Louisiana’s Lake Borgne I

The Battle of Lake Borgne, Thomas Lyde Hornbrook

The War of 1812 had become the War of 1814 and, admist a chill, mid-December dawn, Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones must have braced his feet against the gently swaying deck of his gunboat flagship as he surveyed his nutshell command—four other tiny gunboats and one miniature tender—which he had just deployed across the entrance to Louisiana’s Lake Borgne.

In the distance, a swarm of ship’s boats, gigs, barges, and pinnaces inched toward his own miniscule flotilla. Obviously British, they were patently bent on doing the American formation grievous harm, and young Tom Jones had served in the gunboat navy far too long to have been anything but apprehensive about the outcome of the impending battle. Moreover, he had only to reread his orders to remind himself that Commodore Daniel T. Patterson—U.S. naval commander at New Orleans and Jones’ immediate superior—didn’t think much of his chances either.

Those orders had told Jones to notify General Andrew Jackson promptly of the enemy’s approach. Then, if threatened by attack, Jones was to retire to the Rigolets, the narrow channel that connects Lake Borgne and Lake Pontchartrain, where he was to engage the enemy and fight him “to the last extremity.”

Through a raised long glass, Jones could clearly see his oncoming foe: a broad line of boats, now not more than six miles distant, at least 40 of them, strung out from north to south in a rough line abreast. Such a force would pit perhaps half a hundred British guns and a thousand men against his own 23 guns and 182 men. Moreover, a fickle wind and contrary current had already played havoc with his chances.

His squadron was anchored, all right, and he was prepared to fight to that last, painful extremity—but Jones and his men were not off the Rigolets. Wind and tide had conspired to select quite a different battle site, much further to the east—the entrance to Lake Borgne. There, unable to retreat further when the unpredictable wind gave way to a flat calm, a trapped and angry Jones had stationed his little gunboats to await the impending attack.

One can safely assume that, as he paced the deck of his flagship, Jones cursed the fast-moving current tearing at the moorings of his little fleet. Under its influence, two gunboats—his flagship included—had dragged their anchors some distance across the Lake’s silted bottom before finally fetching up in decent holding ground. Set well to the eastward, both boats were now far out ahead of the planned north-south line. Jones found himself furthest east and, therefore, in the most exposed and dangerous position.

A glance off to the southeast was all that was necessary to follow the movements of his tender Alligator. Really nothing more than a fishing smack, the tiny ship carried but one ineffective four-pounder and a crew of only eight. She was obviously straining to rejoin Jones’ flotilla and, just as obviously, the squadron of barges despatched by Captain Nicholas Lockyer—HMS Sophia’s commanding officer was leading the British attack force—would succeed in cutting her off.

Smoke from the Alligator’s gun blossomed in the still and humid air, the shots falling harmlessly clear of the hard-rowing British. Unscathed, they pressed relentlessly on, rapidly closing the distance to the little tender. Easily visible from Jones’ vantage point, they drew nearer and nearer. Then they were alongside and, quite suddenly, it was all over.

Sailing Master Richard Sheppard, his command surrounded by half a dozen well-armed and heavily manned barges—some almost as large as the Alligator herself—bowed to the inevitable and struck his colors. Jones could only watch in helpless frustration as the American flag fluttered down, the British swarmed aboard, and the victorious division of English small boats headed back to rejoin the waiting main force. As soon as the Alligator’s conquerors took up their stations again, the long line resumed its slow, laborious approach.

If Jones continued to stare at the Alligator—the little ex-fisherman had won momentary fame when she carried Jones’ warning of the enemy arrival to Jackson—despair surely must have engulfed him as she hoisted the Union Jack and became the second American ship to be forcibly separated from his command.

With the small schooner Sea Horse already a charred skeleton at Bay St. Louis—fired and scuttled by her own crew to prevent capture—and the Alligator now in British hands, Jones found his squadron reduced to five small gunboats, moored in an irregular line across the entrance to Lake Borgne. At this point, his watch read just 9:30 and the odds against him, long from the outset, were growing longer with each passing minute.

He could be forgiven if, once again, he cursed the racing current. His only small comfort was in knowing that it was bedeviling the oncoming British as well as his own waiting sailors. And bedevil them it did.

Across the open stretch of water, weary and sweating English tars pulled at long ash sweeps, heavy as lead now after 36 hours of backbreaking progress over the 60 miles of Mississippi Sound which separated Jones from the anchored British fleet. With the Americans in clear view at last, the miserable current cancelled one stroke in every three as the English struggled to close the Yankee cockleshells. Always impartial, the elements played out their decisive role in the battle.

Then, surprisingly, the line of small boats rippled to a halt, grapnels arcing overboard to splash into the blue-green water, dripping oars flashing in the mid-morning sun as they were boated. Anchored just beyond gunshot, the methodical British were taking time out for a pre-battle breakfast and a much needed rest.

While the English sailors paused to recoup their strength, Lieutenant Jones had time to recall the events leading up to his predicament, including his own role in readying the fleet of gunboats with which he must now defend the maritime approaches to New Orleans.

The appearance of the British small-boat flotilla in Mississippi Sound came as no great surprise to him. News that an invasion fleet was in the Sound had reached him four days earlier, when two gunboats he had sent out as scouts returned to report many British sail in Ship Island Pass just south of Old Biloxi. That report ended weeks of uncertainty over where the English would strike following their devastating foray up and down Chesapeake Bay.

When the British—following their burning of Washington in August and after being repulsed at Fort McHenry in September—left the Virginia Capes astern and pointed their ships southeastwards toward the Caribbean, speculation spread like an angry rash along the length of the American coast. Rumor put them in a dozen different places at once. From a hundred separate sources, conflicting intelligence reports poured in and, as they accumulated, it gradually became clear that the Gulf Coast would be the next British objective.

Certainly, almost everyone who lived in the area sensed that the blow would fall somewhere along their 500 miles of exposed Gulf coastline. In particular, most of the 20,000 inhabitants of New Orleans accepted their city as the prime target. Indolent French creoles, aristocratic Spaniards, adventurous Americans, rascals of all nations, milled around and argued about when, not where, the attack would take place.

There was, however, one vitally important doubter. Convinced the target would be further east, Andrew Jackson ignored New Orleans, deployed his army of Tennessee and Kentucky militiamen around Mobile, and demanded that Commodore Patterson order his miniature navy there posthaste to lend a hand. But Dan Patterson—a small, chunky, intense naval officer serving his second tour in command of New Orleans Naval Station—disagreed with Jackson’s strategic assessment and, despite Old Hickory’s vociferous objections, refused to move any of his small naval force away from the Crescent City.

Patterson could decline Jackson’s request, of course, because he was not under Old Hickory’s military command. As agreed by the Secretaries of the Army and the Navy, forces would be “coordinated,” but there would be no supreme commander at New Orleans.

Then the British, through an extraordinarily bad bit of judgment, obligingly spotlighted New Orleans as their goal. But because this critical piece of intelligence came from Jean Lafitte, the infamous corsair, it met with something less than universal acceptance.

In attempting to recruit that pirate to their cause, the English committed their first major blunder of the campaign. For when Captain Lockyer—who would later lead the British small-boat assault on Lake Borgne—brought His Britannic Majesty’s Sloop Sophia to anchor off Grand Pass at Lafitte’s stronghold, Barataria, he carried an interesting, but unnecessarily informative, packet of documents for Lafitte.

First, there was a letter from Colonel Edward Nicholls who, for the moment, was in charge of a small British-organized guerrilla force working up in West Florida. The letter disclosed English designs on Louisiana, hence on New Orleans, and with offers of land and wealth to be awarded after the American defeat, entreated Lafitte and his pirates to join in the assault. But, with true carrot and stick psychology, Lockyer’s package also contained a proclamation from Captain William H. Percy—senior British officer then in the Gulf—threatening destruction of Barataria if the corsairs failed to cooperate.

Lafitte weighed the several alternates available to him and chose the one option which the British evidently believed to be remote: he decided to gamble by offering the information to the Americans in exchange for a general amnesty covering both himself and his men. After composing an explanatory letter, he enclosed the English documents and sent the bundle off to New Orleans.

The City’s reaction dumbfounded Lafitte. While some people believed him—mainly those eminent citizens who regularly journeyed out to Barataria for the bargain-priced and customs-free products of Lafitte’s piratical raids against Gulf shipping—others did not. And heading up the nonbelievers were a few people whose influential voices made the critical difference. Foremost among them was Commodore Dan Patterson, mental scars from imprisonment by Tripolitan pirates still influencing his outlook. He disputed the authenticity of everything Lafitte had sent and derisively questioned the sanity of those who believed the word of any pirate.

Assailed by his own doubts, beset with conflicting advice from all sides, Louisiana’s Governor William Claiborne wavered. He was strongly influenced by his long-standing feud with Lafitte—the Governor had once offered $500 for the pirate’s capture, to which Lafitte had responded with a contemptuous counter offer of $5,000 for Claiborne—and he tended to side with Patterson.

The Governor finally ended his procrastination by forwarding the documents to Jackson. He was most careful to hedge his own views of their validity, though, leaving Old Hickory to make his own decision. Then, despite a nagging uncertainty, Claiborne sided with the anti-Lafitte faction: he approved Commodore Patterson’s oft-pressed but long-delayed plans to raid Barataria and, thereby, to put an end to piratical sorties against shipping in the Gulf of Mexico.

Patterson’s motives are, in part, still obscure. On the one hand, his stubborn refusal to heed Jackson’s demands for naval support at Mobile seemingly proves that, in private, he had made up his mind before Lafitte’s letter ever reached New Orleans. On 2 September 1814, while Jean Lafitte was still debating whether to send the British papers to Claiborne, the Commodore was busy writing to Jackson telling him why no naval forces would be sent to Mobile.

Patterson turned Jackson down because he expected the British, using Seminole Indians as vanguard and cover, to move first to Mobile Bay and, thence, on to their main objective, New Orleans. Informing Jackson that ships drawing as much as 15 feet of water could cross the bar at the Bay’s entrance and operate so widely within the Bay that his sluggish little gunboats would be slaughtered, the Commodore flatly refused to send them. Rather than uselessly sacrifice them off Mobile or have them bottled up and impotent as the city itself—thus serving neither Mobile nor New Orleans—Patterson had recalled all gunboats to New Orleans in July and was not now about to send them back. Nor was he about to trust a buccaneer’s professed loyalty. Above all, he refused to place any faith in Lafitte’s value as an ally. To Dan Patterson, the best course of action seemed to be to eliminate the pirate and then concentrate on the anticipated English assault. Once Claiborne consented to the attack, Patterson moved swiftly to implement it.

