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Shining a Bright Light on a dark time...

One of the prevailing myths about the war in Vietnam (aka here at the Castle, “my war”) is that the Son Tay raid was the only attempt we ever made to rescue our POWs. I’ve read it mentioned as an aside or a footnote in a couple of books, and I’ve read it as one of the main points in a couple of scholarly publications, but I’m here to tell you, folks, that it ain’t so. Sometime in 1964, right after we started losing increasing numbers of aircraft and crews over the North and in Laos, DoD established a program code-named Bright Light, which was supposed to be a planning and coordinating agency for operations aimed at recovering our guys from captivity.

In reality, Bright Light didn’t do a lot of planning or coordinating, but its establishment *did* function as a blanket approval to go in and rescue our POWs without having the local commander worrying about starting an international incident for a cross-border foray into Laos or Cambodia – which was pretty much a moot point, since our intel about POW camps in those countries between ‘64 and ‘74 was scant at best and highly-suspect at worst. We were pretty much constrained to moving against those camps we knew existed. And the ones we *knew* existed were in South Vietnam.

Problem: there’s a vast gulf between knowing that something exists and knowing *where* that something is located. And I mean *exactly* where, to within 100 meters, max. If you’re going to pull a successful raid or rescue, you need surprise above all else – you have to be on top of the bad guys before they can organize to resist and either hustle their captives out of the area or kill them.

Now, how can I say that we conducted POW camp raids in South Vietnam with such conviction?

I took part in two of them.

I originally intended to write about each mission separately, but Denizenne Susan Katz Keating, who’s a Bright Light in the milblogosphere *and* the world of print media, asked so nicely to see them in the same package, that I just had to respect her request. Happy Birthday, SKK – Matriarch of the Reprobates of Keating Compound, Wheel-gun Aficionado, Hawt Collector of Kewl Militaria, and originator of Exploding Lasagna!

The writing of these stories is your present, not the stories themselves, because they’re dark tales and you already know the bare facts. But the one you haven’t heard -- the story of my *third* POW camp raid – well, both the tale and the telling are an additional present.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Those of you who are long-time (pre-2007) readers might remember the TINS! I told about playing hide-and-seek with a Dashika – those of you who’ve wandered here since then, go here first. Remember where the LZs are on the map…

...and welcome back. You probably noticed I didn’t do an AAR on that particular CA (Combat Assault) – because that was going to be my segue into this one…

Bright Light Underground


The troops we inserted into the three LZs didn’t find anyone willing to contest their progress into the woods, but they *did* find a trailwatcher up in a mangrove, armed with a Mosin-Nagant held together with baling wire. For some odd reason – being the focal point of a dozen M-16s is the likeliest – he chose that moment to wave a Chiêu Hồi leaflet and clamber down from his perch.

I gave him and his escort a ride to Soc Trang. While we waited for his new bosses to show up, I gave him a Camel and a light – he wasn’t wary or jumpy, like some of the other battlefield pickups we’d brought in – he thanked me politely and looked pensively at the perimeter wire as he smoked. Eventually, the 13th CAB S-2 and an ARVN with no rank or nametape came out to where we were parked, welcomed him and escorted him off for debriefing. I hit POL to top off and then we lit out for home.

Three day later, we were at Bac Lieu, home of the toughest bunch of Ruff-Puffs (RF/PF – Regional Forces/Popular Forces, local militia who were all former VC and NVA who’d “rallied” to the South) anywhere in the Delta. Their advisor briefed us on where we’d be bringing them.

Right here.




See why I told you to remember where the LZs were on that map in the other post?

The trailwatcher the troops had scarfed up three days previously was a VC prison camp guard, and he’d told the S-2 that one of the insertions had landed less than a hundred meters from the camouflaged entrance to the camp – the *underground* camp. The trailwatcher said there were Americans down there, but couldn’t confirm the number or what condition they were in because his guard post was topside.

