Operation Tailwind

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The Time Magazine/Peter Arnett Allegations

In its June 15, 1998, issue Time Magazine ran a story under the combined bylines of April Oliver and Peter Arnett. The title of the article was "Did The U.S. Drop Nerve Gas?". The article alleges that U.S. Air Force A1E Skyraiders dropped CBU-15 Cluster Bomb Units containing submunitions that were filled with a chemical agent known as GB, or Sarin. The article refers to this agent as "Nerve Gas".

The article also alleges that this agent was dropped on non-combatants, specifically "women and children", in support of a U.S. Army Studies and Observation Group team made up of sixteen U.S. Army Special Forces personnel and 140 Montagnard tribesmen that had been inserted into an area of Laos sixty miles from the border with South Vietnam near the town of Chavan. The mission took place on September 11, 1970.

No media frenzy has occurred as a result of the CNN/Time allegations. As a matter of fact, CNN/Time has been criticized by other reputable news organizations for having employed sloppy investigative techniques and outright dishonesty. Despite this, CNN/Time refuses to admit that April Oliver and Peter Arnett have engaged in unethical behavior in the creation of these allegations. They have also refused to debate the issues raised. The damage done is not mitigated by the fact that they have recently issued a retraction.

After you read about Operation Tailwind, come back here and read about America's Secret War In Burma.

April Stands By Her Story April "Cleopatra" Oliver, Queen of Denial.

April's "Black Ops" Defense Que the "Twilight Zone" theme.

April's Secret Document that launched the entire Nerve Gas theory.

DOD Report On Tailwind Released Tuesday, July 21, 1998.

Post-Tailwind Briefing for General Creighton Abrams written by Robert Van Buskirk.

Suggested Award Citation for SP5 Craig Schmidt written by Robert Van Buskirk.

North Vietnamese Records show no evidence of use of lethal chemical munitions.

Air Force Records show no evidence of use of lethal chemical munitions.

SOG Command History Excerpt Jack Smith/April Oliver claim they can't get this. That's odd, since I got it.

Newsweek Exposes Shoddy CNN Reporting

Email from a Marine Cobra pilot involved in the raid from beginning to end.

CNN transcript of Van Buskirk's comments.

Analysis of the Floyd Abrams Report on the CNN/Time reporting that led to these allegations.

Chemical Weapons Primer. Learn what they are and how they are used.

Letter to CNN from Reed Irvine, Chairman of Accuracy in Media.

The Contradiction

In the book SOG:The Secret Wars of Americas Commandos in Vietnam, written by John L. Plaster (Simon and Schuster 1997) "Operation Tailwind" is described in detail. Some of the events listed in the Time magazine article match the description in Plaster's book, most do not. Some of the same people quoted in the Peter Arnett article are quoted in Plaster's book, but they were interviewed by Plaster a full year earlier than the Arnett article in Time Magazine. Arnett's interpretation of the the events, based on the quotations, is wildly different from that drawn by Plaster in the book (Peter Arnett refered to Plaster's book as being the basis for his investigation on CNN's "Talk Back Live" program on June 8th).

The stated objective of Operation Tailwind, in Plaster's account, was to act as a diversion. It was designed to draw NVA forces away from a CIA-financed, multi-battalion force of Hmong tribesmen involved in an operation codenamed "Honorable Dragon" being conducted on the Bolovens Plateau in Southern Laos. Operation Tailwind had no specific terrain objective, that is, they were not attempting to occupy a specific town. Rather they were to engage any NVA forces they encountered in order to force the NVA to pull troops away from the Honrorable Dragon team to deal with the Operation Tailwind team in their rear. When conducting a diversion a unit intentionally attracts the enemy's attention as much as possible. The Tailwind team was tasked with destroying any munitions or other supplies they discovered. The goal was to force the NVA to commit troops to the pursuit of the Tailwind team.

