By Tom Demerly for ALERT 5.
02:18 Local, 21 November, 1970. 23.27 Miles west of Hanoi, North Vietnam. Son Tay Prison.
Sheeting in low over high jungle trees through the wet-ink Vietnamese night, the crew of the fast moving HH-53C Super Jolly Green gunship helicopter made a mistake. They are off course. Headed for the wrong target. The most daring commando raid in the Vietnam War is about to begin, and end in calamity.
Even worse, the giant helicopter’s flashing yellow engine transmission warning light just came on, a lethal problem in a low flying helicopter, especially over North Vietnam. For now, the crew must ignore it.
Major Frederic M. “Marty” Donohue is flying this HH-53C heavy tactical transport helicopter, call sign, “Apple Zero-Three”. Donahue is one of the world’s best helicopter pilots. He holds the record as the first man to fly the trans-Pacific route in a helicopter non-stop, a grueling test of endurance and airmanship that required 13 white-knuckle midair refuelings over 8,739 miles- in a helicopter. But tonight Donohue’s mission is completely different. And even more deadly.
Donohue began this night hours earlier, taking off from a secret base in Thailand. His giant helicopter, laden with machine gun ammunition and six-barreled 7.62 mm Gatling guns, will “draft” like a bicycle racer behind a specially modified MC-130 Combat Talon transport plane along with five other helicopters across miles of dark North Vietnamese airspace to a secret prison camp at a place called Son Tay. The poorly matched formation will fly through heavy jungle mist at low altitude to avoid detection by the Communists, slipping through an invisible blind spot in North Vietnamese radar discovered by spies. The secret radar window is only open for 15 minutes. The entire mission relies on hair-trigger precision and paper-cut timing.
Their mission is to rescue 55 American prisoners of war held at Son Tay by the North Vietnamese. In the entire history of the Vietnam War nothing like this has been attempted. It is years before Operation Eagle Claw, the mission to rescue the hostages in Tehran, and decades before a similar mission to capture Osama Bin Laden.
The helicopters can barely keep up with the MC-130 tactical transport at their top speed. The maximum speed of the helicopters is barely above the minimum “VS” or “stall” speed of the MC-130 transport. Any slower and the giant plane falters and tumbles out of the sky. The strange formation of special operations helicopters and the four- engine MC-130 Combat Talon tactical transport crawl through the damp night sky at barely 120 MPH, easy prey for enemy gunners on the ground, SAM missiles and North Vietnamese MiGs.
A massive diversionary air raid to the east is their only protection, and that air raid, the largest ever launched in Vietnam from three aircraft carriers, is only dropping flares to distract Communist gunners and missile crews.
The rescue plan is bizarre, and oddly predictive of the more recent raid to capture Sheik Osama Bin Laden. Fly to the target and crash-land a helicopter inside Son Tay prison. A second helicopter lands just outside the prison. The rescue team from the crashed helicopter inside the prison will run off the aircraft, neutralize the North Vietnamese prison guards and rescue the prisoners. Meanwhile, commandos landed by helicopter outside the prison will blow a hole in the wall of the prison to provide an escape route for the prisoners and rescue team. Major Donahue’s gunship helicopter will circle around, land and help with the extraction of the rescue team and the prisoners.
If the flight of helicopters and their big “mother ship” MC-130 can reach Son Tay without colliding with each other, slamming into a mountain, being shot down, getting lost or suffering a mechanical problem then they must find their target in the pitch dark jungle and begin the raid, then survive an intentional helicopter crash. Compared to the flight into Son Tay and back, the raid itself may be considered… almost easy.
A handpicked team of U.S. Army Green Berets is on board the second helicopter. The mission ground commander is a man of such mythical proportions a description of him in fiction would be unbelievable: U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons.
Simons looks like his nickname, squinty dark slits for eyes set into a jowly face on the front of a massive pale, brush-cut head. Lips pressed tight to clamp a short, soggy cigar and a hunched posture that suggests he is perpetually contemplating a charge. And few words. Very few words.
Tonight Simons’ bull face is streaked in green camouflage paint, a giant pair of protective goggles on his head and a Colt Commando assault rifle in his hands. The rifle carries a miraculous new secret weapon not even available in the Green Berets’ arsenal, torn from the pages of science fiction. Bull Simons’ men will be the first American soldiers to aim their bullets using laser beams.
Nearly 41 years later America’s new alpha special operations unit, this time from the U.S. Navy, will use invisible infra-red lasers to aim their weapons when they conduct an eerily similar raid in Pakistan to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden. While the crash landing of a helicopter in Bin Laden’s compound is said to be unintentional, the result of a phenomenon known as “vortex ring state”, the crash landing of the helicopter at Son Tay is intentional. “Fast Rope” deployment from tactical helicopters, a technique where commandos slide down a thick rope dangling from a hovering helicopter wearing heat resistant gloves and braking with their boots, had not yet been in use in 1970 for Son Tay. Crashing a helicopter into Bin Laden’s compound in 2011 is alleged to be an “accident” not inspired by the Son Tay raid 41 years earlier.
Donahue realizes his navigational error at the last instant and corrects his helicopter violently to get back on the right heading in the dark. He is only 40 feet off the ground, barely a few feet above the high jungle canopy. In a few seconds the guard towers of Son Tay come into view. Donahue wrestles his helicopter lower, right between the two towers, rotor wash and jet noise whipping the palms and disorienting the North Vietnamese guards in the towers.
Staff Sergeants Angus Sowell and Jim Rogers are the specially trained gunners in Donahue’s Helicopter. They man the Gatling guns on each side of the aircraft. In an instant fire streaks of red-hot lead lash out from either side of big helicopter like death-rays, eviscerating the Communist guards and disintegrating the wooden guard towers as if thrown into a wood chipper. What isn’t blasted to sawdust by a constant hosing of buzzing bullets collapses to the jungle floor.
