"We are going to rescue 70 American prisoners of war, maybe more, from a camp called Son Tay. This is something American prisoners have a right to expect from their fellow Soldiers."
--Colonel Arthur "BULL" Simons, U.S. Army Ground force commander
"We are going to rescue 70 American prisoners of war, maybe more, from a camp called Son Tay. This is something American prisoners have a right to expect from their fellow Soldiers."
--Colonel Arthur "BULL" Simons, U.S. Army Ground force commander
From an original recounting by Lieutenant General LeRoy J. Manor, United States Air Force (Retired)
Editor's Note: Although the main story was written by General Manor, other accounts are weaved into it to give a full dimensional view of the most successful rescue operation since the WWII Los Banos parachute raid by the U.S. Army's 11th Airborne division ("The Angels"), which rescued hundreds of American servicemen, including 16 U.S. marines captured by the Japanese early in the war.
THE RAID by Benjamin shemmer
On Wings of Eagles by Ken Follett--How Bull Simons rescued Americans from Iran
TV Mini-Series starring Burt Lancaster
AN HISTORIC OPERATION
Shortly before midnight on November 20, 1970, at Udorn Royal Thailand Air Base in Northern Thailand, 56 U.S. Army Special Forces Troopers (Green Berets) boarded 2 x USAF HH-53s and one HH-3 for a mission deep into enemy territory to rescue 75 or more Americans held by the North Vietnamese authorities. These Americans, mostly aviators of all services, were being held under conditions that can be best described as horrible in all respects -- torture, diet, lack of medical care and devoid of hope for return to freedom in a timely manner.
One hundred sixteen aircraft from seven air bases and three aircraft carriers comprised the total force. The task force was under the command of the author, Brig General LeRoy J. Manor. The weather was clear, all aircraft had been thoroughly checked and were in a-one condition, the "Red Rocket" message had been received from Washington, the troopers and air crew members were suited up and all exposed skin areas were painted and the command post communications had been checked and ready. The Commander declared the mission ready and ordered the launch.
WHY THE MISSION?
By 1970, the U.S. had secured the names of over 500 Americans held in North Vietnam prisons. Many more were missing and presumed captured. Reports of the cruelty suffered by these men at the hands of their barbarous captors were received along with reports of resultant deaths from various sources. Anxiety, concern and anger among the next of kin, friends of the captives, commanders and government officials were very much in evidence throughout this country. What was being done to alleviate the growing concern? Negotiations were being conducted in Paris on a sporadic basis depending on the mood of the North Vietnamese representatives. An attempt was made to reach an agreement whereby an exchange of prisoners of war could be made. After over two years of such negotiations, the results were ZERO.
The mood of the country demanded that something be done to help these suffering POWs. Was the time ripe for an initiative-- feasible alternative?
The Son Tay prison camp was located approximately 23 miles west of Hanoi. The camp was small, the courtyard a mere 140 by 125 feet, and it was surrounded by rice paddies and 40-foot trees. In addition, a 7-foot wall encircled the prison, and three observation towers were strategically placed to observe the POWs, who were housed in four large buildings in the main compound.
Son Tay and Ap Lo, another POW camp 30 miles from Hanoi, were first identified by the Interagency Prisoner of War Intelligence Committee in May 1970. The committee, established in 1967, was responsible for identifying POWs and the camps where they were interned and for diverting U.S. bombing missions away from those areas.
The committee determined that the Son Tay camp was being enlarged to handle additional prisoners and confirmed that 55 American POWs were imprisoned there. Reconnaissance photographs also revealed the letters SAR (Search And Rescue), spelled out by what appeared to be the prisoners' laundry, and an arrow with the number 8 next to it, indicating the distance the POWs had to travel to the fields where they worked.
U.S. Army General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), approved a plan to rescue the POWs at Son Tay. On June 10, 1970 a 15-man group led by 53-year-old Army Brig. Gen. Donald D. Blackburn, the special assistant to General Wheeler for counterinsurgency and special activities, began the planning stage of the operation. This initial phase of the rescue attempt was dubbed "Polar Circle."
Further reconnaissance of the area around Son Tay revealed some troublesome aspects of the proposed raid. First, the headquarters of the Twelfth North Vietnamese Army (NVA), totaling 12,000 troops, was located close by. Second, an artillery training school, a supply depot and an air defense installation were also in close proximity to the prison. Third, about 500 yards south of Son Tay was a compound known as the "secondary school," which was used as an administrative center for the guards. Lastly, the Phuc Yen Air Base was only 20 miles northeast of the compound. It was clear that a raid would have to be accomplished very quickly because the enemy could muster reinforcements to Son Tay in a matter of minutes.
"Ivory Coast," the second phase of the rescue operation, swung into action as soon as Polar Circle was complete. Air Force Brig. Gen. Leroy J. "Roy" Manor, a stickler for organization, headed up the group. This part of the operation kept constant surveillance on Son Tay, using Lockheed SR-71 Blackbirds and unmanned Buffalo Hunter drones.
THE TASK FORCE
MG Manor relates:
It is often said that being at the right place at the right time can result in unforeseen benefits. I believe this to be true in my case. During 1970 I had a wonderful assignment. I was Commander of the USAF Special Operations Force with Headquarters at Eglin AFB, FL. My responsibilities included the training of all special operations personnel and units of the Air Force and the coordination of these force capabilities with the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy. Joint training exercises were conducted primarily with the Army's Special Forces under the command of Maj General "Flywheel" Flannigan and later Major General Hank Emerson.
On 6 August, by telephone, I was summoned to the Pentagon and instructed to report to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at O800 hours on 8 August. I was told that my Air Staff contact was Brig Gen James Allen. It was requested that on my T-39 flight to Washington on Sunday the 7th I plan a stop at Pope AFB, NC, adjacent to Fort Bragg, to pick up an Army Colonel who, also, had instructions to report at 0800 hours to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His name was Arthur D. "Bull" Simons. Simons was then the G-4 for the U.S. Army XVIII Corps.
Over dinner on Sunday evening at the Andrews AFB Officers' Club Simons and I speculated regarding the purpose of our being summoned to Washington. We suspected that due to the similar circumstances, we were being called for the same purpose. Early on the morning of the 8th I reported to Brig General Allen and "Bull" Simons reported to Allen's counterpart on the Army staff, Brig General Clarke Baldwin.
A brief preview of the reason we were called plus a short meeting with the Chairman's principal staff member for Special Operations, Army Brig General Don Blackburn, prepared us for our meeting with Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I found the Chairman to be a real gentleman-- down to earth, friendly and to the point. He asked us if we were prepared and willing to take on an assignment to explore the feasibility of attempting to rescue some U.S. POWs held by North Vietnam--with the ultimate responsibility of conducting the operation should it be deemed feasible. Our responses were immediately affirmative. He appointed me commander of a joint task force and Col "Bull" Simons as the task force deputy commander. He advised us that the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Melvin Laird, had authorized the formation and training of a task force and that whatever resources we needed were to be made available. Admiral Moorer instructed us to advise the JCS as early as possible regarding the feasibility of such an operation, and should it be deemed feasible, when we would be ready to conduct the operation, Both Simons and I were delighted and felt honored with the task placed before us.
Our first priority was to establish a planning group. Thanks to our high priority on resources we were able to assemble a small group of the most dedicated and innovative planners available. The group represented each of the four services so it was truly "joint." [Note no marines involved] The assembled group consisted of 26 members. Space does not permit recognizing each member and outlining his or her contribution to the concept that developed. Suffice to say that it included such superb performers as Norman Frisbie, Larry Ropka, Ben Kraljev, Art Andraitu, Joe Cataldo, Dick Peshkin, Keith Grime, Warner Britton, William Norman, Richard Beyea, Max Newman and John Knops.
Next we turned our attention to the task force operational element. An early decision was made to assemble an all volunteer force. The ground element would be composed of men from the Army Special Forces and the air element would be from the Air Force. The insertion and extraction of the force, along with the rescued POWs, would be by helicopter.
Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was selected as the training site. Security was a prime consideration and the Eglin area was well suited because it is a vast area -- one where seeing military personnel wearing different uniforms does not create any speculation that something unusual is being planned. Also, the needed air resources were located primarily at Eglin and nearby Hurlburt Field.
Col Simons and Dr. Joe Cataldo went to Fort Bragg, home of the Army Special Forces and asked for volunteers. We wanted 100 men possessing certain identified skills and preferably having had recent combat experience in Southeast Asia. Approximately 500 men responded. Each was interviewed by Simons, Cataldo and Sergeant Major Pylant. From that group 100 dedicated volunteers were selected. All the required skills were covered. All were in top physical condition.
The ground component commander selected was LTC "Bud" Sydnor from Fort Benning, Georgia. Sydnor had an impeccable reputation as a combat leader. Additionally selected to be a member of the task force from Fort Benning was another superb combat leader, CPT Dick Meadow. Meadows would later lead the team that made the risky landing inside the prison compound. At the time we decided that the force needed 100 men we believed that the number might be excessive; however, some degree of redundancy and a reservoir of spares were deemed necessary.
The air element (primary force) would include 5 x HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giants , 1 x HH-3 Jolly Green Giant, 2 x MC-130 Combat Talons and 5 x A-1E SkyRaiders. The selection of crew members for these aircraft was based on experience and proven performance. They were all highly experienced and had recent combat tours. They were assembled and given the same information as that given to the Army troops regarding the purpose of the project and were invited to become participants. All accepted. We then had an all-volunteer force.
PLANNING AND TRAINING
By late August the joint task force was assembled in the Eglin area. Primary activity was at Duke Field, known as Eglin Auxiliary Number 3. A remote, but not far from Duke, site was selected for the construction of a replica of the Son Tay camp. This is where the detailed training was accomplished, including precision helicopter operations.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) provided a scale model of the Son Tay compound. The model proved to be a valuable device for detailed training of the raiders--especially members of Meadows' assault element.
Sergeant Terry Buckler, then 20 years old, was the youngest member of the raiding force to enter Son Tay and was the only team member who had not hid a tour of duty in Vietnam. He also holds another unique distinction: His entire time "in-country" was only 27 minutes--all of it in North Vietnam. He could very well be the only Vietnam veteran to make that claim.
Vietnam magazine's contributing editor Al Hemingway talked to Terry Buckler about his experience in the Son Tay raid.
When you joined the Army did you want to be a member of Special Forces?
Buckler: I was drafted on March 18, 1969. Three or four days later I did extend my enlistment to enter Special Forces. After jump school at Fort Benning, Ga., and training at Fort Bragg, N.C., I was assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg.
How were you selected to be a part of the Son Tay rescue team?
Buckler: That is an interesting story. First, at 20 years of age, I was the youngest man on the mission, and "Bull" Simons (Colonel Arthur Simons, leader of the Son Tay group, 52) was the oldest. I was in the field, at a place called Smoke Bomb Hill, when the call for volunteers was announced. All they said was that it was a secret mission that Bull Simons was heading up. We were to report to the Little White House, the headquarters of Special Forces at Fort Bragg. There were about 500 of us at the first meeting. After that, they started holding interviews.
What kind of man was Colonel Bull Simons?
Buckler: Simons looked as if his face had been chiseled out of stone. He was the type of Soldier you would follow to hell and back. He took care of his men. He always scared the hell out of me. When he talked, you snapped to. He always had an old half-chewed stogie hanging from his mouth. In fact, I don't think he bought new cigars, he bought used ones. He also had a great sense of humor, and he most certainly had everyone's respect.
Did Simons conduct the interviews himself?
Buckler: No, there were two Sergeant Majors that did them. My paperwork got lost somehow, and it was about 7:30 in the evening and I was the only one left standing outside. I grew impatient and began to holler at the two Sergeant Majors. Looking back, that was a stupid move on my part because they could have killed me. But they instructed me to report back to them the following morning. The next day I was the first one to be interviewed, and then I went back to my unit to await their decision. We were at a state forest, practicing mountain climbing, when I received the word to pack my bags because I had been selected for the mission.
What other officers were part of the team?
Buckler: Our commanding officer was Lt. Col. Elliot P. Sydnor, who was second-in-command. Sydnor was a Ranger and there was some animosity between the Rangers and Special Forces. He was more military than us. I think the Special Forces attitude was more unorthodox. Lieutenant Colonel Bill Robinson was in charge of the administrative end. Some of the others who stand out in my mind are Sgt. Maj. Vladimir Jakovenko, who was definitely a hell-raiser and a real inspiration. Also, "Pappy" Kittleson, a real good soldier. Pappy was a three-war veteran and had a calming effect on everyone. He was in his 50s but was in real good physical condition. I wouldn't want to mess with him. Then there was Master Sgt. Herman Spencer, who was in a class all by himself. And Sgt. 1st Class Tryone Adderly, who would win a Distinguished Service Cross for his part in the raid.
It seems you had experienced senior NCOs. Where did your group go from there?
Buckler: They sent us to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. We had a building that had been used by the Central Intelligence Agency near Airfield No. 3. Concertina wire was strung around it, and we posted a 24-hour guard. Between guarding that building and training, we had time for little else. After about a month of this, I stopped Bull Simons one morning and told him that I could have remained at Fort Bragg if I wanted to pull guard duty. I asked what my chances of making the mission were.
Another brash move! What did Simons say?
Buckler: He told me to be patient. A couple of days later they came out with cuts. From then on, I didn't have to pull guard duty.
What was your training like?
Buckler: We had a mockup of Son Tay. However, we didn't know it was Son Tay at the time. Some people have said that it was dismantled every night and reassembled in the morning, which isn't true. We started training in the daytime, going through dry runs. We practiced our positioning and what to do when our choppers hit the ground. There were three ships (one Sikorsky HH-3 Jolly Green Giant and two HH-53 Super Jollies) going in; "Greenleaf," "Blueboy" and "Redwine" were their radio call signs. Then we began doing night training. There was a flare ship above us that lit up the compound. We used live ammunition the entire time as well.
You knew it was serious business then?
Buckler: Oh, yes. Even the old-timers were impressed. They had never used live ammo during training either, so it was all new to them as well. They wanted the training to be as realistic as possible. We also used several old buildings on the base and had some of our people who were not going on the raid act as prisoners. We would find them and take them out. Again, they included certain situations to add realism to the scenario. For example, when we brought the prisoners out to safety, one would accuse another of collaboration and want to kill him on the spot.
So how did you diffuse the situation?
Buckler: First, we would take a head count of the prisoners and determine who was in charge (usually the ranking officer) and then separate people who were arguing. Our primary concern was getting out of there and then sorting everything else out later.
By this time, did you know you were going after American POWs at Son Tay?
Buckler: No. We thought we were going to rescue people who were being held hostage aboard a hijacked plane. At that time, quite a few hijackings were taking place. They kept us pretty much in the dark.
What else was involved in your training?
Buckler: Quite a bit of physical training. One of our officers, Captain Dick (Richard) Meadows, had what he referred to as the "Meadows Mile." It was a 4-mile run in the beach sand that he liked to lead.
Meadows was an extraordinary Soldier. He was one of only two, to the best of my knowledge, who received a battlefield commission from General William Westmoreland during the Vietnam War.
Buckler: That's right. Quite a guy. Getting back to the training, it was very physical. We fought a lot. As a matter of fact, it was listed on the training schedule as the Friday Night Fights. Once training commenced, we were all restricted to base. As a result of being cooped up, one tends to get restless. I recall one night Master Sgt. Herman Spencer had a few too many. He returned to the barracks to get his weapon and kill Bull Simons. I guess he had a disagreement with him on how the mission should be run. Well, we took the weapon away from him. The next morning Simons had him locked at attention and went up one side of him and down the other.
Simons was certainly no one to fool with.
Buckler: Well, he had remarked that he didn't want a bunch of Boy Scouts, and he didn't get them.
How long did this training last?