Then-Sergeant Major William "Country" Grimes is described in the book as ordering the A-1 Skyraiders to drop CBU-19 cluster bomb units filled with CS riot-control agent (tear gas) submunitions, in order to impair the vision of NVA antiaircraft gunners. Grimes was the "Covey Rider" (the code name for the SOG representative flying with the Forward Air Controller) for the mission. In the Arnett article then-Sergeant Mike Hagen is quoted as saying they were "Nerve Gas cansisters". Hagen is also quoted in the Arnett article as saying that his doctor told him he suffers from "creeping paralysis of his extremities, which his doctor diagnosis as nerve-gas damage". Hagen says that the agent dropped from the Skyraiders was "tasteless and odorless".

Also, in the book, then-Captain Eugene McCarley, the raid commander, is quoted as saying his forces killed "144 NVA soldiers" in the operation. In the Arnett article he is only quoted once saying that the body count was "upwards of 100". Mike Hagen is not quoted (or even mentioned) in the book, but in the article is quoted as saying that the "majority there were non-combatant personnel", refering to the people killed by the team.

Plaster's book faithfully details the logistics of the mission, and provides more detail than the Arnett story. However, the book states that the purpose of the mission was to divert NVA pressure from a Hmong unit that was in heavy contact with the NVA. The Arnett magazine article version states that the mission's purpose was to "kill American defectors".


Taken on its face, the article presents some glaring contradictions and misstatements of fact which need to be examined.

Conspicuous by their absence are quotes from the raid commander, former Captain Eugene McCarley. Although he was in overall command of the ground force and played a major role in successfully extracting the team from a very difficult position, resulting in his being awarded the Silver Star Medal, he is quoted only once, and that quote is out of context.

One of the sources the Oliver-Arnett articles uses to confirm their "defector" theory is James Cathey, described as an Air Force "Rat Pack Commando". Cathey claims to have been on the ground in advance of the Tailwind team's insertion. He claims that he saw caucasians in the "village" and determined that they were defectors because they were unrestrained.

However, it turns out that James Cathey was an Air Force supply sergeant stationed at the Bien Hoa Air Base. He was not a "commando". Further, Cathey claims that he went to Saigon just before the Tailwind operation and was asked to go on a secret mission into Laos by friends of his. He claims that no record of his participation exists because it was a "black" operation".

A second source for the "defector" theory, Jay Graves, was in Special Forces, but was not sent into Laos on a recon mission to search for defectors. Graves has even signed a statement to that effect. This leaves Robert Van Buskirk as the sole source for "defector" testimony.

Although refered to in the article as "nerve gas", the correct term for GB is "anticholinesterase agent". Sarin does not attack the nerves, rather it attacks the enzymes that control messages between neural synapses and muscles. Acetylcholine is an enzyme which initiates muscle movement. Cholinesterase is an enzyme which is a solvent for acetylcholine, that is it dissolves it, causing an initiated muscle movement to cease. By attacking the enzyme Cholinesterase, the agent literally causes the muscles to work themselves to death. Since the diaphragm is the muscle controlling respiration, an individual usually dies of asphyxiation after exposure to the agent.

Further, GB is not a gas, but rather a vapor. This is an important difference. If it were a gas (such as carbon monoxide) the M-17 Protective Mask issued to troops would not inhibit inhalation, since the M-17 allows gases (such as oxygen, which humans require to sustain life) through its filters. The M-17 Protective mask is designed to block airborne vapors.

A large number of household and garden pesticides contain an anticholinesterase agent.

No mention is made by Hagen of his using his Atropine auto-injectors to counteract the effects of what he claims was Sarin vapor. Three Atropine auto-injectors are carried in the pocket of every M-17 Protective Mask carrying case. Atropine is the standard antidote for nerve agents. Standard U.S. Army training calls for an individual to mask, give the alert ("Gas!, Gas!, Gas!") at the first suspicion of the presence of lethal chemical agents, and auto-inject one Atropine dose at the first sign of symptoms of Sarin exposure (runny-nose, uncontrolled salivation, shortness of breath, blurred vision, etc.). Despite the fact that he was a highly trained member of the elite Special Forces, Hagen seems to have taken none of these precautions, which are taught to every recruit in Basic Training. This same lack of action seems to have affected Van Buskirk, a Special Forces officer, despite the fact that he claims to have seen hundreds of bodies that had been killed by a lethal chemical agent. Why did he not don his protective mask, or at least give the alert? Especially given that Van Buskirk claims to have been the one who called for the use of the lethal chemical agent (according to Arnett, although Arnett quotes Van Buskirk as saying only that he requested the Skyraiders to drop "the bad of the bad"). It is possible that the quotes attributed to Van Buskirk (lurid as they are) were taken out of context, as was the quote attributed to then-Captain Eugene McCarley.

Another raid participant, Craig Schmidt, says "everything got sticky" and he even claims to have rolled down the sleeves of his jungle fatigue jacket because he was covered with the substance. Why he did not don his mask and take the other routine precautions, such as injecting himself with Atorpine, is not only a mystery, it is beyond credibility.

It is interesting to note that Schmidt is also quoted by Arnett as saying "It doesn't surprise me it was nerve gas", as if he he had just been told it was nerve agent, possibly by Arnett or Oliver during their interview.

The article contains what seem to be some glaring contradictions with respect to the amount of actual fighting that occurred. Keep in mind that, according to Arnett, this was a covert operation to kill American defectors, and it depended on stealth and suprise for success.

By all accounts the raid begins badly when the team (16 Special Forces personnel and 140 Montagnards) in four "big Marine helicopters" (CH53 Super Stallions according to Plaster's book) escorted by 12 AH-1H Marine Cobra gunships approach the landing zone "several miles from the targeted base camp" (it was called the "town of Chavan" earlier in the article) and are immediately taken under fire. The book states that the huge CH-53s were used because the range involved, as well as the number of troops involved in the lift, was more than an equal number of Army Hueys could handle. They were flown, along with the Cobra gunships, by Marine pilots because the U.S. Air Force CH-53s of the 21st SOS Squadron, based at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, were committed to Operation Dragon.

The inference drawn from the article is that this was supposed to be a clandestine insertion. Given that, it might be supposed that the mission would have been called off, since because of poor intelligence, or bad luck, the landing zone was occupied by NVA troops in sufficient numbers to feel comfortable attacking the assualt force.

After they are inserted, "several miles from the targeted base camp", the force "spent the next three days fighting its way toward it". Remember, this was supposed to be a clandestine raid. The whole idea is to approach the target in a stealthy manner in order to take the occupants of the "base camp", especially the "defectors", by surprise.

On the third night, according to the article, "the commandos hunkered down as Air Force A-1s 'prepped' the target". According to Oliver and Arnett, this "prepping" included the use of lethal chemical agents, specifically GB (Sarin). In the morning (of the fourth day) the SOG forces attacked.

Despite three days of heavy fighting, with the attendent noise and smoke, an air strike on the "base camp", and an assualt on the objective itself, the occupants were apparently surprised by the appearance of the assualt force. So surprised in fact, that at least 100 Laotian non-combatants, an unspecified number of Pathet Lao combatants, some North Vietnamese Army regulars, and 20 American defectors, or "longshadows", were still in the "base camp" when the SOG force managed to arrive! It seems strange that this entire group would not have simply fled into the surrounding jungle and hid.

The article says that after the 10 minute battle to secure the village, "The Montagnards searched the camp for documents and booty. They reported to Hagen and Van Buskirk that there were 'beaucoup roundeyes' dead in the hootches". According to one of the raid participants, platoon leader Lt. Robert Van Buskirk, the roundeyes numbered "A dozen, 15, maybe 20". It is curious that a commissioned officer in the Special Forces was unable to perform the rather simple task of counting dead bodies when he was on an intelligence mission, especially given that these bodies were allegedly the entire reason for the mission.

Additionally, according to Arnett, lethal chemical agents, specifically Sarin, were dropped on the "village" the night before the raid. Yet, according to quotes attributed to then-Lt Van Buskirk by Arnett, there were unmasked people running around the village the next morning, apparently in good enough condition to offer resistance to the attackers. And despite knowing that the village had been "prepped" with lethal chemical agents, the assualt force was not wearing protective masks when they assaulted the village.

It is worth noting that the article contained several photos that were supposedly taken during Operation Tailwind. One photo has the caption "A hootch where defectors might have hidden". Another, which appears to show Montagnards in a bomb crater, has the caption "Under fire almost continuously during the mission, SOG troops patch their wounds as best they can in the field". A third photo shows an underside view of an A1E Skyraider (or "Sandy" as fire-supression aircraft on rescue missions were called) flying over a hill mass. The caption for this photo is "A Skyraider swoops in during Tailwind".

It appears from these photos and their captions that the SOG troops not only had a camera (the film from which seems to have survived the ordeal) but also the time and ability to take photgraphs while on a mission which was so harrowing, according to the survivors, "We never expected to come out". Yet they had time for several well-focused, exquisitely exposed Kodak Moments.

Given that the SOG troops saw "a dozen, 15, maybe 20" "roundeyes", who were, according to quotes atributed to the participants, dead, why did they take no photographs which could have been used to identify the individuals? Why was no attempt made to identify the "defectors"? Surely if the purpose of the mission was to kill defectors, the team would have been briefed beforehand on the possible identities of the individuals so that they could be identified as defectors and not POWs. Given the blood-chilling quotes in the article attributed to Robert Van Buskirk, it is suprising that Van Buskirk did not cut off the hands of the defectors and bring them back to CIA headquarters in order to match the fingerprints with those the Army took when the man entered service.

It is also very convienient that the unnamed superior officer, who advised Van Buskirk to remove the "willy-pete" reference from his after-action report, is deceased.

The CNN piece said that 60 Montagnards were killed. The actual number of Montagnards killed was three.


The account of Operation Tailwind in John L. Plaster's book makes more sense than does the wild, sensationalized, Ramboesque account written by Arnett. Also, several people quoted by Arnett are also quoted in the work by Plaster, which was published one year earlier, but the remarks atrributed to them in Arnett's article are contradicted by their statements to Plaster.

Had the United States used lethal chemical warfare agents, such as Sarin, in Laos, you can be assured that the Pathet Lao, and the Government of the People's Democratic Republic Of Vietnam would have trotted out the survivors and victims and paraded them before the world media. The Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese would have had absolutely no motivation to keep silent about such an egregious violation of the Rules of Land Warfare.

Unstated in the article was a "treasure trove" of NVA documents seized and recovered by McCarley's team, and carried back to the extraction point at the expense of three Montagnard corpses. These documents were to become something of a sensation at MACV headquarters since they provided in depth information on the organization and operation of the unit responsible for transporting supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail. Why the article does not mention these documents is suspect, unless it was to preserve precious page-count for the more sensational accusations of the use of "nerve gas" and the killing of American "defectors".

Given as Arnett states that the mission was simply to kill defectors (not capture them and return them for court martial), and given that Arnett states that approval for the use of lethal chemical agents had been given on a carte blanche basis, it would have made more sense to simply spray the "base camp" with Sarin and forego a ground assualt. That would have killed the NVA and the defectors. Problem solved, mission accomplished. For that matter, it would have made much more sense to spray the entire Ho Chi Minh trail with the agent since the benefits derived would have been much greater than the simple rescue of 16 Americans and 140 Montagnard tribesmen, and the downside could not have been any worse. First-use is first-use: it would not appear to matter what you used it on or how extensively it was used.

It would appear that a possible motivation for the wild accusations lies with Hagen, who seems to be trying to establish a causal effect for his paralysis. What better cause than "nerve gas"? The quotes attributed to former Lieutenant Van Buskirk seem to be taken directly from several grade-B Vietnam-genre Hollywood films. It is possible that Van Buskirk was pulling Arnett's leg. If so, he pulled it off.

