2/3/19

Son Tay Berets: Vietnam War POW Rescue Raid November 1970

In the early morning hours of 21 November 1970, arguably the first modern special forces operation was launched at the Sơn Tây Prison Camp in North Vietnam. Code named Operation Ivory Coast, US Army Special Forces with aerial support from the Navy and Air Force, launched a raid to rescue American prisoners of war held by the North Vietnamese military. Just 56 Green Berets would attempt to storm the compound, roughly twenty miles north of Hanoi, an area dotted with anti aircraft, SAM missile sites, and guarded by 40,000 or more North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and irregulars.

Son Tay Raid 21 November 1970


The impetus for a planned raid on Son Tay was the belief that 60-70 American prisoners of war were being held in this compound. Additional intelligence suggested that by the summer of 1970, more than 500 POWs (not counting those who were MIA) were being held in NVA captivity. Some, including USAF Major Wes Schierman, had been in captivity suffering immense physical and psychological cruelties since 1965. Military and public opinion was strongly in favor of rescuing any POWs that were being held and eventually both President Richard M. Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger supported a Special Forces operation to rescue at least some of these prisoners held in North Vietnam.


Composition of the Force, Training & Preparation

Organization for a potential POW rescue in North Vietnam was initiated by the Air Force in 1968, code named Polar Circle. Intel on the supposed POW camp at Son Tay was supplied by aerial reconnaissance conducted by both unmanned drones and SR-71 “Blackbirds”. USAF Brigadier General LeRoy Manor was placed in overall command with Army Brigadier Gen. Donald D. Blackburn tasked with the selection of the operational leaders. He chose Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons (b.1918-1979) to lead the operation on the ground.

Simons was a veritable legend, an old hard charger who had fought in the Pacific where he had been a member of Lt. Col. Mucci’s Raid on Cabanatuan, 30 January 1945. Armed with a .357 Magnum and perpetually chewing on a long cigar, Col. Simons had already been to Laos in 60’s before returning to Southeast Asia where he served with the highly classified Assistance Command’s Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG). Additional combat leaders were chosen from Ft. Benning as well, Lt. Col. Elliott “Bud” Sydnor, who was a Ranger, and Capt. Dick Meadow, one of the mostly highly regarded Special Forces officers of his day. The Son Tay Raiders began their training at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida in September 1970, the original 103 volunteers (over 500 operators applied) were promised that they would be home for Christmas but knew little else of the operational plan at the outset. 

Col. Simons (R) & Col. Cataldo (L)

Preparations included heavy intelligence briefings with particular detail paid to the layout of the compound, the mock up itself code named Barbara, and the surrounding environs, which included a military school just 500 yards to the south. They trained predominately at night, always with live fire (this impressed even the hardest veterans among them),with an emphasis on flawless paradrops and a thorough but quick rescue of the POWs. Military psychologists briefed the Green Berets on some of the intricacies of the POW mindset as well. This included isolating prisoners who may have collaborated with the enemy as the other prisoners may have attempted to kill the supposed traitor. All of this training was done covertly with additional intelligence and strategic opinions supplied by the CIA.



October or November were gauged to be the driest and therefore best months to launch an operation on Son Tay. As the date of the mission drew nearer, final cuts were made from 103 down to just 55 Special Forces operators. All of these men had previous combat experience except for four, Sgts. Terry Buckner, Patrick St. Clair, Marshall Thomas, and Keith Medenski. Perhaps the most accomplished of these soldiers was then forty seven year old Galen “Pappy” Kittleson (b.1924-2006). A veteran of the Pacific Campaign, Korea, and now Vietnam, Son Tay would be his fourth and last POW rescue-op stretching back to Cabanatuan in ‘45. Col. Simons wanted tough and dedicated soldiers and that's exactly what he got. Another invaluable member of the unit was Col. Joseph R. Cataldo, the company doctor.

