Operation Kingpin: The U.S. Army Raid on Son Tay, 21 November 1970 Part I

Raiders exit a deliberately crashed helicopter at the Son Tay prison camp in North Vietnam. Painting: Mikhail Nikiporenko/USAF


In 1968, 356 American prisoners of war (POWs) were being held in camps north of the Demilitarized Zone in the Republic of North Vietnam. One of these facilities was Camp Hope, located near the Son Tay citadel, just twenty-three miles northwest of Hanoi. It had been activated on 24 May 1968, and over the course of the next several months fifty-five American POWs were moved into the small compound. After U.S. intelligence sources located the camp, the Interagency Prisoner of War Intelligence Committee (IPWIC), headed by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), began to focus its reconnaissance efforts to determine whether American POWs were being held at Son Tay.

In May 1970, the U.S. Air Force’s 1127th Special Activity Squadron (Headquarters Command) received aerial reconnaissance photos taken of Son Tay that showed a coded message “spelled out” by the prisoners indicating the number of personnel interned and the location of a possible pickup site eight miles to the northeast at Mount Ba Vi. (The 1127th believed that the work parties from Son Tay were being sent to Mount Ba Vi to chop wood either for the kitchen fires or for camp construction projects.) The 1127th provided the information to Brig. Gen. James Allen, the deputy director of plans and policy under the deputy chief of staff for plans and Operations, Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, who commissioned a preliminary study of rescue possibilities and presented the findings to Brig. Gen. Donald Blackburn, the special assistant for counterinsurgency and special activities (SACSA), Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Blackburn immediately asked the DIA to conduct a photo reconnaissance mission of both Son Tay and another suspected POW camp called Ap Lo. On 2 June, DIA provided Blackburn with SR-71 photos that confirmed the presence of “someone” in both camps. Three days later Blackburn briefed the JCS and recommended an in-depth feasibility study be conducted with options provided to the JCS by 30 June. He later recalled, “The JCS wanted more detail before they would make a determination of whether we should go on with this thing or before they would agree to a joint task force to be set up to plan this operation.”

JCS approved the study, and on 10 June SACSA convened a twelve-man study group from all three services and DIA. But Blackburn realized it would be difficult to get a mission approved. “I knew from the start that we would be singing to a reluctant choir. My inhibitions stemmed from my days as Chief SOG in Viet Nam … There was an off-and-on policy at the time about bombing in the north, and they did not want to rock the boat by these ground operations.”

The initial concept-of-operations brief to the Joint Chiefs was delayed from 30 June until 10 July, at which time Col. Norman Frisbie, USAF, the senior member of the preliminary study group, told the JCS that a rescue effort was feasible, and he presented an expanded concept of the operation. Initially, Blackburn and his staff considered inserting a controlled American source (CAS) agent (Vietnamese recruited by SOG) into the vicinity of Son Tay. The agent would verify the presence of POWs and call in a helicopter-borne rescue force that would be prepositioned on the Laotian border. This concept was discarded because of fears that prepositioning forces in Laos would alert the North Vietnamese and compromise the mission. Consequently, the planning group recommended that a combined fixed-wing and rotary-wing air element (two C-130Es, five HH-53s, one HH-3, and five A-1Es) be launched from Thailand to insert and support a Special Forces ground-assault force that would rescue the POWs. The navy would provide a massive three-carrier air strike into North Vietnam as a deception to focus enemy air defenses and radars away from the inbound rescue force. The JCS approved the concept and directed commencement of detailed planning and training.

On 8 August, a joint contingency task group (JCGF) was formed under the JCS with SACSA as the office with primary responsibility. Brig. Gen. Leroy J. Manor, USAF, commander of the Special Operations Force at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was designated as the commander, and Col. Arthur D. Simons, USA, J4, XVIII Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was assigned as the deputy. Admiral Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Manor, “You have the authority to put together a task force and train that task force.” Manor was pleased with the clear direction and support. He said later, “We had practically a blank check when we left there to go ahead with this. We had the authority we needed to get whatever resources we needed personnel-wise or equipment-wise or whatever. All the resources that were available in the military were ours to put this together. It is the only time in my 36 years of active duty that somebody gave me a job, simply stated, and the resources with which to do it, and let me go do it!”

Immediately upon establishment of the JCT, Colonel Simons returned to Fort Bragg and requested volunteers for a classified mission involving considerable travel and risk. Over five hundred men from the John F. Kennedy Center for Special Warfare showed up for the initial meeting. Some men, not knowing the nature of the operation, elected not to return for a follow-on screening. Each of those men who did return was personally interviewed by Colonel Simons, Lt. Col. Joseph Cataldo, a Special Forces medical officer, and two sergeants major. Eventually 120 men were chosen as the nucleus for the army component of the Son Tay force. “Every one of these people had been to Viet Nam. Some of them had had two or three tours in Viet Nam.”

