Son Tay raid a ‘model of teamwork’
STUTTGART, Germany — One of the heralded events in special operations history was the Son Tay raid of 1970.
In it, a team of 56 soldiers flew by helicopter into a North Vietnamese camp where Americans were suspected of being held prisoner. The raiders killed hundreds of the enemy and got away unscathed.
And while no prisoners were saved — they’d been relocated to a different camp a few months earlier — the mission has served as a model of teamwork and preparation, a group of soldiers was told Wednesday by one of the original raiders, Command Sgt. Maj. Patrick St. Clair of the West Virginia Army National Guard.
The 1970 raid, followed by the botched attempt in 1980 to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran when eight soldiers died, also helped to spur the next president, Ronald Reagan, to re-establish a strong special operations element in the United States after special ops had been downsized following Vietnam.
“I think [Reagan] understood we’d need a full complement of everything, including the [Army] Delta Force and a special operations command,” said St. Clair, of Special Operations Detachment E, Special Operations Command Europe.
Back in 1970, he was simply Sgt. St. Clair, a young Green Beret who’d never been to Vietnam. St. Clair was among 100 who were handpicked by the legendary Col. Arthur D. “Bull” Simons.
“All we knew is that we were locked down and training for a mission,” St. Clair said. “That’s all we needed to know at the time.”
President Nixon had been unhappy with the way American prisoners of war were being treated, St. Clair said, adding, “We knew the average POW weight loss was 64 pounds.”
The suspected prison camp at Son Tay, located 23 miles west of the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, was chosen for the raid because it was accessible.
St. Clair’s job after his chopper crash-landed inside the compound was to take out a guard tower that overlooked a building his team was going to storm.
The team then blew a hole in the wall.
“That’s how we were going to get the POWs out,” St. Clair said.
After discovering there were no POWs, but not before laying waste to the enemy, including a building full of Caucasians, the raiders piled into helicopters and made their getaway as the enemy fired from below.
“You could hear the fragments of the [surface-to-air missiles] coming through the bird,” St. Clair said.
The lessons learned from Son Tay, and from the failed Iran mission, established a blueprint for future special operations, St. Clair said.
Rehearsals, smart people making the plans, adequate resources to do the job, thinking outside the box, taking into account the weather and having good lines of communication between the participants.
After his 90-minute presentation, which lasted more than twice as long as the raid itself, St. Clair took questions from the audience at Patch Theater.
How come Simons never made general, asked one soldier.
“Probably too straightforward and successful,” St. Clair responded.
Who were the Caucasians that the raiders took out, another wanted to know. Maybe Russians or maybe Mongolians, St. Clair responded.
“One of the biggest things in the military is to keep learning from past experiences, both positive and negative,” said Lt. Col. Don Randle of SOCEUR, one of the soldiers in the audience. “Don’t keep reinventing the wheel.”
The U.S. men’s basketball team’s third-place finish at this year’s Olympics, Randle said, was an example of superior talent not excelling because they were not “orchestrated.”
“I’ve been mentored by a lot of Vietnam veterans in my career,” Randle said. “When you’re getting ready for a mission, you better be rehearsing or eating or sleeping. This is what prepares us, knowing what the guy on our left and right is doing.”
Capt. Mike Lass of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and SOCEUR said it was an honor to meet one of the original raiders.
“It’s one thing to read about the action and study the after-action reviews,” Lass said. “It adds a whole new aspect to hear a first-hand account.
“This brings the lesson home.”