The morning of Operation Tailwind day four dawned upon the B Company hatchet force of MACV-SOG (SOG) as they moved toward an LZ to lift out the more seriously wounded among the remaining 130 men who could still walk. All 16 Green Berets had been wounded at least once, and about 30 Montagnard troops were wounded during the first three days of this secret foray deep into Laos to take pressure off of the CIA’s Operation Gauntlet in southern Laos on the Bolovens Plateau.
B Company commanding officer Capt. Gene McCarley had the point element moving toward an apparent clearing with one thought in mind: Get one Marine Corps heavy-lift CH-53D helicopter in to pick up the wounded and then continue to march, destroying any NVA fortifications, supplies, or troops they encountered. By now the entire 2nd platoon was being used to help care for and transport the wounded under the tireless leadership of SF Medic Gary Mike Rose, including three who were carried on impromptu stretchers.
On the previous day, when one CH-53D medevac was shot down by enemy gunners, B Company had strong support from the Marine Corps Cobra gunships of HML-367 (Scarface) in addition to 22 sorties flown by A-1 Skyraiders; eight sorties flown by Air Force F-4s from Ubon, Thailand; and Stinger and Spectre gunships working against enemy forces during the night. More than once that night, the transponders failed to provide a commo link to Stinger and Spectre, which meant they had to direct their air strikes from white phosphorous grenade explosions or strobe lights held by B Company men.
The men on the ground didn’t know about two startling developments: The weather was closing in with a storm front that would prevent TAC AIR from supporting B Company, and Operation Tailwind had rocked the NVA brass into rallying hordes of North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao troops who were moving toward the Highway 165 area near the tiny hamlet of Chavane.
“When we started (day four), we hadn’t thought about an extraction, except for getting the wounded out,” said McCarley. “We took our mission seriously: Relieve the pressure on the CIA’s operation. Thanks to the TAC AIR, we had hurt the enemy, no question, and by continuously moving, we had kept the NVA off-balance. We were tired, but our morale was good. We had been on the move for about an hour when we heard dogs. These weren’t dogs that sounded like the tracker dogs the NVA used on us; they sounded like pet dogs. So we moved toward their sound and the 1st platoon followed them.”
The dogs lead B Company to what would become one of the greatest military intelligence coups of the eight-year SOG secret war in Laos.
Before long, enemy troops fired several B-40 rockets at the point element of B Company and then fell back. “It looked like they (the NVA) had gone back to some sort of bunker complex. After a brief skirmish and brilliantly executed SPAD gun runs where they used cluster bomb units (CBU) on enemy positions, the 1st platoon lead the assault on those bunkers with a well-coordinated attack while 2nd platoon covered our left flank and provided rear security. Third platoon protected our right flank. We caught them napping. We hit the outpost when they were cooking breakfast. There were open fires—fires with cooking pots on them. Hell, they never had anyone mess with them before this deep into Laos.”
A few NVA hid in a couple of bunkers; the Montagnards quickly eliminated them with hand grenades. “Those bunkers were nothing but gory blood and guts after the grenade attacks,” McCarley said. Again, A-1 Skyraiders delivered CBUs precisely along two key enemy lines, instantly silencing enemy gunfire, hand grenade attacks, and rocket attacks. In those CBU runs, A-1 Skyraider pilots dropped CBU-25 bombs that had a dispenser unit which held 665 tennis-ball-size BLU-26 or BLU-36 fragmentation submunitions or bomblets. Once dropped from the Skyraider, the CBU-25 casing broke open in flight and released the individual bomblets, which exploded on impact, or they could be set for air-burst or fixed-period delayed detonation. Within a short period of time, more than 70 NVA were killed as B Company swept through the base camp.
As B Company drove the remaining NVA out of the outpost, they discovered a bunker in the base camp that “appeared to be like a basement in a regular house,” said McCarley. It was at least 10 feet long and 10 feet wide, “with maps on the walls and a foot locker loaded with documents. I emptied my rucksack of everything except for my extra CAR-15 ammo. By that time, I had used the extra (radio) battery and C-4 that I was carrying, and I started packing my rucksack with enemy documents, papers, codebooks, and transportation logs.”
