By November of 1970, there were 450 known American POWs in Vietnam and more than double that amount who were missing. Reports were surfacing of brutal conditions, torture and starvation of American POWs.

Operation Ivory Coast was the mission by U.S. Army Green Berets flown in by Air Force Commandos to rescue the POWs at a small prisoner of war camp at Son Tay, 23 miles west of Hanoi. The raid was conducted by Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons and 56 specially selected Green Berets who trained for the mission. The mission failed despite it being a tactical success. Unknown to the raiders, rains had flooded the prison just prior to the raid, forcing the Vietnamese guards to move them to another location. The prisoners who were moved just a few miles down the road, watched the raid unfold.

However, the raid was viewed as a success and they killed over 50 guards and took the compound while suffering two very minor casualties. The Air Force was able to fly them in and out of one of the most heavily guarded air spaces on earth at that time.

Identification of the Camp: In May of 1970, the Pentagon learned of the camp when an SR-71 at 80,000 feet, streaked over the location and took aerial photographs that showed at least 55 American POWs. The catch? There were 12,000 North Vietnamese troops stationed just 5.0 miles away from the compound.

Planning began in earnest in early August. Simons was named the commander of the raid force and he selected the raiders from over 500 volunteers from the 6th and 7th Special Forces Groups at Ft. Bragg, NC.

The training facility chosen for the raiders was Duke Field at Eglin AFB, Florida. USAF planners selected key Air Force commanders who then picked personnel for their crews. Helicopter and A-1 Skyraider crews were put together from instructors at Eglin and personnel returned from combat tours in Southeast Asia. Two crews for C-130E(I) Combat Talons were assembled from squadrons in Germany and North Carolina.

The men were not briefed on their mission and were only told that it was hazardous.

A total of 219 men were selected: 103 Army and 116 Air Force personnel would serve as raiders, flight crew, support personnel and planning. The Task Force was known as the “Joint Contingency Task Group” (JCTG).

The staff set up a plan for a nighttime raid, the key points of which were: clear weather and a quarter moon at 35 degrees above the horizon for optimum visibility during low-level flight. From these mission planning parameters, two mission “windows” were identified, 18–25 October and 18–25 November.

Training under Simons, who was already a legend in Special Forces, proceeded on Range C-2 at Eglin. Simons had taken part in a prisoner rescue during World War II with the 6th Ranger Bn. The Rangers rescued 500 POWs who had survived the Bataan Death March by raiding the Japanese POW camp at Cabanatuan in the Philippines. The Raiders used an exact but crudely made replica of the prison compound for rehearsals and a superbly detailed five-foot-by-five-foot scale table model (codenamed “Barbara”)  that was built by the CIA for familiarization.

The Air Force pilots flew over 1050 hours in C-130 Combat Talon and HH-3 aircraft to practice their formations and used the Forward Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR) to fully acquaint themselves with the mission.

The Special Forces side of the training began on 9 September, advancing to night training on 17 September and joint training with aircrews on 28 September that included six rehearsals a day, three of them under night conditions. By 6 October, 170 practice sessions of all or partial phases of the mission were performed on the mockup by the Special Forces operators, using live fire.

The Ground Force Commander was LTC Bud Syndor and the assault element leader that would purposely crash-land in the prison compound would be led by another SF legend, CPT Richard “Dick” Meadows.

On the 6th, the first full-scale dress rehearsal, using a UH-1 as the assault helicopter, was conducted at night and included a 5.5-hour, 687 miles (1,106 km) flight of all aircraft, replicating the timing, speeds, altitudes and turns in the mission plan. The rehearsal indicated that the  UH-1 helicopter was unsuitable for this mission. The smaller passenger compartment resulted in leg cramps to the SF raiders that completely disrupted the timing of their assault. Simons and his raiders opted for the HH-3E. Two further full night rehearsals and a total of 31 practice landings by the HH-3E in the courtyard of the mockup followed.

US Green Berets Raid Son Tay Prison and Make History

Read Next: US Green Berets Raid Son Tay Prison and Make History

The primary October window was chosen but President Nixon was out of the city and couldn’t be briefed properly in time, so Henry Kissinger moved back the raid to the November time window. Unknown to everyone at the time, that month delay would doom the mission to failure.

