One of the most successful operations conducted during the eight-year secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War was conducted south of the Bolovens Plateau in southern Laos, 45 years ago. Lead by Green Beret Capt. Eugene McCarley, 15 Green Berets and 120 Montagnard mercenaries executed a hair-raising, four-day mission deep inside enemy territory to take the pressure off of a CIA operation on the plateau against the communist North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Operation Tailwind not only succeeded in diverting NVA assets and hundreds of soldiers from the CIA battlefield, but it netted one of the largest intelligence coups by a Green Beret team in the secret war’s history run under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam—Studies and Observations Group, or simply SOG.
Operation Tailwind went down in the annals of SOG history as one of the most successful operations because of its unique nature and because it was conducted beyond the area of routinely authorized SOG operations. This operation went deeper into Laos than any SOG operation in history and it was a success in large part to aggressive leadership of McCarley and the relentless day-and-night air cover provided to the Green Berets by Air Force SPADs, F-4 Phantom jets, C-119K Stingers, C-130E Spectre gunships, forward air controllers, Marine Corps Cobra gunships, and heavy transport CH-53D Sikorsky helicopters.
“To be blunt about it,” McCarley told SOFREP, “the CIA operation in the Bolovens Plateau was getting its clock cleaned by the NVA. The CIA came to SOG command asking for a hatchet force, company-sized operation south of them to take off the pressure.” The CIA’s Operation Gauntlet was launched Sept. 3, 1970, with 5,000 irregular troops whose objective was to harass and interdict enemy lines of communication in southern Laos and to clear the eastern rim of the plateau, according to DoD reports.
The chain of events that led to the CIA seeking SOG help was the overthrow of Cambodian Premier Norodom Sihanouk in 1970 by Lon Nol and Sisowath Sirik Matak. The NVA leaders wanted control of the Bolovens Plateau to improve bringing supplies and manpower into Cambodia to attack South Vietnam targets while remaining west of normal SOG mission boundaries. Normally, Laotian SOG operations were limited to 20 kilometers west of Vietnam’s borders. Operation Tailwind was booked to go approximately 40 kilometers further west beyond that limitation. To go that deep into Laos required formal approval from the Laotian ambassador and from the U.S. commander of all forces in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams.
McCarley, the B Company commanding officer at the top secret SOG compound in Kontum, Command and Control Central (CCC), got the word from S-3 on Sept. 4, 1970. “I remember getting called by S-3 and they told me that we had a special mission. A mission that was deep into Laos, a mission deeper into Laos than ever before and a mission bigger than any ever before in the Prairie Fire (SOG code name for Laos) area of operations,” McCarley said. “They told me to go heavy on ammo and demo (demolitions). I knew that such a mission would take special clearance up to the ambassador, who was no friend of SOG, and from Abrams, who was no big fan of Special Forces.” In short order, he learned that all of the approvals had been received and signed off.
Later that day, S-3 provided more specific details: Go in heavy, create havoc for the NVA, and keep them busy as long as possible. McCarley, a former team leader of SOG Recon Team Florida, where he ran seven successful missions, transferred to the hatchet force where Green Berets ran platoon- and company-size operations across the fence in Laos and Cambodia. “With the hatchet force, we were used to going across the fence and getting our ass kicked and then getting saved by Tac Air (U.S. military tactical air support),” he said. “On Operation Halfback (in Laos earlier in the year) we lost two H-34s, which included SF Medic Bill Boyle who died in one of those choppers. We got hit hard because we were dug in and the NVA pounded our position. With Operation Tailwind, once on the ground we were going to keep moving, day and night, to keep the NVA off balance and to keep them from massing a large force against our position.”
As McCarley briefed the B Company platoon leaders, squad leaders, medic Mike Rose, and company First Sergeant Morris Adair in the CCC compound, operations orders were going out to support elements that would play critical roles in Operation Tailwind. First, there was the long distance to the target in Laos. Because it was so far away, neither the older, piston-driven H-34 Sikorsky helicopters of the South Vietnamese Air Force’s 219th Special Operations Squadron, nor regular Army Huey slicks could be used to insert and extract the 136-man detachment.
Thus, SOG brass turned to the Marine Corps’ aviation wing that flew the largest troop carriers in Vietnam—the powerful, CH-53D Sikorsky twin-engine helicopters in HMH-463, based at the Corps’ Marble Mountain Air Facility. Using the bigger, stronger heavy-lift helicopters made sense because three Sea Stallions, with the designed capacity to hold 55 troops, could take the entire hatchet force of 136 men and insert it into the target area.
In previous years, Marine Corps aviators from HMH-463 had performed fearlessly in key SOG operations across the fence, and the Marine brass knew that flying combat troops and supplies into Laos always resulted in the helicopters getting hit by enemy gunfire. “In the first day,” McCarley said, “it was funny, the Marine brass were a little reluctant to go that deep into Laos because they know the SOG missions presented extra challenges and dangers to Marine air crews. But, once they heard about the unique aspects of Operation Tailwind, they wanted in.”
Sgt. Larry Groah was a door gunner and a structural mechanic in HMH-463 when the operations order came into the command shed in Da Nang. “The most dangerous and the most interesting missions we flew were Mission 72 (SOG support) sorties,” Groah said. “We called it ‘going over the fence.’ For me personally, this is why I joined the Marine Corps, to run special missions against the enemy. I was looking for adventure and wanted to be where the action was.”
