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Son Tay - A Story of Success (Part 2)

01 July 2005

Greg Walker

On 20th November, at 23.18 hours, Operation IVORY COAST was underway. With over 170 intense rehearsals under their belts the raiders and flight crews were literally prepared for any eventuality.
An in-depth review of the official after action report written by BGen. Leroy Manor, Commander of the Joint Contingency Task Group, JCS regarding the Son Tay raid reveals no expense or limit was placed on those volunteers now headed for the POW compound.

Every item considered necessary for success had been brainstormed, evaluated, accepted/rejected/modified and then trained. The command element had selected only the best of the 300 men who'd volunteered for an unknown mission with no announced objective or incentive. Security surrounding the operation in all of its phases was intense. What finally left Udorn prior to midnight was easily one of the fittest, most combat experienced special operations raid forces ever fielded. From Armalite Single Point rifle sights and CAR-15 to Simons' team's “heavily overcharged” satchel explosives meant to “minimize personnel exposure and to ensure destruction of the target”, nothing had been left to chance.

The close quarters combat training of the raiders was equally demanding. Already formidable shooters the commandos' skills were enhanced with countless hours on the range and in live fire rehearsals during the hours of daylight and darkness. By launch date they were capable of engaging an enemy force assigned to rear guard duties at a level of surprise, accuracy and violence of action previously unheard of for a force its size. This is why not only Simons' support team (Greenleaf) but also Meadow's (Blueboy) and Sydnor's (Redwine) were able to kill or wound all those whom they engaged with such effectiveness.

“We'd been warned while training at Eglin Air Force base in Florida that such a mistake was possible…I wasn't paying attention to the final checkpoints as I made our approach. I wasn't looking for the road, or the river (Song Con), Which was supposed to be right outside the prison. When I saw the outline of the structure, that's what I headed for.”

LTC. Warner Britton (ret.)-At The Hurricane's Eye

The former secondary school located less than 500 meters from the Son Tay prison had long ceased to provide civilian education. Intelligence reports showed it, as well as other facilities in the immediate area, had been turned in to military complexes, or logistic centres. According to an exhaustive report (“The Role of the Air Force in Assault on the POW Camp at Son Tay, 1978”) done for the Air Force Academy by Alfred Montrem, Walter Britton's co-pilot during the reinforced school-cum-military barracks resembled the POW camp. So closely did the two appear in general nature only a two-story building at the barracks could be used as a discriminator as the prison camp had no such structure.

Manor's report on the operation never refers to this installation as a school, or as “the secondary school”. It calls the site what it was at the time, a “military complex 400 meters south (to the right of the inbound course) of the objective…” Then Major Montrem told this writer in his first public interview in 1992 that he remembered “seeing strange radio or television antennae” atop the two story pagoda like structure inside the complex's walled compound during his aircraft's multiple flights over it during the raid. Although Ken Conboy's article included an NVA photo said to have been taken of the complex the “day after the raid”, only one shattered building is depicted with the admonition that this single structure represented the former school. Copious aerial photographs combined with intelligence reports and the American led recon team's own confirmation of the complex's layout and true nature (not to mention debriefings of Simons and his 22 raiders) decry this unfortunate reporting error.

Note: In studying this photo I noted all the windows have bars on them…much like a prison. Comparing the building shown in the photo with line drawings done of the buildings/cells found at the POW camp, it is most likely this structure existed at the prison, not the “secondary school”. Unless-of course-the NVA found it necessary to keep their secondary students behind bars. Also noted are the many trees surrounding the building shown. Again, line drawings made from an SR-71 and drone overflights show the prison area to be alive with trees, arranging from 20' to 40' tall were discovered-by Meadows and his assault team- to be closer to twice this.

The Sunday Tampa Tribune (1st June 1997) carried the story of Son Tay revisited b retired Air Force officer Norm Bild. Bild, who met Meadows while attending military classes at Hurlburt Field, Florida, made two rips to Vietnam in 1995. While the first was confined to the south Bild did manage to go to what was North Vietnam the second time around.

