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.
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.”
On August 8, the second phase of the operation code named “Ivory Coast” began under command of Air Force Brigadier General Leroy Manor, with Army Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons serving as deputy commander.
Over 500 Army Special Forces applied, most from the 6th and 7th Groups, of which Symons selected 103. Likewise, the Air Force chose their best crews to pilot the helicopters, guide ships and support aircraft needed for the raid. In all 219 men began training in earnest at Eglin Air Force base in Florida.
Mock-ups of Son Tay were built and assaulted while the aircrews plied their trade with long flights in the dark through mountainous regions in other Southern states. No stone was left unturned. Any problems, ranging from what kind of helos and aircraft to use, to discovering that a little known gun site called the Armson OEG would make the difference when it came to hitting targets at night, were solved, and soon the final plan and configuration of units were realized.
Led by an MC-130 guideship, a formation of 6 helicopters would leave Thailand, fly across Laos and into North Vietnam at low level. Approaching the camp, another MC-130 would release flares as the helicopters prepared to land.
A ground force of 56 men commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Bud Sydnor Jr. would hit Son Tay. They consisted of an assault group of 14 men under Major Dick Meadows that would crash land inside the compound using an HH-3 Jolly Green Giant Helicopter. They were to engage any guards and rescue prisoners. 4 larger HH-53 Super JollyGreen Giant choppers would land in fields adjacent to the walls. One chopper carried a 22 man support force to aid the assault, while a second carried a 20 man security force to hold off enemy attempts to reach the camp. Sydnor and Simons would be a part of each of these teams respectively.
Once secured, prisoners would be led out to 2 more HH-53’s to be extracted. A lone HH-53 would stay airborne to provide gunship support with .30 caliber miniguns, while 2 prop driven AD-1 Skyraider attack aircraft would destroy bridges in the vicinity. Jet aircraft would provide combat air and SAM suppression patrols. Even the Navy would create a massive diversionary attack over Haiphong Harbor. However, due to the bombing halt, they were only to drop flares.
Receiving final approval from Nixon, the razor-honed force arrived at 3:00 A.M., November 19th, at Takli Air Force Base in Thailand, where Simons informed them of their target. “We are going to rescue 70 American prisoners of war, maybe more, from a camp called Son Tay. This is something American prisoners have a right to expect from their fellow soldiers. The target is 23 miles from Hanoi.”
After final gear checks and a trip to Udorn Air Force Base, close to the Laotian border, the olive drab attired and blackened face men transferred to the helos. and the ground force lifted into the darkness at 11:18 P.M. November 20th Thailand time for the 337 mile flight to Son Tay.
Flying in a V formation behind the MC-130, the force maneuvered at tree-top level through Laos and on into North Vietnam, penetrating the deadliest air defense system in the world. And as they homed into Son Tay, a shower of tiny blazing suns released by the MC-130 flareship turned the area over the prison into day.
The HH-53 gunship raced ahead to hover over the compound, miniguns spouting flame and bringing 2 guard towers down. It throttled forward as Meadows’ HH-3 raced under the artificial light, the pilot rearing the chopper nose up, and letting it settle towards the ground. Rotors bit into tree branches shearing off wood and metal sending them twirling through the air.
The chopper slammed hard to earth. The rear deck lowered and men poured out, flame stuttering from their CAR15’s, tearing flesh and bone as tracer bullets etched a storm through the windows and open spaces of the compound. Another guard tower exploded. Meadows shouted through a bullhorn “Get your heads down we’re Americans, we’ll be in to get you in a minute.” The support force blasted a cavernous hole in the wall near prisoners’ barracks and sped through. They blew the locks on the doors and stepped in to find…nothing.
“Negative items,” blurted from radios, as firing died down. Nearly 50 guards lay dead as Meadows and Sydnor’s men withdrew out the hole. They boarded the choppers and lifted off, unaware that a navigation error placed Bull Simons group outside another camp complex where they tore into what appeared to be Chinese advisors, killing some 200 along with their Vietnamese allies. Simons ordered his chopper back and got his men out, linking back up to the force heading towards Laos.
Taking stock of the situation, the force suffered just two lightly wounded, but had recovered no prisoners. The men stayed glum and silent on the long trip back to Thailand, unaware that apart from rescue, they’d given the POWs something needed almost as much.
Over the following days, North Vietnam rounded up its prisoners and placed them even closer to Hanoi where controlling them came easier. They removed men from solitary confinement and placed them for the first time in years with other Americans. Treatment improved, as did food. Many could bathe regularly. Word of the raid spread throughout their ranks. Whatever doubts they harbored vanished. America cared. It was that simple.
After it was all over, an inquiry was made as to why Son Tay came up empty. It turned out the prisoners were moved months before, as heavy rains created flooding that rose to within a foot or two of the compound. And it may not have been Mother Nature’s work alone. Operation Popeye, a project which involved seeding the clouds for more rain over North Vietnam in ’67 and ’68, then Laos from ’69 to ’72, was underway. So secret it was, that not even the Secretary of Defense knew about it.
Whatever the reason, Operation Kingpin remains America’s most dedicated attempt to retrieve its men captured during the war, and the effort is perhaps summed up in one word by former POW John McCain when asked to describe he and his comrades’ feelings upon hearing of the raid.