- As the Vietnam War raged 50 years ago, a US special-operations task force attempted a daring prisoner rescue at a camp right next to Hanoi, the North Vietnamese capital.
- Operation Ivory Coast, as the raid on Son Tay prison was known, didn’t free any US POWs, but it did have a profound effect on how US special operations were conducted.
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By 1970, US intelligence knew that there were 450 American POWs in North Vietnam, several of who were dying of starvation, torture, or illness.
The Pentagon decided to rescue some of them.
So, 50 years ago, a US special-operations task force attempted the unthinkable: a daring prisoner rescue right next to Hanoi, the North Vietnamese capital.
A raid like no other
The main objective of Operation Ivory Coast was to rescue about 50 American POWs from the Son Tay prison.
To do so, the Pentagon assembled a joint special-operations task force, totaling 148 men – Green Berets and Air Commandos – all hand-picked volunteers.
Army Col. Arthur D. “Bull” Simons was the overall ground commander. Simmons was no stranger to prisoner rescues. As a Ranger during World War II, he participated in the successful raid at Cabanatuan, a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines.
The assault force was divided into three groups. “Blueboy,” led by Capt. Dick Meadows, would land within the prison courtyard and rescue the prisoners; “Greenleaf” would land outside and provide fire support and reinforcements if needed; finally, “Redwine” would secure the prison camp’s perimeter and hold off any NVA reinforcements.
The air package, which had to fly the 687-mile route, consisted of one HH-3E Jolly Green Giant and five HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant helicopters to carry the personnel, two MC-130 Combat Talons for navigation, two HC-130 Hercules for air-refueling, five A-1E Skyraiders for close air support, and 10 F-4 Phantoms to ensure air superiority.
In addition, several Navy aircraft would conduct a diversionary raid east of Hanoi before and during the raid.
Using footage from Ryan Model 147 drones and SR-71 Blackbirds, the CIA was able to construct an exact replica of the prison compound at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where the assault force trained.
The replica was so precise that it even included a bicycle that the guards could use to call in reinforcements. Before D-Day, the ground force had done 170 rehearsals, while the aerial force had completed 268 practice sorties in the US, all of them at night.
Because of the mission’s importance, the operators received state-of-the-art gear, including Singlepoint Sights, a sort of night-vision aiming scope, and 30-round magazines for their CAR-15 rifles. They also wore sterile uniforms with no ranks or tabs that would identify them as Americans.
The raid’s organizers feared that their plan might have been compromised. Special-operations teams conducting covert cross-border operations into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam were plagued by intelligence leaks that got many teams compromised or wiped out. (Eventually, a mole who had been passing information to the North Vietnamese was discovered in their Saigon headquarters.)
The plan in case they were compromised was to stick together and dig in on the banks of a nearby river. With enough air support, they could hold off superior NVA forces until an extraction was possible or the assault force was overrun.
“You are to let nothing – nothing – interfere with the operation. Our mission is to rescue prisoners, not to take prisoners,” Simons told his men during the final brief.
The prison’s proximity to Hanoi meant the NVA guards there had thousands of troops to call on for reinforcement.
The task force flew from the US to a CIA compound in Thailand. After a couple of days of rest, they flew to their launching site in Laos. On the night of November 20, the task force launched.
‘We’re here to get you out’
The task force approached the target and caught the NVA completely off guard.
The HH-3E carrying Blueboy crash-landed in the courtyard, and the operators shot out toward the compound.
“We’re Americans. Keep your heads down. This is a rescue. We’re here to get you out. Keep your heads down. Get on the floor. We’ll be in your cells in a minute,” Capt. Dick Meadows, the officer in charge of the force inside the compound, shouted through a bullhorn.
Meanwhile, the HH-53 carrying Greenleaf mixed up the compounds and put the security element into a secondary objective, which was packed with between 100 and 200 Chinese troops, 500 yards away.
After a short but intense firefight, the 22 men of Greenleaf neutralized the Chinese threat, killing hundreds and sustaining no casualties. Simmons himself, the senior man on the ground, killed an NVA guard with his revolver.
Back on the target, Blueboy’s operators had suppressed the NVA guards but found empty cells. Meadows radioed back “negative items,” the code word for a dry hole.
Unfazed, the assault force collapsed its perimeter and reboarded the choppers, taking off for Laos. The operation had taken just 28 minutes.
A successful failure
Although the primary objective of the operation was to save POWs, a secondary goal was to give the prisoners hope and send a message to North Vietnam that the US wouldn’t leave its troops behind. In that, the mission was a success.
“We were absolutely elated when we learned of the raid,” Maj. R.E. Smith, an F-105 pilot who spent time in Son Tay prison before the raid, said after he was repatriated in 1973.
“It was the single most significant event in terms of POW life that happened in North Vietnam. It brought us together. It allowed us to be better organized. It reinforced the belief that the US would go to any length to see that we were returned,” Smith said.
The intelligence failures of the operation led to a reorganization of US intelligence community and set the foundations for the creation of organic intelligence-gathering capabilities within the military.
The raid also had an unintended consequence. The trouble of setting up a task force from scratch made clear the need for a dedicated unit to perform such special missions.
Only a few years later, Col. Charlie Beckwith created Delta Force, in which Dick Meadows was a plank holder. The unit was soon called into to perform a similar operation in Iran, after Iranian revolutionaries took 66 Americans hostage.
The spirit of the Son Tay raiders has lived on for decades in the US special-operations community.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.