Son Tay Raiders share memories with Air Commandos

(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Shelby Kay-Fantozzi)

(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Shelby Kay-Fantozzi)

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Editor's Note: This article is the third in a series examining Air Force Special Operations Command’s role in the Son Tay Raid, one of the most complex and dangerous missions in the Vietnam War.

Cannon Air Force Base honored nine Son Tay Raiders in a series of events here Friday focusing on the link between the 1970 prisoner of war rescue attempt and the modern operations of Cannon’s Air Commandos.

The base tour, discussion panel, luncheon, formal ceremony and social were products of months of planning by the Company Grade Officers’ Council under the leadership of 318th Special Operations Squadron pilot Capt. Rob Wilson, with each event providing Air Commandos an opportunity to interact directly with the Raiders and hear their personal accounts of their experiences.

“There are several pivotal missions in the history of Air Force Special Operations Command,” said Col. Robert Orris, 27th Special Operations Group deputy commander, in his introduction to the Raiders’ panel discussion. “They combine to establish our rich history and establish what makes each of us an Air Commando.”

Orris took the panel and audience through a brief history of the raid, beginning with the detailed planning and training that set the joint team of Soldiers and Airmen up for success in spite of airtight protection of the mission’s nature.

“Overall command was given to Air Force Brig. Gen. Leroy J. Manor, with Special Forces Col. Arthur “Bull” Simons leading the raid itself,” Orris explained. “While Manor assembled a planning staff and solicited Air Force volunteers, Simons also recruited 103 volunteer Soldiers from the 6th and 7th Special Forces Group.”

As the planning team set in place strategies for the mission, Airmen were hand-picked to serve the Air Force’s piece of the raid.

“I became a raider upon invitation because of my background,” said retired Air Force Col. John Gargus. “In my one year in Vietnam, I was a mission planner for Combat Talons, a navigator, and I had also flown into the area of Son Tay before.”

Gargus’ extensive knowledge of the MC-130E aircraft that would come to be known as Cherry 01 and Cherry 02 and of the unconventional navigation techniques that would lead C-130s and helicopters over mountainous terrain in total darkness made him a key member of the Air Operations Mission Team when they gathered in Florida.

Meanwhile, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Waldron, a captain at the time of the raid, merited an invitation through his experience as an HH-53 Super Jolly Green instructor pilot at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

“I was scheduling pilots to fly, and wondered what so many people were doing flying at night,” Waldron said. “One day my boss called me into his office and said, ‘Shut the door. We’ve got a problem; one of our majors is going blind. I need a substitute. It’s a dangerous mission, I can’t tell you what or where it is. Let me know your decision in the morning.’

“So next thing you know, I’m flying around at night, flying a helicopter full of guys with paint on their faces and guns on their shoulders jumping out of my aircraft, and we’re all starting to wonder: what in the world are we doing here?” Waldron continued.

While pilots practiced flying routes at night and the innovative practice of drafting, 56 Green Berets from the 6th and 7th Special Operations Group practiced ground operations. Divided into three teams, the Blueboy assault group, Greenleaf command group, and Redwine security group moved through a mock-up of the camp nearly 200 times to build muscle memory for the raid.

“The Army and Air Force worked together to create a duplicate of the Son Tay prison,” said retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Ed Britt, who worked in counterintelligence during the raid. “It was a hard job for a lot of support troops. They put it up every evening, took it down every evening, and raked the area clean of footprints and tracks.”

The counterintelligence measures were essential while rehearsals for the raid took place: planners knew that Russian satellites and ships were listening in to radio transmissions during training at Duke Field, Florida., so information was controlled relentlessly.

“We had problems in training when we first started off, with a Russian satellite that flew over us at Duke Field and a Russian trawler out in the Gulf of Mexico that monitored our radio calls and call signs,” Britt said. “We used to joke that they all wanted to join the Mouseketeers, because Intel Airmen were talking about Goofy, Donald Duck, and Mickey Mouse. I think the Russians all learned how to sing, ‘M-I-C, K-E-Y.’ The training was serious, but we did occasionally get to have a sense of humor.”

Retired Army Sgt. Maj. Walt Miller, who served the raid as the radio operator for Army Special Forces Col. Bull Simons, worked with the Air Force and Navy to ensure that codes and frequencies used during the raid would be secure.

“In addition to training to be a radio operator during the raid, I had the job of reporting our progress to ‘The Bull,’” Miller said. “I had to keep him informed on what was taking place because he was spending a lot of time with the planning staff. He was an incredible guy to work for and a truly tough individual.”

