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Air Commando heritage: Special Operations’ history stretches back to Son Tay

U.S. Air Force Graphic/Airman 1st Class Shelby Kay-Fantozzi

U.S. Air Force Graphic/Airman 1st Class Shelby Kay-Fantozzi


Editor’s note: This article is the second 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.

From its conception to its execution to the lessons learned from its aftermath, the 45-year-old history of the Son Tay Raid, a 1970 mission to rescue approximately 60 U.S. prisoners of war from a camp in North Vietnam, exemplifies the legacy and culture that guides today’s Air Commandos.

According to extensive research by the Son Tay Raiders Association’s unofficial historian, retired Air Force Col. and MC-130E Navigator John Gargus, the special operations ethos permeated every step and every level of the raid and its participants.

Leaders like Army Special Forces Col. Bull Simons influenced the raid from its early stages, Gargus said. Simons was a special operations pioneer with a reputation for leading unconventional, clandestine warfare and a record of not losing a single man in combat. His status was so commanding that Green Berets signed up for the dangerous, stealthy mission without a single piece of information on the nature of the operation, a reflection and legacy of the standard excellence Air Commandos have retained to this day.

Early in the extensive planning and training process, the raid took on a joint nature familiar to today’s SOF warriors. Plans called for Air Force aviators to transport teams to and from Son Tay Camp, providing overwatch and expert navigation. Army Green Berets formed into assault teams would take out guards and rescue prisoners. Meanwhile, Navy aviators would fly a sortie miles away over the Gulf of Tonkin meant to distract the North Vietnamese from the raid at Son Tay.

In addition to the leadership of Bull Simons, Brig. Gen. LeRoy Manor, commander of Air Force Special Operations Forces at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, led the Joint Contingency Task Group and coordinated training and operations with several Air Force units in the U.S. and overseas. Navy officers planned a diversionary operation, providing special weapons expertise and liaising with Vice Adm. Frederick Bardshar, commander of the Naval Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin.

After meticulous planning, 65 Airmen and 103 Special Forces Soldiers engaged in ground training so rigorous and exacting that assault elements knew how many steps they needed to take from one objective to the next, and more 1,000 hours of flight training that continuously evolved due to unconventional formations that tested the limits of aircraft.

Training for the raid required constant engagement and tack-sharp focus, even with the operation’s true nature obscured to all but a small cell of planners. The plan was for HH-53C Super Jolly Green and HH-3E Jolly Green helicopters to “surf” on a pocket of fast-moving air directly behind the wings of MC-130E Combat Talons that would provide navigational guidance and over-watch during the rescue mission.

In a September dedication of Lime 02, an MC-130P that supported the Son Tay raid as an aerial refueler, 27th Special Operations Wing commander Col. Ben Maitre explained the nature of the flying that took place over Hurlburt Field, Fl., and eventually over Laos and North Vietnam. He described the flying as “generally akin to drafting behind a semi-truck on a highway, except that the semi is instead driving on a single-lane dirt road in the mountains, at night, and with its lights off.”

Trained at the edge of 1970s flying and navigation technology and flying aircraft positioned within feet of each other, the raiders found success in the forbidding environment of North Vietnam due to their comprehensive preparation. They suffered only one injury and one unplanned aircraft loss, as one of the helicopters was unable to takeoff from the raid site and was deliberately destroyed by the raiders.

Though the tactical execution of the raid went according to plan, the assault team found no American prisoners in the Son Tay camp.

However, despite the operational failure of the mission in not recovering any American prisoners, it was also a strategic success in that it demonstrated the vulnerabilities of the North Vietnamese military and also, once they learned of the attempt, significantly improved the morale of American prisoners in North Vietnam.

Gargus notes that the raid owes its near five-decade legacy both to its victories and its defeats. Unconventional solutions to rapidly evolving conflicts based in strong counterintelligence, detailed planning and integration with DOD-wide teams are the result of a long history of missions that ultimately formed the lethal and relevant global SOF network of today.

Artifacts of the Son Tay Raid are on display at Cannon: the MC-130E Combat Talon and MC-130P Combat Shadow that stand at the installation’s front gate each played a part in the raid that helped form Special Operations as we know it today.

Cannon is hosting a discussion panel, luncheon and remembrance ceremony for the Son Tay Raid; all are slated to take place on its 45th anniversary, Nov. 20. Air Commandos looking to take advantage of the opportunity to learn the deep and lasting meaning of the mission are encouraged to attend.