Buckler: Three months. One night they told us to pack our bags and loaded us on a Lockheed C-141 transport plane. From that point on we were not allowed to wear any military uniforms or insignia of any kind. We were what they called "sterile." We were flown to Takhli Air Force Base in Thailand and huddled into the special operations area. I felt like I was in prison. There was a big fence around the compound, and there were also guard dogs. After three or four days, we were ushered into a large auditorium. Simons addressed the group and said that Lt. Col. "Bud" (Elliott P.) Sydnor, in charge of the security command group, had something to tell us. Sydnor stood up and pulled down a huge map of Hanoi, and there was a big red circle around Son Tay. He turned and said, "Gentleman, this is where we're going in." Just then everybody busted out laughing. I guess it was from all the fear and anxiety that we felt inside.
It must have been a great feeling when you first realized you were going to rescue American POWs.
Buckler: Absolutely. It was a real high knowing that. The CIA had made a miniature model of the Son Tay prison. We went in and studied it so we would know what to expect when we hit the ground. It was very accurate. So accurate, in fact, they had a little bicycle parked in the prison compound.
That's real attention-to-detail!
Buckler: The night before the mission they gave us sleeping pills so we could get a good night's rest. After we awoke and got ready, they flew us to Udorn, Thailand. From there, we boarded our choppers for the mission.
Ben Krajlev, one of the raid planners, said -- "Aircrew training began with night formation involving dissimilar aircraft. As the crews became comfortable with the phase, low level was introduced as well as objective area tactics which included helicopter landings and extractions; air-drops by the M-130E of flares, fire fight simulators and napalm; and close air support by the A-1s. During this training aircrews flew 1,054 hours without so much as scraping a wing tip or rotor blade - most of it at night with dissimilar aircraft in low-evel formation while blacked out - a true reflection of the superb skill of each and every aircrew. Training culminated with two five and one-half hour full profile missions flown for the benefit of JCS observers who pronounced the force ready."
Both the planning by the Pentagon group and the training in Florida progressed exceptionally well. Simons and I divided our time between the two. Don Blackburn was most helpful assisting the planners by establishing contacts with the various intelligence agencies and providing guidance to the group. Among the important decisions:
a. The raid would be conducted during nighttime.
b. Weather and moonlight were important considerations.
-Weather: Cloudless skies ideal for air-refueling.
-Moonlight: Quarter moon/35 degrees above horizon
c. We must achieve surprise and capitalize on the element of shock.
d. Once launched, the operation must be one of precision with timing and navigational accuracy strictly according to plan.
The importance of light conditions led us to select a "window" during which the desired conditions would prevail. The period was 21-25 October, with the same conditions during 21025 November. The date of 21 October was selected. With the counsel of Blackburn, Simons and me, the air and ground element leaders and the planners deemed the mission to be feasible. Blackburn arranged for our meeting with the JCS on 16 September 1970. We indicated the mission was feasible, outlined our concept and reported we would be ready to execute on the night of 21 October. No changes to our concept were suggested. The plan was approved. We briefed Mr. Laird, Secretary of Defense, on 24 September and obtained his approval without change to our concept. Higher level approval would still be required. On 8 October we briefed the plan at the White House. It was presented to the National Security Advisor, Dr. Henry Kissinger, and Brig General Alexander Haig, his military assistant. We received an enthusiastic response. I indicated that final approval would be necessary within the next 24 hours in order to execute on 21 October. Kissinger responded that it would not be possible to get President Nixon's approval by the next evening because he was not available, but that he was confident we would have it in time to make our next "window" which was 21 November. the delay was a disappointment largely because of constant concern about an intelligence compromise. On the plus side was an extra 30 days available for additional rehearsals, more intelligence, plan refinement and possible equipment improvements. We made numerous refinements during the extra 30 day period. The two most important were adding the FLIR (Forward Looking Infra Red) equipment on the MC-130E nd obtaining a suitable night sight for the weapons. Dr. Cataldo refined his plans for providing care for the rescued POWs, who were expected to be in a debilitated condition.
We received authorization to visit COMUSMACV, General Creighton Abrams, and his Air Deputy, General Lucius Clay, Jr., on 1 November 1970. Simons, Blackburn and I flew to Saigon for this purpose. We stopped in Hawaii enroute and re-briefed Admiral John McCain (CINCPAC). The plan was well received by Abrams and Clay. They assured their full support.
Next, Simons and I made arrangements to confer with the U.S. Navy Commander of Task Force 77, which operated in the Tonkin Gulf. We visited Admiral Fred Bardshar on the flagship Oriskany. We briefed the Admiral on our project and solicited his participation. We requested that concurrent with the raiding force approaching the Hanoi area from a westerly direction, he launch a force from the carriers and make a feint toward the North Vietnamese coast. The purpose was to deceive the air defense system of North Vietnam. Such a raid, which would appear on their radar, would convince them that an attack from the east was imminent and cause them to be unaware of our raid approaching at low level from the west. The admiral agreed.
On 10 November the 2 x MC-130E departed from Eglin-destination Takhli, Thailand. Transportation to move the task force and its equipment for the mission was arranged personally between me and General Jack Catton Commander, of the Military Airlift Command. Transport consisted of 4 x C-141s. They departed Eglin on 14 November and arrived at Takhli two days later. By 17 November the force had closed at Takhli. A CIA operated secure compound was made available. It was here that final preparations were made.
F-105G "Wild Weasel" aircraft were added with the mission of engaging surface-to-air missiles (SAM's) should those batteries become active. F-4 Phantoms were added to provide protection against possible MIG interference. The F-105s were from a unit at Korat, the F-4s from Ubon and the A-1Es were based at Nakhon Phanom. All bases were in Thailand. KC-135 tankers were provided by a SAC unit at Utapao, Thailand, a base south of Bangkok. The helicopters originated from various bases and were brought to Udorn and prepared for the mission.
The CIA compound at Takhli became a beehive of activity. Weapons an other equipment checks were carefully conducted. Ammunition was issued. Simons, Sydnor and Meadows made the final selection of the force numbers. Of the original 100 SF members of the force, 56 were selected for the mission. This was unwelcome news for the 44 trained and ready, but not selected. It was known from the beginning that the size of the force would be limited to only the number considered essential for the task.
The "Red Rocket" message was received. This meant that President Nixon had given his final approval to launch the mission. The major decision, which was mine to make, was when to launch. The planned date of, late the night of, November 21st now appeared to be in jeopardy. A typhoon in the area of the Philippines and moving slowly toward the mainland was forecast to bring bad weather to North Vietnam by the night of the 21st. The weather over the Tonkin Gulf would certainly be such to prevent the U.S. Navy from launching the diversionary force. The weather enroute to and at the objective area would be unsuitable. It was a grim situation.
Keith Grimes, the task force weather officer, and weather support personnel from the 1st Weather Wing exhaustively analyzed the weather patterns. They predicted formation of a high pressure area over Vietnam and the Tonkin Gulf which would dominate the weather conditions and provide suitable mission conditions prior to arrival of the typhoon weather. The good weather, however, would prevail on 20 November--not 21 November. I made the decision to advance mission launch by 24 hours. Thus, D-day became 20 November instead of 21 November as previously planned. I informed all participants (U.S. Navy and all supporting activities) and Admirals Moorer and McCain. Weather conditions confirmed that the decision was a correct one.
When Simons finished his speech, the room fell silent for a brief moment. Then every man applauded. The raid on Son Tay Prison Camp - deep within North Vietnam - was under way.
