Special Operations

Son Tay Prison Raid (1970)

The Son Tay Prison Raid  or Operation Ivory Coast was a military operation conducted in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War by United States Special Operations Forces.

On November 21, 1970, a joint United States Air Force/United States Army force commanded by Air Force Brig. Gen. LeRoy J. Manor and Army Colonel Arthur D. “Bull” Simons landed 56 U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers by helicopter in the Son Tay prison camp located only 23 miles west of Hanoi, North Vietnam. The mission’s objective was the recovery of some 70 American prisoners of war thought to be held at the camp, situated in an area where 12,000 North Vietnamese troops were stationed within five miles. The mission failed when it was found during the raid that all the prisoners had been previously moved to another camp.

sontay-mapThe specially-selected raiders extensively trained and rehearsed the operation at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, while planning and intelligence gathering continued from May 25 to November 20, 1970. Despite the absence of prisoners, the raid was executed with a high degree of success, incurring only two minor casualties and the unplanned loss of one aircraft. Criticism of intelligence failures to determine that the camp was empty, both public and within the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, led to a major reorganization of the United States intelligence community a year later.

Polar Circle

The concept of a rescue mission inside North Vietnam began on May 9, 1970. An Air Force intelligence unit concluded through analysis of aerial photography that a compound near Son Tay, suspected since late 1968 of being a prisoner of war camp, contained 55 American POWs, and that at least six were in need of urgent need of rescue. On May 25 the unit met in the Pentagon with Brig. Gen. Donald D. Blackburn, Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities (SACSA) to report their findings. Blackburn was responsible directly to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and had also been the first commander of the covert Studies and Observation Group in Vietnam.

Blackburn immediately met with General Earle G. Wheeler, the JCS Chairman, to recommend a rescue of all the POWs at Son Tay.

Son Tay raiders prior to the mission.
Son Tay raiders prior to the mission.

To study the feasibility of a raid, Wheeler authorized a 15-member planning group under the codename Polar Circle that convened on June 10. One of its members was an officer who would actually participate in the raid as a rescue helicopter pilot. The study group, after a review of all available intelligence, concluded that Son Tay contained 61 POWs.

When Blackburn’s recommendation that he lead the mission himself was turned down, he asked Col. Arthur D. Simons on July 13 to command the Army’s personnel, and selected Eglin Air Force Base as the training site.

Operation Ivory Coast

The second phase, Operation Ivory Coast, began August 8, 1970, when Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, the new J.C.S. Chairman, designated Gen. Manor as commander and Colonel Simons as deputy commander of the mission task force. Ivory Coast was the organization, planning, training, and deployment phase of the operation. General Manor set up an Air Force training facility at Eglin’s Duke Field and brought together a 27-member planning staff that included 11 from the prior feasibility study.

Colonel Simons recruited 103 personnel from interviews of 500 volunteers, most Special Forces personnel of the 6th Special Forces Group and 7th Special Forces Groups at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. USAF planners selected key Air Force commanders, who then selected personnel for their crews. Helicopter and A-1 Skyraider crews were put together from instructors at Eglin and personnel returned from Southeast Asia. Two crews for C-130E(I) Combat Talons were assembled from squadrons in Germany and North Carolina. All were then asked to volunteer for a temporary duty assignment without additional pay and without being told the nature of the rescue mission. 103 Army and 116 Air Force personnel were selected for the project, including ground force members, aircrewmen, support members, and planners. The 219-man task force planned, trained, and operated under the title of the “Joint Contingency Task Group” (JCTG).

The planning staff set up parameters for a night-time raid, the key points of which were clear weather and a quarter-moon at 35 degrees above the horizon for optimum visibility during low level flight. From these parameters two mission “windows” were identified, October 18-25 and November 18-25. Training proceeded at Eglin using a replica of the prison compound for rehearsals and a five foot-by-five foot $60,000 scale table model (codenamed “Barbara”) for familiarization.

