By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2022
“I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’”
— Isaiah 6:8.
“History is not history unless it is the truth.”
— Abraham Lincoln, 1856.
“Of course it’s a violation of international law; that’s why it’s a covert action!”
— Vice President Al Gore, 1993.
The most-dangerous, complex, and sensitive, large-scale effort of the Vietnam War was Operation Kingpin, the clandestine, Special Forces raid on the Sơn Tây prison camp early on Saturday morning, November 21, 1970, at Sơn Tây, North Vietnam, just 23 miles northwest of the capital city of Hanoi. The official purpose of the raid was to rescue an estimated 61 American prisoners of war (POWs), and a massive, Joint Contingency Task Group (JCTG) of 219 men from the U.S. Army and Air Force was assembled. An initial planning phase, Operation Ivory Coast, began on August 8, 1970, at a secret, CIA training facility at Eglin Air Force Base’s Duke Field in Florida.
Aside from the prison camp itself, however, there was a “Secondary School” located about 500 yards to the south, believed to be some type of military barracks, housing an estimated 50 to 200 extra soldiers. These two objectives were both located very near the 12th North Vietnamese Army Regiment, with up to 12,000 troops stationed within five miles, so the raid would have to be executed very quickly, before substantial reinforcements could arrive.
A complicating factor was the presence of approximately 50,000 communist Chinese troops in North Vietnam since 1968, 2,000 of whom were later listed as combat casualties, and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping confessed in 1980 that, “Do you know the amount of help we gave to the Vietnamese in those years? 20 billion dollars!”
According to former, U.S. officials, ex-Special Forces officers, the Washington Post, and after-action reports from the mission itself, the Secondary School was believed to be staffed by Chinese Special Forces advisors, and air defense troops. The darker side of the story was that several of our elite, MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group, more appropriately known as the “Special Operations Group”) secret reconnaissance teams (RTs) sent into Laos beginning in mid-1969 were compromised and wiped out to the last man, because the Chinese had broken our radio codes and sent special, “Headhunter” teams to kill them. Top-Secret, intelligence reporting allegedly traced these teams back to a military compound near Sơn Tây, the infamous “Secondary School,” because it had once served as an actual, civilian schoolhouse. If any of this information was true, it was extremely sensitive, since the targeted killing of American troops by anyone except North Vietnamese troops was quite illegal under all of the rules of international warfare.
The overly-ambitious plan for Operation Kingpin called for not only a direct raid itself, involving 28 aircraft, but for extensive, diversionary operations over Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor by 88 additional, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy aircraft, to draw enemy attention away from the Sơn Tây area. The actual, assault force would consist of one HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopter, and five HH-53C Super Jolly transports, carrying a total of 56 Special Forces soldiers, escorted in the air by two C-130E(I) Combat Talon I aircraft for precision navigation, and a pair of HC-130P Hercules transports for aerial refueling.
This was the first joint, military operation in U.S. history conducted under the direct control of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commanded by Air Force Brigadier General LeRoy J. Manor, and his deputy commander was Army Colonel Arthur David “Bull” Simons,” age 52, a World War Two, Ranger veteran who had participated in the famous, Cabanatuan Raid (“The Great Raid”) in the Philippines on January 30, 1945, rescuing 552 Allied POWs, including 492 Americans, from a Japanese prison camp, and earning the Silver Star medal for his actions. During the Vietnam War, Simons had secret experience with Operation White Star in Laos, and worked with MACV-SOG from 1965 to 1966, making him an absolutely perfect choice to lead the ground assault at Sơn Tây.
At Duke Field, 103 handpicked, Special Forces men (“Green Berets”) were recruited, and an intensive series of at least 170 mission rehearsals began, some with live-firing of weapons. Only Manor, Simons, and two others knew what the actual objective, the prison camp, would be at that point.
Some sources have suggested that the Secondary School was an additional target, to secretly kill the Chinese advisors in retaliation for their attacks on the American RTs. If true, this information would have been so highly classified and sensitive that only Manor and Simon would know it. After all, Benjamin Franklin once observed that, “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead,” so such an ultra-secret intent would have to be limited to as few individuals as possible. Killing Chinese troops would also be technically illegal, so it would have to be a plausibly-deniable, covert operation.
