Overhead imagery of the prison compound at Son Tay, North Vietnam.
In the summer of 1970, United States intelligence picked up alarming reports of increasingly harsh conditions in the prison camps where more than 470 American prisoners of war were held by North Vietnam. The prisoners, most of them aircrew members, suffered from near-starvation diets, long periods of isolation, and, often, outright torture.
The news was particularly bothersome to Air Force officers who had seen far too many of their friends take off from bases in Thailand and disappear into what they referred to as the Hanoi Hilton. By that time, however, Hanoi Hilton was a misnomer. Many of the prisoners were not held in a central compound where they could provide support for one another and where there was some hope they might be treated humanely, as provided for by international law. Instead, many of them were scattered in small compounds in Hanoi and the surrounding area, where their hope for decent treatment rested on the whim of each prison commander and even of individual guards.
It was at this dark period in the prisoner-of-war situation that analysts at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, working on a secret project that involved studying these outlying prisons, came up with a bold proposal. While it would almost certainly be impossible to rescue Americans from the central compound in Hanoi, it might very well be possible to stage a raid that would pluck a significant number of prisoners from one of the outlying compounds.
They passed their suggestion along to the Pentagon and pinpointed a potential target for such a raid. It was the prisoner compound at the Son Tay Citadel, twenty-three miles northwest of Hanoi. Intelligence information confirmed that fifty-five Americans had been moved into the prison in the spring and summer of 1968.
General LeRoy J. Manor, commander of the special operations force at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was called to Washington on 8 August 1970 and ordered to plan for a rescue operation and begin putting a team together to do the job.
Colonel Arthur D. “Bull” Simons.
Manor assembled a remarkably lean and fast-moving crew. Manor, a one-star, was the highest-ranking officer involved. His deputy for air operations was a lieutenant colonel, Ben Kraljev. His deputy commanding the Special Forces soldiers who would carry out the rescue was Lt. Col. Arthur D. “Bull” Simons, a soldier with long experience running special operations in Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia.
The rescue they planned was a classic special operation that could have come right out of the history of the Air Commandos and Carpetbaggers of World War II or the ARCS of the 1950s. The Air Force would deliver a fighting force of about fifty soldiers to Son Tay, stand by while the prison guards were gunned down and the prisoners freed and assembled, and then pick up the rescuers and the rescued and carry them all safely back to a base in northern Thailand.
Simons went to the home of the Army Special Forces at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and asked for volunteers. The men weren’t told where they were going or what they were going to do. All they were told was that the mission would be dangerous. Five hundred volunteers stepped forward. Of those, 120 were selected and moved to Duke Field, also known as auxiliary field No. 3, at Eglin Air Force Base. Training began on 1 September, using a mock-up of the Son Tay compound that was dismantled each time a Soviet spy satellite passed overhead.
For the soldiers, the operation was almost routine, in the sense that it called upon skills in which they had long been trained: landing from a helicopter, entering and searching buildings, and suppressing any resistance. For them, preparation for the raid was mostly a matter of repeating every action over and over until it became automatic. And, of course, it involved practicing what to do if anything went wrong until that, too, was automatic.
For the Air Force crews, planning for the Son Tay raid was anything but routine. And, of course, the whole thing would have to be abandoned if the Air Force could not get the soldiers there and bring them and the prisoners back out again.
The requirement that this be a round-trip affair meant the use of helicopters. The Green Berets could not be parachuted onto the compound because they and the prisoners would then be stranded there. And there was no place near Son Tay to land fixed-wing aircraft.
For the core of the operation, Manor settled on a force of six helicopters. That would be enough to carry the raiding force and twice as many prisoners as they hoped to liberate. At every point, he strove to have twice as many aircraft as he thought he needed.
The planners were faced by a daunting dilemma. If the raiding force landed outside the walls of the compound, it was possible that the North Vietnamese might kill some of the prisoners before the raiders blasted their way into the prison. One of the planners, a Navy SEAL who was not going along on the operation, came up with a proposal: crash-land one of the helicopters right in the compound and then leave it there.
