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ACJ Vol 9/2

Operation IRAQI FREEDOM & the 50th Anniversary of the Son Tay Raid


  • Publisher: Norm Brozenick 

  • Editor: Paul Harmon

  • Managing Editor: Rick Newton

  • Senior Editor: Scott McIntosh

  • Contributing Editor: Ron Dains

  • Contributing Editor: Joel Higley

  • Contributing Editor: Mike Russell

  • Layout Editor/Graphics: Jeanette Elliott

  • Advertising: Melissa Gross

Larry Ropka, Col, USAF (Ret)

On the night of 21 November 1970, a little after 2 a.m., 15 aircraft, led by 7th SOS MC-130E Combat Talons, converged on the Son Tay prison located 23 miles west of Hanoi. They were supported by another 100 Air Force and Navy aircraft fulfilling various roles in Operation KINGPIN, the mission to rescue American POWs.
By the fall of 1969, there were over 500 Americans being held by the North Vietnamese as prisoners of war. The air war over North Vietnam had progressed at a blistering pace and the sophisticated air defenses had previously precluded any serious consideration of a rescue attempt. The President had imposed a bombing halt that fall and by the spring of 1970, the pent up pressure of the “no soldier left behind” tradition led Brig Gen Don Blackburn, USA, Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with Brig Gen James Allen, Director of Plans and Programs on the Air Staff, to initiate an all-out effort to rescue some of the prisoners. Lt Gen Leroy Manor led the planning and execution of this challenging and historic effort and I was proud to be a part of his great team as a planner. John Gargus’ excellent article, “Recollections of the Son Tay Raiders,” is the lead story in this issue of the Air Commando Journal honoring the skill and courage of all the participants and marking the 50th Anniversary of the Son Tay Raid.
In his first meeting with a small inter-service team of planners in the Pentagon, General Blackburn had a DIA expert on POW matters present a briefing on the known POW camps and plight of the prisoners inside them. Following that, in an impassioned statement, Blackburn said “that the planners’ task was to develop a plan to recover some of the prisoners,” and he personally ensured that “whatever it takes” to get the job done would be provided. That attitude and commitment spawned a lot of incredible out-of-the-box thinking by the entire team of planners, aircrews, and SF operators to develop the tactics and capabilities needed to give the mission the greatest possibility of success.
As history tells, we failed to rescue any of the POWs, but the operation deep into North Vietnam set in motion events that dramatically improved the lives and reversed the loss of hope that all POWs experienced while being held in captivity. One of those POWs was Air Commando, Capt Ramon Horinek from Atwood, KS, and in this issue we honor his courage and service as a Forward Air Controller and F-105 pilot flying missions over North Vietnam until his luck ran out on 23 October 1967 when he became a POW in Hanoi.
The same out of the box thinking, courage, and aerial skill exhibited by the Son Tay raiders in 1970 has transcended time and was displayed again by Air Commandos during the opening days of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM in March 2003. Air Commandos from Hurlburt Field planned, coordinated, and flew multiple tough missions early in the war inserting US Special Forces into the Iraqi desert by helicopters and by MC-130s while AC-130 gunships flew top cover and interdiction missions. Our great Air Commandos from Europe planned their missions from the continent into northern Iraq, but due to an uncooperative ally air planners had to create a Plan B driving the mission into a two-night operation and testing the aircrews aerial skills and courage to deliver Special Operations Forces to their landing zones in northern Iraq, dodging heavy Iraqi AAA along the way. The long-range low-level infiltration mission led, coincidently, by aircrews from the 7th SOS would become known as the “Ugly Baby.” Their story is also presented in this issue.
As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Son Tay Raid and last reunion for the Raiders, we also honor and remember our Air Commandos, past and present, who live up to the motto “Anytime, Anyplace” every day.

Colonel Ropka, a master navigator and special operations aircraft expert, was selected as one of the original operational planners in Washington DC. He led a small group of intelligence and operations officers for Operation KINGPIN, the raid on Son Tay prison to rescue American POWs. Colonel Ropka was inducted into the Air Commando Hall of Fame in 1969.

Read the complete issue in PDF format here.

Air Commando Association Press