In July 1970, an SR-71A Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft photo depicted the prison camp as “less active than usual,” and by October 3, the camp showed very little signs of life, but with increased activity at the Dong Hoi camp (“Camp Faith”), 15 miles farther east. Had the POWs been moved? As it later turned out, the prisoners at Sơn Tây were moved to Dong Hoi on July 14th due to flooding of the Sơn Tây camp, so the objective was empty, but due to “intelligence failures” and “compartmentalization” of data, none of the participants knew that at the time, although they may have suspected as much by early October.
Air Force Major John Gargus, a mission planner and participant, stated that, “The raid was allowed to take place because those who had the correct intelligence information were not aware that someone was contemplating a POW rescue.”
By 3:00 AM on November 18, 1970, just three days before the mission was to take place, the JCTG contingent had moved to its staging location in a CIA compound at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, where just 56 Special Forces troopers were selected from the 103 who had trained for the mission, and presidential approval was received that same day. On the evening of November 20, they relocated by C-130 aircraft to their helicopter staging base at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand.
Only five hours before takeoff for the actual mission, Bull Simons gathered his 56 Special Forces men, and advised them that, “We are going to rescue 70 American prisoners of war, maybe more (possibly 80), from a camp called Sơn Tây…23 miles west of Hanoi. You are to let nothing, nothing interfere with the operation. Our mission is to rescue prisoners, not take prisoners.”
At this point, the openly-stated objective was the prison camp (let’s call it “Target 1” for simplicity.) If there was an additional, ultra-secret tasking to intentionally kill Chinese advisors at the Secondary School (let’s call it “Target 2”), it was so extremely sensitive and illegal that he could never tell anyone else, and would have to act upon it on his own, at an opportune moment during the mission.
The latest, photoreconnaissance data clearly indicated that the American POWs had probably been moved to Camp Faith in mid-July, so why continue with the operation in late November? Target 1 was now very questionable, but Target 2 was still occupied, and quite viable, if it was an actual target, and now Target 1 effectively became the cover story for “accidentally” hitting nearby Target 2. So, the circumstances were still perfect for eliminating the Chinese Special Forces advisors, if that was the true intent.
The chief planner of the raid, Army General Donald D. Blackburn, told the Washington Post in July 1985 that, “We knew (the POWs) had been moved. We didn’t want to give up the demonstration of power.” He said that the real purpose of the raid was to show the North Vietnamese how vulnerable they were. In other words, they already knew that Target 1 was probably empty, but they executed the raid, anyway.
The Green Beret assault force wore ordinary, olive-drab, field uniforms with no name tapes or rank insignia, until the very last moment before takeoff. Red-tinted goggles over their eyes were for preserving night vision, since there were no night-vision goggles (NVGs) in use at that time.
They were armed with 48 Colt CAR-15 (XM177E2) Commando carbines in 5.56mm, with 11.5-inch barrels, and their six flash-suppressor slits taped over with black, electrical tape, to reduce the multi-directional, “starburst effect” of flash when fired at night. They also utilized 30-round magazines, which were brand-new, in very short supply, and just then coming into operational use during the Vietnam War. These weapons mounted the Armalite Singlepoint Occluded Eye Gunsight (OEG), the very first time that a red-dot, optical sight would ever be used in combat.
In addition, the Special Forces men carried two M16A1 rifles, four M60 machine guns, four M79 40mm grenade launchers, two shotguns, 15 Claymore mines, 11 demolition charges, 213 M57/M61 hand grenades, and a varied assortment of bolt cutters, wire cutters, axes, chainsaws, crowbars, ropes, bullhorns, and other specialized equipment, plus an Air Force PRC-90 pilot’s survival radio for each individual soldier. There were also 51 personal handguns, mostly Colt M1911A1 service pistols in .45 ACP, but Bull Simons carried his privately-owned, .357 Magnum revolver (unspecified, but probably a Smith and Wesson Model 19 Combat Magnum, in that era.)
