A helicopter gunner got a bird’s-eye view of the top-secret Operation Tailwind in Laos, but it almost cost him his life—three times in four days.

 

Marine Sgt. Larry Groah, a door gunner on big transport helicopters, had just returned from a secret mission in September 1970 when he was summoned to the intelligence officer’s desk and handed a piece of paper to read and sign. The 23-year-old sergeant was told that if he ever discussed the mission he would go to prison for 10 years and pay a heavy fine.

The covert mission, called Operation Tailwind, was conducted in Laos by Marine helicopter squadrons, Air Force planes, U.S. Army Special Forces troops and militiamen from nearby Montagnard tribes, an ethnic minority in South Vietnam. Largely unknown for decades, the operation gained notoriety in a June 1998 CNN/Time magazine report that incorrectly asserted the use of an outlawed nerve gas by U.S. troops during Tailwind (see Page 36). After the CNN report aired, the mission was declassified. Groah and others could tell their stories.

Groah was a structural mechanic, or as he called it, a “metal bender,” in Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463, stationed at the Marble Mountain Air Facility near Da Nang. HMH-463 flew many types of missions, including resupply, troop insertion/extraction and ferrying USO shows to units in the field. Groah was a door gunner on a CH-53 Sea Stallion, the largest helicopter in the Marines’ inventory.

In early September 1970, Groah’s squadron received a “warning order,” a heads-up to get ready for Mission 72, the code for any Marine air mission into Laos. This particular mission’s code name was Operation Tailwind, a ground offensive led by U.S. Army Special Forces with support from five Sea Stallions in HMH-463 and four AH-1G Cobras in a Marine light attack helicopter squadron, HML-367. The Green Berets were based at Kontum, a town in South Vietnam’s mountainous Central Highlands along the border with Laos and Cambodia.

On the afternoon of Sept. 7, Groah’s squadron got the word to “turn and burn,” for a flight to Kontum. The Marines spent the night there, and after morning chow, enlisted crewmen headed for their birds and ran preflight checks, while officers received a mission briefing.

The helos would be carrying 16 U.S. Special Forces troops and more than 100 Montagnards organized into a “Hatchet Force”— commando units of well-trained local militiamen directed by Green Berets on secret missions into enemy territory, where they conducted raids, destroyed supplies and otherwise harassed the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. Hatchet Forces frequently went into Cambodia and Laos, officially neutral countries that U.S. combat troops were not allowed to enter, even though the NVA had established operations in both places to support communist fighters in South Vietnam.

The Tailwind plan called for helicopters in Groah’s squadron to drop the Green Berets and Montagnards at a landing zone near Chavane, about 60 miles inside Laos. The helo crew was told to expect heavy enemy fire—and the possibility of many casualties.

Operation Tailwind was a response to another U.S.-backed action in Laos, the CIA’s Operation Gauntlet. In Gauntlet, which began Sept. 3, CIA operatives provided arms and other assistance to guerrilla units from Laos’ Hmong mountain tribes who were fighting the NVA for control of key terrain in the southern part of the country. But the CIA’s operation was struggling against tough NVA forces, and the U.S. military was called in to help.

Tailwind’s Hatchet Force, landing just south of the CIA units, would attack NVA troops in the area, forcing the North Vietnamese to divert soldiers away from the fight with the CIA operation. The Hatchet Force’s mission also included destroying ammunition stockpiles and gathering documents and other intelligence that could be used against the enemy.

After the helos took off from Kontum on Sept. 8, they flew north to the operation’s staging area at an Army airfield in Dak To. They waited for the green light to go into Laos but were told that bad weather at the drop zone was holding up the Hatchet Force mission.

As the Marines hung around their helos, a group of children appeared seemingly out of nowhere. They had no idea where these kids came from, since the Marines were in no man’s land. Groah and his crew opened a few boxes of C-rations and handed out candy bars. Suddenly, the children left as fast as they had arrived—which should have been a clue that something was up.

