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U.S. Army Special Forces
"The Green Berets"

A Detailed History of Special Forces

The Son Tay Raid

"We are going to rescue 70 American prisoners of war, maybe more, from a camp called Son Tay.  This is something American prisoners have a right to expect from their fellow soldiers."

By the spring of 1970, more than 350 U.S. pilots had been downed in North Vietnam and were being held prisoner. Exposed to horrid conditions and frequent torture, most American prisoners of war in North Vietnam never were allowed to contact the outside world. In May of 1970, reconnaissance photographs revealed the existence of two prison camps west of Hanoi. At Son Tay, one photograph identified a large "K" - a code for "come get us" - drawn in the dirt.

Brigadier General Donald D. Blackburn, who had trained Filipino guerrillas in World War II, suggested a small group of Special Forces volunteers rescue the prisoners of war. He chose Lieutenant Colonel Arthur D. "Bull" Simons to lead the group. Since the compound was more than 20 miles west of Hanoi, planners of the operation believed Son Tay was isolated enough to enable a small group to land, release prisoners and withdraw. A full-scale replica of the compound was constructed at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, where a select group of Special Forces soldiers trained at night. The mock compound was dismantled during the day to elude detection by Soviet satellites. Despite security measures, time was running out. Evidence, although inconclusive, showed that perhaps Son Tay was being emptied.

On November 18, 1970, the Son Tay raiders moved to Takhli, Thailand. Only Simons and three others knew what the mission was to be. Five hours before takeoff November 20, Simons told his 59 men: "We are going to rescue 70 American prisoners of war, maybe more, from a camp called Son Tay. This is something American prisoners have a right to expect from their fellow soldiers. The target is 23 miles west of Hanoi." As Simons left the room for another briefer to continue, the soldiers broke into applause.

The Navy provided diversionary fire as the raid began. The raiders had less than 30 minutes to complete their mission or face North Vietnamese reinforcements. Nine minutes into the raid, Simons was outside the prison walls after his chopper mistakenly touched down at another site. Most of the 60-plus guards at Son Tay were dead or wounded, but a disturbing fact was becoming obvious. There were no prisoners; they had been moved to another camp when a nearby river threatened to flood.

The Son Tay raid ended after 27 minutes. Simons had not lost a single man, and although there were no prisoners to rescue, the operation itself was nearly flawless.

  - Next: Special Forces Since Vietnam


This page is an unofficial document and does not represent information endorsed by the United States Government, the United States Special Operations Command or the United States Army Special Operations Command. However, most information is derived from those sources and has been checked for accuracy. For comments, questions, and suggestions, please go to the Communications Center.

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