By Bryan Lentz
'See that guy right there? He is a Son Tay raider."
So said our instructor as Sgt. First Class Franklin Roe approached the platoon of cadets. It was the summer of 1985, and I was attending airborne training in the oppressive Southern heat of Fort Bragg, N.C.
We were learning how to jump out of planes, and our "jump school" instructors were the renowned Green Berets of the Fifth Special Forces Group. We were already in awe of them; that the unit's top noncommisioned officer was part of an elite within this elite got our attention.
As a 19-year-old, I had never heard of the Son Tay raid, which had taken place 15 years earlier and earned its participants legendary status within the special-operations community. This month, in the wake of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, there were frequent references in the press to Jimmy Carter and the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran. The Son Tay raid, which was to rescue American prisoners of war in North Vietnam and took place under Richard Nixon, is a better reference point. Led by special-operations pioneers, Son Tay laid the groundwork for the success of Abbottabad.
Much has been written about the 1970 raid. But the details that stick in my mind are the ones I heard repeated in hushed, reverent tones in the presence, but beyond the hearing, of one of the men who participated in it.
Roe and other Special Forces personnel secretly selected for the operation trained for weeks in Florida with a mock-up of the target, rehearsing thousands of times. No one except the commanders knew the objective was a North Vietnamese prison camp near Hanoi.
Traveling by helicopter from Thailand and South Vietnam, the task force executed the raid in the dark of night. The POWs, however, had been moved just beforehand, and intelligence predicting their relocation hadn't been provided to mission commanders. Although no prisoners were recovered, the raiders did succeed in killing more than 100 enemy soldiers, and there were no American casualties despite an intense firefight.
The bin Laden and Son Tay raids faced similar intelligence, logistical, and operational challenges. More important, both required remarkable courage on the part of the special-operations professionals who carried them out. We should remember that the success of the bin Laden strike was built on the sacrifices and bravery of those who took part in lesser-known operations throughout history. They include SFC Roe and the other Son Tay raiders.