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Nakhon Phanom During The Secret War 1962-1975

Operation Tailwind

 Valley of Death


JULY 21, 1998

Seal of the Department of Defense


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.

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.

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.

U.S. Air Force 56th Special Operations Wing Nakhon Phanom

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 SOW’s 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 Force’s 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 Clay’s 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-25—on 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 Wing’s 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 Wing’s 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.

Full Report:  http://www.fas.org/irp/news/1998/07/980721-tailwind.htm

56th Security Police Sq

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