An inside account of a bold raid to free POWs

In a variation of an old medical joke, the bottom line of Who Will Go: Into the Son Tay POW Camp is this: “The operation was a success…but the patient was a ‘no show.’” Author Terry Buckler gives readers an inside view of the meticulous planning, execution and disappointing outcome of the famous Nov. 21, 1970, Operation Ivory Coast, the U.S. Air Force-Army Special Operations mission targeting North Vietnam’s Son Tay prisoner of war camp 23 miles west of Hanoi. Buckler, a U.S. Special Forces sergeant, was the youngest participant in the raid, conducted to free the POW camp’s 65 American captives—who, unfortunately, had been moved to a different location four months prior.

This massive U.S. intelligence failure made the tactically successful raid an abysmal strategic failure, which provided ammunition to President Richard Nixon’s critics in the media and Congress. However, the planning and execution phases were outstanding, and all of those involved truly deserved high praise. The raid went like clockwork. Unexpected glitches inevitably popped up, proving the old military axiom that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy,” but quick thinking and instinctive reactions by the raiders and their leaders won the day.

Although several books have been published on this high-profile raid—Ben Schemmer’s The Raid (1976) and raider John Gargus’ The Son Tay Raid (2007) come to mind—Buckler, a Silver Star recipient for his actions that day, provides a collection of personal accounts, numerous photographs and informative articles that, when read along with one of the broader accounts, helps flesh out the historical record.

The words of the Son Tay raiders, their faces in photographs and insights gleaned from Buckler’s narrative provide a more complete picture of what happened in the Vietnam War’s most famous American raid. Who Will Go is not a standard historical account of the Son Tay Raid, although it covers all aspects of the operation, but it is, in effect, a comprehensive “yearbook” of the participants and their activities.

Finally, as Buckler’s book shows, the “successful” Son Tay Raid can be seen as somewhat of a parable for America’s involvement in the entire Vietnam War. Extremely competent and superbly trained U.S. forces, like those that carried out the raid, “won” every major battle they fought, but the “wins” proved irrelevant to the final outcome. V

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