Air Force crews flew 1,054 hours in southern Alabama, Georgia, and Florida conducting “dissimilar (aircraft) formation” training with both UH-1H and HH-3E helicopters at night and at low-level (a flight profile for which procedures had to be innovated by the two selected crews), and gaining expertise in navigation training using FLIR, which until Ivory Coast had not been part of the Combat Talon’s electronics suite. Special Forces training began September 9, advancing to night training on September 17, and joint training with air crews on September 28 that included six rehearsals a day, three of them under night conditions. By October 6, 170 practice sessions of all or partial phases of the mission were performed on the mockup by the Special Forces troopers, many with live fire. On that date, the first full-scale dress rehearsal, using a UH-1H as the assault helicopter, was conducted at night and included a 5.5-hour, 687-mile flight of all aircraft, replicating the timing, speeds, altitudes, and turns in the mission plan. The rehearsal spelled the end of the option to use the UH-1, as the small passenger compartment resulted in leg cramps to the Special Forces troopers that completely disrupted the timing of their assault, more than offsetting the UH-1’s only advantage (smaller rotor radius) over the larger HH-3. Further dress rehearsals and a total of 31 practice landings by the HH-3E in the mockup’s courtyard confirmed the choice.

On September 24, General Manor recommended approval of the October window to US Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, with October 21 as the primary execution date. However at a White House briefing on October 8 with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Gen. Alexander M. Haig, Kissinger delayed the the mission to the November window because President Nixon was not in Washington and could not be briefed in time for approval of the October window. This delay, while posing a risk of compromising the secrecy of the mission, had the benefits of additional training, acquisition of night-vision equipment, and further reconnaissance of the prison.

General Manor and Colonel Simons met with the commander of Task Force 77, Vice Admiral Frederic A. Bardshar, aboard his flagship USS America on November 5 to arrange for a diversionary mission to be flown by naval aircraft. Because of policy restrictions of the bombing halt then in place, the naval aircraft would not carry ordnance except for a few planes tasked for Search and Rescue.

Code-named “Barbara,” U.S. intelligence built this scale model of the Son Tay prisoner-of-war compound as a training aid.
Code-named “Barbara,” U.S. intelligence built this scale model of the Son Tay prisoner-of-war compound as a training aid.

Between November 10 and November 18 the JCTG moved to its staging base at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, and began studying the weather. On November 18, Typhoon Patsy struck the Philippines and headed west towards Hanoi. Weather forecasts indicated that Patsy would cause bad weather over the Gulf of Tonkin on November 21, preventing carrier support operations, and then converging with a cold front coming out of southern China, cause poor conditions over North Vietnam for the remainder of the window. The presence of the cold front, however, indicated that conditions in the objective area on November 20 would be good and possibly acceptable over Laos for navigation of the low level penetration flights. A reconnaissance flight on the afternoon of November 20 by an RF-4C Phantom carrying a weather observer confirmed the forecast. Gen. Manor authorized the advancement of the mission date by 24 hours.

Special Forces

On November 18, President Nixon approved execution of the mission, and the final phase, Operation Kingpin, began. The fifty-six Special Forces troopers selected to conduct the raid were flown on the evening of November 20 by a conventional C-130 Hercules from Takhli to their helicopter staging base at Udorn RTAFB. The Special Forces were organized into three platoons: a 14-man assault group, codenamed Blueboy, which would crash-land within the prison compound; a 22-man support group, Greenleaf, which would breach the prison wall and provide immediate support for the assault team, and a 20-man security group, Redwine, to protect the prison area from NVA reaction forces and provide backup support if needed for either of the other two groups. Colonel Simons, call sign Axle, accompanied the Greenleaf group, while the ground force commander, Lt. Col. Elliott P. “Bud” Sydnor, Jr. (Wildroot), was with the Redwine group.

