Did The U.S. Drop Nerve Gas?
A CNN investigation charges that the U.S. used gas in 1970 to save troops sent into Laos to kill defectors
By APRIL OLIVER AND PETER ARNETT
September 1970. Sixty miles inside Laos, where it was not officially supposed to be, a battered and exhausted U.S. Special Forces commando unit was in very deep trouble. Nearly every one of the Americans and many of the Montagnard mercenaries fighting with them had been wounded. They had just wiped out a village base camp, killing about 100 people that included not only women and children but also what some believed to be a group of American G.I.s who had defected to the enemy. Now their unit was under assault by a superior force of North Vietnamese and communist Pathet Lao soldiers.
The enemy troops had appeared suddenly on a nearby ridge, and were about to cut off the Americans as they tried to reach a rice paddy where rescue helicopters would land to fly them out of officially neutral Laos, back to their base in Vietnam. "The enemy was coming at us. We were out of ammo," recalls platoon leader Robert Van Buskirk, then a 26-year-old lieutenant. His only recourse was to call for help from the air. He radioed an Air Force controller above to call in two waiting A-1 Skyraiders to drop the "bad of the bad."
Within seconds, the Skyraiders swooped over the advancing enemy and dropped gas canisters, scoring a direct hit. The G.I.s heard the canisters exploding and saw a wet fog envelop the Vietnamese soldiers as they dropped to the ground, vomiting and convulsing. As the rescue choppers lifted his unit off, Van Buskirk manned a machine gun, scanning the elephant grass for targets, but there were none. "All I see is bodies," he recalls. "They are not fighting anymore. They are just lying, some on their sides, some on their backs. They are no longer combatants."
Now, after an eight-month investigation, military officials with knowledge of the mission assert to NewsStand: CNN & TIME that the gas dropped 28 years ago in Laos was nerve gas, specifically sarin, the lethal agent used in the 1995 terrorist attack in a Tokyo subway that killed a dozen people. Although the nerve gas, called GB by the military, had been in the U.S. arsenal for years and the U.S. had not yet ratified the Geneva Protocol banning its use, the policy of the Nixon Administration was "no first use" of lethal nerve gas in combat.
A Pentagon official has told NewsStand: CNN & TIME that the Army "has found no documentary evidence to support CNN's claims that nerve gas of any type was used on Operation Tailwind." But Admiral Thomas Moorer, U.S.N. (ret.), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1970, and other top military officials have confirmed the use of sarin in the Laotian operation and in other missions to rescue downed U.S. airmen during the Vietnam War. Moorer argues the use of the gas was justified under the circumstances. Says he: "I would be willing to use any weapon and any tactic to save the lives of American soldiers."
In addition to using the nerve gas to extract the Americans after their raid, though, veteran Special Forces officers claim to NewsStand: CNN & TIME that sarin was also used the night before the assault to "prepare" the village for the attack the next morning. This would indicate that civilians as well as combatants were victims of poison gas.
Just as surprising as the use of the gas is the reason for the raid: the targeted village was believed to be harboring a large group of American G.I.s who had defected to the enemy. The Special Forces unit's job was to kill them.
Based in Kontum, South Vietnam, the men involved in Operation Tailwind were known as a SOG team, standing innocuously for Studies and Observations Group. Officially, SOG units didn't exist, but they were America's fiercest warriors, conducting classified "black operations" with unconventional weapons and unusual targets. They did little studying and a lot of fighting. According to SOG veterans, they had no rules of engagement: anything was permissible as long as it was deniable. Their motto, according to Van Buskirk: "Kill them all, and let God sort it out."
During its preraid briefing at Kontum, the SOG "hatchet force" was told to kill anyone it encountered. "My orders were, if it's alive, if it breathes oxygen, if it urinates, if it defecates, kill it," says Van Buskirk. In keeping with the compartmentalization of information necessary to protect top-secret missions, only a few of the SOG officers knew the precise target. And very few knew the exact type of gas available for their mission, although the unit was promised anything in the non-nuclear U.S. arsenal it might need to complete the mission. The commandos understood there was an agent commonly known as "sleeping gas" available for last-resort situations; they were aware that the gas caused respiratory distress, sudden vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions and often death. The unit leaders were advised to equip their soldiers with bulky but effective M-17 gas masks before the raid.
Several days before the operation began, a small reconnaissance force was dropped into a lush Laotian valley near the town of Chavan. As Jay Graves, a SOG recon-team leader, put it, "We went in, snooped and pooped, moved around." Through a special field telescope, Graves' men spotted the prize--several "roundeyes," Americans, in the village. That report was radioed back, and the recon team was told to "groundhog"--remain silent and in hiding until the hatchet force arrived. The sighting of defectors is confirmed today by Air Force "rat-pack" commando Jim Cathey. "I believed that these were American defectors," he says, "because there was no sign of any restraint. They walked around as though they were a part of the bunch."