Without warning, on 11 October 1814, he swept in past Grande Terre Island with a force of gunboats—the same ones that would defend Lake Borgne in a little more than two months—fell on the astonished corsairs, and put Barataria out of business for good. Jean Lafitte had his answer, final and unpalatable though it was.

With Lafitte out of the way, Patterson was now free to devote his full attention to the defense of New Orleans. There were only two invasion routes open to the English, and the Commodore knew them both. One entered the broad delta of the Mississippi and ran northward past easily defended river bends to the city, while the other led across Lake Borgne, then snaked through myriad lakes and bayous to the Crescent City.

If the British commander chose the river approach, Patterson knew he would have the word before the first ship reached Old Fort Bourbon, half a hundred miles below the city. On the other hand, an attack through Lake Borgne would be quite a different matter since, with a little luck, the Redcoats could reach the city’s back door before anyone would know they were ashore. To guard the Borgne route—he personally considered it to be the more likely of the two—Patterson ordered Lieutenant Jones to the Lake with seven tiny ships: five gunboats, a tender, and a small sloop.

When Patterson wrote those orders, he obviously expected the wind to favor Jones, permitting him to maneuver his squadron, and allowing him to fall back on the Rigolets when Jones judged it to be necessary. Even so, the Commodore clearly thought that Jones would be able to do little more than delay the British before, running out of sea-room, he would be forced to stand and “fight to the last extremity.”

As for Jackson, not until late November did he finally decide that New Orleans was the main British objective. To be sure, there was some justification for his obstinate belief in Mobile as the real target. Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane had recommended such a strategy to the Admiralty as far back as June, but their Lordships disagreed and, when they issued Cochrane his instructions for the Gulf campaign, they directed him:

First, to obtain command of the embouchre [mouth] of the Mississippi, so as to deprive the back settlements of America of their communications with the sea; and, secondly, to occupy some important and valuable posession, by restoration of which the conditions of peace might be improved, or which we might be entitled to exact the cession of, as the price of peace.

Once Old Hickory did accept the mounting evidence of the Admiralty’s real aims and trained his sights on New Orleans, he moved with alacrity. Hastily ordering a series of forced marches, he headed for the city with the vanguard of his army—Tennessee and Kentucky volunteers—arriving there on the second of December. Despite his rapid movement, however, Jackson’s stubbornness had already cost him invaluable time. And on 2 December, it was not at all clear that he would be able to make it up.

Little more than a week later, as the leading elements of the English fleet stood in toward the coast, Jackson’s army was still straggling into New Orleans, and preparations for the city’s defense had hardly begun. During the next few but crucial days, all that really stood between the British amphibious task force and Canal Street was the slowly gathering strength of a disorganized militia, trying to pass as an army—and a handful of Jeffersonian gunboats officered and manned by 182 determined American sailors.

While Cochrane assembled his attacking force and Jackson scrambled to erect some sort of defense around the city, Jones battled fog, wind, and tide on Lake Borgne, trying to piece together the enemy’s movements and to figure out his intentions. Though the British arrival failed to take him by surprise, the swift and continuing English buildup, along with the eventual size of their invasion fleet, came as something of a shock.

Lieutenant Isaac McKeever and Sailing Master Ulrich, scouting Mississippi Sound as ordered, made the first sighting on 8 December. Encountering HMS Sophia, Seahorse, and Armide just completing their inland waterway transit from Pensacola, the Americans fired a few ineffectual shots, then fled westward looking for Jones. But three small ships did not an invasion fleet make, and the youthful American commander decided to sit tight for the moment to await further developments and more definitive intelligence.

Louisiana’s Lake Borgne II

It was not long in coming. While McKeever and Ulrich beat their retreat toward Lake Borgne to warn Jones, the first major segment of the invasion force under Admiral Cochrane had doubled the Chandeleur Islands and, buffeted by a fog-studded storm that reached near-hurricane strength, stood in toward the coast, rounded to and came to anchor between Ship and Cat Islands.

As reports of British movements began to accumulate, Lieutenant Jones maneuvered his flagship—Gunboat No. 156 was not even dignified with a name—across Lake Borgne. And, while he did, there was time for him to consider both himself and his command.

Since accepting a midshipman’s warrant in 1805, he had served continuously in gunboats, first in Norfolk and then in New Orleans, thus missing those famous frigate actions which elevated a fledgling American Navy to fame. Earlier, as a young midshipman waiting impatiently to be called to active service, he had shared the national outrage and humiliation attending Commodore James Barron’s inept surrender of the American frigate Chesapeake to the English frigate Leopard.

Called to active duty shortly after the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, Jones hastened to Hampton Roads, Virginia, hoping for one of the tall ships, but found himself assigned instead to the ignominious gunboats which history would label Thomas Jefferson’s greatest maritime mistake. Gunboat duty was, of course, universally unpopular. There were no prizes, no glory—only frustration.

His first ship—Gunboat No. 10—turned out to be a veteran of the Barbary Wars. No longer even in full commission, it had been laid up in ordinary at Norfolk in 1806, and Jones arrived on board to discover he would be little more than a land-bound caretaker, responsible for defending the gunboat against dry rot and an economy-minded Administration. Later on he would accumulate the broad reservoir of experience which the impending War of 1812 would demand, but in the meantime, the young midshipman could only tackle his maudlin task with that dedicated and driving intensity which was destined to mark his entire half-century of naval service.

During the long years of apprenticeship from 1807 to 1814, however, he had learned his lessons well and now, as the groundswell rolled Gunboat No. 156 from side to side, Jones could once more review his preparations for the imminent battle and take comfort in the certain knowledge that he was one of the Navy’s most experienced gunboat commanders. And, except for improper stationing forced by the current’s vagaries, his ships were as ready for battle as their limited capability would permit. Still, from his own firsthand knowledge, he knew how ineffectual these spitkids would be when the fighting actually began.

Stretched out across the Lake’s narrow entrance, roughly between Point Claire and Malheureux Island, his tiny ships blocked the maritime road to New Orleans. Springs rigged to their cables held them broadside to the approaching enemy, boarding nets were triced up, and the badly outnumbered crews stood tense and ready at their stations. Averaging 50 feet in length, five guns and 30 men apiece, the little handful of Mr. Jefferson’s gunboats awaited their British opponents.

Having been ordered to meet the English assault with nothing but gunboats, Jones had good cause to ponder the evolution of these awkward craft in the American Navy. Spawned by a combination of naiveté, frugality, and simple ignorance, they constituted the bulk of a navy, that because of its small number of real men-o’-war, was both pathetically ineffective and criminally expensive, when weighed against the royalties it paid in naval protection. Though temporarily obscured by the euphoria surrounding victories turned in by the magnificent 44-gun frigates, generally credited to Joshua Humphreys, history ultimately rendered its judgment of the sea war of 1812–1815: the British—with their balanced and powerful fleet—eventually dominated the American coasts. It was unfortunate that President Jefferson did not understand sea power as well as did his English opponents. But he did not.

Instead, he believed in “. . . hunting out and abolishing multitudes of useless officers, striking off jobs . . . eliminating dissipation of treasure and legal appropriation . . .” Gunboats seemed to Jefferson to be the ideal answer to those foreign incursions which had been descending almost daily upon America’s long coastline. In addition, they promised him one essential dividend: unlike their larger, seagoing cousins, gunboats could not fight hard battles on distant oceans, thereby provoking stupid foreign wars. To Jefferson, this factor was governing. Unfortunately for the stripling United States, neither could they stand up to the frigates and ships-of-the-line being built by other, less reluctant and wiser nations.

Nevertheless, employing gunboats as the mainstay, Thomas Jefferson and his influential but equally misguided Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, pushed ahead with the construction of more than 170 of them.

Having already failed miserably the ultimate test of battle in the Chesapeake, that navy was about to be tried again, this time on Lake Borgne. The specific tragedy here, however, was that Lieutenant Jones and his dedicated sailors in Mississippi Sound were being asked to prove once more that which was already well-known: Mr. Jefferson’s solution was really no solution at all.

What the United States needed off New Orleans, of course, was—like that of the English—a balanced fleet: ships-of-the-line and frigates, both capable of fighting far out in the blue waters of the Gulf; brigs and shallow-draft sloops to join these big ships in defending coastal waters; finally, a sizeable fleet of gunboats for last ditch defense of the narrow water thoroughfares leading through the labyrinth of bayous to the city itself. But the infant country did not have such a fleet because an economy-minded President neither approved nor saw the necessity for “ . . . the ruinous folly of a navy.”

Plagued by the results of that Jeffersonian policy, Thomas ap Catesby Jones now faced an enemy who harbored no such illusions over the relative merits of gunboats and deep-water ships. One thing the English understood full well: when shoal water at last stopped the big ships, they needed only to hoist out their small boats—they carried large numbers of them—and continue the chase. On 14 December 1814 in Mississippi Sound, they were busily doing precisely that.

Just before 1030, when Jones again checked the British boats, first signs of renewed movement caught his attention. Their crews rested and breakfasted, they were all getting underway. Jones knew the English sailors were still far from fresh after their long, grueling pull across the Sound and, obviously, he hoped this would reduce the odds somewhat; enough, perhaps, to give him a fighting chance.

It must have been with great impatience that he estimated the distance to the enemy, well knowing that his flotilla’s survival depended upon its ability to shoot the British formation to shreds long before it ever reached boarding range. No one had to tell him that once the barges closed the gunboats in anything like significant numbers, he and his men would be in desperate trouble.

Slowly, the range shrank. When, at last, it appeared that the Long Tom mounted in Gunboat No. 23 could span the narrowing gap, Jones signalled Lieutenant Ike McKeever to open fire.

The heavy gun’s deep-throated roar shattered the quiet morning air and a 32-pound ball arced across the Lake’s surface. Plunging into the water close astern of the British line, it tossed up a thin geyser which, undisturbed by any sea breeze, fell leisurely back into the green water. Their boats undamaged, the English ignored the ranging shot and merely pulled harder for their becalmed quarry. But, because it appeared beyond the line of attackers, that harmless fountain galvanized gun crews into action on all five gunboats. Swivels, 24-pounders, howitzers, all erupted in a rolling thunder of sound, spewing an assorted storm of cannon balls and grape shot out across the water.

Here and there the Americans scored hits, cutting British sailors down and holing one or two barges which promptly capsized, dumping their struggling crews into the water before sinking. But the range was long, individual targets small, and the fire produced little overall effect. The barges pressed on.

Finally, coming within range of their own guns shortly after 11 o’clock, the British began to return the fire and, in the words of Jones’ battle report, “ . . . the action became general and destructive on both sides.”

Lossing’s Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812

Weary but determined, the English bored in through the hail of shot. By ten minutes to twelve, the first of their boats had closed sufficiently to make an attempt at boarding.