Donahue wrenches his collective to pitch up and forward, rotor blades clawing the damp night air as his helicopter pulls up, off target to go into a support orbit for the rescue team rapidly closing in behind him in their helicopter.
Inside the lead rescue helicopter, call sign “Banana 1”, the Green Beret rescue team lead by Capt. Dick Meadows is lying prone on mattresses installed on the floor of the aircraft. The idea is to cushion the impact of the crash landing inside the prison. It doesn’t work very well.
Pilot of Banana 1, Major Herb Kalen, wrestles his bucking flight controls as his rotor blades saw into palm trees that are higher than expected on his way into the belly-landing in the prison compound. Banana 1 Co-Pilot Herb Zehnder said, “We tore into the trees like a big lawn mower.”
When Banana 1 finally crashes into the center of the courtyard at Son Tay Prison Camp the helicopter rolls violently to one side, a heavy fire extinguisher rips off its cockpit mounting and crushes the leg of crewmember Tech Sgt. Leroy Wright. Wright suffers a broken ankle. One of the Green Beret raiders, Lt. George Petrie, was hurled completely out of the helicopter, landing in the dirt of the prison compound. He somehow remains uninjured.
In the back of the crash-landed helicopter Capt Dick Meadows, leader of the rescue team inside the prison, scrambles up from a crash mattress, raises his bullhorn and announces in a calm monotone utterly in contrast to the action, “We’re Americans, keep your heads down, we’re Americans, this is a rescue.”
Outside the prison confusion reigns. Col. Bull Simons’ team landed at the wrong location, stepping in a hornet’s nest up to their knees. Instead of hitting their intended landing zone outside the prison they accidentally land next to the “Secondary School”, a military training facility that turns out to be filled with battle-hardened troops and men that appear taller and more Caucasian than the indigenous North Vietnamese. It is likely they are seasoned Russian troops training the Vietnamese.
It is a worst possible scenario.
Simons’ 22 commandos unleash a lethal assault on the compound, killing “between 100 and 200” of the Vietnamese soldiers and the tall, mystery military personnel. In less than five minutes, the fight is over. Bull Simons’ Green Berets have neutralized the target. Simons calmly recalled his helicopter, which landed in the midst of the firefight, and his men boarded it. As it turns out the mistaken landing of Bull Simons’ assault force at the Secondary School instead of outside Son Tay Prison as planned may have saved the lives of the commandos by initiating the first strike. Had they landed outside Son Tay the forces inside the Secondary School could have quickly rallied to defend Son Tay. Simons’ haphazard assault turned into a blessing in disguise.
Inside Son Tay Prison Dick Meadows’ rescue team eliminates the remaining North Vietnamese guard force with speed and violence of action. The camp falls into eerie silence. One dank cell at a time the rescue team enters the inside of the prison camp. They are prepared to render aid to emaciated American POW’s who may have been submitted to torture during interrogation. What they discover in each of those cells is even more shocking.
Every prisoner’s cell is empty. There are no POW’s at Son Tay.
Dick Meadows radios the rest of the assault team from inside the prison, “Negative items. Search complete. Negative items.” Bull Simons sends a photographer into the prison through a route cleared by the exterior assault team to document the empty prisoner cells. A-1 “Spad” Skyraider prop-driven aircraft roll in to strafe a bridge to the north of prison compound to prevent a North Vietnamese quick reaction force from reaching Son Tay and counter-attacking the rescue force.
Eighteen minutes have passed since Herb Kalen crash landed Banana 1 inside Son Tay. The raid is over. It was executed with complete surprise and total violence of action. Despite the disorientation of Bull Simons’ assault team and their inadvertent landing and firefight at the Secondary School, the raid itself is remembered as a resounding tactical success. Against all odds the rescue force arrived on target within seconds of the plan, achieved complete surprise, overwhelmed the guard force and defeated an unforeseen enemy, and were now extracting with no critical casualties.
The only thing missing were rescued POW’s.
It’s hard to imagine the mood of the men inside the Jolly Green helicopters on their way back from the Son Tay Raid. Quiet disappointment. Confusion. Even a measure of betrayal that their intelligence sources weren’t adequate before hitting the prison camp. In a bizarre twist the prisoners may have been moved because of North Vietnamese concerns over Son Tay flooding. The CIA had begun a secret program of seeding the clouds over Vietnam with silver iodide and lead iodide. The chemical mist caused the monsoon season to last longer in Vietnam, flooding parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail and nearly flooding Son Tay Prison. Planners for the Son Tay raid knew nothing about “Operation Popeye”, the secret CIA cloud seeding operation.
In the interest of maintaining operational security, the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing before the Son Tay Raid.
41 years later in a place called Abottobad, those intelligence mistakes would not be repeated. An assault force remarkably similar to Bull Simons’ team would land inside a similarly walled compound, crashing a helicopter within its walls, then assault that compound to kill Osama Bin Laden in one of the most successful special operations in the history of warfare.
Author’s Note: 32 years after Operation Ivory Coast, the raid on Son Tay, I visited former North Vietnam, now unified into one country after the U.S. withdrawal from the Vietnam conflict. In Hanoi I visited Hỏa Lò Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner of war camp where Senator John McCain was held along with other U.S. POW’s prior to the end of the war. I visited McCain’s cell at Hỏa Lò. It was haunting. When I asked Vietnamese officials about the Son Tay Raid, they told me they had never heard of it. Apparently the raid is not a part of Communist Vietnamese doctrine.