Penetration into North Vietnam

Beginning at 22:00, aircraft began leaving five bases in Thailand and one in South Vietnam. Cherry 02, the Combat Talon escort for the A-1 strike formation, took off from Takhli at 22:25, but Cherry 01 had difficulty starting an engine and took off 23 minutes late at 23:18. Cherry 01 adjusted its flight plan and made up the time lost at engine start. At 23:07 the HC-130P aerial refuelers (call signs Lime 01 and Lime 02) took off from Udorn, followed by the helicopters ten minutes later. Shortly after midnight, the A-1 Skyraiders lifted off four minutes early from Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base under clandestine, blacked-out conditions. The helicopters encountered thick clouds over northern Laos at their refueling altitude and climbed to 7000 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) to refuel from Lime 01 on the flight plan’s fourth leg. Lime 01 then led them to the next checkpoint for handoff to Cherry 01 at 01:16.

The formations flew roughly parallel tracks that crossed Laos to the west of the Plain of Jars before turning northeastward. Both formations flew twelve planned legs. The flight path was a corridor six miles wide for safe terrain clearance in the event of formation breakup or a helicopter’s loss of drafting position, with the Combat Talon navigators tasked with keeping the formations on the centerline of the corridor. The pilots of both formations required a flight path of descending legs, each approximately 1000 feet above the terrain in the mountain valleys, because the HH-3E had difficulties in climbing while in formation, the Combat Talon C-130s experienced sluggish flight controls at the required airspeeds, and the A-1s were hampered by their heavy ordnance loads.

The slow speeds required for the formations (105 knots for the helicopters and 145 knots for the A-1s) degraded nearly all modes of the Combat Talon’s AN/APQ-115 TF/TA navigational radars. The Terrain Following mode computed changes in altitude only to a programmed minimum airspeed of 160 knots, well outside the parameters of the mission. The Terrain Avoidance mode, adapted from the AN/APQ-99 terrain avoidance radar of the RF-4C photo reconnaissance aircraft, was distorted by the nose-high attitude dictated by the slow speeds and would no longer display hazardous terrain directly in front of or below the Combat Talon’s flight path. The Doppler radar, used to calculate wind drift and ground speed, often had to use information in its computer’s memory because of processing lapses. While the ground-mapping radar, correlating landmarks shown on maps to radar returns, was not affected, the jungle terrain did not provide easily identifiable points. All of these handicaps were overcome with the external pod installation of FLIR, which readily identified the rivers and lakes used as turning points.

The assault formation approached from the southwest, using the clutter returns of the mountains to mask them from radar detection, while U.S. Navy aircraft launched at 01:00 from the aircraft carriers USS Oriskany and Ranger in the largest carrier night operation of the Vietnam War. Starting at 01:52, twenty A-7 Corsairs and A-6 Intruders, flying in pairs at stepped-up altitudes to deconflict their flight paths, entered North Vietnamese airspace on three tracks, dropping flares to simulate an attack. The last track also dropped chaff to mimic the mining of Haiphong harbor. Over the Gulf of Tonkin, twenty-four other aircraft in thirteen orbits provided support and protection. The operation prompted a frantic air defense reaction at 02:17 that provided a highly effective diversion for the raiders and completely saturated the North Vietnamese air defense system.

Both Air Force formations, over a period of thirteen minutes, were unavoidably and separately exposed for several minutes each to an early warning radar located at Na San, North Vietnam, 30 miles to the north, because the flight tracks had to be routed around uncharted mountains. Neither formation was detected, possibly because of the diversion. The rescue forces entered the Red River valley at 500 feet AGL to find conditions clear and visibility excellent. The helicopter formation reached its Initial Point (20 kilometers—12 minutes flying time—from Son Tay) with the A-1 strike formation two minutes behind, as planned. The HH-3E assault team helicopter had flown formation just behind and above the left wingtip of Cherry 01, drafting on the leader to gain the additional airspeed needed to bring its cruise airspeed safely above the stalling speed of the Combat Talon. Two of the HH-53s and Cherry 01 accelerated and climbed to 1,500 feet AGL while the four assault helicopters broke formation and descended to 200 feet in single file.