They converged on Jones’ flagship which had been dragged furthest out of line by the unwelcome current. Being the most exposed, she automatically became the prime target, and Captain Lockyer, seeing Jones’ predicament, took immediate advantage of it by detaching almost a third of his force to deal with the exposed gunboat. But, even with Lockyer in personal command, coordination problems dogged the assault group from the moment he ordered it forward—especially three barges which imprudently charged Jones’ gunboat ahead of all the rest.

Jones ordered his full battery trained on them. Depressing their guns, his crew fired, reloaded, and fired again. A 24-pound ball ripped out the side of one barge, another pierced the bottom of its companion, grape shot swept through the crew of the third, killing or wounding them all.

Before Jones could pass a “Well Done” to his sharpshooters, however, four more barges plowed through the wreckage of the shattered initial assault wave, heading straight for his flagship. Again, smoking American guns stammered out an irregular but deadly chorus, decimating the second attack wave as quickly as the first. With the battle only moments old, seven stout British barges had already been transformed into chunks of splintered timbers which, intermingled with broken bodies, swirled and drifted uncertainly under the current’s irresistible influence.

But the battle was not one-sided. The battered Englishmen had not suffered all the casualties.

British musket balls whistled through the little gunboat’s boarding nets and across her deck, and American sailors clutched at gaping wounds. A ball tore into Jones’ left shoulder, slamming the young commander to the deck. He lay stunned and bleeding until Master’s Mate George Parker took command of the gunboat and had his blood-drenched captain moved to comparative safety.

Gunboat No. 156, center, with Lieutenant Jones on board, was in the most exposed position as the swarm of British boats and barges closed in for the kill.

Minutes later, a third attack developed. For Gunboat No. 156, it would be the last.

A half-dozen carronades and a hundred muskets rained covering fire on the flagship. Seven barges closed in from seven different directions, grapnels clawing at the gunboat’s railing as the attackers warped themselves alongside. Scrambling upward, English tars clutched at the boarding nets and slashed their way through. Close behind, other sailors and soldiers swarmed through the broached netting and on to the deck.

The end came swiftly. But, just before it did, another ball cut down the little gunboat’s second commanding officer. Seriously wounded, George Parker collapsed at almost the same spot as his predecessor. It was shortly after noon. Gunboat No. 156 was in British hands.

In the meantime, Lockyer’s remaining barges—divided into two assault divisions—closed around the rest of Jones’ beleagured flotilla. General fighting erupted all along the line; barges, pinnaces, and gigs attacked singly and in twos, forcing the meager number of American guns to divide their fire. Inexorably, the English musketry thinned out the gunboats’ crews and, as the American defense faltered, British seamen squirmed up the sides of the gunboats and poured through fresh-cut holes in the boarding nets.

On board Sailing Master Ferris’ Gunboat No. 5, a 24-pound ball slammed into the bulwark where it ripped a huge, gaping hole before ricocheting across the deck amidst a shower of jagged splinters. A ball that size could only have come from one of the gunboats, but a quick swing of the head would have assured him that American colors still flew from all five. Not until he traced the ball’s path back over the deck and across the water would he realize that one of the flagship’s guns was pointed directly at him. The 24-pounder belched forth a cloud of acrid, gray smoke and a second ball whined over the deck of No. 5, this one falling harmlessly into Lake Borgne. Clearly, No. 156 had fallen to the British and they were fighting her under American colors.

At almost the same instant, a surprised Lieutenant McKeever discovered that his Gunboat No. 23 was also being battered by fire from the flagship. He barked an order to bring his big 32-pounder around so it could return the fire. The gun was still swinging when the flagship’s colors at last floated down and, belatedly, the Cross of St. George climbed the halyard to the 156’s peak.

For another 30 minutes the fight raged, slowly diminishing in intensity as the gunboats, one after the other, fell to the attackers. By 1240, only McKeever’s No. 23 still held out.

His solitary and desperate resistance did not last long. Shortly after 1300, surrounded by British barges, bombarded by the other gunboats—all now in British hands—McKeever gave up the fight. Abruptly, the battle on Lake Borgne was over. The maritime highroad to New Orleans lay wide open.

Shoved along by the swiftly moving current, carnage from the short, fierce encounter drifted across the face of Lake Borgne. And the Royal Navy could count itself triumphant in yet another sea fight—though the cost had been appallingly high. Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones, on the other hand, had suffered a humiliating defeat, losing all seven of his ships—and one-third of his men—in the two-hour fight.

Now, although a prisoner of the British, cut off from further news of the campaign, and grievously wounded as he was, Jones continued to buy time for Jackson to prepare New Orleans’ defenses. When the British questioned him on board the Gorgon, Jones reeled off a description of American strength, in and around New Orleans that quite obviously surprised Cochrane. In particular, Jones’ listing of men and guns at Fort Petites Coquilles—especially when this intelligence was seemingly confirmed by two fishermen the British subsequently captured at the mouth of Bayou Bienvenue—convinced the English admiral that the shorter route (past the Rigolets and across Lake Pontchartrain to New Orleans’ back door) could not be forced. He therefore chose Bayou Bienvenue as the landing site and Pea Island—40 long miles away—as the staging area.

Altogether, Jones’ actions are generally believed to have bought Jackson nine crucial days which he would not otherwise have had.

Using every precious minute; with the help of the remnants of Commodore Patterson’s navy and a spurned but not alienated Jean Lafitte; Old Hickory routed the British assault troops on 8 January 1815. He saved New Orleans.

As the Redcoats fell back on the Gulf Coast and the boats which would return them to the safety of their armada offshore, an uninformed and disconsolate Jones fought for his life on board HMS Gorgon. Not until 12 March 1815—long after his release—was he able to take pen in hand, “Having sufficiently recovered my strength . . . to report the particulars of the capture of the division of United States’ gun-boats under my command.” To his superiors, he left the judgment of his conduct:

Enclosed you will receive a list of the killed and wounded, and a correct statement of the force which I had the honour to command at the commencement of the action, together with an estimate of the force I had to contend against, as acknowledged by the enemy, which will enable you to decide how far the honour of our country’s flag has been supported in this conflict.

That judgment was rendered by a Navy court of inquiry convened at the Naval Arsenal, New Orleans, in May. After a full and detailed review of the battle, the court reported its findings to Secretary of the Navy Crowninshield:

With the clearest evidence for their guide, the court experience the most heartfelt gratification in declaring the opinion, that Lieut. Com. Jones, and his gallant supporters—Lieutenants Spedden and McKeever, Sailing Masters Ulrich and Ferris—their officers and men, performed their duty on this occasion, in the most able and gallant manner, and that the action has added another and distinguished honor to the naval character of our country.

Jones had failed, of course, to stop the British. In the attempt, he had lost his entire squadron and had been himself severely wounded. Only by the narrowest of margins did he escape death, and for the rest of his life he carried that British ball lodged in his shoulder. During those first, long, pain-filled days in the cramped cockpit of the Gorgon, he probably fended off his physical agony by searching for some single bright spot in the whole affair. And just as probably, he searched in vain. This is, of course, not surprising.

After all, the principals in any given battle are seldom able to accurately assess the results of their actions. They are too close to the event itself. And it matters not whether that principal has just scored an apparently astounding victory or has suffered what seems then to be an ignominious defeat.

The passage of time makes the difference. For time supplies perspective, the one ingredient indispensable to sound judgment of success or failure. In the case of the Battle on Lake Borgne, perspective transforms apparent defeat into certain victory. Once this engagement is no longer viewed simply as a small, isolated naval encounter, once it is cemented into the colorful and complicated mosaic that is the Battle of New Orleans, Jones’ tactical defeat—there can be no argument on this point because he was completely and convincingly beaten—assumes the stature of a major strategic victory. His ill-starred defense of the sea approaches to New Orleans made a savior of Andrew Jackson by granting him the one thing he most needed to throw back the British assault on the Crescent City: time. With the days Jones bought for him, he succeeded. Without them, he surely would have failed.

That is not to say that Jones’ actions alone made the victory at New Orleans inevitable. They did not. Many other factors were involved, not the least of which was the important role played by Commodore Patterson and the rest of his command: the Louisiana and the Carolina. These two ships, perhaps, highlight the difference between the Chesapeake Bay and New Orleans. In the first instance, an amphibious assault was opposed by gunboats alone. They could not stop the big ships, and Washington was occupied, the capitol burned. At Lake Borgne, the gunboats could not stop the big ships, either. But the indomitable spirit of their crews did permit them to delay the small boats of the assault force, and Jackson, with the help of the Louisiana and the Carolina—types of ships not present in the Chesapeake—was able to convert that delay into victory.

But, above all, it seems clear that Jones’ defeat spelled complete and final bankruptcy for the Jeffersonian naval policy. Admittedly useless on the high seas, the gunboats had now demonstrated once again that, without the close and direct support of larger ships, they were patent failures at the one task for which they were designed. As Mr. Jefferson foresaw, they could not fight hard battles on distant oceans. But, as Mr. Jefferson did not foresee, neither could they successfully fend off assaults on our coasts delivered by nations with leaders more understanding of maritime realities. The battle of Lake Borgne therefore provides the final denouement of the Jefferson-Gallatin theory of naval strategy, and the United States Navy was off to a rather inauspicious start as the nineteenth century began.

As for Jones, he emerges from the defeat on Lake Borgne as a hero. Together with his men, he battled his way into the select company of valiant American warriors who, though beaten on the field of combat—suffering unquestioned tactical defeat—nevertheless gained resounding strategic victories for their countrymen; victories which prepared the way for the ultimate triumph of American arms.

The Italian Atomic Bomb I

For most of the 20th Century following the end of the Second World War, military historians affirmed that the American nuclear program was far in advance of similar research undertaken anywhere else in the world, particularly by German scientists, who never came close to developing, let alone deploying an atomic weapon of their own. But the continuing release of hitherto neglected documents and eyewitness accounts from the final years of that conflict are beginning to reveal some altogether different conclusions.

It now appears certain that the Axis powers, including Italy, outstripped the Allies’ nuclear research in almost all respects. For example, Italian nuclear physicists were ahead of their foreign colleagues in the years immediately prior to World War Two. By 1936, Enrico Fermi and Franco Rosetti belonged to Europe’s foremost atomic research program. Their team, however, was divided with the anti-Semitic legislation that became law in Italy two years later, because some of the scientists, including Fermi, had Jewish wives.

They relocated to the United States, where their work led to America’s atomic bomb, which further divided their ranks, because men like Rosetti staunchly opposed the application of nuclear power for military purposes. Addressing Fermi and the others, he told them unequivocally, “you have disgraced your profession and stained your hands with blood no amount of time can cleanse”. Rosetti was so appalled by their “betrayal of humanitarian science” in building an atomic bomb, he turned his back on nuclear physics to embrace an entirely different science: paleontology.

