Major William A. Guenon, Jr.
US Air Force – 7th Special Operations Squadron
Pilot, Lead Plane – Son Tay POW Raid
Son Tay Prison, Vietnam 11/21/70
US Air Force – 7th Special Operations Squadron
Pilot, Lead Plane – Son Tay POW Raid
Son Tay Prison, Vietnam 11/21/70
Bill Guenon was born in 1940 in Greencastle, Pennsylvania near Gettysburg. Bill’s father was a flight surgeon in the Army Air Corp. and later opened his own practice in Greencastle. Bill attended West Virginia Wesleyan College in West Virginia and majored in math, psychology and geology but Bill really wanted to fly. Bill signed up for the US Marines to be a pilot but when it came time to take the physical exam, he failed the eye test. He couldn’t understand it because he had always had perfect eyesight. With the reason for failing unknown, he went home and was very depressed that he wasn’t going to get to fly. He decided to go to a local ophthalmologist to see if he could understand why he failed the exam, but the doctor told him he had perfect 20/20 vision.
Armed with this information Bill sought out the Air Force recruiter in his hometown. Bill told him he wanted to fly but the recruiter tried to dismiss him by saying he needed a college degree. Bill told him he had just graduated from college and that caught his attention. Bill signed all the paperwork that day and this time he passed the eye exam. After a brief vacation around the perimeter of the United States with a buddy, he headed for Lackland Air Force base near San Antonio, TX. It was November 1962. There he attended Officers Training School for three months. His next stop was Craig Air Force Base in Selma Alabama for one year of pilot training. Training was a combination of academics, flying and physical conditioning. Bill thought the training was exhilarating because it was leading to earning his wings. Unlike college where they wanted you to learn and helped you overcome obstacles, in pilot training if you had any difficulties, they wanted you to work on and overcome them yourself. Bill was in a class of 50 but only 31 graduated.
It was 1964 and Bill was hoping for an assignment flying a transport aircraft. When Bill’s orders arrived, he wasn’t disappointed. As he had hoped, he would be flying C-130’s, the Hercules. Bill was then assigned to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina to learn the specifics of flying C-130’s. Although he was slated to be a pilot, during this training he learned how to operate every aspect of the aircraft. The aircraft had a crew of 5 including pilot, co-pilot, navigator, engineer, and a loadmaster. There were variations that required larger crews including Special Operations Missions. Bill recalls flying missions to the Dominican Republic and Ethiopia as well as supply drops throughout the US and jump training for the 82nd airborne.
In September 1966 Bill and his crew received orders to the 314th Tactical Airlift Wing at Nha Trang Air Force Base in South Vietnam. He and his crew flew numerous missions transporting troops to hot spots and resupplying the troops throughout South Vietnam. They also conducted night mission into North Vietnam. The supply and resupply missions included dropping cargo from high altitudes known as High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) drops and low altitudes known as Low Altitude Parachute Delivery Systems (LAPS). In the LAPS missions, the aircraft would come in so low to the ground the crew put the landing gear down. The cargo inside the aircraft was on pallets which were on rollers. When the aircraft reached the drop zone, the Load Master would lower the cargo door and release a big parachute from the back of the aircraft. The parachute pull the cargo off the aircraft while the plane was still moving.
In March of 1968 Bill and his crew came back to Pope AFB in the US. One day Bill and his squadron were headed off the base and as they headed past the runway they saw a C-130. Unlike the other C-130’s which were silver, this one was flat black and green. They also noticed the plane was being guarded, which was very unusual. With a little reconnaissance they learned it was a Special Operations aircraft. Bill and his crew volunteered to be part of this group and several months later they were selected.
This aircraft was an MC-130 and was painted black and green with little blisters on the skin which helped to detect enemy radar and make it a stealth aircraft. It was also equipped with combat radar and the crew expanded from five men to 12 men. The crew included three pilots, two navigators, two flight engineers, two loadmasters, and two new functions: a radio operator and an electronic warfare officer (EWO). The EWO would read his screen and be able to determine exactly what type of radar that was tracking the plane. They started doing a lot of night flying, a hallmark of Special Operations. The crew didn’t know exactly what they would be doing but surmised they would be doing a lot of missions behind enemy lines. The training lasted approximately 6 months and there were four different aircraft, and each required its own crew. At the end of the 6 months, Stray Goose Squadron as they called themselves, deployed to Nha Trang Vietnam.
Once in Vietnam they were involved with dropping leaflets, inserting troops, and resupplying troops. They flew missions throughout North and South Vietnam and into Cambodia and Laos. The missions were top secret and the only information supplied to the crew were geographic coordinates of the landing or drop site. They were given the time they had to arrive at the site. The missions in South Vietnam were during the day and the missions into North Vietnam were at night. Bill recalls a very tight camaraderie developed among the crew and the squadron. Everyone depended on the person next to them to do their job. After a year in Vietnam the crew was reassigned to the 7thSpecial Operations Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, West Germany.