Groah, hoping to take a nap, lay down on the troop seat of his helicopter, using his flak jacket as a pillow. He was just about to fall asleep when an explosion jolted him. He jumped up and saw a huge white cloud of smoke, not far from the Marine helos. Groah was running with his M16 rifle, looking for cover, when he realized he had forgotten his bandolier of extra ammo. He ran back inside the helo to get it. As Groah came out, he saw one of his men trying to take cover underneath another helo.

“Don’t get under there,” Groah shouted. “The NVA is trying to hit our chopper!”

The Marines were in the open, with no place to seek cover. Groah saw a few men bunched around a tree and yelled for them to spread out. He jumped into an old crater near the tree line, hunkered down and counted five rockets pass over his head. Groah recalled what his father had said about his experience in World War II: “Son, it’s the one you don’t hear that gets you.”

The Marines were lucky that no one was wounded or killed, but an Army Cobra parked on the airstrip had taken a hit, and its ammo began “cooking off,” sending everyone scrambling for cover. The green light for the Tailwind mission didn’t come that day, and the Marines flew back to Marble Mountain.

They planned to try again on Sept. 11. Groah was the left door gunner on the search and rescue bird, YH-20, nicknamed Bits and Pieces by crew chief Sgt. Lonny Spalding. Also aboard were pilot 1st Lt. Will Jones, co-pilot 1st Lt. Raul Bustamante, right door gunner Sgt. Ron Whitmer and Capt. Henry Cipolla, the assistant squadron maintenance officer, who wanted to go on the flight and assisted in spotting enemy positions.

The YH-20 crew was the rescue team for aircrews whose helos crashed from enemy fire or mechanical failure. In a rescue operation, the crew would roll out a 120-foot aluminum ladder attached to YH-20’s rear ramp, and troops on the ground would hook up their harnesses’s “D” rings so they could be pulled to safety, hanging below the helicopter like a kite’s tail. Practicing before the mission, the pilots hovered at 100 feet while the crew rolled the ladder out. Then they climbed an additional 50 feet and gently came down to simulate bringing the attached troops to the ground.

At about 8 a.m. on Sept. 11, the helo officers were briefed by Marine Lt. Col. Harry Sexton, commanding officer of the Cobra squadron, which had chosen the menacing “Scarface” as its call sign. About 11:55 a.m. the Marines got the green light to “deliver the package.”

The helicopters left Dak To and headed for the landing zone 60 miles inside Laos. The site, however, was only large enough for one CH-53 at a time. That meant a longer landing period—giving enemy gunners plenty of time to target disembarking troops.

The Cobras prepped the landing zone with a huge volume of fire to suppress enemy forces before the Marine copters came in to drop off the Hatchet Force. Even so, the helos approaching the landing zone one by one were under constant attack.

The co-pilot of the lead aircraft, 1st Lt. Bill Beardall, recalled, “As we made the approach to the LZ, the enemy fire really got intense and I could tell the aircraft were being hit, and later we counted 50 hits in the nine Marine aircraft taking part in this mission.”

After the insertion of the Hatchet Force, the Marines flew back to Kontum for a debriefing. Whitmer and Groah repaired as much battle damage as they could, ensuring that all aircraft were ready to fly again. The Marines then returned to Marble Mountain and were placed on a one-hour standby.

Late in the afternoon of the following day, Sept. 12, the Marines got word that the Hatchet Force soldiers were in trouble and needed to be rescued. The helicopters headed to Kontum.

In a briefing about 7 a.m. on Sept. 13, the helicopter pilots at Kontum were told that the ground troops had engaged a large force at an enemy base camp and suffered numerous casualties in need of a medevac. But once again, bad weather put the Marines on standby. At about 10:45 a.m., the pilots learned that the mission was a “Go.” They flew to Dak To, refueled and departed for the extraction site.

Groah was again on the search and rescue helo, YH-20. He manned the left gun, and Whitmer was on the right gun. The pilot was 1st Lt. Mark McKenzie, and Bustamante was co-pilot. Just before the helo taxied out of Kontum, Cipolla, the maintenance officer, jumped aboard, saying he didn’t want to miss the action.

