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

Upon landing, the headquarters element cleared the southwest guard tower, broadcast messages to the POWs, blew a four-foot-by-four-foot hole in the west wall with a twenty-pound satchel charge, and established radio contact with the ground force commander (Sydnor) and all the action elements.

Action Element 1 moved to building 5A where it was believed the prisoners were being held. All the cell blocks were searched by a two-man search team while other members of the element provided security. Members of the element continued to clear their assigned areas including the northwest tower and the areas along the west and north walls. Part of the element proceeded to the holding cells in building 5C and another part to 5D. As the element moved into 5D, three to five NVA (Vietnamese Army troops) rushed from the building and were killed by Action Elements 2 and 3. Outside the building, NVA guards began to initiate a large volume of ineffective automatic-weapons fire. Action Element 2 quickly moved into buildings 5E and 4, clearing the spaces as they went. Inside 5E, two NVA guards were killed. The locks on the cells were cut and all blocks searched as planned. Action Element 3 moved to secure the gate and clear building 5B. Element 3 killed three NVA just inside and north of the gate while two enemy were killed outside near building 7A.

At H hour + 10 minutes the headquarters element received an all-clear from the action elements and was notified that no prisoners had been found. Meadows subsequently ordered all elements to move to the southwest wall and stand by for extraction. He then radioed the command group leader that “zero items” were found in the compound. At H+15 the action elements (minus headquarters) moved to the marshaling position outside the compound. The headquarters element remained behind to destroy the HH-3. At H+18, Meadows initiated the demolition charge and a firefight simulator to replicate the sound of gunfire. Then he proceeded out the southwest wall and linked up with Sydnor.

As the assault group was executing its controlled crash inside the Son Tay compound, Apple 2, with Sydnor and the command element, was landing just outside the south wall. The pilot of Apple 2, realizing that Apple 1 had inadvertently landed at the wrong compound, implemented Plan Green, which provided for the loss of one helicopter. With Plan Green in effect, the door gunners from Apple 2 engaged the prescribed buildings outside the compound while the pilot landed the helicopter a hundred yards from the south wall. Inside the helo, Sydnor was advised “by the pilot of Apple 2 that Apple 1 was not present.” Sydnor immediately “took hold of Redwine’s [Captain Daniel Turner—command group leader] equipment harness [they were seated side by side in the aircraft] and advised him that Plan Green was in effect.” Then he directed his radio operator to notify all elements that the alternate plan was being executed. All of the command elements (known as security elements) were redirected except for Security Element 2, which had not established radio contact and was too far away to be visually alerted.

As soon as the new orders were transmitted, all the elements responded accordingly. They had practiced the alternate plan so often “all [Turner] had to do was say ‘Plan Green in effect’ and they reacted.”

“The mission of the Command Group was to secure the south wall, act as reserve for Assault and Support Groups, and act as control for evacuating prisoners to helicopters.”30 However, with Plan Green in effect that mission was expanded to include securing the east wall and all buildings close by as well as destroying the vehicle bridge to the north. The command element came under small-arms and rifle-grenade fire from building 7B as they exited the helo and began to direct the security elements. This threat was quickly subdued but not eliminated. The helo immediately departed the area for its holding spot. Within minutes Sydnor contacted the circling A-1s and directed them to attack the footbridge to the southeast. The A-1s dropped four white phosphorous one-hundred-pound bombs on the bridge and then expended six Rockeyes on isolated targets on the road southwest of the camp.

The NVA, now fully alerted, began to return fire and move to secure areas. Three or four NVA were killed running between buildings 11 and 12, and several more were killed as they were caught between the command element (still situated at the LZ) and Security Element 1 moving toward the south wall. Security Element 1, executing Plan Green, moved to its objectives at buildings 8E, 8D, and 4A. In the process small-arms fire from building 7B was suppressed and two NVA killed. Upon arriving at building 8D, Element 1 came under heavy fire. Three members of the element assaulted the building and cleared it with a hand grenade. The number of killed is unknown. Five NVA were spotted to the east of 8D and were engaged by fire. At the same time, one NVA engaged Element 1 from the west end of the building, and two NVA fired from the east end of 8D. Element 1 engaged and killed the two NVA at the east end and suppressed the remaining fire. The portion of Element 1 assigned to clear buildings 8E and 4A was engaged by four NVA. The element returned fire, but the results are unknown. They continued clearing the buildings and subsequently linked up with members of the assault group exiting the compound through the hole in the west wall.

Security Element 2 did not receive word about the change in plan and consequently proceeded to execute their basic mission. They disabled the power station with an M72 light antitank weapon (LAW) and then assaulted and cleared it. Immediately following this action, the element began receiving small-arms fire from the southwest and from a position south of the canal. Both enemy threats were subdued with two NVA killed in the process.