Our mission – go in fast, no suppression, and stay in the LZ while the Ruff-Puffs assaulted down into the tunnels. Once they were down there, the Copperheads would scour the area, but could only fire if they could clearly see their targets’ faces. Everybody still talked about Nick Rowe’s escape and rescue only fourteen months before – the only reason the Cobras didn’t kill him while he was running from his captors was because one of the pilots saw his beard and realized he wasn’t a Vietnamese.

I wasn’t thrilled about staying in the LZ. Sometimes I wondered if every other ship bringing stuff into Haiphong weren’t stuffed to the scuppers with mortars and mortar rounds – Chuckie-baby had *lots* of mortars, and he was *good* with them.

And there’s nothing quite as depressing as being mortared in the LZ.




(Those gray puffs are mortar rounds going off. Visualize that the next time you see the Hollywood version.)

But if we came in low and fast with no prep fires or suppression, we might catch them napping…




We paralleled the Cán Cáo canal on top of the trees (see blue arrow on the map) until we were abeam the LZ, then turned hard left for the final approach. I was flying Chalk Five, and I didn't know how close we were until I saw the ships in front of me drop down below the treetops. 





The LZ was cold, but someone had been nearby, probably cooking everyone’s breakfast – we could smell wood smoke. Funny how you ignore the usual smells you expect in an LZ – turbine exhaust, rice-paddy-stink -- and cue in on the unexpected.

The Ruff-Puffs charged across the paddy at high port and swarmed into the treelines.

Five minutes later, their advisor walked up to my aircraft and said, “I need one ship to stay here. The rest can go to Ca Mau and shut down – there’s no reason for them to be here until we’re ready to pull out.”

The bottom fell out of my heart.

I sent the flight back to refuel and stand by, then shut down and walked over to a paddy dike and kicked it...

An hour later, the advisor told me we were almost on top of a three-story underground complex – not as extensive as a couple we’d found, but big enough. The guards lived on the first level in a barracks room that doubled as a dayroom, and evidently cooked outside because the ventilation was lousy. The POWs had been housed on the second level – a dead-end tunnel. Their cells were cut into one side of the tunnel, just big enough for a man to crawl into, then the opening had been sealed with bamboo lattice. There was a chair for the guard at the entrance to the tunnel. Pumps were on the third level, which was where the water collected. The exhaust vented out a slanting shaft to the surface.

The roofs of the cells on the second level had been dug into until they collapsed on top of their occupants, burying them. Next to each cell was a stick with a set of dogtags hanging from it.

Three sets of US and five sets of ARVN.

A crew from Second Platoon flew their remains out the next day…

Bright Light in the Woods

Some time later, we were shut down on Go Cong Island, lined up in trail on an abandoned Japanese airstrip. The South China Sea was to our rear, and the beginning of a mixed hardwood forest was off our nose. We’d arrived just after dawn, flying low along the beach before we turned to land with the sun to our rear.

The previous week, some of us had flown the same route at the same time, so the locals would get used to the noise at that hour. We never did anything except fly along the beach, just getting them used to the noise…

The locals were *not* friendly. Go Cong Island is where Mặt trận Dân tộc Giải phóng miền Nam Việt Nam was born. We were on the VC’s home turf -- literally.

The troops we’d dropped off an hour previously were making their way through the woods to a point three klicks to our west. When they’d secured their objective, they’d call Lead – we’d crank and go pick them up at their location.
Chalk Five had flown in empty. If all went well, he’d have passengers when we exited the objective – two US and possibly ten ARVNs and Vietnamese civilians.

A half hour later, we heard shooting – a lot of it. M-16s and an M-60, so the raiders had hit the perimeter of the POW compound and were taking out the guard posts. Soon – too soon – we heard AKs popping on full auto, which meant that the guards had been alert and were either returning fire or killing the prisoners.

The popping from the AKs stopped, and a few seconds later, so did the fire from the M-16s.

Five minutes later, Lead’s AC waved me over for a confab.

“The little bastards shot all the prisoners. One of the US died a while back – the troops found his grave – but a guard emptied a full mag into the other one. One of the civilians is still alive, but the medic doesn’t think she’ll live to get to Binh Thuy. What do you want to do?”

“I’ll scramble Five to medevac her – call the guys in the compound to let them know he’s coming, and tell them to put any wounded they have on board with mama-san. Least we can do is try.”

The op had gone perfectly. The raiders had surrounded the compound and identified the hootches where the prisoners were, and were starting to assault when they were taken under fire by a guard in a camouflaged interior bunker. By the time they’d killed him, the other guards had reacted – and they hadn’t fired at the raiders, they all fired into the prisoners’ hootch…

The old Vietnamese lady died before Five got to the compound.

Payback

Cambodia looked and smelled different from Vietnam. The treelines looked like the locals had manicured them, either from some Khmer sense of aesthetics or because they needed firewood.

We flew to the SF compound at Chi Lang, refueled, and picked up – for Chalk Two, three mermite cans full of food, cellophane-wrapped stacks of paper plates, and a couple of boxes of plastic spoons; for Chalk Three, canteens full of water, web gear, and ponchos; for Chalk Four, three footlockers full of weapons – AKs, M-1 and M-2 carbines, and assorted knives; for Chalk Five (me), enough bandoliers of ammunition for the weapons in Four to start a medium-sized war or finish a small one. Three 5th SF guys, an ARVN colonel, and a Cambode in khakis climbed into Lead.

“Flight, Lead on Victor. We’re going into Never-Never Land, come up staggered left. The LZ is gonna be tight, single-ship only, and land in Chalk Order to the exact spot I do. Five, do *not* keep any of that carbine ammo for your sawed-off.”

Thirty minutes later, we were orbiting the archtypical POW compound – double-wire fencing surrounding a large courtyard, a collection of tin-roofed, concrete-walled hootches, some obviously barracks, larger ones probably admin and guard quarters, a kitchen, towers at each corner. There were vegetable gardens and what looked like a chicken coop outside the wire.

The main gate was open. There was no one in the central courtyard, but even from 1,500 feet, we could see arms sticking out the slit windows of the rows of barracks. Lead went in and came to a high hover while his crewchief and gunner hosed the towers – just in case.

Lead landed and his pax trotted off to the barracks carrying axes. Lead took off.

“Lead’s out of the LZ. Two, wait until you see everyone forming up in squares before you go in.”

By now the first barracks was empty, and the ARVN colonel was gesticulating off to the left while his Cambodian counterpart was doing the same off to the right. The SF guys were moving along the barracks row, and wood splinters were flying. It wasn’t long before Chalk Two was on the ground, between two long rows of newly-freed South Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers. I was impressed with their discipline -- they offloaded the food and just a third of them began eating.

“Two’s out.” “Three’s in.”

Another third of the former prisoners began carrying armsfull of canteens and gear and sorting them into piles behind the ones who were eating.

“Three’s out.” “Four’s in.”

The remaining third moved on Four, unloaded the footlockers and began stacking weapons. By now, the first third was replaced by the second third at the chow point.

“Four’s out.” “Five’s in.”

The first third approached me at a trot. They were thin, even for Viets, but they loaded themselves down with bandoliers and moved out. Again, I was impressed with their discipline -- the second third was already moving away from the chow point and the final third was moving in.

The first third was donning web gear, checking weapons, and slinging bandoliers.

“Five’s out.” “Five, Lead – we’re in trail at your six. Break left and join up. Flight, LZ is the road north of the vegetable garden.”

Twenty minutes later, we had our pax on board, including several who were limping.

“Lead, Five – flight’s up.” “Lead, Roger. Flight, come up staggered right.”

We knew which way the prison camp guards had gone – the single road in the area ran roughly north-south, and we'd come up from the south and hadn't seen them, so they were heading north. We knew they were in a hurry because they’d left the gate open, which meant that they’d stick to the road, rather than setting out cross-country. We flew north at 120 feet, paralleling the road about five klicks away until we saw them.
Further on and out of sight of the guards' column, the road passed between two long, low hills.

We circled low and dropped our pax off north of the hills, still out of sight of the column of camp guards quick-marching steadily up the road. We took off low and stayed low, all the way back to Chi Lang.

By the time we'd refueled and flown back to the hills, our pax were sitting in the warm sun, a couple smoking cadged cigarettes, some drinking water, some bandaging fresh wounds. Yet again, I was impressed with their discipline --

-- they'd held their fire until all the guards were in the kill zone...

36 Comments

Much obliged for the history lesson Bill

Regards

Rich in KCK


 
 I do like that last line.  8^ )
   

Good piece - agree with John on the last line. Well told, as usual - felt I could smell the wood smoke myself.

 
Bill a huge heartfelt THANK YOU.
Jerry Hailey
Always Faithful, NEVER FORGET
 
Bill, I am blown away by this. What an incredible birthday gift. Thank you, thank you, thank you. There is much to say about this post, but for now: an observation.

I spent many long years completely immersed in matters related to Americans held captive against their will in Southeast Asia. Years. I have reams of files, notes, and documents. Yes, as you wrote, Son Tay is the best known rescue raid, but it was not the only  one. Far from it. But the raids somehow evaded the notice of people who really should know better. And the men who took part in the raids do not talk about them.  This is especially true for Cambodia. 

Good folk of the Castle, you have just read a first piece of eyewitness report that adds fresh and important material to the war history. Bill, has the DPMO dispatched a debriefer to Kabul, yet?  ; )
 
P.S. I shipped this over to Bob Brown, my ol' boss at Soldier of Fortune. 
 
Great read thanks for the history lesson will be passing this on....question since you seemed to do some interesting flying do you know of any Hueys that were brought down by actual SAM's my old boss was a gunner on one and he swore to his dying day his was knocked down by a SAM as he was the only survivor...in his words"I was hanging out side the chopper by my belt as it spun down and knew we were fucked...then woke up on a hosptial ship then a hospital in Japan then finaly compleately woke up back in the US in a hospital room in CA with my mom in the room." He was 101 as an infantry man then switched to doorgunner to get out the bush so assume it was still with the 101....said the crash ect had blanked most his memory of being on the Hueys out of his mind(Think it was more survivors guilt) didn't even recall his crew cheifs name but said they were best friends been tryiong to get his family the whole story since he passed but have not got far with it...
 
 The recent biography of Dick Meadows has material on a number of raids that liberated live ARVN and other non-US prisoners.

But there's a lot more still to be written.  How about the 1980s raid into Laos that was far along in execution before being declared a dry hole and scrubbed?
 
Isby! Where you hanging these days!

1980's??? Details?
 
Sean, in June or July of 1970, I got shot at by an SA-7 and so did another ship from my company. I'm convinced, based on radio chatter from troops on the ground who witnessed it, that Steve Carr and Bill Laurence, who were flying right next to me, got nailed by an SA-7 on 26 August 70. In 1971, one of the guys in my Jersey Guard outfit watched a Strella hit a Huey about a half mile away from him -- it was at night, and he saw the glow from the missile's hot end going up and curving to hit the aircraft, which was at 2,500 feet.

At the time, DoD insisted that those aircraft were brought down by small arms fire. In fact, DoD still insists that the VC and NVA didn't field the SA-7 until 1972 -- of course, by that time, it was so obvious we were being engaged (and knocked down) by SAMs that they didn't see the use in keeping up the pretense any longer. So, yes, your old boss' story is credible -- I know of a Cobra crew that survived after being hit and having their tailboom blown half off.
 
The reason they denied the presence of the SAMs was because then they would have to acknowledge where the weapons came from. And that would open up a very bad can of worms. 
 
*waving hiya to Mizz Susan*
Happy Birthday!
No DPMO here in Kabul yet. They could get shot at, y'know?

Dave -- I put on my thinking cap and looked at a couple of JOG charts of Laos and the name Lavang jumped at me, but I can't recall details. Something happened to trigger the synapses, but other than that, I'm drawing a blank.
 
That was the primary reason for the official denial. What torques me out of shape is that the intel types all the way down to Battalion level followed the party line in '70 and '71 -- it didn't exactly enhance their credibility, because every line pilot in Vietnam knew the SA-7s were out there.
 
I was an imagery analyst at the 12th RITS at Tan Son Nhut AB from Oct 70 to Oct 71.  Looking for any signs of a POW camp was a priority for every one of us. We found a few up north, and we were fairly sure there were several in central Laos, just not specifics.  We would report every possible sign of POWs.  I hope some of what we reported helped free even one US/ARVN prisoner, but we never heard. 

The SA-7 was only wielded by elements of the NVA, IIRC.  There were some problems with them around Khe Sahn during Dewey Canyon II.  I know we found several SA-2 Guideline sites in Laos, but most of them were pulled out before the US attacked the sites.  We did get a couple of them.

Thank you for your service, and for this very interesting bit of history. 

Mike Weatherford
MSgt, USAF, Retired
Colorado Springs, CO

 
Bill, I wish you had told those stories back in January or February.  Bright Light would have been a much more interesting subject for my term paper than the Marine CAP.
 
 Heartless, do keep us informed as to your term paper subject needs...  we live to serve.  Snerk.
 
Thank you, Bill, for both the living of the tale and the telling of it.
 
SKK, did you write for SOF way back when?

I swapped a few emails with Fred Reed about 10 years ago asking if he had written for SOF as his writing seemed familiar. He fessed up to it, and also admitted he wrote under a pseudonym. Not too long after that he wrote about his experiences at SOF.

I used to read SOF off and on. I ended up with a friend who was a friend of Hackathorn, who I think still writes for one of the SOF stable of mags.

Just out of curiosity. Was the deflagrating Lasagna a secret MACV SOG project that is just coming to light after a period alowing deniability?

Good story Bill. One of those stories that is interesting in retrospect, but a bit hairy when lived. Noticed the Lex also commented on the earlier story as well. He never did understand that real pilots do it at the tree tops. We'll have to ask when we get the Green if he's learned it yet.
 
The SA-7 was only wielded by elements of the NVA, IIRC.

They were only issued to the NVA, Mike, but in the Delta in '69 and '70, when you found a VC unit, you'd sometimes find a squad of NVA with them, and when you found an NVA unit, you *always* found a couple of squads of VC with them. 
 
Actually, John...Bright Light might be a bit much to bite off for a term paper.  It could be a great topic for a Ph.D. dissertation, though...if you can find enough documentation.

I'm not exactly an expert on Vietnam (or the Second Indo-China War, if you prefer), but Bill's story is the first time I'd ever heard of POW recovery ops outside of Son-Tay.

Now, if any of you gray beards are old enough to rememer horse cavalry ops on the U.S. - Mexico border before WWII, I might need to set up an interview...
 
 Heh. SOF.  My father *hated* SOF.  

They had their first convention in Columbia, Mo (a very blue island floating in a sea of red) back in 1980.  When Dad's friend's looked into what this "SOF" thingy was, he started getting calls (this being back before that world wide webby thing, kidz) from people telling him how disappointed that his son was a mercenary, and how disappointed in me he must be.

Of course, young 2LT Donovan is down at Fort Sill in FACBOC, and has no idea what's going on.

Dad keeps up a flustered defense until one of his tormentors shows up at Rotary and triumphantly slams down a copy of SOF, and points to their Explosives Editor... John Donovan.  A bald, bullet-headed mountain who was rather clearly too old to be me and if that had been me, clearly a cuckoo had snuck an egg into the nest.
 
 Bill's story is the first time I'd ever heard of POW recovery ops outside of Son-Tay.

That just boggles my mind, as is one of the many reasons I am so glad Bill told these stories! The same month of the Son Tay raid, a Navy SEAL team raided a camp in the Delta, and succesfully freed some prisoners. You didn't hear about them because the PWs were South Vietnamese. From 1966-1970,  U.S. Special Forces conducted 45 rescue raids. Only one man was recovered, and he died soon after being rescued.

As for SOF and Fred Reed... I knew him at the Washington Times, and also at SOF. Yes, 'twas in the way-back. I don't believe he was with us when we met with the Miskitos to sell them a Kevlar speed boat, though.

I had forgotten about the other John Donovan! He was kind of intense, but he sure did know how to blow things up! No lasagna, though. That was totally OpSec, and not even known to the MAC-V SOG dudes. They would have totally screwed up the recipe.


 
Oh... forgot to mention... SOF was the first publication anywhere to seriously delve into the POW issue. 
 
That was interesting.  Thanks Bill.
 
...and triumphantly slams down a copy of SOF, and points to their Explosives Editor... John Donovan.

Never underestimate the preternatural ability of Dems to get it wrong...

Now, if any of you gray beards are old enough to rememer horse cavalry ops on the U.S. - Mexico border before WWII, I might need to set up an interview...

If you know a good medium, I'll give you an intro to Gram'pa Tuttle. You can also ask him what being gassed in the fighting around Chateau-Thierry was like.
 
Old Patriot said

"I was an imagery analyst at the 12th RITS at Tan Son Nhut AB from Oct 70 to Oct 71"

Was that USAF or USA?  I was at Camp DuBeau, TSN AB, class of 70-71.  Inquiring minds.....

 
To Old Patriot,

Disregayd, I see....

Mike Weatherford
MSgt, USAF, Retired
 
 John, I remember that convention as it was during my first period of reading the Mag. Fred Reed left the mag with a bad taste in his mouth because Brown was a bit disorganized and it drove him up the wall.

I read SOf because they dealt with a number of issues, such as the MIA thing, that others didn't want to touch. They also had some interesting people (Larry Dring was one) who wrote about their war experiences quite well. Brown may never have killed anyone himself (as Reed said, and I don't kow if it's true) but he had some good people writing for the mag. They also went places other didn't go, such as Afghanistan, while morons like Dan rather faked their trips, and brought back somestuff that were real intel hauls.

I can understand why your father didn't like SOF. The ROTC instructors at Tennessee Tech kinda chuckled when I brought the articles on Ivan's version of the LAW and the 19mm Auto Grenade launcher SOF brough back from the AFG. They didn't laugh anymore after that. I still laughed at soem of teh stuff they printed, like the convention stuff. I never was tempted to go to any of them.
 
The conventions were silly, but the work wasn't. Among other things, SOF was the first to discover evidence of acid rain being used in SEA, and went into A'stan when the Soviets were there. They also went into Sierra Leone and other hot spots. And who cares if RKB ever killed anyone? 
 
And who cares if RKB ever killed anyone?

Gezackly. It's a red herring -- they couldn't fault him on knowledge, so they attacked his credibility by introducing an extraneous argument.
 
I had forgotten about the other John Donovan! He was kind of intense, but he sure did know how to blow things up! 

IIRC, he was the author of a two-pager on constructing a range in Thailand -- they didn't have dynamite to use for clearing the area, so he made a fertilizer-diesel charge and overestimated the amount they'd need.

He wound up with a crater and instant berms...
 
 I agree with you on Brown not killing anyone. Reed was the only one that I saw bring it up and didn't think it meant much when he did. I like Fred, but he's a getting a bit crusty as he ages.

Bill, don't you need berms on a range? Perhaps the crater would have been handy, if not too deep. :-)

You mean Yellow Rain, SKK. And they did go places the lamestream media would not, such as Africa and teh AFG. Reed left because of what he saw as disorganization, but I can't fault the product that RKB and minions produced.
 
Thanks UnkaBill, for a small peek behind the curtains, of the waning memories of SE Asia.
 
QM, quite right - thank-y for catching that! The guy who brought out that sample was married to a most interesting woman. She brought out something, herself.  It sits on a shelf in my study. A set of opium weights, captured from a Burmese drug lord.

Yes, they went into places where others feared to tread...   ; ) 
 
If you know a good medium, I'll give you an intro to Gram'pa Tuttle.

Yours too?  My Mom's dad was with the 1st RI Cav with Blackjack Pershing in Mexico chasing Pancho Villa and then later with the AEF.  Given the fact that all of your stories took place afore I was borned, that's kind of amazing that our Grandpas were contemporaries.