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This Day In History: U.S. Forces Raid Son Tay Prison Camp During Vietnam War

November 21, 2016

This day in history, November 21, 1970, a combined Air Force and Army team of 40 Americans–led by Army Colonel “Bull” Simons–conducts a raid on the Son Tay prison camp, 23 miles west of Hanoi, in an attempt to free between 70 and 100 Americans suspected of being held there.

Planning for the mission–code-named Operation Ivory Coast–began in June 1970. The plan called for Army Rangers to be flown to Son Tay by helicopter and crash-land inside the compound. The plan was for Rangers to pour out of the helicopter and neutralize any opposition while Rangers in other helicopters, landing outside the walls, would break in and complete the rescue operation.

At 11:30 p.m. on November 20, the raiding force departed Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. As the force approached the camp, U.S. Air Force and Navy warplanes struck North Vietnamese troop installations and antiaircraft sites in the area. Part of the force initially landed at the wrong compound, but otherwise the mission came off without a hitch.

Unfortunately, the Rangers could not locate any prisoners in the huts. After a firefight with the North Vietnamese troops in the area, the order was given to withdraw–27 minutes after the raid began, the force was in the air headed back to Thailand. It was learned later that the prisoners had been moved elsewhere in July.

Despite that disappointment, the raid was a tactical success and sent a message to the North Vietnamese that the United States was capable of inserting a combat force undetected only miles from their capital. Stunned by the raid, high Hanoi officials ordered all U.S. POW’s moved to several central prison complexes. This was actually a welcome change-the move afforded the prisoners more contact with each other and boosted their morale.