Security Element 3 had moved to a position south of the small canal when they received word about the change in plan. Unfortunately, enemy fire and the thick foliage prevented a hasty retreat to their new objective. However, by H+5 the element was in position to engage building 7B. The grenadier and M60 man attacked the building with heavy fire. The element was delayed in assaulting the building owing to a deep drainage ditch and the thick concertina wire that surrounded the target. As they approached the building two NVA were killed. Another ten were killed once they entered the building.

The pathfinder element, which was to set up the primary LZ, cleared the pump station with a concussion grenade and thirty rounds of ammunition and then blew down the nearby power poles to clear the LZ. As this was happening, the support group, which had been delayed at the false compound, arrived at Son Tay. The ground force commander alerted all his security elements that the support group had landed and would take up their original positions. The security elements were ordered to remain in their positions until the support group elements relieved them. At that point they were to return to the ground force commander’s location and await extraction.

The support group, which had been aboard Apple 1, was mistakenly inserted at a compound (initially named the secondary school) four hundred meters southeast of the POW compound. The mistake was not immediately obvious, and the helo departed, leaving the support group at the secondary school. The elements were quickly engaged by the enemy. Reacting to the situation the support group headquarters element assaulted the secondary school and penetrated the complex at the south wall. Once inside the school compound, they assaulted the building located at the south end (building 1) with grenades and rifle fire. This accounted for ten NVA dead. The support group commander, Colonel Simons, notified all elements that a withdrawal was imminent. Element 1 cleared a LZ and provided zone security while Element 2, under heavy fire, moved to the road east of the compound and established a blocking force.

The support group headquarters element continued to clear the compound. Significant automatic-weapons fire was coming from the two-story building (building 4) in the center of the compound. A grenadier fired 40mm rounds through both the windows and doors eliminating the threat. By H+3 this building was secure. As the headquarters element began to clear building 2, four NVA, who were attempting to reach the two-story building (which was later reported to have housed the armory), were killed.

Element 2 continued to receive isolated fire from the enemy and at H+4 was ordered to close the LZ and help establish perimeter security. By H+6 all elements began moving toward the LZ. Apple 1, who by now realized his mistake, was inbound to extract the force. As the support group began to load the helo, Element 1 laid down suppressive machine-gun fire and all personnel reembarked without any casualties being sustained.

Nine minutes after mistakenly landing at the wrong compound, the support group arrived at Son Tay. Simons was advised that Plan Green had been implemented, but with the support group’s arrival, the force would return to the basic plan. Elements from the support group passed through the lines and linked up with command elements. Support Group Element 1 established a secure position near building 7A, from which a steady volume of fire had been received. The grenadier launched several 40mm grenades and the firing ceased. Element 2 headed toward building 13E, suppressing the enemy with M60, M79, and M16 fire. The building was subsequently assaulted and two NVA killed.

By the time the support group and command group elements were in position, the word had been passed from Meadows that there were no POWs in the Son Tay compound. Sydnor gave the order for all elements to withdraw to the vicinity of the extraction site. This occurred at approximately H+17. Soon thereafter, the A-1s were ordered to attack the vehicle bridge to the north to prevent any reinforcement from the NVA. Four strafing runs using 20mm were conducted by two different aircraft. At H+23 the helos landed, and by H+27 all elements were extracted with only one minor casualty. The return trip to Udorn, Thailand, was punctuated by several SAM sightings, which required evasive action on the part of all the air force elements. However, after the aircraft refueled over Laos, the remaining trip was relatively uneventful.

As the ground engagement was in progress, the aviation support forces (F-4Ds and F-105s) were busy avoiding and suppressing SAMs. Approximately sixteen SAMs were fired, and the F-105s responded with eight Shrikes. While flying at thirteen thousand feet, one of the F-105s (Firebird 03) was damaged by a SAM that exploded under its left wing and apparently ruptured the fuel tank. The crew was forced to eject at eight thousand feet over the Plaine des Jarres. They were eventually picked up by the assault formation HH-53s (Apples 4 and 5).

The navy diversionary raid proceeded as planned. It is estimated that twenty SAMs were fired at the force, but no casualties were sustained. It was later reported that “the density of the Navy operations in the Gulf of Tonkin [during the Son Tay raid] was the most extensive Navy night operation of the SEA [Southeast Asia] conflict.”

