1970's

  • 1970
  • NOVEMBER 20

  • Son Tay POW camp raid in North Vietnam. Two ARRS HH-53s and one HH- 3E transported 56 U.S. Army Special Forces troops to the Son Tay POW camp. Their mission was to rescue 75 or more POWs believed to be held in that camp. The force successfully infiltrated, landed, and deployed the SF troops. The troops seized the camp, searched the cells, and all enemy troops were killed. Unfortunately, the POWs had been moved earlier due to nearby flooding. 1st Special Operations Wing pilots flew 25 hours under automatic weapons fire in support of the mission.
    On November 20, 1970, a United States force commanded by Air Force Brigadier General Leroy J. Manor and Army Colonel Arthur D. Simons landed 56 Army Special Forces soldiers by helicopter in the Son Tay prison camp to rescue an estimated 60-75 American prisoners of war (POWs). The Son Tay Raid developed in response to the 356 POWs being held in camps north of the Demilitarized Zone in North Vietnam.
    In May 1970, the Air Force's 1127th Special Activity Squadron received aerial reconnaissance photos at Son Tay that showed a coded message spelled out by the prisoners. In particular, the message indicated the number of personal interned and the location and a possible pickup site eight miles to the northeast at Mount Ba Vi. In response, the United States conducted a series of aerial reconnaissance flights and held a series of feasibility groups to assess the possibility of a rescue. On 16 September 1970 the mission concept was approved as "feasible" by a group of 2 civilians, 22 officers, and 3 enlisted. A week later Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird approved the mission concept.
    Even before the mission was approved by Secretary Laird, training began at Eglin Air Force Base in phases. Phase I was the selection process of qualified candidates. Phase II included specialized training. Lastly, Phases III and IV comprised of training on the actual objective, which required the building a mockup of the camp every night and then disassembling it so that intelligence of the mission was not leaked. The force conducted more than 170 exercises on the camp mockup. And throughout the training phase, the participants did not know exactly what type of mission they were training for or where they would execute. They only knew they were training for an air assault on an objective. It was not until 18 November, two days before the execution of the mission, that the force was given the full mission and location.
    The Son Tay Raid was a larger coordinated effort among the Navy, Army, and Air Force. In order to insert the infiltration team undetected, the plan was to convince the North Vietnamese that the United States was conducting a bombing raid on select targets. This was merely a deception to trigger the North Vietnamese defense system and have it focus on the bombing efforts. All the while the infiltration force would attempt to come in undetected. The plan worked without a hitch.
    In terms of the infiltration force, 15 aircraft were used to include two C-130Es, two HC-130Ps, one HH-3, five HH-53s, and five A-1Es. At one point in the infiltration, it was believed MiG fighters were in route, evasive measures were taken by the aircraft, but this proved to be nothing more than a false alarm and the six helicopters landed the force without incident. But to get the helicopters deep into enemy territory required refueling by two HC-130P. It also required the lead of two C-130Es.
    The raid was executed flawlessly, but the objective was a failure. The prison camp was empty except for the North Vietnamese soldiers protecting it. The failure all boiled down to incomplete intelligence. It was a November operation based upon June intelligence. Indeed, the United States made a number of efforts to gain more intelligence on the objective, but poor weather and low ceilings prevented collection. The only reports received were from sources outside the camp indicating the increase or decrease of vehicle activity. The intelligence was assumed to correlate with prisoner movements.
    However, it turned out to be linked to the planting of local crops. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the raid, was the political implications. Initially, the executive branch denied the operation outright because they hoped to execute another one. In a telephone conversation with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, President Nixon defended the former's characterization of the raid as "bad luck," stating, "It was not bad luck at all. We haven't paid any price at all. It was just a little exercise, but it proved we could do it. It proves they could do another."
    But there was another reason the raid was not divulged to the public. The Nixon administration feared political backlash due to the mission's operational failure. Still, Secretary of Defense Laird wanted to commend the efforts of the persons involved. As Kissinger put it to Nixon: "They would like to crow about it a little bit. It was beautifully executed operation deep into enemy territory." Nixon held firm though, stating, "We say nothing, deny everything."
    The status quo changed once the Fulbright Committee heard rumors of the raid. Initially, Nixon only authorized acknowledgment of a search and rescue operation. The political backlash was immediate. But as details of the raid were gradually divulged the press and the people embraced the raid as "daring" and "bold." Support for the raid--and further attempts to rescue POWs--reached such a height that Nixon stated, "They are finding it is like attaching the Flag." But public opinion changed again when the intelligence failure was revealed through press sources.
    All and all the Son Tay Prison Raid is a fascinating event in Air Force Special Operations history. Not only was the mission executed flawlessly, but it morphed into a political controversy over the use of special operations forces. Most importantly, the mission itself was something the enemy thought impossible, and it continues to serve as an inspiring example for our special operators to expand the operational box.