He and his interpreter visited the village at Son Tay and spoke with people who knew of the fight. A 21-year old Vietnamese agreed to take the two visitors to the old prison site where Bild took several photos and recovered a bit of prison barbed wire. Police arrived and detained the two, releasing them only after Captain Bild (ret.) signed a statement promising never to come back. A $20 fine was paid, making Norm Bild the only known American citizen to recently visit and photograph what had been Son Tay prison.

Bild mounted one of the photos he took of a prison cellblock along with the strand of wire he'd taken from the camp. This photo is accurate ref. The line drawings used by the raiders to train for their assault on the cellblocks. These items are today part of a memorial plaque commemorating the raid on the POW camp at Son Tay, done in memory of Major Richard “Dick” Meadows.

Why did Simons' team land at the wrong military complex? As explained in General Manor's official after action report as well as this author and Benjamin Schemmer's book on the subject, all helicopter flight crews involved in the actual assault experienced the same initial navigation drift. This error was due to the winds at the time, a factor everyone involved in flight operations was warned might happen. If it did, the under correction would put the airborne raid force on line with the advisor barracks and not the prison.

AS the raid unfolded the lead helo (Apple Three) pilot increased his air speed to 120 knots, somewhat adjusting his direction once released by the MC-130 Combat Talon (Cherry One) which was their pathfinder in to North Vietnam. Although Major Frederick M. Donohue could not yet see the objective he dropped the formation's altitude to 50' above the earth and headed in toward what he believed was the prison.

Apple Two was piloted by LTC John V. Allison, whose crew was carrying Captain Elliot Sydnor's twenty-one man commando/security team. Code named Redwine, Sydnor and his men were to secure the southern portion of the camp as Simons' Greenleaf team took the northern sector of the prison. Dick Meadows, whose aircraft was code named Banana, was to crash-land in side the compound roughly twenty feet from where the POW's were being held. It would be Blueboy who would blow an opening at the southern end of the prison's east wall. This breech would be where the POWs and the assaulters would exit. To accomplish the task Blueboy would rely upon a special three-pound C-4 charge.

Banana's wreckage was to be further demolished using a three-pound mixture of C-4 and thermite. This charge was constructed in a thirty-inch length of four inches fire hose. It was to be placed under the floor in the bilge sump between the fore and aft fuel tanks.

All the attacking teams were cross-trained in each other's assigned missions in case one or the other was unable to participate. In this case, Redwine assumed Greenleaf's taskings once it was established Simons was not yet in position at the prison due to Britton's error in landing him nearly half a klick off.

Again, according to Alfred Montrem, this error came about because Britton had not participated in any of the Eglin AFB flight training, assigned as he was to the command group. Vowing to fly the mission regardless, Walter Britton possessed only 30 hours in an HH-53. Major Montrem, on the other hand, had over 1,000 and had participated fully in the Florida train-up phase. The night Bull Simons was to land at the prison compound in support of Dick Meadows would be the first time Walt Britton flew an HH-53 in to combat!

As the assault unfolded both Donahue's and Meadow's helos flew over the secondary complex. Although Apple Three declined to fire the base up at the last possible second, Banana's assault team did so with relish. It is important to note during the train up phase every consideration regarding combat effectiveness was taken in to account. This also included where to place selected weapons systems in the aircraft to undertake specific targets with the most possible rounds on target with the time window available. The goal of this type of planning and training was to engage and destroy enormous number of targets both accurately and in the shortest time possible.

The secondary compound was long identified as a military–not civilian–installation. It was further known this compound housed both NVA and foreign advisors, specifically Chinese troops. It was understood this adviser element represented both air defence and special operations personnel, whom the NVA guard and support force were responsible for protecting/servicing. Overall, it was projected in light of both ground and aerial intelligence estimates that no less than a company size element (60-90) would be found at this compound. The ability of this force to respond immediately to the POW camp by either foot or vehicle could be counted in single digit minutes. The compound was originally one of those targets assigned to a sortie of A-1 Skyraiders whose role it was to fly close air support for the raiders.

