VFW Magazine — November 2010
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Daring POW Raid at Son Tay
Al Hemingway

On Nov. 21, 1970, top officials in Wash ing ton held their breath as a joint U.S. Army-Air Force res cue team at tempt ed to free U.S. POWs from captivity in North Vietnam.

We Are going to rescue 70 Amer ican prisoners of war, maybe more, from a camp called Son Tay,” announced Col. Arthur “Bull” Simons, combat vet er an of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. “You are to let nothing interfere with this operation.Our mission is to rescue prisoners, not to take prisoners. If there’s been a leak, we’ll know it as soon as the sec ond or third chop per sets down… We’ll make them pay for every foot.”

When Simons finished his speech, the room fell silent for a brief moment.Then every man ap plaud ed. The raid on Son Tay Prison Camp—deep with in North Viet nam—was un der way.

In May 1970, two POW camps were identified by the In ter agency Prisoner of War Intelligence Committee (IPWIC).This com mit tee, formed in 1967, was re - sponsible for identifying POWs and the camps they were interned in and to veer bombing missions away from those ar eas.

The two camps were Ap Lo, about 30 miles west of Hanoi, and Son Tay, 23 miles from North Vietnam’s capital, sit - u at ed at the junction of the Song Con and Red Rivers. It was determined that Son Tay was being enlarged because of the increased activity at the camp. In telligence also confirmed that 55 POWs were being confined at Son Tay. Photo re connaissance discovered the letters SAR (Search and Res cue), ap parently spelled out by the prisoner’s laundry, and an ar row with the number 8, indicating the distance the men had to travel to the fields they worked in.

On May 25, IPWIC briefed Army Gen. Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), on a tentative plan to free the POWs at Son Tay. By 1970, the war was in its fifth year. Public sup port was waning, and a daring rescue of POWs would be a much-needed mo rale boost er militarily; not to mention a political victory for President Richard M. Nixon who was under fire for his recent incursion into Cambodia.

Operation Polar Circle

Wheeler granted the request. Adm. Th -o mas H. Moorer, the new JCS chair man, sat in on the meet ing. The first phase of the plan, dubbed Operation Polar Circle, was ap proved.

On June 10, a 15-man group, headed by Army Brig. Gen. Donald D. Black - burn, began the planning stage of the operation. Blackburn, no strang er to special operations, was the special as sis - tant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities. He conceived the idea for the raid and then appointed a panel.

Reconnaissance photos taken by SR- 71 “Blackbirds” r vealed that Son Tay “was active.” The camp it self was in the open and sur round ed by rice paddies. In close prox I'm i ty was the 12th North Viet - namese Army (NVA) Regiment totaling approximate ly 12,000 troops. Also nearby was an artillery school, a supplyDepot and an air defense installation.

Five hundred yards south was anoth - er compound called the “secondary school,” which was an administration center housing 45 guards. To make matters more difficult, Phuc Yen Air Base was only 20 miles north east of Son Tay.It was evident that the raid would have to be executed swiftly. If not, the Com - munists could have planes in the air and a reaction ary force at the camp within minutes.

Son Tay itself was small and was sit u - at ed amid 40-foot trees to obstruct the view. Only one power and tele phone line entered it. The POWs were kept in four large buildings in the main com - pound. Three observation towers and a seven-foot wall encompassed the camp.Be cause of its diminutive size, only one chop per could land within the walls.The re main der would have to touch down outside the compound.

Another problem the planning group had to consider was the weather. The heavy monsoon downpours prohibit ed the raid until late fall. Finally, November was selected because the moon would be high enough over the horizon for good visibility, but low enough to obscure the enemy’s vision.

Operation Ivory Coast

With the planning stage completed, the next phase of the raid, called Ivory Coast, was ready to swing into ac tion.Air Force Brig. Gen. Leroy J. “Roy” Man - or, a stickler for or ganization, led the group. The National Security Agency (NSA) tracked the NVA air de fense systems and artillery units near by. Also, in addition to the Blackbirds, unmanned Buf fa lo Hunt er “Drones” flew over the camp as well, al though they had to cease fly ing because many feared that the NVA would spot them.

In July, an SR-71 photo recon mis sion Depicted “less active than usual” activity in the camp. On Oct. 3, Son Tay showed very little signs of life. How ever, flights over Dong Hoi, an NVA port and base southeast of Son Tay, were picking up in - creased activity. The planners were scratching their heads. Had the POWs been moved? Had the NVA picked up signs that a raid was I'm minent?

In fact, the POWs had been re lo cat ed to Dong Hoi July 14, but not for the rea - sons the planners had anticipated. The Song Con River, where Son Tay was lo - cat ed, had begun to overflow its banks.
So because of the flooding problem, the prisoners were trans port ed to Dong Hoi.

Operation Kingpin

Operation King pin, the final component of the raid, was approved by Nixon on Nov. 18. Next day, how ev er, Adm. Moorer was notified that it was suspected that the POWs had been transferred.Un for tunate ly, the planners nixed the idea to move on Dong Hoi. Their reason ing was that the raiders had rehearsed on Son Tay all this time and changing to Dong Hoi at the last minute might cause catastrophic results.

On Nov. 21, 1970, at ap proximate ly 11:18 p.m., the Son Tay raid ers, ac com - panied by C-130Es called Com bat Tal - ons, departed Udorn, Thailand, for the final phase of their mission. At the same time, the U.S. Navy began a huge carrier strike against North Vietnam to divert attention away from the raid ing party

As the group neared the prison, the two “Jolly Greens,” dubbed “Apple 4” and “Apple 5,” hovered at 1,500 feet to act as reserve flareships in the event the C-130s’ flares did not ignite. Suddenly, Col. Frederick M. “Marty” Donohue’s HH-53 helicopter, call sign “Apple 3,” devel oped trouble. Without warning, a yellow trou ble light appeared signaling transmission problems.

