It was 50 years ago today that a special operations group raided the Son Tay prison compound in North Vietnam in an attempt to rescue some 61 prisoners of war.
About 15 years had passed since the Vietnam War began. Along with the raid on the prison camp, located just outside of Hanoi, the U.S. concurrently sent three Navy carriers as a distraction and to help suppress potential enemy air support on Nov. 21, 1970. The support mission is heralded as the largest night carrier operation of the almost 20-year conflict.
It turned out the prisoners had been moved to other camps prior to the raid, but the mission, known as Operation Kingpin, has stood as a stellar example of planning and coordinated execution for similar covert attacks since.
Son Tay was “the best modern example of a successful spec op [which] should be considered textbook material for future missions,” retired Navy SEAL Adm. William McRaven wrote in his 1995 book “Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice.”
Sixteen years after that book was first published, McRaven, as the three-star commander of Joint Special Operations Command, devised the daring Navy SEAL raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
A new documentary about the raid, “Kingpin: 27 minutes at Son Tay,” is in post-production and features interviews with some of the special operators who were there.
Terry L. Buckler was the youngest on the teams that that made up the almost 60 raiders selected for the mission. His book, “Who Will Go: Into the Son Tay POW Camp,” published earlier this month, details the raid and the events leading up to it. Buckler was a radio operator who went through Green Beret special operations training. He knew how to use a multitude of weaponry, handle explosives and jump out of airplanes, like the others in his cadre.
Months of training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida at a mock-up compound build by the Central Intelligence Agency made the complex plan relatively easy to execute, Buckler told Military Times in a Friday phone call.
Though the raiders weren’t able to rescue any American prisoners of war, the Viet Cong began treating its prisoners more humanely, likely because it didn’t want to suffer another covert raid, Buckler said.
The C-130 was their mothership. It cruised slowly in front of six rescue helicopters in formation and carrying teams “Red Wine,” “Green Leaf” and “Blue Boy” just above the North Vietnamese canopy. It was a dangerous flight for the plane, but the airmen piloting it were skilled. Dip a bit too low and the plane would clip the tops of the trees. Reduce speed by 5 knots and the bird would stall. The air group had to stay together.
The plan was clear, and each team had its mission set.
Blue Boy was to land inside the compound and eliminate any guards, then locate and release the prisoners. Green Leaf was the assault team. They were primarily charged with clearing guard buildings.
Red Wine was to pull security, locate and secure the communications building to prevent any potential reinforcements from Hanoi being called in.
In the dead of night, with no lights to guide them, no communications between aircraft, “Apple-1,” Green Leaf’s helicopter broke from formation early and mistakenly landed at a building which looked similar to that of Son Tay.
“So, we were short 22 guys with some good firepower,” Buckler said.
This put the task of initial assault on Red Wine, Buckler’s team.
When the group neared the target, their C-130 increased altitude and dropped flares, illuminating the compound.
As the newly-designated assault element, the Red Wine helicopter’s minigun opened fire on the guard building.
“When we got out, the structure was on fire,” Buckler said.
Once off the helicopter, his training kicked in. The helicopters flew off to safety about a mile away.
“It was just like we were training back at Eglin, the only difference was that bullets were coming back at us,” Buckler said.
The team executed its mission, just as planned, until Buckler got a call over the radio. “Negative items” was code for no POWs at the compound.
“It was a shock for us after three months of training,” Buckler said. “We hit a dry hole.”
About the time the call was transmitted, Apple-1 arrived and crashed inside the compound. Members of Green Leaf set explosives charges to destroy it, Buckler said.
With the mission scrapped, the birds were called back in for extraction.
“The lights of Hanoi looked like a major city in the States,” Buckler said. “It was amazing to me how big that city was.”
Just then, a surface to air missile zoomed past his helicopter, narrowly missing the aircraft.
Overhead, an A-1E circled the group with orders to destroy anything that crossed a nearby bridge.
“Having never seen one, it was pretty intense there for a few minutes,” he said. “It was actually scarier in the chopper than it was on the ground. As an Army guy, you can kind of roll around and hide but up there them flyboys are just sitting ducks.”
Documentary in the works
Over the weekend, the film crew will work with the Silent Warrior Association to film re-enactments of the training that led up to the Raid and a portion of the mission execution, Army veteran and documentary producer Dan Smith told Military Times in an email. The organization is holding a raider reunion, which will also feature day and night ranges with the weapons used during the raid, Smith said.
Smith and others are also working to turn the raiders’ stories into a podcast series.
“In both projects we have been working directly with raiders, POWs, and other service members who supported the mission,” Smith said. “We began with the Son Tay Raider Association at the invitation of one of the raiders, Command Sgt. Maj. Pat St. Claire who I served with in Iraq and the Horn of Africa in 2003.”
Jared is a freelance journalist, a former Marine and a veterans advocate living in Los Angeles.