Between 10 and 18 November, all of the pieces of the raiding force arrived in Thailand, which was the jumping off point for the raid. The piecemeal deployment was to not attract attention. There, the force was whittled down from the 100 men who trained for the mission to the 56 that would be going. It was heartbreak for the 44 men who had to stay behind in Thailand.

The Raiding Force: The Special Forces were organized into three platoons: a 14-man assault group codenamed Blueboy Element led by Meadows, which would crash-land within the prison compound. A 22-man support group, Greenleaf, which would provide immediate support for the assault team, and a 20-man security group, Redwine, to protect the prison area from any NVA reaction forces and provide backup support if needed for either of the other two groups. Simons (using the call sign Axle) accompanied the Greenleaf group while the ground force commander, LTC Elliott P. “Bud” Sydnor, Jr. (Wildroot), was with the Redwine group.

The 56 raiders were heavily armed, carrying 48 CAR-15 carbines, two M16 rifles, four M79 grenade launchers, two shotguns and four M60 machine guns. They carried 15 claymore mines, 11 demolition charges, 213 hand grenades and were equipped with a mix of wire cutters, bolt cutters, axes, chainsaws, crowbars, ropes, bullhorns, lights and other equipment to execute the mission.The ground force was also equipped for voice communications with 58 UHF-AM and 34 VHF-FM radios, including a survival radio for each individual soldier.

Five hours before takeoff, Simons addressed the men: We are going to rescue 70 POWs from a camp called Son Tay. This is something American prisoners have a right to expect from their fellow soldiers. The camp is located 23 miles west of Hanoi.”

It was said that the troops stood and cheered. Simons put his own indelible mark on the operation with his final instructions,

You are to let nothing, nothing interfere with the operation. We’re here to rescue prisoners not take prisoners. And if we walk into a trap… don’t dream about walking out of Vietnam unless you’ve got wings on your feet. It is 100 miles to Laos… I want to keep this force together. We will back up to the Song Con River and by Christ let them come across the goddamn open ground. We’ll make them pay for every foot across the sonuvabitch.”

Airlift Into North Vietnam Undetected: The raid force began taking off at 2200 hours from airfields in Thailand and South Vietnam. The formation flew across the Plain of Jars in Laos before turning northeast. There were twelve separate legs of the flight plan. They flew on undetected by North Vietnamese radar, possibly because of diversionary bombing missions going on in the area.

The assault force arrived at Son Tay at 0219 hours. The helicopter that was to crash-land purposely in the compound was to encounter trees thought to be 40-feet tall. The were in actuality close to 150 feet tall. However, the pilot chopped thru it like a huge lawn mower and the aircraft thudded into the ground. One man, an Air Force crew chief suffered a broken ankle when a fire extinguisher broke free and smashed into his leg.

Meadows used a bullhorn and announced, “We’re American. Keep your heads down. We’re Americans. We’ll be in your cells in a minute.” Meadows’ group cut down any of the guards in the compound, including several trying to escape through the east wall. But as his men methodically advanced through the compound, they found no prisoners in the cells.

The Support Element landed in the wrong compound, which was known as the Secondary School and found it contained 100-200 Chinese soldiers who were there as advisers for new missile defense weapons being emplaced. After a brief but intense firefight, the Special Forces troops using a mixture of automatic fire and grenades eliminated the Chinese.

The Security Element (Redwine) approached the south wall and using the helicopter’s miniguns, wiped out the guard towers and landed inside the compound. There they blew a utility pole and set up a roadblock, 100 meters from the LZ. They then encountered guards who were quickly trying to react to the raid. The Raiders cut down several as a firefight raged.

Simons leaped into a trench as the fighting raged on around him. A second later, an enemy soldier who had roused from his sleep and was wearing only his underwear, jumped in beside Simons not realizing who was in there. Simons emptied his .357 revolver into the soldier’s chest, killing him.

Meadows radioed to Syndor, “Negative items.” No POWs were present. The entire raid took just 17 minutes. The assault force was preparing to leave when one of the members decided to leave the Vietnamese a message on who was responsible for the raid. MSG Joe Lupyak took a Green Beret with a 5th SFG flash and nailed it to the flagpole in the compound.

