The Son Tay Raid

Nov. 1, 1995

The mission statement might have been expressed simply: “Rescue approximately fifty American POWs from Son Tay prison near Hanoi, North Vietnam.” However, the Air Force’s planning for this mission was as comprehensive and meticulous as any in the history of the service. Moreover, it was the first major military operation to be conducted under the direct control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The President made the final go/no go decision. Unfortunately, the rescue effort itself turned out to be futile, though it produced unintended benefits.

The story of the Son Tay raid can be said to begin in the spring of 1970 when it was reported that an increasing number of American prisoners of the North Vietnamese had died in prison from beatings, torture, and starvation by their captors. At the time, more than 450 Americans were held captive in the undeclared war in southeast Asia, eighty percent of them in North Vietnam. More than half of them had been in prison more than 2,000 days.

While Washington had very little information about the POWs’ individual physical conditions, it was known that all were being held under the most primitive and inhumane conditions imaginable. Torture was a daily expectation; maintaining their sanity on a meager diet and in solitary confinement was a challenge.

Within the Pentagon, a special, dedicated group was at work, locating and keeping an eye on all POW compounds through frequent aerial reconnaissance. Son Tay, on the Song Con River about twenty-three miles west of Hanoi, was one of the prisons under surveillance. It was believed that at least fifty and possibly as many as 100 prisoners were located in this isolated camp. (It was later established that fifty-seven POWs were held there at that time.) Analysts in Washington focused attention on the possibility that the American prisoners might be “extracted” from the camp by a specially trained force of Army and Air Force rescue experts.

The idea was forwarded to Army Brig. Gen. Donald D. Blackburn, special assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities under the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Earle G. Wheeler. General Blackburn was given permission to conduct a feasibility study to determine if a rescue was possible.

The General, working with the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency, developed a conceptual plan to extract the POWs. It was code-named “Polar Circle.” Although such a bold idea did not “sell” immediately, it was eventually approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in July 1970 and given top-secret status. It would be a joint endeavor eventually involving twenty-six planners and a task force of 148 men to support and carry out the mission.

US intelligence estimated that 12,000 North Vietnamese troops were stationed within a few miles of the POW camp. There were also air defense missile batteries and another compound nearby, labeled “secondary school” by intelligence specialists.

High-altitude photos of the prison were taken frequently by SR-71 “Blackbirds” and low-altitude pictures by Buffalo Hunter reconnaissance drones. The POW camp was not very large and was built in two sections. One was a walled compound where prisoners were located, and the other was an administrative section. There was a small cleared area inside the compound, the size of a volleyball court, surrounded by trees more than forty feet high. A skilled pilot could land a small helicopter there, but it would probably be sacrificed if it struck the trees on descent.

Staging From Takhli

To hit with total surprise, the raid would be staged from Takhli RTAFB in central Thailand and launched at night from Udorn, south of the Laotian border. The flight from Udorn to Son Tay and back was a circuitous 687-mile route. It would be a strenuous mission over mountainous jungles at low altitudes. Weather figured strongly in planning.

Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, entrusted the mission to Air Force Brig. Gen. Leroy J. Manor, commander of the USAF Special Operations Group at Eglin AFB, Fla. His deputy was Army Col. Arthur D. “Bull” Simons, a strong, outspoken proponent of unorthodox operations who would lead the actual assault on the compound.

The eventual plan was for an Army assault team to ride in one Air Force HH-3E Jolly Green Giant and five HH-53 helicopters to Son Tay, accompanied by two Air Force MC-130 Combat Talons that would navigate for them and two HC-130s to refuel the helicopters. A flight of five A-1E Skyraiders would provide an umbrella of cover, and ten F-4s would fly a MiG combat air patrol to intercept any enemy fighters that might try to interfere. General Manor later decided to add an F-105 “Wild Weasel” force to the operation to bait the North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile sites and lure their attention away from the assault force.

The HH-3 was to land inside the compound with men who were to alert the prisoners and release them from their cells. The HH-53s would land outside with the rest of the assault force. Some were to secure the area around the compound and fight off any enemy forces that appeared. Others were to blow a hole in the prison wall and lead the POWs to the choppers. Meanwhile, the A-1Es would provide cover and be available to assist against any threatening enemy ground forces.

