On March 19, speaking at a Morris Township, New Jersey Democratic Party fundraiser, Vice President Joe Biden provided what may be the mother of all election year bumper stickers when he asserted, “Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive. Think about it.” To help wrap our minds around these two facts, referring to the May 1, 2011 raid that killed Bin Laden, the Veep boasted, “You can go back 500 years. You cannot find a more audacious plan.”
Indeed the raid succeeded. No Americans were killed. On the down side, the United States left behind a stealth helicopter for the Chinese and Russians to reverse engineer. Nevertheless, President Obama made the right call. Seal Team Six performed magnificently.
But the most audacious plan in 500 years? No way. Just keeping it to raids, the November 20, 1970 Son Tay Raid conducted by U.S. Army Special Forces in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service was far more audacious in concept, planning, and execution. The Son Tay Raid involved two C-130E assault transports, an HH-3E Jolly Green Giant, and five larger HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopters flying at night, at altitudes below 500 feet for 200 miles across northern Laos into North Vietnam to a prison camp located 28 miles north of Hanoi. The objective: free American prisoners of war thought to be held in the camp.
Planning for the raid started in June 1970 with practice conducted at night on a collapsible replica of the Son Tay prison located deep inside the swamplands that are part of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Every morning, the “prison compound" was dismantled to prevent Soviet reconnaissance satellites from discovering it. Dubbed “Operation Ivory Coast” to divert speculation from Southeast Asia to Africa, the raiders were not told of their objective until hours before the raid, which departed Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand just after dark.
Earl Tilford is a retired Air Force officer and college professor who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of several books on the air war in Vietnam. His latest book, Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s has been accepted for publication by the University of Alabama Press.