His colleagues who remained behind in Italy, however, had no such moral misgivings. On the eve of hostilities, in 1939, scientists at the University of Milan issued the first international patent for an atomic reactor. Its potential for the creation of an explosive device without destructive parallel was immediately recognized, given the war-fever of the times, and state allocations were provided for expanding practical laboratory investigation into a potentially new arms technology. Fermi and the others who had migrated to America did not take all University results with them. They knew as much or less about creating a nuclear bomb than their colleagues back in Milan before the reactor patent was issued.

Atomic research in Italy proceeded slowly, if deliberately for months after Mussolini’s declaration of war against the Western Allies in June 1940, but virtually came to a stand-still by year’s end, due to severe shortages in essential resources requisitioned by the Esercito and Regia Marina for conventional weapons’ production. The University of Milan physicists were further compromised by that venerable institution’s inadequate facilities and out-dated equipment. Their complaints did not go unheard, however, because they found in the Duce an ardent admirer of their research. During May 1942, he transferred the lot of them to the Third Reich, where some of its superior, state-of-the-art laboratories had already been set aside for that nation’s own nuclear development.

The Italians found conditions entirely satisfactory, and enthusiastically shared their own atomic reactor information with German colleagues. Moving the physicists to the Reich proved inadvertently fortuitous after the Allied invasion of southern Italy made relocating men and material to Mussolini’s Salo Republic, in the north, increasingly difficult from mid-1944 onwards. By then, however, all nuclear research, of which the Italians were part, had come under the purview of the SS, primarily for reasons of security. Little is known about the Italian contribution at this time, although several high-ranking officers in the Duce’s new armed forces allegedly witnessed German atomic testing, suggesting they were involved in its development at the highest levels of security.

Occasionally, Mussolini himself implied the deployment of nuclear weapons in the near future. As his situation in northern Italy became more desperate, he dropped hints with greater frequency, always in an air of self-confidence. As late as 21 April 1945, he told his Chief of Staff, General Graziani, “It is necessary to resist for another month. I have enough in my hand to win the peace.”

There is no doubt he was referring specifically to the impending availability of atom bombs, because the very next day he wrote in his Political Testament, “The wonder weapons are our hope. It is laughable and senseless for us to threaten anybody at this moment without a basis in reality for these threats. The well-known mass-destruction bombs are nearly ready. In only a few days, with the utmost meticulous intelligence, Hitler will probably execute this fearful blow, because he will have full confidence. It appears that there are three bombs, and each has an astonishing operation. The construction of each unit is fearfully complex, and of a lengthy time of completion.” Conventional historians claim he had been duped by Hitler’s promises. Yet, Mussolini’s statements fit perfectly into the context of the times.

Seven months before, a Luftwaffe flak rocket expert flying “from Ludwigslust (south of Luebeck), about twelve to fifteen kilometers from an atomic bomb test station … noticed a strong, bright illumination of the whole atmosphere, lasting about two seconds. The clearly visible pressure wave escaped the approaching and following cloud formed by the explosion. This wave had a diameter of about one kilometer when it became visible and the color of the cloud changed frequently … The diameter of the still-visible pressure wave was at least 9,000 meters while remaining visible for at least fifteen seconds. The combustion was lightly felt from my observation plane in the form of pulling and pushing. About one hour later, I started with an He 111 from the A/D24 at Ludwigslust and flew in an easterly direction. Shortly after the start, I passed through the almost complete overcast (between 3,000-4,000-meter altitude). A cloud shaped like a mushroom with turbulent, billowing sections (at about 7,000-meter altitude) stood, without any seeming connections, over the spot where the explosion took place.”

“Strong electrical disturbances and the impossibility to continue radio communication as by lightning, turned up. Because of the P-38s operating in the area Wittenberg-Mersburg, I had to turn to the north, but observed a better visibility at the bottom of the cloud where the explosion occurred (sic).”

Doubtless, the pilot saw the explosion of history’s first atomic bomb. Among its better known witnesses was Dr. Josef Goebbels. Immediately after the early October 1944 blast, the Reich Propaganda Minister reported in a national broadcast that he had just seen a test of Germany’s latest military technology, “the awesome power of which made me catch my breath and stopped my heartbeat.” Such “weapons of mass-destruction”, he assured his listeners, were far beyond anything imagined by the enemy, and capable of annihilation on an unprecedented scale. Historians assume he was referring exclusively to V-2 rockets then being mass-produced in Germany’s underground factories. But the ballistic missiles had already been raining on London for more than a month by the time Dr. Goebbels made his radio appearance. Moreover, it was only at this same moment that Hitler finally authorized production of an atomic bomb. Hitherto, he had been unwilling to allocate military spending on an expensive, unproven theory. But the successful Luebeck experiment changed his mind. Almost immediately after receiving the Führer’s authorization, his scientists proceeded with a second nuclear test during the night of 11 October at Ruegen, Germany’s largest island in the Baltic. This event is particularly cogent to our discussion, because the only foreigner allowed to witness it was an Italian Army officer. His attendance was all the more remarkable, in that security was so tight, only a handful of select observers from the Wehrmacht and Nazi Party was given clearance. Indeed, even any knowledge of the experiment had been restricted to just a dozen individuals outside the physicists. One of those privileged persons was Benito Mussolini.

Hitler had notified him the previous month of the upcoming test. It was then that 27-year-old Luigi Romersa was summoned to the Duce residing at his Salo headquarters. “I want to know more about these weapons,” he told the veteran Italian Army officer, now a war-correspondent for Milan’s Corriere della Sera. “I asked Hitler about them, but he was less than forthcoming.” Armed with letters of introduction to both Dr. Goebbels and the Führer himself, Mussolini’s personal envoy flew non-stop to Berlin, where he was immediately taken in charge by SS guards. The following night, they drove him for two hours through a constant downpour to the coast of northern Germany. There, they accompanied Romersa aboard a swift motorboat that took them to the shores of the Baltic island of Ruegen.

On 12 October 1944, he and a few other men–high-ranking members of the German Army, SS and Nazi Party–were conducted by several physicists to a model village of ordinary dwellings surrounded by tall trees and populated exclusively by sheep. After a cursory inspection, the guests walked about one kilometer away to a concrete bunker fitted with a few, small observation ports of very thick glass. Even so, Romersa and company were instructed to wear darkly tinted goggles for what an official described would be “a test of the disintegration bomb. It is the most powerful explosive that has yet been developed. Nothing can withstand it.” A series of warning sirens and flashing, red lights announced the imminent detonation, which occurred as “a sudden, blinding flash” followed by “a thick cloud of smoke” that “took the shape of a column, and then that of a big flower,” as a tremor went through the concrete bunker. No one was allowed to leave for several hours, until the lingering effects of the explosion had dissipated.

“The bomb gives off deathly rays of utmost toxicity,” they were told. Before being allowed to leave the bunker, scientists and guests had to don white, coarse, fibrous cloaks of asbestos with thick, glass eye-holes. Thus covered, they returned to the blast site, and were appalled at what they saw. The grass was now the color of leather, and “trees around had been turned to carbon. No leaves. Nothing alive.” The sheep were “burnt to cinders.” The sturdy houses visited just a few hours earlier “had disappeared, broken into little pebbles of debris.”

Romersa returned at once to Italy, where he briefed Mussolini on his experience. The Duce reacted, not with joy, but dark concern, saying nothing more than sternly warning the Milan journalist to regard his visit to Ruegen as a state secret of the utmost priority. True to this command, he said nothing of the October 1944 nuclear test until two years after the war, in a newspaper article. But when “everyone said I was mad”, Romersa published a fuller account in Oggi magazine, during the 1950s.

What Romersa left out of his account was nonetheless obvious enough; namely, that he was one of the very few observers allowed to witness the Ruegen exercise only because Italian physicists were an integral part of atomic research. Had they not been vital to the supremely classified Axis program, the SS would have never cleared a foreign newspaper correspondent (of all people!), no matter how politically impressive the source of his credentials, to Germany’s most clandestine weapon, especially so late in the war, when the Third Reich’s options for victory were rapidly diminishing. Romersa’s chief task was to report on progress made by the Italo-German scientific team and to inform Mussolini that he could expect an operational nuclear device by spring the following year. This only explains the Duce’s statements in late April 1945, regarding the imminent availability of a ‘disintegration bomb’ and the need ‘to resist for another month’.

Like Mussolini, Hitler initially evinced a similar lack of enthusiasm for atomic weaponry. As far back as 1941, when Carl von Weizsäcker, one of the leaders of Germany’s nuclear research team, filed a draft patent application for a plutonium bomb, the Führer expressed his skepticism in a private conversation with Otto Skorzeny. He was the same SS commando-leader who, two years later, would rescue the Duce from Gran Sasso. “This device, if their description of it proves to be correct,” Hitler concluded, “will have very little tactical value, because rarely are enemy concentrations large and dense enough, either on land or at sea, to be effectively targeted in a 1.5 kilometer blast-radius, except for industrial cities, which conventional air-strikes are presently quite capable of destroying, as this war has already shown.

“Their atomic bomb is actually a strategic weapon designed to kill large numbers of civilian populations confined in urban centers, thereby brow-beating a people into surrender. As such, it has less military utility than propaganda value as an instrument of terror. By the very nature of its destructiveness, it has an automatic, built-in circuit-breaker: If we were to cause a plutonium explosion over London, it would only be a matter of time before the British did the same thing to Berlin.

“Identical reasoning has prevented the use by all sides, even the Soviets, of poison gas in this conflict. Everyone knows the consequences. Von Weizsäcker and his colleagues should nevertheless continue their research. How wonderful if they could come up with an atomic-powered U-boat or transport-plane! Those I would gladly fund. But they will not get many Reichsmarks from me for a weapon whose only efficacy, so far, is the propagandistically detrimental, militarily useless incineration of non-combatants.”

While his armies were victorious on every front, Hitler could afford such views. But as hundreds of thousands of German civilians were being consumed in the flames of Anglo-American carpet-bombing, he reversed his original disdain for an atomic bomb, especially after the Allied landings at Normandy, in June 1944. The paired nuclear test five months later, although successful, was a relatively small affair, and a final experiment with a substantially larger discharge was necessary before military application could take place.

This occurred at the troop parade ground and barracks at Orhdruf, in south-central Thuringia, when two uranium devices were detonated on 4 March 1945. Both were observed by Soviet spies, who radioed the Kremlin that the Orhdruf explosions produced a “highly radioactive effect.” As part of their experiment, the SS officers, who supervised the dual test, confined captured Red Army commissars from the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp to barracks at the center of the blast.