Bull Simons was to be outfitted with a bullhorn during the raid in order to direct prisoners to their assigned helicopter. Equally important was the role of retired Army Lt. Col. Jim McClam, who set up the extraction zone and was also responsible for making sure everyone who entered the compound left it safely 27 minutes later.

“I made sure that we had all of the raiders and all of the POWs that we planned on liberating,” McClam said. “I had to make sure we had everyone on a helicopter before the final liftoff. I also had to set up the drop zone, which wound up landing a little bit further away from the compound than we intended to.”

Indeed, on the night of the raid, the Greenleaf command element landed in what Orris described as a “hornet’s nest,” a school in the compound that was full of sleeping enemy troops.

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Robert Nelson, who fought in the Greenleaf element, stated, “We were the element that had the pleasure of making two infiltrations that night. Our first insert was a mistake—we landed in what was known as the school. Fortunately for us, we realized right away that it wasn’t where we were supposed to be.”

When the Greenleaf team finally pushed through the opposition, they met up with the Redwine element, who were already taking care of their security mission outside the prison compound.

“One of their guys, Sergeant Dodd, turned to me and said, ‘Well, where the hell have you guys been?’” Nelson recalled. “We didn’t really have time to discuss it right then and there.”

Retired Army Sgt. Maj. Joe Murray was on the Redwine team that kept the extraction point secure, but like every member in Redwine, he had cross-trained both on the duties of Blueboy and Greenleaf. In pulling security around the landing zone, Murray sustained one of only two injuries to U.S. troops during the raid.

“I happen to be the only one who made the mistake of tangling with a couple of guards, and I was wounded there,” Murray said. “I didn’t notice that I had been shot in the leg until we were already on the helicopter headed out of the camp.”

As the raid took place, Air Force Staff Sgt. and Vietnamese linguist Bruce McClelland listened closely overhead, prepared to gather intelligence on Vietnamese radio transmissions during the raid.

“When we were briefed the night of the mission, we knew something was going on because we had a regular crew, a backup crew, backup aircraft and an Air Force colonel at our briefing,” McClelland said. “They wouldn’t tell us anything except that the mission was special.”

“The Air Force colonel had a great name for a flyer--Col. Frisbee,” McClelland continued. “He got us all plugged in on earphones and said I want you guys to listen for three things: first, the Vietnamese word for POW which is tù binh, any mention of low flying planes or helicopters, and any mention of a town called Son Tay. And we said, ‘Well duh, sounds like we’re going in to rescue POWs.’”

The skies over Vietnam stayed quiet until predawn transmissions indicated that the Vietnamese had caught wind of a diversionary mission by the Navy near Haiphong.

“It wasn’t until the next day that we heard any real mention of the raid, when someone called in an after-action report from the camp to Hanoi,” McClelland said. “We cut crew rest short and bumped other people so that we could continue to monitor transmissions and type up the reports ourselves.”

The aftermath of the raid was difficult for many participants; on top of the criticism that plagued many Vietnam War veterans, each raider had to reckon with the fact that all of their hard work had led them to a camp that was utterly devoid of American prisoners.

“It was really sad,” Waldron said. “Everything went according to plan, we got in, got out, but we knew that we were leaving prisoners behind somewhere in Vietnam,” Waldron said. “Everybody was completely silent on the way back to Thailand. You could’ve heard a pin drop in the back of any of the helicopters.”

It wasn’t until three years later that many raiders found redemption at a Vietnam Prisoner of War gathering in San Francisco.

“We finally met those prisoners and they were very grateful,” Waldron said. “After we attempted to rescue them, they all got moved down to the Hanoi Hilton. All of a sudden, they had roommates and a command structure instead of being stuck in solitary confinement. It helped them survive.”

In that capacity, and in the flawless execution of the joint, unconventional plan for the raid, Son Tay was regarded as a success: for their actions during the raid, the members of the task force were awarded six Distinguished Service Crosses, five Air Force Crosses, and 83 Silver Stars.

Though many Air Commandos described themselves as honored to meet the decorated veterans of the raid on its 45th anniversary, the raiders expressed their own gratitude to all of the Airmen they engaged with during their visit to Cannon.

“Everything that we have learned in that mission has progressed with you all to an art form,” Nelson said. “It’s way above where we had to start out. We’re really grateful that there are still people around who are willing to lay it all on the line and do what’s right to get rid of our enemies.”