|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
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