After loading the prisoners on board the HH-53s, the entire force would depart for Udorn. Since the bombing pause was still in effect at the time, Navy planes would drop flares over the Haiphong area to distract and confuse the enemy defense forces.

The leaders decided that the elite cadre of Air Force and Army specialists, all volunteers, would assemble and be trained at Eglin. Colonel Simons carefully selected 103 Army Special Forces Green Berets for the raid. The ranking man chosen as the ground force deputy was Army Lt. Col. Elliott P. “Bud” Sydnor, who would lead the security group that would land outside the compound, seal off the roads, and secure the guard quarters. Army Capt. Richard J. Meadows would head the assault team that would land inside the compound. General Manor selected Air Force search-and-rescue veterans for his lead helicopter pilots. They were Air Force Lt. Cols. Warner A. Britton, Herbert E. Zehnder, Royal C. Brown, and John V. Allison and Majs. Frederic M. Donohue, Herbert D. Kalen, and Kenneth D. Murphy. When Colonel Simons asked for a “combat-type” doctor, Army Lt. Col. Joseph R. Cataldo, former chief surgeon for the Green Berets, volunteered.

A replica of the prison was constructed, using two-by-fours and target cloth with windows, doors, and gates cut out. The camp was rolled up and the post holes covered during daylight hours when Cosmos 355, a Soviet reconnaissance satellite, overflew Eglin.

An arsenal was assembled, including assault rifles, grenades, claymore mines, blasting caps, and demolition charges. Break-in tools, such as bolt cutters, machetes, chain saws, axes, and acetylene torches, were collected along with night sights, ropes, fire extinguishers, and radios. Colonel Cataldo, concerned about the physical condition of the prisoners, ordered special medical kits with anesthetics, inflatable splints, and inhalation agents, in addition to cans of water, thermal ponchos, rubber shoes, pajamas, and baby food (in case the just-released POWs could not eat solid food).

Practice, Practice, Practice

Training began August 20 under strict security. The ground assault team practiced entry into and escape from the fake compound and the POW cell blocks 170 times, mostly at night, perfecting and smoothing out the details. Their training included target recognition, village surveillance, house search, hand signals, demolition placement, jungle survival, and much night firing. Colonel Cataldo taught them how to treat battle casualties.

Meanwhile, the aerial force practiced night aerial refuelings, night formation flying, and flare-dropping, logging more than 1,000 hours in 268 sorties, without an accident. Major Kalen and copilot Colonel Zehnder made thirty-one practice night descents into the tree-shrouded eighty-five-foot clearing with the HH-3, a feat calling for a superior touch on the controls in unknown ground wind conditions. An HH-53, with Major Donohue at the controls, practiced shooting out the compound’s guard towers with the side-firing Gatlings.

There was nothing normal about the flying they would be doing on the three-and-a-half-hour flight to the target area. Two HC-130s would accompany the formation from Udorn and refuel the helicopters en route. Two MC-130 Combat Talons, modified with new infrared navigation systems, would guide the formation on a twisting route at low altitude through the mountains from the refueling point to Son Tay.

The mixture of aircraft types posed the toughest problems for the pilots. A C-130’s normal cruise speed is about 250 knots at low level, but for this mission they would have to fly at 105 knots with 70 flaps, barely above stalling speed. The heavily loaded HH-53s and especially the HH-3 would be flying on the high edge of their performance envelopes trying to keep up. They would have to learn to fly at that speed “in draft” behind the C-130s, much as racing drivers and cyclists do to increase speed and conserve fuel.

The A-1Es also had an unusual requirement. Loaded with bombs and rockets, they had to make S-turns and fly at just above stalling speed to stay with a mother ship and not outrun the slower aircraft.

On September 28, the Air Force and Army teams began practicing the assault together, some with tracer ammunition and satchel charges. Now truly a joint operation, the code name was changed to “Ivory Coast.”

On October 6, there was a final, full-fledged, live-fire rehearsal. If all went as planned, it would take about twenty-five minutes on the ground to get all the prisoners loaded and head for Udorn. Two days later, Generals Manor and Blackburn and Colonel Simons went to the White House and briefed Henry Kissinger, President Richard M. Nixon’s National Security Advisor, and Brig. Gen. Alexander Haig, Mr. Kissinger’s military executive officer, informing them that the mission had a “ninety-five to ninety-seven percent assurance of success.”