Combat Assault

Cherry 01 broadcast the execute code “Alpha, Alpha, Alpha” to all aircraft as it overflew the prison and dropped four flares to illuminate, followed by a hard turning descent to 500 feet to drop two battle simulators south and southeast of Son Tay. While Apple 03 made a strafing pass with side-firing miniguns on the prison’s guard towers, Cherry 01 successfully dropped one of two planned napalm ground markers as a point of reference for the A-1s, then departed the area to orbit over Laos.

The four single file helicopters encountered winds that caused them to break formation 150 yards to the right of their intended track. The pilots of the lead helicopter, Apple 03, observed a compound nearly identical to the prison camp in size and layout, previously labeled a “secondary school” by intelligence sources and steered toward it. However, they identified the river next to the actual location and corrected their flight path. Banana, carrying the Blueboy assault team, discovered its error as it descended on the location and found the expected courtyard to be much smaller than required and the treeline enclosing the compound rather than tracking through it. By then Blueboy, as previously rehearsed, was firing its weapons from all openings in the HH-3E. Banana’s pilots recognized the error, applied power, and quickly passed north to the actual target

Despite the error, and trees taller than briefed that forced a steeper descent, the assault team crashlanded into the courtyard of Son Tay prison at 02:19 with all weapons firing. Although one raider, acting as a door gunner, was thrown from the aircraft, the only casualty was the helicopter’s flight engineer, whose ankle was fractured by dislodged fire extinguisher. Army Captain Richard J. Meadows used a bullhorn to announce their presence to the expected POWs while the team dispersed in four elements on a rapid and violent assault of the prison, killing guards and methodically searching the five prisoner blocks cell by cell.

At 02:19, Apple 01 (after observing Banana fire on the site) landed the Greenleaf support group outside the south side of the secondary school, 400 meters from its objective, and lifted off to relocate to its holding area. The site was actually a barracks for troops, and alerted by Banana’s aborted assault, opened fire on Greenleaf as its elements assaulted the compound. The support group attacked the location with small arms and hand grenades in an eight minute firefight, after which Colonel Simons estimated that 100 to 200 hostile soldiers had been killed. At 02:28 the support group disengaged and reboarded its helicopter for the short movement to the correct landing area.

The pilot of Apple 02 observed the errors in navigation by the helicopters in front of him and made a hard turn towards the prison. He also observed Apple 01 unload at the secondary school and initiated Plan Green, the contingency plan for the loss or absence of Greenleaf. The Redwine security group, including the ground force commander Lt. Col. Sydnor, landed at 02:20 outside Son Tay prison and immediately executed the previously rehearsed contingency plan. In the meantime Cherry 02 arrived with the A-1 force, dropped two more napalm ground markers, and created other diversions to disguise the target area by dropping MK-6 log flares and battle simulators at road intersections that North Vietnamese reaction forces might be expected to use. Cherry 02 then orbited in the area as on-call support for the ground teams.

After a thorough search that included a second sweep ordered by Meadows, Blueboy’s three teams found that the prison held no POWs. Meadows radioed the code phrase “Negative Items” to the command group. Simons ordered the A-1s to attack the vehicle bridge over the Song Con leading into the area and called for extraction by the HH-53s, idling on the ground in a holding area a mile away.

At 02:28 Cherry 02′s radar navigator noted that Fan Song search radars for North Vietnamese surface to air missiles were active. SAM launches at the F-105 Wild Weasel force began at 02:35, with at least 36 missiles fired at the rescue forces. One F-105 was briefly enveloped in burning fuel by a near-miss at 02:40 and returned to base. Its replacement was severely damaged six minutes later by another SAM. 20 other SAMs fired at Navy aircraft all missed.

The HH-53s returned singly, and Apple 01 landed at the extraction LZ first, at 02:37. It lifted off with its passengers at 02:40, followed a minute later by the landing of Apple 02, which departed at 02:45. Apple 03, the last aircraft out, was cleared to leave its holding area at 02:48. The raid had been executed in only 27 minutes, within one minute of the planned optimum time. Although at first it was feared one raider had been left behind, all the troopers were accounted for. One had been wounded in the leg and was the only casualty to enemy action on the raid.

