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If there is one thing you can count on in war it is that there is nothing you can count on in war.
-- Richard M. Watt
On the night of 20 November 1970 at 2300 hours, five HH-53s and one HH-3 helicopter took off with fifty-six Special Forces Soldiers from Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. The aircraft would refuel over Laos and enter North Vietnamese airspace from the west. The target of the helo borne assault was the Son Tay Prisoner of War (POW) Camp located 23 miles northwest of the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. The flight from Udorn to Son Tay was approximately 337 miles one way.
It was believed that at least 60 American Prisoners of war were being held captive at the Son Tay facility. The camp was believed to have been active since May of 1968. Evidence in May of 1970 suggested the camp was being enlarged.
The lead HH-53 arrived over Son Tay POW camp at approximately 0200 hours the morning of 21 November. As planned, the lead helo would take the guard towers and barrack buildings under fire with its two 4,000 round per minute Gatling guns. Once the lead helo cleared the compound, the HH-3 made a controlled crash landing inside the courtyard of the walled prison. Aboard the aircraft was a 14-man assault force commanded by CPT Richard Meadows, the assault force commander. This element was code named "Blueboy" and had the mission of clearing all cellblocks, freeing American POWs, and neutralizing any enemy resistance within the compound. Once the POWs were freed, the assault force would blow a hole in the south wall of the compound and lead the POWs to a waiting evacuation helo.
Navy diversion aircraft were flying from carriers and conducting diversionary strikes in the Haiphong and Hanoi area. This diversionary maneuver, prior to the Raid force reaching Son Tay, caused the North Vietnamese air defense sectors to focus their attention east thus allowing the Raid force to slide in the back door from the west.
At the same time the "Blueboy" element was searching for the US POWs, the "Redwine" element had landed south of the compound with the mission of clearing buildings, securing a landing zone, and blocking a road network to the south, preventing enemy personnel or vehicles from entering the target area (Son Tay) from the south. At the same time, the "Greenleaf" element was to land east of the compound and clear buildings and secure a road to the north, again preventing enemy personnel and vehicles from coming from the north. However, the helo carrying the "Greenleaf" element made a navigational error, landing some 400 meters southwest of the Son Tay Compound at a facility only known as a "secondary school". On insertion, a huge firefight broke out between the "Greenleaf" element and an unknown number of enemy soldiers. To this day, the nationality of these enemy soldiers remains unknown. Some have commented through the years that they were Russian or Chinese advisors. Members of the "Greenleaf" element would only say later that the soldiers were taller than the average Vietnamese. (All members of the raiding force, except for three, had been to Viet Nam before, many serving multiple tours.)
As the fire fight continued, LTC Sydnor, the ground force commander at the Son Tay compound, realized the "Greenleaf" element had not landed at Son Tay as planned. He put Plan Green into effect. Plan Green called for the "Redwine" element not only to cover their responsibilities to the south, but now they must cover "Greenleaf's" responsibilities to the east and north as well. Meanwhile at the "secondary school", as the firefight continued, Col Simons, the Deputy Task Force Commander, was having his radio operator recall the helo. I believe Lt Col Warner Britton, pilot of Apple 1, had already realized the mistake. After dropping the "Greenleaf" element and gaining altitude, he now saw two huge firefights taking place separated by 400 meters. He immediately rolled the helo over and was inbound to the "secondary school" to pick up Simons' men and reinsert them into the correct target area. In all, the fight at the "secondary school" lasted about five minutes. Some sixteen enemy soldiers were believed killed with no injuries to friendly forces.
Lt Col Britton effected the pickup and flew Simons' men to the Son Tay compound, landing south of the facility. The "Greenleaf" element was required to do a passage of lines through the "Redwine" element - a tricky maneuver, especially at night. No friendly forces suffered any injuries during this passage.
About the time the "Greenleaf" element was in its position on the east side of the compound, radio traffic from the "Blueboy" element inside the prison was indicating there were "negative items", a coded phrase that meant no US prisoners were found. Once that was confirmed by the Ground Force Commander, the helos were recalled from their holding area, approximately 3 miles west of Son Tay. Prior to leaving the prison, the "Blueboy" element destroyed the HH-3 that had crash landed inside the courtyard of the prison. The HH-3 was never intended to fly out as the courtyard was too small of an area.
After picking up the force, the helos headed west to an aircraft air refuel point over Laos. It was a long three and a half hour flight back to Udorn, Thailand. We could not believe no prisoners were present. After three months of training, over 170 rehearsals, half of which were conducted with live fire, we had just hit a "dry hole". (In later discussions with ex-Son Tay prisoners, we learned they had been moved in July 1970 for unknown reasons.)
The entire operation took twenty-seven minutes from touchdown to takeoff, including the "visit" to the "secondary school". The only injuries suffered by friendly forces were one gun shot wound to the leg of a Raider and a broken foot suffered by the Flight Engineer on the HH-3 during the crashing of the HH-3 in the courtyard. It is estimated as many as 30 to 50 North Vietnamese were killed including those at the "secondary school".
One of our Wild Weasel F-105 aircraft was shot down by a surface to air missile (SAM). Shot down is probably not the correct term. The SAM exploded near the aircraft riddling the fuel tank of the F-105 with holes. According to the pilot, the aircraft was still flyable but just ran out of gas due to the holes in the fuel tank. Both pilot and electric warfare officer were able to bail out over Laos. They both were recovered after first light on the morning of 21 November.
Training for the Raid began in August of 1970 and ended on or about 10 November 1970. At that point forces were deployed to Thailand for final preparations for the Raid. The training was conducted at Elgin Air Force Base, Florida, at Auxiliary Field 3, the same training area used by General Jimmy Doolittle's Raiders in preparing for their bombing raid over Tokyo, Japan in early 1942. Training was conducted in three phases. Phase I was to physically condition the force, conduct land navigation both day and night, weapons firing using the M-16 rifle, M-79 grenade launcher, M-60 machine gun, .45 cal pistol, and the M-72 LAW (light-anti-tank-weapon), target identification, etc. Shooting was conducted during day and night range operations. In Phase II the force was selected from a pool of 100 personnel based on physical condition, shooting skills, land navigation abilities, and other skills. The force was organized into three platoons: 1st Platoon, "Redwine" element (command and security - 20 personnel); 2nd Platoon, "Blueboy" element (assault force - 14 personnel); and 3rd Platoon, "Greenleaf" element (security and support - 22 personnel). During this phase, the force began training together on a mockup camp. Shooting skills continued to be honed as well as target identification (identifying bad guys from friendlies). During Phase III, the army elements trained with the air force elements. Over the three-month training period each ground element learned and knew their air crews. This was important due to the bond and trust that was formed. In all, more than 170 rehearsals were conducted during daytime and nighttime conditions. At no time did the Raiders know the true target. It was only after the final briefing on 20 November prior to leaving for the launch site at Udorn, Thailand that Son Tay was identified.
The total number of airplanes to support the Raid was 116. Most of these were Navy aircraft flying in the Haiphong and Hanoi area. Son Tay aircraft included 5 HH-53s (call sign Apple 1-5); 1 HH-3 (call sign Banana 1); 5 A-1E skyraiders (call sign Peach 1-5) providing close air support; 5 F-105s (call sign Firebird 1-5) targeting SAM sites; and 10 F-4s (call sign Falcon 1-10) providing protection from MIG aircraft should they launch. The refuel aircraft were Limes 1 and 2, and they were HC-130Ps which provided fuel for the helos over Laos going to and returning from Son Tay.
Note: Tom Powell, “Greenleaf” Element
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