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Feature: Son Tay - A Story of Success

01 July 2005

Greg Walker

In a previous article entitled 'Smoke and Mirrors at Son Tay' written by Ken Conboy, the story concerned itself with the now legendary Son Tay POW rescue mission, Operation IVORY COAST.

Having researched and published material on the raid with its many controversial issues, I contacted BTL's publisher with an offer to present an exclusive insight in to what many consider to be the greatest raid behind enemy lines of the 20th Century.

Readers familiar with At the Hurricane's Eye (Ivy Books, 1994, by Greg Walker) will recognize some of the material as many of the dynamics about Son Tay have been public record. In July 1997, this writer enjoyed the opportunity to spend several weeks at Ft. Bragg with the Army's Special Forces Command. While there, I delved once again in to Operation IVORY COAST, gathering up additional and exclusive facts which further enhanced what has already been published on the subject from credible sources.

The Son Tay Raid is a tribute to exceptional personal courage and commitment. It is also the epitome of long range raid planning, preparation and execution. Its many successes are well understood by those in the special operations community. The only smoke ad mirrors involved were designed by those warriors who carried out this extraordinary assault in to the enemy's heartland against an enemy who bore the brunt of its fury.

Charged with conducting unconventional warfare in North and South Vietnam, as well as Cambodia and Laos, the special operations group, SOG (Studies and Observations Group) consisted of three field commands. These were Command and Control North, Central and South. CCN was always the largest of the three commands and its missions included cross-border operations, the tracking and attempted rescue of POWs, agent networks and psychological operations directed against the North Vietnamese.

The first successful SOG project was SHINING BRASS, whose commander was former WHITE STAR project officer Col. Arthur “Bull” Simons. Both WHITE STAR and SHINING BRASS were extremely successful special operations conducted under clandestine/covert circumstances.

By 1966, Simons was serving with SOG as commander of OP-35, a project responsible for all cross-border operations in to Laos, Cambodia and later, North Vietnam. Retired General Jack Singlaub recalls assuming command of SOG from Brigadier General Donald Blackburn, who commanded SOG in the mid-60s. “When Don left to become the SACSA and I took over SOG in 1966, Simons was in charge of OP-35.” Two officers Simons worked alongside during his OP-35 tour were Dick Meadows and Elliot Sydnor, both of whom would later be hand picked by Simons to lead teams “Blueboy” and “Redwine” in to Son Tay.

Blackburn, who became special assistant for counterinsurgency and special activities (SACSA) in Washington D.C. after his tour as “Chief SOG”, was the final approval authority for all SOG operations passed from MACV through the commander in chief Pacific (CinPac) to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in Washington, D.C. The importance of this direct linkage between SOG-CCN commanders/operators and Operation IVORY COAST (Son Tay) has long been overlooked by those studying the raid. However, it is perhaps the most important factor in the raid's equation, as we shall soon see.

In a 1992 interview conducted between this writer and General Jack Singlaub (ret.), General Singlaub offered a raid against Son Tay had been studied by SOG in late 1968, nearly a year and a half before IVORY COAST would be launched. Son Tay as a POW compound had been discovered during OP-35's BRIGHT LIGHT missions, meant to rescue POWs from suspected sites in Laos and North Vietnam. Over two hundred such ops had been run with no successful conclusion. SOG's OP-34 was responsible for escape and evasion networks inside North Vietnam and was administered by the Joint Personnel Recovery Centre (JPRC). Between the two projects a great deal of hard intelligence about both the ground and the enemy was collected and updated, passed on to MACV-SOG, the SACSA, and then JCS.

Former CCN recon team leader and founder of the Special Operations Association (SOA) Jim “Snake” Butler was a BRIGHT LIGHT “One-Zero” during his five tours at CCN. “Our intelligence gathering teams entered North Vietnam whenever we wanted to,” he says today. “It was common for us to evade their (NVA) radar using helicopter flying in from several hilltop launch sites along the northern Laotian border. We pretty much came and went as we pleased.” Butler's codename during his tours with the downed pilot recovery project known as HEAVY HOOK was “Fat Capper.”

