Was Sarin Used by Americans in the Vietnam War?

Dan Montgomery

January 6, 1999

copyright 2002 Daniel A. Montgomery

Sarin is a nerve gas. It contains phophonofluoride. Sarin disables acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme essential for the control of nerve impulse transmission. Professional journalists, April Oliver and Jack Smith, spent many months investigating allegations that nerve gas was used in 1970 in a covert US military operation in Laos. In September, 1970, US special forces known as the Studies and Observations Group (SOG) participated in Operation Tailwind and attacked an enemy village in Laos. Oliver and Smith presented their findings in the CNN broadcast, "Valley of Death," which aired on June 7, 1998. This was a joint production of CNN and Time.

CNN was pressured by the Pentagon to fire Oliver and Smith. The executives at CNN had panic and fear in their faces. The lawyer for CNN oversaw the preparation of the retraction statement which alleged that Oliver and Smith had done a poor job of ascertaining the facts.1

There were several witnesses that poison gas had been used in Tailwind, but there was confusion over the identification of the gases. Tom Plaster stated that CBU-19 was used. CBU-19 was a "sleeping gas." It was not sarin.2 Art Bishop, one of the pilots in Tailwind, wrote in his diary that CBU-30 was used. Two men who participated in Tailwind said this gas "was stronger than tear gas."3 Mike Hagen, a platoon sergeant in Tailwind, was convinced that sarin was used, "becuase I have no feelings from the knees down," he said.4

Because of these inconsistent reports from the field, Oliver and Smith sought accurate information from military records, but found a stone wall of noninformation. In their defense of the credibility of there reporting of this news story,5 they write:

The Pentagon failed to locate any of the original documents that would have logged what kinds of weapons were used by warplanes supporting Operation Tailwind. But a computer database from that period recorded that US aircraft dropped CBU-15 -- the code name for sarin nerve gas -- some 2,000 times in 1970. Pentagon officials dismissed this as a 'coding problem,' according to one report."

Lt. van Buskirk was in Operation Tailwind and he later wrote a book about his war time experiences. When Oliver and Smith initially contacted van Buskirk by phone, he supported the view that sarin may have been used. He did not mention this in his book because he thought it was too top secret. Quoting from Oliver and Smith,6 ". . . the gas symptoms actually described there [by van Buskirk in his book] (nausea, bending over and vomiting) are more consistent with sarin and are more arguably inconsistent with tear gas dispersed in an open area." In their first telephone interview, they quote van Buskirk as saying, "I didn't really talk about the gas [in my book] because it was too top secret. It was delivered in CBU-19s" "That stuff they put in the CBU-19s made us sick." "The rest of the enemy all died from gas." "Oh, yeah, it was a lethal war gas." "My unit puked their brains out. We all got amoebic dysentery. Everyone's nose ran and all this mucous started coming out of everyone's nostrils. Lots of enemy started having seizures . . . " Lt. van Buskirk later changed his story and said that the gas was more like CBU-15 or CBU-16. Oliver and Smith noted that, "The confusion may have arisen because of the military's subordinate designation of sarin nerve gas, BLU-19." They concluded that van Buskirk spoke truly the first time and that the gas was more probably sarin than tear gas.

Commanding officers do not always tell everything to their subordinates. Without the cooperation of the people who really did know what kind of gas was used, we are left to speculate like many of the participants in Tailwind. Sterling Seagrave, in Yellow Rain, investigated reports of a lethal gas known as yellow rain. It was used against the Hmong people in Laos after the Americans had abandoned Vietnam. Seagrave found that chemical warfare has become a high tech operation. New chemicals and biotoxins are difficult to identify. Information about them is kept secret from the general public. Combinations of chemicals might have unpredicted effects.

Dr. Matthew Meselson, a famous Harvard biologist, investigated reports of yellow rain. Meselson pointed out that ". . . adamsite, when it is hydrolyzed by contact with water, becomes diphenylarseneous oxide, which is a very poisonous form of arsenic. Anyone who swallowed it would be killed. Adamsite was stocked by the U.S. Army in Vietnam in hand grenades, marked "not to be used where deaths are not acceptable." Adamsite was a vomiting agent. It had a history of being used for riot control. In non-combat situations, CN, CS (tear gases) and DM (the Army code name for adamsite) are used in low enough concentrations to avoid serious injury. In a combat zone in a distant land, there was no restraint on the dosage of such gases.7 This might seem plausible except that Oliver and Smith were advised by experts that ". . . sarin nerve gas at the prevailing temperatures in Laos is NOT LETHAL THROUGH THE SKIN. An M-17 gas mask is sufficient protection, and full body suits are not required for protection."8 In a tropical climate, sarin reacts differently than it did on the battlefields of Europe in World War I.

