The Son Tay Raid Rescue Mission: A Pilot’s Story

A-1 Skyraiders over Laos

By John Waresh

The following is what I remember of the A-1 participation in the Son Tay prison camp raid…

On the Saturday night of 20 November 1970 a C-130 picked us up from Takhli where we had been housed in the CIA compound since deploying from Eglin. The NKP flight line was blacked out, even the tower people had been relieved and it was empty. The C-130 landed, without anylights on it or the runway and ramp, and taxied to the ramp. It had already lowered the rear ramp and when it came to almost a stop ten of us ran out, two pilots for each of the five fat-faces we were taking. It then continued on, pulling up the ramp, taxied out and took off. It had other people to deliver to other locations. The only people out and about were the crew chiefs and us. Of course the Wing Commander met us and followed me around like a puppy dog asking question after question, none of which I could answer. He got rather teed off as I recall.

Picking up our flight gear we went straight to the birds, cranked up and taxied out. No taxi, runway or aircraft lights were used and no radio either, total silence (the radio was not to be used till over the camp).

Taking off at the exact second, we did a 360 over the base to join up. A C-130 Talon was to rendezvous with us there and lead us on. Timing was everything. It wasn’t there. We did two more 360s and couldn’t wait any longer. We were, by that time, about ten minutes behind schedule.

The backup plan was to navigate ourselves to Son Tay, following the planned route and arriving at the appointed time, 0200 local, Sunday, 21 November. No way, José. We had agreed among ourselves earlier that that was not a viable plan. We would fly the course until we got lost, which we knew we would, and then head straight for Hanoi. Hold just south of the IP, which was the Black River, straight west of the camp, and do our thing at the TOT (Time Over Target).

The route was NKP, straight to Vientiane, straight north out of there and then drop to low level and weave through the karst and valleys all the rest of the way. Impossible at night for A-1s. A back up rendezvous with the Talon was over Vientiane at the appointed minute, but, because we had made an extra 360 over NKP waiting, we were running late. We had been unable to make up all the lost time, some of it but not all. We hit Vientiane a few minutes late, maybe five, no Talon. We turned north and pressed on.

At left, John Waresh was in the 602 Special Operations Squadron, NKP, Thailand. He flew A-1 Skyraiders, all missions except two were in Laos. The other two were into North Vietnam.

After Vientiane passed behind, there were no lights anywhere, ink black. And then our worst nightmare loomed up. A cloud bank. Being lead, I wasn’t worried about being hit, but the rest of the flight exploded like a covey of quail, everyone in God only knows what direction. Pushing it up, I climbed straight ahead and soon popped out on top. Not an A-1 in sight and no hope of joining up again without lights or radio. We were all on our own.

After a short time, we noticed a speck of light far ahead. A star? After watching it a while, we were sure it was below the horizon and no Lao in his right mind would have a light on. Had to be something else. Heading straight for it, it took some time to catch. A fully loaded A-1 is no speed demon.

Sure enough, there was our Talon with a teeny-weeny white light on the top of the fuselage and a dim bluish glow coming from the open ramp in the rear. Couldn’t see the bluish glow until you were only few meters from it. There were already two A-1’s there, one on each wing. We moved up and the left one moved out and we took our place on the left wing tip. A few minutes later the other two A-1’s slowly pulled up and once we were all in place the little white light went out, the bluish glow went out and the Talon descended into the black. From there on it was hold on tight as it bobbed and weaved through the hills and valleys.

The Talon driver was top notch. His power applications during climbs and descents and gentle banking allowed our heavy A-1 to hang right in there. The three day “moon window” we had for this operation provided good night vis. With one exception—several valleys we drove through were so deep that mountains, karst, trees or whatever eclipsed the moon. When that happened it was like diving into an inkwell. You could make out only a few feet of wing tip and that was only because of our own exhaust flame. When turns or ups and downs occurred at those times it was tough.

As we emerged from the back country out over the Red River Valley it was almost like being over Iowa farm country with Omaha/Council Bluffs up ahead. (Hanoi) Lights everywhere. Soon thereafter the Talon started climbing and we knew the IP was coming up. We had a controlled altitude over the IP. The choppers, with their Talon, were going to be under us coming in from a different direction. They should have been slightly ahead of us but one couldn’t be sure everyone was on time. The control time was over the camp so IP times were adjusted for the different speeds.

April 1970 — then Major John Waresh, first row, third from left.