Final briefings were conducted on 20 November. All were told the exact location of the objective area and that the latest information indicated between 70 and 80 POWs should be at that location -- the Son Tay Prison. While we were confident that the plan had not been compromised, we would not be certain until we made the landing. If the enemy had foreknowledge of our plan, the reception would not be a pleasant one. even though the task force was small, it was extremely potent for its size. While it could have been overwhelmed by a much larger force laying in waiting, the enemy would have paid a heavy price. Escape and evasion procedures were thoroughly covered. Satisfied that the mission force was fully in a "go" position, I proceeded to Monkey Mountain where a mal staff had arranged for a command post from which the entire operation could be controlled. communications were available to all elements including US Navy Carrier Task Force, as well as to Admirals McCain and Moorer. With me at the command post were Morris, Peshkin, Newman, Knops and Willett. Kraljev and Ropka were at Takhli and Udorn, respectively, and immediately available on direct communication lines. Frisbie, with a small staff, was airborne in a radio relay aircraft that could function as an alternate command post if I were to lose my communications capability. An intelligence staff member, Art Andraitus, was in Japan monitoring the SR-71 photo results of a mission during late 20 November. He reported to me that the photo Intel was positive (signs of habitation - vehicle tracks, etc.).
For the troops 20 November was a day for "crew rest."
Dr. Joe Cataldo issued sleeping pills. At 2200 hours the men boarded a C-130 and left Takhli for Udorn where helicopters were waiting. Upon landing at Udorn the men transferred to three of the helicopters - 2 x HH-53s and 1 x HH-3 - carefully rechecking all the equipment that had been deemed necessary for the mission that lay ahead. At 2318 hours the first helo launched; at 2325 hours the last helo launched. They were led by 2 x HC-130 refuelers enroute to an air refueling area over Northern Laos.
Jay Stayer recalls - "We had a last minute 'huddle' type briefing to check weather and to go over the radio-out procedures for the 'umpteenth' time, and one of the mission planners pulled the cover off a large sign that said, 'F--COMMUNISM.' We all cheered and the tension seemed to subside for most of us. We boarded M-130E for the short trip to Udorn Air Base. I remember I was in a sort of a slow-motion dream-state as I disembarked with my personal gear and walked by my squadron friends, all standing out on the porches and wherever there was a place to watch. They all spoke a quiet word of greeting and wished us good luck, but none asked what we were up to. They had been ordered to stand down a couple of days or so before, to ensure their aircraft were in top mechanical condition for us to use. Even the tower operator was ordered to ignore our taxi-out without radio transmissions.
I climbed aboard into the left seat of Apple 2 and worked through the starting checklist with the aircraft commander, Lt Colonel Jack Allison, our flight mechanic and the two Pararescuemen Jumpers (PJs)
Just as we had practiced, the formation lead HC-130P refueler aircraft, Lime 1, got off on time, as did the rest of us, the HH-3 Banana 1, and 5 x Apple HH-53s. We routinely fell into the seven ship formation, three helicopters stacking high on each side of the leading HC-130 at about 1500 feet AGL. There was a partial moon and some clouds that we climbed through, when suddenly the call came to ''break, 'break, 'break!', indicating that someone had lost sight of the formation lead and we were to execute the formation break-up procedure.
Each helicopter turned to a predetermined heading and climbed to a predetermined altitude for one minute and then returned to the original landing. The effect was a very widely separated formation, each helicopter 500 ft above the other and at varying distances away from the lead HC-130. I could see other members of the formation flying in and out of the clouds, and I thought we had blown the mission we had hardly started. Apparently a strange airplane had almost flown through the formation and someone had called the lost contact procedure to avoid a mid-air collision. As it turned out, our planning for such possible events, and the training for such, resulted in a rather routine formation break and with a subsequent rejoin being completed successfully.
In the meantime, we had all topped off our fuel tanks from the lead HC-130 and had quite deftly exchanged formation leads from him to the just-arrived, blacked-out MC-130E with all the fancy electronic gear."
Bill Kornitzer, A/C of the lead HC-130, "Lime 1," recalls "Our mission was to launch from Udorn, join up with the six helicopters and lead them to the North Vietnam border. After joining up we refueled the 5 x HH-53s and the HH-3. This was done in total silence without any incidents. The HH-3 stayed close behind our left wing in order to maintain the speed required by the rest of formation. After leaving the helicopters for their final assault, we immediately returned to Udorn for refueling. We were to refuel as soon as possible and return to Northern Laos area to provide air refueling and search and rescue support as needed."
Happily, the weather in the refueling area was clear. All refuelings ere accomplished without difficulty. All 6 helos then joined formation with an MC-130E Combat Talon for the low altitude flight toward North Vietnam. The area over Laos is a mountainous area requiring precise navigation by the MC-130E crew.
In the meantime the 5 x A-1s had departed Nakhon Phanom and joined formation with the second MC-130E Combat Talon. This formation was in close proximity of the MC-130E/helo flight. All were enroute at low altitude for Son Tay.
Close Air Support (CAS) was the job of the A-1s because they were ideally suited. They had long endurance capability, carried a big load of ordnance and their relatively low speed permitted small orbits which would keep them close by overhead should assistance be needed on short notice.
10 x F-4s had taken off from Ubon to provide a MIG air patrol and 5 x F-105G Wild Weasels had launched from Korat to provide protection from the SAM sites. The F-4s and F-105Gs would be flying at a high altitude providing cover over the general area and would not interfere in any way with the primary force.
The Navy force launched on time with a total of 59 sorties. As the primary force reached the Laos/North Vietnam border, the enemy radar's became aware of the Navy force coming from over the Tonkin Gulf. The diversionary raid was having the desired effects. The presence of the Navy on enemy radar caused near panic conditions within the North Vietnamese defense centers. It became obvious that the North Vietnamese total concern was directed eastward. Our raiding force, coming from the west, in effect had a free ride.
Meanwhile, in Apple 2, as Jay Strayer vividly remembers - "Tension was building up by this time, as we neared the IP for the final approach to the camp. I had done most of the flying up to this point, and Jack Allison took over the controls for the final phase. I in turn picked up the navigation duties during this critical phase of the mission.
As we had rehearsed so many times, the lead MC-130E led us over the last mountain range and down to 500 ft above the ground. At the IP, they, along with Apple 4 and 5, popped up to 1,500 ft to fly directly for the camp. A single radio transmission with the last vector heading to the camp was made by the MC-130E's navigator and we continued on, maintaining a disciplined radio silence.
Now we were only four - Apple 3 in the lead with the HH-3, Apple's 1 and 2 following in trail, with 45-second separations between. I was particularly interested in this phase, for I had done the procedural planning for getting us separated in a manner that would allow room for each to "do his thing," while at the same time not delaying the following bird's initial assault details."
Upon reaching the IP (Initial Point), the MC-130E climbed to 1,500 feet. The 130's mission at this point was to drop flares over the Son Tay Prison. Helos 4 and 5 were to provide a backup and were to drop flares should the MC-130E flares not be effective. The flares worked as intended. The helos made a left turn and proceeded to a pre-selected landing area which was on an island in a large lake. There they would wait, hopefully to be called to move to Son Tay to pick up some POWs. The C-130 made a right turn and dropped fire fight simulators (deception) and napalm to create a fire as an anchor point for the A-1s. The C-130 then left the area for an orbit point over Northern Laos. Immediately after the flares illuminated the prison compound HH-53 Apple 3, under the command of Marty Donohue, flew low over the prison firing at the guard towers with his Gatling machine guns. The plan called for neutralizing the guard towers to eliminate that potential source of enemy opposition.
As the group neared the prison, the two "Jolly Greens", dubbed "Apple 4" and "Apple 5" hovered at 1,500 feet to act as reserve flareships in the event the C-130s' flares did not ignite.
Suddenly, Col. Frederick M. "Marty" Donohue's HH-53 helicopter, call sign "Apple 3", developed trouble. Without warning, a yellow trouble light appeared signaling transmission problems.
Donohue calmly informed his co-pilot, Capt. Tom Waldron, to "ignore the SOB". In a normal situation, Donohue would have landed. But this was no normal mission. [Editor: compare this to the marine pilots flying to Desert One for Operation Eagle Claw who panicked and landed or returned to the carrier] "Apple 3" kept going. As Donohue's chopper "floated" across Son Tay's main compound, the door gunners let loose 4,000 rounds a minute from their mini-guns. The observation tower in the northwest section of the camp erupted into flames. With that, Donohue set down at his "holding point" in a rice paddy just outside the prison.
As Maj. Herb Kalen tried to negotiate a landing inside the compound, the almost lost control of his chopper, call sign "Banana 1", that was carrying the assault group code-named "Blueboy".
The 40-foot trees that surrounded Son Tay were, in actuality, much larger. "One tree", a pilot remembered, "must have been 150 feet tall ... we tore into it like a big lawn mower. There was a tremendous vibration ... and we were down."
Luckily, only one person was injured; a crew chief suffered a broken ankle. Regaining his composure, Special Forces Capt. Richard Meadows scurried from the downed aircraft and said in a calm voice through his bullhorn:
"We're Americans. Keep your heads down. We're Americans. Get on the floor. We'll be in your cells in a minute."
No one answered back, though. The raiders sprung into action immediately. Automatic weapons ripped into the guards. Other NVA, attempting to flee, were cut down as they tried to make their way through the east wall.
Fourteen men entered the prison to rescue the POWs. However, to their disappointment, none were found.
As the raiders were neutralizing the compound, Lt. Col. John Allison's helicopter, call sign "Apple-2", with the "Redwine" group aboard, was heading toward Son Tay's south wall. As his door gunners fired their mini-guns on the guard towers, Allison wondered where "Apple 1" was.
Code-named "Greenleaf", it was carrying "Bull" Simons. Allison put his HH-53 inside the compound and the Special Forces personnel streamed down the rear ramp.
Wasting no time, they blew the utility pole and set up a roadblock about 100 yards from the Landing Zone (LZ). A heated firefight ensued. Guards were "scurrying like mice" in an attempt to fire on the raiders. In the end, almost 50 NVA guards were killed at Son Tay.
"Apple 1", piloted by LTC Warner A. Britton, was having troubles of its own. The chopper had veered off the mark and was 450 meters south of the prison and had erroneously landed at the "secondary school."
Simons knew it wasn't Son Tay. The structures and terrain were different and, to everyone's horror, it was no "secondary school" - it was a barracks filled with enemy Soldiers - 100+ of whom were killed in five minutes.
As the chopper left, the raiders opened up with a barrage of automatic weapons. Capt. Udo Walther cut down four enemy Soldiers and went from bay to bay riddling their rooms with his CAR-15. Realizing their error, the group radioed "Apple 1" to return and pick up the raiders from their dilemma.
Simons, meanwhile, jumped into a trench to await the return of Britton when an NVA leaped into the hole next to him. Terrified, and wearing only his underwear, the Vietnamese froze. Simons pumped six shells from his .357 Magnum handgun into the trooper's chest, killing him instantly.
Britton's chopper quickly returned when he received the radio transmission that Simon's group was in the wrong area. He flew back to Son Tay and deposited the remained of the raiders there.
Things were beginning to wind down. There was little resistance from the remaining guards.
Meadows radioed to Lt.Col. Elliot P. "Bud" Sydnor, the head of the "Redwine" group on the raid, "negative items". There were no POWs. They had been on the ground exactly 27 minutes.
Immediately following Donohue's pass the HH-3, whose crew was Herb Kalen, Herb Zender and Leroy Wright and carrying Meadows with his 13-man assault force, landed in a relatively small space inside the prison walls. So far all is going strictly according to plan and precisely on time.
The landing was a hard one, but successful. Rotors contacted some of the tall trees which bordered one side of the landing area. It was anticipated that damage would occur and the plan provided for the HH-3 to be considered a loss. By means of an explosive charge with a timing device, it was to be destroyed upon departure of our troops from the compound. The hard landing caused a fire extinguisher to dislodge and crashed against Sgt LeRoy Wright (HH-3 Engineer), fracturing an ankle. While undoubtedly this caused severe pain, the flow of adrenaline apparently was such that Sgt Wright ignored the pain and continued with his duties to perform as a member of Meadows' assault force. (Sgt Wright was later awarded the Air Force Cross by President Nixon).
Dick Meadows and his highly trained and rehearsed assault force, including the helicopter Air Force crew members, went into action immediately. With bullhorns they announced that it was a rescue raiding party and were there to bring out the POWs. North Vietnamese military personnel exited the buildings in various states of undress and fired their weapons against the intruders. The raiders, however, having the benefit of initiative, a rehearsed plan of action and not suffering from the element of shock that was imposed on the defenders quickly disposed of the camp contingent. Meadow's primary concern now was to enter the buildings to search for Americans held prisoner by the North Vietnamese. The timed explosive charge was placed in the HH-3 to ensure its destruction upon departure of the raiders. With the use of another explosive device a hole was blown in the southwest corner of the prison wall. The raiders and the POWs would exit through this hole. Col Bud Sydnor's command post would be established just outside the wall at the site of the hole.
Simultaneous with the landing of the assault force, HH-53s Apple 1 and 2 were to land opposite the south side and immediately fan out and conduct a search of all the buildings in search of Americans and to prevent reinforcements from interfering in any way with the rescue effort. Apple 1, with Simons and 21 raiders aboard, mistakenly landed at a site enclosed by a fence that presented an appearance not unlike the Son Tay compound. it was approximately 200 meters south of the objective area.
A fire fight immediately ensued where the estimate of enemy killed ran as high as 200 --. This raiding element was on the ground for not more than five minutes when the mistake was realized. Simons and his men re-boarded the helicopter and moved to the correct position at the Son Tay Prison.
Jay Strayer from Apple 2 observed - "As we neared our objective I sensed we were not going the right way to the Son Tay camp, and mentioned it more than once to Jack. Quite suddenly I was sure of it; we were about to land at the military camp to the south of Son Tay! The amazing thing to me at the time, and remains so, is that no one had the forethought to break radio silence and say so! Indeed, Apple 3 had almost taken the camp under fire, discovered his error in time, and turned north to the correct place."
Warner Britton in Apple 1 remembers - "I saw the flares dropped by the MC-130E ignite and was impressed by the surrealistic appearance of the illuminated landscape. This light enabled me to see Donohue (Apple 3) hover across the building complex toward which we were heading. I noticed that he didn't fire as scheduled and commented on this to Montrem. Then Kalen followed the first aircraft and he did fire. That was the last Montrem and I saw, as just after Kalen crossed the buildings, we were landing on a heading slightly away from the buildings, so that our troops could proceed out the rear ramp and have their objective in sight. We had no idea we had landed in the wrong place until we had taken off and turned toward the holding area. My memory of what happened next differs slightly from that of some others. I believe that we took off, flew to our holding area about a minute away and landed. We returned immediately when Donohue, in Apple 3, told us we had landed in the wrong place. We were also in contact with Col Simon's group. Others, including Montrem, believe that we returned to pick them up without landing at the holding area. In any case, very little time passes before we were back on the ground at the so-called "school."
In the meantime, Jack Allison in Apple 2 carrying Bud Sydnor and his force, had landed at the correct predetermined spot and realizing that Apple 1 was not with him immediately put an alternate plan in effect. Within a few minutes, however, he returned to the primary plan when the erring force was in place.
Jack Allison, in the holding area, recalls - "Sitting in the holding area waiting to be recalled to pick up the POWs and ground forces, Apple flight was treated to a spectacular fireworks display. 14 to 16 SAMs were fired at the F-105G "Wild Weasel" aircraft, although one was at such a low angle, one of the departing helicopters took evasive action. One SAM was observed to explode and spray fuel over Firebird 3. The aircraft descended in a ball of fire and appeared to be a loss. However the fire blew out and the crew continued with the mission. Another SAM exploded near Firebird 5, inflicting damage to his flight controls and fuel system. The crew later bailed out over the Plaine des Jarres and were picked up at first light by Apple 4 and 5."
While all the helicopters were engaged with the compound and A-1Es, which had arrived with the second MC-130E, were doing their thing.
Bob Senko in Peach 2 recollects - "Ed Gochenaur and I were in Peach 2. We were on Major Rhein's wing. We had an automatic radio frequency change when we entered the target area. Only one aircraft forgot, and that was me. But we were able to keep up with what was going on visually. Both Goch and I knew right away that none of the helos hand gone to the wrong area, but were pretty helpless to do much other than support the troops as best we could. Everything got better organized for us when I got the frequency right. It got better for the troops when they got to the right area.
