Academic journal article Parameters

Groupthink, Politics, and the Decision to Attempt the Son Tay Rescue

Academic journal article Parameters

Groupthink, Politics, and the Decision to Attempt the Son Tay Rescue

Article excerpt

Shortly after 0200 local time on 21 November 1970, a raiding force of 56 men began one of the most daring American operations of the Vietnam War, a nighttime raid 23 miles west of Hanoi on the Son Tay prisoner of war (POW) camp. The Son Tay raid was conceived in May 1970 based on imagery suggesting that 70 American POWs were being held at this isolated compound in the heart of North Vietnam. The raid's six-month planning and training process, under the leadership of Brigadier General Leroy Manor (USAF) as overall commander, and Colonel Arthur D. "Bull" Simons (USA) as his deputy, stands as arguably the preeminent model of all special operations missions conducted by the US military. A highly disciplined, joint team with clear lines of authority and responsibility organized the raid while mobilizing extensive intelligence and logistical resources to achieve their mission of effecting a rescue. The raiders rehearsed 170 times under the most realistic possible conditions, including night live-fire exercises in a complete Son Tay mockup built at Duke Field, Florida. (1) Mission security was assured through rigorous compartmentalization and the practice of completely tearing down the camp mockup prior to daily Soviet satellite overflights. (2)

Just as the D-Day invasion had hinged on suitable weather forecasts, the Son Tay raid was executed in a tiny window of nights dictated by the need for adequate moonlight and the vagaries of the tropical monsoon season. After final approval, the strike force launched from Thailand and expertly rejoined 15 aircraft in total darkness under radio silence. Two MC-130 Combat Talons led a low-altitude night ingress, penetrating the North Vietnamese air defense system via direct terrain masking through corridors identified by the National Security Agency. Due to the vastly different cruising speeds of the helicopters, the MC-130s were obliged to fly at 105 knots, 145 knots below their normal cruising speed and 10 knots above stalling speed, for the entire three hour, 23-minute trip to the target. The US Air Force aviators participating in the raid flew 368 sorties and logged 1,017 hours preparing for this incredibly demanding mission. (3)

The strike force approached Son Tay undetected at 0218 on 21 November 1970. Simultaneously, the US Navy began a massive diversion operation over Haiphong Harbor. (4) The first phase of the rescue plan called for an HH-53 helicopter to overfly the prison courtyard and destroy two guard towers with gunfire, a task executed perfectly. Next, an HH-3 was intentionally crashed inside the Son Tay compound. Raid planners believed the aircraft would fit, but six months of additional tree growth snared the helicopter as it arrived, causing a harder-than-expected landing and one of only two US injuries of the raid, a broken ankle. (5) The 14 men in the crashed HH-3 were tasked to neutralize the compound guards and immediately begin freeing prisoners; unfortunately, they soon discovered there were no American POWs in the camp. At this moment, the only miscue of the raid came into play: a navigation error landed the largest part of the strike force--22 men, including Colonel Simons--at the "Secondary School" 400 meters south of the main Son Tay compound. The raiders encountered minimal resistance at the Son Tay compound itself, but Simons and the men at the Secondary School found themselves engaged in a firefight with soldiers who were "much taller than Orientals and not wearing normal NVA [North Vietnamese Army] dress." (6) Simons and his men had stumbled on a major force of Chinese or Russian advisors a mere 400 meters from the prison; the Americans decimated more than 100 occupants of the Secondary School before rejoining the main strike force and initiating a withdrawal. (7) The raiding force was on the ground in North Vietnam for 27 minutes, flawlessly executing their well-rehearsed plan and successfully switching to a contingency plan after the unplanned landing at the Secondary School. …

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