By the Spring of 1970 the United States found itself entering a 5th year of combat operations in South Vietnam. Richard Nixon’s pledge of turning the war over through Vietnamization – that is, making the South take over the bulk of the fighting – was underway.

Yet hundreds of miles north, in cramped, filthy cells, American men, gaunt faced and weakened through years of deprivation and torture, struggled to exist as the sun made its ascent each day over the primeval surroundings known as the North Vietnamese prison system.

In these places, the war seemed without end, and humanity existed only among the captives as a cherished virtue soon to be drowned out by the bark of the guards or the monotonous voice blaring propaganda from a loudspeaker across the grounds. Here morale was the only weapon they had. That and a sidearm of sanity which faded a little more as the years passed.

Many wondered if they’d been forgotten or what finality waited for them. For some, it was too much. For others, they peered through the bars of their cells into the sky beyond the walls and remembered what once was.

Aerial Photo of Son Tay
Aerial Photo of Son Tay

They poured over the aerial photographs day after day, trying to recognize the most minutiae of details. Intelligence reports lay strewn across different desks that had been read and reread in case something cropped up that they missed.

Once they were satisfied the work finally met the feasibility requirements, the 15-man panel that went by the codename “Polar Circle” presented their work via Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Admiral Thomas Moorer to a surprised but receptive Richard Nixon about a plan to do something many thought impossible…send a rescue force into the heart of North Vietnam and recover 70 prisoners of war – of which 61 were known by name – from a compound known as Son Tay, just 23 miles from Hanoi.

The urgency of such a mission came not from Washington but from the POWs inside Son Tay itself. Over the months they had managed to send signals from inside the camp which could only be seen from the air. Pajamas were arranged on the ground and formed the words S.A.R (Search and Rescue). And in a corner of the compound the letter “K”, taught to American pilots, which signified “Come and get me”, got stamped into the dirt.

After the presentation was finished Nixon said, “I want this thing to go.” And upon those words in-depth planning began. If all went well, a launch window in the fall seemed the most favorable time to unleash the operation already given the name “Kingpin.”