“In many cases, their bodies were completely destroyed,” according to the spies, who added that such a weapon could “slow down our offensive”. Kremlin officials deemed their report so important, Josef Stalin himself received one of the four copies stamped ‘Urgent Priority’. But if he was alarmed, Hitler was overjoyed. On 9 March, Dr. Goebbels told a large audience at Goerlitz, “Just the day before yesterday [three days after Thuringia’s two nuclear bombs were successfully detonated], he told me, ‘I believe so firmly that we will master this crisis, and I believe so firmly that when we throw our armies into the new offensive, we will beat the enemy and drive him back, and I believe so firmly that we will someday add victory to our banners, as firmly as I have ever believed anything in my life’.”

The Führer’s late-hour elation was remarkably similar in tone to Mussolini’s April 21st statement that he had enough in his hand “to win the peace”, because both leaders hoped that Hitler’s Siegeswaffe would be ready to turn the tables on the Allies “one minute before midnight”. But by the time the SS completed final nuclear testing at Orhdruf, the military situation had surpassed even the power of an atomic bomb to reverse.

The Italian Atomic Bomb II

Preparations for deployment of nuclear arms may have begun in Italy almost a year before the Luebeck blast witnessed by Hans Zinsser, when a specimen of the Regia Aeronautica’s only four-engine heavy bomber appears to have been specifically modified to accommodate such a weapon. The Piaggio P.133 was an advanced version of the P.108B, unique not only because a single example was produced, but due to its unusual streamlining. The standard crew of ten men was reduced to just two–pilot and navigator/ bombardier–while both its armor-plating and defensive machine-guns were stripped to afford a heavier payload.

The quartet of 1,500-hp Piaggio P.XIIRC.35 eighteen-cylinder radial engines was upgraded for improved power, and the bomb-bay enlarged. Although the lone P.133 was never officially designated an ‘atomic bomber’, extraordinarily high security surrounding its manufacture, together with the suggestive features of its design alterations, left some post-war historians wondering if the big Piaggio was intended to drop a nuclear bomb amid the Allied fleets massing for the invasion of the Italian mainland after the fall of Sicily. The P.133 might have been ready to participate in such a mission, but, clearly, no such device was yet available.

The Piaggio had to be modified for its unique task by Mussolini’s air force technicians, because Italy’s only purpose-built nuclear bomber fell into Allied hands after the Badoglio armistice of September 1943. Although officially known as a ‘transport’, the Savoia-Marchetti S.M.95 was ordered by the Regia Aeronautica at a period in the war when such a model was not needed, even senseless, which alone casts serious doubts on the real intention of its designers. Powered by four Alfa Romeo engines, it was twenty-three meters long, with a thirty-five-meter-wing span, which afforded it a tremendous lifting capacity. But the monster’s outstanding feature was its prodigious range of 12,005 kilometers. The S.M.95’s ability to carry a heavy payload over great distances suggest to some aviation historians that the ‘transport’ was actually intended to deliver a heavy bomb to cities along America’s Eastern Seaboard.

The idea for an aerial assault on New York originated with Piaggio’s chief test pilot, Nicolo Lana, in April 1942. He volunteered to fly a stripped-down P.23R, a tri-motor that had established several long-distance records before the war, dropping a single 1,000-kg. bomb on the city center, then ditching near the Nantucket Lighthouse, where he and his flight engineer would be picked up by a waiting submarine. His simple scheme offered every prospect of success. U.S. coastal defenses during the first half of 1942, when German U-boats prowling off America’s eastern shores scored some of their greatest successes, were appallingly weak. Unfortunately for Lana’s plan, the only P.23R in existence was destroyed in a landing accident near Albenga, and no other Italian plane had the Piaggio’s outstanding range.

Had the mission been carried out, damage to New York would have been inconsequential, but the effect on Allied morale at a time when the war was not going well for the Western powers would have made a powerful impact, resulting in a triumph for Axis propaganda. Strategically, the consequences could have been no less significant, as the Americans would have doubtlessly diverted much-needed resources and manpower to protecting North America from further attack.

Despite the P.23R’s mishap, Air Staff commanders had been intrigued by Lana’s proposal, but realized the Regia Aeronautica did not possess another plane that could fly the distance to New York without stopping en route for refuelling by a submarine-tanker, an overly complex operation made all the more hazardous by increasingly effective Allied counter-measures. A new aircraft conceived specifically for such a mission needed to be designed and built. Hence, the Savoia-Marchetti S.M.95. Under cover as a ‘transport’, its first prototype flew on 8 May 1943. Performance was very good, military modifications were made, and flight-testing began on 2 September. Six days later, the Badoglio government switched sides, and the imminent mission was scrubbed. When the lone SM.95 was seized by Badoglio’s government authorities, RSI planners were forced to modify the conventional Piaggio for the same purpose supposed to have been fulfilled by the four-engined Savoia-Marchetti.

Underscoring the probability of Regia Marina preparations for a specially redesigned aircraft able to carry an atomic bomb was the German Luftwaffe’s simultaneous modification of its own heavy bomber, the Heinkel He. 177 Greif, or ‘Vulture’. According to military air historian, David Mondey, work on a Greif at the Letov plant, in Prague, was intended “to provide an enlarged bomb-bay to accommodate the planned German atomic bomb”. The conversion began in late 1943, just when the Piaggio was being redressed in Italy. Not coincidentally, some of the German nuclear research was at that time being carried out in Czechoslovakia, where the Heinkel bomber was also converted to carry an atomic device. It would appear then, that both German and Italian Air Force officials anticipated the availability of atomic bombs sometime in late 1943.

One may only surmise that the contemporary political upheaval and de facto civil war that afflicted Italy with the arrest of Mussolini and subsequent turmoil in the wake of Badoglio’s September armistice prevented transportation of the delicate, top secret, fissionable materials and valuable equipment from reaching the Piaggio’s airstrip. The bomb intended for its sortie against the Allied invasion fleet may have been, moreover, a hastily packaged contingency than a real finished product, and the Italo-German physicists welcomed Italy’s temporarily stabilized military situation as a necessary breathing-space to properly finalize their many years of work in the creation and deployment of a true weapon less encumbered by the potentially disastrous uncertainties inherent in incomplete research.

While tactical use of a nuclear weapon against the Anglo-American invasion of Italy may have been the most practical option envisioned for it by the Commando Supremo, the propaganda value of such a device would not have been missed by Mussolini or men like Julio Valerio Borghese. Borghese was Commander of the X Light Flotilla, whose human-torpedoes had scored spectacular successes against British ships at Alexandria and Gibraltar. With America’s entry into the war on 9 December 1941, he believed these unconventional submersibles represented Italy’s best hope for striking the U.S. mainland. Borghese recalled later, “the psychological effect on the Americans, who had not yet undergone any war offensive on their own soil, would, in our opinion, far outweigh the material damage which might be inflicted. And ours was the only practical plan, so far as I am aware, ever made to carry the war into the United States.”

Beyond its obvious propaganda value, such an attack would sink several valuable freighters, and New York’s important harbor might be sufficiently damaged, as was the port of Alexandria, to close it for lengthy repairs. Far more significantly, following the attack, the Americans could be counted upon to divert substantial effort, materials and weapons from their war effort for the reinforced defense of not only New York, but the entire eastern seaboard, just as the Japanese withdrew many of their forces to protect Tokyo after it had received unimportant damage from 1942’s Doolittle raid. German V-1 missile attacks against London two years later prompted a similar reaction from the British. As the Doolittle raid raised American morale after months of uninterrupted bad news, Borghese’s New York operation would have an identical impact on Italian spirits. Potential repercussions–strategically, economically and psychologically–would certainly pay high military dividends on a meager investment in men and materiel.

The Duce and Commando Supremo heartily approved the scheme in late January 1942, and Borghese got to work on it immediately. The operation was set to take place in mid-December, when daylight would have been minimal and the extended darkness allowed his crews maximum time to carry out the operation. After dark, their vessel was to be delivered into the waters off Fort Hamilton. From there, it would cruise up the Hudson River to the merchant shipping docks along West Street, where ‘frogmen’ in scuba-gear would attach explosive charges to five or six freighters. After scuttling their submersible, the crews could choose to either surrender or go into hiding. Several thousand U.S. dollars were, in fact, provided each man, in the event he chose to avoid capture.

Due to the limited range of the Maiale human-torpedoes which attacked the British Fleet at Alexandria, Borghese envisioned using one of the Regia Marina’s pocket-submarines then operating with good success in the Black Sea against the Soviet Navy. But these ‘midgets’ were still too large for accommodation aboard a standard ocean-going submarine on a transatlantic mission from Europe to North America. Instead, he resurrected an earlier two-man submersible known as the Goeta-Caproni Project (after the inventor, Vincenzo Goeta, and its parent company), inaugurated in 1936.

Following extensive redesign, especially for silent running, two examples of the craft, which had been stored and almost forgotten for the previous six years, were tested under conditions of extreme secrecy in secluded Lake Iseo, later the site of another top secret undertaking, Churchill’s alleged Allied-Axis alliance against the Soviet Union. One of the submersibles sank irretrievably to the bottom of the lake, but the other achieved an operational range of 113 kilometers while cruising beneath the surface at six knots, performing admirably at forty-five-meter depths.

Renamed CA 2, it was ready for action by mid-summer 1942, when Borghese contacted Admiral Karl Dönitz. The commander of the German U-boat arm was intrigued by the project’s innovative audacity, but expressed his regret that he simply could not spare a single Milchkuh, or ‘Milk Cow’ submarine-refueller as a carrier for the CA-2 until late fall. Borghese knew that would not leave him enough time to make the necessary modifications, install the submersible, or test and train with it, so he visited the Italians’ Atlantic submarine headquarters at Bordeaux. Rear-Admiral Romolo Polacchini, the base commander, was enthusiastically taken with the proposal, for which only the Regia Marina’s best submarine was good enough, in his opinion.

Lieutenant Gianfranco Priaroggia’s Leonardo Da Vinci had just returned on 1 July after sinking 20,000 tons of Allied merchant shipping in the course of a single patrol, and both commander and submarine seemed ideally suited for the New York operation. The capacious Marconi class vessel could easily accommodate the CA 2, after its forward deck-gun and mounting were replaced by a cradle between the resistant hull and superstructure. Two large cranes on either side of the cradle lifted the pocket-submarine in or out of its cradle in which it rested, its upper one-forth exposed above decks. Both cranes folded away automatically into their own watertight compartments. “The operation against New York,” Borghese stated, “had passed out of the planning stage into that of practical operation.”

