Vietnam Veterans of America
VVA’s Mike Rose:
By the summer of 2016 it seemed that, finally, Gary Michael Rose would get his due, the Medal of Honor. Rose had been doubly, perhaps triply, victimized: Once by the rules of engagement in the Vietnam War—Rose became a hero in Laos, where Americans were not supposed to be. Then by time—the 1970 events lie far beyond the statutory three-year window between act and recommendation that applies to the award. The third victimization is that the operation Rose participated in became controversial in 1998.
President Obama encouraged the Department of Defense to go over old cases to review the levels of valor medals. Veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars have benefited from this effort. In January 2016, following a year-long review, the Pentagon announced new practices for awarding the Medal of Honor.
Gary M. Rose, a 69-year-old Army Special Forces veteran who retired after twenty years of service, is one of the beneficiaries. His award of the Medal of Honor was included as a personal privilege amendment in the Defense Authorization Act (P.L.114-328). On October 23 President Trump presented the highest military award for valor to Rose at a White House ceremony.
A hero in Laos made for an especially bad headache. The Geneva Agreement of 1962 neutralized that country, so the United States denied that American troops were fighting in Laos. Beginning in 1964, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) frequently sent forays into Laos by special operations troops of the Studies and Observations Group (SOG). Under the code names “Shining Brass” and “Prairie Fire,” the SOG troopers reconnoitered the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Later, when the U.S. installed an electronic sensor system to optimize attacks on The Trail, SOG added system checks, updates, and supplements to its repertoire.
Small ops were carried out by Spike teams, usually three Americans and nine indigenous fighters. The U.S. Embassy in Laos limited the number of men in SOG incursions to platoon size. There were Havoc units for this purpose. MACV/SOG played with this limitation by inserting platoons into closely related sectors. By 1969 Hatchet company-size units operated when approved by CINCPAC. Eventually SOG sought battalion-size Haymaker forces. SOG’s Command Control Central (CCC) was responsible for the Central Highlands. Sgt. Mike Rose was a member of CCC’s Company B, its Hatchet Force, under Capt. Eugene McCarley.
It was late summer 1970. Hanoi’s army had struck inside Laos, ejecting Royal Laotian troops from the Bolovens plateau, the terrain that dominated the panhandle of southern Laos. Lao positions threatened the flank of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The CIA mounted a counterattack, Operation Gauntlet, with a couple of its Hmong Special Guerrilla Units, which got into trouble near the Laotian town of Chavane.
The CIA asked SOG’s commander to distract the enemy. The request made it into Gen. Creighton V. Abrams’ MACV channels. On September 4 MACV alerted SOG and CCC for the mission in an area beyond SOG’s authorized zone and farther into Laos than it had ever ventured. Ambassador G. McMurtrie Godley approved the incursion. Abrams followed.
McCarley’s Company B inserted a dozen miles southeast of Chavane. He put his Hatchet troops into motion immediately. The men heard telephones ringing as they moved away, barely off the landing zone, when a North Vietnamese squad briefly engaged, then recoiled.
Just 650 yards from the LZ the SOG unit discovered a North Vietnamese ammo dump in a series of bunkers. They wired it to blow and were just about a klick away when the thing went off. There were lots of secondary explosions throughout the night. The enemy was not far behind. An NVA platoon shot up McCarley’s troops, leaving several Montagnards wounded. Mike Rose was B Company’s medic.
Four Days Of Hell
This marked the beginning of four days of hell. McCarley moved his men off and sought a place choppers could land to medevac the casualties. Marines of Squadron HMH-463 were detailed for the task as SOG’s choppers were occupied on another mission. Company B also had fire support for an AC-130 Spectre gunship. But the Marine helicopter could not get in for the pick-up. The troops were under fire from an enemy force slightly larger than McCarley’s 127 men.
McCarley kept his men on the move through the night, fending off the enemy with gunships and grenades. Nine of the sixteen Americans in Company B were wounded by the second day. Sgt. Rose staunched their wounds. Left to his own devices, Rose ran through fire to retrieve Montagnards hit by the enemy. He carried them on his shoulders. At times Rose ministered to four or five wounded men at a time even though he had been hit twice.
Capt. McCarley sought high ground. Fire continued through the second night. The Hatchet Force moved toward a fresh LZ on the third day. But the North Vietnamese were everywhere.
First McCarley’s men encountered an enemy delaying force, then a platoon hit their flank. Toward noon the SOG men were moving along a crest when they saw hundreds of NVA soldiers. The captain called in air. Once he reached a suitable clearing he saw the North Vietnamese closing in.
By now, Mike Rose had shepherded two dozen wounded. Medevac had become crucial. A Marine chopper, under fire, managed to get on the ground, and Rose handed over men to the two corpsmen on the aircraft. North Vietnamese gunfire increased. The landing zone had become too hot for the CH-53. As it took off, an RPG sliced through the hull. Fortunately, the rocket did not detonate, but the helicopter wobbled away leaking gasoline and had to land just a few miles away. Another Marine ship was downed trying to save the crew. A third helicopter rescued both crews, but the choppers were lost.
The Hatchet Force got underway again before dawn. Early in the morning of the fourth day they ran into the NVA again. A few were retreating into a bunkered area. McCarley had platoons under Sgt. Craig Schmidt and Manuel Orozco assault the position. The complex contained 8,000 kilograms of rice. SOG captured four trucks and a 120mm mortar, which they destroyed. Hundreds of pounds of documents in footlockers were found in a deeply bunkered command center.