Donohue calm ly in formed his co-pi - lot, Capt. Tom Waldron, to “ignore the SOB.” In a nor mal situation, Donohue would have land ed. But this was no normal mission. “Apple 3” kept going. As Donohue’s chop per “floated” across Son Tay’s main compound, the door gunners let loose 4,000 rounds a minute from their mini-guns. The observation tower in the north west section of the camp erupt ed into flames. With that, Donohue Set down at his “holding point” in a rice pad dy just outside the prison.

As Maj. Herb Kalen tried to ne go ti ate a landing inside the com pound, he al - most lost control of his chopper, call sign “Banana 1,” that was carrying the as sault group code-named “Blueboy.” The 40-foot trees that surrounded Son Tay were, in actuality, much larger. “One tree,” a pilot remembered, “must have been 150 feet tall . . . We tore into it like a big lawn mower. There was a tre men - dous vibration . . . And we were down.”

Luckily, only one person was injured; a crew chief suffered a broken ankle.Re gain ing his composure, Special Forces Capt. Richard Meadows scur ried from the downed aircraft and said in a calm voice through his bullhorn: “We’re Amer i cans. Keep your heads down.This is a rescue. Keep your heads down.We’re Americans. Get on the floor. We’ll be in your cells in a minute.”

The raiders sprung into action I'm - me di ate ly. Automatic weapons ripped into the guards. Other NVA, at tempt ing to flee, were cut down as they tried to make their way through the east wall.Four teen men entered the prison to rescue the POWs. However, to their dis appointment, none were found.

Furious Firefights

As the raiders were neu tral iz ing the compound, Lt. Col. John Allison’s he li cop ter, call sign “Apple 2,” with the “Redwine” group aboard, was heading toward Son Tay’s south wall. As his door gunners fired their mini-guns on the guard towers, Allison wondered where “Apple 1” was. Code-named “Greenleaf,” it was car - ry ing Simons. Allison put his HH-3 inside the compound and the Special Forces per son nel streamed down the rear ramp.

Wasting no time, they blew the utility pole and set up a road block about 100 yards from the land ing zone. A heat ed fire fight en sued. Guards were “scurry - ing like mice” in an attempt to fire on the raid ers. In the end, almost 50 NVA guards were killed at Son Tay.

“Apple 1,” piloted by Lt. Col. Warner A. Britton, was having troubles of its own.The chopper had veered off the mark and was 450 meters south of the prison and had erroneously landed at the “secondary school.” Simons knew it wasn’t Son Tay. The structures and ter rain were dif ferent and, to everyone’s horror, it was no “secondary school”—it was a barracks filled with enemy sol diers—100 of whom were killed in five minutes.

As the chopper left, the raiders opened up with a barrage of automatic weapons. Capt. Udo Walther cut down four en e my soldiers and went from bay to bayriddling their rooms with his CAR-15. Re alizing their error, the group ra dioed “Apple 1” to return and pick up the raiders from their dilemma.Simons, mean while, jumped into a trench to await the return of Britton when an NVA leaped in the hole next to him. Terrified and wear ing only his underwear, the Viet namese froze Simons pumped six shells from his .357 Magnum hand gun into the trooper’s chest, kill ing him in stantly.

Britton’s chop per quickly re turned when he re ceived the radio trans mis sion that Simon’s group was in the wrong area. He flew back to Son Tay and de posited the remainder of the raid ers thereThings were be gin ning to wind down.There was little resistance from the re - main ing guards. Meadows ra dioed to Lt. Col. Elliott P. “Bud” Sydnor, the head of the “Redwine” group on the raid, “neg a - tive items.” There were no POWs. They had been on the ground exactly 27 minutes.The Son Tay Raid was over.

What Went Wrong

Why had the raid on Son Tay failed? Ac - cord ing to historian Dale Andrade: “The fact that initially the CIA, DIA and NSA would all be in volved sounded like a good idea. But, in reality, they only muddied the waters of the planning and got in each other’s way.” Another important factor was the seemingly never-ending poor weather.

That’s why the POWs had been re lo cat - ed from Son Tay in the first place; because of the rapidly rising waters near the camp. Even Manor wrote in his after-action re port that “five years of ty - phoons moved into the area of North Vietnam, South Vietnam and Laos” in the months just prior to the raid.

What most did not know was that a top-secret “weather modification” exper imentnamed Operation Popeye was re spon sible for some of the in clement Weather. (Col. Keith Grimes, an Air Force meterologist, was on the raid.)

Aircraft had been drop ping “cloudseeding paraphernalia” in the region, and the missions over Laos had doubled in 1970.

“Why didn’t top of ficials in the CIA and Air Force tell the JCS and the Ivory Coast Task Force about Op er a tion Popeye ?” wrote Dale Andrade. “That gap in the knowl edge of the planners could have en dan gered not only the lives of POWs in the area, but also the lives of the raiders.” After the raid, the NVA removed POWs from outlying POW camps to the Hanoi Hilton.

“What really stands out in my mind,” re marked Special Forces Sgt. Terry Buck - ler, a member of the raiding party, “was the dedication the guys had. I was the young est person on the raid, so I felt my life was un I'm portant. But the oth ers had family. And they could have got ten off the mission at any time. But they stayed.That I'm pressed me. These guys were will ing to lay down their lives for their comrades. They were true professionals.”