In the Tonkin Gulf aboard the aircraft carrier Oriskany, Admiral
Bardshar was handed a top-priority, specially coded message at 6:25 on the morning of Thursday, November 19-about
the time Simons' men were making a final check-out of their personal gear. The cryptic message was from Manor:
"NCA approval received." It meant that the raid would go; the only question now was when.Bardshar set
things in motion to launch Navy diversionary strikes. The weather from Typhoon Patsy was closing
in, however, and his carriers were tossing "moderately" in gale-force seas. Two of the carriers would
be conducting their first night operations on the eve of their deployment. Bardshar knew he could probably launch
the planes--his pilots would be glad to be off the heaving, rolling ships-- but recovering them in this weather
would be a "sporty proposition."
Bardshar had one other problem. His pilots were about to fly
one of the largest and most concentrated Navy air operations ever made over North Vietnam--but there was "no
authorization for the Navy forces to drop bombs."
How the hell, Bardshar wondered, do you send pilots into the
North Vietnamese air defense network with no bombs? What do you tell them? There wasn't much he could tell them.
Thus, when his carrier and air wing commanders got their preliminary planning briefing, they were read what was
probably the oddest operational order ever given to a Navy strike force. They would be flying over Haiphong in
the dark, both literally and figuratively. All they could tell their air crews about the purpose of their mission
A special operation will be conducted by a Joint Contingency
Task Group in the near future. It will be supported by elements of Task Force 77 whose function will be to create
a diversion in order to assist in the successful execution of the basic mission. Security considerations prohibit
full disclosure of the exact nature of the operation....Should any questions arise concerning the conduct of this
operation, they will be directed to me [Bardshar personally signed the order] personally, by courier whenever possible.
Bardshar had not even permitted the operations order to be
transmitted electrically: couriers flew it to the other two carriers, whose commanders were told that they would
be waging war with blank ammunition. Bardshar's order read: "It is doubtful that political considerations
will permit the expenditure of air-to-ground ordnance other than flares. Within these limits, the objective is
to create as much confusion in the NVN command and control system as possible."
No Navy strikes had been flown over North Vietnam for more
than two years, since October 31, 1968. Yet Navy carriers had remained on station in Tonkin Gulf, ready to launch
them any day. Finally, the air crews were to be sent back north--but in planes dropping flares over the heaviest
air defenses in the world.
Without being told why. It was bizarre, an archetypical moment
of the Vietnam war. Commander Douglas F. Mow, the skipper of Combat Air Group 19 aboard Oriskany, Captain J. E.
Mcknight, commanding Combat Air Wing 2 aboard Ranger, and Captain G.H. Palmer, leading Combat Air Wing 21 from
Hancock, opened their operations orders. With them were the three carriers' commanders, Captains Frank S. Haak,
J.L. Coleman and T.C. Johnson. The detailed plan which Commander P. D. Hoskins had drawn up in less that ten days
told them which planes would launch when and from what carrier, how they would rendezvous, what radio frequencies
they would monitor, which call signs would be used, where the planes would be flown, and precisely when and where
the pilots would "attack" Haiphong with Naval aviation "lightbulbs." One of the skippers quipped,
"We've flown 300,000 sorties over the north and we're finally going to make them see the light." Bardshar's
operations order wasn't all bad news, however. Search and Air Rescue efforts over land in NVN are authorized."
it read. And if someone was shot down, four A-7 attack aircraft would be "authorized to expend" Rockeye
cluster munitions and 20 mm. cannon fire "in support of SAR efforts." but Bardshar had to remind his
crews again: "No air-to-ground ordnance is authorized with the exception of the flares carried by Strike aircraft
and the Rockeyes and guns carried aboard the Rescue Combat Air Patrol." Bardshar would be able to ease those
restrictions at the last minute, however; a few planes could carry Shrikes" radar-homing missiles to suppress
North Vietnamese air defense SAMs and radar directed antiaircraft batteries.
Bardshar's operations order closed with some "special
instructions" that clamped a tight lid of security over the naval division:
(1)Once this plan is opened by the designated addressees,
disclosure of such portions as necessary to accomplish your assigned mission is authorized. Such disclosure will
be restricted to those with an absolute need to know and will be accomplished as late as possible in order to minimize
the chances of compromise. Once this plan has been opened, no personal mail will leave your unit and personnel
will be transferred only in emergency cases until the operation has been terminated or canceled.
(2) Schedule D-Day and H-Hour are ______ at_____ [the exact
times would be filled in when Bardshar got Manor's "final Go"]. These will never be transmitted electrically....
