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Feature: Smoke and Mirrors at Son Tay

21 May 2005

Ken Conboy

Twenty-seven years have passed since a fleet of U.S. special operations helicopters descended from the night sky in to a prison camp near the North Vietnamese capitol Hanoi.

Though the Son Tay Raiders-named after the town in which the prison was located-found a dry hole, the mission would go down as a notable example of how to conduct a long-distance rescue mission in the face of one of the most sophisticated air defense systems in the world.

As with any special operation, a shroud of secrecy initially surrounded the planning and execution of the mission. Part of that veil was removed with the 1976 publication of Benjamin Schemmer’s The Raid. From this, as well as other books and articles that have appeared since, we know of the months of planning at the Pentagon that went on ahead of the operation, of the intelligence debate as to whether the camp was still occupied, of the commando training that took place in Florida, and of the pre-positioning of forces to Thailand. We also know that during the actual mission, one of the choppers accidentally landed at the wrong location and engaged the target. Miraculously, all U.S. personnel exfiltrated back to Thailand without incurring any losses.

While these facts are undisputed, the Son Tay raid still has its share of associated mysteries. One of these involves an alleged CIA agent operation in the vicinity of the camp. Department of Defense officials, goes the story, uncovered the CIA operation in the “backyard of Son Tay” just three weeks before the raid took place. Furious, General Donald Blackburn, one of the Pentagon’s lead planners, confronted the CIA’s senior liaison officer, George Carver. In the Agency’s defense Carver said that the operation in question involved a “low-key insertion” along the Laotian border near Route 7. This was 100 miles from Son Tay, added Carver, and in no way would jeopardize the raid.

Unsatisfied with Carver’s explanation, Blackburn and other high-ranking Pentagon officers allegedly continued to fret over the CIA operation, the insinuation being that the Agency may well have compromised the security of the raid.

Today, with a quarter-century of hindsight and the testimony of dozens of CIA officers, Air America pilots, and indigenous commandos who have gone on record, we now know that the issues of the Agency’s forays in to North Vietnam is a non-starter. True, there was a series of CIA-sponsored commando raids in to North Vietnam during the course of 1970. However, all of these missions involved Laotian nationals, all were quick strikes lasting a couple of days at most and all were conducted within a couple of kilometres of the Laotian border.

The first of these raids took place in February 1970 and was targeted against Dien Bien Phu, the infamous valley near the Laotian frontier where French paratroopers made their final stand in 1954. Inserted by Air America choppers, the commando team rocketed a North Vietnamese military camp in the valley before being infiltrated back to Laos. This mission a success, the CIA conducted a string of similar strikes-the ones which Carver reported to the Son Tay staff-against North Vietnamese military supplies at the point where Route 7 crosses in to Laos.

A quick glance at the map shows that the Pentagon’s angst was completely unwarranted. The teams were never in the “backyard of Son Tay”. In fact, they were never even in the same neighbourhood. Indeed, for a Lao team along Route 7 to have got near to Son Tay, they would have had to traverse three provinces, much of it covered in rugged karst topography. The team would also have had to navigate North Vietnam’s comprehensive system of population controls, which included travel permits, food vouchers and frequent identification checks by the police.

Of course, the commando teams had no intention of getting near Son Tay in the first place. Their mission was strictly road interdiction, a fact which the North Vietnamese already knew after they captured several commandos earlier that summer.

Presumably, the Pentagon’s brass must have realized for themselves that their pending operation was in no way threatened by the Route 7 commando missions. One can only guess at their motivation for highlighting the point to journalists years after the fact.

Another Son Tay mystery involves the occupants of the camp where one of the choppers accidentally landed. When the raid was being planned, aerial photos showed a walled compound about 400 meters from the prison site. Dubbed the ”Secondary School”, the planners assumed it to be a military position. As both the Secondary School and the prison were physically close and both located along similar bends in a nearby river, the chopper pilots training for the mission were warned not to confuse the two sites.

As it is now well-know, when the mission was finally launched, the lead helicopter pilot made this exact error, confusing the two locations and correcting himself only at the last moment. Unfortunately, the third chopper in the armada, which was supposed to cover the northern end of the prison, proceeded toward the wrong site and unloaded its 22 commandos outside the Secondary School.

In the midst of the nocturnal firefight that ensued, we are expected to believe three things. Fist, that the defenders were all tall Orientals-which by some strange logic is interpreted to mean they were Chinese advisors, not Vietnamese. Second, that the defenders were sleeping in olive drab underwear, which is offered as (ludicrous) corroboration for the fact that they were Chinese rather than Vietnamese. Third, the raiders killed up to 250 of these troops in green skivies-a full Chinese company.

This is not the first time that Chinese advisors have crept in to Vietnam lore. Indeed, stories associated with the Special Operations Group (SOG) are rife with Chinese advisors along the Ho Chi Minh Trail -invariably identified on the shaky premise that they were “taller than Vietnamese”. Of course, this argument falls apart on physiological grounds: a well-fed Vietnamese from the northernmost Vietnam would grow to roughly the same height as a similarly nourished Chinese from across the border.

The presence of Chinese advisors faces an even greater historical hurdle: the Sino-Soviet split. Until 1964, the North Vietnamese army received the bulk of its assistance from China. After 1964, however, Moscow became the primary arms supplier, leaving Beijing quietly fuming. At that time, the communist world was being ripped down the middle between those backing China and those backing Russia. When pressed to join one of the camps, Hanoi initially waffled. By the late 1960’s however, it was apparent that North Vietnam had opted for the Soviets.

While feeling slighted, China continued to send a small number military personnel to North Vietnam. These consisted mainly of anti-aircraft and surface-to-air missile units posted along their common border. The delivery of Chinese military hardware, however, all but came to a stop. In addition, China manufactured difficulties for the transhipment of Soviet military aid across its territory. Given such bad blood between the two communist neighbours, it is unthinkable that the North Vietnamese would have allowed a company-strength garrison of armed Chinese troops forty minutes outside its capital.

Who, then, was occupying the Secondary School? Contemporary Vietnamese accounts, and recent interviews, provide a definitive answer. After flooding forced the evacuation of American prisoners from Son Tay prison prior to the raid, the Secondary School was used as a rest centre for North Vietnamese soldiers recovering from minor injuries. It must also be noted that the school housed far fewer than the inflated casualty figures given after the raid: when reporters visited the site the following morning, only a dozen bodies were evident-and they were wearing olive drab shorts.

One final myth about the Son Tay raid involves a water buffalo that was allegedly found near the prison, bundled aboard a chopper, and flown back to Thailand. Further embellishments of this tale say that the buffalo later became the mascot of the SOG launchsite at Nakhon Phanom.

Much has been said of the precision that went in to the conduct of the raid. Seconds counted, as the raiders did not want to be on North Vietnamese territory any longer than was absolutely necessary. Yet if we are to believe the buffalo story, the commando force, part of which had just engaged the defenders of the Secondary School in a firefight, threw their training to the wind in order to conduct what amounted to a college prank. Moreover, it doesn’t take an expert in animal husbandry to realise even the most proficient commandos would have had their hands full with a water buffalo, baby or otherwise. These beasts grow exponentially, with a mere tike of six months weighing several hundred pounds. We are presumably to believe that the rescue team told the pilot to wait while they teamed together to wrestle the protesting animal on board.

If there was still any doubt left, Major Mike Taylor, who at the time was the Operations Officer for the SOG launchsite at Nakhom hanom, was asked to confirm or refute the water buffalo story. His reply: “too ridiculous to comment”.

Read Son Tay - A Story of Success

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

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