The mission had begun days before when CIA intelligence indicated that a drug plane flying south from Colombia, without any tail numbers, was to land on a particular date in the vicinity of Uchiza. The Snowcap helicopters were flown by former Air America pilots one of whom was Billy MacDonald. Shot down three times in Vietnam, a botanist, son of a West Virginia coal miner. Billy was a master at improvising, and the pressure of crisis only sharpened his wits. Sadly, Billy was to be killed before year's end. There were only four clandestine airstrips suitable for the drug plane to land and Billy devised a plan to blow up three of the airstrips forcing the plane to land at the only remaining strip.
The Hueys dropped the mixed team of Snowcap agents and Guardia Civil (G.C.) off several clicks away from the airstrip. The team spent a miserable night navigating through the jungle but came dead on their final checkpoint which was a thickly wooded swamp four hundred feet wide that traversed the turn around point for the drug plane at the end of the runway. As the team settled into its ambush position in the bushy marshland alongside the runway they could hear the engines of the plane as it circled overhead. At the far end of the runway the narco-terrorists (tangos) who were to provide security were gathered around a glowing fire used to mark the approach to the strip. There was a hurried discussion as to the merits of killing the tangos who were illuminated by the fire; however, the decision was made to roll the dice and wait for the plane to land and bag everyone in one fell swoop. Much to the team's chagrin the tangos left the fire and formed a skirmish line and began a s! ecurity sweep of both sides of the runway prior to giving the plane clearance to land.
Luck was with the team for they remained undiscovered and the tangos gave the green light for the plane to land. The plane landed and taxied to the turn around point where it shut down one engine as the crew off loaded bags of money in exchange for the cocaine paste which was hurriedly loaded onto the plane. A fierce firefight began with bullets shrieking over the team's head from all directions forcing the team to stay huddled on the ground for if you attempted a perpendicular position you paid a forfeit, with your life. No man could remain alive a moment unless he lay close to the ground. The fighting was at such close quarters that at times the Snowcap team and the tangos were firing at each other from opposite sides of the same tree. One team member recalled that the contact of a 223 round to a tangos teeth sounded to him very much as if it had shattered a fine piece of porcelain. The team was gradually forced back to its last rally point behind the protective roll of a ! creek's western bank where they remained hunkered tightly against the bank.
G.C. Major Montero favored offensive operations and took fearless courses of actions that would have left the Suits aghast for he had a cold relentless energy with which he pursued tangos. Major Montero gave the command "adelante" and the team charged back at the tangos alongside the plane which quickly accelerated down the runway in the hopes of escaping. As it began to climb it was hit by a fusillade of bullets and crashed into a hill a mile out from the runway. One tango attempted to escape but was shot dead on his motorbike.
The team was greeted by a swath of eleven dead tangos and even today the team reminisces that with the morning sun it was a very hot day, there being no shade on the runway and the sun beat heavily on us as we gulped water from our canteens to quench an insufferable thirst.
Battles often spawn persistent legends and there are four Snowcap legends: Alex Rodriguez, Mike Flanagan, Joe Salvemini and Gene Bachman. Going along to get along is a recipe for mediocrity. Instead, I always brought into Snowcap bold agents like Alex, Mike, Joe and Gene who stretched the limits of being brave. Before a mission they never needed a pep talk for they knew why they volunteered and they were anxious to close with the tangos and get it over with and done. Sometimes Snowcap defined the agent, but in Alex, Mike, Joe and Gene's case, their character defined what it meant to be in Snowcap.
They were capable of sharply critical tactical assessments, consummately modest and quietly confident. There is always an accounting of stewardship of those who had a hand in some of the more significant events of Snowcap. It was their devotion, professionalism, valor and dedication that brought Snowcap its successes and in this end they left their legacy. They had good, common-sense judgment, great resourcefulness, experts of rare capability and unusual dedication. Their willingness to perform any task, their courage and their ability to do their work at any time under any conditions, made them a shining example to all Snowcap team members.
Alex, Mike, Joe and Gene were aggressive leaders, intolerant of Suits, who used a calculated flamboyance. Although versatile and tireless they possessed a gift of quiet humor and an instinct for the human side which made men who are not panicky follow them on any Snowcap mission. I am proud to be called their friend.