By 03:15 the assault formation was out of North Vietnam, and landed back at Udorn at 04:28, five hours after launch. The crew of the damaged F-105 was compelled to eject over Laos thirty minutes after being hit. Lime 01, refueling at Udorn, returned as King 21 to coordinate the SAR effort, while Lime 02 refueled Apple 04 and Apple 05 to extend their flight time. Supported by a C-123 Candlestick flare aircraft diverted from its station on another mission, a SAR force was launched, and when its Sandy A-1s arrived from Nakhon Phanom to cover the pickups, Apples 04 and 05 each recovered one of the downed airmen after three hours on the ground.

Intelligence Controversy and Aftermath

The mission was deemed a “tactical success” because of its execution, but clearly involved an “intelligence failure”. The 65 prisoners at Son Tay had been moved on July 14, probably due to the threat of flooding, to a camp 15 miles closer to Hanoi that the POWs deemed “Camp Faith”.Although relatively near Son Tay, the risk of disastrous consequences from lack of reconnaissance, planning, and rehearsing precluded a switch of targets at the last minute. A mission with Camp Faith as the objective required a lengthy delay for a new window of acceptable conditions, which increased the chance of security compromise and further withheld personnel and equipment from their parent commands. New reports of increasing numbers of deaths among POWs argued strongly against such a delay. The raid went as planned in the event the renewed activity at Son Tay noted in aerial reconnaissance photos taken November 13 involved POWs.

Although the mission objective involved an intelligence failure, the gathering of accurate intelligence for the operation, in both quality and quantity, was remarkably successful. The failure lay in “compartmentalization” of the information and isolation of the JTCG from “the normal intelligence flow”.As a planner and participant stated in his history of the operation: “The raid was allowed to take place because those who had the correct intelligence information were not aware that someone was contemplating a POW rescue.”

Further, when intelligence regarding the moving of the prisoners was received, prompting the Defense Intelligence Agency to do an intensive overnight re-analysis of all of its data, because of the 12-hour time difference with Southeast Asia and the 24-hour advancement of the operation due to Typhoon Patsy, the day of the operation had already arrived. By the time a final meeting regarding “Go/No Go” took place at 05:00 in Washington with Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, the launch of the raid was less than five hours away. There was no consensus on the reliability of the data, and Gen. Blackburn was strongly predisposed to go ahead. One military analyst observed that as a result, the highest-level decision-makers succumbed to the phenomenom of “groupthink”.

Recognition

For their actions, members of the task force received six Distinguished Service Crosses, five Air Force Crosses, and at least 85 Silver Stars, including all 50 members of the ground force who did not receive the DSC.

The successful demonstrations of joint operating capability in Ivory Coast and Kingpin were, in part, a model for the creation of a joint United States Special Operations Command in 1987.

Raid Impact

Criticism of the raid, particularly in the news media and by political opponents of the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration, was widespread and of long duration. Not only was the failure denounced as the result of poor or outdated intelligence, but charges made that the operation caused increased mistreatment of the prisoners.

However, as a result of the raid, the North Vietnamese consolidated their POW camps to central prison complexes. An area of the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” formerly housing civilian and South Vietnamese prisoners became “Camp Unity,” a block of large communal areas housing 50 POWs each. After their repatriation, many POWs said that being in close contact with other Americans lifted their morale, as did knowledge of the rescue attempt.

The Defense Department conducted an investigation into a possible breach of security as the reason behind the movement of the prisoners, and concluded that none occurred. The intensity of the criticism, and leaks of information including reports of the operation, caused the Nixon Administration to reoganize both the military communications network and the government’s intelligence apparatus.

Lime 01, refueling at Udorn, returned as King 21 to coordinate the SAR effort, while Lime 02 refueled Apple 04 and Apple 05 to extend their flight time. Supported by a C-123 Candlestick flare aircraft diverted from its station on another mission, a SAR force was launched, and when its Sandy A-1s arrived from Nakhon Phanom to cover the pickups, Apples 04 and 05 each recovered one of the downed airmen after three hours on the ground.

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