On October 18, 1966 the first official mission to rescue an American POW was launched. It ended in disaster, with over 12 killed, 17 missing, two helicopters shot down, and no prisoners rescued. Largely forgotten, this mission should serve as an excellent lesson about proper planning of a mission and what should be avoided.
In the Spring of 1966 Colonel Alderholt, a well-respected Air Force Air Commando, had been tasked to create a recovery operation in SE Asia for the express purpose of rescuing pilots shot down in Vietnam and Laos. Later called the JPRC, or Joint Personnel Recovery Center, this group served as part of MACV-SOG based in Saigon, South Vietnam and was code-named "Bright Light." Originally, the task force was to be composed of Army Rangers, but the Army refused to give up control and Chinese Nung Mercenaries lead by Army Special Forces were used instead. For air Assets the JRPC had to go to 7th Air Force headquarters and request airlift and air support.
In September of that year a 17 year-old Viet Cong (Guerrillas fighting for North Vietnam) defected under the Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) Program. While being debriefed by US intelligence, he stated that he'd seen a black American in captivity at a POW camp; his description matched that of a Sergeant that had been captured while serving as an advisor to the S. Vietnamese Army. Later it was decided that the prisoner might also be Captain Carl Jackson, an Air Force officer that had been shot down in 1965. The decision was made to attempt a rescue, but it was felt that more information was needed. While members of the JPRC began to plan the operation, the Air Force attempted to get more intelligence on the camp.
RF-4 photo-recon planes attempted for two weeks to gain images of the POW camp but failed; in some cases shut out due to bad weather and in others they photographed the wrong areas. Finally in desperation, a member of the JPRC staff overflew the camp in a light scout plane at a high altitude so that he appeared to be merely transitioning and not scouting. In the back was a combat photographer, and the oblique-angled shots he took were shown to the defector who was able to identify the camp. The JPRC was finally given the official go-ahead nearly a month nad a half after the defector had seen the American.
The basic plan was to airlift a company-sized force of Nung Mercenaries and their Special Forces Advisors (Led by Captain Frank Jaks) to a LZ near the camp, where they would assemble and raid the camp, freeing the prisoner. They were to be transported from Kotum to a forward base at Can To via Air Force C-130 and then airlifted to their LZ's in Army UH-1 Huey's and supported there by A-1 Skyraiders. Once they had released any prisoners, the UH-1's would pick them up and fly the force back to Can To.
Things went bad from the start. The C-130 Cargo planes had been diverted at the last minute for a resupply and were three hours late arriving at Kotum. By the time the force left for their final destinations in the UH-1 helicopters they were nearly four hours late. Things went from bad to worse. The weather started to worsen, with the clouds dropping down lower. The force, told to expect no opposition within a ten-mile radius of the camp and only 12 guards, instead landed in the middle of a field populated by a Viet Cong Battalion (around 1,000 soldiers) that was resting. Additionally, due to the bad weather and small landing zone size, one group of hueys had landed in the wrong area and part of the force was now separated by a small canal.
One huey was shot down and the American Platoon leader killed. Cut off from the rest of the force, nearly leaderless, and taking heavy machine gun and mortar fire, the third Nung Platoon needed help, and the only help that could save them was close air support. However, 7th Air Force had decided to send F-100 Sabres instead of A-1 Skyraiders. Jet propelled, they were much faster than the skyraider, which is great for a fighter but not a desirable characteristic in an attack aircraft. A later report on the raid called the F-100's "worse than no air support." Hampered by their high speeds and low cloud cover, the F-100's released their bombs over the wrong area and bombed the Nungs, destroying a Huey on the ground and killing more friendly forces than were killed by the Viet Cong for the duration of the mission.
It was not until the next day that the force could be extracted, and by that
time 2 Americans had been killed, eleven Nungs had also been killed and 17 were
missing in action. Although fighting valiantly, one entire Platoon had been
wiped out and several helicopters had been destroyed. No prisoners were found,
although it is reported that Sergeant Edward Johnson, the man they had been
trying to rescue was released a year later. Captain Carl Jackson, USAF, is still
MIA and presumed dead.
This is a classic example of how centralized control can have negative effects on special operations units and missions. Special Operations Forces must be able to operate quickly and with great flexibility; their survival and success demands it. Efficient control of assets is necessary for any military endeavor, but as this shows, SOF missions require dedicated resources. Some may argue that this is a waste of forces, but special operational forces should generate more impact per person/aircraft/weapon than conventional forces so it is well worth having an aircraft or boat set aside to support such activities.
By the time the mission was launched it had been over a month and a half since the initial intelligence information had come into US circles. According to John Plaster, a retired SOG member, the JPRC had to coordinate between a major Army command, major Air Force command, and no less than eight different sections in the MACV headquarters staff. These delays could have caused harm or death to the prisoner and decreased the changes of his rescue if the element of surprise was lost.
The difficulties the JPRC faced actually pre-dated the unit; it took Colonel Alderholt over five months to get the JRPC officially activated; out of assets that were already in-country. Interservice rivalry between the Air Force and Army cost precious time as each sought to retain control of their assets and units. Bureaucratic red tape in Saigon headquarters caused many stalls and unnecessary waits; in one case the JPRC was left waiting several days for help after the head of MACV Intelligence declined to make time for them.
Air Power played a key role in the mission as well. With the succession of Air Force General Momyer to Deputy Commander for Air Operations in July of 1966 the Air Force had begun a campaign to centrally control all air assets in Vietnam in order to maximize the efficiency of assets. The cargo aircraft were late specifically because the central planning office had detoured them to drop off some cargo, which caused the lateness when the offloading operation was delayed. In an effort to minimize waste or resources, the Air Force actually caused waste by over-tasking elements and not allowing for potential problems.
The Seventh Air Force had also changed the aircraft used for CAS from A-1E Skyraiders to F-100 Super Sabres, a supersonic fighter that had been pressed into the attack role, one for which it had not been designed and was not well suited for. There was no FAC attached to the force to help guide the F-100's in and the forces on the ground were probably not very familiar with the F-100's characteristics.
Had the JPRC been fully set up by the time the information about the US POW came in, and had the bureaucracy not been such a hinderance it is quite possible that an American serviceman might have been rescued.
SOG, The Secret War of America's Commandos in Vietnam -Maj. John L. Plaster, USA (ret)
Air Commando One - Warren A. Trest
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