After arriving at the Hatchet Force pickup site, the Marine helos circled in their marshaling area, while an Air Force OV-10 Bronco observation plane marked the extraction site with smoke. At 4,000 feet the Bronco pilot realized that the landing zone was small, considering the CH-53’s hefty size. Even so, Sexton, the Cobra flight leader, guided the Marine helos to the clearing. The aircrews had been briefed that CS gas (tear gas) would be used on enemy troops during the extraction and had their protective masks ready.

The first Marine copter, YH-14, was piloted by the squadron executive officer, Maj. J. Carol (first name not available), with Beardall as the co-pilot. The enlisted crew consisted of Sgt. Henderson (first name not available), Sgt. George Follin and Cpl. Mario Quesada. Also aboard were Army Col. John Sadler, commanding officer of the Special Forces unit, and Army medics.

As the lead helo started to make its approach to the landing zone, co-pilot Beardall later recalled, “it was going to be close, and my gas mask restricted my view.” Carol found the zone too constricting and attempted to pull out, but the blades struck a tree, and small-arms fire hit the helo from all directions. Before Carol could gain altitude, NVA troops fired two B-40 rockets through the belly of the bird, cutting the fuel and hydraulic lines.

Follin yelled for the pilot to get the helo down, and Beardall radioed, “Mayday! Mayday! We’re going in.”

Groah’s rescue bird flew into action, and Sexton returned to the marshaling area to lead the helo to the crash site. When pilot McKenzie heard the distress call, he ordered the crew to “don gas masks.” Groah put on his aviation gas mask and hooked up to the intercom system cord. But just seconds later, McKenzie’s gas mask malfunctioned, and Groah was ordered to give his mask to the pilot, so he had to put on an old M17 gas mask with no intercom capabilities. Although Groah had cleared and checked the mask at least a hundred times, he dreaded “barfing” in it. More worrisome, he had no communications with the rest of the crew.

His heart was racing, but Groah and his M60 machine gun were ready for the enemy. As his helo descended to the crash site, Groah put his finger on the trigger and could see that the area was surrounded by smoke laid down by the Scarface Cobras, along with fire from their rockets and 40 mm grenade launchers to protect the downed helo’s crew.

When Groah’s chopper went into a hover about 25 yards from the men on the ground, he heard “Bam! Bam! Bam!” as his side of the aircraft was hit with fire from an NVA .51-caliber anti-aircraft gun—its muzzle flashes huge, its rounds seemingly the size of basketballs. Groah squeezed the M60’s trigger and didn’t let up until he silenced the gun’s crew. As his bird started bouncing around, he knew it had taken bad hits.

Inside the cockpit, the pilots were fighting to keep YH-20 in the air. Meanwhile, Whitmer was working his M60 on the right side of aircraft, as the Cobras laid down more protective fire. Cipolla and Spalding threw down the ladder for the crashed copter’s crewmen. All of them hooked up to it and were lifted out of the landing zone. The rescue took only minutes, but to Groah it seemed like a lifetime—everything moved as if in slow motion.

As Groah’s battle-damaged helo left the pickup site, it was bouncing all over the sky. The crewmen didn’t know the extent of the damage, but the main rotor blades were making a noise that sounded like someone was pounding a drum, indicating that something was terribly wrong.

Now worried about making it back safely, the crew certainly did not want to go down with rescued men still attached to the ladder. McKenzie radioed Cobra commander Sexton, advising the colonel that he needed to set down, check the damage and let men off the ladder. The copters flew away from the pickup site for about 10 minutes, and then the Cobras prepped a clearing. McKenzie went into a low hover so the men could get off the ladder. They were picked up by another Marine copter. Spalding gave his shot-up helo a quick visual check and determined that it could make the flight to Dak To.

The helo’s return was greeted with cheering, high-fives and a lot of smiling faces. Now safely on the ground, the crew realized just how serious the damage was. Numerous rounds had cut hydraulic lines to the tail rotor, and one .51-caliber round nearly cut in half the chopper’s tail rotor drive shaft. Groah’s crew had been extremely lucky.

Groah and Whitmer spent the rest of the day repairing what damage they could, while waiting for two helos from Marble Mountain to bring needed parts and another helo to replace the downed YH-14. That copter was destroyed at the crash site by an Air Force AD-1 Skyraider, armed with bombs and machine guns, to prevent the enemy from taking usable parts, onboard weapons and secret radio equipment.