On Sept. 11 the 16 SOG-team members and about 140 Montagnard tribesmen, who had been hired to fight the communists, were loaded aboard four big Marine helicopters at Dak To, near the border with Laos. The sight of the assault force, which included 12 Cobra helicopter gunships and two backup Marine choppers, alerted Jack Tucker, one of the Marine pilots, that trouble lay ahead. "I saw them walking across the tarmac, loaded down with those grenade clips," he says. "And there were these little bitty Montagnards humping so much stuff. I just went 'Oh, man' and knew we were in for some real deep s___." Tucker and the other pilots had also been equipped with special gas masks to protect against chemical warfare.
As soon as the helicopters approached the landing zone near Chavan, they came under heavy fire. "It was a hairy situation from the time we got there, " recalls Jimmy Lucas, a squad leader. "Ground fire on insertion is something you are not supposed to get." The SOG team hit the ground several miles from the targeted base camp and spent the next three days fighting its way toward it. "I feel like in them three days I just cheated death," says Lucas. "We never expected to come out. I didn't."
On the third night the commandos hunkered down near the village as the Air Force A-1s "prepped" the target. In the morning the SOG forces attacked. Van Buskirk's platoon led the charge. "I went hi diddle diddle, right up the middle. I was on the offensive," he says. Tossing grenades into the hootches in the village and spraying machine-gun fire ahead, the assault force met little resistance. "It was minimal, nothing like you would expect for the amount of people there," says Craig Schmidt, a fighter in Van Buskirk's platoon. "It was very unusual, kind of eerie."
Suddenly Van Buskirk spotted two "longshadows," a name for taller Caucasians. One was sliding down a "spider hole" into the underground-tunnel system beneath the camp. The other was running toward it. "Early 20s. Blond hair. Looks like he was running off a beach in California," remembers Van Buskirk. "Needs a haircut. This is a G.I. Boots on. Not a prisoner. No shackles. Nothing." The lieutenant gave chase but just missed the blond man as he slipped into the tunnel. He shouted down the hole, identifying himself and offering to take the man home. "F___ you," came the reply. "No, it's f___ you," answered Van Buskirk as he dropped in a white phosphorus grenade, presumably killing both longshadows.
The village raid lasted no more than 10 minutes. The body count, according to Captain Eugene McCarley, the officer in charge, was "upwards of 100." Sergeant Mike Hagen says "the majority of the people there were not combat personnel. The few infantry people they had we overran immediately. We basically destroyed everything there." 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. Says Van Buskirk: "A dozen, 15, maybe 20." But the SOG team says no bodies were identified or recovered.
With the camp destroyed, spotter planes overhead ordered the SOG unit to the rice paddy where the rescue helicopters would land. As the enemy closed in, the commandos were told to don their "funny faces," the M-17 gas masks. Then came the explosions of the gas canisters. "To me it was more of a very, very light, light fog. It was tasteless, odorless, you could barely see it, " recalls Hagen.
The gas spread toward the Americans even though the downwash of the chopper blades was pushing it away. Some of the gas masks had been damaged in the four-day battle, some had been discarded, and some were too big for the diminutive Montagnards. "Everything got sticky," says squad leader Craig Schmidt. "We turned our sleeves down to cover ourselves as much as possible. It doesn't surprise me in the slightest bit that it was nerve gas. It worked too well." Some of the Americans began vomiting violently. Today Hagen suffers from creeping paralysis in his extremities, which his doctor diagnoses as nerve-gas damage. "Nerve gas," says Hagen, "the government don't want it called that. They want to call it incapacitating agent or some other form. But it was nerve gas."
As many as 60 of the Montagnards died in Operation Tailwind, but all 16 Americans got out alive, although every one of them suffered some wounds. Van Buskirk and McCarley earned the Silver Star for valor. Van Buskirk personally briefed General Creighton Abrams, the top U.S. commander in Vietnam, on the mission. But when the lieutenant wrote his after-action report, a superior officer, now deceased, advised him to delete the part about dropping the white phosphorus grenade--a "willy pete," in Army lingo--on the American defectors in the tunnel.
Confirming the use of sarin, Moorer says the gas was "by and large available" for high-risk search-and-rescue missions. Sources contacted by NewsStand: CNN & TIME report that GB was employed in more than 20 missions to rescue downed pilots in Laos and North Vietnam. Concludes Moorer: "This is a much bigger operation than you realize."
Melvin Laird, Secretary of Defense at the time of Operation Tailwind, says he has no specific recollection of GB being used, but adds, "I do not dispute what Admiral Moorer has to say on this matter." And the admiral points out that any use of nerve gas would have had approval from the Nixon national-security team in Washington. Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser at the time, declined to comment.
As for the defectors and the policy of killing them, Major General John Singlaub, U.S.A. (ret.), a former SOG commander, confirms what was the unwritten SOG doctrine in effect at the time: "It may be more important to your survival to kill the defector than to kill the Vietnamese or Russian." The defectors' knowledge of U.S. communications and tactics "can be damaging," he explains.
"There were more defectors than people realize," says a SOG veteran at Fort Bragg. No definitive number of Americans who went over to the enemy is available, but Moorer indicated there were scores. Another SOG veteran put the number at close to 300. The Pentagon told NewsStand: CNN & TIME that there were only two known military defectors during the Vietnam War.
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