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Beyond Hell and Back
How America's Special Operations Forces Became the World's Greatest Fighting Unit
By Dwight Jon Zimmerman, John D. Gresham, Howard Zimmerman
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2007 Z File, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Operation Kingpin: The Son Tay Raid
You are to let nothing, nothing interfere with the operation. Our mission is to rescue prisoners, not take prisoners. And if we walk into a trap, if it turns out that they know we're coming, don't dream about walking out of North Vietnam — unless you've got wings on your feet.
— Colonel Arthur D. "Bull" Simons, Operation Kingpin final briefing
By 1970, the Vietnam War had brutally demonstrated that it was a limited war with unlimited consequences. The president identified with the war, Lyndon B. Johnson, had been out of office for two years, his reputation and legacy, along with that of his administration, shredded. The war had deeply divided the United States; antiwar demonstrations were not only frequent occurrences, but some, most notably one in May 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio, had ended in bloodshed. But by far, the individuals who were suffering the worst of the war were the American prisoners of war (POWs) held in North Vietnam. Because the United States had not declared war against North Vietnam, Hanoi claimed that the American men in uniform it held in captivity, most of them aviators, were not protected under the Geneva Conventions that regulate the treatment of captured combatants. Instead, Hanoi insisted that these men were criminals, often referring to them as "Yankee air pirates," who had committed atrocities against North Vietnam and its people.
The result was that the Communist government callously exploited them for political purposes while at the same time refusing to provide any accounting of the 1,463 POWs and MIAs (missing in action) in Southeast Asia in 1970. Most tragically, the prisoners were subject to horrendous physical and psychological abuse including isolation, starvation, and torture.
Numerous efforts in the United States, both private and government sponsored, were made in an attempt to improve the prisoners' conditions. POW wives tried to deliver a petition to the North Vietnamese delegation in Paris, where peace talks were being conducted. They were rebuffed. Four hundred and seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed an appeal for humane treatment of the prisoners, which they tried to get delivered to the North Vietnamese delegation in Paris. That effort also failed. President Richard Nixon sent astronaut Colonel Frank Borman ofApollo 8, the first spacecraft to circumnavigate the moon, on a fourteen-nation tour to rally support for the use of the International Red Cross to provide better treatment for the prisoners. When he returned after a month, Borman reported in a speech to a joint session of Congress that every head of state he talked to believed that North Vietnam would refuse to change its position regarding POWs. Separately, the peace talks in Paris between North Vietnam and the United States were at a deadlock with no resolution in sight.
In effect, Hanoi was telling the United States and the world to shove it.
President Richard Nixon was determined to break this deadlock one way or another. Since Hanoi was not responding to diplomacy, he would get its attention the hard way, through military action. Simultaneously with his diplomatic attempts, President Nixon had authorized a top-secret military option. According to intelligence sources, at least sixty American POWs were being held at a prison compound at Son Tay, approximately twenty-three miles west of Hanoi. It was a tantalizing target. The rescue of these prisoners in the "backyard" of the North Vietnamese capital city would send a powerful signal regarding America's resolution. And the potential political capital for a president already under siege for what had happened at Kent State earlier in the year was too substantial not to contemplate.
On August 8, 1970, a top-secret task force was organized to develop Operation Ivory Coast, a plan for the rescue of the American prisoners at Son Tay. The operation was so secret and sensitive that for the first time ever, the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, America's highest-ranking military leader, was placed directly in command of the mission.
For four months, plans were created and revised, and men were selected and trained. U.S. Army Colonel Arthur D. "Bull" Simons, an experienced and respected special operations commander, would be the field commander of the rescue team. Finalized under the code name Operation Kingpin, the mission would be the largest, most complex special operation in the Vietnam War. It was a joint operation involving the army, air force, and navy, with fifty-nine men in the rescue team itself, with at least 116 aircraft ranging from helicopters to fighters and fighter-bombers, and three aircraft carriers.
From the moment the first helicopter deliberately crash-landed in the Son Tay prison courtyard to the departure of the rescue helicopters, the mission was planned to last no more than twenty-six minutes because the estimated response time of a nearby North Vietnamese garrison was thirty minutes.
On the night of November 20, 1970, Colonel Simons's men took off in their helicopters from a staging area at the royal Thai air force base in Udorn, Thailand, and headed east into "Indian country," as North Vietnam was sometimes called, on the most important mission of their lives. What lay ahead was North Vietnam at its most powerful and deadly. What they would do that night would become the legend of Son Tay.
