By mid-November 1970, there were 450 known American POWs in Vietnam, and more than double that amount reported as missing in action. Reports were surfacing of brutal conditions, torture, and starvation of American POWs. Operation Ivory Coast was a daring rescue mission conducted by U.S. Army Green Berets, flown in by Air Force Commandos, to rescue the POWs at a small prisoner of war camp at Son Tay, 23 miles west of Hanoi. The raid was commanded by Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons and 56 specially selected Green Berets who had trained for the mission.
The mission was deemed a failure. Unknown to the raiders, rains had flooded the Son Tay prison just prior to the raid, forcing the Vietnamese guards to move the POWs to another location. The prisoners who had been moved just a few miles down the road, watched the raid unfold.
However, the raid was viewed as a success by many in the U.S. military, as the Special Forces troops killed over 50 guards and took the compound while suffering two very minor casualties. And the Air Force was able to fly them in and out through one of the most heavily defended air spaces on earth at that time.
The POW Camp Is Identified
In May of 1970, the Pentagon learned of the camp when an SR-71 flying at 80,000 feet, streaked over it and took aerial photographs that showed at least 55 American POWs. However, 12,000 North Vietnamese troops were stationed just five miles away from the compound.
Planning began in earnest in early August. Simons, who was a legend and one of the most well-respected Special Forces officers, was named the commander of the raid force. Simons had taken part in the outstanding prisoner rescue during World War II with the 6th Ranger Bn. The Rangers rescued 500 POWs, who had survived the Bataan Death March, by raiding the Japanese POW camp at Cabanatuan in the Philippines. The Japanese were planning on killing every one of the POWs when the Americans arrived at the camp and foiled their plans.
He would have to select the raiders from among the 6th and 7th Special Forces Groups at Ft. Bragg, NC. Word spread through the Green Berets at Ft. Bragg that something big was brewing and it was to be commanded by Simons. Over 500 packed the post theater to hear Simons make a pitch for volunteers for a very dangerous mission.
The training facility chosen for the raiders was Duke Field at Eglin AFB, Florida. USAF planners selected key Air Force commanders, who then picked personnel for their crews. Helicopter and A-1 Skyraider crews were put together from instructors at Eglin and personnel returned from combat tours in Southeast Asia. Two crews for C-130E(I) Combat Talons were assembled from squadrons in Germany and North Carolina.
The men were not briefed on their mission but were only told that it was hazardous.
A total of 219 men were selected: 103 Army and 116 Air Force personnel would serve as raiders, flight crew, support personnel, and planning. The Task Force was known as the “Joint Contingency Task Group” (JCTG).
The staff set up a plan to conduct a nighttime raid, the key point of which was clear weather and a quarter moon at 35 degrees above the horizon for optimum visibility during low-level flight. From these mission planning parameters, two mission “windows” were identified, 18–25 October and 18–25 November.
Training under Simons proceeded on Range C-2 at Eglin. Simons’s Son Tay raiders used an exact but crudely made replica of the prison compound for rehearsals that could be quickly assembled and taken down before any Russian satellite would fly over. The raiders also had a superbly detailed five-by-five-foot scale table model — codenamed “Barbara” after a USAF secretary, Barbara L. Strosnider, who worked very long days supporting planning for the raid — which was built by the CIA for familiarization.
The Air Force pilots flew over 1,050 hours in C-130 Combat Talon and HH-3 aircraft to practice their formations while using the Forward-Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR), to fully acquaint themselves with the mission.
The Special Forces side of the training began on September 9, before moving into night training on September 17, and joint training with aircrews on September 28, which included six rehearsals a day, three of them under night conditions. By October 6, 170 practice sessions of all or some phases of the mission had been performed on the mockup by the Special Forces operators, using live fire.
The Ground Force Commander would be LTC Bud Syndor. The assault element leader, which would purposely crashland a helicopter in the prison compound, would be led by another SF legend CPT Richard “Dick” Meadows.
Meadows, who would be integral for the raid, was one of the best Special Operators that this country has ever produced. He enlisted in the Army when he was just 15 and fought as a paratrooper in Korea. By the age of 20, he was the youngest Master Sergeant in the Army. He joined Special Forces in 1953 and for the remainder of his career until 1977 would serve in either Special Forces or Ranger units.
During the Vietnam War, Meadows impressed General William Westmoreland so much during a briefing after an operation with MACSOGV that he was given a battlefield commission. He also helped Colonel Charles Beckwith form Delta Force. He was even recalled from retirement to assist in the Iran Hostage Rescue by posing as a European auto dealer on the ground in Tehran.