Throughout the entire operation, Manor monitored radio communication between all the participants, and he had a direct link with Admiral McCain (CINCPAC) and Admiral Moorer (Chairman, JCS). Additionally he received continuous real-time intelligence on the enemy activity. He said later, “I had information on what they [NVA integrated air defense personnel] were seeing almost as quickly as … their decision makers were getting it.”

Manor knew that the operation had failed to recover any POWs. He flew to Udorn to meet the returning raid force. “They were a very disappointed group of people. My immediate goal was to have a meeting of some of the key people and get some information from them that I needed right away to put together a top secret message to Admiral Moorer telling him what the status was … Later that morning I got a call from Admiral Moorer telling me and Simons to get back to Washington as soon as we could.” Within two days the force was returned to CONUS and Operation Kingpin was officially completed.

ANALYSIS

The failure of the Son Tay raid to recover any POWs created a political fallout of incredible proportions. The media immediately blasted the intelligence community for its inability to verify the existence of POWs prior to the operation, and the administration was vilified for escalating the war. What was overlooked was the exceptional performance of the raiding force and their support elements. The fact that there were no POWs in the compound does not detract from the success of the tactical portion of the raid. The mission was planned, rehearsed, and executed exactly the same as if there had been POWs. The disposition of the enemy force at Son Tay was as expected. The fact that there were no POWs to guard may have relaxed the enemy’s posture, but relaxed or not, the raid force executed the mission with such surprise and speed that only substantial opposition could have prevented a successful outcome. Brigadier General Manor stated in his report on the raid on Son Tay that “it should be noted that we were successful not only in what was done, but what could have been done if necessary.” The raid on Son Tay is the best modern-day example of a successful special operation and should be considered textbook material for future missions.

Were the objectives worth the risk? The taking of prisoners of war has always generated a call for action. As stated earlier during the case on Cabanatuan, prisoners constitute a direct affront to national and military honor. In Vietnam, this concern may have been more pronounced owing to the perceived failure of the war effort. By 1970 the war claimed an average of five hundred deaths a month, and more than 470 Americans were believed held captive in North Vietnam. All previous efforts to rescue American prisoners had been futile. All of these issues were compounded by the reluctance of the North Vietnamese government to negotiate with President Nixon concerning de-escalation and the release of POWs. Nixon, who was faced with dwindling political alternatives, clearly saw the rescue as a viable option to restore national dignity and recover American soldiers, many of whom had been held prisoner for years. Any time a nation attempts to rescue prisoners behind enemy lines, they face the risk of having the rescue force captured and thereby adding to the number of POWs. For most nations, however, attempting to rescue prisoners, regardless of the outcome, is generally perceived as a worthwhile endeavor and well worth the risks.

Was the plan developed to maximize superiority over the enemy and minimize the risk to the assault force? Of the eight cases presented in this book, the raid on Son Tay eclipses all others in the level of national support it received. By having the assets of CIA, DIA, NSA, SAC, and military intelligence, the planners and operators were able to identify all the critical nodes in the North Vietnamese air defense system and have enough information to construct a detailed model of the POW camp. As Blackburn described it, this flawless operational intelligence, coupled with four months of mission preparation, allowed the assault force to plan around the North Vietnamese defenses and minimize the risk to the raiders. Additionally, the small raid force was augmented by over one hundred aircraft that provided MiG CAP, air defense suppression, and operational deception, all of which contributed to maximizing superiority over the enemy.

Was the mission executed according to plan, and if not what unforeseen circumstances dictated the outcome? From the raid force’s perspective the mission was conducted by the numbers, with the exception of Simons’s misadventure into the secondary school. But this eventuality was planned for, and Simons’s failure to arrive at the POW camp on time did not unduly affect the conduct of the operation. Obviously the failure to rescue any POWs was demoralizing to the raid force, but from a purely operational standpoint, that was beyond the control of the planners and operators. As the secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, said later during a congressional hearing, “We have not been able to develop a camera that sees through the roofs of buildings.” Had the planners risked placing a CAS in the vicinity of the camp, they might have been able to determine conclusively whether there were POWs. But this option was weighed carefully, and the risks were considered too high. Consequently, the unforeseen circumstances that affected the outcome of the mission were not a result of faulty planning, preparation, or execution and can only be attributed to the frictions of war.

What modifications could have improved the outcome of the mission? Disregarding the failure to rescue any POWs, the mission was almost flawless. Not one soldier or airman was killed or seriously injured on the raid. This includes the navy and air force airmen who supported the deception and cover operations. Considering the difficulty of penetrating a sophisticated air defense system and then conducting combat operations in unfamiliar surroundings, the raid on Son Tay should stand as a tribute to the tremendous preparation and professionalism of the assault force. It is doubtful that any modifications to the plan could have improved the performance of the raiders.

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