At 10:00 PM on Friday, November 20, 1970, the mission aircraft began departing from five bases in Thailand and one base in South Vietnam. The two C-130E(I) Combat Talon I special operations transports, equipped with APQ-115 terrain-following/terrain-avoidance (TF/TA) radars and experimental, FL-2B FLIR sensors for the very first time, led the way for precise navigation, with the six assault helicopters behind them in a V-shaped formation. The Talons had to fly just above their own stall speeds for the much-slower helicopters to keep pace, so the flight was extremely risky, and they crested the mountains over Laos and North Vietnam at an altitude of only 1,000 feet in total darkness, flying 337 miles to their final destination. They entered the Red River Valley at 500 feet altitude, on a clear night with excellent visibility. The helicopters then broke formation, and whooshed toward the target zone at just 200 feet altitude.
The helicopters first touched down at Sơn Tây at 2:19 AM on Saturday, November 21, 1970, with the single, outdated, HH-3E (callsign “Banana”) deliberately crash-landing in the center of the prison compound in order for the 14-man, ground-assault force (codenamed “Blueboy”) aboard to gain immediate access to the POWs, if they were still present.
This element was command by Captain Richard J. “Dick” Meadows, a heroic, combat veteran who had served with the British Special Air Service (SAS) on an exchange program as a young sergeant in 1960, the first of only two NCOs to be awarded SAS wings and serve as a troop commander. Then, like Bull Simons, he later had combat experience in Laos, fought with MACV-SOG as a covert operator, and earned a very rare, battlefield commission in 1967 to the rank of captain. And exactly like Simons, Meadows was absolutely the perfect choice to lead the assault team.
He and his 13 Special Forces sergeants emerged from the damaged helicopter with all guns blazing, as a savage firefight erupted. There was only one American casualty at this point, the Air Force flight engineer, Technical Sergeant Leroy M. Wright, whose ankle was broken by a dislodged fire extinguisher during the crash-landing, but he continued with the mission, anyway, and was later awarded the prestigious Air Force Cross for exceptional valor in action.
Meadows and his assault force killed 42 North Vietnamese soldiers at the prison compound, and searched all five cell blocks, but found no American POWs. Sergeant First Class Joseph M. Murray was hit from behind by gunfire in his leg and lightly injured, but Master Sergeant Herman Spencer swiftly eliminated his assailants. Master Sergeant Joe Lupyak took a green beret with a 5th Special Forces Group flash and nailed it to the flagpole in the prison compound as a calling card. The soldiers then destroyed the HH-3E chopper with a timed, three-pound, explosive charge of C-4 plastique and thermite.
Meanwhile, the lead, HH-53C Super Jolly helicopter (callsign “Apple 1”), piloted by Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Warner A. Britton, a combat rescue expert, and with Bull Simons (callsign “Axle”) and 21 Special Forces soldiers aboard, veered off 500 yards toward the south, landing just beyond the south side of the infamous, “Secondary School” compound, which was enclosed by a fence. This was later attributed to a “navigational error,” stating that they had “mistakenly landed” at the “wrong target.”
Mistakes certainly occur in battle, however, it’s almost inconceivable that a grizzled, combat-veteran, Airborne-Ranger colonel and mission commander, a long-time expert in jungle warfare, with covert operations experience in South Vietnam and Laos, who had already practiced this very same mission at least 170 times, could make such a huge error and “accidentally” land at the “wrong” compound. Unless it wasn’t really an accident, after all. Did Simons very carefully choose his moment with flawless timing, to head off any possible reinforcements from Target 2, and kill the Chinese advisors?
Whether the landing there was intentional or not, the end result was the same. A blazing, violent gun battle ensued, with swarms of tall, Asian soldiers rushing outside, mostly in their underwear, since it was only 2:19 AM. Commanding this Special Forces support element (callsign “Greenleaf”) was German-born Captain Udo H. Walther, age 23, who immediately killed four of these enemy combatants with his CAR-15 carbine, and then he ran inside the compound, rushing from bay to bay and mowing the Asians down with CAR-15 fire and hand grenades, followed by his Special Forces team, using CAR-15s, an M60 machine gun, an M79 grenade launcher, and numerous grenades.
This fierce, raging battle only lasted for two minutes and 15 seconds, and then they waited for the helicopter to return and take them to the prison compound instead. Walther and his 20 men wreaked untold havoc upon the enemy troops there within a very short period of time, and he recovered a communist Chinese officer’s belt and buckle from one of the bodies. He later remarked that, “It wasn’t a secret that there were Chinese there, and it wasn’t a secret that there were a bunch of them.” Walther stated that he took photos of the dead Chinese, but his film disappeared at the debriefing after the mission.
General Manor later recalled that, “Military personnel exited the buildings in various states of undress, and fired their weapons against the intruders. The raiders, however, having the benefit of initiative, a rehearsed plan of action, and not suffering from the element of shock that was imposed on the defenders, quickly disposed of the camp contingent…A firefight immediately ensued, where the estimate of enemy killed ran as high as 200. This raiding element was on the ground for not more than five minutes when the mistake was realized. Simons and his men re-boarded the helicopter and moved to the correct position at the Sơn Tây Prison.”
Colonel Bull Simons waited outside in a trench for Britton’s helicopter to return, and during that very brief time, an Asian soldier in his underwear jumped in beside him. Simons killed the man with six rounds through the chest from his .357 Magnum revolver. Udo Walther and his team quickly returned, after estimating at least 100+ enemy soldiers killed at the Secondary School. Walther’s Silver Star medal citation for this combat action tells the dramatic story quite well:
“For gallantry in action…outstanding leadership, personal courage, and presence of mind…at Sơn Tây prison…Upon reaching his first objective…the force was engaged by an enemy force armed with AK-47 rifles. Captain Walther unhesitatingly led his element into the compound, subduing this force with devastating and accurate fire…His heroic actions and his disregard for his own personal safety were an inspiration to his men and officers…His fearless conduct, his efficient and accurate executions of combat tasks, and his calm manner of performance under fire during the critical extraction phase reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Army.”
Interestingly enough, Simons and his men calculated that they had killed 100 to 200 enemy troops at the Secondary School within a very short time, with the most conservative estimate being in the 100+ range. Yet none of these enemy casualties were included in the official, U.S. mission report, since they were not at the prison camp itself. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) did not admit to any losses at the Secondary School compound later, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of communist China could not admit to even being in the country of North Vietnam at that time, much less sustaining such staggering losses in less than two and a half minutes one night. So officially, it never happened, except that it truly did occur!
The entire, Sơn Tây Raid lasted for only 27 minutes on the ground, from touchdown to takeoff again, well within the planned, 30-minute criteria for avoiding enemy reinforcements. It was a perfectly-executed and highly-successful operation, despite recovering no POWs, which were already believed to be absent in advance. The immediate impact of the mission was a tremendous boost in morale of the American POWs in other camps and prisons. They knew instantly that they had not been forgotten. The North Vietnamese realized that had the rescue operation been successful, the sight of the prisoners in their current state of health would have been disastrous, so food, mail delivery, and medical care all improved for the prisoners, and the North Vietnamese consolidated the POWs, and instead of solitary confinement, most were finally housed together.
Another result of the audacious mission was that Chinese Special Forces “Headhunter” teams reportedly stopped ambushing our MACV-SOG recon teams (RTs), having been taught a very harsh lesson to back off from such nefarious and illegal activities. Although, Chinese-advised, NVA “Headhunter” teams continued, notably killing most of the American and South Vietnamese/Nùng tribal members of RT Alaska on May 17, 1971.
The stunning success of this joint, U.S. Army and Air Force mission later served as an example and role model for the creation of Delta Force in 1977, followed by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in 1980, and the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in 1987. For their heroic actions at Sơn Tây, members of the joint task force were subsequently awarded six Distinguished Service Crosses (DSCs), five Air Force Crosses, and at least 85 Silver Stars, including all 50 members of the ground force who did not receive the DSC. Brigadier General Manor received the Distinguished Service Medal, and Captain Dick Meadows earned the Silver Star, and promotion to major.
Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. Army’s second-highest medal for valor. His citation reads, in part: “The President of the United States of America…takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Colonel (Infantry) Arthur D. Simons, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism while commanding the ground element of a joint, United States task force on an operation deep in North Vietnam on 21 November 1970…at the Sơn Tây Prison Compound…In an outstanding display of leadership and personal courage, Colonel Simons led the ground force in the rescue effort.
