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The Son Tay Raid, need for special operations forces

Aircrew members from the 919th Special Operations Wing watch their aircraft, the MC-130E Combat Talon I,  April 15, 2013 during its final flight before retirement. The last five Talons in the Air Force belong to the 919th SOW. They will make one final flight to the "boneyard" at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., by mid-May. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Samuel King Jr.)

(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Samuel King Jr.)

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --  In May 1970, U.S. intelligence analysts learned approximately 70-80 American POWs were being held at Son Tay Prison, located about 30 miles west of Hanoi, Vietnam.

On June 1, 1970, Army Brig. Gen. Don Blackburn, the special assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activity, briefed Air Force Lt. Gen. John Vogt, JCS/J3, and Army Lt. Gen. Donald V. Bennett, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, on options for a rescue attempt.

By mid-July, a study group had developed a plan, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved the concept. Ironically, mid-July was precisely when the North Vietnamese moved the POWs from Son Tay.

Training took place at Eglin Air Force Base in Northwest Florida. Air Force Brig. Gen. Leroy Manor commanded the Joint Contingency Task Group and Army Col. Arthur "Bull" Simons served as his deputy.

At Eglin, helicopter and C-130 crews began a regimen of night flying, refueling practice and close formation work. The crews also practiced negotiating terrain similar to what they would fly in Vietnam to avoid North Vietnamese radar.

By mid-September, the aircrews were ready to train with the ground force, an all-volunteer force selected from Army Special Forces, commanded by Army Lt. Col. Elliott "Bud" Sydnor. The ground troops consisted of a 20-man command and security group, a 14-man compound assault team led by Army Capt. Dick Meadows, and a 22-man support group led by Simons.

On Sept. 17, night training began using a mockup of the Son Tay Prison Compound that had to be taken down during the day to avoid being spotted by Russian satellites.

In mid-November, the force deployed to Thailand to make final preparations. Despite conflicting last minute intelligence reports about the prison's status, the raid was given the green light to proceed.

The importance of light conditions necessary to conduct the raid led to two prime windows of opportunity - Oct. 21-25 or Nov. 21-25. Unable to get Presidential approval before the October window, leaders decided to execute during November. An approaching typhoon and the resulting weather conditions however, forced Manor to shift the execution date earlier than planned, to Nov. 20-21.

Shortly after 11 p.m., November 20, the helicopters and refuelers took off. As the choppers approached North Vietnam, 116 mission support aircraft took off from bases in Thailand and carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin to conduct diversionary strikes. Upon entering the objective area, the raiders dropped flares, fire-fight simulators, and a pallet of napalm to create a fire as an anchor point for the medium attack aircraft, the Douglas A-1 Skyraiders.

The helicopter carrying Simons' forces mistakenly landed in a nearby military school. By the time Simons realized what happened, his troops had already breached the wall and were encountering heavy resistance. The helicopter pilot rushed back to the landing zone to pick up Simons and his troops. Within three minutes, they were on the way to the prison compound, leaving behind numerous dead enemies.

The helicopter with Meadows' forces "crash" landed in the compound as planned. Troops rushed out the rear ramp, each running to his assigned objective. Using a bullhorn, Meadows shouted, "Keep down! We're Americans." Within 12 minutes however, all teams had reported no signs of POWs. Sydnor's force had landed, realized they were alone and immediately put an alternate plan in action to search all the buildings and block enemy reinforcements from reaching Son Tay.

Fortunately, they were quickly reunited with Simons' force and conducted the mission as originally planned. The entire raid lasted 29 minutes.

The raid, the diversionary attacks by naval aircraft, and the air cover were executed precisely and almost flawlessly. The fortuitous "mistake" of landing Simons' force at the school may have saved the lives of many of the raiders. Twenty-two of his men killed 100-200 enemy before getting out and moving to the correct position.

Meadows' assault team, Sydnor's ground forces, and the aircrews performed perfectly.

Manor and Simons took a group of volunteer Airmen and Soldiers and trained them together in isolation in order to conduct the raid. The time required to build and train this specific task force was necessary since there was no standing task force at the time. This was just one example used to convince Congress of the need for a standing joint task force that eventually led to the establishment of U.S. Special Operations Command.

This raid demonstrated the definite need for correct and timely intelligence for special operations missions. The Son Tay Raid was a highly classified and compartmentalized operation. However, the strategic importance of the mission was understood at the highest levels, leading to unheard of inter-service and interagency cooperation.

Even though the mission was not successful in recovering American POWs, it showed in no uncertain terms, the United States had the ability and the political will to conduct a raid deep in North Vietnam.

Shortly after the raid, all the American POWs were consolidated in two prison complexes in downtown Hanoi where they were held in large groups, as opposed to the solitary confinement they had been forced to live through before the raid. There, the prisoners learned the details of the raid, which along with slightly better living conditions, did quite a bit to improve their morale.

Further reading: Schemmer, Benjamin. "The Raid: The Son Tay Prison Rescue Mission"