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Rescue Attempt: The Son Tay Raid

In 1970, U.S. forces attempted to rescue POWs from captivity in North Vietnam. American officials decided a daring operation in the heart of North Vietnam was worth the risk, and President Richard Nixon asked the Pentagon to explore "some unconventional rescue ideas." 

Planning the Raid
The target was the Son Tay POW camp, only 23 miles west of the North Vietnamese capital Hanoi. Intelligence analysts believed as many as 55 prisoners were there. 

The raid was a joint-service operation. An Air Force assault group would fly Army Special Forces to Son Tay under cover of darkness, rescue the POWs, and leave. The Navy, meanwhile, would create a diversion by flying over Haiphong Harbor on the coast northeast of Hanoi and dropping flares to simulate an attack. 

More than 100 aircraft and many support and planning personnel were involved. The Air Force group included assault, attack, tanker, air defense suppression and command and control aircraft. The Army force included 56 handpicked Special Forces troops to engage the enemy on the ground, free the POWs and lead them to rescue helicopters. The teams trained intensely at Eglin AFB, Florida, where they used a full-size mockup of the camp. They also used the scale model on display in this exhibit. 

On the night of Nov. 20, 1970, the raiding force of six helicopters, two large support aircraft, and five small attack planes took off from Thailand. Meanwhile, Navy carrier aircraft created a diversion over the Haiphong area. The raiders approached Son Tay at low level, arriving at about 2:18 a.m. 

The area was lit with flares, and the first helicopter over the camp destroyed guard towers and barracks with a hail of mini-gun fire. The next helicopter made a planned, controlled crash landing in the middle of the camp, chewing up trees with its blades. Green Berets piled out to rescue prisoners from their cells. A third helicopter landed outside the camp, firing on barracks and delivering more Army Green berets. 

Meanwhile, the fourth helicopter had mistakenly landed at a similar-looking compound nearby--easy enough to do in the fog of war. There, Green Berets found themselves in a firefight, but suffered no casualties. A scenario where part of the assault force could not reach the objective had been practiced many times, and the group recovered quickly by exchanging attack roles. 

"Negative Items" 
The raiders found that the prison camp held no POWs. They reported "negative items" (no POWs) on the radio, boarded two helicopters and withdrew. As the force left North Vietnam, one Wild Weasel F-105 fighter was hit with a surface-to-air missile. Its crew ejected over Laos, and two of the returning Son Tay helicopters quickly rescued them. The raid had taken 27 minutes, and the raiders suffered one broken ankle and one minor wound. All 56 Army personnel plus the aircraft crews returned safely. 

Despite rescuing no prisoners, the raid proved a success in other ways. It caused North Vietnam to gather POWs in fewer locations to prevent similar raids, making POW communication and organization easier. POW morale soared. Later, one recalled that "...the Son Tay rescue attempt dispelled all doubt: We were not forgotten; our country cared!!" The daring raid so close to Hanoi demonstrated that the U.S. had the will and means to carry out exceptional operations to ensure POW well-being. The Son Tay raid was one of the most complex and dangerous missions of the Southeast Asia War. It laid the groundwork for future joint forces operations by serving as a model of organization, cooperation, and flexible execution.

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