Operation Tailwind is only one instance of the allegations that nerve gas was used in the Vietnam War. On August 8, 1970, the Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, reported that VX nerve gas was used by American Special Forces in Cambodia:9

"A military source in Saigon says that a deadly nerve gas has been used against North Vietnamese troops in Cambodia last year. It was part of an experiment called 'Project Waterfall' -- a top-secret experimental program headed by the U.S. Department of Defense. The gas, with the code name VX, was dropped from airplanes over an area chosen by the American Special Forces. . . "

The story was originally reported by Tom Marlowe of the Dispatch News Service in Saigon. According to Marlowe, his sources said two one-hundred-pound containers of oily VX were spread over an area of Cambodia believed by the Special Forces to be massed with North Vietnamese troops. This phase of Operation Waterfall, which took place during 1969, was called Operation Redcap. There was no indication what results were achieved.

The New York Times, on May 8, 1970, reported that GB, a lethal nerve gas, had been stored at Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam. A press conference was held in Boston by the National Committee for a Citizens Commission of Inquiry on United States War Crimes in Vietnam. This was a private group of citizens. Former Army Lt. Larry Rottman spoke at this conference. He said that in 1967 and 1968 he saw containers marked with the code name GB stored at Bien Hoa Air Base. Although he did not see it being used, he had heard reports of it being used.10 GB was a code name for sarin.

By 1970, then, rumors and reports had leaked out that nerve gas had been stored in South Vietnam and used by the U.S. military. In the defense of their "Valley of Death" broadcast, Oliver and Smith refer to statements of witnesses that a blond American who was believed to be a defector was killed in Operation Tailwind.11 Lt. van Buskirk immediately knew that the blond man was American and gave him a chance to come back, but was rebuffed. His colonel told him not to discuss the incident and not to include the killing of the blond man in his after action report. The colonel led him to believe that the blond man was a Russian who was mistaken for an American and said to "forget this ever happened." However, Lt. van Buskirk had been told by a Military Intelligence officer in Saigon that he might find "turncoats" on this mission and that he should not bring back prisoners for any reason.

My tour of duty in Vietnam was from April 7, 1969 to March 28, 1970. Not long after I came in country, I met a blond haired young man who was an interpreter in a Montagnard village. He was organizing the gathering of evidence that nerve gas was being used. The next time I planned to meet with him, his friends said he was never coming back. If this was the same man that Lt. van Buskirk fragged about a year and a half later, the allegations about nerve gas in Operation Tailwind might be less important than the allegations that there were Americans who had fled to Laos, for whatever reason.

Another informant that nerve gas was being used was a mortarman in the 22nd Infantry Battalion, First Brigade, 4th Infantry Division. Ths informant showed me crates for artillery rounds which had been opened. They had unusual markings. He was certain that the rounds contained sarin. As a mortarman, I was familiar with the standard types of rounds which we used every day. We used high explosive, white phosphorus and illumination. We had been told in Advanced Infantry Training that there were rounds with other color codes, but that we would never see them in Vietnam.

My informant was later murdered. He was shot by a 105 howitzer round at close range while he stood in chow line in 1970. The 105 squad had practiced for two weeks to make it look like an accident. After he died, I was ordered by a commanding officer to gather all of his clothes and personal effects and throw them in a trash barrel on top of the body parts to be burned. I found some pictures in the leg pocket of his fatigues. These pictures show who he was and who his friends were. Intelligence cultists who are hiding war crimes have gone to an extraordinary effort to suppress any knowledge of his murder.


  1. Richard Katz, "Fired producers accuse CNN of major cover up in sarin gas story," Quixote's Horse, www.king.igs.net/~wacoppin/cnn.htm, July 23, 1998.
  2. John L. Plaster, "Vietnam the Way it Wasn't," ConservativeNet.com, www.conservativenet.com/HotTopics.main/ACN/document-6.19.1998.7.html, June 19, 1998.
  3. Evan Thomas and Gregory L. Vistica, "Questioning a report that the U.S. used sarin gas during Vietnam," Newsweek Magazine, skyraider.org/skyassn/cnn/nweek150698.htm, June 15, 1998.
  4. Tom Bowman, "Allegation that U.S. used sarin gas in Vietnam sparks investigation," Baltimore Sun, skyraider.org/skyassn/cnn/baltsun.htm, June 14, 1998.
  5. Martin McLaughlin, "Fired journalists defend report on nerve gas use in Vietnam War," World Socialist Web Site, www.wsws.org/news/1998/july1998/cnn-j24.shtml, July 24, 1998.
  6. April Oliver and Jack Smith, "Tailwind: Oliver-Smith rebuttal to CNN Abrams/Kohler report," Free Press/Fair Press, www.freedomforum.org/fpfp/specialprograms/tailwind.contents.asp, July 22, 1998.
  7. Sterling Seagrave, Yellow Rain: A journey through the terror of chemical warfare, New York: M. Evans and Co., 1981, pp. 195, 102-103.
  8. Oliver and Smith, op. cit.
  9. Seagrave, op. cit., p. 108.
  10. "Lethal nerve gas in Vietnam charged," New York Times, May 8, 1970, p. 62.
  11. Oliver and Smith, op. cit.

Home | Vietnam War Index