The complicated remodeling went under way with thorough but unusual haste, allowing extensive sea trials to begin on 9 September. The equipment and procedures required some adjustments, but the CA 2 with its two crew members was consistently released and recovered without difficulty, even in somewhat rough seas. Before month’s end, Lieutenant Priaroggia announced both his Leonardo Da Vinci and the midget-submersible were ready to undertake their mission. Borghese proudly notified his superiors in Rome, informing them that he would sail for New York on 19 December. The attack was scheduled to commence during the Winter Solstice. But too his shock and dismay, the Supermarina responded that the mission must be postponed for another year.

“New technological developments” then still in the making would render the operation far more effective than if it were attempted in 1942. Since such a surprise attack was a singular undertaking that could not be repeated, its maximum destructive potential had to be assured. No further explanation was given, although Borghese agreed that if the CA 2 could be eventually provided with more powerful explosive charges, as implied in the Supermarina communication, the long wait would be worthwhile. In the meantime, he pulled military strings to have additional pocket-submarines built and tested.

For the New York attack the CA-Class was heavily modified with the torpedoes removed and four large mines instead added to a remodeled superstructure. A diver lock-out compartment was built into the hull with hatches on both top and bottom. This allowed the frogmen to access the midget submarine directly from the dry interior of the host submarine.

Planned Special Forces attack on New York, 1943

The Leonardo Da Vinci had her deck-gun restored after the CA 2 was removed, but all other modifications for the submersible were undisturbed in preparation for the rescheduled 1943 mission, as Priaroggia was promoted to Lieutenant Commander “for outstanding service in war” on 6 May. But seventeen days later, his submarine was depth-charged by the British frigate, Ness, and a destroyer, HMS Active, just off Cape Finestrelle. There were no survivors. By this time, the war in the Atlantic had drastically shifted against all Axis vessels, both under and on the sea, but Borghese was undeterred in his determination to hold the Supermarina to its word: New York must be attacked during the next Winter Solstice.

He turned from submarines to aircraft as the alternative delivery system for his CA 2. The specimen he chose was one of the outstanding airplanes of the war, a maritime reconnaissance model with exceptional flight characteristics. The CANT 511 was originally designed in September 1937, as the world’s largest double-pontoon hydroplane, intended for civilian flights carrying mail, cargo and sixteen passengers between Rome and Latin America. The thirty-four-ton aircraft was powered to a cruising speed of 405 km/hr by four 1,350-hp Piaggio PXII C. 35 radial engines. At the time of its maiden flight, in October 1940, five months after Italy’s entry into the war, the 511 was converted into a military role. Final testing took place between late February and early March 1942, when test pilot Mario Stoppani succeeded in taking off and landing the fully loaded CANT in rough seas with three-meter waves and winds gusting between fifty and sixty-five km/hr.

This extraordinarily rugged stability and the hydroplane’s exceptional range of 5,000 kilometers seemed ideally suited for special, unconventional missions, including plans to free fifty Italian pilots and soldiers imprisoned in far-off Jeddah with a commando raid. Using the CANT to bomb Bathumi and Poti, Soviet Black Sea ports, or Baku, on the Caspian Sea, and the Persian Gulf’s oil facilities at Bahrain, were seriously considered. But Borghese laid claim to the only pair of 511s before these schemes could be sanctioned, and had the machines transported to Lake Treviso for modification.

Seating arrangements and cargo areas were torn out to make room for a pair of human-torpedoes. Ezo Grossi, who had since replaced Rear-Admiral Romolo Polacchini as the Italian base commander at Bordeaux, provided a large, ocean-going submarine-tanker to rendezvous at prearranged coordinates with the giant hydro-planes on two separate occasions–once coming and going across the Atlantic Ocean–to refuel the sea-planes en route to the target.

While such air-sea refuelling stops had been undertaken by Italian crews earlier in the war, none, of course, were conducted over such immense distances made especially perilous by Allied supremacy at and over the sea. Even so, renovation of the 511 began in June 1943, and proceeded with determination until the air frame suffered some damage during a low-level run by USAAF fighters. Repairs commenced at once, but before they could be completed the Italian armistice was announced on 8 September, and the project abandoned. At sixty tons, however, the CA 2 was too heavy to be carried by any aircraft, so Borghese returned to the Maiale for his New York attack.

As intriguing as the operation itself was its sudden postponement in late 1942, when men and equipment were ready to carry out their mission. The suspension occurred just as Piaggio’s alleged ‘atomic bomber’ was waiting for a nuclear device to be installed in its specially modified bomb-bay. Did the Supermarina delay the New York attack by twelve months because Mussolini expected to have an atomic bomb at his disposal by late fall or early winter 1943? His overthrow in mid-summer of that year rendered that project mute, at least until he could assert his new political base in Salo. Certainly, by April 1945, he talked as though such a weapon were about to fall into his hands.

Whatever documentation may have specified an Italian nuclear device must, of necessity, have been highly restricted. If such documentation did exist, it may still lie buried in the undisclosed archives of British intelligence. Naturally, such information would have been classified as the most secret of all and restricted to only very few supreme officials on a strictly need-to-know basis. The paper trail left by a weapon with the potential to reverse the course of history must have been necessarily scant and thoroughly covered up by the authorities. Abundant, if circumstantial evidence nonetheless suggests that the Italians were on their way to building an atomic bomb in the late 1930s. From 1942, they combined their efforts with German physicists in a joint attempt to deliver an operable device in time to win the war for the Axis. Hence, the Duce’s urgent appeal to his forces to “hold out for another month”.

As early as fall 1942, his scientists may have informed him that the bomb would be ready by late the following year, when the singular Piaggio P.133 stood by to receive its unique payload, and Borghese’s human-torpedoes would have been ready to attack New York with something more than a few explosive charges magnetically fixed to the hulls of freighters tied up at the West Street dock. Political upheavals, however, intervened to prevent the deployment of such advanced weaponry.

Someday future investigators probing the declassified files of British intelligence may find wartime documents outlining the extent of nuclear research undertaken by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Perhaps when such important papers come to light they could reveal that New York City missed becoming history’s first victim of a nuclear holocaust by margins too narrow to contemplate.

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

Raiders exit a deliberately crashed helicopter at the Son Tay prison camp in North Vietnam. Painting: Mikhail Nikiporenko/USAF


In 1968, 356 American prisoners of war (POWs) were being held in camps north of the Demilitarized Zone in the Republic of North Vietnam. One of these facilities was Camp Hope, located near the Son Tay citadel, just twenty-three miles northwest of Hanoi. It had been activated on 24 May 1968, and over the course of the next several months fifty-five American POWs were moved into the small compound. After U.S. intelligence sources located the camp, the Interagency Prisoner of War Intelligence Committee (IPWIC), headed by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), began to focus its reconnaissance efforts to determine whether American POWs were being held at Son Tay.

In May 1970, the U.S. Air Force’s 1127th Special Activity Squadron (Headquarters Command) received aerial reconnaissance photos taken of Son Tay that showed a coded message “spelled out” by the prisoners indicating the number of personnel interned and the location of a possible pickup site eight miles to the northeast at Mount Ba Vi. (The 1127th believed that the work parties from Son Tay were being sent to Mount Ba Vi to chop wood either for the kitchen fires or for camp construction projects.) The 1127th provided the information to Brig. Gen. James Allen, the deputy director of plans and policy under the deputy chief of staff for plans and Operations, Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, who commissioned a preliminary study of rescue possibilities and presented the findings to Brig. Gen. Donald Blackburn, the special assistant for counterinsurgency and special activities (SACSA), Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Blackburn immediately asked the DIA to conduct a photo reconnaissance mission of both Son Tay and another suspected POW camp called Ap Lo. On 2 June, DIA provided Blackburn with SR-71 photos that confirmed the presence of “someone” in both camps. Three days later Blackburn briefed the JCS and recommended an in-depth feasibility study be conducted with options provided to the JCS by 30 June. He later recalled, “The JCS wanted more detail before they would make a determination of whether we should go on with this thing or before they would agree to a joint task force to be set up to plan this operation.”

JCS approved the study, and on 10 June SACSA convened a twelve-man study group from all three services and DIA. But Blackburn realized it would be difficult to get a mission approved. “I knew from the start that we would be singing to a reluctant choir. My inhibitions stemmed from my days as Chief SOG in Viet Nam … There was an off-and-on policy at the time about bombing in the north, and they did not want to rock the boat by these ground operations.”

The initial concept-of-operations brief to the Joint Chiefs was delayed from 30 June until 10 July, at which time Col. Norman Frisbie, USAF, the senior member of the preliminary study group, told the JCS that a rescue effort was feasible, and he presented an expanded concept of the operation. Initially, Blackburn and his staff considered inserting a controlled American source (CAS) agent (Vietnamese recruited by SOG) into the vicinity of Son Tay. The agent would verify the presence of POWs and call in a helicopter-borne rescue force that would be prepositioned on the Laotian border. This concept was discarded because of fears that prepositioning forces in Laos would alert the North Vietnamese and compromise the mission. Consequently, the planning group recommended that a combined fixed-wing and rotary-wing air element (two C-130Es, five HH-53s, one HH-3, and five A-1Es) be launched from Thailand to insert and support a Special Forces ground-assault force that would rescue the POWs. The navy would provide a massive three-carrier air strike into North Vietnam as a deception to focus enemy air defenses and radars away from the inbound rescue force. The JCS approved the concept and directed commencement of detailed planning and training.

On 8 August, a joint contingency task group (JCGF) was formed under the JCS with SACSA as the office with primary responsibility. Brig. Gen. Leroy J. Manor, USAF, commander of the Special Operations Force at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was designated as the commander, and Col. Arthur D. Simons, USA, J4, XVIII Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was assigned as the deputy. Admiral Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Manor, “You have the authority to put together a task force and train that task force.” Manor was pleased with the clear direction and support. He said later, “We had practically a blank check when we left there to go ahead with this. We had the authority we needed to get whatever resources we needed personnel-wise or equipment-wise or whatever. All the resources that were available in the military were ours to put this together. 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!”

Immediately upon establishment of the JCT, Colonel Simons returned to Fort Bragg and requested volunteers for a classified mission involving considerable travel and risk. Over five hundred men from the John F. Kennedy Center for Special Warfare showed up for the initial meeting. Some men, not knowing the nature of the operation, elected not to return for a follow-on screening. Each of those men who did return was personally interviewed by Colonel Simons, Lt. Col. Joseph Cataldo, a Special Forces medical officer, and two sergeants major. Eventually 120 men were chosen as the nucleus for the army component of the Son Tay force. “Every one of these people had been to Viet Nam. Some of them had had two or three tours in Viet Nam.”

