January 2012

Element of Surprise

Gutsy helicopter raids deep behind enemy lines always make captivating headlines—and sometimes, they even turn into history lessons

ANNIE
JACOBSEN

PHOTO: TAVIS COBURN

It was the most elegantly executed special-operations raid to date in modern American warfare. High risk. The chances of returning were 50 percent. Of the six helicopters involved, one would crash-land inside the target’s high-walled compound.

When Green Berets stormed out of the copter, they’d spend a mere 26 minutes on the ground. So secret was the raid, its mission planners had security officers following them into public bathrooms and listening in on their telephone calls.

“There were huge political and military connotations...presidential implications as well,” says Lawrence Ropka, former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, one of the raid’s most experienced planners, whose knowledge of clandestine special operations earned him a place in the Air Commando Hall of Fame for maneuvers that included parachuting supplies and guerillas into Tibet to assist the Dalai Lama’s resistance movement in the late 1950s.

It may sound like Ropka is talking about Operation Neptune Spear—the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May—but in fact, he is talking about Operation Kingpin, the lionhearted attempt to rescue dozens of American POWs from the Son Tay prison camp in North Vietnam 41 years ago last November.

“The Son Tay raid was audacious,” says Ropka. “Very high risk. But this is age-old tradecraft. In a raid, the first element is always surprise. You must do something no one thinks you can—or will—do. That is how to find success.” In 1970, thanks to surveillance photos from a SR-71 spy plane, the Defense Intelligence Agency had discovered a prisoner-of-war camp near the citadel at Son Tay.

The plan was to fly in with a small force of commandos, kill the enemy guards, free the POWs and fly everyone out. The challenge was that Son Tay, situated beside the Red River, was 23 miles from downtown Hanoi, which utilized one of the world’s most heavily fortified air-defense systems.

“We knew how to send a single aircraft in on a low-level, terrain-following mission,” says John Gargus, then an Air Force major and a navigator on the raid. “But a single helicopter could not bring all the POWs out.” That, planners determined, required six helicopters and five Skyraider planes to be escorted by two C-130 transports that could navigate for them.

“Here was a fleet of aircraft going into one of the most heavily defended targets in the world—blind and dumb, in formation, over the mountains, at night,” Ropka recalls. It was audacious, all right. If the problem was the strength of the North Vietnamese air-defense system, then the solution was to find its weakness—a way to navigate in and out without being shot down.

To accomplish this, planners had to find assistance in the national intelligence community that was willing and able to help. The team sent members to L.A., where they began working with the Air Force at one of the most counterintuitive locations imaginable: Ontario Airport.

In the late 1960s, Ontario Airport was a throwback to a bygone era. Located 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, the airport served only two carriers, Western and Bonanza. Passengers could catch regional flights to San Francisco, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Phoenix and Los Angeles, and that was about it.

The main runway was crumbling and in need of extensive repairs. But at the far end of the tarmac, hiding in plain sight, was a group of mysterious C-130 aircraft (also referred to in the industry as MC-130 Combat Talons) without any Air Force markings.

“Sometimes, they were painted with a single blue stripe,” Gargus says. In agency parlance, these aircraft were, and still are, “sanitized” so as not to contain markings or serial numbers that could link them to any government organization.

It was inside these modified mystery airplanes—flying in and out of otherwise inconspicuous Ontario—that the Air Force was developing one of its most highly classified special-operations test beds of the Vietnam War. The program, known as Project Heavy Chain, is still largely classified: “Let’s just say I spent some time at the Ontario Airport,” Ropka says.

Gargus recalls the day Ropka showed up at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina with a very unusual request: “Two planners [Lt. Col. Kraljev and Lt. Col. Ropka] asked to be flown as slow as possible in a C-130—which was 105 knots. Any slower, meaning 104 knots, and the aircraft would stall.

Once the men saw that 105 could be done, they said thank you very much and left.” Some weeks later came the shocker. “I learned we were going to be escorting six helicopters with a C-130,” Gargus says. “The maximum speed on the Huey was 87 knots. The minimum safe speed with our C-130 in the Southeast Asia climate was 105 knots...that’s an impossible difference in speed if you need to fly in formation...So then, how could we solve the problem? Well, we had to use something called ‘drafting,’ flying the helicopter so close to the airplane’s wing that the helicopter would get pulled along faster, like in a vacuum.”

