May 1970: Air reconnaissance photographs of the North Vietnamese town of Son Tay, about 35 kilometers west of Hanoi, had revealed the location of a secret camp for U.S. prisoners of war (POWs). Under the eyes of North Vietnamese guards, the POWs signaled their presence by drying laundry and treading out escape-and-evasion symbols in the dirt. The intelligence evidence was that there were about 60 prisoners at Son Tay.
The Son Tay photographs – and the proposals for a raid to free the prisoners – were brought by the Air Force to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) through U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Donald D. Blackburn, special assistant for counterinsurgency and special activities (SACSA). Blackburn, one of the Army’s original special operators, commanded Filipino guerrillas from 1942 to 1945. When asked how many battalions the raid would require, he told the JCS, “I had no intention of going in there with a battalion. I was going to go in there with a small group of men and helicopters and lift the POWs out.”
Blackburn was given the go-ahead to carry out a feasibility study for a raid. Planning for a raid was approved by the JCS on July 19. In the absence of a joint special operations headquarters, it would become the first-ever operation under direct JCS control.
Blackburn appointed Brig. Gen. Leroy Manor, a combat veteran fighter pilot commanding the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Group at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB), Florida, as mission commander. His deputy was Col. Arthur D. “Bull” Simons, already a legend in the U.S. Army’s special operations forces, with World War II service as well as more recent combat in Southeast Asia. Blackburn knew his reputation: “When Bull Simons undertook an operation … the research and planning behind it were meticulous.”
Simons’ choice for ground force commander was Lt. Col. Elliott “Bud” Sydnor, another veteran special operations leader. To lead the assault team that would liberate the prisoners, Simons selected Special Forces Capt. Dick Meadows, who had operated under his command in Laos.
Manor selected Lt. Col. Benjamin Kraljev as chief of operations (J-3) in charge of overall planning and Lt. Col. Warner A. Britton to be the helicopter element leader. Together, starting in late July, they organized the Joint Contingency Task Group (JCTG) code-named Ivory Coast. Manor said, “We had practically a blank check. … It is the only time in my 36 years of active duty that somebody gave me a job, simply stated, and the resources with which to do it, and let me go do it.”
An estimated 12,000 North Vietnamese troops were near the 140-foot by 185-foot prison compound, close to the swampy Song Con River, covered by Hanoi’s powerful air defenses. Behind 10-foot walls and concertina wire were barracks, a guardroom, and 40-foot-high trees surrounding a small courtyard. Outside were guard barracks, headquarters, and support facilities. The largest, designated “the secondary school” – also walled – was some 200 feet to the south of the prison compound, separated by a canal. Roads connected the area to the nearby town of Son Tay and a bridge over the river.
A surprise heliborne assault would overpower the guards and lift out the prisoners before reinforcements could arrive. The raid would be mounted from a U.S. airbase in Thailand. Six U.S. Air Force rescue helicopters – one Sikorsky HH-3 and five larger Sikorsky HH-53 Jolly Green Giants – would carry the raiders and extract them and any liberated prisoners. Providing close air support heavy firepower would be five U.S. Air Force piston-engine Douglas A-1 Skyraider fighter-bombers; three would carry QRC-128 jammers to disrupt VHF radio communications. Providing in-flight refueling for the helicopters were two Air Force Lockheed HC-130P Hercules tankers. Navigation and communications for the formation would be handled by two Lockheed MC-130E Combat Talon special operations aircraft, one each leading the helicopters and the A-1s. The MC-130s would also join helicopters in dropping flares to illuminate the prison compound.
The planners divided the Army raiders into three groups, each carried in a single helicopter. The mission could be carried out with any one of the three groups of raiders missing. At the objective, the HH-3 – call sign Banana 1 – would crash-land inside the small courtyard – which was surrounded by high trees – within the prison compound. The raiders on this helicopter – the 14-man assault group led by Meadows and reinforced by the helicopter crew – would release prisoners from their cells while preempting any last-minute massacre by their guards. The 23-man support group in HH-53 Apple 1 and the 20-man command group in HH-53 Apple 2 would land outside the walls of the prison, secure the landing zone, then hold it. Ambush positions would block reinforcements from reaching the prison. After blowing a hole in the wall of the prison compound, the liberated prisoners and the assault force were to be loaded aboard within 30 minutes.
An HH-3E, the same type of helicopter as Banana 1, being refueled by an HC-130 tanker. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE USAF PHOTO
TRAINING AND PREPARATION
The Army and Air Force components of the JCTG started repeated rehearsals and training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Eglin AFB by Aug. 20. A mock-up of the Son Tay camp was constructed (and concealed from Soviet reconnaissance satellites). A detailed scale model – codenamed Barbara – was constructed and used by the command staff to war-game out alternative approaches to the raid. On Sept. 28 – the day after the final plan for the raid had been briefed to the president and approved in principle – the training shifted from separate efforts at Eglin and Bragg to joint operations.
There were two all-night, full-profile mission rehearsals carried out with JCS observers. Both Air Force and Army components exercised together, with live fire, culminating in a full-scale rehearsal on Oct. 6. The ground phase of the operation was carried out in 25 minutes. The air elements of the force had flown 268 sorties and logged more than 1,000 hours over 77 days. By November, the raiders had practiced their actions on the ground 170 times. Grady Vines, a Special Forces NCO, recalled, “We had live-fire exercises, raided a mock stockade; trained around the clock, no breaks, no let-up. Our wives or families were told we were testing new equipment.”
Repeated out-of-season typhoons moved through the region. Rivers near Son Tay were rising, fed by rainfall from U.S. cloud seeding and weather modification efforts intended to slow the flow of North Vietnamese resupply to their forces in South Vietnam. The Son Tay planners were not aware of these weather-modification efforts or their potential impact on the raid, both being highly classified and compartmented.
Unbeknownst to the Ivory Coast task force, imagery of the Son Tay compound was showing a decrease in activity. Reconnaissance photos from Oct. 3 brought back showed no sign of occupation, while other imagery showed continued occupation of the site, by someone. U.S. prisoners of war held at Son Tay had also sent out coded messages in letters home as to when they were to be moved. This information was not made available to the raiders.
After a final briefing directly to President Richard Nixon, a coded go-ahead message was sent to Manor to carry out what was now designated Operation Kingpin. The raiders received the go-ahead to deploy to Thailand from Eglin, starting on Nov. 12 and arriving by Nov. 17. Nixon gave the final go-ahead on Nov. 20: “How could anyone not approve this?”
Simons pared down his force in Thailand, selecting 56 men to go on the raid from the 100 that had trained and deployed. Simons gave the final briefing at the Takhli air base theater at mid-afternoon on Nov. 20, revealing the identity of the target. Simons told them, “This is something American prisoners have a right to expect from their fellow soldiers.”
Later that day, the raiders boarded transports for the flight to Udorn air base, where the helicopters and tankers were waiting. Three carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin prepared to launch 59 Navy aircraft for a diversion to focus North Vietnamese attention on the Haiphong area.
The helicopters, the MC-130E Cherry 1 – carrying Maj. John Gargus, lead navigator for the whole operation – and the two HC-130P tankers, Lime 1 and 2, started to take off at 2256 from Udorn, where the raiders had arrived from Takhli earlier that evening. The five A-1s, call signs Peach 1-5, and their MC-130E Cherry 2 lead ship had earlier left their base at Nakhon Phanom.
An illustration of the six helicopters approaching Son Tay, led by an MC-130E. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE US AIR FORCE
Once airborne, the package operated in total radio silence, as they had trained. This proved critical when an unknown aircraft flew through and disrupted the helicopter formation soon after takeoff. The helicopters went through their rehearsed silent rejoin procedure after evading potential collision. The force was able to stay together despite the differences in cruising speeds. The HH-3, slower than the rest of the formation, had to cruise with “everything open but the toolbox,” with its maximum speed only just above the HC-130’s stalling speed. It had to ride the slipstream of the HC-130 in an attempt to get some more range and knots. Maj. Bill Kornitzer, aircraft commander of the HC-130, recalled, “The HH-3 stayed close behind our left wing in order to maintain the speed required by the rest of the formation.”
