.

SOG members praised the Marine Corps CH-53 pilots who flew repeatedly through heavy enemy fire but never flinched. "Cool...real cool," was how one SOG member described them. There was additional praise and respect for the Marine and Air Force Close Air Support having been absolutely vital to the survival of the Hatchet Force.

Final casualties were three Montagnards killed, 33 wounded and all 16 Americans had multiple wounds. In three days of heavy fighting, their guns killed 144 NVA, wounded 50, with an estimated 288 enemy killed by Marine and Air Force air strikes. Captain McCarley and three NCOs were recommended for the Silver Star. The heroic Special Forces Medic, Gary Rose, was submitted for the Congressional Medal of honor which was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross.

CIA leaders were most appreciative that SOG had saved their threatened force. On the afternoon of September 25th, 1970, the Hmong battalions of Operation Honorable Dragon assaulted the NVA-held strong point and liberated the Bolovens Plateau of communist troops.

The CIA's sentiment was not shared by senior officers at MAC-V. They ignored SOG's great achievement and complained that three multimillion-dollar CH-53s had been lost. Lieutenant Colonel Galen Radke sent a staff officer to Kontum to see what could be salvaged to counter MAC-V's criticisms.

The staff officer phoned Radke about the captured documents, which were rushed to the MAC-V J-2 (Intelligence Section). They found four hundred pages, which the US Command's most senior intelligence officer called, "The most significant collateral intelligence on the 559th Transportation Group since the beginning of the war."

Major General Potts, the MAC-V J-2 said the documents were the greatest most important intelligence find of the year. The documents detailed records of NVA supply shipments and code books. Chief SOG Colonel Sadler reported, "Potts and Abrams told me they did not appreciate the full implications of the 559th until all those documents came back."

Asked to comment on a possible dramatic ground success in Laos, a MAC-V spokesman told the Associated Press only -- there are no US ground combat troops in Laos. The front page of the New York Times of October 26th, 1970 carried the headline US Casualties Reported in Secret Actions: Special Forces are said to have suffered losses that were never disclosed, and vaguely described Tailwind.

Operation Tailwind proved the effectiveness of striking deep in the enemy's rear area. The lesson was important, but too late to apply. Operation Tailwind was SOG's final company-size, cross-border mission. With more of the war transferred to the South Vietnamese, the Pentagon directed that SOG cease American-led Hatchet Force missions into Laos.

These men were five-time volunteers -- for the Army, Airborne, Special Forces, Vietnam and for Project SOG. They volunteered for difficult and dangerous missions at a time when it was extremely unpopular and not supported by the American public. Many died. Many, recommended for high awards received downgraded awards because of the secret nature of SOG's operations and animosity from high ranking Conventional Military Commanders. Others became mentors for the next generation of Special Forces' soldiers who continue to defend America's interests around the world. Perhaps, someday, these brave men will receive the recognition and respect they truly deserve.

America owes these men a debt of thanks -- CNN and Time Warner at least owes them the truth. CNN's so-called retraction simply stated there was "insufficient evidence for their allegations". This is the journalistic equivalent of -- we can't prove it now but will prove it later when we find the real truth. The real truth is easy to find yet, with their vast resources and "eight months of exhaustive research", CNN has not yet broadcast or published the facts about Operation Tailwind and the brave men of SOG.

I would like to thank retired SOG veteran John L. Plaster, author of SOG: The Secret Wars of America's Commandos in Vietnam, the most comprehensive history written on the SOG Projects, for granting permission to use excerpts from his book. I would also like to thank SOG veteran Larry Kramer, now retired and living in Okinawa, for his valuable assistance.

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