"A Journalistic Felony in a Class by Itself" --- Dorothy Rabinowitz

A Battle for Truth
CNN has irresponsibly maligned the brave Special Forces members of Operation Tailwind.
By Tom Stump

Philadelphia Inquirer Opinion, July 9, 1998

Sept. 14, 1970, dawned wet and overcast in Southern Laos. Sixteen Special Forces troops with their Montagnard allies were beginning their fourth and final day deep in enemy territory. Code-named Operation Tailwind, their mission was to attract enemy attention to relieve another besieged allied force.

A recent CNN report has seriously misrepresented this incident. Although CNN has apologized for "serious faults" in its story, I feel obliged to tell what I saw.

By every measure, the Special Forces group had successfully completed its mission. It had destroyed a large cache of ammunition, captured enemy documents that would prove invaluable in saving American lives, and engaged the enemy each day, redirecting its fire and saving the other allied team.

Now, the group was under heavy enemy attack. All the Americans were wounded, running low on ammunition and about to be overrun. They were almost surrounded by a better armed and numerically superior enemy.

I was the pilot of an A-1 Skyraider flying close air support for the rescue of this team. When I arrived, the team leader reported many casualties; his team was taking mortar, rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms fire. The group was trying to advance to the landing zone for rescue but was pinned down by enemy fire.

The ground fire was intense. We helped suppress several enemy positions, and the team was able to move to the landing zone for helicopter evacuation. There, two A-1's were called to drop tear gas to disrupt ground fire and provide a diversionary action to allow the helicopters to land.

Because the enemy troops were so near, the team being rescued also received a large dose of the tear gas. There was heavy coughing because many of the team either did not have gas masks or were too wounded to wear them.

Clearly, if -- as CNN originally reported -- the gas dropped had been a deadly nerve gas, many of the Special Forces team, especially those in front, would have been gravely and perhaps fatally affected.

Later, as Cobra gunships escorted the helicopters in for the rescue, I flew missions to suppress fire from enemy antiaircraft guns on a ridge above the landing zone. Team leader Eugene McCarley was on the radio directing fire throughout most of the mission, even though wounded, about to be overrun, and suffering from tear-gas inhalation. Enemy resistance remained high throughout the operation.

The helicopter that brought out McCarley and many of his team was shot down. They had to be rescued a second time by a helicopter held in reserve. Three Montagnards were killed, and all 16 Americans were wounded.

As to the allegations reported by CNN, there were no women, children or any other noncombatants on that battlefield. There were, however, many regular North Vietnamese soldiers, well trained and armed with the latest and best weapons the Chinese and Russians could manufacture.

And there was no deadly sarin nerve gas. Had there been, 16 brave Americans would now be memorialized on a wall in Washington with their bones resting on foreign soil.

CNN contacted a number of pilots and ground troops involved in Tailwind. Although some interviewees said they believed that nerve gas had been used, many told the CNN reporters repeatedly that the mission had not involved killing defectors; that no sarin gas had been dropped; and that no noncombatants had been killed or even encountered. Art Bishop, one of the A-1 pilots carrying the tear gas, has told me that he told CNN reporter Peter Arnett directly that sarin gas had not been dropped.

Despite these accounts, CNN presented a sensationalized story supported largely by the accounts of only one man, Lt. Robert Van Buskirk, who said he had repressed memories of the episode for many years. CNN's original report did not mention the repressed memory.

The damage that this story has caused to the people involved in this operation is irreparable. McCarley and the other Special Forces troops on that mission risked their lives on incredibly dangerous assignments. They were so effective that they drew the engagement of literally tens of thousands of enemy troops.

Their actions were clandestine, as they had to be. Consequently, the American public heard little about their deeds. It's sad and ironic that CNN has chosen to single out this particular group for such a piece of journalism.

Tom Stump was awarded the U.S. Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross for "heroism while participating in aerial flight" during Operation Tailwind.


Retired Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, CNN's military analyst since the Persian Gulf War, has resigned to protest the network's airing of allegations that U.S. troops used nerve gas against American defectors in Laos in 1970.... "I can't work for an organization that would do something like this and not fess up to it," Smith said yesterday. -- Reported by Howard Kurtz