On November 21, 1970, U.S. Army Colonel Arthur D. “Bull” Simons and Lieutenant Colonel Elliot "Bud" Sydnor led a team of 56 U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers in a joint Air Force/Army raid on the Son Tay prison camp (located 23 miles west of Hanoi) in North Vietnam. The objective was to recover some 70 American prisoners of war thought to be held at the camp. The mission, though executed successfully, failed to recover any prisoners, because all had been moved to another camp before the raid.
The second phase, Operation Ivory Coast, began August 8, 1970, when Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, the new J.C.S. Chairman, designated Air Force Brigadier General LeRoy J. Manor as commander and Colonel Simons as deputy commander of the mission task force. “Ivory Coast” was the organization, planning, training, and deployment phase of the operation. General Manor set up a training facility at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida and brought together a 27 man planning staff. Colonel Simons recruited 103 volunteers from Special Forces personnel of the 6th Special Forces Group and 7th Special Forces Groups at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and moved them to Eglin. The task force operated under the ambiguous 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. From these parameters two mission “windows” were identified, October 21-25 and November 21-25. Training proceeded at Eglin using a mock replica of the prison compound for rehearsals and a scale model (codenamed “Barbara”) for familiarization. Air Force crews flew 1,054 hours in “dissimilar aircraft” formation and low-level training, while 170 mission rehearsals were performed on the mockup by the Special Forces troopers.
General Manor and Colonel Simons met with the commander of Task Force 77, Admiral Fred Bardshar, to arrange for a diversionary mission to be flown by naval aircraft. Because of policy restrictions of the bombing halt then in place, the naval aircraft would not carry ordnance except for a few planes tasked for Search and Rescue.
On September 24, General Manor reported to US Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird that the JCTG was ready for the October window, but after a White House meeting on October 8 with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, the mission was delayed to the November window. This delay, while posing a risk of compromising the secrecy of the mission, had the benefits of additional training, acquisition of night-vision equipment, and further reconnaissance of the prison. Between November 10 and November 17 the J.C.T.G. moved to its staging locations in Thailand and began studying the weather. Weather forecasts indicated that Typhoon Patsy would cause bad weather over North Vietnam during the entire window, but that conditions on November 20 would be acceptable. Gen. Manor authorized the advancement of the mission date by 24 hours.
On November 18, President Richard Nixon approved execution of the mission, and the final phase, Operation Kingpin, began. Fifty-six of the Special Forces troopers were selected to conduct the raid and were flown by C-130 to their helicopter staging base at Udon Royal Thai Air Force Base. The Special Forces, led by a command and control team, named Gear Box, were organized into three groups: a 14-man assault group, codenamed Blueboy, which would crash-land within the prison compound; a 22-man command group, Greenleaf, which would blow a hole in the prison wall and provide immediate support for the assault group, and a 20-man support group, Redwine, to provide backup support for the other two groups, including security of the prison area from NVA reaction forces.
The 56 raiders each carried a rescue radio and were heavily armed: 51 personal sidearms, 48 CAR-15 carbines, 2 M16 rifles, 4 M79 grenade launchers, 2 shotguns, and 4 M60 machine guns. They carried 15 Claymore mines, 11 demolition charges, 213 hand grenades, and were equipped with a plethora of wire cutters, bolt cutters, axes, chain saws, crowbars, ropes, bullhorns, and other equipment to execute the mission.
105 aircraft (59 Navy and 46 Air Force) participated in the operation, with 29 aircraft crewed by 92 airmen assigned direct roles in the objective area. Except for the Navy aircrew and the Air Force crews of the SAM suppression and MiG CAP flights, all of the Special Operations aircrew assigned were flown to Thailand from Florida with the Special Forces troops.