The Night of November 20-21, 1970: En Route to Son Tay, North Vietnam
Major Irl L. Franklin was the pilot of Cherry 1, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules Combat Talon leading a flight of six Sikorsky helicopters: five HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giants and one HH-3 Jolly Green Giant. Franklin had throttled back until his aircraft was flying at 105 knots, just above the speed at which his huge airborne tanker-transport would stall. To help keep the Hercules airborne, Major Franklin was flying with the Fowler wing flaps 70 percent extended as he prepared to let the helicopters come in to refuel. Designed for low-speed flights, the Fowler flaps increased the overall wing surface and provided extra lift in the humid tropical air of Southeast Asia without creating additional drag. Major Franklin needed the extra control and lift that the flaps provided because the helicopters behind him were having the opposite problem he was.
The five Super Jolly Greens (code-named Apple 1 through 5) were flying at almost full throttle, and the HH-3 Jolly Green Giant (Banana 1), the oldest helicopter in the force, was redlining at maximum speed in order to keep pace. The formation was so tight that Cherry 1, even though it was in the lead, was buffeted by the air beats from the rotor blades of the nearest helicopters.
Cherry l's role in the mission was to rendezvous with the helicopters on the Laotian side of the Laos-North Vietnam border and with its pinpoint, low-level navigation system, guide the helicopters to Son Tay and back. Then, while over the prison, Cherry 1 was to drop a series of flares that would turn night into day, and then drop pyrotechnics called firefight simulators to further distract and demoralize the North Vietnamese garrisons at and near Son Tay.
Based at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base just north of Bangkok, Cherry 1 almost didn't make the rendezvous. As the aircraft was preparing for takeoff, the number three engine, the right inboard engine, refused to start. Though the Combat Talon could still fly the mission, everyone wanted that fourth engine running if it were possible. Maintenance crews racing against the clock did a series of checks. Perhaps the problem was a stuck bleed-air valve or an electrical short of some sort (common in the humid tropical climate). Cherry 1 was cleared for a three-engine takeoff when, as Captain William A. Guenon Jr., a Cherry 1 copilot later recalled, one last attempt was made, "using a subtle combination of ball peen maintenance and convenient recall of an almost forgotten, simultaneous, double-starter-button trick."
With all four engines running at full power, Major Franklin took off, twenty-three minutes late. By eliminating some doglegs in the flight plan, Cherry 1 reached the rendezvous site to link up with the helicopters on schedule. At 12:04 A.M., the combat air patrol (CAP) flight composed of another MC-130 Combat Talon (Cherry 2) leading four Douglas A-1 Skyraiders (Peach 1 through 4) rendezvoused with the group. A moment later, the two flights took a bearing to the northeast that would lead them across the Laos-North Vietnam border and to Son Tay.
* * *
Captain Richard J. "Dick" Meadows was the leader of the fourteen-man rescue team aboard Banana 1. Already well-known inside the Special Forces community for his exploits in Southeast Asia, Meadows's participation in this particular facet of the coming raid would take his reputation to another level. Banana 1 was not returning home from the mission.
The plan was that the helicopters of Apple flight, led by Colonel Frederic M. "Marty" Donohue, would take positions allowing them to train their 7.62 mm miniguns on Son Tay's guard towers and shred them with fire. Once the assault helicopters of Apple flight had destroyed the towers, Banana l's pilot, Major Herbert D. Kalen, would deliberately crash-land the Jolly Green Giant in Son Tay's small courtyard. The plan called for it to be a "gentle" crash landing.
Some early-stage concerns had surrounded this part of the mission. Overhead photographs of the prison compound showed a line of trees, estimated at a height of forty feet, along the north side of the courtyard. There were a few other trees along buildings to the east and south as well. After taking measurements, the debate was between using a Bell UH-1 Iroquois, better known under its nickname, "Huey," or an HH-3 Jolly Green Giant.
Though the Huey could easily fit into the space, it could not carry the minimum of fourteen heavily armed men needed for the rescue. The Jolly Green Giant could carry the requisite amount of men, but there was a question as to whether it would fit. Eventually, the decision was made to go with the HH-3 Jolly Green Giant and sacrifice it. It would be deliberately crash-landed in the cramped courtyard — about the size of a volleyball court — and at the conclusion of the rescue, destroyed with special explosive charges.
Not long after that decision was made, U.S. Army Brigadier General Donald Blackburn, who as the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities reported directly to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was responsible for coordinating everything to do with the rescue attempt, heard that a general officer not connected with the mission but with influence in the Pentagon bureaucracy was concerned about "losing" a Jolly Green Giant. Blackburn arranged a meeting with the officer to forestall any change.
During the meeting, the officer expressed his concern that if they destroyed an HH-3 in the mission, they'd lose an aircraft costing almost a million dollars. The officer suggested that Blackburn switch to a Huey, as it cost only about $350,000. Outraged, Blackburn refused, and because he had the authority of the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff behind him made the decision stick.