“On the ground, the search-and-rescue element was immediately taken under automatic weapons fire by the enemy. While directing and supervising the operation, Colonel Simons continually exposed himself to enemy fire and, on one occasion, personally took under fire enemy personnel in close proximity to his position. The success of the operation was the direct result of Colonel Simons’ calm and competent leadership in an extremely hazardous situation. His professional conduct instilled confidence in his men, and resulted in an outstanding operation. Colonel Simons’ extraordinary heroism was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army.”
Air Force Technical Sergeant Leroy M. Wright’s Air Force Cross (their second-highest award for valor) citation reads that he “distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism…as a helicopter crew member…(at) the Sơn Tây Prisoner of War Camp…Although suffering injury to his left foot and ankle during the landing in the compound, Sergeant Wright, despite the possibility of explosion, remained with the helicopter until all passengers and crew exited the aircraft. Sergeant Wright then…with complete disregard for his own life, placed extremely-effective, covering fire at positions which endangered the operation, thus freeing the Army element within the compound to continue its mission. Sergeant Wright, ignoring the intense pain and injury, courageously moved unassisted more than 200 meters…(to) the extraction landing zone. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, Sergeant Wright reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”
On July 5, 1981, Murrey Marder, the senior, diplomatic reporter for the Washington Post, wrote, “The Secret War We Fought With China: There may even have been a brief but furious, ground battle between Americans and Chinese at an installation known as Sơn Tây…Chinese personnel possibly were the secretly-reported, unidentified dozens of ‘large orientals’ who were caught by surprise and slain…by equally-startled, U.S. Special Forces who landed ‘by mistake’ on top of them in the quarter-moon darkness.
“Where does this information come from?…It comes from interviews with former U.S. officials, from several published but not widely circulated sources, and from official, American documents declassified after the end of the war…what might be dubbed the third ‘secret war’ in Indochina, between China and the United States, far more clandestine…with a falsified, public record.
“What is known, according to authoritative, American sources…what occurred at Son Tay in North Vietnam on Nov. 21, 1970…the secrecy which surrounded that particular incident is indicative of the entire climate of the times. The operation did succeed, brilliantly, as a high-risk, military venture…there was an intense firefight at the unintended, second landing site. There, the assault commander, Col. Arthur D. (‘Bull’) Simons, and his assault ‘support group’ were surprised to encounter ‘large orientals’…not North Vietnamese…‘These personnel were oriental, larger (5’10”-6’) than other North Vietnamese Army (NVA) personnel in the area, and were not wearing the normal, NVA dress.’
“As a result of interviews with ‘Bull’ Simons, and other members of the Special Forces assault team…the raiding party ‘killed 100 to 200 Chinese troops’ in the unplanned portion of the action…Simons had 21 (men) with him…where radio transmissions show that they spend only two minutes and 15 seconds in the actual firefight…(Meanwhile) about 50 enemy casualties were claimed (at the prison compound)…(and) one of Simons’ troopers (Captain Udo Walther, at the Secondary School) stripped from a dead oriental a ‘brown, leather field belt and raised-star buckle’ worn by Chinese officers.
“But perhaps most significant…(in) disclosing the extent of actual combat between Americans and Chinese during the Vietnam War, no serious, official, follow-up effort was made at intelligence levels to ascertain if the ‘large orientals’ at Sơn Tây were really Chinese. That is ‘distinctly probable,’ the senior, CIA action officer on the raid, George A. Carver Jr.…said last week. But at the highest, American levels, no one was anxious to find out if that was true…(because) that would have been an awkward bit of information to have about a shooting engagement between Americans and Chinese that neither side had any interest in acknowledging.”
In retrospect, the spectacular, Sơn Tây Raid was certainly innovative, exceptionally daring, and flawless in both concept and execution. The nationality of those 100+ enemy combatants killed at the Secondary School compound has never been publicly confirmed, even now, more than a half-century later. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw astutely commented that, “The only secrets are the secrets that keep themselves.” Perhaps the enduring, historical mystery of Sơn Tây and the Chinese Special Forces advisors fits into this mysterious category all too well.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author, historian, and hunter. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.