Nov. 21 marked the 50th anniversary of the Son Tay Raid near Hanoi in North Vietnam, meant to rescue and return about 70 American prisoners of war.
Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Jay Strayer, who was born and raised in Jamestown, was one of the pilots during this rescue attempt.
“I remember coming from my base in Thailand back to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, on a TDY to join the force and begin practicing for a couple of months,” Strayer recalled. “We flew many times during this period and always at night over Florida and Georgia territories because our mission was going to take place at night.”
It would end with mixed results, but the operation became personal for the Ohio veteran.
Strayer received his commission as a second lieutenant in June 1956 through the Air Force ROTC program at Ohio State University. His many career stops included stateside bases in Michigan and California, along with overseas assignments in Germany and Thailand.
After 29 years of service, he ended his career in 1985 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as vice commander of the 2750th Air Base Wing.
The story of the Son Tay Raid was detailed in an Air Force Magazine feature in November 1995. Planning began in the spring of 1970 when it was reported that an increasing number of American prisoners had died from beatings, torture and starvation by their North Vietnamese captors. At the time, more than 450 Americans were held captive in the undeclared war in Southeast Asia, 80 percent of them in North Vietnam. More than half had been in prison longer than 2,000 days.
In August, ground troops began practicing entry and escape from a training compound, while aircrews, including Strayer, performed aerial refueling, night-formation flying and flare-dropping techniques over the course of more than 1,000 hours and 268 sorties – all without an accident, according to the article.
Little information was known about the POWs’ physical condition. It was only known they were being held in some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable.
“A helicopter pilot that had been shot down and captured five years earlier was a friend that I had been stationed with earlier in my career in Germany, and he could have very well been a POW in that camp, so I was excited to be able to rescue him,” Strayer said.
On Nov. 20, 1970, all air and ground force personnel assembled in the base theater at Takhli Air Base, Thailand, where they were told they were going to rescue as many as 70 American POWs. The audience was stunned into silence, then a few let out low whistles. Then, they stood up and applauded.
At approximately 11:30 p.m. that night, a seven-ship formation with three helicopters carrying Army Special Forces on either side of a C-130 took off for Son Tay. Three of the six helicopters carried the attacking force, while the additional choppers would be used as backups and carry the rescued POWs home.
“The lead helicopter carrying the initial attack force was an HH-3E Jolly Green Giant, and it was to crash-land inside the camp to get the rescue started,” Strayer recalled. “The other two HH-53 helicopters, including the one I was flying, carried the second and third parts of the attack that landed outside the base.”
According to Strayer, it was around 2 a.m. when they arrived at the Son Tay camp. There was only a partial moon out, so you couldn’t see much – other than the camp’s outline.
“We flew in and dropped off our force and then got out and flew to a darkened and isolated rice-paddy field outside the camp, and there waited for our call to come pick people up,” he said. “While we were there, I remember using some night-vision goggles which were provided to us that were still in the testing and experimental stage to monitor for any enemy troops, and that was kind of interesting.”
Having practiced this mission several times, spirits were high and everyone was looking forward to bringing Americans home.
“I was confident that this mission was going to be a success as we had practiced it many times,” Strayer said.
As it turned out, the prisoners had been moved prior to the team’s arrival, and so for reasons still unknown today no POWs were rescued that day.
“The feeling of disappointment to find out people had been moved was huge,” he recalled. “We had been practicing for a long time, and then to find no one there when we arrived was simply deflating.”
Though some might consider the mission a failure because no POWs were rescued, Strayer disagrees.
“The mission itself was a success because we didn’t lose anyone and everyone made it home safe and sound,” he said. “I also found out from my friend that after our raid and their move, they were treated a little better until he was finally released two-and-a-half years later.”
Today, one of the HH-53 helicopters used to carry troops in the Son Tay Raid bearing tail No. H357, and one of Strayer’s uniforms, can be seen on display in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.