Operation Kingpin: The U.S. Army Raid on Son Tay, 21 November 1970 Part II

The CIA built a tabletop replica of the Son Tay camp so it could be studied from all angles.

The North Vietnamese air defense system was one of the most extensive in the world. Each known site was mapped by the planners, and the appropriate anti-air defense measures were used. Of significance were the central and western air defense systems. Fortunately, neither of these systems detected the raid force until five minutes after the time over target (TOT). This was despite the presence of four F-4s and four F-105s in the area ten minutes prior to TOT. Other air defense systems that proved active included the northeastern (Phuc Yen control) sector, which controlled a minimum of seven FanSong (surface-to-air missile or SAM) and two FireCan (antiaircraft artillery or AAA) sites. Intelligence on these sites was excellent. Brigadier General Manor later recalled, “We had the capability to determine what they were seeing on their radar almost as soon as they did—which, of course, was very, very helpful.”

THE LEADERS

On 8 August 1970, the joint contingency task group (JCTG) was formed, and Brig. Gen. Leroy J. Manor was selected to command the force. Manor’s career began in June 1942 when he enlisted in the army air force and was sent to pilot training as an aviation cadet. Upon graduation he became a fighter pilot in P-48s, flying in the European theater of operation with both the Eighth and Ninth Air Force. He finished the war with seventy-two combat missions.

After the war, Manor returned to New York University and finished his degree in 1947. Later that year he became an instructor at the air tactical school at Tyndal Field, Florida. Following that assignment he went to Maxwell Air Force Base at Montgomery, Alabama, and helped organize the squadron officers’ school, staying on to teach the first class. He departed Maxwell for the Tactical Air Command air-ground operations school at Southern Pines, North Carolina.

In 1953 he was assigned to the Sixth Allied Tactical Air Force in Izmir, Turkey. After two years he went to Selfridge Field, Michigan, as the commander of the 2242d Air Reserve Flying Center where he flew F-80s, F-84s, F-86s, and eventually C-119s. In 1958 he attended the Armed Forces Staff College and was subsequently assigned as squadron commander of an F-100 squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico. Manor was then reassigned overseas to Germany as the chief of the Tactical Evaluation Division of U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), where he flew F-100s and F-105s. Upon completion of his tour in Germany, Manor was sent to the Industrial College of the Armed Forces with a four-year follow-on assignment in the Pentagon. For his tour in the Pentagon, he was rewarded with command of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing (F-100s) in Phu Cat, Republic of South Vietnam.

After one year and 275 combat missions in Vietnam, Manor returned to command the 835th Air Division at McConnell Air Force Base, Wichita, Kansas. While at McConnell, Manor was promoted to brigadier general and in 1970 became commander of the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Forces at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. While heading the Special Operations Forces, Manor was chosen as the task group commander for the Son Tay raid. Colonel Elliot “Bud” Sydnor described Manor as “very intelligent … the steel hand in a velvet glove.”

Another person instrumental in the planning and preparation of the raid was Brig. Gen. Donald D. Blackburn. Blackburn was the JCS SACSA at the time of the Son Tay raid. He was responsible for developing the initial plan, establishing the study group, coordinating all the intelligence and logistic support, and interfacing with the JCS and senior Department of Defense (DOD) and National Security Agency (NSA) personnel. Blackburn was arguably the most knowledgeable senior officer in the army on special operations. He began his career in 1940 as an infantry officer assigned to advise a Filipino infantry battalion in northern Luzon. When the Philippines fell in 1942, Blackburn refused to surrender and helped organize Filipino guerrillas to fight the Japanese. He became a regimental commander of a unit composed largely of Igorot headhunters. On 9 January 1945, the Americans returned in force to Luzon but had to battle the 235,000 well-entrenched Japanese until 5 July 1945. Throughout the interim “Blackburn’s headhunters” were instrumental in behind-the-lines operations in support of the ground campaign.

After the war, Blackburn, a highly decorated twenty-nine-year-old full colonel, returned to the United States where he was sent back to service schools to learn about “the real army.” After a tour as provost marshal of the Military District, Washington, D.C., he was sent to the Infantry School and then returned to Washington to serve two years in the Pentagon. Following his tour in the Pentagon, Blackburn was sent to parachute training and then in 1950 to be an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy. In 1953 he was assigned to the Allied Northern Forces, Europe. Upon completing his European assignment in 1957, Blackburn was sent to Vietnam as senior adviser to the Vietnamese commanding general, 5th Military Region, Mekong Delta. He was subsequently assigned to Fort Bragg where he assumed command of the 77th Special Forces Group. In 1960 Blackburn was picked to organize a military advisory group to conduct covert operations in Laos. Blackburn chose Lt. Col. Arthur D. Simons to head his “White Star” program. From 1964 to 1965, Blackburn was director of special operations for the deputy chief of staff for operations (DCS Ops) of the army. He returned to Vietnam in 1965 to be the first commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Studies and Observation Group (MACVSOG). This joint military organization included army and air force special operations forces, navy SEALs, marine reconnaissance forces, CIA, and a host of service support personnel. Following his tour in Vietnam, Blackburn returned to Washington as SACSA and retired from the military in June 1971 after that assignment.

Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons was chosen as the deputy commander of the JCTG for the raid on Son Tay. He graduated from the University of Missouri through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program and received his commission in the army in 1941. His first assignment was with the 98th Field Artillery Battalion in New Guinea. The outfit was disbanded soon thereafter, and Simons, who had become a battery officer and battalion executive officer, joined the 6th Ranger Battalion. He participated in the invasion of the Philippines, commanding B Company, 6th Rangers, during several behind-the-lines operations.

He was out of the service from February 1946 until June 1951. From 1951 until 1954 he served as an instructor at the Eglin Air Force Base Ranger Camp. The Ranger Camp was a department of the Infantry School. Following that tour Simons served three years in Ankara, Turkey, as a military adviser. In 1957 he received orders to Fort Bragg and in 1958 was assigned to the 77th Special Forces Group. He transferred to the 7th Special Forces Group. There Simons met Blackburn, who in 1960 chose him to head his White Star program in Laos.

Simons took 107 Special Forces personnel to Laos and formed a Laotian army by impressing thousands of Meo tribesmen into service. The CIA used White Star teams to train the Meo one-hundred-man autodéfense de choc (shock) companies. The Meo were well suited to the task and enjoyed soldiering. The White Star teams sent the Meo into the highlands to ambush the Pathet Lao forces and capture key military territorial objectives.

By July 1962, the White Star program included 433 Special Forces personnel who were responsible for conducting extensive unconventional warfare and training both the Forces Armées du Royaume and the Laotian military schools. Following his six months in Laos, Simons returned to Fort Bragg and then was assigned signed to Panama with the 8th Special Forces Group at Fort Gulick. In 1965 he reported to Vietnam and joined Blackburn at MACVSOG. While at MACVSOG Simons earned a reputation as a superb unconventional operator, but as Blackburn remembered, “He didn’t believe in ‘foolhardy frolics’ … When Bull Simons undertook an operation,… the research and planning behind it were ‘meticulous.’ 

In 1966 he returned to the States and was the assistant chief of staff of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg. Following a one-year tour in Korea, Simons returned to the XVIII Airborne Corps and while there was appointed to be the deputy commander of the Son Tay raid. He retired in July 1971 after thirty-four years of service. In 1979 Ross Perot brought Simons out of retirement to rescue two executives of the Electronic Data Systems who were trapped in Tehran. He died of heart failure soon after returning from Iran.

Lieutenant Colonel Bud Sydnor was probably the most influential and yet the most publicly unappreciated officer on the raid. It is a popular misconception that Simons was the ground force commander, but in fact, it was Sydnor. Sydnor developed the training curriculum, conducted the rehearsals, and led the force at the POW compound. For these tasks he was well qualified. At the end of World War II, Sydnor joined the navy, and after serving in the Atlantic as an enlisted man aboard the submarine USS Raton, he left the service and attended ROTC at Western Kentucky University, where he graduated in August 1952 as the Distinguished Military Graduate. After several schools Sydnor was assigned to the 11th Airborne Division as a platoon commander and then in 1954 as a company commander with the 2d Infantry Division in Korea. This was followed by a Stateside tour as the 25th Infantry Division’s battalion operations officer. In 1960-61 he served with the 22d Special Air Service in England and then returned to Fort Bragg where he joined the Special Forces in 1962. After three years in Washington, Sydnor received command of the 1st Battalion, 327th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, in Vietnam. He held this position until June 1968, at which time he was sent back to Fort Bragg.

In 1970 Sydnor was selected as the ground force commander for the raid on Son Tay. For his actions at Son Tay, Sydnor received the Distinguished Service Cross. In 1973, he assumed command of the 1st Special Forces Group in Okinawa. Following command, Sydnor was assigned as chief, Infantry Branch, and then chief, Company Grade Arms Division, at Fort Bragg. In June 1977, he moved to Fort Benning and became the director of the Ranger Department. He held that post until May 1980. Sydnor’s final assignment was the director of plans and training at the Infantry Center at Fort Benning. He retired in August 1981 after thirty-one years of service. In addition to the Distinguished Service Cross, Sydnor’s decorations also include: the Silver Star, Legion of Merit with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star for valor, the Air Medal with nine Oak Leaf Clusters, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Master Parachutist Badge, and the Ranger tab. In June 1992, Col. Elliot Sydnor was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame.