  • 1972
  • JUNE 30

  • Re-designated the 24th Special Operations Group.

  • 1973
  • FEBRUARY 12

  • The release of United States POWs began in Hanoi, Vietnam as part of the Paris Peace Accords. The Vietnamese released the longest held POWs first and 20 POWs received a hero's welcome at Travis AFB, California, on 14 February as part of Operation HOMECOMING.
    This included six Aircraft Rescue and Recovery Services personnel: Captain Thomas J. Curtis, Captain Warren R. Lilly, 1 Lt Jerry A. Singleton, SSgt Arthur Cormier (PJ), A1C William A. Robinson (crew chief), and A2C Arthur N. Black (PJ). Captain Curtis, A1C Robinson, A2C Black, were three members of a four member HH-43B helicopter aircrew that crashed attempting to rescue a downed pilot. Each was awarded the Air Force Cross for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force 40 miles south of Vinh, North Vietnam. On 20 September 1965, this aircrew participated in an extremely hazardous attempted recovery of a downed pilot. The mission required a flight of over 80 miles, mostly over hostile controlled territory. Evaluation of the environment in which the downed pilot was located indicated that maximum performance would be demanded from each crewmember if successful recovery was to be affected. Though exposed to intensive hostile ground fire, the aircrew, with complete disregard for their safety, performed with courage and professional precision in a supreme [but failed] effort to rescue a fallen comrade. Following the crash of their unarmed helicopter, the Vietnamese immediately captured and held them hostage for 2,655 days. During captivity,Sergeant Cormier, A1C Robinson, and A3C Black received the first-ever Air Force battlefield commissions which were eventually approved by President Nixon. Sergeant Cormier received a Silver Star for his heroism and Robinson and Black both received the Air Force Cross.
    Sergeant Cormier became a Pararescueman in 1963 and served as a PJ with the 48th Air Rescue Squadron at Eglin AFB, Florida from March 1964 to October 1965. He deployed once during this period to Southeast Asia where he served as a PJ with Detachment 5, of the 38th Air Rescue Squadron at Udorn Royal Thai AFB, Thailand, from October 1965 until shot-down during this attempted rescue attempt.
    A2C Arthur N. Black enlisted in the Air Force on 16 January 1963 and trained as a Pararescueman. His first assignment was as a PJ with the 79th Air Rescue Squadron at Anderson AFB, Guam, from October 1963 to May 1965 and then with the 41st Air Rescue Squadron his helicopter was shot down over North Vietnam.

  • NOVEMBER 15

  • Re-designated the 24th Special Composite Group.

  • 1976
  • JANUARY 1

  • Re-designated the 24th Special Composite Wing.

  • JULY 28

  • Two world records for speed were set for the SR-71 A "Blackbird" reconnaissance aircraft at Beale Air Force Base, California, by Air Force pilots. Captain Eldon W. Joersz set the record over a straight course (2,193.16 mph). Major Adolphus H. Bledsoe set the record over a closed circuit (2,092.294 mph).

  • 1978
  • FEBRUARY1

  • The USAF reassigned the Air Ground Operations School from the 1st Special Operations Wing to the Tactical Air Warfare Center.

  • 1979
  • NOVEMBER 13

  • Detachment 1, 1 SOW deployed to Guam. The unit comprised four AC-130H Spectres and 185 personnel. The deployment came from rising tensions in the Republic of Korea. The four aircraft flew non-stop from Hurlburt to Guam, setting records for the longest non-stop C-130 flight, averaging 29.5 hours, and requiring 4 aerial refuelings. Additionally, the aircraft made the trip flying under 10,000 feet. While at Guam, crews flew the aircraft to Korea several times. The deployment, which lasted until 3 March 1980, comprised 113 sorties and 850.1 flying hours.