At the same time, the air force crews were being selected from personnel assigned to the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Training Center at Eglin. This squadron possessed the only stateside heavy-lift, air-refuelable H-3 and HH-53 helicopters. Some HH-53 crews from the 40th Air Rescue Squadron and the 703d Special Operations Squadron were even returned to Florida from Southeast Asia to participate in the operation. Additionally, the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Florida, and the 56th Special Operations Squadron in Thailand supplied pilots and co-pilots. According to Col. John Allison, “All of the foregoing crew members volunteered, and after being interviewed by General Manor or Lieutenant Colonel Warner Britton, were selected to participate on the mission. Colonel Britton was the Air Force representative who participated in the feasibility study and was pilot of Apple 1 on the mission.”

Once chosen, all the men were taken to Duke Field at Eglin to begin training. Eglin was chosen as the training site because it had all the necessary resources and provided the isolation required to maintain security. The training began on 20 August and terminated on 8 November 1970. During the interim, the air and ground planning staffs assumed the joint planning function. Regularly scheduled joint meetings were held to plan the logistic and training activities. In Washington, intelligence agencies continued to gather extensive information on Son Tay. “Both SR-71 and drone (low altitude) resources were programmed to obtain aerial photography of the objective, the surrounding area, and the tentative route.”

Operational security was considered essential to the success of the mission. The Security Staff Section was established on 11 August 1970 and given the responsibility of maintaining security and counterintelligence for the project. Work areas were surveyed, visitor control was established, classified material control was instituted within the work space, and all messages leaving the command were screened by the Security Staff. All the personnel involved in the planning, support, or execution of the raid had their phones monitored. Brigadier General Manor received a daily report detailing the highlights of possible violations. Additionally, a cover and deception plan was developed for the training and deployment phase and a counterintelligence plan to provide specialized assistance in gathering information on possible organized threats to the mission.

As training progressed, Brigadier General Manor and Colonel Simons frequently traveled to Washington to assist the SACSA planning cell and brief the necessary senior officials. Manor recalled that on 8 September

Simons, Don Blackburn, and myself had an appointment to brief the chiefs and I was the briefer, the commander of the task force. I pointed out to the chiefs that we had determined that this [the Son Tay raid] is feasible. It can be done. This is how we plan to do it and I outlined the concept. We will be ready to do this on the 21st of October.8 Admiral Moorer [Chairman of the JCS] said, “We could approve it here, but of course, it has to go to a higher level for [final] approval. You will have to brief the secretary of defense.” Secretary of defense was Mr. Melvin Laird. We weren’t able to schedule a briefing before him until the 24th of September. And at the same time, we briefed the Director of CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] [Richard Helms]. Apparently he had been briefed before … They were rather noncommittal, although Secretary Laird said that he agreed with the concept and he agreed that it was feasible, and we would have to wait for higher authority. We knew, of course, that it would have to go to the White House. But it wasn’t until the 8th of October that we had an opportunity to brief the White House. Then we briefed Dr. Kissinger and General A1 Haig. A1 Haig, then, was the military assistant to Kissinger. The briefing was well received there. No changes made in concept. They didn’t have any problems with how we planned to do this, and they had confidence we could do it.

Kissinger told Manor that the mission might have to be delayed from 21 October to 21 November. Unbeknownst to Manor, President Nixon was working to gain the release of POWs through diplomatic means, and he was concerned that a raid could compromise those initiatives. Kissinger authorized Manor to continue training. On 1 November, Admiral Moorer authorized Manor to conduct in-the-ater coordination. Prior to this time no one beyond CINCPAC (commander in chief, Pacific) (Admiral McCain) was aware of the proposed operation. Blackburn, Manor, and Simons flew to Saigon and briefed General Creighton Abrams (commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) and General Lucius Clay (commanding general, Seventh Air Force). Both generals wholeheartedly supported the mission and offered “any resources” under their control.

Upon completing the brief in Saigon, Blackburn flew back to Washington, and Manor and Simons flew to the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany and briefed VAdm. Fred Bardshar (commander, Task Force [CTF] 77), Capt. Alan Hill (CTF 77 operations officer), and Comdr. P. D. Hoskins (CTF 77 intelligence officer). From these briefings the navy developed a three-carrier diversionary strike into North Vietnam designed to divert attention away from the inbound helicopter raid force. Bardshar was directed not to inform his immediate superior, Admiral Weisner (commander, Seventh Fleet). “I [Manor] later worked for Admiral Weisner, and he would occasionally bring this up to me—in a good natured way—that I had gone around him to get his force to do something.”

On 10 November, the raid force with its logistic support departed Eglin, and it arrived at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) on 14 November 1970. Additional C-141s departed on the tenth and twelfth, arriving as scheduled on the sixteenth. On the morning of 18 November, Moorer briefed Nixon on the Son Tay raid. Also present were Kissinger, Laird, Helms, Secretary of State William Rogers, and Haig. Later that afternoon the raid was approved.


Camp Hope, located near the Son Tay citadel, was activated on 24 May 1968. Three contingents of American POWs were brought into the camp, the first group on 24 May, the second on 18 July, and the third on 27 November 1968. After confirming the existence of personnel in the camp (June 1970), the U.S. intelligence community began extensive coverage of the compound and surrounding area. Photo intelligence during the planning phase of Son Tay consisted of coordinating the reconnaissance, photo interpretation, and target material production. All photography came from either SR-71 overflights or Teledyne Ryan’s Buffalo Hunter reconnaissance drones and was orchestrated through the DIA. Both Camp Hope and the nearby camp Ap Lo were entered as national intelligence requirements and a priority drone coverage effort from Strategic Air Command (SAC) was requested.

In September 1970, seven drone tracks were drawn up by the Son Tay planners to ensure full coverage of both the camp and surrounding areas. This allowed the planners to identify helicopter landing zones (LZs), infiltration and exfiltration routes, and airborne staging areas, and to develop detailed intelligence on the POW camp itself. From these photos a scale model of the POW camp was produced by the CIA for use by the planners and operators. (The model was codenamed Barbara and now resides in the aviation museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.)

Camp Hope, designated Son Tay Prisoner of War Camp N-69, was located at 21 degrees, 08 minutes, and 36 seconds north and 105 degrees, 30 minutes, and 01 second east. It was bordered on the west by the Song Con River which flowed south to north and bent slightly to the east three hundred feet from the camp. The river was about forty feet wide and fordable by foot troops in the dry season. There was a sixty-foot, single-lane, three-span bridge to the north that became a gravel road to the east of the compound. The road was bordered by power lines and air-raid pits. A small canal bordered the compound in the south. The entire area, from the bridge to the canal, including the compound and surrounding buildings, was no larger than three football fields laid side to side.

The compound itself was approximately 140 feet wide by 185 feet long north to south. Its walls were 6- to 12-inch-thick masonry and between 7-1/2 and 10 feet high. There was concertina wire on the south wall. Entrance into the compound was either by a vehicle access gate on the east wall or a smaller access gate on the south wall. Inside there were five main buildings, three guard towers, and two latrines. On the north end of the compound were two smaller buildings. The building on the west wall (5C) was surrounded by concertina wire and considered to be a maximum detention cell. The other building, located against the north wall, contained holding cells (5D). The large adjoining buildings in the center of the compound also contained holding cells (5A and 5B), and the large single building housed the guard relief and interrogation cells (5E).

Son Tay Prisoner of War Camp and the Movements of the Assault (Meadows), Command (Sydnor), and Support (Simons) Groups. From JCS

Outside the compound were several structures that supported the guard force including: guard quarters (7B), kitchen and guard mess (11, 12), administration building (7A), family housing (13 A, B, C, and D, E [not shown]), and numerous support buildings (8A-F). The nighttime guard force was estimated to be one guard per watch-tower and a minimum of two guards in the compound with possible relief personnel in 5E. The outside force could number up to two platoons, located primarily in the guard quarters in 7B. Although they were probably not manned, automatic-weapon positions were stationed around the camp at the south, east, and north ends.

Located approximately four hundred meters south of the Son Tay POW camp was another facility originally designated as the Son Tay secondary school. This facility was later presumed to be the headquarters for a missile battery and was reclassified as a military installation after the support element mistakenly landed by the compound and was engaged by enemy forces. The installation was similar in size and construction to the Son Tay compound. It had a masonry wall surrounding the outside. A canal resembling the Song Con River ran north of the facility, and a gravel road bordered the compound on the east side. Inside the walls were at least four buildings, three one-story barracks and a two-story headquarters facility. (According to Col. Elliot Sydnor it was never actually determined how these buildings were used.) Very little intelligence was gathered on the installation prior to the mission because it was not part of the objective area. Based on photo interpretation of the Son Tay compound and surrounding area, intelligence experts estimated that a total of fifty-five personnel might be held prisoner at Camp Hope. (Colonel Richard A. Dutton, USAF [Ret.], a former Son Tay POW, stated that on 27 November 1968 there were a total of fifty-two prisoners.) A physical profile of the average Son Tay POW was developed by Dr. Cataldo based on World War II and Korean War data. Estimates of body weight, disease, and psychological state were made. It was determined that most of the POWs would have lost 20 percent of their body weight and been inflicted with either malaria, intestinal parasites, goiter, malnutrition, peripheral neuritis, active dysentery, or tuberculosis. A psychological profile based on interrogations of returning POWs was prepared for POW-handling purposes. The profile was as follows:

Overhead View of the “Secondary School” Showing the Movements of the Support Group. From JCS

The POW has heard very little noise, has had very little physical exercise and lives in dimly lit rooms. He has two meals a day, usually consisting of cabbage soup plus bread or rice. Fish and pumpkin occasionally supplement the diet with less than two ounces of meat per week. Sometimes a banana or some other fruit is provided. Flour and sugar cookies are rarely given to the POW. Restriction of total protein intake plus physical inactivity will cause marked muscular atrophy plus a slow reaction to stimuli. A few POWs will maintain a strong hope for liberation, and some will have given up hope, but the majority are probably unsure and live day to day driven only by a natural desire to survive. Therefore, for the most, the sudden realization that “liberation is here” will be shocking.

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.”


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.


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.

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

The air forces’s training was also divided into four phases and required precision night formation flying at low altitudes. The composition of the force complicated this mission because some of the aircraft were required to perform at the extremes of their capabilities. The Son Tay Report states that “this demanded the installation and use of special equipment as well as the development of new tactics and procedures before the Task Group could become mission ready.”

The composition of the air force task group included two Combat Talon C-130s to provide precise navigation to the target area. One C-130 was designated to escort the five HH-53s and one HH-3 carrying the assault force. The other C-130 led the five A-1s that were used to provide strike force and air cover. (General Manor later stated, “The primary reason for the second Combat Talon was for redundancy in the event the first [C-130] was lost due to mechanical or other troubles. Redundancy was planned into every phase of the air elements.”)