The Marine aviators were told to prepare for a “Mission 72” insertion deep into Laos. That meant the door gunners like Groah would pack extra ammo as well as positioning a “Stinger”—a Marine armed with either a M-60 7.62mm machine gun or a Browning .50 caliber heavy machine gun—on the rear ramp of the H-53D. The Marines slated five CH-53Ds for Operation Tailwind. “We didn’t know about all of the hush-hush stuff. We just got our birds ready to go, got our guns cleaned and ready for another Mission 72.” Groah also replaced the .50 caliber machine gun with an M-60 because it gave him more maneuverability and, “If we got shot down, I could carry it and take the fight to the enemy. The .50 was too heavy to carry.”
Not far away from HMH-463 at the Marble Mountain Air Facility, Marine aviators from HML-367, Scarface, got the op order for Operation Tailwind in a more dramatic fashion. According to Cobra gunship Pilot Joe Driscoll, who was a first lieutenant at the time, “The duty driver came by our room at two or three o’clock in the morning and told us to pack our gear as we’ll be gone for five to 10 days on an operation and to be ready at 5 a.m.,” Driscoll said. “My first thought was, maybe we’re finally going to go into North Vietnam.”
Driscoll and fellow pilots flew the early model AH-1G Cobra gunships, with one man sitting in the front seat and a pilot sitting behind him. A relative of the more familiar Huey helicopter, the Cobra was designed strictly as a weapons platform. Driscoll’s Cobra had two 19-shot 2.75 rocket launchers, two seven-shot rocket pods, one 7.62mm minigun that fired 6,000 rounds a minute, and a grenade launcher.
When the early versions of those Cobras were fully armed and loaded with aviation fuel, the helicopter’s skids would drag on the runway for a short distance until the pilots gained enough lift to get the bird airborne. However, once in the air, they brought the fight to the enemy with precise gun runs and rocket runs. Scarface and several other Marine helicopter units had been involved in the secret war in Vietnam for several years, usually supporting recon teams and hatchet forces from FOB 1 at Phu Bai, FOB 3 at Khe Sanh, or FOB 4 at Da Nang.
“When we finally got to Kontum, we had one more dramatically different aspect to our orders: We were told to shoot as many photographs as possible,” said Driscoll. Ordinarily, mum was the word. The only photos allowed on top-secret SOG missions were for intelligence gathering and reports taken by team members on the ground. “Obviously, this was going to be different, really different,” Driscoll said.
In the northern side of Da Nang, at the joint military/civilian airfield, SPAD pilots who flew the single-wing A-1 Skyraiders received their initial op order for Operation Tailwind. The single-engine warplane was loved by American ground pounders and feared by communist troops because of the havoc and death they rained down on enemy troops. Additionally, through the unique design by Ed Heinemann at Douglas Aircraft Company during World War II, the Skyraider could stay on station over a target longer than any aircraft, and it brought bombs, cluster-bomb units, 2.75 rockets, 20mm cannons, and two miniguns to the battlefield.
On Nov. 15, 1969, during an Air Force reorganization of Skyraider assets by the 56th Special Operations Wing, 12 Skyraiders, 12 pilots, and a maintenance crew headed by M/Sgt. Juan Urrutia were sent to Da Nang, based at the huge airfield. The specialized detachment had the non-distinctive title Operation Location Alpha Alpha, but had the distinction of saving many SOG recon teams and hatchet forces through deadly close air support throughout the secret war.
Lt. Col. Melvin Swanson was the group commander when the Operation Tailwind op order landed on his desk. “To tell the truth, we didn’t do anything special when the op order came down. I had no idea where we were going…we operated like any other SOG mission that we’d supported over the years. We had two A-1s armed and cocked, ready to go for SOG missions and SAR (search and rescue) missions. We prided ourselves on saving SOG teams. SOG missions were our primary assignment, with SAR as the other priority. When they called, we answered.”
Back at CCC in Kontum, McCarley re-stated the mission to his platoon leaders and squad leaders: Go heavy on ammo, grenades, and C-4, and light on food and water. “I had every team member, including our indig troops, carry at least one pound of C-4 because we were going to blow up any enemy caches and structures we found, and C-4 is always good for clearing LZs.”
Medic Mike Rose went through his mental checklist of preparing to carry enough medical supplies and bandages for a company-size operation. He would make sure that each Green Beret team member carried at least one morphine syrette in a specific pocket. He also made sure that each packed several sizes of bandages and at least one IV. He packed about 15 syrettes of morphine, five syrettes of atropine—he always carried five for insect and snake bites, even in camp—extra bandages, medical tape, rubber tubing, and several NATO surgical kits. Rose worked with his Montagnard medic, Koch: “He was a loyal, brave soldier and medic who carried a similar amount of medical supplies that I carried.” And, like many young soldiers, Rose never thought for a minute that he would be wounded during combat.
Thus the stage was set for the launching of Operation Tailwind on Sept. 11, 1970, after several weather delays and rocket attacks at the Dak To launch site north of CCC. It would be a mission where the 16 Green Berets would receive a total of 33 Purple Hearts for wounds received during the heavy combat that was about to unfold in Laos. Flying to the target, three Montagnards in Company B were wounded by enemy ground fire.
Next, part two: After the LZ is prepped by Air Force F-4 Phantom jets and gun runs by Scarface Cobras, 133 from Company B exit the largest CH-53D choppers and move to the tree line, form up, and move out. Within a short time, they encounter a series of NVA bunkers as NVA soldiers move toward the SOG unit.
(Unless otherwise specified, all images courtesy of Joe Driscoll. Featured image shows members of B Company hatchet force leaving the top secret SOG compound in Kontum as they head out of the gate before being helicoptered into Laos aboard Marine Corps CH-53D helicopters.)