In the Fall of ’70 Bill and his crew were summoned to Eglin AFB in Ft Walton Beach, Florida. They were told they would be training for a special mission but received no further details. The first unusual aspect of the mission was the flight speed of the C-130. They were told that they should fly at 105 knots instead of the usual 130 knots but they were not given the reason. This was dangerous because the aircraft’s stall speed was 100 knots. During this training the crew tried to figure out where they would be going. They thought they were heading to Cuba to insert special forces that would blow up Soviet submarines based there. The last place they thought they would be going was back to Vietnam.
Eventually they were told the mission involved POW rescue. Bill would be flying the C-130 that would be leading a formation of six helicopters for the rescue. The maximum speed of the helicopters was 110 knots. It was decided all the aircraft would fly at 105 knots to provide all the aircraft with some cushion. There would be 3 helicopters carrying a total of 56 Green Berets and the other 3 helicopters would be used to extract the prisoners and as a backup in case one of the other helicopters had mechanical difficulties.
Two days before the mission launched the men learned that they would be attacking Son Tay Prison and they were provided with a prisoner list with 61 American names on it. They were able to get the names because two years earlier the North Vietnamese had released some US prisoners and one of the prisoners was a US Seaman with a photographic memory. Bill recognized one of the names on the list. Captain Edward Brudno, a pilot he had gone to flight school with. Captain Edwards had been in captivity since October 1965.
Son Tay was 20 miles west of Hanoi, and at the time it was the most heavily fortified capital in the world. The mission would include a total of 116 aircraft in the air and ready for involvement if necessary. The supporting aircraft included tankers to refuel the helicopters, intel and communications aircraft and a C-130 leading attack aircraft in case close air support was needed. With the stealth aspect of the aircraft and the slow flying speed the mission planners hoped to avoid radar detection. They assumed any radar operator who saw an image that big and moving so slow would have thought it was a flock of birds. Four months and approximately 1,000 hours of flying time went into training for the mission.
The mission was planned for Friday November 21, 1970. At 2:30am the Son Tay Raiders took off from Takhli, Thailand with Bill flying the “Cherry One” (call sign). It was a 3 hour flight to the target. The US aircraft would approach from the west at 105 knots and at an altitude 750’. The flight to the target was uneventful. To create a diversion, the US Navy in the Gulf of Tonkin, was dropping flares and creating other diversions to draw attention away from Son Tay.
Bill’s aircraft flew over the target and left the helicopters to land at the compound. As they passed over the prison compound, they dropped four parachute flares which created 1 million candlepower to light the area. Just beyond the compound they dropped firefight simulators which were cardboard boxes filled firecrackers. When the boxes hit the ground, the firecrackers went off. They hoped the prison guards would think a firefight had broken out and be drawn toward the noise and out of the compound. They also dropped two napalm bomb with a parachute. Upon impact the napalm exploded into a small pool and burned for 45 minutes. This created a visual position for the attack aircraft to hold over.
Unknown to Bill and his crew, there were heavy winds near the target and that caused the helicopters to drift south. They mistakenly thought a secondary school building was the prison compound and one helicopter landed before they could correct their mistake. The other helicopters made it to the Son Tay Prison and the Green Berets that were dropped at the school reboarded the helicopter and flew to the prison.
As part of the assault, one of the Green Beret used a megaphone to announce, “We’re Americans. We are here to save you. Keep your head down and we’ll be in in just a little bit.” The Americans expected to hear cheering, but it was eerily quiet. The prison was empty. US intelligence was unaware that the well which was used to supply water to the prison had gone dry. The North Vietnamese had moved the prisoners. There were a few ill-prepared guards in the compound that were neutralized by the Green Beret. One helicopter was intentionally crash landed. The rest of the aircraft and troops all returned to Thailand. It was all over in less than 30 minutes. When they returned to base the mood was somber.
The North Vietnamese were completely caught off guard and now deeply concerned that the Americans were able to penetrate to within spitting distance of Hanoi without being detected. All of the prisons throughout North Vietnam now brought all the American POWs from the prisons surrounding Hanoi into downtown Hanoi in case the Americans tried another raid. This created a space problem which resulted in the POWs being able to mingle and communicate with each other. Some POWs that had been in solitary confinement now found themselves with roommates. Word of The Raid made its way around the camps and greatly improved the morale of the Americas. For many years the North Vietnamese had been telling the US POWs that they had been forgotten by their countrymen, but now they knew that wasn’t true. The Raid gave them hope. Bill and his crew were awarded the Silver Star for their efforts.
Bill finished out his career as an air traffic controller for the Air Force and was discharged June 1, 1984. He took a business development role in Washington, DC with Raytheon selling automated radar systems. In 2004 Bill joined a small startup firm manufacturing control by light devices. Their product was a small box that sent light beams to control motors. The market wasn’t ready for the product and sales didn’t materialize. Bill retired and has devoted much of his time to educating people about the Son Tay Raid.
I asked Bill if he enjoyed his time in the service. “Oh, yes. I was lucky I got all of the assignments that I wanted. That doesn’t happen very often.” Bill went on to say, the best part of his time in the service was the bonding that took place between the air crew members. I asked Bill if he recalled any other memorable missions. “Not really. Once you go on the Son Tay Raid you have peaked.”
“Even though not a man was rescued, the raid was still the best thing that ever happened to us. God Bless the Raiders.”
- Brigadier General Jon A. Reynolds, USAF, Son Tay POW.