For three and a half days, the Green Berets and their Montagnard counterparts of the MACV-SOG (SOG) B Company hatchet force had successfully accomplished their mission: Take pressure off of the CIA’s Operation Gauntlet in southern Laos on the Bolovens Plateau west of their operation while grabbing hundreds of NVA (North Vietnamese Army) reports, maps, code books, currency and other critical pieces of intelligence from an enemy base camp. However, halfway through day four of this top-secret foray, Operation Tailwind switched gears from a tactical mission into one of survival.
By midday on September 14, 1970, B Company had received weather reports of a major storm front moving in. Also, observations by forward air controllers (code-named Covey) and Marine Corps Cobra pilots from HML-367—call sign Scarface—reported hordes of NVA and communist Pathet Lao troops moving east to confront and eliminate the men of B Company. Those factors changed the operational orders from disrupting the enemy to survival and getting all of the valuable seized NVA intelligence reports back to base and SOG headquarters in Saigon for review by intelligence specialists.
Following Scarface Cobra gunships into the LZ, the first and second Marine Corps CH-53D Sea Stallions extracted the first and second platoons of B Company, which included all of the wounded Montagnards and several of the wounded Green Berets. However, when the third heavy-lift Sikorsky from HMH-463 descended toward the LZ, the volume of enemy small-arms fire increased, despite A-1 Skyraider pilots Art Bishop and his wingman, Don Feld, hammering enemy positions with CBU-30 cluster bombs that contained potent CS gas.
CH-53D Sea Stallion pilot 1st Lt. Don Persky and his copilot, 1st Lt. Bill Battey, were concerned about the amount of rounds hitting the heavy-lift chopper. “On our final approach, we took heavy enemy fire,” Persky told SOFREP. “We knew that this was the last element on the ground and that we had to get them out.”
SF Sgt. Mike Hagen said, “I can tell you that big bird was a welcome sight to us. We were all beat, we were all wounded, and we were all ready to go home, believe me.”
B Company commander, Capt. Gene McCarley, Hagen, medic Sgt. Mike Rose, and First Sgt. Morris Adair held a tight defensive perimeter with a few Montagnards as others beat a hasty, but orderly, path into the large Marine warbird. Dozens of NVA soldiers surged out of the CS gas clouds toward the LZ. McCarley was on the radio with Covey. “He said, ‘You have to get out of there now! There’s hundreds and hundreds of them coming after you! Now!’”
As McCarley spoke into the PRC-25 handset, a Montagnard team member standing between McCarley and the radio operator was killed by enemy gunfire as he fired his weapon at them. “He got shot in the head,” McCarley said. “There was blood all over the place. Another Yard (Montagnard team member) looked at him and turned to me with a sad look and simply said, ‘He’s dead.’”
Low on ammo and time as the NVA approach
A-1 Skyraider pilot Tom Stump vividly remembers those long moments before the men of B Company boarded the CH-53D:
“It was a wild scene down there. As we provided close cover to the team on the ground, Air Force F-4s attacked anti-aircraft guns that the NVA had moved into the area. They (the NVA) really wanted them. They were massed to get them. They wanted to get back what the team had taken from base camp. Covey riders told us that NVA 12.7mm and 37mm anti-aircraft weapons were opening up on us. Meanwhile, the Scarface Cobras gunships reacted to enemy gunfire on their aircraft while Gene directed us to enemy troops moving toward them. Keep in mind, we knew all the SF men were wounded and low on ammo. There was a moment in time when I couldn’t see how we’d get them out. It was that intense.”
Not everyone was low on ammo. After he was severely wounded in the foot on day one, Rose had tightly wrapped his torn jungle boot and bleeding foot with an Ace bandage to keep it shut and had used his Colt CAR-15 more as a cane to support his weight than as a weapon because he was so busy treating and tending to the 49 wounded men of CCC (Command and Control Central) hatchet force B Company. His left hand had suffered a shrapnel wound also, which he quickly wrapped before returning to care for the team wounded. Now, as he, Adair, and Hagen moved up the ramp, the semi-mobile medic opened fire on the rapidly approaching NVA after helping place their dead Montagnard comrade on the helicopters.
McCarley was the last man to leave the LZ. “As we were backing up the ramp, they were coming toward us,” he said. “I’m guessing the CS gas had them confused, because they were getting too close to where I, Mike, and Morris stood, but none of them threw a grenade into the chopper. I never understood why they didn’t. They were that close. And they kept coming, even as we lifted off (from the LZ).”
As the CH-53D, YD-18, lifted off the LZ, pilot Persky said he and co-pilot Battey could feel enemy rounds hitting the aircraft. Adair, McCarley, and Rose had just sat down next to SFC Bernie Bright when someone tapped Rose on the shoulder and pointed to the left door gunner, Marine Sgt. Stevens, who was bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound in the neck. Rose said, “He got hit in the neck. There was blood everywhere. I was coated in blood by then, from him and the other wounded. He was very lucky, the round had missed the carotid artery and the trachea, yet he was going into shock. I rolled him over, got him on all fours, and I remember telling him, ‘Listen you lucky SOB, if you were going to die, you’d be dead by now.’ After that, he started to bounce back. Sometimes as a medic, you have to be harsh with people to break then out of shock. Then I found something to wrap around his neck to get the bleeding to stop.”
First engine failure
As Rose struggled with Stevens’s bleeding neck injury, he didn’t realize that the Marine door gunner’s helmet’s open microphone was live. “Communications were almost impossible, as he was on a hot mike and all I could hear was his gasping, gurgling,” said Persky, who was having a potentially deadly power issue with the severely damaged CH-53D Sea Stallion. As the heavily laden helicopter lifted off from the LZ and went from a hover into transitional lift—where the helicopter begins to gain both altitude and speed—engine failure emergency lights and warning systems screamed alerts of a pending engine failure.