On November 6, the first full-scale dress rehearsal, using a UH-1H as the assault helicopter, was conducted at night. It included a 5.5-hour, 687 miles (1,106 km) flight of all aircraft, replicating the timing, speeds, altitudes, and turns in the mission plan. The rehearsal indicated that the UH-1 helicopter was unsuitable for this mission. The smaller passenger compartment resulted in leg cramps to the SF raiders that completely disrupted the timing of their assault. Simons and his raiders opted for the HH-3E. Two further full-night rehearsals and a total of 31 practice landings by the HH-3E in the courtyard of the mockup followed.
The primary October window was chosen, but President Nixon was out of Washington and couldn’t be briefed properly in time, so Henry Kissinger moved back the raid to the November time window. Unbeknownst to anyone, this one-month’s delay would doom the mission to failure.
The Air Force moved all of the pieces for the raid force to Thailand, the jump-off location for the raid, between November 10 and 18. Piecemeal deployment was chosen to not attract attention. There the force was whittled down from the 100 men who trained for the mission to the 56 that would be going — a heartbreaking affair for the 44 men who had to stay behind in Thailand.
The Raiding Force
The Special Forces were organized into three platoons: A 14-man assault group codenamed “Blueboy Element” led by Meadows, which would crashland within the prison compound. “Greenleaf” a 22-man support group, would provide immediate support for the assault team. And “Redwine” a 20-man security group to protect the prison area from any NVA reaction forces and provide backup support for either of the other two groups if needed. Simons (using the call sign “Axle”) accompanied the Greenleaf group, while the ground force commander, LTC Elliott P. “Bud” Sydnor, Jr. (“Wildroot”) was with the Redwine group.
The 56 raiders were heavily armed, carrying 48 CAR-15 carbines, two M16 rifles, four M79 grenade launchers, two shotguns, and four M60 machine guns. They carried 15 Claymore mines, 11 demolition charges, and 213 hand grenades. They also had a mix of wire and bolt cutters, axes, chainsaws, crowbars, ropes, bullhorns, lights, and other equipment. The ground force was also equipped for voice communications with 58 UHF-AM and 34 VHF-FM radios, including a survival radio for each individual soldier.
Five hours before takeoff, Simons finally addressed the men to what their actual mission was. “We are going to rescue 70 POWs from a camp called Son Tay. This is something American prisoners have a right to expect from their fellow soldiers. The camp is located 23 miles west of Hanoi.”
It was said that the troops stood and cheered. Simons put his own indelible mark on the operation with his final instructions.
“You are to let nothing, nothing interfere with the operation. We’re here to rescue prisoners not take prisoners. And if we walk into a trap, don’t dream about walking out of Vietnam unless you’ve got wings on your feet. It is 100 miles to Laos… I want to keep this force together. We will back up to the Song Con River and by Christ let them come across the goddamn open ground. We’ll make them pay for every foot across the sonuvabitch.”
Infiltration Into North Vietnam and Arrival at Son Tay
The raid force began taking off at 2200 hours from airfields in Thailand and South Vietnam. The formation flew across the Plain of Jars in Laos before turning northeast. The Air Force meticulously planned 12 separate legs of the flight plan in order to keep the vulnerable helicopters undetected by North Vietnamese radar. The force was aided by diversionary bombing missions going on in the area.
The assault force arrived at Son Tay at 0219 hours. The helicopter that was to crashland in the compound was to encounter trees thought to be 40-feet tall. In actuality, they were close to 150-feet. However, the pilot chopped through them like a huge lawnmower and the aircraft thudded into the ground. One man, an Air Force crew chief, suffered a broken ankle when a fire extinguisher broke free and smashed into his leg.
Meadows used a bullhorn and announced, “We’re American. Keep your heads down. We’re Americans. We’ll be in your cells in a minute.” Meadows’s group cut down many of the compound’s guards, including several trying to escape through the east wall. But as his men methodically advanced through the compound, they found no prisoners in the cells.
The Support Element landed in the wrong compound, which was known as the Secondary School. It found that it contained 100-200 Chinese soldiers who were there as advisors for some new missile defense weapons that were being emplaced. After a brief but intense firefight, the Special Forces troops using a mixture of automatic fire and grenades, the Chinese were eliminated.
The Security Element (“Redwine”) approached the south wall and Syndor, using the helicopter’s miniguns, wiped out the guard towers, while landing inside the compound. There they blew a utility pole and set up a roadblock, 100 meters from the LZ. They then encountered guards who were quickly trying to react to the raid. The raiders cut down several of them.
Simons leaped into a trench as the fighting raged on around him. A second later, an enemy soldier, roused from his sleep and wearing only his underwear, jumped in beside Simons not realizing what was happening. Simons emptied his .357 revolver into the soldier’s chest killing him.
