Today is the fortieth anniversary of Operation IVORY COAST - the Son Tay Raid - the attempted prisoner of war (PW) rescue mission conducted by United States Special Operations Forces deep within North Vietnamese territory.
On this day in 1970, a joint U.S. Air Force / Army operation commanded jointly by Air Force Brigadier General LeRoy J. Manor and Army Colonel Arthur D. "Bull" Simons landed 56 U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers by helicopter in the Son Tay prison compound 23 miles west of Hanoi, North Vietnam. The objective was recovery of 61 American prisoners of war believed to be held at the camp, situated within 5 miles of where at least 12,000 North Vietnamese troops were stationed. The mission failed in it's primary objective when it was found during the raid that all the prisoners had been previously moved to another camp.
Overhead imagery of the prison compound at Son Tay, North Vietnam
The concept of a rescue mission inside North Vietnam began as Operation POLAR CIRCLE, after analysis of overhead imagery by U.S. Air Force intelligence concluded that a compound near Son Tay - suspected of being a prisoner of war camp since late 1968 - contained at least 55 American PWs, and that at least six were in urgent need of rescue. By 1970, the US had identified the names of over 500 American POWs who were being held by the North Vietnamese. Sources reported that these prisoners were being held in atrocious conditions and were being cruelly treated by their captors.
In June of 1970, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle G. Wheeler, authorized the formation a fifteen-member planning group to address the issue. Operating under the codename POLAR CIRCLE, this group studied the possibility of conducting a night raid on a North Vietnamese POW camp and found that an attack on the camp at Son Tay was feasible and should be attempted.
Two months later, Operation IVORY COAST commenced to organize, plan, and train for the mission. Overall command was given to Air Force Brigadier General LeRoy J. Manor, with Special Forces Colonel Arthur "Bull" Simons as the ground force commander. While Manor assembled a planning staff, Simons recruited 103 volunteers from the 6th and 7th Special Forces Groups. Based at Eglin Air Force Base, FL, and working under the name "Joint Contingency Task Group," Simons' men began studying models of the camp and rehearsing the attack on a full-size replica.
Colonel Arthur D. "Bull" Simons
Colonel Simons interviewed 500 Special Forces soldiers of the 6th and 7th Special Forces Groups at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; 103 were selected without being told the nature of the mission. 116 Air Force personnel were selected for the project, including aircrewmen, support members, and planners. The 219-man task force planned, trained, and operated under the title of the "Joint Contingency Task Group" (JCTG).
The planning staff set up parameters for a night-time raid, the key points of which were clear weather and a quarter-moon at 35 degrees above the horizon for optimum visibility during low level flight. From these parameters two mission "windows" were identified, October 18-25 and November 18-25. Training proceeded at Eglin using a replica of the prison compound for rehearsals and a five foot-by-five foot $60,000 scale model (codenamed BARBARA) for familiarization.
The hand-picked Special Forces soldiers trained and rehearsed extensively at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, while planning and intelligence gathering continued from May 25 to November 20, 1970.
While Simons' men were training, the planners identified two windows, October 21-25 and November 21-25, which possessed the ideal moonlight and weather conditions for the raid. Manor and Simons also met with Admiral Fred Bardshar to set up a diversionary mission to be flown by naval aircraft. After 170 rehearsals at Eglin, Manor informed the Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, that all was ready for the October attack window. Following a meeting at the White House with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, the raid was delayed until November, due to President Nixon's absence at that time.
After using the extra time for further training, JCTG moved to its forward bases in Thailand. For the raid, Simons selected 56 Green Berets from his pool of 103. These men were divided into three groups each with a different mission.
The first was the 14-man assault group, "BLUEBOY," which was to land inside the camp compound. This would be supported by the 22-man command group, "GREENLEAF," which would land outside, then blow a hole in the compound wall and support BLUEBOY. These were supported by the 20-man "REDWINE" which was to provide security against possible North Vietnamese reaction forces.
Final instructions, REDWINE Element.
The Son Tay Raiders move out to load the aircraft.
Capt. Dick Meadows, Leader Assault Element BLUEBOY
Master Sergeant Billy K. Moore, BLUEBOY Element
BLUEBOY Assault Element: Dick Meadows (lower left)
Pathfinder element for REDWINE
The raiders were to approach the camp by air aboard helicopters with fighter cover above to deal with any North Vietnamese MiGs. All told, 29 aircraft played a direct role in the mission. Due to the impending approach of Typhoon Patsy, the mission was moved up one day to November 20. Departing their base in Thailand at 11:25 PM on November 20, the raiders had an uneventful flight to the camp as the Navy's diversionary raid had achieved its purpose.
Keeping a tight formation between dissimilar aircraft of differing speeds & load configurations was a difficult & challenging task for the pilots and air crews.
At 2:18 AM, the helicopter carrying BLUEBOY successfully crash landed inside the compound at Son Tay. Racing from the helicopter, Captain Richard J. Meadows led the assault team in eliminating the guards and securing the compound.