(5) No public statements regarding this operation are permitted
even after its completion, unless specifically authorized by [the Commander of Task Force 77]...Additionally, press
and other visits to units involved in this operation are to be discouraged whenever possible, provided that such
incidents will not lead to unnecessary speculation. Refer all decisions on these matters to [the Commander of Task
(8) Upon Termination of this operation, this [operations order]
will be destroyed. Message report to originator stating that destruction has been accomplished is required.
Late the next morning on November 20 at 11:10 A.M. Tonkin
Gulf time, Bardshar received another message from Manor; it advised of a "preliminary go." At 4:56 that
afternoon, a new message from Manor; it advised of a "final go." Boot Hill and Hoskins both flew from
carrier to carrier to brief Task Force 77's air wing and squadron commanders personally. They explained that "D-Day"
would be early the next day: the first planes would launch at 2:23 A.M. Tonkin Gulf time (1:23 A.M. over Son Tay).
Still they could not divulge the purpose of the mission, although Hill said cryptically that when they learned
the real objective, they would approve of it heartily. Hill had the commanders instruct their armament crews to
break out a few Shrike missiles, some 20 mm. gun ammunition, and all the flares Oriskany, Ranger and Hancock carried.
The largest night operation ever flown over North Vietnam would launch exactly 55 minutes before Bull Simons and
his men were to land in Son Tay Prison.
Their helicopters would have finished refueling over Laos
four minutes after the first A-7 was catapulted off Ranger's pitching flight deck.
A few minutes after 2:00 A.M. on November 21, a newly married
Navy Lieutenant climbed up to the 1,039 foot long flight deck of the 78,000 ton U.S.S. Ranger. Making the usual
walk-around inspection of his A-7 attack plane, he noticed that, just as he'd been briefed, every bomb rack was
loaded with flares.
He decided to resign his commission from Naval aviation as
soon as his tour in the western Pacific was over. His father was the commander, Naval Air Forces, Pacific. The
young aviator knew that his father probably wouldn't understand.
In fact, the admiral had no idea that his son--or any other
Navy pilots--would be flying over Haiphong Harbor that night, armed only with flares.
As Oriskany's deck crews watched the engine plumes of the
A-7 and F-8s fade into the night toward Haiphong Harbor, Bardshar made his way below. His brow furrowed. He had
two concerns: would the diversionary raid create enough confusion to prevent air action against the helicopters;
and would North Vietnamese MIGs come up to oppose Task Force 77's aircraft? In the carrier's sealed-off Combat
Information Center, he put on a set of earphones. Through one part of a split phone, he would be able to listen
to conversations between the strike aircraft, and between them and the carriers; through the other earphone, he
would listen to a translation of every intercept from North Vietnam's fighter control net. Thus, he would know
on a second by second basis what instructions the North Vietnamese air controllers were giving their MIGs. The
North Vietnamese were slow to react. For 30 to 35 minutes, that earphone was silent.
It came alive at 2:17 A.M., Son Tay time, exactly one minute
before Simons' helicopters were to land at Son Tay. Bardshar heard an excited North Vietnamese MIG pilot asking
the control tower at Phuc Yen airfield to "give me a vector, give me a vector." He wanted to know what
compass heading to fly, "where the action was" The controller told him to wait. For a moment, Bardshar
grew apprehensive. One of the runways at Phuc Yen took off right over the camp at Son Tay, only 22 miles to the
southwest; there was now at least one "hot" MIG ready to launch while the raid was under way. But Phuc
Yen's control tower remained silent as more pleas came from the pilot-"Give me a vector, give me a vector,"
he called. Four long minutes passed. Finally, at 2:21 A.M. Bardshar heard Phuc Yen's controller tell the MIG pilot.
"It doesn't make any difference, they're all over!"
When the pilot asked him to clarify those instructions, Bardshar
heard the controller tell him in desperation, "I don't care what you do. Go to China if you want to..."
Bardshar relaxed. The Navy diversion was working. The North Vietnamese were thoroughly confused, and he knew Simons'
force would get in and out of Son Tay without any interference from the air. Bull Simons had just added to North
Vietnam's confusion by blowing up the wrong camp."
Another site on the subject of the The Son Tay Raid Operation Kingpin': The Son Tay Raid which features a reconnaissance photo of the Son Tay prison camp On November 20-21,
1970, a joint force composed of USAF Special Operations and rescue personnel and U.S. Army Special Forces...
Please visit Ed's 'Psywarrior' site for more info on the Son Say Tay Raid, or go directly there by clicking here.