Year later, an army helicopter pilot who flew recovery missions for CCN would say this of Butler, “I used to hate hearing Jim whispering to us on the radio. He'd say 'come and get us'…and you knew he and his team were sitting right in the middle of the NVA watching them. It was some of the hairiest flying I ever did going after Butler.”

Singlaub confirms SOG began planning a raid on Son Tay during his tour as commander. “…as best as I can recall, I 'd left SOG before it was completed,” says the general. The study was wrapped up under Colonel Steve Cavanaugh, who replaced Singlaub at SOG. It was presented for operational consideration but turned down. Today, Singlaub believes the decision was a wise one. “The serious (intelligence) leak at the (South Vietnamese) minister's level likely would have compromised the mission either before it got underway, or once it was on the ground inside North Vietnam.”

Again, what is critical to remember at this point is SOG's already researched plan for assaulting Son Tay as early as 1967. This plan, along with the operational presence and participation of SOG-CCN's earliest operators, would become the foundation for Operation IVORY COAST launched three years later.

Singlaub believes SOG had the personnel and equipment capable of successfully undertaking a raid in Son Tay. Keeping the training and the plan secret would have been the unit's greatest challenge as SOG was essentially in-theatre, with all the drawbacks such close proximity holds. “Son Tay was no secret to us,” confirms General Singlaub. We knew about its status as a POW camp well over a year before the (1970) raid was launched.”

The particulars of Operation IVORY COAST are superbly documented in both Benjamin E. Schemmer's work on the subject (The Raid, Avon, 1976) and At The Hurricane's Eye (Greg Walker, Ivy Books, 1994). Not available in Schemmer's account of the Son Tay and published for the first time in Hurricane, is the American led recon mission in to Son Tay prior to Simon's launch from Udorn, Thailand. It is this vital piece of the puzzle Ken Conboy's story lacked and perhaps the most important as it answers those questions raised by those unfamiliar with this pre-raid penetration of North Vietnam.

Seventy-two hours prior to Simon's hitting Son Tay, CSM Mark Gentry was told to cancel one of his project's Earth Angel missions. Earth Angel operators were Vietnamese dressed in enemy uniforms while penetrating North Vietnam for the purpose of gathering intelligence. As they operated far behind enemy lines the most often used method of infiltration was by high altitude-low opening parachute drops, or HALO. Gentry's Vietnamese team was scheduled to freefall in to the Son Tay area when their mission was cancelled with no reason given. In 1994, Gentry said he was told after the fact the cancellation was due to IVORY COAST.

In interviews with Jim Butler, identified in At The Hurricane's Eye as “Frank Capper”, One-Zero for RT Python, the Earth Angel mission was scrapped in favour of an American led recon. This team was made up of three CCN One-Zeros, two North Vietnamese Kit Carson Scouts from the Son Tay area and one CIA operative. The team launched from CCN's HEAVY HOOK mission site along the Thai border. Due to HEAVY HOOK's helicopters being heavily armoured their range of operations were limited. The team was therefore loaned one of Simon's now pre-staged reserve helos in order to get to Son Tay.

The helicopter refuelled at the CIA mission support site at Longcheng, in Laos. It then infiltrated North Vietnam's air space using one of the CCN air lanes used successfully over the years for just such operations. The team landed several kilometres from Son Tay, moving by foot to a position where it could observe both the POW compound and that of the so-called “secondary school” 450 meters to the South of the prison.

According to Butler, it was Sergeant Dale Dehnke who led the team in to Son Tay. During their stay the operators confirmed specific information gathered by SR-71 and drone flights, as well as from past intelligence debriefings of local inhabitants and captured NVA soldiers gathered by the CIA. Dehnke's team could not confirm or deny the presence of American POWs at the compound due to its prison walls. However, they did verify the continued presence of North Vietnamese regulars at the prison. It was this guard force the raiders encountered as Dick Meadows' assault team crash-landed inside the compound.