It was audacious, all right. If the problem was the strength of the North Vietnamese air-defense system, then the solution was to find its weakness—a way to navigate in and out without being shot down.

The raiders rehearsed this audacious flight formation to perfection, flying over the Florida, Georgia and Alabama countryside for 793 hours—using the exact distances to be traveled on raid day. The closeness of the flight formation seems impossibly tight.

“The helicopters flew 5 feet behind the wing of the C-130 and 10 to 12 feet above it,” Gargus says, recalling the practice missions as if they were yesterday. “As noisy as the C-130s were, the slap, slap, slap of the Huey’s rotor blades were clearly discernible. We were continuously aware of the small piece of airspace we had to share. It still frightens me when I think back at what might have happened to the whole project had there been a midair collision between a Huey and a C-130. How could such a thing be explained? Why was an Air Force aircraft flying in formation with an army helicopter in a scenario where both aircraft were exceeding their designed flight-specification limits?”

For the military men involved, there was serious motivation. Almost all the Air Force personnel on the team had served at least one tour of duty in Vietnam. It seemed as if everyone knew someone who was a POW. For Gargus, it was Harley Chapman, a classmate from high school. Another raider, George Petrie, had a cousin who was a prisoner in Hanoi.

During the planning phase, Ropka acted as a liaison between the CIA and the Defense Department. “I had seven years in the CIA,” says Ropka.

“We cross-serviced each other’s needs,” Gargus says. “I knew they had two FLIR systems [forward-looking infrared imaging technology, which was cutting edge in 1970], and we needed to borrow them. FLIR gave us night vision, the ability to see clearly in low light conditions using heat detection. This is not something we [navigators] had before.”

Come raid day, Gargus and fellow navigator Bill Stripling were seated inside one of the C-130s, behind a closed curtain so the lights from their navigational equipment didn’t cause a reflective glare inside the pilot’s side of the cockpit. “Standard terrain-following radar was useless on this raid because it was designed to work at speeds between 160 and 500-plus knots,” Gargus says, “so the terrain radar was going beep, beep, beep, warning!—like a truck backing up. It was saying there’s terrain above us!”

Gargus and Stripling ignored that navigational system and instead relied on the CIA’s forward-looking infrared. “Because I needed to be behind the curtain, I could not see the lights of Hanoi. But the FLIR allowed me to see the river very clearly, because of its difference in temperature from the trees. This helped to guide us in.”

Gargus noted the FLIR reading of the Red River’s width. “[It] was twice its premapped size,” he recalls. What he didn’t know was that the swollen river would prove to be the key to why, despite the Son Tay raid’s unflinching and painstaking execution, it would not go down in the annals of history as one of the nation’s most successful rescue missions.

The fleet of aircraft made it to Son Tay undetected but not without a last-minute hitch. During the first dress rehearsal, on October 6, 1970, planners determined they needed to use a larger helicopter. The Green Berets were so cramped in the Huey they wouldn’t be able to storm out and perform their jobs.

The new helicopter would be an HH-3, which required 14 more feet of space to land. This meant the first helicopter was going to have to crash-land inside the compound with only two feet of room to spare. Everyone on board would spring into action the moment they hit.

The other five helicopters would land outside the prison compound, and the raiding party would use C-4 to blow a hole through the wall to get in, through which the POWs would escape. The crucial step in maintaining the element of surprise was getting that first helicopter in. And it was a hard landing; one of the participants broke his ankle.

It all worked according to plan, but when the raiders stormed Son Tay, there were no POWs. The rising river had threatened to flood the prison camp, and the POWs had been moved. (The exact reason the POWs were relocated is complex and remains classified.) The Son Tay rescue team left North Vietnam without a single loss of life, but they were crushingly disappointed. “Our diligently prepared mission of mercy seemed to be a devastating failure,” Gargus says.

But according to Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, head of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command during the bin Laden raid, it actually wasn’t. “The raid on Son Tay is the best modern-day example of a successful special operation and should be considered textbook material for future missions,” McRaven wrote in his 1995 book,Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice. And on May 2, 2011, a similar raid was a success.

In the winter of 1973, the American POWs held captive in Vietnam were released according to the terms of the Paris Peace Accords.

ANNIE JACOBSEN is the author of Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons.