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.

Green Berets and partner force members load into a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter.

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.