At this time, those in Washington following the status of the POW compound through air reconnaissance photos reported a “decline in activity” within the Son Tay camp. Weeds were growing where prisoners would have normally walked. On October 3, an SR-71’s photos showed no sign of occupants. Some analysts thought that if POWs were still there, they were being punished for some reason and not being allowed outdoors. Later, SR-71 films showed “a definite increase in activity” at Son Tay.

The first contingent of the rescue force departed Eglin AFB November 12 and all had arrived by November 17. The mission was then given its third code name: “Kingpin.” President Nixon was briefed and gave the OK; a “red rocket” coded message was sent to General Manor to “execute.”

General Manor and Colonel Simons gave a joint briefing to their men at 2 p.m. November 18 in the base theater at Takhli with a schedule to be observed for the following three days. During the next day, weapons and equipment were checked. Some limited test firing was conducted. An escape-and-evasion briefing was given and blood chits were provided. The ground force would consist of fifty-six Army and ninety-two Air Force personnel, but still only a handful knew what their destination was to be.

Bad News Develops

Bad news developed in Washington when a usually reliable intelligence source in Hanoi stated that the Son Tay prisoners had been moved. Reconnaissance aircraft tried to get last-minute photographs of the camp November 18 but failed. However, another report indicated that the camp was occupied by “someone.”

Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird was briefed on the possibility that no prisoners were in the camp. General Blackburn and DIA Director Lt. Gen. Donald V. Bennett recommended the raid proceed, weather permitting. Mr. Laird agreed and so advised the President, who acknowledged that it was worth the risk. The “go” message was sent to General Manor at Takhli.

General Manor laid on the mission for the night of November 20. In the Red River Valley, little cloudiness was expected, as were good visibility and light winds. As the General reported later, “The night of 20/21 November 1970 was the only night for many days before and after that date that launch would have been possible.”

Vice Adm. Frederic A. Bardshar aboard USS Oriskany was sent his go-ahead planning message, which said simply, “NCA approval received.” The aircrews of fifty-nine strike and support aircraft were briefed but not told why they would be flying over the major North Vietnamese port of Haiphong and dropping only flares, not bombs. They were given permission to fire their Shrike air-to-surface missiles and 20-mm ammunition against any enemy radar-controlled SAM defenses that posed a threat to US forces and to support search-and-rescue missions if anyone were shot down.

Although the launch order had not yet been given at the time of a noon briefing at Takhli on November 20, all personnel were issued sleeping pills and ordered to rest from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Following chow, all air and ground force personnel were assembled in the base theater where Colonel Simons told the group they were going to rescue as many as seventy American POWs, “something American prisoners have a right to expect from their fellow soldiers,” he said. “The target is twenty-three miles west of Hanoi.”

The audience was stunned into silence, then a few let out low whistles. Then, they stood up and applauded.

The task force members boarded C-130s for the flight from Takhli to Udorn where the choppers and HC-130s and MC-130s waited; A-1E crews were taken to Nakhon Phanom RTAFB. The C-130s, the HH-3E, and five HH-53s began taking off at 11:10 p.m. Under complete radio silence, they formed up and set course for North Vietnam. By the time they crossed the Laotian border, a total force of 116 aircraft had departed from seven bases in Thailand and the three carriers in the Tonkin Gulf. Five F-105s reached the Son Tay area at high altitudes to keep the SAM batteries from acquiring radar locks on the approaching assault force, while ten F-4Ds from Udorn went into high orbit looking for MiGs.

Rendezvous and refueling of the helicopters with the HC-130P tanker was accomplished over Laos despite an unidentified aircraft flying a reciprocal heading at their altitude, which briefly scattered the formation. The helicopters managed to regain formation with increased separation through occasional clouds. All aircraft were refueled as scheduled.

The official Air Force history of the mission describes what happened next:

“The raiders entered the objective area below 500 feet. The C-130s led the six choppers until Son Tay lay only three and one-half miles ahead. At that point, the leading C-130 climbed to 1,500 feet followed by two HH-53 choppers: Apple 4, piloted by Lt. Col. Royal C. Brown and Maj. Ryland R. Dreibelbis; and Apple 5 with Maj. Kenneth D. Murphy and Capt. William M. McGeorge at the controls.

