Welcome to the Operation Tailwind part of my website. If you were directed here from the book thank you for reading it. I hope you enjoyed the story. If you just happened to wander onto the site, it may make better sense if you first read the book, but feel free to browse.
This is a work in progress so check back for more information and photos.
OPERATION TAILWIND: Memoirs of a Secret Battle in a Secret War
The Studies and Observations Group (SOG) was a covert American military unit in Vietnam that specialized in clandestine cross-border operations into Laos and Cambodia. On 11 September 1970, sixteen Green Berets and one-hundred-twenty Montagnard mercenaries departed on Operation Tailwind, the largest and deepest raid in SOG history. Tailwind’s mission was to disrupt and distract the enemy in support of a larger CIA operation, called Operation Gauntlet, that originated in the White House.
Over the next four days, as their ammunition dwindled and casualties mounted, these soldiers, and the aircrews overhead that went to extraordinary lengths to keep them alive, achieved the improbable if not the impossible.
Little did the survivors of the operation know that they would have to fight the battle once again, this time to defend their honor and integrity. In 1998, twenty-eight-years after the top-secret mission ended, CNN produced a news program called “Valley of Death” in which they accused the participants in Operation Tailwind of war crimes, specifically, using nerve gas to kill women, children and American defectors. The show, and the media storm it created, made headlines around the world. For some, questions linger to this day. Operation Tailwind: Memoirs of a Secret Battle in a Secret War shines the light of truth on this incredible story.
I admit to being a bit of a history nerd. The problem with being a history nerd and writing a book is that a great story can quickly turn into a textbook. To prevent the great story of Operation Tailwind from becoming too academic I tried to keep the number of mundane details and documents to a minimum. But there are those who want to wade into the mundane and find answers to details about the mission.
NOTES ABOUT MAPS AND TIME
MAPS - Topographic maps display natural and man-made physical features of an area and are shown to scale. This includes highways, roads, and trails, towns and villages, rivers, streams, and bodies of water, airfields, bridges, political boundaries, and notable buildings like temples and schools. There are also contour lines to depict elevations. The elevation changes between contour lines are indicated in the map legend. Grunts usually carried maps using a scale of 1:24,000 while helicopter pilots used 1:50,000 and fast movers normally had 1:250,000 maps.
Coordinates were given as four, six, or eight digits depending on how precise the sender wished to be. A four-digit coordinate identifies a 1,000-meter by 1,000-meter, grid square, while a six-digit coordinate got within 100 meters of a point and an eight-digit coordinate was within ten meters.
DTG - Military message traffic always includes a date-time-group indicating the date and time a message was sent. It is found in the line above the “To” line in the address and uses a twenty-four-hour clock. For standardization, messages usually use “zulu time” which is the time at the zero meridian in Greenwich, England, or UTC. For example: a dtg of 271139z SEP 70 would indicate a message sent at 1139z on 27 September 1970. All time zones have letters and occasionally messages are sent with a dtg showing local time such as 071133h Aug 70. In this case it’s 1133h (which is UTC + 8 hours) on 7 August 1970.
There are several of unanswered questions about Tailwind so for the military history nerds reading the book I hope the following discussion will help clear up the confusion and provide some answers, or at least spark debate among historians.
Why Use Marine Helicopters to Insert the Hatchet Force?
Small SOG units in CCC were usually inserted by Army Hueys from the 170th AHC. Tailwind was a much larger force and would have required far too many Hueys. The heavy lift capabilities of the USAF 21st Special Operations Squadron would have been the logical choice but, as can be seen from the history of the 21st SOS, (below) they were busy inserting the Operation Gauntlet troops.
21st SOS - In 1970, the squadron began operating the CH-53. In September 1970, the 21st Special Operations Squadron (SOS) flew eleven CH-3E helicopters and one, new CH-53 helicopter which arrived at NKP on 8 August. The squadron referred to the large CH-53 as "BUFF," for "big, ugly, fat fellow," and this designation should not be confused with a similar BUFF nickname given to B-52 bombers. The helicopters of the 21 SOS did not participate in TAILWIND because they flew other combat missions in a "big operation," according to the squadron history, to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail in the Bolovens area of Laos.
Where was the Hatchet Force inserted and extracted?
There has been some confusion about where SOG was inserted. Some books and documents say it was next to Hwy 165 and others say next to Hwy 966. HCMT Route B46 (in Binh Tram 44) ran east from Chavan along Laotian Hwy 165 then turned north on Laotian Hwy 966. These two highways made up Route B46.
Ambassador Godley and CIA Chief of Station Larry Devlin requested that SOG be inserted on the south side of Hwy 165, at coordinates YB 361 969. This was fifteen klicks due east of Chavan near the village of Ban Dak Chaneum.
Based on photos taken by SF Sgt. Ted Wicorek, the pathfinder team was inserted about ten klicks northeast of Ban Dak Chaneum, just south of Hwy 966, which was considered better ground. Air Force records show an LZ prep at coordinates YC 4370 0470. All subsequent airstrikes in support of Tailwind were in the vicinity of Hwy 966 so it’s reasonable to conclude that’s where they were inserted and extracted.
Was tear gas dropped on the 13th, the 14th or both?
Memories are just as jumbled as government messages. Some pilots have written of wearing a gas mask on the 13th and others on the 14th. I believe that masks were issued, and a gas drop was briefed, on both days. Air Force records show a flight of two A-1s, call sign Hobo 46, departed NKP on the 13th. The lead aircraft carried CBU 25 (high explosive) and his wingman carried CBU 30 (tear gas). Neither aircraft dropped ordnance. Records don’t say why but I suspect the weather was too bad and they never made it to the target area.
