Son Tay: A Dramatic Raid on a POW Prison Near Hanoi, During the Vietnam War.
Above Photo: The Mekong River separating Thailand and Laos, across which the Son Tay Rescue team flew, on a similar flight path, heading to Hanoi.
“How do I get up to Son Tay?” I innocently asked the hotel receptionist, Son Tay now being a modern suburb of Hanoi.
“Why do you want to go there?” He asked, suspiciously.
“It was where the US raided a POW camp during the American War,” I replied.
He told me the suburb had been totally developed since then, and contained many army and police facilities and if I were to go there asking questions about POWs and POW camps and the American War I might find myself the subject of some unwelcome attention.
He didn’t mean there are POW camps there now, of course, he just meant that people might misinterpret my nosiness for spying, but having written BACK, in which POWs left behind by the US in Laos feature in a modern-day context, I’m always interested in Vietnam War-related POW sites and sights.
During the Vietnam War, Son Tay prison held around 65-80 US POWs and on November 21, 1970, 56 US commandos raided the camp in order to rescue them.
The raiders were supported by a total of 105 aircraft on this ambitious raid, which took them deep in the heart of North Vietnam.
Son Tay was then a town located only 23 miles (37 km) west of Hanoi, in an area where 12,000 North Vietnamese troops were stationed within 5 miles of the prison. Also, North Vietnam and – especially – Hanoi were encircled by intricate SAM surface to air missile defences, making any overflights of the country dangerous, let alone a rescue raid.
Unfortunately, prior to the raid, and perhaps tipped off by all the unusual reconnaissance activity from planes and spy drones overhead, all the US POWs were moved to another camp.
On the night of the raid, following some well-executed diversions by US planes mimicking attacks on various North Vietnamese towns and cities, which completely overwhelmed their air defences, the US rescue aircraft, flying over North Vietnam from Laos at treetop level, were able to reach Son Tay Prison without detection.
Three highly trained and heavily armed US commando teams then landed at and near Son Tay camp.
The first team intentionally crash-landed a helicopter right in the middle of the prison to get into position as quickly as possible.
The second landed 400 meters away by accident, at what turned out to be a base for Russian and Chinese military advisers, who they then attacked.
The third team landed outside the main complex and assisted in securing the facility.
Once they had ascertained there were no POWs present, and bitterly disappointed, only 26 minutes after they’d arrived, all US raiders were already flying home, albeit through a barrage of SAM missiles launched by the North Vietnamese who were then aware of their presence.
The only real success of the raid was to ensure that all the prisoners held at Son Tay and other nearby prisons by the North Vietnamese were transferred to the Hanoi Hilton prison instead. This provided better security, but it also improved the lot of transferred prisoners compared to the conditions at Son Tay.
Some have suggested the real intention of the raid was both the attempted rescue of POWs and also to send a message to the Russians and the Chinese covertly assisting the Vietnamese, although that’s highly unlikely, in my opinion. That’s called making the best of a bad job.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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