25 July 1998: Link to tabs of full report
22 July 1998
DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE REVIEW OF ALLEGATIONS
CONCERNING "OPERATION TAILWIND"
JULY 21, 1998
On June 7, 1998, the Cable News Network (CNN) aired a story entitled "Valley of Death" on the program NewsStand. The story alleged that in September of 1970, U.S. Special Forces and indigenous troops were inserted into Laos to locate and kill U.S. military defectors in what was named OPERATION TAILWIND. The story further alleged that the four-day operation destroyed a village, and killed U.S defectors, enemy troops, and women and children. Finally, the story alleged that U.S. aircraft dropped lethal Sarin gas to suppress enemy fire while friendly forces were extracted by helicopter. The broadcast was followed the next day by an article in Time Magazine, headlined "Did the U.S. Drop Nerve Gas," repeating the allegations. Tab A.
The Defense Department viewed these allegations with concern. On June 9, 1998, the Secretary of Defense initiated an extensive review to determine if events such as those alleged had occurred in OPERATION TAILWIND. Tab B.
The Secretary directed the Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to interview individuals with personal knowledge of the operation, and to review military records, archives, historical writings and any other appropriate sources. The Secretary also asked the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency to conduct a similar review of relevant agency files and personnel.
II. SUMMARY OF FINDINGS
A. Purpose of OPERATION TAILWIND
- The operation was launched as a reconnaissance in force to engage the enemy and to divert enemy attention from OPERATION GAUNTLET, an offensive operation to regain control of terrain in Laos. Tab C.
- No records or personal recollections were discovered to suggest that targeting U.S. defectors played any part in the operation. (Throughout)
B. Use of Sarin
- U.S. policy since World War II has prohibited the use of lethal chemical agents, including Sarin, unless first used by the enemy. Tab D.
- No evidence could be found that the nerve agent Sarin was ever transported to Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand). Tab H; Tab I; Tab M.
- No evidence could be found that Sarin was used in OPERATION TAILWIND. (Throughout)
- Unique safeguards are required for the handling of lethal chemical agents by U.S. forces. Such safeguards were not used in association with OPERATION TAILWIND because lethal chemical agents were not employed in Southeast Asia. Tab H.
- Air Force personnel involved in support of OPERATION TAILWIND said they recalled employing tear gas to suppress enemy fire on the ground during extraction of the SOG forces but did not employ Sarin. Tab H.
- Relevant North Vietnamese military documents reviewed record no use of lethal chemical agents by U.S. forces at any time during the Vietnam War, but they do record the use of tear gas. Tab E.
- The high toxicity of Sarin gas is such that, had it been employed as a weapon to facilitate the landing zone extraction of Studies and Observation Group (SOG) forces as has been alleged, it is highly improbable that all 16 U.S. servicemen and all but three Montagnards would have survived the mission alive. Tab O.
C. Use of Tear Gas
- Tear gas munitions were used by U.S. forces during OPERATION TAILWIND to suppress enemy ground fire while friendly forces were extracted by helicopter. Tab C; Tab H.
- The tear gas used was designated CS, a more potent version than the CN tear gas used previously in the war. Tab H.
- The use of tear gas, or Riot Control Agents (RCA) as they were sometimes called, was in accordance with U.S. policy at the time. Tab H; Tab K.
- The use of tear gas to suppress enemy fire was viewed as successful in the operation. Tab C; Tab F.
- Only two U.S. military personnel were known to be defectors during the Vietnam War. Tab C; Tab E.
- No records suggest that defectors were thought to be in the area of OPERATION TAILWIND at the time of the operation. Tab C; Tab E.
- No document discovered in this review suggests that defectors were targeted or harmed in OPERATION TAILWIND. Although Lieutenant Van Buskirk claims to have seen a defector (CNN/Time Magazine story), other SOG members dispute this account. Tab C; Tab I.
E. Overall Operation
- The operation was rated by all echelons in the chain of command as successful in engaging the enemy and in intelligence gathering on the North Vietnamese 559th Transportation Group. Tab K.
- Friendly casualties were three Montagnards killed, 33 Montagnards wounded, no U.S. servicemen killed in action, and 16 U.S. servicemen (every man on the mission) wounded. Tab K.
- One Army AH-1G and two Marine Corps CH-53D helicopters were lost to ground fire. Tab J, Tab K.
- Contemporaneous documents and personal recollections do not support the allegation there were non-combatant (women and children) casualties. Tab C; Tab F; Tab K.
III. CONDUCT OF REVIEW AND SUMMARIES OF REPORTS
Each of the organizations participating in the review of OPERATION TAILWIND followed a similar approach. They located and reviewed relevant records, archives, unit chronologies and other historical documents. They conducted searches on computer databases. They reviewed press accounts from the time of OPERATION TAILWIND and concerning the storage of chemical agents like Sarin gas. They located and interviewed individuals who participated in OPERATION TAILWIND or who were likely to have first-hand knowledge of facts relevant to this inquiry.
OPERATION TAILWIND was a joint operation that occurred almost 28 years ago.
The nature of the operation dictated that four different organizations within the Department of Defense furnish reports related to the operation. The forces that conducted OPERATION TAILWIND on the ground were members of the Armys Studies and Observations Group (SOG), a Special Forces unit, assigned to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). Close air support was provided by Air Force and Marine Corps aviation assets. The Marine Corps provided the helicopters that flew OPERATION TAILWIND participants into the Laotian jungle and extracted them four days later. The SOG chain of command for planning and execution of OPERATION TAILWIND was through the Commander, MACV and Commander, U.S. Forces, Pacific, to the Secretary of Defense, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) providing the Secretary military staff support. Therefore, separate reports were required from the Army, Navy, and Air Force, as well as from the JCS. The CIA also submitted a report. These reports are appended and summarized below. Tabs H-L.
Each report submitted by participating organizations consists of a summary report to the Secretary of Defense with supporting tabular attachments. In addition, in an effort to complement the reviews of the Service Secretaries and the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness conducted interviews and gathered information from OPERATION TAILWIND participants. A complete list of interviewees is included at Tab T, and relevant newsclips on OPERATION TAILWIND are found at Tab N.
B. Communications to the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness) in the Review Process
OPERATION TAILWIND was conducted by 16 SOG members, accompanied by approximately 120 Montagnard troops. These forces were inserted by air into the Southern Laotian panhandle. The dual purposes of the mission were to conduct a reconnaissance-in-forcean offensive operation to contact the enemyand to create a diversion so that North Vietnamese forces pressuring friendly forces conducting OPERATION GAUNTLET elsewhere in Laos would be drawn away.
OPERATION GAUNTLET lasted approximately three weeks (September 3-23, 1970). Its objectives were to harass and interdict enemy lines of communication in southern Laos and to clear the eastern rim of the Bolovens Plateau. The operation involved approximately 5,000 irregular troops, with half of them moving against the Bolovens, while the other half operated in the central Laos panhandle. They initially met stiff resistance but were ultimately able to succeed, probably because some enemy forces were diverted by OPERATION TAILWIND. Enemy activity there remained low during October 1970 due to tropical storms, U.S. air strikes, and OPERATION GAUNTLET. Tab K.
OPERATION TAILWIND was unprecedented because of the large size of the force conducting the operation and because of the depth of the penetration into Laotian territory. As a result, the senior MACV leadership was aware of its conduct and was briefed on its outcome.
To gain an accurate understanding of what actually occurred during the conduct of OPERATION TAILWIND, the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness) (USD(P&R)) invited key individuals involved in the planning and execution of the operation to the Pentagon on June 23, 1998, to recount their experiences. Key invitees included, among others, Major General John Singlaub, USA (Ret.) (former SOG Commander); Colonel John Sadler, USA (Ret.)(SOG Commander during OPERATION TAILWIND); Colonel Robert Pinkerton, USA (Ret.)(SOG Operations Officer and principal unit planner for OPERATION TAILWIND); Lieutenant Colonel Eugene McCarley, USA (Ret.)(Company Commander and senior officer on the ground during OPERATION TAILWIND); and Captain Michael Rose, USA (Ret.)(Company medic for OPERATION TAILWIND). A Memorandum for the Record summarizing the discussions at the meeting is at Tab C, along with supporting documents provided by the invitees.
Comments made by participants in the meeting provided useful context for understanding the systemic and extensive reviews comprising the Departments inquiry.
Colonel Sadler, the SOG Commander, described his role in OPERATION TAILWIND"The buck should start and stop here [with me]. I was responsible for planning it [OPERATION TAILWIND], getting it approved, and directing it." He described the purpose of OPERATION TAILWIND as 1) to "help relieve pressure on the task force coming down from the Northit was a beehive there"; and 2) in the area of Chavane [Laos] "we knew there was something in there in force. We had to go see why the area was so important to the enemy."
With respect to the allegation contained in the CNN/Time Magazine story that women and children in a village were killed by the SOG forces, Captain Michael Rose, the medic on OPERATION TAILWIND, made the following comments:
It wasnt a village we went into as CNN said. It was a compound. I came up after the fight was over. I only saw two bodies, both dead from small arms fire, and Ive seen enough dead people from small arms fire to know what that looks like.
Lieutenant Colonel (then Captain) Eugene McCarley, field commander of OPERATION TAILWIND, explained that riot control agent or tear gas was used to keep the enemy from overrunning the position of the American forces:
The FAC [forward air controller] advised me the gas was coming in. He could see the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] massing. We were almost out of ammo. We were exhausted. He could see that once we got to the extraction zone, we would be overrun. The FAC called for the gas. I never requested it.
Captain Rose vividly recounted the final hours of the mission as the SOG force moved to the evacuation point:
We got hit with gas. It was CS [tear gas]. I know what CS is from basic training. Its like skunk. Once you smell it, you never forget, even if its fifty years later. It was definitely tear gas. I was wincing, my eyes watered, my nose and lungs burned. You turn your face into the wind and it clears. My wounded were in distress. I never saw any evidence of nerve gas. It was CS! Its criminal to say our own Air Force would drop nerve gas on us!
Captain Rose later added: "Im living proof that toxic gas was not dropped on us that day. Nobody showed any signs of exposure to toxic gas."
As to the presence of defectors during OPERATION TAILWIND, Colonel Pinkerton explained: "I never heard in the year I was SOG operations officer any reference to defectors." Colonel Sadler added: "Another reason the defector story doesnt pass muster is that it was a standing imperative that if you saw POWs, that [POW rescue] became your mission, regardless of what mission you were on." Lieutenant Colonel McCarley added: "There was no mention whatsoever in the debrief of [Caucasians] or nerve gas."
In the eyes of the participants, OPERATION TAILWIND was also a success. Colonel Sadler commented that the operation succeeded in gathering exceptionally good intelligence about the enemy. "The two footlockers of documents we got, [General Creighton] Abrams described as the best logistics intelligence ever gained in the Vietnam War. "
Following the June 23rd briefing, former First Lieutenant Robert Van Buskirk, USA, was interviewed. Mr. Van Buskirk was a member of the SOG unit on the ground during the four-day operation and a central figure and information resource for the NewsStand broadcast and Time magazine article. He declined to orally answer specific questions about the use of Sarin gas and the presence of defectors on OPERATION TAILWIND but provided background information on other aspects of the mission. Mr. Van Buskirk volunteered that on September 14, 1970, when gas was dropped on the SOG troops before their extraction from the landing zone, he saw his fellow soldiers "convulsing". However, he did not know that new, larger tear gas munitions (CBU-30) had been introduced for use in Vietnam in 1970, replacing CBU-19, with which he was familiar. He said "whatever it was, it worked. Whatever was on the LZ got us out alive." A memorandum summarizing his oral comments and his written responses to questions are attached at Tab G. Individuals who claimed to have participated in OPERATION TAILWIND but who were later determined not to have done so were not interviewed. In particular, Jay Graves and Jim Cathy were not interviewed, although Mr. Graves submitted a statement denying participation in OPERATION TAILWIND. Tab P.
Doctor Frederick R. Sidell, an authority on Sarin gas and former Chief of the Casualty Care Office, U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, was interviewed. He explained that Sarin is highly toxic to humans and can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled, although the effects are most immediate and pronounced upon inhalation. Unprotected exposure for one minute to a concentration of 100 milligrams of Sarin per cubic meter will kill 50 percent of the people who inhale it. Protective gas masks and rubber suits are employed by those working with Sarin to avoid exposure. Sarin may be employed as an effective lethal weapon. Lethality when used as a weapon depends on a variety of factors, such as size of the weapon, whether the Sarin is dispersed as vapor or liquid, ambient environment (temperature, wind and humidity), and whether those exposed have protective clothing or gas masks. Tab O.
Exposure to Sarin produces no burning sensation but causes miosis, or contraction of the pupil, which may last for days or even weeks. Exposure also produces a runny nose (but not burning), excessive salivation, secretions in the airways and extreme shortness of breath. If a sufficient amount of Sarin is inhaled, a person would become unconscious, go into convulsions, experience muscle twitching and then become flacid. Death may occur in 10 minutes. Tab O.
Doctor Sidell explained that the compounds CS and CN are classified as riot control agents and commonly known as tear gas. Although similar in effect, they are different compounds chemically. CS is the more potent agent. Exposure to riot control agents causes burning eyes, tearing, a burning and runny nose, a burning sensation in the mouth, salivation and a burning sensation on exposed skin. Coughing and retching may occur but convulsions of the sort associated with exposure to Sarin do not generally occur. Riot control agents are not employed as lethal weapons. Tab O.
Additionally, USD(P&R) staff conducted reviews of documents provided by the invitees that described or referenced OPERATION TAILWIND and that were created shortly after the actual operation. Documents examined include Lieutenant Van Buskirks briefing summary for General Creighton Abrams, then Commander, MACV, newspaper reports, award citations, military operational maps, military histories, photographs and other information furnished by OPERATION TAILWIND participants. Tab C.
The briefing script used by Lieutenant Van Buskirk to brief General Abrams following OPERATION TAILWIND provides a realistic sense of how the operation was conducted when the enemy base camp was encountered. Tab F. When attacked by enemy forces for the first time, the SOG forces concluded that the enemy was trying to protect a valuable location and initiated an attack.
Some of the enemy returned fire and others broke and ran. The two squads killed those remaining and drove many into a bn (battalion) size base camp. The assault continued and the enemy broke into three directions. The reserve squad engaged those that were fleeing in their direction. Due to the canopy thinning out, the base camp was marked with a white phosphorus grenade and TAC air was brought to bear on the enemy soldiers fleeing to the front and the right flank. The enemy who remained in the center of the base camp took up positions in huts which were assaulted and destroyed. The first platoon killed a confirmed 54 enemy in huts, bunkers and spider holes, and the 2nd platoon killed 17 enemy on the left flank. TAC air killed an estimated 25 fleeing enemy soldiers. After the base camp was secured, photographs were taken and many valuable intelligence documents were gathered and all livestock was killed.
The information and documents revealed no evidence that the operation targeted U.S. defectors or that Sarin gas was used at any time.
C. Summaries of Reports Received From the Service Secretaries, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Director, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
1. Report of the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (Tab K)
The review conducted by the Joint Staff included participation from U.S. Pacific Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, and the Defense Intelligence Agency. In addition, all Joint Staff directorates, the Joint Staff Information Management Division, and the Chairmans Legal and Public Affairs offices were consulted. An estimated 350 Joint Staff man-hours were expended conducting this review. The Joint Staff review of current and historical files found no evidence to support allegations that OPERATION TAILWIND was directed against U.S. defectors, or that Sarin gas was used during the operation.
In addition, the Joint History Office interviewed Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, USN (Ret.) and General John W. Vogt, USAF (Ret.), who were the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director, Joint Staff, respectively, during OPERATION TAILWIND. Admiral Moorer said that he "never confirmed anything" to the CNN reporters because he could not remember anything about OPERATION TAILWIND. He reported that he had no knowledge of the use of Sarin or the targeting of defectors, and he felt that April Oliver had asked him "trick" questions. General Vogt said that he had no memory of anything "remotely resembling" the use of Sarin gas or the killing of American defectors. He said that he found the CNN story "absolutely unbelievable" and categorically denied ever having received or issued such instructions. Thus, neither Admiral Moorer nor General Vogt believes that Sarin gas was used during OPERATION TAILWIND or that defectors were targeted or sighted during the operation.
2. Report of the Secretary of the Air Force (Tab H)
The Air Force report addressed the allegation that Air Force A-1 "Skyraider" aircraft dropped Sarin gas during the operation. Approximately 1500 man-hours were expended in conducting the Air Force review. The review included interviews with pilots and other individuals with firsthand knowledge of the operation. Among those interviewed were General Michael Dugan, USAF (Ret.), former Chief of Staff of the Air Force and former A-1 pilot; three A-1 pilots from the 56th Special Operations Wing (SOW) (located at Nakhon Phanom (NKP) Air Base, Thailand) who flew close air support and tear gas sorties on September 14, 1970, in support of OPERATION TAILWIND; three forward air controller (FAC) pilots who flew in support of the operation; and former members of the 56th SOWs munitions maintenance squadron during September 1970. The A-1 pilots and FAC pilots independently confirmed the use of tear gas on OPERATION TAILWIND. One of the A-1 pilots, retired Major Arthur Bishop, made a diary entry that the munitions his plane dropped on September 14, 1970, were CBU-30, tear gas cluster bomb units (CBU).
In addition to interviews, a search for relevant materials was conducted by the Office of the Air Force Historian, Air Force History Support Office, Air Force Historical Research Agency, and Air Force Material Command. The Air Force report concludes that on September 13 and 14, 1970, two A-1s from the 56th SOW dropped CBU-30 CS tear gas munitions in an effort to assist in the extraction of a SOG unit that was under attack in Laos. While the September 13 attempt was aborted because of inclement weather, the September 14 effort succeeded. Based on a review of the Air Forces records, no evidence was found that CBU-15 nerve agent munition (Sarin gas) was deployed to Southeast Asia at any time. Sarin gas was not used by Air Force aircraft during OPERATION TAILWIND.
The Air Force report also clarifies confusion in news accounts about the letter-numeric designations associated with various kinds of tear gas and anti-personnel weapons delivered from aircraft during the Vietnam War in general, and during OPERATION TAILWIND in particular. In brief, tear gas was a riot control agent approved for use in Vietnam by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on January 20, 1968. Tear gas munitions consisted of CBU that were attached to the wings of aircraft and dropped from a relatively low altitude (usually less than 600 feet above ground level) in an effort to incapacitate troops on the ground or to suppress ground fire toward U.S. aircraft.
The actual chemical agent contained in the canisters that comprised the cluster bombs was called CS. In the Air Force, CS had replaced the older, less potent CN tear gas. CN was defined as a "standard tear agent employed by law enforcement agencies", and CS was defined as "an improved agent developed for military use." At the time of OPERATION TAILWIND, CS was the tear agent in use.
Two types of cluster bomb delivery systems were employed at the time of OPERATION TAILWIND. The CBU-19 chemical cluster was a 130-pound Army dispenser intended for use from helicopters. Each dispenser consisted of two subclusters fitted to a strongback. Each subcluster contained 528 CS-filled canisters. CBU-19 gas bombs contained a total of 14 pounds of tear gas. They were infrequently used after 1969 and were not used during OPERATION TAILWIND. The other cluster bomb delivery system, CBU-30, consisted of a downward ejection dispenser and 1,280 submunitions, each filled with CS. The CBU-30 contained a total of 66 pounds of tear gas. It was this system that was used by the A-1 aircraft to drop tear gas on September 14, 1970 in support of OPERATION TAILWIND.
There were two other cluster bomb weapons in the inventory of the 56th SOW at the time of OPERATION TAILWIND: CBU-14 and CBU-25. CBU-14 was designed for use against light materiel targets such as trucks, while CBU-25 was an anti-personnel weapon. Neither was a chemical munition.
In support of the contention that Sarin gas was used during OPERATION TAILWIND, the producers of the CNN story cite an October 8, 1970, letter from General Lucius D. Clay, Jr., Commander of the Seventh Air Force to Colonel Larry M. Killpack, Commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, commending the performance of the men of that wing in the achievements of OPERATION TAILWIND. The letter quotes from a briefing given to General Abrams on the operation and includes a one-page series of excerpts from that briefing as an attachment. Tab Q. The final excerpt notes that "Although not set forth in the formal presentation, comments from men on the ground attest to the accurate and effective delivery of CBU- 5 every time it was brought in. " The space before the number 5 is illegible. If the number that fits in the space is a one (1), the reference to CBU-15 would imply that Sarin gas was used. If the number is a two (2), then the reference CBU-25 means that conventional anti-personnel cluster bombs were used. The CNN producers apparently construed the ordnance designation to be CBU-15.
Comparison of the briefing excerpts attached to the General Clays letter (Tab Q) with the briefing script used by Lieutenant Van Buskirk to brief General Abrams (Tab F) makes clear that the excerpts appended to the Clay letter are taken directly from the Van Buskirk briefing script. For example, the excerpted sentence "The TAC Air was successful on the 1st enemy squad and killed approximately half of the other squad" appears word-for-word on lines 20-22 of page four of the Van Buskirk script, and virtually all the other excerpts are direct quotes from the script as well. Of significance is that the Van Buskirk briefing script contains three references to the use of the conventional anti-personnel munition CBU-25on the next-to-last line on page two; on the fifth line from the bottom of page four; and the seventh line from the top on page five. There is no mention of the use of CBU-15 in the Van Buskirk script. Moreover, the fact that CBU-25 is mentioned three is consistent with the phrase "every time it was brought in." Since General Clay was quoting the briefing script, and since the briefing script mentions CBU-25 three times but does not mention CBU-15 at all, it seems more reasonable to conclude that the illegible digit is "2" rather than a "1" and that the reference was to CBU-25.
Finally, interviews with Air Force munitions maintenance personnel assigned to the 56th SOW during the operation make clear that no Sarin gas (known as GB) (CBU-15) was in the weapons inventory of that unit. Lieutenant Colonel (then Captain) Paul C. Spencer was assigned to the 456th Munitions Maintenance Squadron at the time of OPERATION TAILWIND as assistant maintenance supervisor. At that time he was a graduate of the Technical Escort School at Ft. McClellan, Alabama, where military personnel were trained in the proper procedures for identifying and handling all types of munitions. In addition, in 1969 Lieutenant Colonel Spencer had been assigned to the 400th Munitions Maintenance Squadron on Okinawa, where Sarin gas was stored. He was thus quite familiar with Sarin weapons and stated that he never saw any at NKP. Moreover, at no time during his tenure there did he see any masks, rubber aprons or other protective items either being used or in the storage areas on base. If Sarin gas were present at NKP, he would have been aware of it. "If I saw it, I would have known it," he said.
Lieutenant Colonel Wilfred N. Turcotte commanded the 456th Munitions Maintenance Squadron during OPERATION TAILWIND. He had no knowledge of nerve gas being used anywhere in the theater, not even to test it. As commander of the group that handled the munitions, he would have been notified if Sarin gas was going to be used on a mission. He would have been aware of the presence of nerve gas, and special precautions would have been necessary. He was on the flightline many times, and the only special equipment he could remember his men wearing were earplugs. Munitions crews who loaded the weapons onto the A-1 aircraft often worked "stripped to the waist." He said the 56th Special Operations Wings weapons were conventional, not chemical.
Colonel Donald L. Knight, who took command of the 456th Munitions Maintenance Squadron on September 23, 1970, was also interviewed. He heard nothing about Sarin gas being used by the Wings aircraft in support of any operation. To the best of his knowledge, no nerve agents were at NKP during the time he was stationed there. He indicated that the squadron had "CBU-19As" and "CBU-30As" in its inventory but categorically stated that: "Our A-1s did not have nerve gas bombs."
The Air Force records indicate that Sarin gas was not located at Nahkon Phanom, the airbase in Thailand from which the A-1 aircraft operated. Moreover, Air Force maintenance personnel interviewed who were at that base believe that no Sarin gas was located there during OPERATION TAILWIND.
3. Report of the Secretary of the Army (Tab I)
The Armys review was the most complex and extensive of the Services and was divided into three specific research efforts. In all, the Army expended over 1700 man-hours researching allegations related to OPERATION TAILWIND.
First, a search was made for Army documents within the National Archives Washington National Record Center and within all Army organizations that could be expected to be aware of, or involved in, the alleged use of Sarin gas during OPERATION TAILWIND. This effort included extensive database searches and record reviews from 18 different Army commands and organizations. No documents were found to indicate the Army facilitated or supported in any manner the use of Sarin gas during OPERATION TAILWIND. Four Army organizations reported information pertaining to Sarin gas (the Army Test and Evaluation Command, the Army Materiel Command, the Army Industrial Operations Command, and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal), but none of this information related to OPERATION TAILWIND. Instead, the information related to inventories and data bases about the transportation, transfer and storage of Sarin.
Second, the Armys Center for Military History conducted telephone interviews of six former service members who participated in OPERATION TAILWINDMaster Sergeant Morris N. Adair, Sergeant First Class Denver G. Minton, Sergeant Michael E. Hagen, Sergeant Craig Schmidt, Warrant Officer William D. Watson, and Sergeant David L. Young. None had any knowledge of Sarin gas being used at any time, although Sergeant Hagen and Sergeant Schmidt recalled that the gas used on OPERATION TAILWIND seemed stronger than regular tear gas. Sergeant Schmidt reported that SOG teams were routinely briefed to be on the lookout for Russian advisors to the North Vietnamese, although he saw no Caucasians during OPERATION TAILWIND. Sergeant Hagen was the only person who reported seeing any Caucasians. He claims that when the SOG forces entered the base camp, he saw "a blond haired guy, two Chinese, and at least one Russian." He believes the "blond guy" went down a "spider hole" and was blown up by Lieutenant Van Buskirk.
Third, the Armys Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics tasked the Army Materiel Command (AMC), the command responsible for control of chemical weapons, to answer specific questions about the quantity, form, storage location, and custody of Sarin gas during the requisite period of OPERATION TAILWIND. Because these questions are central to one of the principal allegations regarding the conduct of OPERATION TAILWIND, the results of this review are summarized separately below.
4. The Armys Findings on the Location and Storage of Sarin Gas During the 1970 Time Period
During the time of OPERATION TAILWIND, the Army stored Sarin munitions and bulk at four sites in the continental United StatesEdgewood Arsenal, Maryland; Pine Bluff Arsenal, Arkansas; Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Colorado; and Fort McClellan, Alabama. In addition, Sarin munitions were stored at two overseas locationsone in Clausen, Germany and one on the island of Okinawa. The Sarin was stored in bulk and in various munition forms, such as artillery projectiles, rocket warheads and bombs. All chemical munitions were removed from Okinawa in 1971, prior to the islands reversion to the government of Japan in 1972.
During the time of OPERATION TAILWIND, custody and control of Sarin stored in the United States was managed by AMC. Sarin stored at overseas locations was managed by the Theater Commander. Authority to issue lethal chemical agents like Sarin from storage resided with the Theater Commander, once the National Command Authority (NCA) granted approval. In the case of U.S.-stockpiled Sarin during the time of OPERATION TAILWIND, Army records yield no evidence that lethal chemical agents of any kind, including Sarin, were released for use from any U.S. owned sites during the Vietnam War.
Similarly, there is no record of any action by the NCA that would have permitted the use of Sarin gas during the Vietnam War. Melvin R. Laird, Secretary of Defense from 1969-1973, stated in his interview: "The allegations are ridiculous. I met with Admiral Moorer on a daily basis at about 4:30 to discuss operations in Vietnam. I have no recollection of him ever speaking to me about authorizing the use of Sarin. I would have had to approve such action." Tab M.
5. Memorandum of the Defense Prisoner of War and Missing Personnel Affairs Office (Tab E)
A. American Defectors and Foreign Advisors with the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) Forces in the "OPERATION TAILWIND" Area of Operations
The Defense Prisoner of War and Missing Personnel Affairs Office provided information pertinent to the aspect of the CNN/Time Magazine story that American defectors or Caucasians were sighted in Laos during OPERATION TAILWIND. Only two American servicemen are known to have defected to Communist forces during the Vietnam War -- Private McKinley Nolan, USA, and Private Robert Garwood, USMC. A "defector" is defined as one who has joined the ranks of and lived with the enemy. Available information indicates that neither person was in the area of operations for OPERATION TAILWIND.
Private Nolan was dropped from the rolls and declared a deserter when he failed to return to his unit after he was released from the Long Binh Military Stockade on November 8, 1967. Taking along his common-law Vietnamese-Khmer wife and two children, he defected to the Communist National Liberation Front (NLF). He resided with Communist forces at various locations along both sides of the border between Cambodia and the northern Tay Ninh Province, South Vietnam, until approximately 1973. It is believed that Khmer Rouge forces killed him between 1974-1975.
Private Garwood disappeared from his unit near Danang City, South Vietnam, on September 28, 1965. American survivors of the communist Military Region 5 POW Camp, located in north western Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam, reported that Private Garwood lived with the camp cadre, not with the other POWs. In the autumn of 1969, Private Garwood moved to North Vietnam where he lived until he returned to the United States in 1979 and was court-martialed for collaborating with the enemy.
The CNN broadcast and Time Magazine story raised questions whether Russian or other Soviet-Bloc advisors might have been working with PAVN forces in the OPERATION TAILWIND area of operations and whether the SOG forces might have mistaken them for American defectors. Aside from Sergeant Hagens recollection reported above, the Departments inquiry found no evidence that Russian or other Soviet-Bloc advisors served with the communist PAVN forces in the OPERATION TAILWIND area of operations. Available information about the PAVNs operations suggests that Russian and other Soviet Bloc advisors did not operate in that area. The preponderance of information available from several sources reveals that Soviet military advisors seldom ventured south of the coastal town of Vinh, North Vietnam. Tab E.
B. North Vietnamese Records Concerning Use of Chemical Agents During the Vietnam War
The Defense Prisoner of War and Missing Personnel Affairs Office also reviewed the People's Army of Vietnam's (PAVN) official history of military operations on the Ho Chi Minh Trail; the PAVN's official history of the 968th Volunteer Infantry Division; and, the PAVN's official history of its Chemical Command. Tab E.
Examination of those histories indicated that:
- The official PAVN history of its operations on the Ho Chi Minh Trail makes no mention of the use of any type of chemical weapons by American or allied forces during the war.
- The history of 968th Volunteer Infantry Division, the unit responsible for the defense of the area in which OPERATION TAILWIND took place, does not mention any engagement in September 1970 nor any use of chemical agents by American and allied forces.
- The history of the PAVN Chemical Command mentions American use of only defoliants, incendiary, and CS type chemical weapons in Laos.
- The history of the PAVN Chemical Command describes the PAVN's seizure of American chemical weapons (specifically CS grenades) and equipment (e.g., gas masks) and related documents during Operation Lam Son 719 in early 1971 in Laos as contributing significantly to Hanoi's "political and diplomatic struggle."
Presumably, an event as significant as the use of a lethal chemical weapon like Sarin gas, which could be exploited for propaganda purposes, would have been mentioned in PAVN unit military histories.
6. Report of the Secretary of the Navy (Tab J)
The Marine Corps produced all the information contained in the Department of the Navy (DON) report because no U.S. Navy units were involved in OPERATION TAILWIND. The review required approximately 224 man-hours to complete and entailed an extensive archive search. Information was requested from the offices of the Chief of Naval Operations; Office of Naval Intelligence; Deputy CNO for Plans, Policy and Operations; Deputy CNO for Resources, Warfare Requirements and Assessments; Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet; Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet; Naval Criminal Investigative Service (Counterintelligence Directorate); Navy Judge Advocate General; Naval Special Warfare Command; and the Naval Historical Center. The Marine Corps searched command chronologies, archived documents, and conducted participant interviews.
The DON report shows that Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 16 provided the helicopters and pilots who flew in support of the operation. Specifically, Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 463 supplied five CH-53D helicopters that were used to insert the SOG forces into the Laotian jungle on September 11, 1970. Helicopters from that squadron also participated in the aborted extraction attempt on September 13th and in the successful extraction on September 14th. Over the course of the operation, two CH-53D helicopters were shot down. Various other Marine Corps aircraft also flew in support of the mission. There is no evidence in the Marine Corps records of the use of Sarin gas on OPERATION TAILWIND, or that defectors were targeted or encountered during the operation.
A CH-53 pilot and an AH-1G pilot who flew helicopters in support of the operation independently submitted statements recalling that tear gas was used. Neither recalled the mention in any briefings of any gas other than CS. Both recalled an extremely heavy volume of enemy fire directed at their aircraft during the extraction of SOG forces at the end of the mission. One pilot, quoting a friend, said "If there was nerve gas used, it sure wasnt very effective because somebody down there was shooting and hitting us." The other pilot echoed this sentiment: "Finally, in spite of the reported lethality of the chemical agent allegedly used, the enemy was somehow able to overcome this and was still able to shoot down the last helicopter exiting the zone." Thus, these recollections are inconsistent with the use of Sarin gas.
7. Report of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (Tab L)
At the request of the Department of Defense, the CIA conducted a search for information related to OPERATION TAILWIND. The CIAs review involved several aspects. The operational and analytical directorates searched their automated systems. The CIA history staff and the Office of the Director of Central Intelligence also conducted record searches. Interviews were conducted with several former CIA and government officials familiar with U.S. activities in Laos during the Vietnam War.
In the course of these searches, a number of CIA documents were identified which contained references to OPERATION TAILWIND, but there was no evidence from these documents that Sarin gas was used during the operation or that American deserters were targeted or encountered as a part of the operation. Information from the CIA describes OPERATION TAILWIND as exclusively a military operation, the purposes of which were reconnaissance, monitoring and exploitation activities in Communist-held areas of Laos.
8. Defectors and OPERATION TAILWIND
Interviews conducted by the Army and the USD (P&R) show that only Lieutenant Van Buskirk and Sergeant Hagen claim to have seen other than enemy combatant personnel at the base camp intercepted by SOG forces during OPERATION TAILWIND. First, the after action briefing script used by Lieutenant Van Buskirk to brief General Abrams, the MACV commander (Tab F), does not include any statements about the sighting or killing of Caucasians, Russian advisors, or anyone other than the enemy. That briefing script includes the specific statement "The information I have just presented was obtained by a complete interrogation of every US and SCU (special commando unit, i.e., the Montagnards) member of the company immediately upon return to CCC (command and control central)." If defectors or Russian advisors had been encountered during the mission, it seems likely that this fact would have been mentioned in the debrief after the mission and presented in the briefing.
A second consideration calling into question Lieutenant Van Buskirk and Sergeant Hagens version of events is that, in other interviews of six OPERATION TAILWIND participants who were on the ground, no one recounts having targeted or seen defectors as a part of the mission. In fact, one of those participants, Sergeant David L. Young, has a specific recollection to the contrary. Instead of Lieutenant Van Buskirk chasing a "blond-haired guy" down a spider hole, Sergeant Youngs written statement to the Army says: "The story as related by Lieutenant Van Buskirk later than afternoon back in Kontum (i.e., after the operation was over) was that the FAC was calling for the camp to be marked. Lieutenant Van Buskirk chased two NVA soldiers into a hole, when they refused to surrender he dropped a W.P. (white phosphorus) grenade into the hole." Tab C; Tab I.
Third, documentary evidence does not appear to support what Lieutenant Van Buskirk and Sergeant Hagen allege. In addition to the Lieutenant Van Buskirk briefing script referenced above, no other documents were located by this inquiry which mention any defectors in connection with OPERATION TAILWIND. Lieutenant Van Buskirks 1983 book, which in part describes OPERATION TAILWIND, fails to mention encountering blond-haired defectors or Russians, or the use of Sarin gas. Moreover, available unit histories from the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) (Tab E) as discussed previously, do not include evidence of defectors or Russian advisors operating in Laos. There is simply no documentary evidence to substantiate the claim that defectors were sighted during the operation.
Finally, press accounts of interviews of both Lieutenant Van Buskirk and Sergeant Hagen disclose inconsistencies in their stories. For example, Lieutenant Van Buskirk is quoted in a June 7, 1998 Associated Press story as saying that soldiers saw more than a dozen Americans they believed to be defectors. Tab R. In the actual CNN story that prompted this inquiry, 1/Lt Van Buskirk is quoted as saying he saw but two Caucasians. Tab A. Similarly, Sergeant Hagen told the Army for this inquiry that he had seen "a blond-haired guy, two Chinese, and at least one Russian." However, the June 22, 1998 edition of Newsweek Magazine quotes Hagen as saying he saw "a blond guy from a distance." The story contains no reference to any Chinese or Russians. Tab S.
Taken together, the comprehensive reviews conducted provide an extensive record of documents and personal recollections about the events comprising OPERATION TAILWIND. This record reveals no evidence that the operation was directed in any manner toward military defectors, nor was any evidence found that Sarin gas was used during the operation at any time.
From the extensive record gathered in these reviews, the Department of Defense concludes that OPERATION TAILWIND 1) was conducted for the stated military purposes; 2) was conducted in accordance with Law of War, Rules of Engagement, and United States policies in force at the time; 3) did not target American defectors; and 4) did not employ Sarin gas.