His suggestion was adopted, but that added a further complication. The big HH-53 helicopters used for rescue missions—the Super Jolly Green Giants—would be ideal for the mission. But a smaller craft was needed for the crucial crash landing. The decision was made to use an older model HH-3, a machine notoriously slow and underpowered.
All the helicopters were capable of being refueled in the air. This meant the operation could be staged from a base in northern Thailand without the complication of a refueling stop in Laos before hopping across the North Vietnamese border for the run to the target.
With refueling, the helicopters could reach the target and get back again. But could they find the compound? Probably not, since they did not carry navigators and had only rudimentary navigation equipment.
Manor added two MC-130 Combat Talons to his planning to act as pathfinders for the helicopters and for a flight of A-1E Sandys that would come along to suppress enemy antiaircraft fire. The four-engine, propeller-driven Combat Talons were specially equipped for delivering agents behind enemy lines. It was the same type of plane that had carried out the daring leaflet-dropping missions over North Vietnam.
The MC-130s normally carried two navigators, but a third was added for this mission. Still, finding the way, even with a little bit of moonlight, was going to be very, very difficult. There were no lights of cities or highways to use as checkpoints, and the planes were not yet equipped with the kind of inertial navigation system that simplifies the task of those who navigate today’s Combat Talons. Night-vision goggles, which make life much easier for today’s air commandos, had not yet been developed. The navigators did have a forward-looking infrared system, or FLIR, and that proved invaluable in helping them to find their way.
Getting close to the target was one thing. Picking the prisoner-of-war compound out of the darkness was a more difficult task, compounded by the fact that flood waters from the monsoon rains were capable of changing the contours of the landscape in a matter of hours. The navigators worried, for example, that they might find that the river they relied on to mark one edge of the prison compound had changed overnight into a formless lake.
When they flew practice missions in Florida, the crews found that their dim instrument lights reflected on the canopies of their cockpits and made it almost impossible to see outside. In desperation, they even had the copilot stick his head out a cockpit window to try to see where they were going. It didn’t work. With all that wind in his face, it was almost impossible to see anything, and the man with his head out the window couldn’t make himself understood through the intercom over the sound of the wind. They became resigned to doing the best they could without being able to see very well.
Flying the helicopters in formation with the MC-130s posed its own special problems. The pilots of the pathfinder planes were relatively comfortable flying through the darkness with their terrain-following radar, or TFR. The TFR sends a radar beam out in front of the plane to reflect off any obstacles in its path. The pilot then either adds power to climb over the obstacle or flies around it. But the helicopters—even the more powerful HH-53s—could not climb nearly as rapidly as the four-engine pathfinders. This meant the MC-130 pilots had to plan for a very gentle climb over every hill en route.
The most serious problem was posed by the underpowered HH-3. Many pilots would say it is simply impossible to fly the HH-3 in formation with an MC-130. They would be very close to right. But the MC-130 pilots found that, if they flew with their flaps extended about 70 percent at about 107 knots—right on the edge of a stall—the helicopter could keep up. They also found that, flying tucked up behind the bigger plane, the helicopter was, in effect, sucked along by the draft of the MC-130, much as a bicyclist can reach high speeds by pedaling close behind a speeding truck.
When the planning and training were finished, the raiding force itself consisted of two MC-130 Combat Talon pathfinders, five HH-53 helicopters, one HH-3 helicopter, and five Sandy escort fighter-bombers. Each plane had a call sign using the word for a kind of fruit. The pathfinders were Cherry 1 and Cherry 2; the HH-3 helicopter was Banana 1; the HH-53s were Apple 1 through 5; the tankers were Lime 1 and 2; and the A-1E Sandys were Peach 1 through 5. If the North Vietnamese had been listening in, they would have thought they were being attacked by a fruit salad.
It was not until just before the takeoff that the soldiers who were going to carry out the raid were told where they were going. Many of them had not guessed and were astonished to learn that they were heading for the outskirts of Hanoi.