 "Redwine" Command Element

On 17 November the Son Tay raiders departed Eglin for what they later learned was a CIA compound at the Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in northern Thailand. Here the raiders prepped their weapons and gear and rested. Two days later, President Richard Nixon sent a letter of confidence to the command unit, now they just awaited the green light for the operation to commence. On the night of 20 November at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force, the Green Berets learned their mission and target. Sydnor and Simons briefed them beforehand, the latter stressing the danger of the mission. The raiders then boarded a C-130 from Udor to their objective at Son Tay.


Aircraft & Equipment

A “fruit basket” of aircraft would play a critical role in the raid on Son Tay for both the extraction of the POWs and aerial support for the Green Berets once they touched down. The mothership was a heavily armed ‘Talon’ C-130 Hercules, it would lead the formation of one HH-3E, callsign Banana, and five HH-53s. These five Jolly Green Giants were codenamed “Apple” and would transport the POWs and special forces back to Thailand. 5 A-1E Skyraiders, callsign Peach, would provide close support air cover as would an additional C-130 Talon, callsign Cherry02. 10 F-4 Phantoms participated in the air cover operation as did 5 F-105 Thunderchiefs launched from Korat Royal Thai Air Force base. These Wild Weasels, codenamed Firebirds, were deployed against SAM installations and were to have a critical role in the operation being planned.

The Green Berets themselves were mostly armed with CAR-15s along with 4 M60s for heavy support, and 4 40mm grenade launchers. The raiders carried 400 rounds of ammo each for a kit weighing around 65 pounds per soldier. A cache of bolt and wire cutters plus crowbars and axes were brought along with two Oxyacetylene cutting torches (to cut through chains and prison bars), two chainsaws, and enough claymores, frag grenades, and demolition charges to level Son Tay twice over.

Son Tay Raiders check weapons and equipment before the Operation

Surplus World War 2 goggles were provided to the Son Tay raiders with orange lenses, as night vision was still in its infancy. In addition, private market hunting scopes were added to the CAR-15’s during training. Sgt. Buckner claims that after these scopes had been installed their accuracy on the nighttime firing range rose from around 40% to over 90%. Three different units comprised the force. Blue Boy was the assault group lead by Capt. Meadows. Their job was to kill the guards and then free and organize the prisoners. Greenleaf contained Col. Simons amongst 22 other Green Berets and was the support element. Redwine was the security element, led by Capt. Dan Turner. They were to provide cover for Blueboy and had to protect the landing zone and secure an alternate route of escape should LZ become exposed to the enemy.


The Raid Begins

The Navy created a massive diversion west of Hanoi on the night of the operation, utilizing 128 aircraft to scramble radar and misdirect any NVA aerial support away from the drop site. U.S. aircraft successfully scrambled North Vietnamese eastward while the the raiders came in undetected from the west. Without this distraction, the rescue armada would have been at the mercy of MIG night fighters and anti-aircraft on their flight around Hanoi. A-1E’s flew cover over the camp during the operation whilst the mothership C-130 dropped flairs to illuminate the compound for the landing of the “Blueboy” unit. SAMS were fired in the direction of Son Tay after the raid began with at least 14 launched at the Wild Weasels alone.


As planned, the HH-3E pilot, Major Frederic Donohue attacked the guard towers before executing a controlled crash landing into the compound. The blades of his Jolly Green Giant hit a massive tree, bringing the helicopter down quickly. This was the first intelligence failure as none of the pilots were aware that the tree they knew was there was in fact that large. Amazingly the only casualty in the rough dissent was an Air Force crewman who suffered a broken ankle. Blueboy's immediate target was the guard tower at the camp which was quickly neutralized. NVA troops were engaged almost immediately and thus began the assault and rescue that the Green Berets had rehearsed hundreds of times over at Eglin. The very first of the raiders on the ground (he literally fell out of the chopper) was 1st Lt. George Petrie; his cousin Navy Capt. James M. Hickerson was a POW and Petrie wanted to bring him home. Capt. Meadows was on the bullhorn immediately, telling the POWs to get down, and that they were Americans and there to free them.


