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PDF First Light: A POWs Rescue Mission That Can Never Be Acknowledged

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North Vietnamese beat and bayoneted him once he hit the ground. Then, they took him to a military prison where he was tortured, starved, and beaten to the brink of suicidal ideation. But availing himself of that special privilege would have devastated the morale of his fellow prisoners, and handed a propaganda victory to the enemy.

So he refused his opportunity for release, and spent the next five years in near-constant suffering — and the rest of his life, as an American war hero. This week, that last story was referenced in the first sentence of countless obituaries. The preceding context was mentioned in virtually none of them. John McCain did not plan the Vietnam War. He merely trusted the civilian leadership that did. As the senator is laid to rest, one can reasonably argue that respect for his family, and legacy, compels us to isolate his act of transcendent patriotism from the indefensible war that produced it.

But there are hazards to such myopia. The United States asked John McCain to risk his life — and kill other human beings — for a war built on lies. We asked him to give some of his best years on Earth — and the full use of his arms — to an illegal, unwinnable war of aggression. It is a story about our government abusing the trust of one its most patriotic citizens. This distortion invites broader misconceptions. The selfless sacrifices of American soldiers are supposed to be lamentable costs of war, burdens that can only be redeemed by the justness of the cause that demanded them.

In celebrating his discrete act of patriotism — while ignoring the question of what cause it served — we risk treating the selfless sacrifices of American soldiers as ends in themselves. McCain epitomized that type of heroism — all the more so because he volunteered to stay in Hanoi and endure more, out of loyalty to his country and fellow captives. How quickly times change. Jump ahead a decade and Americans had already found an appealing formula for commemorating the war.

It turned out to be surprisingly simple: focus on us, not them, and agree that the war was primarily an American tragedy. Stop worrying about the damage Americans had inflicted on Vietnam and focus on what we had done to ourselves. I feel comfortable — uncomfortable — about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. This sentiment was not well-received. Hayes quickly issued an apology. Last year, when the commander-in-chief made his argument for prolonging the longest war in American history — a conflict in which the U.

American patriots from every generation have given their last breath on the battlefield for our nation and for our freedom. Through their lives — and though their lives were cut short, in their deeds they achieved total immortality. By following the heroic example of those who fought to preserve our republic, we can find the inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal, and to remain one nation under God. The men and women of our military operate as one team, with one shared mission, and one shared sense of purpose.

The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need, and the trust they have earned, to fight and to win. Harris going after Biden was the biggest moment from the debate, but some think it could backfire. That haul is a dramatic increase from the previous quarter, when the South Bend, Ind.

The campaign said it had , new donors, putting its total number of donors at , Grisham stepped into the chaotic scene to help U. Another man carrying a camera runs through the gap she creates. Before the tussle, press outside the building had been told they would not be let in.

But then a U. Shorter version of his attention-seeking remarks:. The Democratic senator is working to capitalize ahead of a crucial second quarter fundraising deadline: She blanketed news shows with nearly a dozen TV appearances, and her digital team is pumping out clips and other reminders of her interrogating Biden, hoping that Democratic voters will envision her doing the same thing to Donald Trump. Her campaign had spent months fixated on Biden, whose support from black voters has kept him atop all of the early polls.

They gamed out several scenarios in which she could use her personal story as a point of contrast with his decades-long record, including over his opposition to busing.


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Richard J. Meadows would head the assault team that would land inside the compound. General Manor selected Air Force search-and-rescue veterans for his lead helicopter pilots. They were Air Force Lt.

POWS: Escape From A Living Hell (Documentary)

Warner A. Britton, Herbert E. Zehnder, Royal C. Brown, and John V. Allison and Majs. Frederic M. Donohue, Herbert D. Kalen, and Kenneth D.

When Colonel Simons asked for a "combat-type" doctor, Army Lt. Joseph R. Cataldo, former chief surgeon for the Green Berets, volunteered. A replica of the prison was constructed, using two-by-fours and target cloth with windows, doors, and gates cut out. The camp was rolled up and the post holes covered during daylight hours when Cosmos , a Soviet reconnaissance satellite, overflew Eglin.

