Retraction Appended: July 13, 1998
After the publication of this article and the broadcast of a CNN program on NewsStand: CNN & TIME provoked strong denials, both news organizations launched their own separate investigations. Each concluded that the allegations that sarin nerve gas was used by U.S. forces in a secret operation in Laos, known as Tailwind, and that U.S. defectors were intentionally killed were not supported by the evidence. You can read the full apology note in TIME here.
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.