The Son Tay (Cu Loc) prison camp, also known as Camp Hope, was located 20 miles northwest of Hanoi, North Vietnam. On 24 May 1968, the first 20 prisoners arrived because of the overcapacity conditions in the Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo). An additional 17 POWs arrived in July and 15 more in November. The highest number of POWs held at one time at Son Tay was 53 POWs.
Son Tay was a miserable place—cells were filthy, lacking ventilation, with rats freely roaming about. The buildings suffered from non-functional plumbing, and the persistent issues of electricity and water shortages were ongoing concerns. While some guards engaged in torture to extract war crime confessions and anti-war audio recordings, most prisoners did not face such treatment in this camp. The POWs were confined to their cells, permitted only 15 minutes of outdoor access each day.
Sections of the small camp became known as the Beer Hall, the Cat House, the Opium Den, and later the Stag Bar. The Opium Den had four three-man cells, although eventually some cells would hold up to 10 prisoners. This afforded the POWs with unprecedented opportunities for companionship and communication and no doubt contributed to the name “Camp Hope”.
The “Oven” (aka “Tank”) was a punishment cell under one of the guard towers. It was too small for a person to stand up in and became extremely hot during the day and very cold at night. During the five months POW Jim Warner was confined in the Oven he spent his time creating a thousand-line epic poem in the Shakespearean iambic pentameter style.
The POWs were given a diet primarily comprising greens, pumpkins, cabbage, and a piece of bread. Occasionally, rice or noodles were added, but protein was never included. This diet caused various health issues, such as dysentery, for many of the POWs, but none suffered as severely as Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, the sixth American airman captured in North Vietnam. By the summer of 1969, Smitty had shed 70 pounds and was unable to eat due to his weakened state. For three days, the other POWs pleaded with the guards about Smitty’s critical condition, warning that “if something isn’t done for Harris soon, there will be such a revolt at Son Tay that your superior officers in Hanoi will be very upset.” Medical care was not provided to the POWs unless death was imminent, but eventually, a doctor moved Smitty to a hospital, saving his life. Each man who spoke up for Smitty’s medical attention was tortured for sharing information on his health status. Despite knowing the consequences, they were prepared to risk everything to save one of their own.
Following the death of Ho Chi Minh in the final months of 1969, similar to procedures in other camps, the Son Tay cell windows had their boards removed, and some walls were dismantled. Aerial photography revealed the construction of two new buildings by December 1969. In early 1970, there was an enhancement in food quality, and some packages from home were distributed. Despite the construction of new buildings and the POWs’ efforts in digging an additional 12 feet in the water well, minimal extra water was found. The prisoners utilized their tools to convey messages to other buildings using the tap code. By the summer of 1970, the well dried up, leading to its conversion into a punishment cell. Concerns about potential flooding from the nearby Song Con River jeopardizing the camp’s limited water supply resulted in the closure of the camp on 14 July 1970. All POWs were transported by truck to Camp Faith.
The Son Tay Raid
On 10 July 1970, the U.S. Department of Defense Joint Chiefs of Staff, representing all branches of the military, sanctioned a clandestine and high-risk rescue operation named “Operation Ivory Coast” to liberate a group of captive POWs believed to be held at the Son Tay POW camp.
By 18 November 1970, President Richard Nixon approved the plan, setting the mission date for 21 November. On that same day, Colonel Arthur D. “Bull” Simons revealed the mission’s precise target and objective to the 56 all-volunteer US Army Green Berets and US Air Force Special Operations Forces unit that he personally handpicked for this covert mission. These men, who had undergone four months of training (including over 170 practice assaults), would be known as the Son Tay Raiders. Colonel Simons’ ground assault team was backed by 29 aircraft responsible for assault and oversight protection.
Despite the raid being flawlessly executed, the operatives discovered the prisoners’ cells were vacant. During the 27-minute ground operation, there were only two Raider casualties: one from gunfire, and another individual suffered an ankle injury when a fire extinguisher came loose during a helicopter landing inside the compound. Unbeknownst to the U.S. military, the POWs had been relocated to a different location four months prior.
While the raid failed in liberating any POWs, it had several positive outcomes for American prisoners. Primarily, it reassured the POWs that their government was actively engaged in their repatriation efforts, significantly uplifting their morale. Furthermore, following the raid, all acknowledged American prisoners in North Vietnam were transferred to the Hanoi Hilton, reducing the number of camps the North Vietnamese needed to protect, allowing them to concentrate efforts in thwarting future rescue attempts by U.S. forces. Lastly, the operation was acknowledged as a benchmark for planning, training, and deployment in future joint special operations missions that others should strive to emulate.
POW’s interned at Son Tay
Son Tay prisoners included: Wendell Alcorn, Elmo Baker, Charles Boyd, Richard Brenneman, Al Brudno, Alan Brunstrom, Hubert Buchanan, Dave Burroughs, William Butler, Larry Carrigan, Larry Chesley, John Clark, Doug Clower, Tom Collins, Render Crayton, Michael Cronin, Thomas Curtis, Myron Donald, Rob Doremus, Jerry Driscoll, Howie Dunn, Dick Dutton, Lee Ellis, Ken Fisher, Fred Flom, Wilis Forby, David Ford, Henry Fowler, Ralph Gaither, Paul Galanti, Dan Glenn, Wayne Goodermote, David Gray, Charles Greene, Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, David Hatcher, John Heilig, Jay Jayroe, Bob Jeffrey, Denver Key, Thomas Madison, Louis Makowski, Ron Mastin, Tom Moe, Dennis Moore, Robert Naughton, Robert Peel, Ben Pollard, James Ray, Jon Reynolds, Wes Schierman, Bruce Seeber, Gene Smith, Ted Stier, Robert Stirm, Thomas Storey, Leroy Stutz, Orson Swindle, Russ Temperley, Dave Terrell, Gary Thornton, William Tschudy, Gerald Venanzi, Jim Warner and Lawrence Writer.
Thanks to Scott Dillingham for his research and composition of the above introduction to the “Son Tay POW Camp.”