Within 15 minutes, the base camp was overrun. The area was searched for intelligence, and photographs were taken as medic Mike Rose continued to treat the wounded men of the company.
By now it was clear to B Company intelligence men that they had stumbled into a NVA battalion base that was a major logistical command center and probably the headquarters that controlled the nearby Laotian Highway 165. In addition to McCarley’s haul, he told SOFREP that the wounded Green Berets also found more intelligence documents, papers, codebooks, transportation logs, records, North Vietnamese currency, and photographs—including a photo of Ho Chi Minh.
Remaining true to his original operation order, McCarley had all of the intelligence documents packed up, then ordered B Company and all of its walking wounded to march out of the battalion base camp while demolitions experts wired a 120mm mortar, four enemy trucks, and more than nine tons of rice for destruction. As usual, after the Special Forces charges exploded, A-1 Skyraiders followed up with gun and bombing runs to completely destroy all enemy structures and supplies.
Several weeks after Operation Tailwind, MACV-SOG headquarters informed McCarley that the base camp B Company attacked was a crucial station for the NVA’s 559th Transportation Group—the first major NVA group formed by the Hanoi communist political leadership in May 1959. The 559th‘s mission was to expand the Ho Chi Minh Trail in anticipation of future efforts to overrun the South Vietnamese and American assistance units. Author Richard H. Shultz, Jr., detailed the 559th’s formation in 1959 in his book “The Secret War Against Hanoi.” The 559 Transportation Group oversaw all troop and supply movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in addition to maintaining it and expanding the trails that weaved into South Vietnam. Any NVA soldier received a special award and bonus if he captured or killed a SOG operator.
Operation Tailwind stalls as weather and NVA hordes close in
Meanwhile, back at Kontum, all of the air assets—the A-1 Skyraiders of operating location Alpha Alpha, Scarface Cobra pilots, and HMH-463 CH-53D pilots—were getting a detailed briefing on the weather and a sighting by Covey of hundreds, if not more than 1,000, of NVA and Pathet Lao troops moving east toward B Company. “During that final briefing, it was very clear: Today it’s do or die,” said Scarface pilot Joe Driscoll. “The big thing was the stark seriousness of the moment. Everyone knew they had suffered heavy casualties and now the weather was closing in on them.” A-1 Skyraider pilot Tom Stump added, “The weather was dog shit when we took off…I wasn’t optimistic about getting them out of there.”
On the ground in Laos, McCarley pressed forward until he received a “disturbing” radio call from Covey, sometime in the early afternoon of Sept. 14th, day four of Operation Tailwind. “I believe it was Covey rider Jimmy ‘War Daddy’ Hart who radioed down and told us the NVA were massing and that if we didn’t get out of there today, we weren’t going to get out period. That got my attention. Frankly, he mentioned the weather issue too, which up to that point in time I wasn’t aware of because we were in the jungle.”
After losing one of the HMH-463’s heavy-lift helicopters on a tight LZ the previous day, McCarley realized they needed a LZ large enough to handle a Marine Corps CH-53D. He moved down a road toward a clearing that was large enough for a LZ. However, the open area was seated too deeply in a valley, which had hills on two sides of it where NVA gunners would be able to have clear fields of fire on the Marine rescue helicopters as well as the supporting TAC AIR assets and Cobra gunships.
To facilitate the continued movement of B Company, A-1 SPADs and Scarface Cobras “gave us fire protection to the front and to the rear,” McCarley said. “The NVA kept hitting us with automatic fire and B-40s. The air strikes kept them back far enough so they couldn’t do any real damage.”
At some point, Covey ran dangerously low on fuel and returned to base, connecting SPAD pilot Tom Stump directly with McCarley about future air strikes shortly before the first CH-53D arrived in the area of operations. “I’ll never forget it. When I spoke to Gene, his voice was as calm as a man at a Sunday church picnic,” Stump said. “He had that slow southern draw and calmly said he was getting his ass kicked down there and all the while I could hear gunfire down there, explosions from hand grenades…he said he needed separation between the company and the NVA. We were on station for two hours doing just that, providing close support. With all of the SF wounded and the large number of casualties they had, I couldn’t see how we’d get them out.”