At the same time, the air force crews were being selected from personnel assigned to the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Training Center at Eglin. This squadron possessed the only stateside heavy-lift, air-refuelable H-3 and HH-53 helicopters. Some HH-53 crews from the 40th Air Rescue Squadron and the 703d Special Operations Squadron were even returned to Florida from Southeast Asia to participate in the operation. Additionally, the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Florida, and the 56th Special Operations Squadron in Thailand supplied pilots and co-pilots. According to Col. John Allison, “All of the foregoing crew members volunteered, and after being interviewed by General Manor or Lieutenant Colonel Warner Britton, were selected to participate on the mission. Colonel Britton was the Air Force representative who participated in the feasibility study and was pilot of Apple 1 on the mission.”

Once chosen, all the men were taken to Duke Field at Eglin to begin training. Eglin was chosen as the training site because it had all the necessary resources and provided the isolation required to maintain security. The training began on 20 August and terminated on 8 November 1970. During the interim, the air and ground planning staffs assumed the joint planning function. Regularly scheduled joint meetings were held to plan the logistic and training activities. In Washington, intelligence agencies continued to gather extensive information on Son Tay. “Both SR-71 and drone (low altitude) resources were programmed to obtain aerial photography of the objective, the surrounding area, and the tentative route.”

Operational security was considered essential to the success of the mission. The Security Staff Section was established on 11 August 1970 and given the responsibility of maintaining security and counterintelligence for the project. Work areas were surveyed, visitor control was established, classified material control was instituted within the work space, and all messages leaving the command were screened by the Security Staff. All the personnel involved in the planning, support, or execution of the raid had their phones monitored. Brigadier General Manor received a daily report detailing the highlights of possible violations. Additionally, a cover and deception plan was developed for the training and deployment phase and a counterintelligence plan to provide specialized assistance in gathering information on possible organized threats to the mission.

As training progressed, Brigadier General Manor and Colonel Simons frequently traveled to Washington to assist the SACSA planning cell and brief the necessary senior officials. Manor recalled that on 8 September

Simons, Don Blackburn, and myself had an appointment to brief the chiefs and I was the briefer, the commander of the task force. I pointed out to the chiefs that we had determined that this [the Son Tay raid] is feasible. It can be done. This is how we plan to do it and I outlined the concept. We will be ready to do this on the 21st of October.8 Admiral Moorer [Chairman of the JCS] said, “We could approve it here, but of course, it has to go to a higher level for [final] approval. You will have to brief the secretary of defense.” Secretary of defense was Mr. Melvin Laird. We weren’t able to schedule a briefing before him until the 24th of September. And at the same time, we briefed the Director of CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] [Richard Helms]. Apparently he had been briefed before … They were rather noncommittal, although Secretary Laird said that he agreed with the concept and he agreed that it was feasible, and we would have to wait for higher authority. We knew, of course, that it would have to go to the White House. But it wasn’t until the 8th of October that we had an opportunity to brief the White House. Then we briefed Dr. Kissinger and General A1 Haig. A1 Haig, then, was the military assistant to Kissinger. The briefing was well received there. No changes made in concept. They didn’t have any problems with how we planned to do this, and they had confidence we could do it.

Kissinger told Manor that the mission might have to be delayed from 21 October to 21 November. Unbeknownst to Manor, President Nixon was working to gain the release of POWs through diplomatic means, and he was concerned that a raid could compromise those initiatives. Kissinger authorized Manor to continue training. On 1 November, Admiral Moorer authorized Manor to conduct in-the-ater coordination. Prior to this time no one beyond CINCPAC (commander in chief, Pacific) (Admiral McCain) was aware of the proposed operation. Blackburn, Manor, and Simons flew to Saigon and briefed General Creighton Abrams (commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) and General Lucius Clay (commanding general, Seventh Air Force). Both generals wholeheartedly supported the mission and offered “any resources” under their control.

Upon completing the brief in Saigon, Blackburn flew back to Washington, and Manor and Simons flew to the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany and briefed VAdm. Fred Bardshar (commander, Task Force [CTF] 77), Capt. Alan Hill (CTF 77 operations officer), and Comdr. P. D. Hoskins (CTF 77 intelligence officer). From these briefings the navy developed a three-carrier diversionary strike into North Vietnam designed to divert attention away from the inbound helicopter raid force. Bardshar was directed not to inform his immediate superior, Admiral Weisner (commander, Seventh Fleet). “I [Manor] later worked for Admiral Weisner, and he would occasionally bring this up to me—in a good natured way—that I had gone around him to get his force to do something.”

On 10 November, the raid force with its logistic support departed Eglin, and it arrived at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) on 14 November 1970. Additional C-141s departed on the tenth and twelfth, arriving as scheduled on the sixteenth. On the morning of 18 November, Moorer briefed Nixon on the Son Tay raid. Also present were Kissinger, Laird, Helms, Secretary of State William Rogers, and Haig. Later that afternoon the raid was approved.


