Leader Blues

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

TOP STORY >> Cabot man in raid on POW camp in 1970

Leader executive editor

“Also I heard the voice of the Lord saying, who shall I send, and who shall go for us? Then said I, here am I, send me.”

—Isaiah 6:8

In an old photograph, Master Sgt. Paul Poole of Cabot stands at attention in the back row as Defense Secretary Melvin Laird presents medals to dozens of Green Berets who had flown deep into North Vietnam in November 1970 in hopes of rescuing captured Americans from a POW camp called Son Tay.

Not many people have heard of Son Tay or know about Paul Poole, who died last week at the age of 67. But he was a hero, who said without hesitation, “Here am I, send me,” when his country needed him. He knew that desperate men counted on him to bring them home.

Even those who were alive more than 39 years ago may not remember the raid on Son Tay. For those who were born after the war, it’s probably ancient history.

But to people who knew Paul Poole, a modest, unassuming man who lived on Kerr Station Road, the Son Tay mission was as real and heroic as the Alamo.

“He was a down-to-earth country guy,” said Larry Odom, a neighbor. “He loved horses and airplanes.”

“He didn’t talk much about Vietnam,” Odom continued. “He just said he was lucky to make it home. He’d been in lots of firefights.”

Some 500 men volunteered in the fall of 1970 to try to rescue perhaps as many as 100 POWs, although just a handful knew the details of the mission as it was planned.

Poole was one of those volunteers.

Only 100 were chosen for the mission, including the Green Berets and airmen who would fly the team into the heart of North Vietnam during a midnight raid.

U.S. intelligence flights had picked up the camp in a wooded area not far from Hanoi. The prisoners had scrawled the letter K in the dirt — code for “come get us.” In another camp, the POWs, using their laundry, had spelled out “SAR,” code for “search and rescue,” and the number eight, which was the distance they walked to the fields where they worked.

The 56 Green Berets picked for the rescue mission headed down to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where a replica of the camp was built for night training for several weeks. They were briefed about their mission to Son Tay only a few hours before they took off for North Vietnam.

Special Forces Col. Arthur (Bull) Simons, who lead the raid on the camp, told his men, “We are going to rescue 70 American prisoners of war, maybe more, from a camp called Son Tay. This is something American prisoners have a right to expect from their fellow soldiers. The target is 23 miles west of Hanoi.”

They had 30 minutes to capture Son Tay and evacuate the POWs.

On the night of Nov. 20, they flew from Thailand in six helicopters. More than 20 other planes, including a C-130 that threw flares at the camp, accompanied them in support of the operation.

They were headed for a heavily fortified area with several North Vietnamese military camps nearby.

The helicopters arrived just after 2 a.m. One plane crash landed inside the camp. A Green Beret, using a bullhorn, shouted,

“We’re Americans. Keep your heads down. We’re Americans. Get on the floor. We’ll be in your cells in a minute.”

Another helicopter landed a quarter of a mile away and engaged enemy forces at the nearby barracks there.

While those Green Berets were fighting away from their main target, Poole’s group, nicknamed “Redwine,” was to look out for North Vietnamese forces approaching Son Tay.

Instead, these Green Berets now fought their way into the camp, while the other group killed the guards at the lesser target.
Poole’s group broke through a seven-foot wall and attacked the guards in their towers and around the camp. As many as 50 guards were killed.

After the firefights and the hand-to-hand combat, as the Green Berets searched for the prisoners, they realized there were no Americans at Son Tay.

“Negative items,” a Green Beret radioed from inside the camp.

Except for the guards, the camp was empty. The North Vietnamese had evacuated Son Tay, perhaps expecting the raid.

The raiders would return empty-handed.

But no Americans were killed, and only a couple were injured in the fighting. The raiders left 29 minutes after they’d landed.

At a White House ceremony five days after the raid, President Nixon awarded the Distinguished Service Medal to Air Force Brig. Gen. LeRoy J. Manor, who organized the rescue attempt. Col. Simons, the leader of the Son Tay raid, received the

Distinguished Cross, along with two other participants.

Three weeks after the rescue attempt, during a ceremony at Fort Bragg, N.C., where the Special Forces had their headquarters, Secretary of Defense Laird presented medals to 56 Green Berets and 40 others who took part in the raid.

Poole received a Silver Star, as did most of the Green Berets. Other medals went to Air Force officers and enlisted men who flew the raiders to Son Tay.

Nine years later, Texas businessman Ross Perot hired Col. Simons, who had retired from the military, to go into Iran and free two of Perot’s employees held in a Teheran jail. Simons and his crew organized a mob that stormed the jail, freeing the Americans, along with some 11,000 prisoners.

Funeral services for Paul Poole were held Tuesday. Larry Odom went to the visitation Monday night. “He was one of my heroes,” Odom said.

On the Son Tay Raider Association Web site honoring the men who took part in the raid, Poole’s name was added over the weekend to the list of remembered warriors, flanked by two eternal flames.