Twenty three miles northwest of Hanoi, the tiny North Vietnamese village of Son Tay had been undisturbed for decades, if not centuries. Peasants harvested their rice crops and survived as best they could in Third-World conditions. On Nov. 21, 1970, the peaceful little village of Son Tay entered military history.
The NVA (North Vietnamese army) had constructed a POW camp alongside the village in the late 1960s. By 1970, approximately 60 to 70 American POWs were imprisoned at Son Tay, some in horrible physical condition. Policymakers in Washington considered the camp ripe for a rescue attempt.
On that fateful day in November, 56 Green Berets participated in a raid that is still studied in military colleges. Supporting the raiders were two C-130s, five HH53C Super Jolly Green choppers, one HH3E Jolly Green, five A1E Skyraider suppression aircraft, 10 F-4D Phantom fighters, and five F-105 Thunderchiefs Wild Weasels for electronic repression. Beyond Son Tay, diversionary aircraft numbered around 200.
The raiders were armed with 51 side arms, 48 CAR-15 carbines, two M-16 rifles, four grenade launchers, two shotguns, four M-60 machine guns, more than 200 hand grenades, 15 Claymore mines, and 11 demolition charges, not to mention wire and bolt cutters, chainsaws, ropes, axes, bullhorns, lights, crowbars, radio equipment and tons of resolve.
Three teams with different assignments conducted the raid: Blue Boy, Greenleaf, and the Red Wine element. The raiders and support groups were formidable. They had to be. Approximately 12,000 NVA soldiers were within a 5-mile radius of Son Tay, and Hanoi was the most heavily defended city in the world at the time.
It took extraordinarily skilled and combat-experienced soldiers to land, execute their mission, and suppress a determined enemy with boots on the ground. Those boots belonged to the Green Berets. Grady Vines wore those boots.
"I’m homegrown, born in Atlanta," Vines said. "I volunteered for Army life in October of 1960. My girlfriend and I had broken up and I was so depressed I wanted to get away from things."
The United States Army obliged and kept Vines "away from things" for the next 21 years. However, even the Army can’t thwart Cupid — Vines and his then ex-girlfriend Beverly, have been married now for 52 years.
Vines trained as an artillery man at Fort Still, Okla., before volunteering for jump school at Fort Campbell, Ky. (The first time he jumped was also the first time he’d been aboard an airplane.)
With a wife and young child, Vines decided on an Army career. "Besides, I was making decent money," he said. Back then ‘decent’ meant $140 a month.
Vines and the 82nd Airborne are dispatched from Fort Bragg to quell insurgents in the Dominican Republic. Back at Fort Bragg, he volunteered for the Green Berets.
"It wasn’t a cake walk, but I earned my beret," Vines said.
Vines became proficient in weapons such as the Uzi and the Kalashnikov, and a few more most of us have never heard of.
In the vicinity of Na Trang, Vietnam, Vines spends 13 months "in the boondocks" with the indigenous Montagnards. One beret asked for camp 101; Vines agreed to switch to camp 107. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, camp 101 was overrun, and all 12 Green Berets there were killed. Vines completed his tour of duty without a scratch.
Back in Fort Bragg in 1968:
"About 600 NCOs were called in and asked if we’d be interested in an impossible mission," Vines said. "Half of them left. Being nosey, I stayed." Mission Impossible was Son Tay.
The select few were sent to Eglin AFB in Florida. Wives and families were told that they were going "to test new equipment." The reality was night training, live fire exercises, raiding a mock-up stockade. The physical training was intense.
From mid-September to mid-November:
no let-up, no breaks, no orders. "You’re probably going out of country," they were told.
Finally, "Pack it up, men. We’re leaving."
Vines said, "It seemed like days later we deplaned on a hot, humid airstrip in the middle of nowhere," in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. Others gathered at other bases in Thailand.
Vines said, "We were in a room with about 70 personnel when we were told, ‘Gentlemen, we’re heading 23 miles northwest of Hanoi to rescue the American POWs.’’’
Sleeping pills were given for a good night’s rest. Meteorologists kept a close watch on Cyclone Daisy, building strength over the Tonkin Gulf. Radio traffic was closely monitored.
Then it was time to board the choppers, get airborne, and extract the "Items" — code name for the POWs.
The Blue Boy element landed inside the camp. Greenleaf was supposed to secure the perimeter outside the camp, but high winds and nighttime navigation caused a mistaken landing at a subordinate site. Red Wine was called forward to replace Greenleaf.
Red Wine element member Vines said, "We did our job, but our hearts broke when we heard over the radio, ‘No items, repeat, we have no items.’ We didn’t know it, but the POWs had recently been moved to another camp." (The water well at Son Tay had gone dry, forcing the entire camp to move).
Vines said, "It was not a pleasant trip back to base… We were absolutely heartbroken."
The raid on Son Tay did accomplish something good: Seeing that American forces would go to any length to rescue their brethren, the North Vietnamese moved all POWs to the infamous Hanoi Hilton. There they could at least communicate and live in somewhat better conditions.
Grady Vines served another tour in Vietnam in 1973, was assigned to Germany and Italy, and retired in 1981 as an E-8 1st sergeant in an 82nd Airborne company.
In civilian life, he covered more than 3.5 million miles as a truck driver for 30 years. He retired from Jet Corp., in Conyers.
Diagnosed with cancer in 1992, Vines had his voice box removed. He has communicated with a Romet (artificial larynx) for 18 years. A hero in every sense of the word, he continues helping other veterans as a member of the American Legion Patriot Riders and supporting veteran causes.
"If physically and mentally able, every kid should serve two years doing something for their country," Vines said. "People don’t know what we’ve gone through; we had a job to do. If civilians don’t do their job, they get fired. If we don’t do ours properly, we die."
Asked if he’d do it again, Vines said, "In a heartbeat."
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at email@example.com or aveteransstory.us.