Tonight and tomorrow morning is the 50th anniversary of an attempted raid on the Son Tay POW camp deep inside North Vietnam. Yep, we mounted a raid to rescue some of our POWs in 1970!
Operation Ivory Coast was an audacious plan to insert 56 Special Forces warriors into the prison camp, retrieve the POWs, and eliminate any opposition. The strike force included: two C-130E(I), five CH-53C, and one HH-3E. It was determined the fastest way to insert the primary assault team was to deliberately crash land the HH-3E into the courtyard of the camp! Yes, I said crash! An ironic aspect is the HH-3E was borrowed from the 37th Air Rescue and Recovery squadron at Da Nang, but I suspect the crash part was omitted.
The strike force penetrated, apparently undetected, to the POW camp 23 miles west of Hanoi. Some of the helicopters identified the wrong target, an almost identical facility 400 yards to the south, but fortunately the realized the error in time and attacked the POW camp. To their dismay, there were no POWs in the camp! They set explosive charges in the HH-3 to send it into the afterlife and evacuated on the HH-53’s. There were two wounded; one was a gunshot, and the Flight Engineer of the HH-3 had a broken ankle from a wayward fire extinguisher during the crash landing. One escorting F-105G was shot down, but the crew was rescued. And of course, the supreme sacrifice made by HH-3E 65-12785.
What went wrong? The drinking water well had dried up and instead of digging a new well the POWs were moved. The people that kept track of the POW locations knew this but were unaware of the raid. The people planning the raid were unaware the POWs were moved. Don’t you just love compartmentalized information!
The raid has been called a failure as no POWs were rescued, but it had an incredibly significant impact on the POWs. First, they knew that they had not been forgotten. Second, all POWs were relocated to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” creating an overcrowding problem. Instead of solitary confinement, now there were two or more POWs in each cell. Someone to talk to (if you didn’t get caught). These raiders were true heroes with forged titanium balls!
A personal note, my TI in Basic was a crewman on the ABCCC that monitored the raid, so I knew the general details in September 1974. I’ve also added a photo of my Son Tay commemorative GAU-5/A/A made by Troy Defense fitted with the correct Normark Single Point red dot sight as used in the raid.
A couple of excellent books on the subject are:
The Raid by Benjamin Schemmer
The Son Tay Raid: American POWs in Vietnam Were Not Forgotten by Col John Gargus (Radar Nav Cherry 2)
Secret and Dangerous: Night of the Son Tay POW Raid by Col William Guenon ( Pilot Cherry 1)
I Flew with Heroes: Gunship on the Son Tay POW Raid by LtCol Thomas Waldron (Co-Pilot Apple 3)
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