“My jaw dropped when I learned what this secret mission was all about,” retired USAF lieutenant colonel told a large audience of Sun Lakes Aero Club (SLAC) members and guests during a presentation at the group’s gathering April 18 at the Sun Lakes Country Club.
Sun Lakes resident Tom Waldron served as an HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopter gunship pilot during the Son Tay Raid, a clandestine mission to rescue American prisoners of war in North Vietnam on Nov. 21, 1970. Waldron described his selection, training and deployment for the mission that took the group of helicopters deep into the heart of enemy territory. His aircraft was the first that crossed the center of the POW camp. Hovering 50 feet above the ground, the helicopter’s gunners took out two compound gun towers. This allowed the HH-3 helicopter landing inside the compound with 14 US Special Forces on board to exit cleanly and find the POWs. Unfortunately, the POWs had been moved to a different location two months earlier.
While the mission was an intelligence failure, it was a tactical success, according to USAF records. The assault force accomplished its objective. No friendly lives were lost in the attempt.
The raid sent a clear message to the North Vietnamese that American were outraged at the treatment of American POWs. North Vietnam got the message. The raid triggered subtle but important changes in the treatment of American POWs. Within days, all POWs in outlying camps were moved to Hanoi. Men who had spent years by themselves in a cell found themselves sharing a cell with dozens of others. From this point of view, the raid was the best thing that could have happened to them short of being rescued.
Waldron received a Silver Star for his participation in the mission.
SLAC will take a few months off for the summer, but will resume activities November 21. Guest speaker will be Sun Lakes resident Sid Singer, who served as a top turret gunner on B-24 bombers during World War II. Additional gatherings are scheduled on the third Mondays, December through April, 2017.
SLAC also sponsors monthly field trips and fly-in breakfasts to airports and aviation-related sites throughout Arizona. For additional information, contact Program Director Gary Vacin at 298-7017 or visit the club’s web site at www.sunlakesaeroclub.org.