The low-level refueling of the helicopters from the HC-130s over Laos – in rough air conditions, at night, and under radio silence – was carried out successfully. The A-1s then joined up with the helicopters to make the final leg to the prison. The HC-130s broke away to refuel at Udorn to be ready to support the helicopters on the way home. The two MC-130s (modified with high-technology forward-looking infrared night vision equipment) took over the lead of the formation for the final approach to the target.
Over Son Tay at 0218, Cherry 1, the lead MC-130 navigating the helicopters, gave a final vector then climbed up to 1,500 feet and dropped flares and a pyrotechnic simulator on the “secondary school” (to make any troops there believe that they were under attack), followed by a pallet of napalm to create a flaming barrier.
Cherry 2 came in, leading the A-1s, and dropped a napalm marker for their ground reference. Two HH-53s – Apple 4 and 5, ready to drop flares or pick up liberated prisoners – and three A-1s pulled up and away into holding patterns. The remaining three HH-53s, the HH-3, and two A-1Es headed for the prison compound.
Apple 3, flown by Maj. Frederic “Marty” Donohue, was the lead HH-53. Acting as a gunship, it was swinging into position for its firing run on the prison guard towers when, at the last minute, the crew realized they were lining up on the wrong target. It broke off the attack, and, followed by the HH-3, made a firing run against the actual prison compound, which the crew spotted several hundred meters to the north. Apple 3 swept low over the prison compound between the high trees, its door gunners using GAU-2B 7.62mm miniguns to eliminate the two prison guard towers and spray the guard barracks. One of the A-1E pilots watched the attack from his holding pattern: “The towers either blew apart or caught fire, as did the guard quarters.” Apple 3 broke away and into a holding pattern, awaiting the order to return and pick up liberated prisoners.
Banana 1, the HH-3, flown by Maj. Herbert Kalen and Lt. Col. Herbert Zehnder, opened fire with three miniguns and then went into its spiral, slicing through trees and obstacles, into a controlled crash landing. Meadows and his 13-man Blueboy assault group stormed into the prison buildings. The helicopter crew guarded the flanks against North Vietnamese reinforcements or prepared to assist liberated prisoners. Meadows announced impending liberation through a bullhorn. Search parties fanned out through the compound. A few of the estimated 55 North Vietnamese soldiers in the compound resisted. About a dozen were quickly gunned down. Most retreated into the darkness.
Apple 1 – flown by Britton and carrying Simons and the support group, call sign Greenleaf – landed not outside the prison, as briefed, but outside the “secondary school” compound. This had been the compound Apple 3 had originally lined up to strafe. As the raiders jumped out, Apple 1 quickly lifted off to join a holding pattern. Capt. Eric Nelson, commanding the support group, soon realized they were on the ground, alone, and in the wrong piece of North Vietnam: “I had memorized the aerial photographs and the kill boxes. I knew we were 400 meters south of the target and at the ‘secondary school.’”
Apple 2 – flown by Lt. Col. John Allison and carrying Sydnor and the command and security group, call sign Redwine – was on final approach to the same landing zone (LZ) when its crew realized that it was in the wrong place. It flew on north to the prison compound, its gunners engaging the remaining guard towers before landing in the planned LZ about 100 meters from the prison compound’s south wall. Redwine moved swiftly to secure the LZ, seizing and securing the buildings that could be used to bring direct fire on it. Security elements moved out to secure the area. A pathfinder set up a beacon for pickup in the LZ. The well-rehearsed teams encountered surprised North Vietnamese.
