Operation IVORY COAST, a “Mission of Mercy”

By Robert D. Seals, USASOC History OfficeDecember 2, 2020

Operation IVORY COAST was a joint special operations mission executed on November 21, 1970, to liberate American prisoners of war (POW) held at Son Tay, near Hanoi, North Vietnam. The rescue effort, launched from allied air bases in Thailand, was a “mission of mercy,” according to President Richard M. Nixon. If the plan succeeded, Nixon planned to possibly have the freed POWs at the White House for Thanksgiving dinner. A successful raid might also bring hope to the other POWs in North Vietnam and their families back in the U.S. Operation IVORY COAST did not succeed; however, the raid demonstrated that well-trained and rehearsed joint special operations forces could conduct missions deep inside denied areas. American POWs continued to languish in inhumane conditions until the last prisoner was released in April of 1973.

By 1970, the Vietnam War had reached a stalemate. U.S. troop strength was declining, after reaching a high of well over half a million, but remained over 300,000. U.S. strategy now focused on turning combat over to the South Vietnamese military, and seeking a negotiated end to the fighting. Since January 1969, peace talks had dragged on in Paris with little progress, the POW issue a sticking point during the negotiations. The North Vietnamese had not provided an accounting of all Americans held, and had denied protections guaranteed by the laws of war. Championed by American families of service-members missing or imprisoned, the issue remained a paramount concern of President Nixon. A bold operation that liberated Americans might help jump start peace talks and focus world attention and sympathy on the POW plight.

Planning for Operation IVORY COAST began in early May 1970, when U.S. Air Force Field Agency Group photo analysts at Fort Belvoir, Virginia saw what they believed to be ground to air signals from a known POW compound in North Vietnam. Brig. Gen. Donald D. Blackburn, the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities (SACSA) to the Secretary of Defense, was notified. Blackburn became a forceful advocate for an operation to free those prisoners. The camp, near the Ha Tay provincial capital city of Son Tay, was believed to hold seventy American POWs, guarded by forty-five North Vietnamese. Located some twenty-three miles west of Hanoi, the camp was relatively isolated, making it a viable target. Son Tay was; however, surrounded by lethal threats, with an estimated 100 North Vietnamese MIG aircraft, surface to-air missiles, anti-aircraft batteries, and 3,400 troops within twenty-five miles of the camp.

After Brig. Gen. Blackburn received preliminary mission approval from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a feasibility study was conducted and a training plan approved. On August 8, 1970, the Joint Contingency Task Group (JCTG) was activated. Commanded by U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Leroy J. Manor, this ad hoc group consisted of handpicked U.S. Air Force and Army volunteers. The Deputy Commander was U.S. Army Special Forces (SF) Col. Arthur D. “Bull” Simons, a World War II 6th Ranger Battalion veteran, and former 8th SF Group Commander. Brig. Gen. Manor and Col. Simons received carte blanche in selecting personnel, aircraft and equipment. Eglin Air Force Base (AFB), in northwest Florida was selected as the training site for the mission.

At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, notices had gone out that personnel interested in a “moderately hazardous mission” were to report to the U.S. Army Institute for Military Assistance auditorium in Kennedy Hall. According to Sgt. First Class Billy R. Martin, it was “standing room only,” as hundreds of interested SF soldiers filled the room. After interviews designed to provoke the volunteers and observe any reaction, fifteen officers and eighty-two enlisted, mainly from the 6th and 7th SF Groups, were selected for the Army ground force. Soldiers selected were told they would be gone for 30 to 90 days, packed their bags, and were soon flown to Eglin AFB. Arriving at Auxiliary Field Number 3, raid elements organized and settled in.

With Col. Simons as the Deputy Commander, Lt. Col. Elliot P. “Bud” Sydnor Jr. was the Ground Force Commander. In Florida, after a second selection, a ground force of 57 soldiers was organized into three main elements, a command group, with three security teams; an assault group with three action teams; and a support group to provide “backside support” during training and replace anyone unable to deploy. Capt. Richard J. “Dick” Meadows led the assault group that would land via a U.S. Air Force (USAF) HH-3E “Jolly Green Giant” Helicopter inside the seven-foot high walled POW compound.

Training began on September 9, 1970. After a refresher in basic skills and weapons, the crawl, walk, run method was used for realistic actions on the objective rehearsals. Using a canvas and wooden framed mock-up of the POW camp that was taken down at the end of each day’s training to preserve operational security, rehearsals became progressively harder, and later conducted at night. By September 28, Army and Air Force elements trained together, with full mission profiles, of the raid beginning in October. Brig. Gen. Blackburn observed one of the rehearsals conducted on October 20, with the ground force arriving three to seven minutes late due to an inflight navigation error. An operations staff journal entry noted that he was “very displeased.” Eventually, some 170 rehearsals were conducted at Elgin, as IVORY COAST plans were fine-tuned, and various contingencies perfected.

Deploying to launch sites in Thailand in November, the joint force awaited the decision to go. On November 18, President Nixon gave his approval. The following day ammunition was issued, weapons test-fired, demolition charges checked, and final briefings conducted. The great majority of the force was still unaware of their specific target. Finally, on November 20, the launch order was given, and the execution phase began. After the Son Tay POW camp and location were announced in the target brief, the force erupted in cheers. Moving via a USAF C-130 to a helicopter launch site, the ground force loaded onto waiting “Jolly Green Giant” helicopters. The two-and-half hour infiltration flight began. Arriving at the camp within 30 seconds of the plan, the lead helicopter landed on the courtyard of the small POW compound at approximately 0219 hours, November 21. One of the remaining helicopters in trail, with security elements initially landed several hundred meters south of the camp, in the wrong location. The well-trained forces quickly realized the error, adapted, and overcame the surprised enemy forces.

Inside the compound, Capt. Meadows led the fourteen-man assault group. He announced via bullhorn, “We are Americans, this is a rescue, keep your heads down, we are here to get you out.” However, no response was heard, and it soon became apparent no POWs were present at Son Tay. All raid elements fanned out to their respective positions, encountering small arms fire and eliminating enemy opposition along the way. After a thorough search of all buildings in the compound, Col. Simons gave the order to withdraw. It was twenty-seven minutes total from time-on-target to the last helicopter departure in the early morning hours of November 21, 1970. Dodging surface to air missiles on the way out, it was another two-and-half hour flight through enemy air space back to Thailand.

Back on the ground at the launch base, disappointment was intense. All raiders had returned, with only two casualties, a gunshot wound and a broken leg. The JCTG executed a nearly flawless mission hundreds of miles inside enemy territory but did not recover any POWs. It was later determined that the prisoners at Son Tay had been moved from the camp in July. Criticized as a failure of intelligence, Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird commented during a congressional hearing that “no camera has ever been constructed that can see through the roofs of buildings.”

The Son Tay Raid had been a complex mission. The joint operation included a U.S. Navy air diversion of fifty-nine aircraft, a USAF force of nineteen fixed-wing and six rotary-wing aircraft, and a fifty-six man Army SF ground force. While Operation IVORY COAST did not recover any prisoners, the raid did boost morale for POWs in North Vietnam, as prisoners learned later of the raid. Additionally, some camps were closed in the aftermath and the prisoners consolidated, resulting in better care. The ad hoc joint force demonstrated that well-trained and rehearsed U.S. joint special operations forces could conduct missions even in heavily defended areas. In 1980, after the attempt to rescue American Embassy hostages held in Tehran failed, the U.S. military increasingly saw the need for improved special operations capabilities, and standing forces capable of conducting missions such as IVORY COAST.

For more information regarding Army Special Operations (ARSOF) History, and ARSOF Icons who participated in Operation IVORY COAST, see: https://www.arsof-history.org; https://www.arsof-history.org/icons/html.