'Five people had this letter from the chief of staff, General Ryan of the Air Force," says William Guenon. "It said, 'To Whom It May Concern: The person who hands you this letter will request something from you. Give them what they want. If you can't, call me.' He never got a call, and we got what we needed." On Thursday, October 19, Guenon will discuss and sign his book, Secret and Dangerous: Night of the Son Tay POW Raid, at the San Diego Air and Space Museum. "It was the height of the Vietnam War in 1970. [The government] was starting to get information back that POWs were starting to die in prison," recounts Guenon. "Nixon decided he had to do something."
The Son Tay POW camp was located 23 miles west of Hanoi, the highly defended capital of North Vietnam. "A group of whiz kids in the Pentagon devised a plan. It was a very hush-hush, super-secret type of operation. Fifty-six Green Berets went, and there were roughly 116 aircraft involved."
"Cherry One" was the call sign for the giant C-130 piloted by Guenon. "The first helicopter [dubbed 'Banana One'] did an assault, landing inside the prison. Everyone else would call it a 'crash landing.'" The other five helicopters were named Apple One through Five, and fighter bombers were Peach One through Five. "We would call [the operation] a 'fruit salad with a punch.'"
Guenon explains the reasoning behind the call signs: "The Air Force always had good, strong signs like Racer, Dasher, Dagger -- it's vivid. And here we get these fruit call signs...we said, 'The Army had to do that.' But there's a very good reason -- you put somebody out in a battle situation, with bullets going over your head, up for two days, you're hungry, tired, and sore, these names stick. If you had to come up with a fancy call sign, you probably wouldn't remember it in the heat of battle."
POWs assigned names to the ten prisons outside Hanoi to make it easy for them to keep track of their fellow prisoners. Son Tay was known as "Camp Hope." "When you ask 'em where they were, they'll say 'Hanoi Hilton,' or they'll say 'Hope,' and then give a cell number, like 'Hope Seven.' They knew who everyone was in every cell."
Of the nearly 600 POWs, Guenon believes around 100 were lost in the ten years of the war. "They didn't make it, let's put it that way. The ones that survived really and truly were amazing, resilient people. Most of these guys say, 'The months and years went fast, but the hours and days passed slowly.'" One method employed by many POWs to pass the time was to visualize the houses they would build upon returning home to America. "Down to the nail count," says Guenon. "The guy I dedicated the book to said that when they were finally released, everyone wanted a piece of paper and a pen to data dump, to get it all down."
Prior to the day of the mission, only four people knew of the operation's details. A full-scale replica of Son Tay, code named "Barbara," was built at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Psywarrior.com reports that a select group of Special Forces soldiers trained there at night and that "the mock compound was dismantled during the day to elude detection by Soviet satellites."
Words credited to Colonel Arthur D. "Bull" Simmons, as he informed the 56 Green Berets of the operation five hours before takeoff, include: "You are to let nothing, nothing interfere with the operation. Our mission is to rescue prisoners, not take prisoners. And if we walk into a trap, if it turns out that they know we're coming, don't dream about walking out of North Vietnam unless you've got wings on your feet...if there's been a leak, we'll know it as soon as the second or third chopper sets down; that's when they'll cream us. If it happens, I want to keep this force together. We will back up the Song Con River and, by Christ, let them come across that goddamn open ground. We'll make them pay for every foot across the sonofabitch."
The entire raid took 27 minutes, and not one "friendly" life was lost, though psywarrior.com states that nearly 50 North Vietnamese Army soldiers were killed. Despite this perfectly executed operation, there was one glaring fact: "negative items." The prisoners has been moved to Dong Hoi (nicknamed "Camp Faith") months earlier -- not because the enemy had been tipped off, but because of flooding from the adjacent Con River.
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force states, "Despite rescuing no prisoners, the raid proved a success in other ways. It caused North Vietnam to gather POWs in fewer locations to prevent similar raids, making POW communication and organization easier. POW morale soared...the daring raid so close to Hanoi demonstrated that the United States had the will and means to carry out exceptional operations to ensure POW well-being." -- Barbarella
Secret and Dangerous: Night of the Son Tay POW Raid
Lecture and booksigning with author William Guenon
Thursday, October 19
San Diego Air and Space Museum
Cost: $15; free for students and active military
Info: 619-234-8291, ext. 19 or www.sandiegoairandspace.org/upcoming/lecture.html