This is the most horrendous combat story I have ever read. Just to put that in contest I have read about 1500 of them, in the course of editing around 200 and writing seven. I have heard but not read two that rival it, either on the phone or leaning on a bar. I mention that to point out that those two were both SOG stories as well.
Most of this book is taken up by a description of Operation Tailwind, undertaken 100 km deep into Laos, about four times further than SOG had ever gone before, intended to draw pressure off a CIA operation deeper into Laos. The force was a company size Hatchet Force from Command and Control Central in Kontum, about 120 Montagnards and 16 Americans, commanded by Captain Gene McCarley, a seasoned SOG veteran, Tailwind succeeded in that, siphoning about two regiments off that op and refocusing them into an attempt to destroy Tailwind, forcing Tailwind into a four-day running gunfight. Before it was over the 16 Americans accumulated 33 Purple Hearts. Gary Mike Rose, the medic, was wounded twice the first day, effectively converting his CAR-15 into a cane, so he could continue to walk on a boot held together with green tape.
On the second day the company took a large NVA logistics center, with a big cache of document, plans, maps, everything needed to make an intelligence analyst’s heart go pitter-patter. And a lot of money. While they were in the headquarters a phone rang. One of McCarley’s NCOs picked it up and said, “Fifth Special Forces Group. How may we help you?” The reply, if there was one, is not reported in this book. But a lot of harmless fun may be
had imagining the reaction on the other end.
About thirty wounded were evacuated on the second day. Being the only American medic Rose refused to go with them. In 2017 he received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Tailwind. Air strikes to take the pressure off were danger close. McCarley, who has a gift for picturesque speech, said one SPAD flew so close he could tell whether the pilot had shaved or not. He didn’t say whether he had, possibly to spare the embarrassment of being gigged for five-o’clock shadow.
The exfil on the fourth day was an action movie last minute save. A huge weather front was closing in. If they hadn’t gotten out then they wouldn’t get out. On the first LZ mountains were too high and well populated for the Marine CH53Ds to get in. Relocation to the second LZ was not a casual stroll. And that LZ was no secure location either. Boarding was a hand to hand rear guard action.
McCarley was the last man on the last chopper. It took off with one engine and barely made it over a granite cliff face when the second engine cut out. Going down the pilot found a river with a beach and autorotated in. No one had ever made an autorotation landing in a CH53D, much less an overloaded one in combat. They landed so hard that McCarley said, “All my teeth were instantly turned to sand.” The aircraft was empty before the rotors stopped. Still pondering the loss of his teeth McCarley looked up and saw First Sergeant Morris Adair standing in the river, smiling. No one knows how he got there. Even he doesn’t know. One second he was in a crashing helicopter and the next he was standing in a river with a nerve damaged
neck. It’s still damaged.
But they got out, due to extraordinary leadership and amazing luck. The rest of the book is devoted to ancillary subjects, the search for SOG men still missing, not just this op, but all of them, a somewhat restrained retelling of the reunion of the Hatchet Force and the aircrews who saved them, and saved them, and saved them, and saved them. I imagine the gathering was woollier than Tilt’s description.
One of the most interesting chapters is a tribute to Ben Baker, “Q” to Special Forces’ James Bonds. He invented Asian LRRP rations, exploding NVA ammo to be left in caches, the SOG knife, and much, much more.
And then the insane and infuriating last act. In 1996 CNN broadcast a completely false description of Tailwind. In the CNN story the purpose of the operation was to take down a village in Laos housing American deserters from Vietnam, by having the Air Force drop sarin gas on them, killing many innocent civilians in the process.
Why this story ever aired is the mystery. There is no aspect of it that rings true to anybody who knows anything at all about Vietnam, the military, the NVA, chemical warfare. There is no aspect of it that makes sense. The story was a cruel rebuke of soldiers who have served their country as well as anyone ever has from 1776 to now. It was in the end a huge embarrassment to CNN and also to TIME, which picked the story up. It pretty much terminated the career of every journalist associated with it, and one can only say, “Well, good.” But the suits kept their jobs, and even the retraction was weasel-worded. They didn’t say the story was false, just that it couldn’t be substantiated.
Hopefully the story of what really happened will help redress that.
Featured Image Courtesy of John Stryker Meyer
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