CANNON AFB, NM – The 27th Special Operations Wing held a ceremony to celebrate the official new home of Combat Talon I, Cherry One, near the front entrance of Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., June 28, 2013.
If the retired aircraft could speak, it would undoubtedly have many hair-raising and death-defying exploits to share. Perhaps, though, the most intimidating story it could tell is that of the Son Tay Raid, the moment this particular Talon cemented its mark in time during a Prisoner of War rescue mission in the Vietnam War.
The notorious MC-130E was given a voice during the Cannon ceremony by way of several original crew members who flew the craft during the famous raid. Together, the veterans reminisced, chiming in with details and reminding each other of the moment they leapt into the history books.
Retired Lt. Col. Irl “Leon” Franklin, the Talon’s pilot, recalled the day he was recruited to play a part in the Son Tay Raid.
“We got word from Headquarters [U.S. Air Force] to provide a crew for an unknown, classified mission,” said Franklin. “They expressed my name specifically, and that of another fellow, a navigator, by the name of Tom Stiles. The rest of the crew was to be chosen from the 7th Special Operations Squadron.”
It was a joint-service operation of the utmost secrecy — formulated like a puzzle. Only those with a need-to-know were told how the pieces fit together, leaving most participants in the dark. Each group, from the flight crews to the army rangers, practiced specific combat maneuvers, all the while speculating what their mission would be.
According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, an assortment of aircraft trained for the operation, including six helicopters, five small attack planes and two large support aircraft. All unknowingly prepared for a raid on a POW camp in North Vietnam, where intelligence analysts believed 55 prisoners were being held.
Eventually, the mission was briefed to all and they flew what was to become the largest covert operation of the Vietnam War on the night of Nov. 20, 1970.
Flying point under the call sign Cherry One was the faithful Talon 0523, prepared to lead a team of helicopters in close formation. However, as it would happen, all was not smooth sailing for the military bird as the mission started off with what the craft’s copilot, retired Maj. William Guenon, called a “Murphy” moment.
“In any good, secret and dangerous mission deep behind enemy lines, there’s usually a few surprise ‘Murphy’ moments to be dealt with along the way, and this will always be the case no matter how much development and training is done,” Guenon said. “Our mission was no exception. After having flown Cherry One for more than four months with absolutely no serious issues, on the night of the raid, her number three engine would not start. We lost 21 minutes before we finally, using the double-starter-button-trick, got number three to start.”
Once airborne, the crew modified their route to make up for lost time and caught up to the already in-flight formation. Upon reaching their destination, the Talon crew began to drop flares on the sleeping prison camp below, lighting up the area for other aircraft that destroyed Son Tay’s defenses and landed inside the fortifications to begin the raid.
Cherry One then flew up the road away from camp and dropped fire crackers to simulate a ground fire-fight in an effort to deter North Vietnamese reinforcements. Finally, Cherry One was to drop a couple napalm bombs, which would burn bright and serve as a reference point for five A-1E Skyraiders and Cherry Two, another Combat Talon I. The first bomb went out on point, but it was the second that gave the crew of aircraft 0523 a bit of a problem.
“Another anxious moment that will always remain with the crew of Cherry One was when our second napalm bomb was armed, got hung up during airdrop and would not leave the aircraft,” said Guenon. “You can believe we all had our individual visions of what nasty things could happen, and you can be sure none of these thoughts were very pretty. That derelict napalm was finally jettisoned by using negative G’s and an old-fashion, and properly timed, heave-ho by our highly motivated ramp crew.”
Though they were prepared for nearly every kind of hiccup in the mission, there was one moment that no one saw coming. During the raid a message came over the radio that simply stated, “No packages.”
“When they said negative packages, I never knew what that meant,” said Tom Eckhart, head navigator on Cherry One. “I said, ‘What’s that’; and they said, ‘No prisoners.’ That was quite a letdown because that was our purpose, but later on I found out it was worthwhile because I got to speak with several people who were prisoners in Vietnam and each one told me that I saved their lives. That made it all worthwhile.”
“They were told over and over again, ‘Nobody will come and get you; they don’t care about you; they have forgotten about you, and you’re here forever’,” said Eckhart. “After the Son Tay Raid, they [the POWs] found out that we did come for them.”
Because of the raid on Son Tay, North Vietnam gathered all POWs together in one location, fearful of a repeat attack. It gave men who had been in isolation for many years the ability to communicate with one another – they were no longer alone.
In Secret and Dangerous, a book by Guenon containing a first-hand account of the rescue operation, was a letter from a Vietnam POW, retired Brig. Gen. Jon Reynolds, who expressed the importance of the Son Tay Raid.
“While the rescue was not to be, the success of the mission and its importance for American prisoners in North Vietnam should never be understated,” said Reynolds. “Its impact on us was positive and immediate…morale soared. The Vietnamese were visibly shaken. Even though not a man was rescued, the raid was still the best thing that ever happened to us.”
After the mission was completed, the crew parted ways with their Talon, though they found they had become quite attached. At their craft’s retirement, the Vietnam veterans were glad to see Cherry One, not in the bone-yard or buried in a museum, but prominently displayed at a special operations base.
“Our bird, Cherry One, aka 64-0523, is a larger than life C-130E(I) – one of the first, and has been operating in the shadows around the many hot spots of the world, she’s always brought her aircrews safely home,” said Guenon. “When not stemming the tide of communism, she, in the dark of night, quietly pursued those fanatics who still wanted to harm the U.S. Indeed, for a large-sized aircraft, this is certainly no small feat.”
“By displaying a proven special operations legend at the Cannon Air Force Base front gate, aircrews can see and realize the true spirit and proud tradition of the Son Tay Raid from so long ago,” Guenon continued. “Hopefully her example will influence others to succeed in spite of great odds.”