The Son Tay Diversion Raid
By Shelby G. Spires
R.C. Gravlee contributed to one of the most secret missions of the Vietnam War in 1970.
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.
A joint U.S. Air Force-Army operation, the rescue had been planned for months during mid 1970.
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 prisoners.
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 raid."
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 force.
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.
"Even 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 Trail)."
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."
A 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.