With this in mind, how did Simons and his force indeed wound and/or kill what has been estimated to be close to 200 enemy soldiers during Greenleaf's nine harrowing minutes on the ground? For the first time we now know the answer.

When did Dick Meadow's assault team fired up the compound it did so under the following circumstances. During the train-up phase, intense attention was given as to how to utilize the helicopter platforms' firepower to its best advantage. Per the official after action report on this subject “A need was recognized for additional skills in firing machine guns and shoulder weapons from the assault helicopter in flight during its landing phase.”

The HH-53 platform was chosen over the UH-1H for a number of reasons. One of these had to do with accurate, sustained firepower. “During the test many changes were made in individual firing positions in order to arrive at a system that would allow maximum number of rounds placed on the high threat areas (the gate and NW tower). With this consideration in mind, left handed shooters were placed in position to give greater accuracy and longer engagement period.”

The report says, further that “The HH-53 helicopter allowed on 7.62mm machine gun mounted in the left front window and ten shoulder fired weapons positioned in the windows, right door front door and on the ramp to be fired. This system provided excellent accuracy and 360 degree target coverage.”

What this did was permit the assault team to deliver a minimum of 100 rounds of M60 fire on to the target, as well as three 30 round magazine per man of 5.56mm ammunition during the final landing phase. With over 1000 rounds of highly accurate fire striking anyone or thing unfortunate to be caught sleeping, the initial body count would be impressive. This is exactly what occurred when Banana's well-trained team/crew opened up on the interior of the secondary compound's inhabitants.

Watching the compound and not Meadow's helo, Walter Britton failed to follow the rest of the flight as it made its way over to the POW compound, the navigation error corrected by Apple Three's pilot and noted by Banana's crew. At H+1 minute Britton dropped the ramp of his helo and Greenleaf exited. Almost immediately a half dressed, dazed NVA guard ran in to Simons, who shot him dead with a .357 revolver.

The Headquarters element was exposed to “automatic weapons fire” and elected to penetrate and assault the compound. From the intelligence up dates received Greenleaf's personnel knew who, what, and about how many bad guys they had inside. They also knew the element of surprise was lost at the POW compound due to the assault team's inadvertent firing up of the wrong camp. Once inside, the assaulters cleared “the billet at the southern end of the compound utilizing concussion and fragmentation grenades and rifle fire accounting for ten NVA soldiers killed.”

The fire team elements were advised by Simons that extraction and reinsertion was imminent. By H+2 minutes the compound had been penetrated and the fight was on. At H+3 minutes Element 1 secured the landing zone and provided protective fire to south and west. Element 2 was taking automatic weapons fire as soon as their boots hit the dirt, so it moved in an easterly direction, taking enemy troops located on the road east of the compound under fire.

From H+2 to H+5 minutes the Headquarters Element continued to fight its way through the compound's southern billets. According to the report, “More enemy personnel than expected were encountered and a large volume of automatic weapons fire was coming from the two-story building located in the centre of the compound.” A gunner from Element 1 detached himself and placed accurate M79 grenade fire on to this threat, knocking it out so that by H+3 minutes…this billet was secured.”

With the two-story building, later confirmed to be the compound's armoury, cleared, Element 1 now came under fire from the western edge of the camp. This time an M60 machine gun was brought up to silence the opposition. Element 2 began moving down the road outside the compound, killing and clearing armed opposition on both flanks in a northerly direction for roughly 150 meters. Due to the fury of the fight, the fury of the fight, the distance involved and the darkness, no enemy confirmed kills could be judged over the course of the fire fight.

Simons directed this element's leader to “close and secure the south-east portion of the extraction LZ”, and at H+4 minutes the element began this movement.

With only 26 minutes available to the raiding force Bull Simons later said he was only concerned his people would miss out on the main assault at the POW compound. At H+5 minutes the Headquarters Element was just finishing its engagement of more enemy personnel than expected by clearing the southern end of the two adjacent billets “with fragmentation grenades”. Four NVA soldiers made a break for the already silenced armoury and were gunned down as they left the short-term safety of the eastern billet they'd been fighting from.