Also verified was the presence of both North Vietnamese and Chinese troops in and around the former school now being used as a military installation. According to an exclusive interview with the co-pilot of Simon's helicopter the night of the raid, this installation was briefed as both a threat and possible distraction beginning at the onset of IVORY COAST's planning. “We were told there were enemy troops at the secondary school was so close to the prison.”

This concern on the pilots' part was twofold in nature. Their primary fear was that the two installations were so similar in layout and construction that they might be confused due to any number of circumstances. In fact, this is exactly what occurred during the final leg in to Son Tay proper. The second consideration had to do with how swiftly the military personnel at the secondary school site could deploy a response force against the raiders at the prison. The 450 (+ or – 50) meters separating the two sites could be covered within minutes by either foot or vehicle and Sergeant Dehnke's intelligence gathering mission showed those mixed troops at the former school were well armed and motorized.

Discovered also was the fact the force at the school compound stacked their weapons in its courtyard at night. This bit of information would prove invaluable to Simon's Greenleaf team when it found itself deposited by accident outside the now-confirmed barrack's walls.

Exfiltrating at night the CCN recon team grabbed a water buffalo calf discovered at the LZ point. According to Butler, close friend of Dale Dehnke, the “snatch” was one of humor legendary during al of SOG's projects. The animal was removed at HEAVY HOOK's launch site from Simon's loaned helicopter prior to its being returned to Udorn. The calf became the project's mascot, with Captain Butler offering “it grew fat and sassy” with time.

It was the rumour of such a prank that landed Simon's raiders in hot water with former Secretary of Sate Henry Kissinger after buffalo dung was found in one of the helicopters assigned to the task force. As no one outside of a small cadre of the raid's command and control group even knew of the “black” recon in to Son Tay by Dehnke & Company, the investigating body charged with looking in to the allegation never visited HEAVY HOOK where the animal ended up.

Dale Dehnke was killed in action on 18th May 1971, while operating in the Da Krong Valley inside Vietnam. Ironically, Sergeant Dehnke was due to rotate home and had volunteered to “strap hang” the mission assigned to newly formed RT Alaska (BTL May/June 1996). According to Jim Butler, his close friend felt the new team could use their expertise as it got its feet wet. Even more ironic is the fact the NVA battalion that overran RE Alaska's hilltop position was one of those trained by an elite cadre of Chinese advisers. These advisors were co-located with other Chinese military personnel at the former secondary school at Son Tay.

Their mission? To train and advise what became know at CCN as “headhunter” battalions; units designed to locate, track and kill SOG recon teams.

Again, Jim Butler remembers the effectiveness of these new NVA units beginning in mid 1969. “With the new enemy tactics time was what you didn't have. Once they had our position pinpointed, they'd begin throwing human-wave attacks against it. We're talking fifty to sixty men at a time until they simply overran the perimeter and everyone inside it. They didn't give a damn about their own casualties, they just wanted that recon team dead.”

Headhunter tactics as trained by the Chinese included the use of an extensive network of trail watchers and trackers, coded signals to chase and turn the teams once they were put on the run and effective use of the roughly 500 man battalion's human assets. SOG recon teams were so well trained and disciplined and carried so much firepower per man that engagements with larger enemy forces were commonly won as long as the fire fight was short, fast, furious and eventually supported by both gunships and rescue. This all changed when the larger, more heavily armed, Chinese advised NVA units showed up on the scene.

“Once we were compromised on the ground you just wanted to get the hell out,” recalls Butler. “My team discovered the best way to break contact was to rush right at the trail watcher's position when he fired. Too many other teams didn't do this, and they ended up getting waxed.”

With this in mind it is apparent IVORY COAST's common thread was its sharing of former CCN commanders/operators, intelligence as well as assets, and a professional desire to ensure the raid's greatest chance of success given the accepted presence of foreign military advisers whose specialty it was to engage U.S. special operations forces.

“Anybody who gets in our way is going to be dead.”
Co. Arthur 'Bull' Simons
The Raid

Read Son Tay - A Story of Success (Part 2)

This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.

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