Providing that sort of support on that day, in that location, with the bad weather closing in, coping with smoke from previous bombing and napalm runs and CBU explosions, was extremely challenging. Once Stump and his fellow pilots maneuvered below the low-hanging clouds, they had to be extremely aware of jagged buttes and irregular mountain formations in the area before dropping their ordnance. The CBU ordnance slowed down one faction of NVA that had several hundred men advancing toward B Company.
McCarley and his men were grateful for the close support of Stump, his fellow SPAD pilots, Scarface, and TAC AIR, but Stump stood out in his mind. McCarley said, “Tom Stump flew so close to us during some of those gun runs, I could tell if he had shaved or not. That’s just how close those A-1 Skyraiders flew in support of us. We were extremely grateful for all of the air support, believe me, but seeing Stump was something that stuck with me. I also think it’s safe to say that because this was a SOG mission deep into Laos, none of the air assets got the credit they should have received for the remarkable coverage they provided to us over four days, from the fast-movers right down to Scarface and the Coveys.”
Scarface commanding officer Lt. Col. Harry Sexton and co-pilot Lt. Pat Owen provided the critical link between B Company and the air assets that were once again rallying around the beleaguered SOG hatchet force. When Covey returned to the area of operations, Sexton and Owen prepared an action plan to bring in the CH-53Ds to the LZ. For the veteran Scarface pilots, it was simply another deadly SOG mission into Laos.
B Company found a heavily traveled dirt road, only wide enough for foot traffic, and headed to a second LZ—one that provided better cover and less exposure to enemy ground fire for the helicopters and for the men of B Company. As they moved, Covey rider Jimmy ‘War Daddy’ Hart spotted another “horde of NVA” moving toward B Company. This time, Hart told B Company to put on their gas masks as he directed A-1 sorties flown by Hobo 20 and Firefly 44 based in Thailand to deliver CBU-30 tear gas ordinance on the next “horde of NVA,” while B Company found and secured a second LZ for the Marine CH-53Ds to land. This drastic tactic worked. It slowed down another NVA assault, but many of the men in B Company, including McCarley, Rose, and others, were hit by the gas, which “had a lot of our guys crying and choking on that CS,” McCarley said. But it also bought them some time.
The Scarface Cobras lead the CH-53Ds into the LZ with deadly gun runs as Air Force F-4 Phantom jets pounded two enemy mortar pits that were marching 81mm mortar rounds toward the LZ. The LZ was large enough for only one CH-53D to land at a time. “We escorted the Dimmers (CH-53Ds) into the LZ. The first run wasn’t as bad as the previous day, when I could see dozens of enemy soldiers out in the open firing at us and the choppers,” said Scarface pilot Joe Driscoll. When McCarley lost radio contact with Covey, Scarface commanding officer Lt. Col. Harry Sexton and his co-pilot Pat Owen quickly picked up coordinating the air assets with McCarley.
The first heavy-lift helicopter landed on the LZ, picking up the majority of the wounded B Company men, including the three most seriously wounded who were carried in stretchers. Second platoon placed the wounded on the first Marine helicopter before it lifted off successfully and headed back to Kontum.
Scarface again lead the second Marine Corps CH-53D into the LZ, this time taking an increased volume of enemy ground fire. Aviators pointed out to McCarley another large contingent of NVA moving toward the LZ. Now it appeared that the NVA brass realized that B Company had hit the 559 Transportation’s base camp and taken all of its maps, reports, records, and money, and they directed hundreds of enemy troops toward B Company. “They told me they could see hundreds of them coming for us,” said McCarley.
The second Marine Corps CH-53D picked up the remaining wounded men and several other members of B Company and lifted off of the LZ successfully, drawing more enemy fire than the first heavy-lift helicopter.
Scarface lead the third CH-53D into the LZ, taking more enemy fire than the previous two choppers had encountered. However, for McCarley, Rose, First Sgt. Morris Adair, and the remaining men of B Company, the drama wasn’t over.
(Featured image: U.S. Marine Corps CH-53Ds from HMH-463 head west toward Laos during Operation Tailwind in Sept. 1970. Photo courtesy of Larry Groah.)