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.