R.C. Gravlee contributed to one of the most secret missions of the Vietnam War
The McDonnell Douglas F-4 -Phantom II pilot/navigator flew in a
diversionary tactic designed to support the Son Tay Prison raid on November 21,
1970, which was designed to snatch about 30 prisoners of war being held in
captivity about 40 miles west of Hanoi.
Until the raids, the U.S. had
restricted bombing targets to South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos since President
Lyndon Johnson halted the U.S. bombing campaign in January 1968.
"There was a
time during the halt when we went into North Vietnam," said Gravlee, who today
works as a pilot instructor at the F-16 simulator at Moody Air Force Base, Ga.
"This was perhaps the most exciting Fast FAC mission I had. This thing was kept
well under wraps, and they did an outstanding job of keeping it concealed, and
that was due in no small part to diversionary tactics.
The F-4 could carry
thousands of pounds of bombs, rockets and missiles. This made
it the backbone of U.S. air power during the latter half of the Vietnam War.
U.S. Air Force photo After a two year prohibition on bombing targets in North
Vietnam, military planners were planning on using an air raid on the north to
cover the rescue attempt and make it look like the bombing had resumed instead
of a rescue operation. It was a two or three day diversionary tactic intended to
confuse the North Vietnamese air defense system and allow several slow moving
helicopters to sneak into the Son Tay camp during the nighttime raid.
U.S. Air Force-Army operation, the rescue had been planned for months during mid
The basic plan was to fly several helicopters into North Vietnam, crash
one full of assault troops into the compound and while these soldiers secured
the prisoners a second element of commandos would land outside the compound and
blow the prison wall evacuating the remaining assault group along with the
To confuse the North Vietnamese air defense, which was composed of
radar controlled anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missile sites, the
Air Force planned a variety of tactics from specially equipped fighters designed
as SAM site killers called "Wild Weasels" to a C-130 which flew around in
circles dropping flares to confuse troops on the ground.
"Well hindsight says
(the air raids were) strictly a cover-up for the rescue attempt," said Gravlee.
"You couldn't keep a secret over there. There were enough (locals) who worked in
places where they would hear things and they could tell from increased activity
that there was something going on. So, the increased activity related to the
renewed bombing of the North distracted from what was up with the prison
Aside from the fact the army commandos attacked a nearby Chinese
school for North Vietnamese SAM crews, the raid went pretty smoothly after the
errant attack troops found the prison and linked up with the initial assault
However, there was one problem - no POWs were there. They had been
moved a few months earlier due to a lengthy rainy season.
Even though the
prison raid produced no American POWs, the Air Force planned to keep up the
diversionary air raids for a couple of days. Gravlee was part of the FAC team
that directed some of the next day's air strikes.
Gravlee showed up early at
his squadron area at Takhli Royal Air Base, Thailand the morning of the raid to
make up maps for North Vietnam. He ran into his roommate who was visibly
perturbed. "He had been on a night intercept mission, normally a boring, benign
type of mission ... He was sitting there and his face was as white as a sheet,"
said Gravlee. "It turns out he had flown escort for the rescue force, and had
encountered a lot of resistance, triple-a and such."
Soon after talking to
his friend, Gravlee took off to take his turn in the cover missions.
though the raid had not produced any prisoners, we still went into North
Vietnam, and of course they are not ready for us to come in and do that," said
Gravlee. "There were targets everywhere. I had never seen that many targets. On
one road there must have been a hundred trucks just lined up bumper to bumper on
this one road, waiting for nightfall to come (across the Ho Chi Minh
Because of the bombing halt, the trucks had been in what drivers
thought was a safe zone, and as such were in plain sight. "We hit them with
everything we could get. We put fighters on the trucks, SAM sites, gun sites.
Any targets we could find," said Gravlee. "They were just out there in the open,
and we took advantage of that."
The mission was not without its dangers for
Gravlee, he said. "We sustained a whole lot of battle damage to the aircraft
after that particular mission," he said. "We had a few SAMs shot at us, and a
whole lot of triple-a. The aircraft was damaged, but we made it back."
backseat pilot, or a pilot who had been tagged to be a backseat navigator
because of a shortage, Gravlee flew a year in the back seat of the F-4.