Operation Sea Ghost - By Mack Maloney


Airfield 414

Udorn, Thailand

March 1968

THE C-130 CARGO plane took off in a violent rainstorm.

It was 2350 hours, almost midnight, and the monsoon that had battered Southeast Asia all day was still intense. The wind was fierce and lightning flashed everywhere. The thunder was like artillery booming in the distance. This was dangerous flying weather, but the C-130’s mission was a top priority. It was going to fly no matter what.

The aircraft rose from its secret base on the eastern edge of Thailand and turned north, over Laos, heading toward Vietnam. The four-man crew was wearing standard U.S. Air Force flight suits, each with his name tag attached—DAVIS, LEE, RUBY and JOHNSON—but the crew members were not military personnel. They were civilian employees of the CIA.

Five containers were stacked in the plane’s cargo bay. Four were made of plain thin plywood barely held together by tiny screws. At six feet long and about two feet wide, they looked like bargain-basement coffins.

The fifth container was an SMT. About the size of a footlocker and officially known as a “Sensitive Materials Transport,” these containers were used by the CIA to move highly classified material around the war zone. Built of the same nearly indestructible material as an airplane’s “black box,” SMTs had small, sealed-environment enclosures to preserve their contents over long periods of time, be they documents, important items taken from the enemy or even secret experimental weapons.

Several SMTs had been captured by communist troops during the recent Tet Offensive, causing the loss of valuable war intelligence. Since then, SMT containers were supposed to be accompanied by at least two armed guards at all times. But this one was traveling alone.

There was no paperwork attached to any of this cargo; no manifest or ID tags were in evidence. The only writing was on the SMT: The letter “Z” had been faintly stenciled onto it, next to an almost imperceptible keyhole.

The C-130’s crew did not know what was inside any of the crates, though their collective gut told them some kind of secret weapon was probably involved. The plane’s pilot was carrying sealed orders issued by their CIA station chief in Bangkok. These orders were not to be opened until the cargo plane reached a so-called control coordinate about 100 miles from the border that divided North and South Vietnam.

Only then would the crew know the details of their mission.

* * *

FIVE MINUTES AFTER takeoff, the C-130 reached its cruising altitude of 10,000 feet. It had now gotten out of the worst of the storm—though the weather was still harsh over most of Indochina.

It would take forty minutes before the plane reached the control coordinate where the crew’s orders could be opened. To help pass the time, the flight engineer produced a thermos of coffee. He poured cups for the pilot and the copilot and himself. The cargomaster had his own thermos. He preferred tea.

With the crew settled in, the cargomaster pulled out a copy of The New York Times, dated two weeks before. He showed the others a small story, stuck deep inside the third section. Its headline read: “Nixon hints at nuke use in Vietnam.”

The pilot saw the headline, nodded to the SMT in back, and joked, “Is that the ticking sound I hear?”

The flight engineer was quick to dismiss this notion. He’d been on the flight line when the SMT arrived and said none of the people handling it had worn radiation suits. However, he said they might have been wearing gas masks; it was hard to see in the torrential downpour. If so, perhaps the SMT contained some kind of secret poison gas.

But now the copilot disagreed. He, too, had been close by when the SMT was being loaded and he thought he saw the people handling it wearing hazardous material suits. That indicated some kind of deadly material, a powder or something, might be involved.

“But if that’s the case,” the pilot said, “where are our suits?”

* * *

THEY REACHED THE control coordinate just after 0035 hours.

The others looked on as the pilot tore open the orders envelope and removed a single sheet of paper.

He read it quickly, then whispered, “This has got to be a joke.…”

He passed the orders to the copilot, who read them aloud.

“You are to proceed one hundred miles due north of your present position. Prior to reaching that coordinate, you are to reposition the four wooden crates near the flight deck. On reaching the assigned coordinate, you will purge all but two hundred pounds of fuel from