Operation Kingpin, the raid on the Son Tay prison in North Vietnam, was the largest and most complex special operations mission of the Vietnam War. It would be a joint operation with the Army, Navy, and Air Force with 59 men led by the legendary Col. Arthur "Bull" Simons in the actual ground team that would enter Son Tay. One-hundred sixteen aircraft from the USAF and the US Navy participated, with the Navy aircraft flying from three aircraft carriers to conduct diversionary operations to allow the Son Tay raiders to sneak into North Vietnam from Laos.
On the night of 20 November 1970, the Kingpin force had departed RTAFB Takhli in Thailand just north of Bangkok. After a rendezvous over Laos for aerial refueling, the raiding force itself consisted of the following elements:
- Cherry 1: Lockheed C-130E (Raid force mission leader)
- Cherry 2: Lockheed C-130E (Mission leader for the Douglas A-1 Skyraiders flying close air support as Peach flight)
- Banana 1: Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant (Assault team, they would intentionally crash land in Son Tay's courtyard)
- Apple 1, 2, and 3: Sikorsky HH-53 Super Jolly (Assault team)
- Apple 4 and 5: Sikorsky HH-53 Super Jolly (POW transport)
- Peach 1-5: Douglas A-1 Skyraider (Close air support)
- Falcon 1-10: McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II (MiGCAP)
- Firebird 1-5: Republic F-105G Thunderchief (Wild Weasel SAM suppression)
In addition to the raiding force, a multitude of other tankers, early warning aircraft and Navy combat aircraft were assigned vital supporting roles to make Operation Kingpin possible. For at least a year up to the actual raid on Son Tay, the prison complex was a high-priority reconnaissance target imaged by both spy satellites and Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird flights as analysts and planners set about determining the forces defending Son Tay as well as the routines of the personnel and prisoners of the complex. Something as simple as laundry hanging out in the prison courtyard offered valuable clues. In the last few months before the raid took place, reconnaissance had shown that the North Vietnamese had added two SA-2 "Guideline" SAM battalions to the area. Each SAM battalion was self-contained with its own radars, command and control equipment and four SA-2 missile sites, each site with six launchers and 12 missiles. With two of these battalions in the area, that meant eight SAM sites would be defending the prison complex. And these SAM sites were often protected by a large number of mobile antiaircraft guns.
To meet this dangerous threat to the aircraft of the Kingpin raiding force, the 6010th Wild Weasel Squadron flying the SAM-site killing F-105G Thunderchief were added to the raiding force to knock out the missile sites. Firebird 1 through 3 would accompany the raiders all the way to Son Tay and orbit the area, knocking out the SAM sites as their radars went active. Firebird 4 and 5 were to act as spare aircraft in case anything happened to either Firebird 1, 2 or 3 during the mission.
As the assault teams hit the ground, the SAM site radars went active and the first of 18 SA-2 missiles were fired during the raid- but only two of them targeted (and missed) the helicopters, A-1 Skyraiders or the C-130s acting as mission command posts. The rest of those SAMs bored in on the F-105s of Firebird flight. Firebird 3 took a hit but was able to disengage and its crew were able to nurse the damaged aircraft to RTAFB Udorn in Thailand. As Firebird 3 disengaged, Captain Don Kilgus and his back seat electronic warfare officer (EWO, or "Bear"), Captain Clarence Lowery in Firebird 5 were called into action to duel with the SAM sites. One missile managed to detonate close to Firebird 5, but Capt. Kilgus felt their F-105G wasn't damaged seriously and he and his EWO pressed their attack, knocking out the site that had fired the offending missile.
Unbeknown to the raiders, the POWs at Son Tay had been moved the previous August to a new facility 12 miles away called Camp Faith. The POWs there were awakened by the sounds of the SAM launches trying to down the raiding force. Some weren't able to see out their barred windows but the prisoners on the west side of the building could see the flares, the SAM detonations in the sky, and the explosions by Peach flight's close air support strikes. Word spread amongst the POWs "They're raiding Son Tay!"
Disappointed having not found and rescued any POWs at Son Tay, the raiding force withdrew from the area in less than 26 minutes. Not a single man was killed and only two were wounded. The 59 men and their support aircraft had managed to kill 200-300 enemy troops.
As Firebird 5 withdrew with the rest of the F-105Gs from the raiding force, Capt. Kilgus realized their were losing fuel. And they were losing it fast. The near-miss by the SA-2 detonation had showered their aircraft with shrapnel and punctured nearly all the aircraft's fuel tanks. With the fuel loss too great to be offset by tanking from an orbiting KC-135, Kilgus and Lowery were forced to eject over the mountains of Laos. They had managed to eject near each other and met up on the ground and began to radio their location to await rescue. As it turned out, the nearest rescue helicopters to their position were two of the returning HH-53 Super Jollies from Son Tay, Apple 4 and Apple 5. After a midair refueling from C-130 Hercules tankers, the two helicopters diverted and plucked Kilgus and Lowery from the jungle, making them the only two pilots rescued in the Son Tay prison raid.
Dejected by their failure to rescue any POWs, what wasn't immediately apparent to the men of Operation Kingpin was that their historic raid scared the Hanoi government about the strength of the resolve of the United States when it came to the POWs. Within two days POWs that were scattered across camps in North Vietnam in small groups were crowded together at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" where the lethal air defense umbrella around the capital would prevent any future rescue attempts. Prior to Son Tay, many POWs were in isolated groups and this isolation was used as a psychological weapon by their captors. With all the POWs now in one facility, the "Hanoi Hilton" was simply too crowded for isolation to be used and the morale of the prisoners skyrocketed as they were housed together in large groups, getting moral support from each other. The men from Camp Faith shared their stories of what they had seen that November night in the skies over Son Tay and all former POWs to this day mark their time in captivity by either "before Son Tay" and "after Son Tay".
Source: Beyond Hell and Back: How American's Special Operations Forces Became the World's Greatest Fighting Unit by Dwight Jon Zimmerman and John D. Gresham. St. Martin's Griffin Press, 2007, p21-60.