21 November 1970

"The Raid, Blue Boy Element" by Michael Nikiporenko. (Son Tay Raiders Association)
“The Raid, Blue Boy Element” by Michael Nikiporenko. In this painting, a USAF/Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopter, 65-12785, from 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, call sign BANANA 01, has intentionally crash-landed inside the prison compound at 0219 to insert the BLUE BOY element of Green Berets. (Son Tay Raiders Association)

21 November 1970: Operation Kingpin was a mission to rescue 61 American prisoners of war at the Sơn Tây Prison Camp, 23 miles (37 kilometers) west of Hanoi, North Vietnam. There were over 12,000 North Vietnamese soldiers stationed within five miles of the prison. The ultra-secret mission was carried out by 56 U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers and 98 airmen aboard 28 aircraft.

Months of intelligence gathering, mission planning and meticulous training preceded the mission. Personnel were selected from more than 500 volunteers. Training was conducted at Duke Field, an auxiliary field at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. A full-size replica of the prison was constructed and live-fire training was conducted. Aircraft formations flew day and night, following the precise courses and distances that would be flown during the actual mission.

Originally planned for October, the mission had to be pushed back to November.

 Reconnaissance photograph showing the Sơn Tây prison and surrounding area. (U.S. Air Force)
Reconnaissance photograph showing the Sơn Tây prison and surrounding area. (U.S. Air Force)

Two Lockheed C-130E Combat Talons (a special operations variant of the four-engine Hercules transport), call signs CHERRY 01 and CHERRY 02, each lead a formation of aircraft for the raid. The assault group, consisting of a Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant, 65-12785, (BANANA 01) and five Sikorsky HH-53B/C Super Jolly Green Giant helicopters (APPLE 01–05) carried the Special Forces team. The second formation was a strike group of five Douglas A-1E Skyraiders (PEACH 01–05) for close air support. The Combat Talons provided navigation and communications for their groups and illumination over the prison.

A C-130 Combat Talon leads the assault group during training at Duke Field, near Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, October–November 1970. (U.S. Air Force)
A C-130E Combat Talon leads the assault group during training at Duke Field, near Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, October–November 1970. (U.S. Air Force)
Soldiers of BLUE BOY element aboard the Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant, BANANA 01, at the start of Operation Kingpin. (Son Tay Raiders Association)

Because there was insufficient room to land a helicopter within the prison, it was planned to have BANANA 01, flown by Major Herbert D. Kalen and Lieutenant Colonel Herbert R. Zehnder, and carrying a 14-man assault team, BLUEBOY, crash-land inside the perimeter. The Special Forces soldiers were tasked to locate and protect the prisoners and to kill any guards that might interfere. The larger helicopters first fired on the guard towers with their miniguns and then landed their soldiers outside the prison. The A-1 Skyraiders bombed and strafed nearby foot and vehicle bridges to stop reinforcements from making their way to the prison.

Assault Element Blueboy

Once inside the prison, it was quickly discovered that there were no American POWs there. The assault forces then withdrew. The total time from the beginning to the end of the assault was just 26 minutes. One American soldier suffered a gunshot wound to the leg. The crew chief of BANANA 01 broke an ankle when it was hit by a falling fire extinguisher during the crash landing. As expected, BANANA 01 was written off. Between 100–200 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed.

A Sikorsky HH-53B Super Jolly Green Giant, illuminated by the flash of an exploding surface-to-air missile, leaves the Sơn Tây Prison, 21 November 1970. Banana 01, the Sikorsky HH-3E, is visible inside the prison compound. (Air University, United States Air Force)

During the withdrawal from the area, North Vietnam fired more than 36 surface-to-air missiles at the aircraft. None were hit, though one Republic F-105G Wild Weasel, 62-4436, call sign FIREBIRD 05, was damaged by a near miss. This aircraft ran out of fuel just short of its tanker rendezvous and the crew bailed out over Laos. They were rescued by Super Jolly Green Giants APPLE 01 and APPLE 02, after they had refueled from a third Combat Talon.

Although meticulously planned and carried out, the mission failed because the POWs had been moved to another prison camp, closer to Hanoi (“Camp Faith”). Three days after the raid on Sơn Tây, they were again moved, this time to the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

Jolly Green Giant

Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant 67-14709 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force)
Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant 67-14709 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. This is the same type helicopter as BANANA 01. (U.S. Air Force)

Super Jolly Green Giant

This USAF/Sikorsky MH-53M Pave Low IV, 68-10357, a special operations combat search and rescue helicopter, was APPLE 01 on the Son Tay Raid, 21 November 1970. Flown by LCOL Warner A. Britton and MAJ Alfred C. Montream, it carried the command element for the raid. Built at Stratford, Connecticut as a HH-53C Super Jolly Green Giant, it was continuously upgraded over its service life, to MH-53E, MH-53J and finally MH-53M. It flew its last mission 28 March 2008 in Iraq. After 38 years of continuous front line service, Three Five Seven was retired to the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)
This USAF/Sikorsky MH-53M Pave Low IV, 68-10357, a special operations combat search and rescue helicopter, was APPLE 01 on the Sơn Tây Raid, 21 November 1970. Flown by LCOL Warner A. Britton and MAJ Alfred C. Montream, it carried the command element for the raid. Built at Stratford, Connecticut, as a HH-53C Super Jolly Green Giant, it was continuously upgraded over its service life, to MH-53E, MH-53J and finally MH-53M. It flew its last mission 28 March 2008 in Iraq. After 38 years of continuous front line service, Three Five Seven was retired to the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

Combat Talon I

This Lockheed MC-130E-LM Combat Talon I, serial number 64-0523, was CHERRY 01, leading the assault helicopters during the raid on the Sơn Tây prison. After 47 years of service and more than 23,500 flight hours, Five-Two-Three made its last flight, 22 June 2012. It is shown in this photograph taking off from its special operations base at Duke Field, near Eglin AFB, Florida, flying to Cannon AFB, New Mexico, where it will be placed on display. (U.S. Air Force)
This Lockheed MC-130E-LM Combat Talon I, serial number 64-0523, was CHERRY 01, leading the assault helicopters during the raid on the Sơn Tây prison. After 47 years of service and more than 23,500 flight hours, Five-Two-Three made its last flight, 22 June 2012. It is shown in this photograph taking off from its special operations base at Duke Field, near Eglin AFB, Florida, on its final flight. It is on static display at Cannon AFB, New Mexico. (U.S. Air Force)

Skyraider

This Douglas A-1E Skyraider, 52-132649, was transferred from the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Air Force in 1952. In 1966, it was flown by Major Bernard Fisher when he rescued another pilot, an act of heroism for which Major Fisher was awarded the Medal of Honor. This Skyraider was restored by the National Museum of the United States Air Force and is in its permanent collection at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force)
This Douglas A-1E Skyraider, 52-132649, was transferred from the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Air Force in 1952. In 1966, it was flown by Major Bernard Fisher when he rescued another pilot, an act of heroism for which Major Fisher was awarded the Medal of Honor. This Skyraider was restored by the National Museum of the United States Air Force and is in its permanent collection at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. It is the same type aircraft as PEACH 01–05. (U.S. Air Force)

Wild Weasel

Republic F-105G Wild Weasel 63-8320 (converted from an F-105-1-RE Thunderchief) at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. This is the same type aircraft as the F-105G lost on the Sơn Tây Raid, 21 November 1970.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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