Within seconds, one engine failed.
Persky only had one remaining engine to continue lifting away from the hordes of NVA gathering on and around the LZ, shooting at the Sea Stallion. At least one anti-aircraft weapon was firing at the struggling Sikorsky.
In addition, he and Battey had another major challenge on their horizon: avoiding the mountains they were approaching with only one engine. “That ridgeline was sheer granite,” Persky told SOFREP. By now, in the back of the chopper, Rose had pulled off Stevens’s helmet, giving Persky and Battey improved communications between them and other air assets as the granite mountain loomed larger by the second. “We were worried, as we had to use extra energy from the last engine to get over that ridgeline,” Persky said.
After narrowly getting over it, a second granite ridgeline had to be flown over. Now the big warbird was struggling. “There were hydraulic fluids and blood everywhere” inside of the helicopter, Rose said. And, “the tail was lower than it should be and we could tell something was wrong. Really wrong. We just didn’t know how wrong.”
After Rose pulled the bloodied helmet off of Stevens, Persky was able to reestablish commo with the lead Marine Corps HML-367 lead Scarface Cobra pilot and unit commander Lt. Col. H.E. Sexton. Sexton later reported that “I finally established radio contact with (Persky) and he confirmed that all members (of B Company) were lifted from the LZ. He further stated that he was operating on one engine. I gave the lead (CH-)53(D) a departure heading and began to close on (Persky) while getting radio checks with all aircraft in the package.”
Air Force Lt. Col. Mel Swanson, the officer in charge of all A-1s in the area of operations remembered, “This was the biggest SAR (search air rescue) mission I ever worked during my entire tour of duty with the SPADs. We had SPADs, fast-movers, Covey, Scarface Cobras, some Army Cobras, and the (Marine) Corps’ huge heavy-lift helicopters. We all worked in concert to get those heroic Green Berets and their tribesmen out of there.”
In the back, as Rose continued to treat the bleeding Stevens, he, McCarley, Adair, and Hagen were looking out of the rear tailgate where the dominant visual sight was the huge granite face the CH-53D was slowly climbing over. Skyraider pilot Tom Stump realized it was struggling.
Seconds after barely getting over the second ridgeline, the second CH-53D General Electric T-64-GE-413 turboshaft engine failed.
“I can remember (1st) Lieutenant Persky’s exact words to this day,” said McCarley. “He said, ‘May Day! May Day! We’ve lost all hydraulics! We’re going down!’ I looked out of the back and all I saw were the granite cliffs. They loomed large. To this day I don’t know how he missed them.”
Rose echoed that sentiment. “All I saw were those huge granite cliffs. With no engines, I fully expected to crash and burn at any moment.”
Persky hollered into his radio one more time: “We’ve lost our second engine! We’re going down!”
The fate of the 23,628-pound, 88-foot-long helicopter designed to carry 38 combat troops—but now loaded with 40-plus combat troops and weapons, including all of the intelligence papers, maps, foot lockers, and North Vietnamese currency seized from the NVA’s 559th Transportation Group base camp—hinged on Persky’s piloting skills and the six 72-foot-long rotors that were keeping the helicopter aloft, biting into the air, descending at a rapid rate but at a rate better than dropping from the sky like a dead quail.
A deafening silence
As Persky and Battey desperately looked for an LZ, Adair was in the back, amazed that Rose had pulled off another “medic miracle.”
“There’s no doubt that without Rose getting to him quickly, that Marine gunner (Stevens) would have died,” Adair said. “The way that Marine was bleeding, I wouldn’t have given you a plugged nickel for his chances to survive. Then things went from bad to worse.”
After he called out a second May Day alert, Persky said he “was hoping a pilot or Covey would say something. After that second engine went out, there was nowhere to go. All we could see was jungle and granite ridgelines. “I really, really expected someone—Covey, Scarface, SPADs, or Army Cobras—to say, ‘Hey! Go left. Go right.’ Something! The radio was dead silent.” For Persky and Batty, the silence was deafening.
Now descending in full autorotation, with both engines dead, Persky began following jungle-covered canyons. “I followed one gap,” he said. “Then I followed a second gap. It lead to a ravine. My biggest concern at that moment was being able to just find a place to autorotate into.”
Marine Corps door gunner Larry Groah, who was in the first CH-53D Sea Stallion that pulled out many of the wounded men from B Company earlier, said, “At that time, no one had ever done a full autorotation with a fully loaded CH-53D.”
Swanson watched the large warbird descend into a canyon. “It was a kind of a depression he headed toward,” Swanson said. “It was trailing smoke. It was ugly. Real ugly. I worried that it might explode in mid-air, or worse, hit one of those granite mountains or the jungle. From my seat up in the old trusty A-1 Skyraider, I couldn’t see any LZ or any area that was open or large enough for those Marines to land that big bird without crashing. And by now I had heard they were autorotating, with a chopper full of troops. It didn’t look good.”
As Persky descended toward the jungle-covered canyon, he told Scarface commander Sexton that he was in full autorotation mode. Sexton immediately called the back-up SAR CH-53D, as he had the previous day when the NVA shot down the large CH-53D Marine Corps Sea Stallion helicopter attempting to pick up the most seriously wounded of the 48 men Rose and his Montagnard medic counterpart had patched up the three previous days.
(Featured image: This is a Marine Corps CH-53D Sea Stallion Sikorsky heavy-lift helicopter that was used to insert and extract the men from the hatchet force B Company of the top secret compound in Kontum, S. Vietnam, Command and Control Central, during the four-day mission deep into Laos, dubbed Operation Tailwind. Enemy gunfire destroyed two of these aircraft during that operation. Photo courtesy of Larry Groah.)