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Page 9(The Son Tay Raid)previous pageNext Page


Selection of a camp was no simple matter. The camp would have to be accessible by air assault, contain POWs, and be located in an area that would entail the least risk to the raiding force yet provide the greatest amount of surprise, all within the range and capability of the mission assets and personnel (see Appendix C). With the aid of in-theater and national assets, several camps stood out as possible targets. These camps had been under previous surveillance based on signs of POW activity. Following rigorous evaluation of the camps most closely adhering to the above criteria, Manor and Simons settled on Son Tay with the selection known only to them and the Washington planners/decision makers. The decision on Son Tay was by no means an easy task. A few details about Son Tay highlight the difficulty of this decision. The camp was located 23 miles west of Hanoi, multiple air defense batteries were located in the area, an estimated 12,000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops were dispersed within 5 miles of the camp, an estimated 70 POWs were currently held there, and a one way trip from the departure base at Udorn Thailand to Son Tay was approximately 240 nautical miles. Finally, if the above facts concerning the Son Tay area were not enough to cast doubts about a successful operation, the entire mission would be conducted at night. Additionally, a massive deception plan was employed which was designed to draw North Vietnam's radars away from the Son Tay area. The deception plan fit perfectly into overall mission execution. This deception was very plausible due to an earlier shootdown of an unarmed reconnaissance flight over North Vietnam. This shootdown violated an "agreement" (more of an unwritten understanding) made with the Johnson Administration which allowed U.S. overflights for reconnaissance collection. In return, the U.S. would stop bombing North Vietnam. Additionally, North Vietnam would not shell any major population centers in the South and refrain from using the established Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) for Southern infiltration.

The raid commanders knew that for the mission to be successful several months of intense, realistic training were required. Therefore, commencing in early August 1970, the raid force began its training on a mock up of the prison with all training occurring at night. During the day, the reconstructed camp (known as "Barbara") was "rolled up" to ensure that detection from Soviet "systems" would not occur. As the raiders continued to train, all raid force members improved their skills. After nearly two months of preparation, Laird personally received a briefing from Manor and Simons on 24 September 1970 whose conclusion was that, based on training to date, the mission could be executed successfully. During the first week of October, the White House received a briefing on the status of the raid force. The National Security Advisor, Dr. Henry Kissinger, and selected members of his staff, to include General Al Haig, were present at the briefings given by Manor and Simons. All were extremely receptive to the plan. Manor also wanted immediate approval of the mission in order to execute the raid by 21 October. Kissinger advised Manor that the President was not available (Nixon was out of the country attending a conference and it is unclear why Kissinger could not reach him) for such an approval but he would be available to approve an approximate mission date of 21 November. The 21st of October and November were the two established windows of opportunity, based primarily on the illumination of a full moon. October 21 was desirable because the raiders were ready and the time delay associated with the second window could compromise the security of the mission. Since Kissinger could not or would not brief the President in time for the October date, 21 November became the approximate target date for the mission. On the positive side, the extra 30 days would allow for additional training and intelligence collection, although the possibility of a breach of security weighed heavily on Manor and Simons.

The CIA, DIA, and the National Security Agency (NSA) continued to receive surveillance reports from Son Tay and the surrounding area. Since there was no established inter-agency collection plan and no specific agency tasked to coordinate and provide intelligence information

to the raid force, information was delivered directly to the raid commanders as each agency collected from its own sources. Needless to say, information requests and resulting data were duplicated and at times led to confusion during planning and training. However, since General Bennett (Director of DIA) was a member of the Pentagon planning/decision team, all information collected was "funneled" through the DIA. Nonetheless, surveillance to date had shown "activity" in the area of the camp and even as late as July had shown that the Song Con River, just north of the camp, had flooded and water was only several feet from the walls of the prison (an interesting point reviewed in a later footnote). Additionally, recent collection was a bit spotty because of poor weather conditions and the detection and shootdown of reconnaissance drones scheduled to overfly the area. However, what was collected still indicated POW "activity" at Son Tay.

In order for the mission to have the greatest chance of success, strict adherence to the established timeline was critical. Deployment to Thailand began on 12 November and by 17 November all raiders were assembled at Udorn Air Base. The following day, Nixon approved the mission and released the "Red Rocket" message authorizing Manor to execute as planned. Thus Operation Kingpin, the last phase of the raid was activated and takeoff of the raid force was set for 2300 hours, 20 November 1970. However, it seems that when good news arrives, bad news is usually not too far behind. This mission was not to be the exception. As previously discussed, on 18 November, information received from a Hanoi source indicated that Son Tay was not currently occupied by POWs. Attempts to confirm or deny this information met with little success. Apparently the information had come too late to have any impact on reversing the execution order. By now, all personnel involved in the raid, to include the political leadership, were "leaning well forward" into the mission. However, for unclear reasons (some speculate operational security and an established communications "black-out" to the raid force), the raiders were not informed about the most recent development. Apparently, everyone in the raiding force chain-of-command knew about the possibility of no POWs at Son Tay except for the raid force and its leaders. According to one of the raid force pilots, Marty Donohue, Colonel USAF (Ret.), this belief was highlighted by the "official" mission patch created after the raid. The patch contains a caricature of a mushroom and at the bottom of the patch are the letters KITD/FOHS: "Kept In The Dark, Feed Only Horse S___!" The decision to continue was quite difficult because the information passed from the Hanoi source identified other "active" POW camps where the former Son Tay POWs were possibly being held (Later verification placed the Son Tay POWs at Dong Hoi, also known as Camp Faith, located 10 miles west of Hanoi).



Page 9(The Son Tay Raid)previous pageNext Page



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THESE ARE ARCHIVED PAGES OF THE OLD EHISTORY SITE
These pages are not actively maintained and may have errors in content and functionality