TRAINING

On 13 August 1970, Auxiliary Field 3 at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was selected as the continental United States (CONUS) training site for the raid. The cantonment included six barracks for the troops, classroom space, a secure building for the tactical operations center, a mess hall, a BX, a theater, and a motor pool. The area was isolated from the main base and had an apron space suitable for helicopter training.

A support detachment and five operational detachments were formed from those Special Forces personnel chosen for the mission. The training site was activated on 26 August, and the personnel deployed in two increments from Fort Bragg, with the last group arriving at Eglin by 8 September. The support detachment was responsible for all administrative and logistical support, providing backup personnel for the operational units, and maintaining a cover program by conducting daily training not related to the mission.

The training program was divided into four phases for both the air and ground forces. Phase I for the ground forces began on 9 September and ended on 16 September. During this time combat skills were evaluated to help select primary and alternate participants. This training included daily physical exercise (six to eight repetitions of Army Drill I and a two-mile run), psychological preparation for escape and evasion, land navigation, communications procedures, radio familiarization classes, helicopter orientation (including tactical loading and unloading), demolition charge preparation, patrolling, and extensive range firing with all weapons (M16, M79, M60, and .45-caliber).

The Son Tay Report explained that “this relaxed schedule of approximately seven hours per day was designed to allow the individual Ground Force member sufficient time to adapt to the strenuous PT program and to become acclimated.”

Throughout Phase I and the remainder of the training, several nonstandard equipment items were obtained for use on the mission. The procurement and employment of this equipment were instrumental in the success of the mission and warrant discussion. This equipment included:

• Two oxyacetylene emergency outfits for cutting through metal hasps or locks.

• Six commercial chain saws for clearing LZs.

• Bolt cutters used by air force fire fighters for cutting locks.

• Miners’ electric headlamps for hands-off illumination of the target. In many cases it became impractical to move and shoot with the lamps mounted on the soldiers’ heads, so most were secured to their load-bearing gear.

• Armson single-point sights. This sight allowed the Special Forces personnel to identify their target under low-light conditions. (For the actual raid, flares were dropped from a C-130 to provide the needed light.) It was found that during daylight operations the conventional iron sights were marginally better than the single-point; however at night there was no comparison. The single-point sight significantly improved the soldier’s ability to engage his target. At a distance of twenty-five meters, the worst marksman could place all rounds in a twelve-inch circle at night. At fifty meters the same individual could place all his rounds in an E-type silhouette.

• A special machete was developed with a heavy blade and a sharp point to be used for prying open doors and barricades. Some difficulty was encountered in making the blade quickly, and eventually the Eglin machine shop produced the required quantity in a couple of days.

• A fourteen-foot fireman’s ladder was acquired for use by the assault platoon in the event they had to scale the compound wall.

• Night-vision devices (NVDs) were obtained for the group and element leaders. During the raid, the NVDs were used by the assault and security groups at the objective site.

Phase II was conducted between 17 September and 27 September and included a review of basic skills and some specialized training, including: night firing on the range with all weapons, close air support, raid and immediate action drills, day and night aerial platform training, house searches, demolition training, medical training, and target recognition (this emphasized engaging targets at unknown distances). To increase realism, some abandoned buildings on Field 1 were used as a training aid.

Phase III was conducted between 28 September and 6 October. This phase concentrated on the joint interoperability aspect of the mission. For the first time, the ground and air forces were joined to develop and exercise detailed insertion and extraction plans necessary for the ground operations. The after-action report stated: “The period culminated with a series of ‘profile’ flights. The last profile was flown full-time to include a one hour flight simulating the flight from staging base to launch site.” This phase also concentrated on day and night live-fire rehearsals, close air control of the A-1s, weapons firing, search and rescue training, and escape and evasion (E&E).

Phase IV was added to the schedule when the execution was delayed. This phase was designed to maintain force readiness and improve any skills that might be deficient. It included a continued emphasis on dress rehearsals, immediate action drills, house-to-house fighting, demolition training, house clearing, E&E, and search and rescue (SAR) (which included a night exercise where all personnel were extracted by HH-53 in a simulated tactical scenario), alternate plan execution, and detailed target studies.

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