Meadows radioed to Syndor, “Negative items.” No POWs were present. The assault force was preparing to leave when one of the members decided to leave the Vietnamese a message on who was responsible for the raid. MSG Joe Lupyak took a Green Beret with a 5th SFG flash and nailed it to the compound’s flagpole. The message was, “we can come within 20 miles of Hanoi and we’ll be back.”
The extraction helicopters began arriving at 0239 hrs. The last aircraft departed at 0245. The entire raid had taken just 27 minutes. The formation had cleared North Vietnamese airspace by 0315 and had arrived back in Thailand by 0438 hrs.
Intelligence Failure/Mission Failure
The lack of good intelligence hampered the operation from the start. It was later learned that due to the flooding of the river, the prisoners had been moved to a place they named “Camp Faith” that was about 15 miles closer to Hanoi. The area’s heavy rains had obscured the U.S. satellites from picking that up.
However, as the raiders flew back to Thailand crushed by the fact that they didn’t rescue any of the POWs, they didn’t realize that the impact of the raid would be a tremendous morale boost for the prisoners. The prisoners had watched the raid unfold from their new camp at Dong Hoi and knew right away that they had not been forgotten.
The North Vietnamese realized that had the operation been successful, the sight of the prisoners in their current emaciated state would have been disastrous. Resultantly, food and medical care improved for the prisoners and the Vietnamese consolidated the POWs and for the first time. Many of them were surprised to learn that instead of solitary confinement, they were housed together.
The Son Tay Raid Personnel
COL Arthur D Simons, CPT Eric J Nelson, CPT Glenn R Rouse, CPT Udo H Walther, SFC Earl Bleacher, SFC Leroy N Carlson, SFC John Jakovenko, SFC Jack G Joplin, SFC Daniel Jurich, SFC David A Lawhon Jr, SFC Salvador M Suarez, SFC Donald Taapken, SFC Richard W Valentine, SSG Walter L Miller, SSG Robert L Nelson, SSG David S Nickerson, SSG Thomas E Powell, SSG John E Rodriquez, SGT Gary D Keel, SGT Keith R Medenski, SGT Franklin D Roe, SGT Marshall A Thomas.
CPT Richard J Meadows, CPT Thomas W Jaeger, CPT Dan H McKinney, 1LT George W Petrie, MSG Thomas J Kemmer, MSG Billy K Moore, MSG Galen C Kittleson, SFC Anthony Dodge, SFC Lorenzo O Robbins, SFC William L Tapley, SFC Donald R Wingrove, SSG Charles G Erickson, SSG Kenneth E McMullin, SGT Patrick St Clair.
Command Element – Security
LTC Elliot P Sydnor, LTC Joseph R Cataldo, CPT James W McClam, CPT Daniel D Turner, MSG Joseph J Lupyak, MSG Herman Spencer, SFC Tyrone J Adderly, SFC Donald D Blackard, SFC Freddie Doss, SFC Jerry W Hill, SFC Marion S Howell, SFC Billy R Martin, SFC Gregory T McGuire, SFC Charles A Masten Jr, SFC Joseph M Murray, SFC Noe Quezada, SFC Ronnie Strahan, SSG Paul S Poole, SSG Lawrence Young, SGT Terry L Buckler.
LTC Bill L Robinson, LTC Gerald Kilburn, CPT Randel L Smith, SGM Minor B Pylant, MSG Jesse A Black, MSG Edgar C Britt, MSG Bernard L Rauscher, SFC Franklin Abramski, SFC James A Bass, SFC Archie Batrez Jr, SFC Robert L Dodd, SFC Charles M Erwin, SFC James A Green, SFC Bobby R Hansley, SFC Roswell D Henderson, SFC Frederick L Hubel, SFC Bruce M Hughes, SFC John R Jourdan, SFC Ernest R Pounder, SFC Aaron L Tolson Jr, SFC Burley W Turner, SFC Grady C Vines, SSG Elmer D Adams, SSG Rodger D Gross, SSG Larry G Stroklund, SSG David L Wilson, SGT Brian J Budy, SGT Michael G Green, SGT Robert R Hobdy, SGT John J Lippert, SGT Arlin L Olson, SP5 William F Dezurik, SP5 Lawrence C Elliot, SP5 Gary R Griffin, SP4 Christopher Casey, SP4 Frank J Closen.
UH-1 Crew Members
1LT George W Williams, CW2 Ronald J Exely, CW2 Jackie H Keely, CW2 John J Ward, SP6 Larry C Boots, SP4 Alan H Wood.