The extraction helicopters began arriving at 0239 hrs, the last aircraft departed at 0245 and the entire raid took just 27 minutes. The formation cleared North Vietnamese airspace by 0315 and arrived back in Thailand by 0438 hrs.

Intelligence Failure: The lack of good intelligence hampered the operation from the start. It was later learned that due to flooding of the river, the prisoners were moved. The heavy rains in the area obscured the view that the satellites would have of the objective. The prisoners were moved to a place they named “Camp Faith,” about 15 miles closer to Hanoi.

The impact of the raid was a tremendous boost in morale of the prisoners. They knew right away that they had not been forgotten. The North Vietnamese realized that had the operation had been successful, the sight of the prisoners in their current state of health would have been disastrous.

As a result, food and medical care improved for the prisoners and the Vietnamese consolidated the POWs and for the first time many of them were surprised to learn that instead of solitary confinement, they were to be housed together.

List of the Son Tay Raid Personnel:

U.S. Army Personnel

Support Element

COL Arthur D Simons
CPT Eric J Nelson
CPT Glenn R Rouse
CPT Udo H Walther
SFC Earl Bleacher
SFC Leroy N Carlson
SFC John Jakovenko
SFC Jack G Joplin
SFC Daniel Jurich
SFC David A Lawhon Jr
SFC Salvador M Suarez
SFC Donald Taapken
SFC Richard W Valentine
SSG Walter L Miller
SSG Robert L Nelson
SSG David S Nickerson
SSG Thomas E Powell
SSG John E Rodriquez
SGT Gary D Keel
SGT Keith R Medenski
SGT Franklin D Roe
SGT Marshall A Thomas

Assault Element

CPT Richard J Meadows
CPT Thomas W Jaeger
CPT Dan H McKinney
1LT George W Petrie
MSG Thomas J Kemmer
MSG Billy K Moore
MSG Galen C Kittleson
SFC Anthony Dodge
SFC Lorenzo O Robbins
SFC William L Tapley
SFC Donald R Wingrove
SSG Charles G Erickson
SSG Kenneth E McMullin
SGT Patrick St Clair

Command Element – Security

LTC Elliot P Sydnor
LTC Joseph R Cataldo
CPT James W McClam
CPT Daniel D Turner
MSG Joseph J Lupyak
MSG Herman Spencer
SFC Tyrone J Adderly
SFC Donald D Blackard
SFC Freddie Doss
SFC Jerry W Hill
SFC Marion S Howell
SFC Billy R Martin
SFC Gregory T McGuire
SFC Charles A Masten Jr
SFC Joseph M Murray
SFC Noe Quezada
SFC Ronnie Strahan
SSG Paul S Poole
SSG Lawrence Young
SGT Terry L Buckler

Support Personnel

LTC Bill L Robinson
LTC Gerald Kilburn
CPT Randel L Smith
SGM Minor B Pylant
MSG Jesse A Black
MSG Edgar C Britt
MSG Bernard L Rauscher
SFC Franklin Abramski
SFC James A Bass
SFC Archie Batrez Jr
SFC Robert L Dodd
SFC Charles M Erwin
SFC James A Green
SFC Bobby R Hansley
SFC Roswell D Henderson
SFC Frederick L Hubel
SFC Bruce M Hughes
SFC John R Jourdan
SFC Ernest R Pounder
SFC Aaron L Tolson Jr
SFC Burley W Turner
SFC Grady C Vines
SSG Elmer D Adams
SSG Rodger D Gross
SSG Larry G Stroklund
SSG David L Wilson
SGT Brian J Budy
SGT Michael G Green
SGT Robert R Hobdy
SGT John J Lippert
SGT Arlin L Olson
SP5 William F Dezurik
SP5 Lawrence C Elliot
SP5 Gary R Griffin
SP4 Christopher Casey
SP4 Frank J Closen

UH-1 Crew Members

1LT George W Williams
CW2 Ronald J Exely
CW2 Jackie H Keely
CW2 John J Ward
SP6 Larry C Boots
SP4 Alan H Wood

Photos: U.S. Army
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