On May 9, 1970, Air Force intelligence detected an enemy POW camp near the North Vietnamese town of Sơn Tây. From aerial reconnaissance, they estimated that more than 50 American servicemen were being held there.
It wasn’t until May 25th that the Air Force informed Brigadier General Donald Blackburn from Special Forces of their discovery. I don’t know what the fly-boys spent the intervening two weeks doing, but the delay was neither the last nor the worst in the process leading up to the Sơn Tây rescue.
Blackburn was an aggressive and eager officer. He immediately went to his boss, General Earle Wheeler, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with a plan that he, Blackburn, personally lead a raid to free and repatriate the American POWs.
Instead, Wheeler – less aggressive or just more cautious – ordered that a 15-member planning group within the Pentagon convene to study the feasibility of Blackburn’s plan. Getting the group started took until June 10th. The group, calling itself “Polar Circle”, eventually recommended that the raid go forward.
By August 8, the Polar Circle “group” became “staff”, swelling to 27 members, renaming itself “Ivory Coast”, and building a headquarters at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. They began rounding up volunteers and running practice raids through the month of September with an eye to staging the raid on October 21th.
On October 8th, the senior Ivory Coast members met with Henry Kissinger, at the time Nixon’s National Security Advisor. Kissinger insisted that the President personally approve the operation, and the president would not have time to do that before November.
And in fact, Nixon did not give his approval until November 18th, but again, a Higher Authority intervened. That day, Typhoon Patsy struck the Philippines and military meteorologists predicted it would prevent air-borne operations against northern Vietnam from the 21st to the 26th.
Showing at atypical sense of urgency, Ivory Coast leadership decided to launch the attack immediately, before the weather could close in. They also, in a far more typical move, renamed their project again, and on November 20th, 196 days after the camp was first detected, Operation Kingpin went into action.
What happened? What do you think happened? In the six months the US military had been diddling around, the equivalent bureaucracy in North Vietnam had decided to move the American POWs somewhere else.
When the first wave of heavily armed raiders boiled out of their Sikorsky S-61 helicopter into the courtyard of Sơn Tây, the whole place was empty. Meanwhile, the second wave accidentally touched down in front of what turned out to be a North Vietnamese Army barracks, and engaged in a spirited but pointless firefight with NVA troops there.
196 days. Meetings, study groups, preliminary approvals, practice runs. The best that could have been happening during that time was that their own men were languishing in a tropical hell-hole, dying of disease and mistreatment. What actually happened was noticeably worse: they were moved to a different hell-hole and ended up spending three more years there.
OK, 1970 was a long time ago. Surely the US government has learned of the need to act speedily on intelligence.
Well, no. Just last month, US commandos attempted to rescue several hostages held by ISIS, the Syrian-based terrorist group now rampaging across northern Iraq. Again, when they got there, the prisoners were gone. One of them, James Foley, was later gruesomely decapitated.
According to Anthony Shaffer, a retired intelligence officer, it was Sơn Tây all over again. The US military knew about the base, in an abandoned oil refinery near the city of Ar-Raqqah, for months, but could not put boots on the ground in time. Shaffer has good reputation for such things: the Defense Department bought and destroyed all 10,000 copies of his memoirs of the war in Afghanistan.
Winston Churchill had his personal stationery printed with the phrase “Action This Day” at the top, and tragedies like Sơn Tây and Ar-Raqqah are why. Once you have let a day pass, a second day seems a small additional delay, and then a third, and pretty soon, you are months behind.
None of us is immune. I read about Shaffer’s accusation this morning and, before noticing the irony, decided to write about on Sunday.
No. Goddamn no. Today, Friday, I was busy as Hell, but I’ll be busy Saturday, and Sunday, and every other day in the future.
Action this day. Lose not an hour. Get ’er done.