It was September 1970, a time when the Vietnam War was at its height, and American and South Vietnamese forces had flown into Laos to take part in a clandestine mission against the North Vietnamese Army. A ferocious firefight developed. Men were down. Who was going to save them? Step forward Sergeant Gary M. Rose, a medic in the U.S. Special Forces.
Gary Michael Rose was born in Watertown, New York, in 1947, and later moved to Los Angeles. There, he graduated from the James Monroe High School in 1965. Two years after his graduation, Rose joined the U.S. Army and did his basic training at California’s Fort Ord camp. He went on to complete his advanced infantry training and parachute training at bases in Georgia.
Some six months after joining the army, the then Private Rose was accepted for Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After successfully completing the course, he graduated as a Special Forces medic. In April 1969 Rose was posted to Lopburi in Thailand where he helped train Thai military personnel.
But Rose wasn’t satisfied with this routine posting and in April 1970 he secured a transfer to Vietnam where he joined the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group, (MACV-SOG). This bland-sounding unit with its lengthy name was actually a highly secret, elite body of troops. During the Vietnam War, the MACV-SOG operated in Cambodia and Laos as well as in North and South Vietnam.
Rose’s first mission in Vietnam came in June 1970 and resulted in him being wounded. The sergeant’s bravery was recognized by a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. His appetite whetted by that first taste of action, Rose was now lined up for a hush-hush mission which involved troops covertly entering Laos.
The background to this secret mission bears some explanation. Officially, the U.S. was not fighting in Laos, a country on the western border of Vietnam. Unofficially, it was. Like Vietnam, Laos was a country riven by civil war, this one between the nationalist forces of the Royal Lao government and the communist Pathet Lao. The Lao government was backed by the Americans, while the Pathet Lao had the support of the North Vietnamese and its communist backers.
And the North Vietnamese also used Laos as a route on their infamous Ho Chi Minh trail, which supplied their armies and guerrillas in the field just across the border in Vietnam. So the U.S. regarded it as a strategic necessity to get involved in Laos, although this was not formally acknowledged until much later.
The American involvement consisted of two strands: a massive campaign of aerial bombing and a smaller-scale project involving the insertion of Special Forces to fight North Vietnamese soldiers. The aerial bombing campaign was staggering in its scale. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. Air Force dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, a country smaller than Michigan.
Sergeant Rose’s September 1970 excursion into Laos was dubbed Operation Tailwind. His unit consisted of himself, the sole medic on the mission, and 15 other Americans plus a force of about 110 Montagnards (a tribal people native to southeast Asia). The men were to be airlifted into their Laos landing zone in three Sea Stallion helicopters accompanied by 12 Bell Cobra gunships.
These particular Montagnards were indigenous Vietnamese people who lived in the country’s central highlands. Their name comes from the days when Vietnam was a French colony and the word simply means “people of the mountain.” Highly respected for their toughness and tracking abilities, around 40,000 Montagnards fought with the Americans during the Vietnam War.
The purpose of Operation Tailwind was actually to make a diversionary attack to take the pressure off troops from the Royal Lao Army who were struggling to contain the communist Pathet Lao. The American Special Forces operation would, it was hoped, wreak havoc with the North Vietnamese Army which was supporting the Pathet Lao.
The mission was unusual in that it was an incursion into territory around 20 miles beyond even the secretly sanctioned zone of engagement in Laos. Rose and his comrades, led by Captain Eugene McCarley, were choppered 60 miles west from Dak To in the Vietnamese highlands to a valley near the Laotian town of Chavane.
The Americans and their Montagnard comrades soon came into contact with North Vietnamese soldiers and a heavy firefight ensued. As Captain McCarley’s men encountered more of the enemy, Rose continued to treat those of his comrades who were sustaining wounds in what was now a full-blown engagement. He returned fire on the enemy so that he could get to the injured men.
As the mission progressed, Rose had to crawl along the ground under heavy fire to reach other men needing treatment. One incident on day two of the operation saw a wounded Montagnard trapped some 50 yards outside the American defenses. Rose ran to the man, attended to him, then dragged him back to safety with one hand, all while returning fire with the other.
Once he got the wounded Montagnard back to safety, Rose himself was hit by shrapnel from a rocket propelled grenade. Wounded in the foot, back and leg, Rose ignored his own injuries to continue treating his fallen buddies. A chopper tried to lift some of the wounded, but the intensity of fire made that impossible.
Little by little the Americans and Montagnards fought their way out of their defensive position. By this point more than half of the unit was wounded, and Rose rigged up stretchers for those that needed them. Still ignoring his own injuries, the medic continued to treat his fellow soldiers. On the night of the operation’s third day, North Vietnamese troops had encircled Rose’s unit and were pounding it with ordnance.
On 14 September, 1970, helicopters were finally able to land to pull out the beleaguered men, just as a 500-strong force of North Vietnamese soldiers was approaching. As choppers evacuated the troops, Rose continued to defend the unit’s defensive perimeter and treat the wounded. On the battlefield till the bitter end, he took his place on the last helicopter out.
But Rose’s escape was not complete yet. His chopper had taken anti-aircraft fire and at 4,500 feet its engine stalled. The helicopter’s gunner was hit in the neck and Rose treated the serious injury as best he could. Thrown clear from the chopper before it crashed, the medic then made his way to the wreckage to help the men in the stricken chopper. He was finally picked up by another helicopter and made it back to base.
For his outstanding bravery that day, Rose was recommended for the Medal of Honor. But, in an injustice that was to last for almost 50 years, because the mission had been top secret due to the fact that the Americans weren’t supposed to be fighting in Laos, the award was downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross. This was despite the fact that Rose had treated as many as 70 men for their wounds, preserving the lives of many.
The Medal of Honor is the highest U.S. military award for bravery. Given his actions on that 1970 mission, it seems inconceivable that Rose, who later attained the rank of captain, didn’t deserve the citation. But in 2017 the matter was finally put to rights when Rose was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Trump at the White House.