On March 19, speaking at a Morris Township, New Jersey Democratic Party fundraiser, Vice President Joe Biden provided what may be the mother of all election year bumper stickers when he asserted, “Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive. Think about it.” To help wrap our minds around these two facts, referring to the May 1, 2011 raid that killed Bin Laden, the Veep boasted, “You can go back 500 years. You cannot find a more audacious plan.”
Indeed the raid succeeded. No Americans were killed. On the down side, the United States left behind a stealth helicopter for the Chinese and Russians to reverse engineer. Nevertheless, President Obama made the right call. Seal Team Six performed magnificently.
But the most audacious plan in 500 years? No way. Just keeping it to raids, the November 20, 1970 Son Tay Raid conducted by U.S. Army Special Forces in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service was far more audacious in concept, planning, and execution. The Son Tay Raid involved two C-130E assault transports, an HH-3E Jolly Green Giant, and five larger HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopters flying at night, at altitudes below 500 feet for 200 miles across northern Laos into North Vietnam to a prison camp located 28 miles north of Hanoi. The objective: free American prisoners of war thought to be held in the camp.
Planning for the raid started in June 1970 with practice conducted at night on a collapsible replica of the Son Tay prison located deep inside the swamplands that are part of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Every morning, the “prison compound” was dismantled to prevent Soviet reconnaissance satellites from discovering it. Dubbed “Operation Ivory Coast” to divert speculation from Southeast Asia to Africa, the raiders were not told of their objective until hours before the raid, which departed Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand just after dark.
The raiding party arrived intact. Enemy radio intercepts indicated a major invasion was under way and, perhaps, the United States had used a nuclear weapon. I know. I was one of two intelligence watch-officers on duty at Udorn when the raid took place. Unfortunately, the prisoners had been moved out of Son Tay months before the raid, leaving behind a small contingent of guards who died that night. The raiders also killed up to 200 enemy sappers undergoing training at a school located a quarter mile from Son Tay. The only losses were the HH-3E, which was purposefully crashed into the compound so that Special Forces troops inside could neutralize the defenders before they had a chance to kill the prisoners, and an F-105F Wild Weasel badly damaged while attacking a surface-to-air missile site. Before departing Son Tay, the raiders destroyed the chopper, and a returning Jolly Green Giant picked up the two-man crew of the F-105. A North Vietnamese MiG-21 was lost after a rescue chopper it was pursuing at tree-top level hopped over a mountain ridge into which the pursuing MiG plowed.
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