Because they were out of position, we got called to pay close attention to the road from the south, to make sure no-one took advantage of our situation. When we got the order to shut down the foot bridge between the Citadel and Son Tay, lead and Goch got lined up headed east to take the bridge out with a couple of 100# Willie-Pete bombs. I hollered at Ooch that he was too shallow, but he let the WPs go anyway and they were pretty short. Fortunately, his run in line was across a chemical factory (if that was what it was) and he greased it. There was a beautiful display of different color flames, with the bright green ones goingup way over the altitude we were working. Major Rhein's bombs were pretty good and the combination allowed us to get the job done. On - by the way - the reason Goch was so low on his run in was that the SAMs had already started. They seemed to be pretty random at first but slowly we saw that they were at least aimed in the general direction of Son Tay and were being fired on a very low trajectory. So we stayed as low as we could. I don't think any were actually targeted specifically on us. But they go our attention and we stayed pretty well in the weeds. It wasn't too hard since we had about 15-20 percent moonlight to wok with and the target area was pretty well marked by the small arms going off.
We were circling the camp about 100-200 AGL and when we were on the north side, we'd drop down to water level over the Red River. Again, because some of the ground troops were not in position to blow the bridge on the north side of the camp, we got called to take it out. Since we couldn't get enough altitude to drop any heavy stuff, we started strafing it. I don't know how productive that was, but I'm pretty sure we kept any traffic off the bridge even if we didn't drop it. When the ground guys wrapped it up, we dumped our left over stuff in the Red River and headed home. One other thing I remember vividly is that when the helos went in, they were to take out the guard towers with their mini-guns (7.62mm). We were only to help as a last resort. When they opened fire, either they hit something explosive, or the sheer number of tracers rounds caught the bamboo/wood towers on fire. Actually, it loomed like the exploded. It was amazing, certainly stopping any reaction from those towers."
SGT Buckler relates the ground side:
There were three assault groups?
Buckler: Yes. The groups were code-named "Blueboy," "Redwine" and "Greenleaf."
That was so your group code names would not be confused with the call signs of the choppers, which were Apple 1, Apple 2, Apple 3, Apple 4 and Apple 5. In fact, Apple 4 and Apple 5 hovered 1,500 feet above the Son Tay camp to act as flare ships in the event the other flare ships, the Lockheed MC-130E Combat Talons, malfunctioned.
Buckler: That's probably true. However, I didn't see any of that.
There was a mix-up with Bull Simons when the groups first entered Son Tay, right?
Buckler: Yes, Simons' group, Greenleaf, went into the wrong area. They landed at the secondary school. Unfortunately, it was no school at all--it was a barracks filled with NVA Soldiers. They had a firefight, killing a lot of NVA before the chopper pilot realized his mistake. Fortunately, there were no American casualties, and they were choppered back to Son Tay.
Who entered the prison camp first?
Buckler: Dick Meadows' group, Blueboy. The chopper crashed inside the compound after it hit a tree. Luckily, no one was seriously injured. My group, Redwine, landed outside the compound, blew a hole in the south wall and ran in and took up positions. Of course, Meadows thought it was Simons' group, which was still back at the secondary school. What was really embarrassing was the firefight we got into with Simons' men when they arrived at Son Tay.
So your group, Redwine, was actually supposed to be following Simons' group, Greenleaf.
Buckler: Yes. If you look at the initial plan, Greenleaf's touchdown was to take place 30 seconds before ours. We were only 60 to 80 feet apart. It was dark, and we thought they were the enemy. Simons figured out what was going on and put a stop to it immediately. It was tense there for a while.
Were you scared?
Buckler: Not until we boarded the chopper after the raid. Captain Dan Turner and I were sitting in the tail of the helicopter with a minigun between us, and wm could see Hanoi all lit up. About that time what looked like orange telephone poles started coming up at us.
Buckler: That's right. Our pilot was doing everything he could to dodge them. That's when it really got tense.
You never entered the compound?
Buckler: No. The only people that went in were the Blueboy group and Bull Simons. He searched every room looking for those POWs.
Of course, they had been relocated.
Buckler: Yes, but we didn't know that at the time. Boy, Simons was mad.
When you heard the report of "negative items," meaning no POWs had been found, what was your reaction?
Buckler: I thought my headset was screwed up. I told Captain Turner, and he didn't believe me.
The raid lasted only 27 minutes?
Buckler: That's correct. It wasn't long at all.
Luckily, with the exception of Bull Simons landing in the wrong place, things went pretty much according to plan.
Buckler: They did. However, Sergeant Noe Quezada was shot in the back of the leg. Also, the crew chief aboard Blueboy suffered a broken ankle. Those are some of the risks you take when you're part of special operations. When we were first told where we were going, we all had an opportunity to withdraw from the mission. Nobody did. Our plan of escape, if things did not go right, was to pull back with our backs to the river and take out as many of them as we could. Simons told us: "There's a 50-50 chance of us not coming back, guys. If the mission is compromised, we'll make them pay for every inch of ground we occupy."
You had no prior tour in Vietnam?
Buckler: There were only two of us who had not been in combat before: Sergeant Keith Medenski and I.
The entire camp was searched. All North Vietnamese forces were annihilated and the devastatingly disappointing discovery was made that there were no Americans at the camp. The coded message - NEGATIVE ITEMS- was received in my command post. In disbelief I hoped that the message had become garbled in transmission. Simons and I had previously discussed this unlikely probability but know that the possibility existed. The raiding party was on the ground at Son Tay for 29 minutes, within one minute of the planned time of 30 minutes. We experienced no losses. Sgt Wright suffered a broken ankle and Sgt Murry suffered a bullet wound on the inside of a thigh, a minor injury. The estimate of enemy killed was determined to be about 50.
The helicopters were called in and the raiding party went aboard. After every man was accounted for, they launched for the long ride back to Udorn.
The SA-2 missile sites became active and were engaged by the F-105G Wild Weasels. A missile hit and severely damaged an F-105G. There was a loss of fuel and an effort was made to return to the KC-135 tankers on an orbit over Laos. A flame-out was experienced prior to contact with the tankers and the crew of two, Major Kilgus and Capt Lowry, ejected - landing in a mountainous area, uninjured. The progress of this emergency was monitored at my command post. Location of the downed airmen was relayed to the crew of HH-53s Apple 4 and 5, LTC Brown and MAJ Kenneth Murphy, with instructions to search for and pick up the F-105G crew members. The pickup was successfully accomplished after more helo air refuelings and flare drops; all returned to Udorn safely. At Udorn I met a dejected force of raiders. They were disappointed because our hopes of returning with POWs were dashed. We had failed. This thoroughly dedicated group expressed the belief we should return the next night and search for the POWs. For many reasons, this could not be done.
The first order of business at this point was to send a top secret message to Admiral Moorer giving him a preliminary assessment of the mission results. Later that morning I received a message from Admiral Moorer instructing me and Simons to return to Washington post haste. The North Vietnamese had announced to the world that we had bombed a POW camp and various allegations. Our presence was needed to answer questions and counter the North Vietnamese's inaccurate pronouncements. That same day,
21 November, Simons and I proceeded to Saigon where we boarded a Pan Am flight for Washington with an intermediate stop in Honolulu. On arrival in Honolulu we were met by Admiral McCain [His son, John was a shot-down aviator in a Hanoi prison at the time, now he's a distinguished Senator from Arizona] who had canceled our onward Pan AM flight and replaced it with a C-135 command post aircraft.
We visited with Admiral McCain for about two hours, explaining the details of the mission. McCain's final comment on our departure was, "Don't let anyone tell you that this mission was a failure. We will learn, as the results develop, that many benefits will accrue as a result of having done this." We appreciated his comment, but at the time believed that it was intended to ease our disappointment of having failed to rescue POWs. In retrospect it is astonishing to realize how accurate hi s prophesy was.
Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, Colonel Simons, JCS Chairman Adm. Thomas Moore, and Son Tay JTF Commander BG LeRoy Manor at Pentagon press conference
Shortly after arriving in Washington we attended a joint meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense and members of his staff. A lengthy discussion of the whole operation took place. The disappointment with the results of the mission was apparent, but all were please with the absence of losses. The media were clamoring for statements and it was held by Moorer, Laird, Simons and myself and attended by a host of media representatives. There we tried to set the record straight by presenting the purpose of our efforts and, within the bounds of security, explain the conduct and results of the mission.
This was followed by a visit with President Nixon, who was anxious to receive a first-hand report. While disappointed that we didn't rescue any POWs, he was pleased that we had experienced no losses. He expressed the belief that the rescue attempt would result in the improvement of morale among the POWs, the next of kin and, in fact, the whole country. Congressional reaction was mixed -- with more favorable than unfavorable. The end results were proclamations by both the House and the Senate praising the effort.
Participants in the raid, as well as planners, were recognized by appropriate awards. Some were presented by President Nixon and others by Secretary of Defense Laird.
According to historian Dale Andrade: "... the fact that initially the CIA, DIA and NSA would all be involved sounded like a good idea. But, in reality, they only muddied the waters of the planning and got in each other's way". Another important factor was the seemingly never-ending poor weather. That's why the POWs had been relocated from Son Tay in the first place; because of the rapidly rising waters near the camp. Even Manor wrote in his after-action report that "five years of typhoons moved into the area of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Laos" in the months just prior to the raid.
What most did not know was that a top-secret "weather modification" experiment named Operation Popeye was responsible for some of the inclement weather.
Aircraft had been dropping "cloud-seeding paraphernalia" in the region, and the missions over Laos had doubled in 1970.
"Why didn't top officials in the CIA and Air Force tell the JCS and the Ivory Coast Task Force about Operation Popeye?" wrote Dale Andrade. "That gap in the knowledge of the planners could have endangered not only the live POWs in the area, but also the lives of the raiders.
Did the mission result in benefits as Admiral McCain predicted? Yes, definitely. The North Vietnamese, fearing a repeat performance but not knowing when and where, closed the outlying POW camps and consolidated all POWs in the two main prisons in downtown Hanoi. These were the old French prisons of Halo and Culac. The number of POWs at these two prisons now grew to the extent that POWs lived in groups, rather than what for many had been solitary confinement. Morale immediately improved and, as a result, general health improved. POWs have stated that lives were saved. Prison conditions to some degree generally improved. Mail delivery and food both improved substantially. Morale among next of kin, for the most part, also improved.
Jay Jayroe, former Son Tay POW, recalls -- "When the fireworks went off that clear night in November of 1970, we knew exactly what was happening - a raid on Son Tay was in progress! Some fifty-two of us had been moved from Hanoi to Son Tay in late 1968 and had immediately recognized it as a place for escape of rescue. During the following months we did what we could to indicate our presence there, hoping our efforts would result in success via U.S. Airborne surveillance. However, for reasons unknown to us, in July, 1980 our captors moved us a short distance to a newly opened complex, where we were aggregated with other POWs from outlying prison camps. I do not believe the Vietnamese suspected an impending rescue attempt, because the move was quite routine with no sense of urgency.
The raid, as we have learned, was perfectly executed and highly successful with the exception of one minor detail - no one was rescued. But, short of being there, one cannot imagine the positive effect it had on those of us who were destined to spend some two and a half years more as POWs. One should recall that it had been two years since the U.S. had stopped bombing North Vietnam, and our faith was being severely tried. But the Son Tay rescue attempt dispelled all doubt: WE WERE NOT FORGOTTEN; OUR COUNTRY CARED!! During the hard times ahead, our renewed faith in God and Country served us well."
Lt Cdr William Tschudy (Retired) recently traveled 70 miles to watch a building dedication in honor of a man he never really knew. It wasn't the $300,000 in renovations that attracted this Raleigh businessman to the JFK Special Warfare Museum. It was the man whom the building was named after -- a man whose team of Special Forces Soldiers once tried to pluck him from his 7 1/2-year nightmare inside a Vietnamese prison camp, Colonel "Bull" Simons:
"Simons' team, was a real morale booster.... Their presence kind of took care of the you-have-been-forgotten feelings.
We all had dreams of being rescued. Just being able to pull (the mission) off was a real hand shaker. It meant an awful lot to us. If a person was not filled with hope, it filled you with hope."
Tschudy became the 14th American prisoner of war when he and his pilot were shot down over North Vietnam in July of 1965.
Just knowing there were Soldiers out there willing to risk their lives to save him kept hope alive, he said. Especially knowing to what levels they would go to rescue him.
But the difficult Son Tay raid was a simple matter of planning for Simons and others, his friends say.
Simons "believed that the more improbable something is, the surer you can pull it off," said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Bowra, speaking at Tuesday's ceremony.
"He was a believer in men," said Joe Lupyak, himself a Son Tay raider. "He'd back you to the hilt. Loyalty went both ways."
SGT Buckler relates what happened when he returned to the United States..
"They turned it into a media event, trying to get as much publicity out of the raid as they could. In retrospect, it was a good thing to do. It proved that we could get into the enemy's backyard undetected and get out without losing anyone.
How did you deal with the publicity?
Buckler: Well, I tried to keep a low profile. Besides, in Special Forces there were so many guys who had gone on similar missions, it didn't matter. Some years later, after I got out of the service, Ross Perot held a big party in San Francisco, for the Son Tay prisoners and the raiders.
Did you talk to any of the former POWs?
Buckler: Oh, yes. It was very emotional. We were quite upset that we did not succeed in bringing them home. One of the most interesting comments I heard was they started receiving better treatment after the raid. The raid proved to the NVA that we meant business.
At least it wasn't a total loss.
Buckler: Another thing that really impressed me was the dedication the guys on the raid had. I was the youngest person there, so I felt my life was unimportant. But the others had families. They could have gotten off the mission at any time, but they stayed. Those guys were willing to lay down their lives for their comrades. They were true professionals."
In 1973, when the 591 POWs were released, we learned that those at Son Tay had been relocated in mid-July - almost one month before the Joint Contingency Task Force was formed and trained for the rescue mission. Intelligence sources were not adequate to reveal the actual presence of POWs at specific locations on a real-time basis. Some critical intelligence had several weeks delay.
The successful demonstration of our capability to execute this type of rescue mission undoubtedly had some impact on the formation, albeit 16 years later, of a Unified Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) whose sole mission is special operations. I will always feel a great sense of admiration of the brave men who volunteered for the risky mission to rescue Americans in the heart of the enemy country. I am reminded of a scripture reading taken from the Old Testament:
ISAIAH Chapter 6, Verse 8 - Then I heard the Lord asking,
"Whom shall I send as a messenger to my people? Who will go for us?" and I said, "Lord, I'll go. Send me."
Lt General LeRoy J. Manor was born in Morrisonville NY, in 1921 and entered Aviation Cadet training in 1942. He received his pilot wings and commission in 1943. During WW II he flew 72 combat missions in P-47s over Europe. Following the war, there were various assignments including two tours overseas and one in the Pentagon in the Office of the AF Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Operations. Gen Manor commanded a tactical fighter wing in 1968-69 during the Vietnam War, flying 275 combat missions in F-100's. In 1970 he assumed as commander of a Joint Task Force whose mission was to rescue POWs at Son Tay. From 1971-73, he served as Deputy Director of Operations and Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. From 1973-1976, he commanded the 13th Air Force, in the Philippines where he was Chief of Staff for the US Pacific Command. Following retirement in 1978, Gen Manor represented the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, as the senior military negotiator and advisor to the US Ambassador to the Philippines. He also was military advisor for an independent analysis of the unsuccessful 24 April 1980, raid to rescue American hostages held in Iran. A command Pilot with over 7,000 flying hours, he has been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal w/30LC, Legion of Merit w/10LC, the Distinguished Flying Cross w/10LC, the Air Medal w/250LC and the Purple Heart as well as many award from foreign governments. Presently, Gen Manor and his wife Dolores reside in Shalimar, FL.
