In North Vietnam in 1970 several soldiers, sailors and airman were killed, beaten, starved and confined in solitary confinement causing severe mental issues in prisons in North Vietnam. Many of the American Prisoners were pilots for the Army and Air Force shot down during the heavy bombing raids ordered by President Johnson in 1964. 1 For nearly 2,000 days, or six plus years many of these Americans imprisoned in Son Tay about 23 miles west of Hanoi in North Vietnam. After several reports to the Pentagon from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the National security Agency (NSA), one of the greatest orchestrated prison rescue attempt was coordinated in a joint effort by the armed services. This operation exhibited extreme planning and attention to detail that forever changed the North Vietnamese treatment of American Prisoners of War (POWs).2
44 years ago in the spring of 1970, SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance planes provided high altitude photos while Buffalo Hunter drones provided low altitude images and surveillance of a possible Prison Camp holding somewhere between 50-100 American POWs. In May, the Air Force Special Operations squadron received coded messages indicating 55 Prisoners in Son Tay. POWs had been using laundry to signal a figure eight indicating they wanted to be picked up eight miles away at Mount Ba Vi.3 These reports surfaced and small groups within the Washington area to include the Pentagon, DIA, CIA, and NSA were all at work locating and keeping an eye on all possible POW compounds utilizing several intelligence assets. 4 After several reports of deaths, and inhumane actions by the North Vietnamese analysts in Washington DC analyzed several possible ways in which to extract these prisoners from the compound in Son Tay. 5 The Joint Chiefs of Staff received notification of the reconnaissance planes images and confirmation that American POWs held captive and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) forwarded the idea to Donald D. Blackburn who was the special assistant to the JCS on counter insurgency and special activities.
Planning and Preparation and Equipment
In the early summer of 1970, General Blackburn and a committee comprised within the CIA, DIA, and NSA received approval to start planning a rescue attempt to free all of the prisoners in the Son Tay Prison. This top-secret plan code named operation “Polar Circle” and was comprised of 26 planners and 148 men to carry out the mission. These men had to plan and rehearse for a rescue attempt in which an estimated 12,000 Vietnamese troops were within the area and several air defense batteries nearby. The reconnaissance photos also showed the prison to be in a jungle surrounded by large trees and only a small entrance about the size of a basketball court to land an aircraft to rescue the prisoners.6
The planning was delegated by the JCS to...