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The Son Tay Raid: American POWs in Vietnam Were Not Forgotten

by John Gargus. Texas A & M University Press, College Station, 2007, hardcover $45.

In the Son Tay Raid, John Gargus asserts that although military schools may continue to study the events of the raid as “an interesting subject for instruction,” and while published books and articles focus on its successful execution as a joint military tactical operation, the available literature has yet to carefully document the contributions of individual raiders and planners to the effort. Much of this lack of discussion in the historical record, Gargus explains, is due to fairly recent declassification of information and the Joint Contingency Task Group’s failure to rescue any prisoners of war. The raiders and their supporting forces returned from Son Tay unscathed but emptyhanded; the North Vietnamese had relocated their prisoners to different facilities.

Gargus argues that the raid nevertheless managed to send “a powerful message to the whole world” that high lighted the vulnerabilities of the NVA to American military forces. Moreover, he maintains that after their repatriation, American POWs reported that the threat of additional raids continued to give North Vietnamese officials great cause for concern; thus, POW conditions and treatment improved, and consolidation in larger prison facilities allowed them to benefit from the support of fellow inmates.

Gargus’ work provides a comprehensive view of the Son Tay raid. It discusses its conception, planning and training phases and the preparation and coordination with military counterparts in Southeast Asia, and recounts the events of the operations that occurred on November 20-21, 1970. Earlier, in May, intelligence sources had identified a POW camp near the North Vietnamese town of Son Tay, 23 miles west of Hanoi. The original concept called for independent raider (Army) and supporting (Air Force) units, but as it developed, operational planning went forward as a Joint Contingency Task Group under the direct control of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Participants continued to plan and train at Eglin Air Force Base under a strict timeline and rigorous operational security. Planners employed Navy aviators and personnel in a diversionary effort that included the simulated mining of approaches to Haiphong Harbor. Likewise, the preparations in theater were extensive, particularly given the high level of secrecy necessary. Gargus’ retelling of the mission itself runs to more than 90 pages of detail.

Gargus, a 27-year veteran of the Air Force who participated in the planning and flew in the raid as a navigator, constructed his account from a variety of sources. He augments personal experience with prominent secondary sources about the raid, through collaboration with other scholars, official reports (some recently declassified), personnel interviews and translated Vietnamese documents.

Several relevant themes are apparent in this account of the Son Tay raid. The planning and security were a massive undertaking that also left the operation vulnerable. Gargus discusses the validity of the claim that the tight security isolated planners from “the normal intelligence flow to ensure that an increased focus on one POW camp would not generate undue attention to that location” yet may have resulted in a lack of knowledge regarding the evacuation of the prison. He also highlights the dedication of the raiders and describes their personal and professional commitment to the rescue. They trained diligently to develop advanced weapons, demolition, communications, intelligence and medical skills. They searched for new equipment to enhance their capabilities and found new uses for older equipment. Gargus concludes by briefly examining the account of the raid in what amounts to an official Vietnamese version. For the most part, North Vietnamese sources registered shock that Americans would conduct a raid so deep inside their territory.

Gargus also discusses the work of Communist Party loyalist and possible employee of the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security Dang Vuong Hung, who maintained that two contemporaries had forewarned of an attempted rescue. According to Hung, Maj. Gen. Nguyen Don Tu alleged that excerpts from Congressional minutes revealed the possible action, while another Vietnamese official alleged that “a disgruntled former Defense Intelligence Agency employee who was at that time working as a journalist for a respected U.S. magazine” indicated that U.S. action was imminent. Discounting both claims, the author presents evidence to support the American contention that flooding was the cause of the evacuation of the POW camp. His conclusion—that even though the raiders returned empty-handed, the mission had a significant effect on prisoner conditions—is supported by anecdotal evidence but seems reasonable enough.

Those looking for a detailed, yet readable, account of the raid from the perspective of a participant will enjoy this book. Some of its strength lies in the appendix, which contains 11 tables detailing the names, positions and functions of individuals, naval and air assets, and a timeline of events. John Gargus has succeeded in putting a personal touch and face on this less-discussed aspect of the conduct of the war in the early 1970s.


Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.