An arsenal was assembled, including assault rifles, grenades, claymore mines, blasting caps, and demolition charges. Break-in tools, such as bolt cutters, machetes, chain saws, axes, and acetylene torches, were collected along with night sights, ropes, fire extinguishers, and radios. Colonel Cataldo, concerned about the physical condition of the prisoners, ordered special medical kits with anesthetics, inflatable splints, and inhalation agents, in addition to cans of water, thermal ponchos, rubber shoes, pajamas, and baby food in case the just-released POWs could not eat solid food.


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  6. Training began August 20 under strict security. The ground assault team practiced entry into and escape from the fake compound and the POW cell blocks times, mostly at night, perfecting and smoothing out the details. Their training included target recognition, village surveillance, house search, hand signals, demolition placement, jungle survival, and much night firing.

    Colonel Cataldo taught them how to treat battle casualties. Meanwhile, the aerial force practiced night aerial refuelings, night formation flying, and flare-dropping, logging more than 1, hours in sorties, without an accident. Major Kalen and copilot Colonel Zehnder made thirty-one practice night descents into the tree-shrouded eighty-five-foot clearing with the HH-3, a feat calling for a superior touch on the controls in unknown ground wind conditions.

    An HH, with Major Donohue at the controls, practiced shooting out the compound's guard towers with the side-firing Gatlings. There was nothing normal about the flying they would be doing on the three-and-a-half-hour flight to the target area. Two HCs would accompany the formation from Udorn and refuel the helicopters en route. Two MC Combat Talons, modified with new infrared navigation systems, would guide the formation on a twisting route at low altitude through the mountains from the refueling point to Son Tay. The mixture of aircraft types posed the toughest problems for the pilots.

    A C's normal cruise speed is about knots at low level, but for this mission they would have to fly at knots with 70 flaps, barely above stalling speed. The heavily loaded HHs and especially the HH-3 would be flying on the high edge of their performance envelopes trying to keep up. They would have to learn to fly at that speed "in draft" behind the Cs, much as racing drivers and cyclists do to increase speed and conserve fuel.

    The A-1Es also had an unusual requirement. Loaded with bombs and rockets, they had to make S-turns and fly at just above stalling speed to stay with a mother ship and not outrun the slower aircraft. On September 28, the Air Force and Army teams began practicing the assault together, some with tracer ammunition and satchel charges.

    Now truly a joint operation, the code name was changed to "Ivory Coast. On October 6, there was a final, full-fledged, live-fire rehearsal.

    Rescue of Bat 21 Bravo

    If all went as planned, it would take about twenty-five minutes on the ground to get all the prisoners loaded and head for Udorn. Nixon's National Security Advisor, and Brig. Alexander Haig, Mr. Kissinger's military executive officer, informing them that the mission had a "ninety-five to ninety-seven percent assurance of success.

    At this time, those in Washington following the status of the POW compound through air reconnaissance photos reported a "decline in activity" within the Son Tay camp.

    The Son Tay Raid

    Weeds were growing where prisoners would have normally walked. On October 3, an SR's photos showed no sign of occupants. Some analysts thought that if POWs were still there, they were being punished for some reason and not being allowed outdoors. Later, SR films showed "a definite increase in activity" at Son Tay.

    The mission was then given its third code name: "Kingpin. General Manor and Colonel Simons gave a joint briefing to their men at 2 p. November 18 in the base theater at Takhli with a schedule to be observed for the following three days. During the next day, weapons and equipment were checked. Some limited test firing was conducted. An escape-and-evasion briefing was given and blood chits were provided. The ground force would consist of fifty-six Army and ninety-two Air Force personnel, but still only a handful knew what their destination was to be. Bad news developed in Washington when a usually reliable intelligence source in Hanoi stated that the Son Tay prisoners had been moved.

    Reconnaissance aircraft tried to get last-minute photographs of the camp November 18 but failed. However, another report indicated that the camp was occupied by "someone. Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird was briefed on the possibility that no prisoners were in the camp.

    Donald V. Bennett recommended the raid proceed, weather permitting. Laird agreed and so advised the President, who acknowledged that it was worth the risk. The "go" message was sent to General Manor at Takhli. General Manor laid on the mission for the night of November In the Red River Valley, little cloudiness was expected, as were good visibility and light winds.

    Account Options

    Vice Adm. Frederic A. They were given permission to fire their Shrike air-to-surface missiles and mm ammunition against any enemy radar-controlled SAM defenses that posed a threat to US forces and to support search-and-rescue missions if anyone were shot down. Although the launch order had not yet been given at the time of a noon briefing at Takhli on November 20, all personnel were issued sleeping pills and ordered to rest from 1 p.

    Following chow, all air and ground force personnel were assembled in the base theater where Colonel Simons told the group they were going to rescue as many as seventy American POWs, "something American prisoners have a right to expect from their fellow soldiers," he said. The audience was stunned into silence, then a few let out low whistles. Then, they stood up and applauded. Under complete radio silence, they formed up and set course for North Vietnam.

    By the time they crossed the Laotian border, a total force of aircraft had departed from seven bases in Thailand and the three carriers in the Tonkin Gulf. Five Fs reached the Son Tay area at high altitudes to keep the SAM batteries from acquiring radar locks on the approaching assault force, while ten F-4Ds from Udorn went into high orbit looking for MiGs. Rendezvous and refueling of the helicopters with the HCP tanker was accomplished over Laos despite an unidentified aircraft flying a reciprocal heading at their altitude, which briefly scattered the formation.

    The helicopters managed to regain formation with increased separation through occasional clouds. All aircraft were refueled as scheduled. The Cs led the six choppers until Son Tay lay only three and one-half miles ahead. At that point, the leading C climbed to 1, feet followed by two HH choppers: Apple 4, piloted by Lt. Royal C. Brown and Maj. Ryland R. Dreibelbis; and Apple 5 with Maj. Kenneth D. Murphy and Capt. William M. McGeorge at the controls. Apple 5 was the secondary flare helicopter. Over the Son Tay compound, the flares worked perfectly, so the choppers flew to a planned holding area on islands in the Finger Lake, seven miles west of Son Tay, while the C circled to drop a firefight simulator firecrackers with timed fuses on the sapper [secondary] school.

    It then released its pallet of napalm before flying off to its designated orbit. After the A-1s pulled away, this C dropped a napalm marker and then joined the other C in its orbit while the Skyraiders bombed a nearby bridge before taking up their orbit over the flaming pool of napalm. With this many aircraft involved, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would have a mechanical difficulty. Thomas R. Waldron, had an apparent transmission failure, indicated by a red warning light. This is enough to cause concern in any helicopter crew and bring a forced landing under normal circumstances.

    However, warning lights are not always dependable, and Major Donohue chose to ignore it. The helicopter gunners on board blasted two prison guard towers and the guard barracks. Major Kalen and Colonel Zehnder, following in the HH-3, found the cleared area inside the compound and began the letdown through large trees that were twice as tall as anyone had thought. Tree limbs, leaves, and debris were blasted everywhere as the chopper's blades sliced through them and descended to a landing.

    The impact caused the right door gunner to be thrown out of the helicopter, but he was unhurt. Leroy M. Wright, the HH-3 flight engineer who broke an ankle in the landing, scrambled out to guard the aircraft and ready medical kits for POWs and casualties. Out jumped Captain Meadows, leader of the prison assault group, and his thirteen men. Captain Meadows, carrying the bullhorn, shouted, "We're Americans.

    First Light by Chuck Gross | Vietnam Veterans of America

    Keep your heads down. This is a rescue. We're here to get you out. The team split up into action elements and reached their assigned cell blocks, eliminating enemy soldiers. Meanwhile, the helicopter carrying Colonel Simons and his twenty-two-man team had landed by mistake at the "secondary school" meters south of the prison. It was an understandable error. The two compounds looked similar at night, and a canal running alongside the school looked like the Song Con River.

    See a Problem?

    The pilot, Colonel Britton, was following the chopper ahead of him and did not see it change course suddenly while he prepared for his landing. Colonel Sydnor saw the mistake and put an alternate plan into effect: he had his men head for the area outside the prison wall, where he set up his command post. Colonel Britton offloaded the Simons group and flew to his holding area.

    The raiders under Colonel Simons were immediately engaged in a furious firefight with what appeared in the darkness to be well-armed Chinese or Russian soldiers. With the advantage of complete surprise, his men killed more than of them within the next few minutes.