McCarley tried to move with his wounded and the trove of captured documents. It was tough. When the last firefight ended, Company B had forty-nine wounded. Several Montagnards had died. Reluctantly, McCarley decided to leave the bodies so the other troopers could carry the wounded and documents.
Forward air controllers could see North Vietnamese converging on the Hatchet Force from two directions. McCarley took a chance and had his men march on the road itself rather than keep to the jungle. He bypassed the first suitable LZ, where the North Vietnamese could use nearby high ground to fire on helicopters, and kept going.
Forward air controllers played a crucial role in the next phase. Capt. William “Country” Grimes called in sets of fighter-bombers, thirty-six different flights of A-1 Skyraiders and F-4 Phantoms. Maj. Art Bishop’s A-1s dropped thirty rear gas bomblets on the target area. 1st Lt. Tom Stump dropped below the minimum ceiling cloud cover to deliver his cluster munitions. He received a Distinguished Flying Cross. F-4s dropped napalm.
North Vietnamese soldiers pulled back long enough for Company B to load one chopper with the most seriously wounded Montagnards and the documents. NVA troops set up mortars and the first rounds began to hit the LZ just as the lead Sea Stallion finished loading. The chopper took off while Capt. McCarley abandoned the landing zone to head for another clearing. Mike Rose stayed with him, helping the wounded. All sixteen Americans with the unit were wounded.
On the new LZ, McCarley got a second platoon onto a CH-53, then he rushed to another clearing. The North Vietnamese redoubled their efforts. Skyraiders and Cobra gunships sliced into them with miniguns, .50-calibers, and rockets. On the next landing zone Sgt. Rose pushed the last wounded onto another Sea Stallion. The CH-53 took off and returned the SOG troops to Dak To.
An Extraordinary Coup
The operation was an extraordinary coup. The captured documents created a new basis for intelligence estimates of North Vietnamese infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. MACV’s Combined Intelligence Center issued new, more sophisticated analyses of the system of the supply bases on the infiltration route.
Capt. McCarley got everyone out except for the three dead Montagnards. Col. John K. Sadler, SOG’s commander, credited Company B with 144 North Vietnamese killed plus an estimated 50 wounded, while the Air Force and Marine Corps flyers’ tally was put at 288 enemy. McCarley and all three of his platoon leaders were recommended for the Silver Star. Sgt. Rose was put in for the Medal of Honor, but Commander-in-Chief Pacific Adm. John S. McCain reduced that to a Distinguished Service Cross.
For a long time matters rested there. Gen. Creighton V. Abrams presented Mike Rose his DSC at an awards ceremony early in 1971. Rose, 23, was starting a second enlistment. He accepted a commission after attending Officers Candidate School in 1973 and stayed in for twenty years. He retired as a captain at Fort Sill in 1987. Eugene McCarley also stayed in, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. Both lived quietly, participating in veterans groups and civic organizations.
On June 7, 1998, CNN broadcast an eighteen-minute documentary on Operation Tailwind, reporting that Company B had a much more sinister mission: to wipe out a camp allegedly holding American deserters who had helped the North Vietnamese. The film also asserted that the Americans had used the nerve gas sarin.
The CNN Tailwind program kicked up a huge ruckus, starting with the issue of the sarin gas. The extraordinary claim about American defectors was equally controversial. But producers April Oliver and Jack Smith—plus lead reporter Peter Arnett—claimed to have solid evidence: interviews with former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Thomas Moorer, SOG platoon leader Lt. Robert Van Buskirk, and former SOG Sgt. Mike Hagen. McCarley denounced the claims.
DoD began an investigation two days after the documentary aired. At its conclusion on July 21, 1998, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen declared: “We have found no evidence to support these charges. With respect to defectors, no document, military order, after-action report, briefing paper, or official military history mentions the pursuit of U.S. defectors as Tailwind’s mission. We found no evidence that nerve gas was used or that it was ever transported to Vietnam, Laos, or Thailand.”
Mike Rose sat in the audience that day. The Secretary of Defense quoted him saying, “I am living proof that toxic gas was not dropped on us that day.” Rose had told investigators he’d been wearing a gas mask during the pickup—to protect himself from the pebbles and dust kicked up by the Sea Stallions’ prop wash, not to ward off gas. Sarin is capable of absorbing through skin, and a gas mask would have been of limited use. Pilots who had been on the scene insisted their CBUs had contained only tear gas.
CNN and Time magazine—which had published a parallel story—retracted their reports. There were reviews, internal investigations, lawsuits. Producers of the television documentary were fired. Arnett’s contract wasn’t renewed.
“Tailwind was a secret mission,” Cohen said, “and because of this, the men may not have gotten the recognition that they earned for their valor.” Cohen instructed Undersecretary of Defense Rudy de Leon to take another look at the awards situation. That became the origin of the idea to get Mike Rose the Medal of Honor and to upgrade Eugene McCarley to the Distinguished Service Cross.
But that enterprise ran afoul of the three-year limit on awards. The bureaucracy and paperwork suddenly became the enemy, denying Mike Rose once again.
President Obama issued the order that led the Department of Defense to review its policies for the award. Congress approved the privilege amendment. Jeff Sessions—then a senator—put the amendment into the appropriations bill. An award of the Medal of Honor to Gary Michael Rose is now the law of the land.
President Donald J. Trump presented the Medal of Honor on October 23, 2017. Gary Rose continues his service as a life member of VVA Chapter 1067 in Huntsville, Alabama.
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