John Gargus. The Son Tay Raid: American POWs in Vietnam Were Not Forgotten. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007. xv + 332 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-58544-622-3.
Reviewed by Earl Tilford (Department of History, Grove City College)
Published on H-War (March, 2008)
Special Operations at Its Best
John Gargus, a career U.S. Air Force special operations officer, provides the best account yet of the Son Tay raid, an operation undertaken deep into North Vietnam during the early morning hours of November 22, 1970 to rescue seventy American prisoners of war (POWs) held in a notoriously bad camp only twenty-six miles outside Hanoi. This exciting, well-documented, crisply written account is a valuable addition to the growing body of scholarship on special operations during the Vietnam War. Gargus brings to the book not only his expertise but his personally acquired insights as a navigator on one of the Lockheed C-130 four-engine turbo-prop transports supporting the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service Sikorsky HH-53 "Jolly Green Giant" helicopters ferrying Army Special Forces commandos to the prison camp.
Gargus goes into far more detail than did Benjamin F. Schemmer's account The Raid (1976) or this author's chapter on the raid in A History of U.S. Air Force Search and Rescue Operations in Southeast Asia, 1961-1976, published by the Office of Air Force History in 1981. Gargus used official Air Force studies, after-action reports, previously classified intelligence briefings, personal interviews with participants, recorded interviews held at the Air Force Historical Research Center at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, along with North Vietnamese accounts of the raid recently translated by the Central Intelligence Agency. Historians of the Vietnam War will be amply satisfied with the depth and extent of Gargus' research. The book is important because the Son Tay raid was exceptional in three significant ways.
First, the detailed planning provided for any conceivable contingencies or impediments that might arise. Planners considered every possible contingency and devised options for overcoming any impediment. Additionally, the training, conducted on Eglin Air Force Base's swampy wilderness, where I once braved alligators, water moccasins, mosquitoes, and wild boar as part of a survival, evasion, and escape course, was so thorough that the raiders knew almost exactly what they would encounter once they hit the ground in North Vietnam.
Second, security was iron-clad. The raiders intended to be stopped by only one of two things: a major security lapse or unexpectedly heavy enemy resistance. Elaborate security precautions included using military counterintelligence agents to shadow the raiders during their off-duty hours, and devising the code name "Operation Ivory Coast," a deliberate reference to Africa, to confuse the curious. As for enemy resistance, Air Force Brigadier General Leroy J. Manor and Army Special Forces Colonel Arthur D. "Bull" Simons, the men who conceived the raid, personally selected the Army Special Forces and Air Force Special Operations personnel. Simons, who spent his entire career in covert operations, was part of a similar raid conducted during the Second World War to free American prisoners from a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines.
I can attest to the excellent security. On the night the raid took place, I was the intelligence duty officer at Headquarters Seven, Thirteenth Air Force located at Udorn Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, from whence the raiders departed. During the days immediately preceding the raid, base personnel noticed an influx of men and women in civilian clothes who stayed together, not mingling with the 5,000 officers and airmen assigned to Udorn. The longish hair of the males and the large number of females in the contingent led us to conclude they were military physicians and nurses. We had no clue as to why they were present. Furthermore the major general in charge of air operations in Laos, my boss, was sound asleep at 2:00 a.m. when I awakened him to report "something big going down up North." When he asked me what, I told him we did not know but electronic intercepts of enemy communications indicated some kind of invasion supported by extensive air operations. The first I read of the raid was at noon the next day in the Bangkok Post.
Finally, although the raiders felt they failed because no prisoners were recovered from Son Tay because the North Vietnamese had moved the captives to other prisons in July, the operation was a strategic success. By late 1970, American troop withdrawals were underway and, except for "protective reaction" strikes flown against anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missile sites that fired on Air Force and Navy reconnaissance aircraft, there had been virtually no bombing of the upper two thirds of North Vietnam. Leaders in Hanoi, confident of victory after the United States pulled out its forces, proved increasingly obdurate at the Paris peace talks. Putting a large American force on the ground, twenty-six miles from the heart of Hanoi, keeping them there for nearly two hours while they searched the abandoned prison for captives, and then bringing the force out without suffering a single casualty (while also killing a couple hundred enemy soldiers) got their attention. Prisoners held in outlying camps reported their captors moved them into the major camps in Hanoi to prevent future rescue attempts. Prisoners also reported improved treatment and a decline in systematic torture.
The Son Tay Raid will prove a valuable addition to the library of any Vietnam War scholar, military, or aviation historian. The uninitiated may find Gargus's attention to operational detail, like specifying time-to-turn for each inbound leg of the flight into the heart of enemy country, to be somewhat tedious. The author provides a detailed glossary of acronyms and avoids the use of passive voice which plagues some operational and tactical accounts. After spending a few minutes in the glossary and appendices, anyone with a passing interest in military affairs can read and appreciate this excellent operational history. John Gargus's The Son Tay Raid is operational history at its very best.
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Earl Tilford. Review of Gargus, John, The Son Tay Raid: American POWs in Vietnam Were Not Forgotten.
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