The 29 aircraft with direct roles were:
|#||Type||Radio call sign||Unit||Kingpin task|
|2||MC-130 Combat Talon||Cherry 01-02||7th SOS (1st SOW)||rescue force airborne command and illumination|
|1||HC-130P||Lime 01||1st SOW||rescue force navigation, helicopter air refueling tanker|
|5||HH-53 Super Jolly||Apple 01-05||40th ARRS (3rd ARRG)||support teams lift and POW extraction|
|1||HH-3 Jolly Green||Banana 01||37th ARRS (3rd ARRG)||assault team lift|
|5||A1-E "Fatface"||Peach 01-05||1st SOS (56th SOW)||close air support at objective|
|10||F-4 Phantom||Falcon 01-10||13th TFS, 555th TFS (432nd TRW)||rescue force MiG combat air patrol|
|5||F-105G Wild Weasel||Firebird 01-05||6010th WWS (388th TFW)||rescue force surface-to-air missile suppression|
At 23:25 of November 20, the helicopters launched from their Thai base. Shortly after midnight the A-1 Sandies and Combat Talons lifted off from Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base. As the force approached from the west, Navy aircraft launched at 01:23 from the carriers USS Oriskany, Ranger, and Hancock and approached the North Vietnamese coast from the east, setting off a frantic air defense reaction at 0217 and providing a highly effective diversion for the raiders.
The Blueboy assault team, in the Jolly Green HH-3, crashlanded on time and as planned into the center of Son Tay prison at 02:18; the only casualty was a crew member with a broken ankle. Army Captain Richard J. Meadows led his force on a violent assault of the prison guards and began a cell by cell search. At 02:21, the Greenleaf command group, led by Colonel Simons, call sign Axle, landed 400 meters off its objective outside a similar-looking structure previously labeled a “secondary school” but which was actually the administrative barracks for the North Vietnamese guards. The Greenleaf group immediately attacked the location, detonating charges on its walls and buildings, and set off a 5-minute firefight in which Colonel Simons estimated 100 to 200 NVA soldiers were killed. At 02:26 the command group reboarded its helicopter and moved to the correct landing area. The Redwine support group, led by Lieutenant Colonel Eliott P. Sydnor, had landed at 02:21 outside Son Tay prison and immediately executed the tasks assigned to Greenleaf, a contingency that had been previously planned and rehearsed.
In the meantime other diversions were implemented to disguise the target area, including the dropping of flares and “Nightingale" firefight simulators at other locations. At least 18 SAMs were fired at the raiding force. One F-105 experienced a near-miss but returned to base, but another was severely damaged. Its crew was forced to eject over Laos but were rescued by the other two HH-53s of the task force.
After a thorough search Meadows found that the prison held no POWs and radioed “Negative Packages” to the command group. At 02:36 the first helicopter extraction was made, followed by the second at 02:45. The raiding force had been on the ground only 27 minutes. Though at first it was feared one raider had been left behind, all the troopers were accounted for. One had been wounded in the leg and was the only casualty to enemy action on the raid. By 03:15 the force was out of North Vietnam, and landed back at Udon at 04:28, five hours after launch.
The mission was deemed a “tactical success” because of its execution, but was clearly an intelligence failure. The 65 prisoners at Son Tay had been moved in July because of the threat of flooding. Decades later, declassified documents revealed that the day before the raid, the POWs were moved to a prison 15 miles away. Though American intelligence knew this, planning and rehearsals had not included the new location. The risk of disastrous consequences was deemed too high to switch targets at the last minute and the raid went as planned in case the intelligence was faulty.
For their actions, members of the task force received 6 Distinguished Service Crosses, 5 Air Force Crosses, and 85 Silver Stars, including all 50 members of the ground force who did not receive the DSC. The successful demonstrations of capability in Operations Ivory Coast and Kingpin were, in part, responsible for the creation of a joint United States Special Operations Command in 1987.
As a result of the raid, the North Vietnamese consolidated their POW camps to a few more easily defended central prison complexes, such as the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” After their repatriation, many POWs said that being in close contact with other Americans lifted their morale, as did knowledge of the rescue attempt. During the course of the Vietnam War there were numerous attempts by U.S. Special Forces teams to rescue POWs. Only one succeeded, but 15 days after his rescue the POW died of wounds inflicted by his captors during the activity.