“Brown’s Apple 4 was the primary flare chopper and one of those designated to haul back the released prisoners. Apple 5 was the secondary flare helicopter. Over the Son Tay compound, the flares worked perfectly, so the choppers flew to a planned holding area on islands in the Finger Lake, seven miles west of Son Tay, while the C-130 circled to drop a firefight simulator (firecrackers with timed fuses) on the sapper [secondary] school. It then released its pallet of napalm before flying off to its designated orbit.

“The second C-130, only a minute behind the first, came in leading the A-1s. After the A-1s pulled away, this C-130 dropped a napalm marker and then joined the other C-130 in its orbit while the Skyraiders bombed a nearby bridge before taking up their orbit over the flaming pool of napalm.”

With this many aircraft involved, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would have a mechanical difficulty. Apple 3, the lead HH-53 flown by Major Donohue and Capt. Thomas R. Waldron, had an apparent transmission failure, indicated by a red warning light. This is enough to cause concern in any helicopter crew and bring a forced landing under normal circumstances. However, warning lights are not always dependable, and Major Donohue chose to ignore it. The helicopter gunners on board blasted two prison guard towers and the guard barracks.

Major Kalen and Colonel Zehnder, following in the HH-3, found the cleared area inside the compound and began the letdown through large trees that were twice as tall as anyone had thought. Tree limbs, leaves, and debris were blasted everywhere as the chopper’s blades sliced through them and descended to a landing. The impact caused the right door gunner to be thrown out of the helicopter, but he was unhurt. Colonel Zehnder, Major Kalen, and TSgt. Leroy M. Wright, the HH-3 flight engineer who broke an ankle in the landing, scrambled out to guard the aircraft and ready medical kits for POWs and casualties. Out jumped Captain Meadows, leader of the prison assault group, and his thirteen men.

No Response

Captain Meadows, carrying the bullhorn, shouted, “We’re Americans. Keep your heads down. This is a rescue. We’re here to get you out.” There was no response as his men raced from cell to cell. The team split up into action elements and reached their assigned cell blocks, eliminating enemy soldiers.

Meanwhile, the helicopter carrying Colonel Simons and his twenty-two-man team had landed by mistake at the “secondary school” 450 meters south of the prison. It was an understandable error. The two compounds looked similar at night, and a canal running alongside the school looked like the Song Con River. The pilot, Colonel Britton, was following the chopper ahead of him and did not see it change course suddenly while he prepared for his landing. Colonel Sydnor saw the mistake and put an alternate plan into effect: he had his men head for the area outside the prison wall, where he set up his command post.

Colonel Britton offloaded the Simons group and flew to his holding area. The raiders under Colonel Simons were immediately engaged in a furious firefight with what appeared in the darkness to be well-armed Chinese or Russian soldiers. With the advantage of complete surprise, his men killed more than 100 of them within the next few minutes. Colonel Simons hurriedly called Colonel Britton back and reboarded his men for the quick flight to the prison. Remarkably, there were no assault group casualties.

By this time, Captain Meadows and his men had engaged in a firefight and had killed a dozen or more surprised North Vietnamese. The first report of “negative items” (no prisoners) came from one of the two-man teams checking the cells; others quickly followed. Captain Meadows radioed General Manor at his command post: “Search complete. Negative items.”

Colonel Sydnor ordered the demolition of the HH-3, and the order was given for all to load up for departure.

The raid had taken twenty-eight minutes, and surprise had been complete. Sergeant Wright had a broken ankle, and one other raider sustained a minor thigh wound. One of Colonel Simons’s men had broken his pants belt and had hurriedly grabbed one from a corpse to replace it. It was the only souvenir of the raid.

The men returned to Thailand in disappointed silence. On the way home, two of the F-105s were attacked by SAMs; one of them was hit, and the two-man crew bailed out over Laos. A C-123 Provider dropped flares where the men were thought to be, and A-1Es “sanitized” the area. Two helicopters from the assault force located them and snatched them to safety.