* * *
The interior of the HH-3 was cramped. In anticipation of the crash landing, the sides and floor of the helicopter's interior were heavily padded, and mattresses covered the floor. Captain Meadows and his team were lying flat on them so that their whole bodies would absorb the impact of the landing. On paper, their portion of the Son Tay mission, code-named Blueboy, looked to some like a one-way ticket into the very prison they were trying to take down. But Meadows had designed Blueboy to be anything but a suicide mission.
Blueboy's arrival had been timed around the prison guards' schedule. The guards rotated on the hour or half hour. The rescuers wanted to land as close as possible to the quarter hour so that the guards off duty would be falling asleep and the ones on duty would have settled down to another boring shift. Even just one less guard being sharp and alert might well be the difference between success and death.
About three and a half nautical miles from Son Tay, the aircraft separated to assume their positions prior to the beginning of the raid. In the distance to the east, Colonel Donohue in Apple 3 could see the lights of Hanoi. Farther east, flares illuminated the sky over Haiphong Harbor — the U.S. Navy's diversionary contribution to the mission.
At 2:18 A.M., Cherry 1 began dropping its flares above Son Tay prison and the firefight simulators over the garrison two miles east and south of Son Tay city. Then, just as Colonel Donohue was bringing his Super Jolly Green Giant around to attack the guard towers at the prison, a yellow warning light on his instrument panel began flashing: "Transmission." His copilot, Captain Tom Waldron, pointed at it in agitation. According to the warning, the helicopter's transmission was moments away from catastrophic disintegration. But Colonel Donohue was already committed, and the most critical moment of the raid was almost upon them.
"Ignore the sonovabitch," Colonel Donohue told his copilot. Having taken a gamble with one problem, he suddenly found himself having to solve another. His helicopter, code-named Apple 3, had drifted four hundred yards south of the prison. He corrected his flight and spoke into the intercom to alert his gunners manning the Gatling guns on each side of the Super Jolly Green Giant, stating, "Okay, ten seconds and open fire." Then, with his helicopter hovering in position above the prison he ordered, "Ready — fire!"
Within seconds, the northwest and southwest guard towers were annihilated by an almost solid stream of 7.62 mm machine-gun bullets. Additional bursts tore into a nearby guard barracks. As soon as his gunners confirmed the destruction of their targets, Colonel Donohue accelerated and flew to the prearranged holding area nearby to wait out the rest of the mission, all the while watching the yellow transmission light with a mixture of concern and relief.
Then Major Herb Kalen bore in with Banana 1 and, as soon as he was over the courtyard, began his controlled crash descent. The helicopter unexpectedly lurched when, just before touchdown, its landing skids snared a clothesline that had been strung across the courtyard. Major Kalen almost lost control of Banana 1. The rotors of the HH-3 slashed into tree branches bordering the courtyard like a giant weed whacker. Abruptly, Banana 1 landed hard on the courtyard ground — harder than anyone expected.
A fire extinguisher tore loose from its mounting bracket and hit flight engineer Technical Sergeant Leroy Wright hard enough to break his ankle. Although First Lieutenant George L. Petrie wasn't supposed to be the first man out of the helicopter, that's what happened. Having been improperly braced, he later explained that "the crash landing threw me out." The men picked themselves up and dashed out the rear of the helicopter.
Once he had cleared Banana 1, Captain Meadows knelt, and as the thirteen men in his team fanned out and dashed toward the cell bocks, he lifted a white bullhorn to his mouth, pressed the trigger, and calmly spoke into the mouthpiece, "We're Americans. Keep your heads down. We're Americans. This is a rescue. We're here to get you out. Keep your heads down. Get on the floor. We'll be in your cells in a minute."
As small arms fire crackled around him, he repeated his announcement. Meanwhile, his radio operator was on the command network to Colonel Simons, stating, "Wildroot [Simons's call sign], this is Blueboy. We're in."
Captain Dick Meadows on the night of the raid. The white bullhorn he used to announce the raiders' presence in the Son Tay prison courtyard is hanging on his left side.
Three minutes later, there was an explosion at the south wall of the prison. The concussion knocked Meadows to the ground. When he looked up, he saw a group of men rush through the opening made by satchel charges. Captain Meadows was relieved, thinking that Bull Simons and his men had arrived.
But Meadows was wrong. Colonel Simons and his men weren't in the area at all. They had mistakenly landed in the wrong location, well away from the prison. That was the lucky part of the Son Tay raid.
When Hell Was in Session: POW Life in the Vietnam War
It goes without saying that there really were no winners in the Vietnam War, only survivors. For the Vietnamese people, there were more than one million dead to count and bury as the war proceeded. For Americans, more than 58,000 would die, their names eventually inscribed on a black granite monument wall in Washington, D.C. But perhaps the most tragic group were a few hundred men who lived in a strange limbo, some for almost eight years: American POWs. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Beyond Hell and Back by Dwight Jon Zimmerman, John D. Gresham, Howard Zimmerman. Copyright © 2007 Z File, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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