At 0218 on 21 November 1970, a modified C-130E with forward looking radar (FLIR) transmitted the “execute” command “Alpha, Alpha, Alpha” as it deployed four illumination flares. The C-130E was a meager 23 miles west of Hanoi, North Vietnam, at that time the most heavily defended city in the world. Below the flares, assault helicopters swooped down to disembark 56 heavily armed American Special Forces personnel. Their mission: to rescue 60 to 70 American POWs imprisoned at the Son Tay POW camp.
Of the more than 600 men interviewed for “an impossible mission,” only 56 were chosen for “boots on the ground” in North Vietnam. In the sable skies above Son Tay and interdiction locales, 116 aircraft (59 Navy and 57 Air Force) patrolled, strafed, and bombed the 12,000 enemy troops within a 5-mile radius. Newton County resident Grady Vines was one of the 56 Special Forces soldiers scrambling off the assault choppers, weapons blazing, and this is his story.
“Well, it started in October of 1960,” said Vines. “I’d just broken up with my girlfriend and was so depressed that I joined the Army just to ‘get away’ from things.” The U.S. Army kept Vines “away” from things for 21 years. He did, however, reconcile with his sweetheart. He and Beverly have been married for 55 years.
Trained in artillery at Fort Sill, Okla., Vines decided to volunteer for jump school at Fort Campbell, Ky. The first time Vines jumped was also the first time he’d been aboard an airplane. With a wife and young child, he decided on an Army career. Vines recalled, “Besides, I was making decent money, but of course back then ‘decent’ money meant $140 a month.”
Assigned to the legendary 82nd Airborne, in early 1965 Vines and the 82nd were dispatched from Fort Bragg, N.C., to subdue an uprising by insurgents in the Dominican Republic. Job done, he returned to Fort Bragg and volunteered for the Green Berets. “I trained with weapons like the Uzi and AK-47 Kalashnikov, plus other weapons people have never heard of,” said Vines. “It wasn’t a cake walk, that’s a given, but I earned my beret.”
In mid-1967 Vines arrived in Vietnam. “I spent about 13 months near Na Trang with the indigenous Montagnards. My location was called Camp 101, but another beret wanted to switch with me so I ended up at Camp 107.” During the infamous 1968 Tet Offensive, Camp 101 was overrun and all 12 Green Berets there were killed. Vines completed his tour of duty without a scratch.
Back at Fort Bragg, Vines trained and retrained, attended schools and more schools for two years. In mid-1970, he and more than 600 NCOs were called in. Something big was in the making.
“Volunteers were requested for an ‘impossible mission,’” said Vines. “Half of them just left, but nosey me stayed and volunteered.”
Mission Impossible was Son Tay.
“Only a few were selected for the mission,” Vines recalled. “They sent us to Eglin AFB in Florida for intense training, mostly at night. We had live-fire exercises, raided a mock stockade; trained around the clock, no breaks, no let-up. Our wives or families were told we were testing new equipment; we were told, ‘You’re probably going out of country.’ From September to November, then finally, “Pack it up, men. We’re leaving.”
For Vines, it seemed like days later they landed on a hot dusty airstrip in the middle of nowhere, an isolated base called Nakhon Phanom in extreme northeast Thailand. Other units were landing at various other Thai Air Force bases. Vines recalled, “About 70 guys were in this room when they informed us, ‘Gentlemen, we’re heading 23 miles northwest of Hanoi to rescue American POWs.’ They issued sleeping pills so we could rest well before the mission.”
Then came time to board the choppers. Three teams with dissimilar assignments conducted the raid: Blue Boy, Greenleaf, and Red Wine. Vines was on team Red Wine. Thus began a rescue assault still studied in military colleges, supported by two C-130s, five HH-53C Super Jolly Green choppers, one HH3E Jolly Green, five A1E Skyraiders, 10 F-4D Phantom fighter jets, and five F-105 Wild Weasel electronic suppression aircraft. Beyond Son Tay, diversionary aircraft numbered almost 200.
Intelligence identified a nearby building at Son Tay as a “training school” – in reality the “school” turned out to be an enemy barracks. The code name “items” meant POWs. The Blue Boy team landed inside the POW camp. Greenleaf was given the task of securing the area outside the compound, but nighttime navigation caused a mistaken landing at a subordinate camp. The Red Wine element, Vines’ team, was called in to replace Greenleaf.
“We secured the area, we did our job, we were pumped up for this mission,” recalled Vines. “Then we heard over the radio, ‘No items, repeat, there are no items.’ We were heartsick.” Unknown to the raiders, the POWs had been moved to another camp before the raid. The rescue attempt had not been compromised, rather, the well water at Son Tay had been contaminated by flood water causing a relocation of POWs and enemy personnel.
“It was not a pleasant ride back to base,” said Vines. “We were saddened and heartbroken.”
The American rescue team suffered one casualty, a sprained ankle. Estimates vary, but 100 to 200 enemy personnel were killed trying to reinforce Son Tay. The rescue attempt failed, but after the war it was discovered failure had actually caused successful change in the lives of American POWs. American captives were moved closer to Hanoi, most into the infamous Hanoi Hilton. Better food and better treatment, still hostile, but the North Vietnamese leadership feared a repeat mission, stronger and more devastating. The Special Forces raid had indeed accomplished good results.
Vines served another Vietnam tour in 1972. Other assignments included Germany and Italy. He retired in 1981 after serving in a capacity Vines had sought all his career: as an E-8 1st sergeant of the 82nd Airborne.
Never one to sit still, Vines drove 3.5 million miles as an over-the-road commercial driver in civilian life. In 1992 his cancerous voice box was removed restricting communication to a Romet (artificial voice box). A hero by every definition of the word, Grady Vines continues to serve his brothers as a member of the American Legion Riders, visiting veterans confined to nursing homes, and supports veteran concerns with a vigor worthy of a Green Beret.
His closing comments: “Every high school graduate should serve their country for two years doing something. It builds character, maturity and leadership. People don’t realize what we went through; we had a job to do. If civilians don’t do their job, they get fired. If we didn’t do our job properly, people died.”
Asked if he’d do it all over again, Vines replied, “In a heartbeat.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran. For story consideration or comments: email@example.com.