Despite the successful execution of the raid, public response was negative. Some critics called the assault a “major escalation of the war,” while others insisted that the POWs had been endangered by such an attempt to rescue them. The truth was just the opposite. After the raid, prisoners at other locations were quickly transferred to Hoa Lo Prison in downtown Hanoi, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the POWs. Their treatment eased; many received letters and parcels. For the first time in many months, most of them had cell mates to talk to. Morale soared. The men organized themselves into squadrons with assigned duties for each, helped each other with medical care, held church services, and conducted math and language classes.

“Our Country Had Not Forgotten”

Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.) had been a prisoner since he was shot down in an F-4 Phantom II on April 16, 1966. He and his fellow inmates at Hoa Lo felt sure a raid had taken place when they heard the ruckus and saw the flares over Hanoi during the early morning hours of November 21, but they had no positive evidence until the summer of 1971. He received some hard candy from his wife, Shirley. “I plopped one in my mouth and sucked on it,” he said. “I felt something stiff, like a tiny plastic sliver, stick against the roof of my mouth. When I picked it out with my fingers, I found it to be a tiny brown speck, about the size of a pinhead. I rubbed it between my fingers, and it began to unfold. Amazed, I rubbed some more. In seconds, it had opened to the width of 16-mm film. . . . It was microfilm of the front page of the New York Times telling all about the Son Tay raid. Obviously, the Air Force had given the candy to Shirley to send. The young guys with good eyes could read it and gave us the details.

“We knew then that our country had not forgotten us.”

One question that has not been fully answered is exactly when or why the prisoners were moved. Some speculate that it was because of rising water of the Song Con River bordering the camp, four months before the raid. Others believe it may have been to consolidate prisoners to save manpower or to prevent knowledge of their whereabouts.

The only certainty is that the POWs benefitted indirectly from the raid. And, as one raider said, “If there had been POWs there, we would have gotten them out.”

A POW’s-Eye View of the Raid

Air Force Association President R. E. Smith was one of the prisoners at Son Tay. On October 25, 1967, he was an Air Force major flying out of Takhli RTAFB, Thailand, in an F-105 from the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing when he was shot down by ground fire. His target that day was the Paul Doumer Bridge over the Red River at Hanoi. His right leg was badly injured on bailout and, upon hitting the ground, he was shot twice in the left thigh by a North Vietnamese soldier. Fortunately, no bones or arteries were severed.

His captors immediately undressed him with a machete, wired his hands together, and took him to Hanoi. En route, onlookers threw bricks and stones at him and beat him with sticks. “I was very lucky to have made it into the prison,” he says. “I suspect many MIAs were not as lucky after they were caught and were killed by spectators.”

While Mr. Smith escaped death at the hands of the spectators, he did not escape the torture, beatings, and solitary confinement that all American POWs suffered from the prison guards.

He spent the next eight months in the Hoa Lo Prison (“Hanoi Hilton”), then was transferred to Son Tay in July 1968. He and fifty-six others were taken from Son Tay in July 1970, four months before the raid, and locked up elsewhere before ending up in the Hanoi Hilton four days after the raid.

Why were the prisoners moved? Mr. Smith believes the North Vietnamese were trying to improve the treatment and conditions of the POWs. He never saw any indication that rising water was the reason for their removal. “Neither is there any intelligence information, to my knowledge, that the Vietnamese knew the US was coming and therefore moved the POWs,” he adds. “I think we were moved so that we would all be in a centrally located prison where we could be more easily handled logistically.”

About three or four months after the raid, he says, “We got indications that something had happened at Son Tay . . . from the Vietnam Free Press, a propaganda rag printed in several languages. It said a bombing raid had been conducted on the town of Son Tay and that many Americans had been killed.

“We were absolutely elated when we learned of the raid. From our standpoint, it was the single most significant event in terms of POW life that happened in North Vietnam. It brought us together; it allowed us to be better organized; it reinforced the belief that the US would go to any length to see that we were returned. Disappointed that the raid did not work? Yes, but so very proud of the men and our country for the effort.”

Mr. Smith was repatriated March 14, 1973, and remained on active duty until August 1978. He was elected Air Force Association President in September 1994.

C. V. Glines is a writer living in Dallas, Tex. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “A Speech Worth Dying For,” appeared in the October 1995 issue.