Members of "Blue Boy" Assault Team


Unit “Redwine” H-53’s minigun destroyed the camp’s guard barracks in a matter of seconds. Redwine then went around the southwest of the compound and breached an escape hole in the wall, then they rapidly cut communications to the camp, securing the area with a brief but sharp firefight. Redwine had the additional task of cutting down the light poles surrounding the camp, however the poles were concrete, rendering their chainsaws useless. The Jolly Green Giants had flown about a mile away to a quiet plain were they awaited the call to disembark, cautiously scanning the jungle with searchlights for any NVA sneak attacks. Just eight minutes into the raid and all the buildings in Son Tay prison camp had been cleared.


Military School, Negative Items, & Return Trip


To both the surprise of Redwine and Blueboy, Col. Simons and his Greenleaf unit were nowhere to be seen. “Alternate Plan Green” went into effect as neither unit knew if Greenleaf had been shot down or simply been blown off course in another direction. The command chopper had indeed drifted significantly and landed at another compound entirely. Almost immediately Col. Simon’s unit opened fire on the first enemies they encountered, killing a number of hostiles before they were picked up and flown back to the camp. Though it's still unclear, the men that Greenleaf dispatched at the “military school” were most likely Chinese or other foreign officers who were likely in Vietnam for military training.


In the camp, Col. Sydnor radioed what many at first refused to believe, “NEGATIVE ITEMS”. The POW’s were not there and had seemingly been moved quite some time before the raid. This was perhaps the most precarious moment of the operation; Col. Simons was still missing while the Green Berets awaited their extraction huddled in the prison cells with the threat of a potential counter attack looming. Directly above the prison camp, North Vietnamese SAM’s were fired in a low trajectory at the Wild Weasels with several near misses observed, though two of the Firebirds were eventually hit. One of the Firebirds experienced a flameout however the crew was rescued without incident from the Plain of Jars in Laos the following morning. If one of these missiles hit a helicopter however the raid would have a taken a drastic turn.


Around the 27 minute mark the helicopters circled back around and picked up the Green Berets. Excess non essential items were discarded and the downed HH-3E was rigged with timed explosives. Just two wounded raiders were reported after landing at Udorn, Air Force Sgt. Wright suffered a broken ankle during the rough landing and Sgt. Joseph Murray suffered a bullet wound on the inside of his thigh which proved to be minor. Lt. General Manor remarked, “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. Admiral McCain, who’s son, Lt. Comdr. John McCain (b.1936-2018) was a POW himself, told the Green Berets of Son Tay, "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."


The prisoners had in fact been relocated in mid-July and were dozens of miles away when the Operation Ivory Coast had been launched. With mounting diplomatic pressure, the bombing raids of Operation Linebacker and the Christmas Raids of 1972, coupled with the logistical realities of housing such a large number of POW’s, the North Vietnamese were forced into prison camp consolidation and reform. Prisoners gained better medical treatment and began to receive letters from home. In 1973 following the Paris Peace Accords, 591 POWS were ultimately freed, including the survivors of Son Tay and the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” (Hỏa Lò Prison).


Admiral McCain’s departing exhortation likely felt hollow to the 56 Green Berets but they proved to be ultimately correct. Besides helping to alleviate some of the tremendous suffering of the POW’s, invaluable lessons were learned in what was truly the beginning of modern special operations. From the 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe Airport in Uganda, to Operation Neptune Spear in 2011, the Son Tay Raid remains an influential study in modern special forces warfare.


Suggested Further Reading

Son Tay: The Most Daring Raid of the Vietnam War, Sergeant Terry Buckner, USAHEC's Annual Army Heritage Day, Youtube.


Son Tay, By Lt. General LeRoy J. Manor (United States Air Force Retired), www.vnafmamn.com


The Raid, By Benjamin E. Schemmer, Avon Books, (1976-1986)

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