CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
In the cold skies of North Vietnam, a formation of U.S. Air Force aircraft pierces the dark of the night. From the HC-130P Combat King special operations aerial refueling aircraft he commands, Capt. Clyde “Neal” Westbrook, an HC-130P pilot, peers out to his west upon the city of Hanoi as a strange sense of silence engulfs him and his crew.
“Suddenly, we could see the intense light of the magnesium flares as Cherry 1 (the call sign for the MC-130E Combat Talon special operations airlift aircraft in Westbrook’s formation) called ‘Alpha, Alpha, Alpha,” said Westbrook. Operation Kingpin was a go.
Nearly fifty years after the events of the operation, also known as the Son Tay Raid, now-Col. (ret.) Westbrook was reunited with HC-130P #0991, the aircraft he flew in the raid now on permanent static display here, during his visit to Cannon, November 19, 2020. Westbrook and his family toured the retired aircraft and met with Col. Robert Masaitis, 27th Special Operations Wing commander, and other Cannon Airmen to commemorate the anniversary of the raid.
The purpose of the mission was to rescue American POWs who were believed to be incarcerated at the Son Tay Prison Camp some 23 miles west of Hanoi, North Vietnam on November 21, 1970. A joint force of special operations personnel came together to execute the objective: U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers to extract the POWs from the camp, and special operations Airmen to get them there and back. The latter included Westbrook, who at the time was flying combat search-and-rescue aerial refueling alert missions out of Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand as a member of the 39th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron.
A native of Goodwater, Alabama, Westbrook credits his desire to be a part of the rescue and recovery field by the phrase “That Others May Live,” the motto of the Air Force’s rescue community.
“In the aerospace rescue and recovery community, we loved to go save people,” said Westbrook. “A downed fighter behind enemy lines, a sinking Japanese freighter with 32 crewmen with hypothermia, a helicopter running out of fuel—I loved every opportunity and chomped at the bit to launch when someone needed help.”
It was a passion that paid off 11 months into Westbrook’s tour of Vietnam when he was chosen for the raid.
“Capt. Dick Frank (aircraft commander of the other HC-130P in the mission) and I were about as experienced in the HC-130P as anyone in our squadron,” said Westbrook. “Our squadron’s regular job was to go TDY to Udorn every week and fly three days of daily eight-hour rescue airborne alert. Because the raid was going to launch from Udorn, we were a natural choice.”
His crew’s primary duty would be to refuel the HH-53C Super Jolly search-and-rescue helicopters that would carry two of the ground teams and evacuate the POWs, an assault force and the crew of HH-3E Jolly Green helicopter that would intentionally be left behind. The job would need to be done twice, once on the way and once after the raid. Even with all of the experience he had, accomplishing these tasks under the cloak of darkness and the threat of surface-to-air missiles would require Westbrook and his crew to engage in rarely-used tactics.
“We had two training missions where we actually refueled helicopters at night, that was it,” said Westbrook. “Rescues never happened at night, so there just was never a need to refuel helicopters at night.”
“There were also no radios and no exterior lights used. No radio calls to ground, tower or anyone.”
Despite the challenges ahead of him, Westbrook recalls his mood as upbeat when #0991 took off for Son Tay.
“We were excited and confident to go get those POWs,” said Westbrook. “We had created a solid plan and knew what we had to do.”
Having successfully filled each of the birds on the first leg of the journey, #0991’s crew pieced together the radio transmissions, keeping up with the progress of the raid as they loitered overhead. Then, as the five HH-53Cs began to take off from their landing zones following the attack on and search of the camp, Westbrook’s team synced up and refueled each of them one by one as they made a beeline to the North Vietnamese-Laotian border.
Half a century has passed since the Soldiers and Airmen made it back to Udorn, but the original resolve Westbrook had going into the raid hasn’t wavered. While the prison camp had been vacated prior to the mission and no POWs were recovered, word of the raid reached American prisoners quickly. Their captors moved all of them to two central complexes and began to treat them better, causing the organization and morale amongst the incarcerated servicemen to soar.
“It was the most significant mission of my career,” said Westbrook. “We sent a war altering message to the enemy. We will come for our own.”
Westbrook would go on to retire after 30 years of service, and #0991 would fly for 45 more years, which includes a time period where it was operated by the 9th Special Operations Squadron here. Now resting near the main gate here as a monument to the raid, Westbrook almost immediately recognized the aircraft as he entered base, despite the re-unification having been arranged as surprise by his family.
“Just as she once did for those POWs, she lifted my spirits when I saw her,” said Westbrook. “All these years later, she’s still one good-looking warbird.”
Editor’s Note: All information regarding the raid in this article has been corroborated by the 27th Special Operations Wing Historical Office.