Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.
Charles Tustin Kamps
On the night of 20–21 November 1970, the North Vietnamese were treated to an aggressive demonstration of Pres. Richard Nixon’s concern for the welfare of US prisoners of war (POW)—the raid on the Son Tay POW camp. Although we rescued no POWs (the enemy had moved them to other facilities), the raid serves as a model of a well-planned and -executed joint special operation. Indeed, Son Tay stands in stark contrast to the dismal effort mounted to free hostages in Iran 10 years later. Marked by outstanding organization, training, and unity of effort, Operation Kingpin badly embarrassed the North Vietnamese.
Brig Gen Donald Blackburn, special assistant for counterinsurgency and special activities in Washington and an old Army hand at special warfare, came up with the idea for the raid. After a favorable feasibility study, meticulous planning began with the blessing of the president. Most importantly, the operation remained directly subordinate to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bypassing the bureaucracy in Southeast Asia. Brig Gen Leroy Manor, commander of USAF Special Operations at Eglin AFB, Florida, and the joint task force commander, wielded a very free hand. His deputy, Col Arthur “Bull” Simons, a long-time Army veteran of “spec ops,” would go in on the ground with the raiding party.
The Central Intelligence Agency provided a scale model of the prison and surrounding buildings, and engineers constructed a life-size mock-up of wood and canvas in Florida that they could quickly disassemble before Soviet spy satellites made their twice-daily crossing over the area. The rigorous training involved dangerous dissimilar aircraft formation flying at night. Full-dress rehearsals proceeded under operational conditions until the team felt 90–95 percent confident of mission success. Barely three months had transpired from the time Manor had been summoned to the Pentagon until the force deployed to Thailand.
The Army provided the assault force (limited to 56 men), and the Navy committed 59 aircraft to a diversion in the direction of Haiphong, drawing the attention of the North Vietnamese air-defense network. The Air Force organized its mission aircraft into robust packages: (1) five HH-53 helicopters and one HH-3 (which had to crash-land the rescue team in the middle of the prison compound) carrying the assault troops and (2) five A-1E attack aircraft providing fire support. After refueling from separate HC-130Ps over Laos, each group then followed its own MC-130E Combat Talon special operations aircraft, which broke off in the target area to drop flares and diversionary ordnance. Ten F-4s flew combat air patrol in the objective area, supported by five F-105 Wild Weasels for suppressing surface-to-air missiles (SAM). Additional aircraft provided aerial refueling, radar coverage, enemy-radio monitoring, and command and control relay for General Manor, who operated from a ground station in South Vietnam.
Although Simons’s helicopter landed at the wrong compound and a SAM downed one of the Wild Weasels, the force achieved surprise, completely overpowered the garrison, and evacuated the area one minute ahead of schedule. Only one raider sustained wounds. The effort stands as an excellent example of the masterful execution of a joint special operation. Well over a decade would pass before US special operations forces organized on a permanent basis to carry out raids like Son Tay.
To Learn More . . .
Haas, Col Michael E. Apollo’s
Warriors: United States Air Force Special Operations during the Cold War.
Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1997.
Isby, David C. Leave No Man Behind: Liberation and Capture Missions. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2004.
Schemmer, Benjamin F. The Raid. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Thigpen, Col Jerry L. The Praetorian Starship: The Untold Story of the Combat Talon. Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2001.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.