It is worth noting that Admiral Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when this incident was alleged to have occurred, is quoted as saying that lethal chemical agents were used routinely in Laos. Keep in mind that Admiral Moorer is also one of a handful of people who believe that TWA Flight 800 was brought down by an antiaircraft missle, and not by an internally caused explosion of the center fuel tank. It would appear that Admiral Moorer has yet to meet a conspiracy theory he can not bring aboard.

If you read the transcript of Van Buskirk's comments while he was interviewed on the "Talk Back Live" program, you get a sense that he is making this up as he goes along. In the above cited transcript he frequently contradicts earlier statements he has made and often rambles. He also appears to be scrambling to explain some of the discrepancies that many have pointed out. My server logs show that CNN people have downloaded this page and others more than once. It is likely that they are scrambling to perform damage control on what was undoubtedly a poorly researched and irresponsible story.


The CNN/Peter Arnett account of Operation Tailwind is as compelling as any National Enquirer story about alien abductions. It is filled with quotations that were taken out of context and carefully woven into the article in such a way as to make them appear to support the wild hypothesis. The entire article seems to have been based on allegations by Mike Hagen. His allegations would appear to be based on his doctor's diagnosis of "nerve gas damage" as the idiolgy behind Hagen's "creeping paralysis of the extremities". The doctor is not named or quoted directly. It appears Hagen is attempting to build a case for a service-related disability in order to collect Veterans Administration medical benefits. Why else would he wait 28 years to make these allegations?

Given that the government in North Vietnam made no complaint to the international press after Operation Tailwind was conducted, and seems to be silent on the matter to this day, it is doubtful that any lethal chemical agents were used during this operation or at any other time. The North Vietnamese were adroit at manipulating the press to do their bidding. It is highly unlikely that they would not have seized on the opportunity to expose American first-use of lethal chemical agents. It is more likely that they would have filmed the aftermath and invited members of the American anti-war movement to view (and be filmed viewing) the results of the attack.

Also, to add the obligatory "atrocity" angle, Arnett works in an out-of-context quote from Hagen which indicates that the majority of the casualties were non-combatants. No one is quoted as saying that any of the victims were "women and children", but Arnett makes that unsubstantiated allegation in the first paragraph of the article. This is the necessary "hook" designed to inflame the reader and generate interest in the article.

Although not mentioned in the article, one of the secondary missions of SOG units during the war was the rescue of POWS. A number of raids, under the umbrella code name "Bright Light" were conducted in Laos to recover POWs. None of these raids was ever successful in finding any POWs. However, the SOG teams were successful in recovering downed airman who had not yet been captured (refered to as "evaders") in Laos. It is worth noting that the primary mission of the secret war in Laos (which apparently was not very secret then or now) was the interdiction of supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail. For the duration of the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese denied they had any troops in Laos. Peter Arnett never challenged the North Vietnamese denials by actually traveling to Laos with a SOG team, despite invitations to do so by several SOG team members.

The real tragedy here is that the incredibly heroic efforts of a large number of Special Forces men, helicopter pilots, Forward Air Controllers, and fighter pilots is called into question by the unconscionable behavior of Peter Arnett and April Oliver.

The Time Magazine article is vintage Arnett, running with a story that has questionable antecedents, but is anti-American and sensational, his forte. You can judge for yourself by reading the account of Operation Tailwind in John L. Plaster's book, and comparing it to Arnett's fantasy.

If you would like to send an e-mail to CNN expressing your opinions about the CNN version of "Operation Tailwind", and I strongly urge you do do just that, the man to send it to is the CEO of CNN News, Mr. Tom Johnson. His e-mail address is: tom.johnson@turner.com. (Note that there is a period after Tom) Keep it polite, but be assertive. We have had enough of this hatchet journalism.

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Creation Date: Tuesday, June 9, 1998
Last Modified: Friday, July 24, 1998
Copyright © Ray Smith, 1998