COL Arthur D. "BULL" Simons In November 1970, Col. Simons led a rescue mission to North Vietnam, attempting to rescue 61 POW's from the Son Tay prison (near Hanoi). When Simons and his commandos landed, they found the prison empty; the POW's had been moved due to a flooding river just hours before. However, the result of the Son Tay Raid was greatly improved conditions for American POW's remaining. [For additional information, refer to The Raid by Benjamin F. Schemmer (Harper and Row, 1976) or "The Son Tay Raid" by Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Roy Manor]
Col. Simons then retired. The unrest in Iran subsequently began in early 1979. Two employees of Electronic Data Systems, Inc (EDS) were arrested in Tehran. EDS's Chairman, interested in freeing these two, was put into contact with Col. Simons. Mr. Ross Perot then funded Simons for a rescue attempt in February 1979. Col. Simons, in turn, organized a mob in Tehran which stormed Gazre prison. The two Americans, along with 11,000 Iranian prisoners, were freed. Col. Simons and his party fled 450 miles to Turkey, and were later returned to the United States. Col. Simons died of heart complications three months later. [For additional information, refer to On Wings of Eagles by Ken Follett (Morrow & Company, 1983) and the Hollywood Mini-series starring Burt Lancaster as Simons.]
In 1980, Mr. Perot and the co-founders of the scholarship initiative for the children of the casualties from the Iranian hostage rescue attempt felt it only appropriate that the fund be named in Col. Simons' memory.
Major Richard "Dick" Meadows, U.S. ArmyRichard Meadows was born June 16, 1931, in rural Virginia, and enlisted in the Army in August 1947, at the age of 16.
His first service was with the 456th Field Artillery Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division. In early 1951, Meadows olunteered for assignment to the 647th Field Artillery Battalion, 187th Regimental Combat Team, Korea. There he served with distinction and became the youngest Master Sergeant in the war, at age 20.
After serving in Korea, Meadows volunteered for Special Forces, and in March of 1953 he was assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group. For the next 24 years, Meadows served in the SOF community, with assignments to both Ranger and Special Forces units.
In 1960, Meadows was selected to participate in an exchange program between the 7th Special Forces Group and the British 22 Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment. He was the first NCO to be selected for the program, and his performance with the SAS was distinguished by several milestones: He completed the SAS selection course; he was awarded the first of two foreign Soldiers to be awarded SAS wings; and he served for 12 months as a troop commander, a position normally held by a British captain. While serving with the SAS, Meadows was selected to participate in a real-world mission in Oman against terrorists and gun smugglers.
Meadow's first experience in the Southeast Asian theater came with an assignment to Operation White Star in Laos. White Star was a Foreign-Internal-Defense (FID) mission, conducted to advise, assist, equip and train Laotian government forces in counterinsurgency operations against the North Vietnam ese-backed Pathet Lao forces. Meadows not only assisted in establishing and organizing Royal Lao Army regular forces but also participated in an unconventional-warfare mission with tribal guerrilla fighters. While in Laos, Meadows met LTC Arthur D. "Bull" Simons and worked with him on a program to organize and arm the Kha tribal groups.
After returning from Laos, Meadows spent the next three years in Panama, where he helped establish the 8th Special Forces Group in the Canal Zone. There he was a standout in Operation Black Palm, a training exercise using U.S. Special Forces and members of the Panamanian Defense Force to test the existing security of the Panama Canal. During one 48 hour period in the operation, Meadows and his team, playing the part of Soldiers captured by the PDF, escaped from jail and, without being detected, planted simulated demolition charges on one of the Canal's most heavily guarded locks.
In 1965, Meadows volunteered for a second tour in Southeast Asia. This tour took him to Vietnam and to one of the most secretive and elite units of the war, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam / Studies and Observation Group, or MACV/SOG. Operational detachments of this unit conducted what were arguably the most dangerous missions of the Vietnam War. SOG personnel operated beyond the constraints of territorial borders, performing a myriad of covert missions throughout Southeast Asia. They specialized in intelligence-gathering and direct action in the heart of areas either controlled or dominated by the enemy.
Once again, Meadows excelled. During one of Meadow's first cross-border reconnaissance missions into Laos, his team captured a battery of Russian-made 75mm howitzers, still packed in Cosmoline, being shipped south from North Vietnam. As proof of their find, Meadow's team returned from the mission with the Russian-made fire control equipment. This was the first concrete evidence to support President Lyndon Johnson's claim that the Vietnam conflict was more than an internal revolutionary war. This proof of external sponsership was of such importance that General William C. Westmoreland, the senior US commander in Vietnam, personally debriefed Meadows and his team. Meadows completed more than two dozen missions into North Vietnam and Laos, calling in air strikes on the Ho Chi Minh trail, capturing North Vietnamese Soldiers for interrogation, and engaging in close quarter combat during commando raids. And throughout it all he never lost a man.
Westmoreland recommended him for a battlefield commission, the first of the Vietnam War and one of only two that Westmoreland would make during his four years as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Upon Completion of this tour, Meadows was assigned to Fort Benning, Ga., where on April 14, 1967, he received a direct appointment to Captain.
Meadows subsequently returned to Vietnam, for a second MACV/SOG tour, and once again returned to Fort Benning, where he served with the Ranger Department. In 1970, Meadows was chosen by two of is former commanders to participate in perhaps the most famous mission of the Vietnam War, Operation "Ivory Coast", the Son Tay prison rescue.
Brigadier General Donald Blackburn, the former commanding officer of MACV/SOG, and now COL "Bull" Simons, who had served under Blackburn in SOG, selected Meadows as the assault-element leader for the raid on the Son Tay prison camp, 23 miles from Hanoi. Meadow's 14-man team intentionally crash-landed its helicopter inside the camp walls, and seized and held the compound for 27 minutes in an attempt to rescue approximately 70 U.S. POWs.
Following the raid at Son Tay, Meadows was promoted to major and served a tour in the 10th Special Forces Group. He concluded his military career in 1977 as the training officer and deputy commander for the jungle phase of Ranger School at Camp Rudder, Eglin Air Force Base , Fla.
Having retired with 30 years of service, 24 of them in special operations, Meadows continued to serve U.S. national interests as a special consultant for the organization and establishment of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D), which was under the command of Colonel Charlie Beckwith.
Again, Dick Meadows was the right man, in the right place, at exactly at the right time. He was instrumental in the planning, the preparation and the execution of Operation Eagle Claw. On April 24, 1980, nearly 200 members of a US joint special-operations task force infiltrated Iran by air in an attempt to rescue 53 Americans held hostage in the American Embassy in Tehran. For more than a week prior to the rescue attempt, Dick Meadows had been on the ground, conducting clandestine mission-support activities in and around Tehran. Again a volunteer, he was operations undercover as an Irish citizen working for a European auto company while actually scouting the American embassy where the hostages were being held, and arranging transportation for the rescue force within Tehran. Stranded after the mission was cut short, he was forced to make a harrowing escape from Tehran.
After the aborted hostage-rescue mission, Meadows broke off official employment with the military, but he continued to help organize other special-mission units and served as a consultant in U.S. efforts to thwart criminal drug trafficking. He worked for a short period for H. Ross Perot, advising and assisting him on security matters. More recently, Meadows worked in Central and South American countries, training security personnel in everything from basic security procedures to antiterrorist precautions.
On July 29, 1995, Major (Retired) Dick Meadows died from Leukemia. At a ceremony posthumously awarding him the Presidential Citizen Medal, it was said of him that he "quite literally established standards by which we measure all special operators -- now and in the future."
His military awards and decorations include the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star (2nd award), Legion of Merit, Bronze Star (with V device for valor), Air Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Commendation Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal (w/two oak leaf clusters). He was also the recipient of the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Master Parachutist Badge, Glider Badge, Ranger Tab and SCUBA badge.
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