At roughly H+6 minutes Simons directed all elements of Greenleaf to fight their way to the extraction point. With 60 seconds the Support Group Leader (Simons) had a full accounting of his people at the LZ, which had been marked using strobe lights. At this point Element 1 secured the LZ and “placed suppressive fire on the western portion of the compound” where apparently Greenleaf was still taking incoming fire. Element 2 closed off the LZ from the south and at H+9 minutes Simons called for his helo.

“We heard 'Widroot' (Simons' call sign for the raid) request extraction,” Montrem remembered during his interview with this author. “We needed a flare to guide in on, and after asking for one, both Britton and I saw a strobe light activated almost exactly where we'd originally landed.” On the audio tape made of the raid's radio transmissions, Simons can be heard asking the flight crew if they “need a map?” to find him once the extraction was called for.

Again, Al Montrem. “We just flew in and picked them up, shuttling them over to Son Tay and dropping them off outside the was.” After this second combat insertion in less than 10 minutes, Apple 1 headed for its holding area to await recall from Simons. By now Meadows with his Blueboy team had accomplished its assigned tasks inside the POW camp, and “Bud” Sydnor's Redwine team was successfully handling Greenleaf's mission upon being so notified to take up the slack as Simons fought his way in to-and out of-the secondary compound.

Sydnor's people also dropped the bridge over the Son Cong River as a convoy of NVA troops was crossing it to reinforce two of their military installations now under attack. As all of this was taking place, the A-1s were called in and began hitting targets all around the POW camp. This included the small footbridge between the adviser and POW compounds, as well as the secondary camp itself. This mission was called in by Simons himself as Greenleaf was finally being landed at the correct objective.

In conjunction with Dick Meadows' own airborne assault element and a sortie of A-1s, Simons and his men indeed engaged and killed an impressive number of enemy personnel both in and around the secondary camp. An exact body count would never be possible as there was no one other than the North Vietnamese left to sort through the pieces once the raiders departed. Certainly the NVA would never release any record of its casualties given the huge loss of face they suffered. Such a body count would have to include all those personnel killed at both camps, as well as those on the roads and manning Son Tay's air defence systems.

Further, the North Vietnamese never admitted to the presence of foreign advisors, especially the Chinese. To publicly admit a number of such “visitors” had been blown away in the most daring raid of the war would have compromised the North's policy of “plausible denial” while jeopardizing such personnel being speedily replaced under either clandestine or cover agreements. According to the Captain Udo Walther, Simons' executive officer for Greenleaf, “It wasn't a secret that there were Chinese there (at Son Tay), and it wasn't a secret that there were a bunch of them.” Walther stated he took photographs on the scene of dead Chinese and that he informed his debriefers of their presence during the attack. He does not know where his photos went once the film was turned over.

What Walther did keep was a Chinese officer's belt buckle he took off a body at the secondary compound. In 1973, teas billionaire H. Ross Perot would fly all those 70 POWs who'd been held at Son Tay to San Francisco for a reunion with the raiders. Walther's war trophy would be give to Perot “on loan” for display purposes.

“No public statements regarding this operation are permitted even after its completion unless by CTF-77 IAW directives received from higher authority…press and other visits to units involved in this operation are to be discouraged…Upon termination of this operation, this OPORD will be destroyed….”.

Commander-Joint Contingency Task Group, JCS

Thankfully, the above did not occur and the triumphs and lessons learned from Operation IVORY COAST were not lost. True, no U.S. POWs were recovered that night in November, but it was accepted prior to mission launch that reports of their being moved might indeed be correct. “I felt we owed whoever might have been there the effort,” General Don Blackburn has recounted for the record. “I knew we could get in without being detected (courtesy of CCN's unauthorized, unreported ground recon of the area 72 hours prior?). I believe there would be no casualties on our side because of the level of training and the calibre of men involved. Plus, there was the additional impact of letting the North Vietnamese know we could mount such an operation. Until then, it had been their pattern to do what ever they please inside South Vietnam while we just stood by.”

At 23.18 hours on a dark night in November 1970, that all changed and history was made.

Read Son Tay - A Story of Success (Part 1)

This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.

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