Camp Hope, located near the Son Tay citadel, was activated on 24 May 1968. Three contingents of American POWs were brought into the camp, the first group on 24 May, the second on 18 July, and the third on 27 November 1968. After confirming the existence of personnel in the camp (June 1970), the U.S. intelligence community began extensive coverage of the compound and surrounding area. Photo intelligence during the planning phase of Son Tay consisted of coordinating the reconnaissance, photo interpretation, and target material production. All photography came from either SR-71 overflights or Teledyne Ryan’s Buffalo Hunter reconnaissance drones and was orchestrated through the DIA. Both Camp Hope and the nearby camp Ap Lo were entered as national intelligence requirements and a priority drone coverage effort from Strategic Air Command (SAC) was requested.

In September 1970, seven drone tracks were drawn up by the Son Tay planners to ensure full coverage of both the camp and surrounding areas. This allowed the planners to identify helicopter landing zones (LZs), infiltration and exfiltration routes, and airborne staging areas, and to develop detailed intelligence on the POW camp itself. From these photos a scale model of the POW camp was produced by the CIA for use by the planners and operators. (The model was codenamed Barbara and now resides in the aviation museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.)

Camp Hope, designated Son Tay Prisoner of War Camp N-69, was located at 21 degrees, 08 minutes, and 36 seconds north and 105 degrees, 30 minutes, and 01 second east. It was bordered on the west by the Song Con River which flowed south to north and bent slightly to the east three hundred feet from the camp. The river was about forty feet wide and fordable by foot troops in the dry season. There was a sixty-foot, single-lane, three-span bridge to the north that became a gravel road to the east of the compound. The road was bordered by power lines and air-raid pits. A small canal bordered the compound in the south. The entire area, from the bridge to the canal, including the compound and surrounding buildings, was no larger than three football fields laid side to side.

The compound itself was approximately 140 feet wide by 185 feet long north to south. Its walls were 6- to 12-inch-thick masonry and between 7-1/2 and 10 feet high. There was concertina wire on the south wall. Entrance into the compound was either by a vehicle access gate on the east wall or a smaller access gate on the south wall. Inside there were five main buildings, three guard towers, and two latrines. On the north end of the compound were two smaller buildings. The building on the west wall (5C) was surrounded by concertina wire and considered to be a maximum detention cell. The other building, located against the north wall, contained holding cells (5D). The large adjoining buildings in the center of the compound also contained holding cells (5A and 5B), and the large single building housed the guard relief and interrogation cells (5E).

Son Tay Prisoner of War Camp and the Movements of the Assault (Meadows), Command (Sydnor), and Support (Simons) Groups. From JCS

Outside the compound were several structures that supported the guard force including: guard quarters (7B), kitchen and guard mess (11, 12), administration building (7A), family housing (13 A, B, C, and D, E [not shown]), and numerous support buildings (8A-F). The nighttime guard force was estimated to be one guard per watch-tower and a minimum of two guards in the compound with possible relief personnel in 5E. The outside force could number up to two platoons, located primarily in the guard quarters in 7B. Although they were probably not manned, automatic-weapon positions were stationed around the camp at the south, east, and north ends.

Located approximately four hundred meters south of the Son Tay POW camp was another facility originally designated as the Son Tay secondary school. This facility was later presumed to be the headquarters for a missile battery and was reclassified as a military installation after the support element mistakenly landed by the compound and was engaged by enemy forces. The installation was similar in size and construction to the Son Tay compound. It had a masonry wall surrounding the outside. A canal resembling the Song Con River ran north of the facility, and a gravel road bordered the compound on the east side. Inside the walls were at least four buildings, three one-story barracks and a two-story headquarters facility. (According to Col. Elliot Sydnor it was never actually determined how these buildings were used.) Very little intelligence was gathered on the installation prior to the mission because it was not part of the objective area. Based on photo interpretation of the Son Tay compound and surrounding area, intelligence experts estimated that a total of fifty-five personnel might be held prisoner at Camp Hope. (Colonel Richard A. Dutton, USAF [Ret.], a former Son Tay POW, stated that on 27 November 1968 there were a total of fifty-two prisoners.) A physical profile of the average Son Tay POW was developed by Dr. Cataldo based on World War II and Korean War data. Estimates of body weight, disease, and psychological state were made. It was determined that most of the POWs would have lost 20 percent of their body weight and been inflicted with either malaria, intestinal parasites, goiter, malnutrition, peripheral neuritis, active dysentery, or tuberculosis. A psychological profile based on interrogations of returning POWs was prepared for POW-handling purposes. The profile was as follows:

Overhead View of the “Secondary School” Showing the Movements of the Support Group. From JCS

The POW has heard very little noise, has had very little physical exercise and lives in dimly lit rooms. He has two meals a day, usually consisting of cabbage soup plus bread or rice. Fish and pumpkin occasionally supplement the diet with less than two ounces of meat per week. Sometimes a banana or some other fruit is provided. Flour and sugar cookies are rarely given to the POW. Restriction of total protein intake plus physical inactivity will cause marked muscular atrophy plus a slow reaction to stimuli. A few POWs will maintain a strong hope for liberation, and some will have given up hope, but the majority are probably unsure and live day to day driven only by a natural desire to survive. Therefore, for the most, the sudden realization that “liberation is here” will be shocking.