Apple 1 was not on the LZ. Sydnor used the radio to signal that Plan Green was in effect. This was an alternate plan that had been rehearsed many times – for Redwine to secure the outside of the prison compound and the LZ without Greenleaf. Sydnor called up two A-1s that attacked a nearby bridge, further isolating the prison, before taking up an orbit around the napalm marker, waiting for any further call from the raiders.
While Sydnor was securing the LZ south of the prison wall, Simons found the “secondary school” was actually a barracks full of troops, now grabbing AK-47s. The raiders misidentified them as Chinese from lines of communications and air defense units recently in the area; they were probably troops of the North Vietnamese 305th Airborne Brigade. Simons led Greenleaf into an attack on the compound. The element of surprise was with the raiders. Accurate M79 40mm grenade launcher fire through the windows suppressed fire from the buildings. An M60 light machine gun was used to silence firing from the west side of the compound. Large numbers of North Vietnamese fell. More than 40 were killed. One raider was wounded; Sgt. 1st Class Joe Murray recalled, “I felt my leg convulse forward and burn as the bullet hit me. … There was no time to stop. We went in and cleared the building of everyone inside.”
Within six minutes of its initial landing, Apple 1, recalled from its holding pattern, picked Simons and his group up from outside the “secondary school” compound. Some nine minutes after H-Hour, after a short helicopter flight, Simons linked up with Sydnor in the LZ outside the prison walls. There was a brief exchange of fire between the two groups of raiders as they linked up, quickly deconflicted without any casualties. The security perimeter around the LZ saw a North Vietnamese convoy heading for the prison, apparently unaware of the situation. The lead trucks drove into an ambush; 66mm light antitank weapons (LAWs) knocked out the lead vehicles.
Meadows and his force searched the prison compound. It was empty. Once he confirmed this, at H+10 minutes, Meadows dropped his bullhorn and radioed to Simons, “negative items.” Pausing only long enough to destroy the HH-3, Meadows rejoined Simons and Sydnor, the raiders exiting through a hole blown by demolition charges in the southwest wall of the prison compound at H+18.
The helicopters were called in to pick up the raiders at H+17 minutes. Apple 1, 2, and 3 landed at H+23 and within five minutes had loaded all the raiders. The total time on the ground had been 28 minutes. Meadows said, “I don’t think the world has ever seen, and maybe still hasn’t seen, so much air-planning and flying expertise gathered under one command.”
North Vietnamese air defenses were now fully alerted. Some 36 SA-2 surface-to-air missiles were fired as the force withdrew. A full-scale air-to-surface battle with U.S. fighters ensued.
At the recovery base, Air Force and Army raiders sat together on the ramp. “We all just sat mumbling to each other. No stories were being told. We had all just done it, seen it, or heard it and knew what had happened,” an A-1 pilot recalled.
“The intelligence was absolutely superb. On an operation like this, the person that is doing the planning and directing has got to have access to the highest levels in the intelligence agencies of the government and – fortunately – I did,” Blackburn said. Even with hindsight, there was no way intelligence could have been certain Son Tay was empty. The raid had failed in its primary objective of freeing prisoners; most of the prisoners had been taken out of Son Tay on July 24, and the remainder followed over the next two months. The prisoners would not be liberated until a peace settlement almost three years after the raid. Wes Schierman was a prisoner for five years at the time of the raid, 18 months of that spent at Son Tay: “We got some information from the outside that there had been a raid to rescue prisoners. We were ecstatic, of course, knowing that. … The Son Tay raiders are our heroes, for sure.”
The improvised yet thorough planning and training that the raid demonstrated were only possible because the United States could draw on experienced leaders with special operations expertise. But once the Son Tay force dissolved, there was no attempt to preserve the capability to give the national command authority the capability for high-value operations. It would require years of incremental change, including the lessons from the failure of the Iran raid in 1980 and setbacks in Grenada in 1983, before the establishment of U.S. Special Operations Command would provide an enduring capability to plan, train for, and execute joint special operations worldwide.
This article originally appears in the following edition of Special Operations Outlook: