Air Operations for the Son Tay Raid

By Colonel John Gargus (USAF, Retired)
Originally published in the November 2016 Sentinel

Planners of the bold attempt to rescue American prisoners of war from North Vietnam on November 21, 1970 put together a small joint special operations force that was believed to be just right for the task. They never anticipated that their carefully orchestrated operation would balloon into what became the largest nighttime operation of the Vietnam War up to that date. Even though today’s military historians laud the raid on the Son Tay prison camp as a model for a successfully executed joint special operations mission, they do not address the extremely large air support it generated. Instead they focus their attention on the meticulous small force training of this joint service force in Florida and on its great professional performance during the raid itself.

The well-conceived Operation Ivory Coast plan called for a small joint force of Army and Air Force Special Forces to train in Florida. This had to be done away from Vietnam to ensure top secret security for the project. Once ready, the force was secretly inserted into the war zone for execution with minimal support from the US forces conducting the war. The Green Berets did not require any Army support because they brought everything they needed with them. They were secretly flown into a well-guarded isolation facility at the staging base at Takhli in Thailand. Air Force requirements were more involved because in theater air assets had to be borrowed to execute the raid under a new name called Operation Kingpin. Only two Combat Talon C-130s and two College Eye EC-121s flew in from the States. Helicopters and fighter aircraft had to be provided by theater units, hopefully with minimal impact on their war operations. After all, the raid was planned to be just a one night event. The Navy did not participate in the stateside planning and training, however, the planners wanted to have the carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin launch few aircraft to provide a diversion for the raiding aircraft which would enter into North Vietnam from Laos.

The most directly involved aircraft numbered only 15. There were two very special Combat Talon MC-130s with highly classified navigation and electronic systems that allowed them to operate inside of the heavily defended North Vietnamese air space. One Talon would escort the Assault Formation which had 56 Army rescuers in five Jolly Green Giant HH-53 helicopters and one HH-3 helicopter. The other would escort the Strike Formation with five A-1E fighters that would provide low level protection for the ground troops in the objective area. The planners always wanted to have a couple of high flying jets to protect the low flying formations against the North Vietnamese MIG interceptors. These high flyers would not only discourage the enemy against launching the MIGs, but would also invite a high altitude surface to air missile (SAM) response that would not impair the ground and low flying activity in the objective area. The two stateside College Eye EC-121T radar platforms were needed to monitor the Son Tay area from the Gulf of Tonkin and provide the high flying jet fighters vectoring against any enemy interceptors that would take off to challenge the aircraft fleet.

Theater coordination for the raid did not take place until November 1 when the top three planners departed for Southeast Asia to brief the top officials who commanded our country’s military services. They were: Army Brig. Gen. Donald D. Blackburn, Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities (SACSA), under whose domain the raid plans generated; and Air Force Brig. Gen. Leroy J. Manor, Commander of the Air Force Special Operations Forces (AFSOF), who became the chief of the raiding Joint Contingency Task Group with his deputy the legendary Army Col. Arthur D. Simons. The reception from the limited number of key officials whom they briefed in on the daring plan was overwhelming. All offered unlimited support for the rescue plan. Army General Creighton Abrams, who directed the overall war effort from Saigon, was disappointed that the Army raiders did not need any of his troop support other than allowing the ready to execute force into his area of responsibility and ensuring utmost security for this important operation. The Seventh Air Force promised the trio unquestioned support and made sure that all Air Force units gave the raid coordinators everything they asked for without asking any questions. That opened the floodgate of enthusiastic support for the raid from the selected few who were tasked to support it.

On the way home, Gen. Manor and Col. Simons stopped at the Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. There, Admiral Frederick A. Bardshar, Commander of Task Force 77, promised them very encouraging support to stage a credible show of force from the Yankee Station to distract the enemy from focusing on the incursion of the raider force into the Son Tay area from the west. He welcomed the idea of sending his pilots north of the 20th parallel because there was an ongoing self-imposed bombing pause for targets in Hanoi and Haiphong areas since 31 March 1968. He knew that his pilots would love to hit those lucrative targets before rotating back to their home ports. However, the raiders had very strict rules of engagement. The only ordnance the Navy was authorized to dispense were Mark 24 flares to make the North Vietnamese wonder what kind of an attack was being staged. They were not allowed to attack any ground targets. However, their pilots could defend themselves against enemy interceptors and SAMs if they challenged them.