After the crash of the Marine transport copter, the planned medical evacuation of Sept. 13 was canceled.

The miserable weather had now become a major factor in the retrieval of the Hatchet Force as a powerful tropical storm moved into the airspace above the pickup site. Sept. 14 would be the last chance to get the Hatchet Force out of Laos. Another problem: The Special Forces and Montagnard troops were low on ammo and risked being overpowered by the advancing NVA.

A “forward air controller,” in an Air Force OV-10 Bronco watching enemy movements on the battlefield, told the ground force commander, Green Beret Capt. Eugene McCarley, that Skyraiders were on the way to drop tear gas on the enemy soldiers. “He could see the NVA massing.” McCarley told Defense Department investigators reviewing Operation Tailwind after the CNN broadcast. “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.”

Weather conditions were still poor, but the Marine aircrews couldn’t wait for a break in clouds. They had to get the Hatchet Force out now. Five CH-53 helos were ready to go—four to haul out the ground troops and one to serve as a rescue copter.

Groah was not assigned to the extraction mission. His bird was out of commission, and he was busy repairing the battle damage when a staff sergeant approached. The man was scheduled to return to the States in a few days and asked if Groah would take his seat on the mission. Groah agreed and became the left door gunner on the lead helo, YH-16. He had his own machine guns installed in the aircraft.

The five Sea Stallions, their crews wearing gas masks, took off from Dak To and headed for the planned extraction site in Laos. But the landing was a “no go” because of the large NVA forces pursuing the soldiers below. The helos waited as the ground forces moved to an alternate pickup site.

Squadron commander Lt. Col. Robert Leisy, on Groah’s helo, gave the order to “go in hot,” laying down suppressive fire. Approaching the pickup site, the crew saw Green Berets and Montagnards assembled at a small clearing in groups of 45 to 50, waiting to board once the copters landed.

Meanwhile, the NVA troops were rushing to get there first. Groah began firing at them, and Sgt. Carl Meng, the right door gunner, expended all of his M60 ammo silencing enemy gun positions.

As YH-16 landed and lowered its ramp, troops ran aboard. Although the helicopter was constantly taking hits, it stayed long enough to load up. Designed to transport 37 troops, the Sea Stallion now had 55 Montagnards onboard.

Groah was out of ammo, but two Montagnards handed him their AR-15 rifles. He used them to protect the helicopter and the troops inside as the copter climbed beyond the range of the enemy’s small arms.

The last of the Special Forces men and Montagnards were picked up by YH-18, with pilot 1st Lt. Don Persky and co-pilot 1st Lt. Bill Battey at the controls. Shortly after liftoff under enemy fire, they lost one engine and, while trying to gain altitude, lost the other engine.

Despite the complete loss of power, the two expert pilots maneuvered the helo into a hard, but safe, landing. All of the 40 Hatchet Force members and five crewmen onboard survived and were retrieved by the rescue helicopter, YH-04, helmed by pilot 1st Lt. Albert Arnold and co-pilot 1st Lt. Jack Tucker.

Sea Stallion squadron HMH-463 returned to Marble Mountain in the early evening of Sept. 14. Two Marines had been wounded. One was shot in the calf by friendly fire at Dak To. The other was struck in the neck during the extraction operation and transported to the Army hospital at Pleiku.

During the Operation Tailwind fighting on the ground, all 16 Green Berets and 33 Montagnards were wounded. Three Montgnards were killed. The Hatchet Force destroyed a substantial amount of enemy material. Additionally, the unit seized a large cache of documents that experts in Saigon said was the best intelligence information of the war. The Tailwind diversion also enabled the CIA operation to push the NVA off a strategic plateau by the end of September 1970.

Leroy B. Vaughn served in the Marines from 1965 to 1969. He and Larry Groah trained together at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego in 1965. After Groah read an article that Vaughn wrote for Leatherneck magazine in 2015, the two men reconnected, and Groah told Vaughn the story of Operation Tailwind.

This article appeared in Vietnam magazine’s October 2019 issue.