But many of the aircrew members, who had to plan where they were going and how they were going to get there, were let in on the secret while they were training in Florida. One of the questions that frequently popped up was: Are there really American prisoners in that camp?
An officer from the Defense Intelligence Agency, who said he had access to human intelligence, was sure that the camp was occupied by American prisoners. Although admitting that his information might be as much as a month old, he insisted it was still reliable. But a reservist trained as a photo interpreter, using recent aerial photos, kept pointing to signs that led him to believe the prisoners had been moved: none of the recent pictures showed Caucasians in the prison yard during the times when they would be expected to be outside; weeds and grass were growing on paths that would have been trampled clean if a number of prisoners were being held there.
One of the MC-130 pilots was Ron Jones, then a captain. He recalls wondering whether or not prisoners were present
“This young captain told us at least a month before the mission went down that he didn’t think there were any prisoners there. He said he believed they’d been moved. The decision was still made to go. In my heart of hearts, I believe that the higher-ups knew there were probably not any prisoners there, but they were going to do the mission anyway, for a number of reasons.”
Among those aware of the controversy, the dispute over whether or not there were prisoners present at the compound did not seem to make them reluctant to participate. They had trained hard and were ready to go.
Manor and Simons conducted periodic briefings for the brass in Washington. They met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 8 September; with Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird on 24 September; with Henry Kissinger and Brig. Gen. Al Haig at the White House on 9 October. They said they would be ready to go on 21 October.
Kissinger asked Manor how soon he needed a decision.
“Tomorrow night,” Manor replied.
Kissinger told him Nixon wouldn’t be available to make a decision that quickly. Manor also got the impression another reason for the delay was that a raid at that moment might disrupt negotiations with the North Vietnamese that could lead to release of prisoners.
Manor had picked two “windows” for the operation: 21–25 October and 21–25 November. That would give him a quarter moon thirty-five degrees above the horizon and, if the long-range forecasts were accurate, acceptable weather.
The delay at the White House pushed the date for the operation into November. Manor and Simons were authorized to continue training and to brief a few high-ranking officers who would have to know about the operation.
President Nixon finally took up the matter in early November.
His consideration of whether or not to authorize the raid came nearly two years before the Watergate break-in that eventually drove him from the White House. But already, in 1970, Nixon’s Vietnam War policy was under serious attack. The incursion into Cambodia on 30 April not only set off large antiwar demonstrations but also caused serious opposition on Capitol Hill, where, in midyear, the Senate repealed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that had authorized President Johnson to escalate United States involvement in the war. The decision to authorize a risky mission that could either be a dramatic morale booster or a devastating disaster was a tough call.
“I have often wondered how he would have gone to the American people if we had lost that entire force,” Manor says. “If we had been compromised, we could have lost the entire force. It would have been a tough job for him to go to the American people and say he had approved this.”
On the afternoon of 18 November, Nixon gave the go-ahead for the operation.
Manor had already assembled his force in Thailand. The final plan called for the soldiers to fly from Takhli to Udorn, in northern Thailand, and board the helicopters there. The next time they would set foot on land, it would be at Son Tay.
It was a lean, compact raiding force. There would be no intermediate stops, no prepositioning of fuel or supplies, no delays en route. They would fly to Son Tay, refueling in the air, assault the POW compound, spend about half an hour on the ground, and fly directly back out again.
Supporting the raiding force was a substantially larger military operation. In all, the rescue effort involved 116 aircraft taking off from seven airfields and three aircraft carriers. Planes assigned to gather intelligence and assist in communications came from as far away as Okinawa.
Manor believed strongly in using deception to protect his small raiding force. Even though United States policy prohibited bombing attacks on most of North Vietnam, Manor arranged for the Navy to launch a huge mock raid to fool the North Vietnamese into believing that bombing of the Haiphong-Hanoi area was suddenly being resumed in a big way—and thus direct the attention of the defenders to the east, rather than to the west, where the raiding force would enter North Vietnam.