On the 14th USAF data shows that CBU 30 was dropped by two A-1s at YC 4450 0380.
How large was the Hatchet Force?
There are no official records for the Montagnards. Most message traffic simply refers to three platoons of Yards led by sixteen green berets. Books, articles, and some messages about the operation have said 100 to 120 Yards. Since 120 is divisible by three I went with it. However, two, or perhaps three, Yards were wounded enroute to the LZ and never got off the helicopter. So, a WAG of 117 or 118 Montagnard tribesmen on the ground, plus sixteen Americans, is probably close.
Where did the CH-53 crash on the 14th?
A few months after the book was published, I did an interview with Bud Gibson. He told me about some phots taken by Woody Woodard, Panther 27, who flew on Tailwind. (Thank you, Bud.) Woody took a pic of the river valley where the 53 went down and of the burning fuselage after he blew it up after the extract. Comparing the photos to a couple sites I had circled on the map based on after action reports and it was easy to see that YB 651 921 is the crash site. Persky made it about 20 klicks (12.5 miles) southeast of the extract site before going down. Look at the photos under 14 September for Woody's pics and the map.
Were there Russians on the HCMT?
Most documents indicate that there were no Russians that far south, but I found the Soldier of Fortune Magazine article compelling…
What was the name of the CIA operation that Tailwind supported?
All U.S. government correspondence, from State, Defense, CIA and the White House refer to Operation Gauntlet. The Laotians however called it Honorable Dragon. So, if you’re researching American government records use Gauntlet, otherwise look for Honorable Dragon.
NOTE: The documents shown in "CIA OPERATION GAUNTLET" (below) clearly show that Operation Tailwind was a intended as a diversion for the CIA mission.
Prior to the 17 July 1970 WSAG meeting a discussion topic about "paramilitary action" in support of the CIA was circulated among members of the WSAG.
This is CJCS Adm. Thomas Moorer's response to a proposal to expand SOGs role in Laos in support of CIA Operation Gauntlet.
Included in Moorer's response was a request for:
a. an expanded area;
b. using a larger force; and
c. "Authority to use CS/CN agents."
Tailwind was clearly in support of CIA Operation Gauntlet. This msg from Amb. Godly to the State Dept. asks MACSOG for a "diversion" east of Chavane.
2 Sept Top Secret msg to Godley -
SOG has been directed to execute Tailwind as a diversion for Gauntlet.
5 Sept Memo to CJCS -
SOG to provide a "diversion" for CIA Operation Gauntlet.
The CIA was trying to recapture PS 26, an outpost on the eastern edge of the Bloaven Plateau overlooking the Sekong River.
BT44 was commanded by Bui Quoc and Vo Phuc (Kien) and was responsible for the portion of B46 from Chavan to La Ton, a distance of 117 kilometers. Combat forces included a AAA battalion (28th), and two infantry companies. Support and transport forces included one engineering group (21st), with the subordinated 10th Engineering Regiment, one commo-liaison battalion, one hospital (46th), and four different companies (depot, communications, proselyting, and surgical.) Headquarters was in Dac Chung.
NVA map of Binh Tram 44 showing route B46.
Operation Tailwind was originally scheduled to launch on 5 September but was delayed due to bad weather.
Also note the insert coordinates "vicinity of YB 361969" which was at Ban Dak Chaneum. We actually inserted the Hatchet Force in the "vicinity of YC 43700470." This was about 10 klicks northeast of Ban Dak Chaneum.
Six CH-53s (right) and six Marine Cobras (facing left) at Dak To.
YH-14 on the ground just before being destroyed by TACAIR.
Mike Rose (center) after the extract.
This msg (dtg 130930Z SEP 70) to CINCPAC requested a Combat Spear resupply of 3700 lbs. to be dropped at YC 419035 at 141800Z Sep 70. This drop would have taken place at 0100 local time on the 15th, indicating that an extraction of the Hatchet Force was not yet planned.
This msg (dtg 140535Z SEP 70) to CINCPAC requested that the Combat Spear resupply mission be cancelled and that the Hatchet Force would be extracted. (The DZ was 2 1/2 klicks west of the extraction LZ.)
Col. Killpack writes that he sat in on the post-Tailwind briefing to Gen. Abrams and wanted to pass on kudos for the "magnificent" air support.
"Excerpts from Briefing" were attached to the letter.
Document experts hired by CNN and DOD were unable to determine if the last sentence says CBU- 25 or CBU-15.
The day after the extraction on 14 September 1970, A-1 pilot Art Bishop returned to NKP and wrote in his diary. The copy (on left) is somewhat blurry, but this is what he wrote beginning at the bracket on the left side of the page:
Yesterday took off for a Prairie Fire (PFE) - fat face, CBU30 (!), -25, LAU-3 - about 1+20 to get there - messed around and finally 2 CBU 30 passes in X fashion - couldn't get rid of rt. pod (when I tried to bomb off) - couldn't see it either as it was on right stub. The U.S.A. appeared in its glory. We finally held high - Spads there also. Everyone got out - one h. downed and people picked up. Spads destroyed it. Don Feld, 1st lt. lead, decided to go to Da Nang.
Here’s an explanation of some of the terms used in the entry:
PFE is a Prairie Fire Emergency;
Fat Face is a two-seat version of the A-1;
CBU-30 is a tear-gas dispenser;
-25 refers to the CBU-25, a high explosive bomblet dispenser;
LAU-3 is a 19-shot rocket pod;
1+20 means one hour and twenty minutes to the target area.
To give you an idea of the "wet season" on the HCMT, the rainfall in the Chavane area is 120" to 140" per year.
A road runs through FOB2