During Phase I (preparation phase) personnel were selected for the mission, deployed to Auxiliary Field 3, and put through complex formation flying to determine their proficiency. In Phase II (specialized training) the HH-3, UH-1, and C-130s conducted day and night formation flying and full-mission profiles. (The UH-1 was designated as an alternative insertion platform in the event the HH-3 was unable to land in the compound owing to the limited size of the landing zone.) During Phase III (joint training phase) actions at the objective were rehearsed, including aerial and ground rescue operations, objective area tactics, emergency procedures, and full-mission profiles. A delay in the execution window from 21 October to 21 November allowed time for additional training (Phase IV) and included continued rehearsal of the basic and alternate plans.

For the training and execution, a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system was installed aboard each C-130, and an additional navigator was added to the crew to improve precise navigation to the target area. Additionally, ground acquisition responder/interrogator (GAR/I) beacons were used to assist the C-130s in determining their location over the ground.

In the course of training, some important lessons were learned. Formation flying for the air forces was particularly challenging. The C-130 and either the HH-3 or the UH-1H were both required to exceed their normal limits. The helicopters flew in a draft position, maintaining a speed of 105 knots to keep up with the C-130, which had to fly at 70 percent flaps. At those slow speeds the C-130 had Doppler reliability problems. These problems were overcome by both the FLIR and GAR/I beacon, which added to the reliability of navigation. The narrow operating envelope of the HH-3 meant only essential fuel and equipment could be carried. As tactical requirements increased the size of the assault team, particular attention was paid to weight reduction. After numerous trials it was determined that flying the UH-1H in formation with a C-130 was “not within the capability of the average Army aviator,” but after intense training “the tactics of drafting with HH-3 and UH-1H [were] proven and [could] be applied in future plans.”

Another minor problem developed when it was found that the C-130 and A-1 strike force was not capable of maintaining formation with the lead assault force of C-130s and helicopters. A plan was devised to allow the A-1s to make circles or S-turns to remain in contact with the lead helicopter force. This later resulted in the decision to separate the two formations and allow them to arrive on target at a predesignated time.

According to the after-action report, throughout the training, air force “tactics and techniques were in a constant state of revision and modification until the full-dress rehearsal in early October. All missions were jointly briefed and debriefed with every element that participated represented. The building-block concept was constantly stressed and emphasized and practiced. [The air element] would practice each segment separately and single ship, if feasible. Ballast was carried to match planned flight gross weight. Formations were flown at density altitude expected to be encountered … Frequently a mission would be flown in the afternoon, and after a debrief and discussions of problems with corrective actions, the mission would be repeated after dark. During the proper phase of the moon, some missions were flown as late as 0230 in the morning to achieve as realistic lighting as possible.”

By the time training was completed on 13 November 1970, “every facet of the operation [was] exercised [totaling] more than 170 times … and over 1000 hours of incident-free flying [were] conducted primarily at night under near combat conditions.”

On 10 November 1970 the force deployed to Thailand fully prepared to conduct the mission that lay before them.


The deployment to Thailand was conducted in two phases. On 10 November the two C-130s left Eglin Air Force Base under cover of darkness, and they arrived at Takhli RTAFB on 14 November. In staggered flights, the remaining personnel and equipment were flown by C-141s on 10, 12, and 16 November. The helicopters and A-1s used during training were left in CONUS, and replacement aircraft were provided by forces in Thailand. Appropriate cover stories were disseminated to prevent “espionage and sabotage from interfering with the movement of the force, to insure surprise, and to deny information regarding the movement.” In Thailand, security surveys were conducted at both Takhli and Udorn (the helicopter-staging base) RTAFBs, and secure working areas were established and maintained throughout the final stages.

On 18 November the force was assembled in the base theater at Takhli, where Manor and Simons presented a joint air and ground operations brief. Up to this time only those personnel directly involved in the planning knew what the objective was and where Son Tay was located. Although this brief was fairly extensive it did not include the exact name and location of the POW camp. Following the formal brief, the platoon leaders read the official operation plan and reviewed the schedule of activities for the remaining three days. That evening there were more staff and platoon meetings that included partial mission briefs by key individuals.

At 0330 local time on 19 November, Manor received a red rocket (flash execute) message giving him approval to launch the mission as planned. Unfortunately, the weather situation had deteriorated since the force had arrived in Thailand. Typhoon Patsy was about to make landfall over the Philippines and was expected over Hanoi within twenty-four to forty-eight hours. It was essential for the success of the mission that the air element have a five-thousand- to ten-thousand-foot cloud ceiling en route to Son Tay and suitable moonlight for the ground operations at the objective. Additionally, the coastal ceiling off the Gulf of Tonkin had to be seventeen thousand feet for the navy to conduct their diversionary air raid. Manor received a detailed weather brief the afternoon of the nineteenth, and based on that forecast he made the decision to launch the raid on the twentieth instead of the twenty-first.

The ground force spent the nineteenth conducting equipment checks, range firing, and receiving SAR and E&E briefings. On 20 November a final briefing was conducted in the base theater. “A route briefing and target briefing was given to include the geographical location, the name of the target, its relation to Hanoi’s location [cheers went up] and specific instructions concerning the conduct of force in the target area. Included were: decisive action, importance of time to success, care of wounded, SAR operations, and fighting as a complete unit in case of emergency actions.”

Following the brief, the ground force moved to the hangar for a final equipment check and to await onload. An advanced party had flown to Udorn earlier in the evening to load the helicopters with special clothing for the POWs and extra batteries and equipment for the ground force. Manor had departed earlier in the day for his command post located at Monkey Mountain just north of Danang. He later reported that “the reason Monkey Mountain was chosen was because it was a communications hub, and it had some special communication put in for [Manor’s] use.”

In the three days preceding the launch, the air elements were also busy checking aircraft and making final preparations. The two C-130s had arrived on the fourteenth and were test flown for systems checks on both the sixteenth and seventeenth. The 3d Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Group redistributed HH-53s within Southeast Asia so that ten were available at Udorn RTAFB on 15 November. By 17 November all HH-53s were mission ready. Two CONUS-based EC-121T airborne radar platforms were prepositioned at Danang, South Vietnam, for support of the mission and were ready by the seventeenth of November. The A-1 strike aircraft used for the mission were based at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, Thailand. The A-1 crews from CONUS were moved to Nakhon Phanom and conducted system checks throughout the final three days. The aircraft realignment was conducted using routine daily frag orders or operational patterns. This helped maintain a low profile, and was consistent with the security posture throughout the training and deployment.

At 2125 on 20 November 1970, the ground force departed Takhli by C-130 and after an uneventful flight arrived at Udorn. While at Udorn the ground force transferred to the five HH-53s and one HH-3. At approximately the same time, the A-1s departed Nakhon Phanom RTAFB to effect the rendezvous over Laos with the ground force aircraft. The aircraft were designated as follows:

In addition to the above aircraft there were also a ten-aircraft MiG combat air patrol (CAP) provided by the 432d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Udorn (F-4s), six F-105Gs (SAM and AAA suppression) provided by the 6010th Wild Weasel Squadron at Korat RTAFB, two EC-121T College Eye early warning and command and control aircraft, two Combat Apple (airborne mission coordinator aircraft) from Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa, one KC-135 radio relay aircraft, ten KC-135 reserve tankers from U-Tapao RTAFB, and a three-aircraft carrier diversionary strike force which included seven A-6s, twenty A-7s, twelve F-4 and F-8 aircraft, six ECM/ES-1s, and fourteen support aircraft. In all over 116 aircraft participated in the operation, taking off from seven airfields and three aircraft carriers.

The Route of the Son Tay Raid Force.

At 2256 on 20 November, the ground forces aboard their designated helicopters departed Udorn to begin the flight to Son Tay. Immediately after takeoff, an unidentified aircraft passed through the formation on a reciprocal heading, causing the helos to disperse. This created only a momentary delay before the helos rejoined in formation. The plan called for the helicopters (led by one C-130) and the A-1s (following the second C-130 out of Nakhon Phanom) to rendezvous over Laos. This provided an in-flight refueling point for the helos and allowed the two elements to join forces prior to the final leg into Son Tay.

The assault formation approached Son Tay from the west. As they arrived at a point 3-1/2 miles from the compound, the lead C-130 relayed a heading of 072 degrees to the helicopters and then pulled up and away, preparing to drop flares and firefight simulators. The first three HH-53s and the HH-3 slowed to approximately eighty knots while the remaining two HH-53s climbed to fifteen hundred feet to stand by as reserve flare ships and to recover POWs. The A-1s had executed their flight plan as scheduled, with the fifth A-1 dropping off over the Black River and the third and fourth A-1s establishing a holding pattern closer to the compound. The primary strike A-1s proceeded to the objective area and established a left-handed orbit at three thousand feet above ground level.

The lead C-130 commenced the flare drop on schedule at 0218. Seeing that the flare drop was satisfactory, Apple 4 and 5 HH-53s proceeded to their holding area on an island in Finger Lake (7 nautical miles west of Son Tay). At the same moment, approaching the coast from the east, the navy diversionary raid was in progress, which “utterly confused the enemy defenses,” focusing their attention away from Son Tay.

As the helos approached the objective area, Apple 3 (the gunship HH-53, which was the lead helo in the formation at this time) began a firing run on what appeared to be the compound. As he approached the target, however, the pilot realized it was not the correct location, and he turned left toward Son Tay. The HH-3 following immediately behind Apple 3 also turned north. Unfortunately, Apple 1 (containing Colonel Simons’s support group) landed in a field outside the wrong target. Behind Apple 1 was Apple 2, which contained Sydnor and the command and security group. The pilot of Apple 2 immediately recognized the error and proceeded north behind Apple 3 and the HH-3.

At 0218, Apple 3 commenced his firing run on the Son Tay guard towers. As their aircraft flew between the two wooden structures, the door gunners in Apple 3 opened fire, destroying the watchtowers instantly. After completing the firing run, Apple 3 proceeded to a holding area 1-1/2 nautical miles east of Finger Lake and awaited orders to return and pick up POWs.

Banana 1, the HH-3 with Capt. Richard Meadows and the assault group, made a west-to-east approach crossing the west wall. The door, window, and ramp gunners began firing on their areas of responsibility as the helo executed a controlled crash into the compound. The trees in the LZ had grown significantly since June when they were originally photographed. The blades of the HH-3 severed several small trunks and sheered the tops of the others. The impact of the landing was so violent that the door gunner was thrown clear of the aircraft but landed unhurt. Once on the ground the assault group’s mission was “to secure the inside of the POW compound, to include guard towers, gates, and cell blocks and to release and guide POWs to the control point.”

The group was divided into five elements: a headquarters element with the mission to secure the south tower and latrines and provide command and control; Action Element 1, which was to clear the cell blocks and north tower; Action Element 2, which was to provide cover for the third element; Action Element 3, which was to clear the front gate; and the air force crew, which would assist in POW handling.

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.


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.