Dick Meadows leads the BLUEBOY assault team inside the Son Tay prison compound, 21 Nov 1970
Three minutes later, Col. Simons landed with GREENLEAF approximately a quarter mile away from their intended LZ - due to an apparent navigational error. Disembarking, the GREENLEAF element took fire from what was believed to be a barracks for the North Vietnamese anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) training academy. Returning fire, the GREENLEAF element moved on the barracks. After killing between 100-200 NVA soldiers and some mysterious Caucasians believed to be foreign advisors, GREENLEAF re-embarked and flew to the compound. In GREENLEAF's absence, REDWINE, led by Lieutenant Colonel Elliott P. “Bud” Sydnor, landed outside Son Tay and executed GREENLEAF's mission as per the operation's contingency plans.
Photos of some of the cells in the compound at Son Tay; the objective was a "dry hole"
After conducting a thorough search of the camp, Meadows radioed "Negative Items" to the command group signaling that no PWs were present. At 2:36, the first group departed by helicopter, followed by the second nine minutes later. The raiders arrived back in Thailand at 4:28, approximately five hours after departing, having spent a total of twenty-seven minutes on the ground.
Brilliantly executed, American casualties for the raid were one wounded. This occurred when a helicopter crewman broke his ankle during the insertion of Blueboy. In addition, two aircraft were lost in the operation. North Vietnamese casualties were estimated at between 100-200 killed, including the unidentified foreign military advisors, described by some raiders as "six-foot tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed".
Intelligence later revealed that the PWs at Son Tay had been moved to a camp fifteen miles away in July. While some intelligence indicated this immediately prior to the raid, there was not time to change the target. Despite this intelligence failure, the raid was deemed a "tactical success" due to its near flawless execution. Only two minor casualties were incurred, and the loss of two aircraft, one of which was part of the operational plan.
For their actions during the raid, the members of the task force were awarded six Distinguished Service Crosses, five Air Force Crosses, and eighty-three Silver Stars.
Significantly, as a result of the raid the North Vietnamese consolidated their POW camps to central prison complexes. An area of the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" formerly housing civilian and South Vietnamese prisoners became "Camp Unity," a block of large communal areas housing 50 PWs each. After their repatriation, many PWs said that being in close contact with other Americans lifted their morale, as did knowledge of the rescue attempt.
To this day, the Son Tay Raid is studied by U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers. Bull Simon's masterful raid is the definitive Special Forces operation, embodying the principles of security, meticulous, detailed planning, reconnaissance and control and of course stealth, speed, surprise and violence of action.
When I signed into my first Special Forces unit - 1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group at Torii Station, Okinawa - there were three Son Tay Raiders in that outfit. Needless to say, those gentlemen received a LOT of respect and I always kept my ears open in their presence for whatever I could learn. I later met Brigadier General Blackburn, and have attended two professional development presentations given by Son Tay Raiders.
There is myth and legend surrounding the Raid; I have heard it suggested - from a high-ranking member of the Special Operations community at the time of the Raid - that Bull Simon's encounter at the NVA anti-aircraft gunner's barracks was no accident; that the AAA training academy was an intended Target of Opportunity. This is highly believable - during this timeframe Hanoi was the most heavily defended real estate on Earth, and the AAA was wreaking havoc on U.S. air crews. Such a nuanced plan was well within Bull Simon's modus operandi.
There are a couple of Son Tay Raiders who work at the Special Warfare Center, as instructors. A guy I know was with Bull Simon's GREENLEAF element; I once asked him what it was like that night, on the ground in North Vietnam. He told me "It was the hairiest 25 minutes of my life."
Son Tay is the Gold Standard by which Special Forces operations are measured.
Bull Simons is revered within the Special Operations community; a 15-foot bronze statue of the man overlooks the headquarters of the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
Not far from there, a similar statue of BLUEBOY element leader Dick Meadows stands by the headquarters of the US Army Special Operations Command.
Special Forces units then and now have the priority and funds to get what they need whether or not it is official issued equipment. To this day "team funds" or other means are regularly used to purchase non-standard equipment for specific needs.
M1944 Goggles with Polarized lenses worn by the Son Tay Raiders.
The M-16 variants used in the raid were GAU-5A/As, generically referred to as CAR-15s - NOT the standard M16 issued to troops in the field.
When Bull Simons was training his raiders, he was searching for a way to increase the hit probability in the dark. His mission had top priority for everything and anything they wanted, yet the military supply system was unable to come up with a suitable solution. Simons and his armorer came across an ad for the Armson OEG in a gun magazine. They ordered a couple to try and the team's hits went up dramatically. They then purchased enough for the entire ground force and they worked well.
Some Singlepoint sights used in the raid.
"Also I heard the voice of the Lord saying, who shall I send, and who shall go for us? Then said I, here am I, Send me." Isaiah 6:8
- SEAN LINNANE SENDS