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Sont Tay Raid Veteran: Pat St.Clair

An interview with Special Forces veteran Pat St.Clair, who was part of Operation Ivory Coast.


"Blue Boy Group I'm standing on the far right and CPT Meadows in kneeling in the front"

  


Our latest interview is with Special Forces veteran Pat St. Clair who was part of the Blueboy Assult Element during Operation Ivory Coast, the raid on the Son Tay Prison Camp North Vietnam. You can also see a custom 1/6 figure based on information supplied by Pa St.Clair here.

Modern Forces: Tell us about your background and military service?
Pat St.Clair:
I grew up in rural Giles and Craig counties in Virginia.  After attending VA Tech for a year, I enlisted in the US Army in July 1968.  The Army offered contracts in those days for specific MOS’s, if they were available, and you qualified for them.  I specifically enlisted for the Special Forces Medical Course. The recruiter was very straight forward and told me I would have to work very hard to complete the medical course and earn the Green Beret.  I completed basic training at Ft Bragg and went to Camp Crockett at Ft Gordon for my 11B AIT, which was Airborne Infantry (yes there actually was an Airborne Infantry AIT). After the graduation ceremony, 90% of the class boarded buses for Ft. Benning to attend Airborne school.  After Airborne school, I went through the SF course and graduated as a SF Medic in early 1970.  Most of us assumed we were going to Viet Nam and listed Nam as our preferred next duty station.  We were surprised when only a small portion of the graduates received orders for the 5th SFG(A).  I was assigned to C Company, 6th SFG(A) at Bragg. Although disappointed that I did not get Nam, this was however a blessing in disguise, as I met and served with some of the best and most talented men in the Army. In 1980 I joined the West Virginia Army National Guard.  My experiences with them is listed later in this interview.    

Modern Forces: In the book The Son Tay Raid by John Gargus, it mentions you applied to serve in Vietnam 4 times. How did it feel to see your fellow Special Forces troopers seeing service in SEA?
Pat St.Clair:
 It was disheartening, as I assumed all the training I had completed was for one purpose and one purpose only; to go to Viet Nam and do my part to send the Communists packing.  My B Team Sergeant Major was SGM Arnold Beckerman and he was one of my principle mentors and he was very honest and straight forward when he tossed the requests for the 5th in the trash can.  Medics were far and few in between and he and the commander weren’t giving up the few they had. After the fourth request, he mentioned that if I was absolutely dead set on it, I could drive up to DC and talk to Mrs.”A” [Mrs. Alexander was the lady in the Pentagon that processed all the orders for the 5th SFG(A)] and it was not uncommon for those who had to get out of town to go see her and plead their case).  She was able to back door many a Commander and send willing volunteers to Nam.  By the time I learned of her, I barely had less than a year left on my enlistment, but was planning on going to see her and extend, if necessary, to get a tour.  Then out of the blue a couple weeks before I planned to drive up to the Pentagon, COL Simons’ call for volunteers came down.         

 
"The mock compound in Florida"

Modern Forces: How did you find about “the raid”, I assume you didn’t know what you were applying for? 
Pat St.Clair:
You are correct, we had no idea what the mission was.  I was actually on KP when Mike Sewitsky, another medic that I went through the course with, stopped by the chow hall and told me of the sign up procedure. The word had come down that morning at opening formation that COL Simons was looking for a few good men for an unknown mission. At first opportunity, I went back to the Company and put my name on the list.  A few days later at the briefing in the JFK auditorium, COL Simons would only say the mission was relative dangerous and if you come back, it should be before Christmas.  During that gathering, BG Ed Flanagan made interesting comments.  He said he would not want to be in the Special Forces community the day following this event and learn that he was not a part of it.  He also added it was the first time he ever wished he was an E-7 so he could volunteer for it.  During our training in Florida it became evident our mission was some sort of rescue.  However it was amazing, we were so security conscience, I don’t recall anyone ever mentioning POW rescue while in Florida.  The night of insertion was the first time we were told of the actual mission. Needless to say we were elated.


"The mock compound in Florida"


"CPT Meadows"


"Blue Boy briefing the night of infil. I am closest next to papa Kittleston (receding hair line)"

Modern Forces: Can you give us some historical background to the mission?

Pat St.Clair: The background was well over my head and pay grade, but as I understand it, President Nixon was extremely unhappy with the barbaric treatment of the POWs and was quite fed up with North Viet Nam’s overall attitude.  I’m not sure who ordered the convening of the feasibility study group to conduct a POW rescue raid, but from there some very smart and talented people guided the concept up the chain of command all the way up to the President. It was the first joint military operation in U.S. history conducted under the direct control of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I’ve always admired President Nixon for having the balls to sign the launch order.


"COL Simons and Doc Cataldo on night of infil"

Modern Forces: Can you describe the training regime for the mission?  
Pat St.Clair:
The training progressed in three phases.  The first phase emphasized physical training, land navigation, patrolling, weapons, demolitions, radio procedures, and refreshers on SF skills. This phase lasted a week or so, and it evolved from a moderate pace to all out training.  We spent a lot of time on the ranges honing our marksmanship and demo skills.  We would start training very early in the morning at O dark thirty and continue long into the day. We did a lot of PT during this phase.  The second phase of training intensified when the three insertion elements were formed into the three separate groups.  Each group would train specifically for what its job required. The first group was the assault element that would crash land inside the compound.  It was code named Blueboy and had 14 members and was commanded by CPT Meadows.  I was a member of that group.  Our job was to kill all the guards as quickly as possible, free, maintain control of, and evacuate the POWs from the compound to the awaiting aircraft.
The second group was code named Redwine and had 20 members.  It was commanded by CAPT Turner.  Redwine was the command element and its job was to secure the road canal junction and provide security for the area south of the camp and secure an LZ for the exfiltration. LTC Syndor was with this group. The third group was code named Greenleaf and contained 22 members.  Greenleaf was the support element and was the largest.  It contained COL Simons and was commanded by CPT Walthers.  They would provide security for Blueboy and Redwine.  Additionally they would clear and secure the buildings and area east and north of the compound. 

Each of the three groups were divided into specific teams that were to accomplish particular tasks.  Each raider’s job was meticulously planned out to split second timing and exact positioning as the rescue unfolded. Each raider not only had to know his job, but that of every other member of his team and element.  Each raider had to know where every other raider was in relation to his field of fire.

A lot of emphasizes and training was placed on alternate plans. Every raider had to know what to do if unforeseen or unexpected event(s) occurred. Nothing was left to chance.  The raid was to continue even if one of the groups did not make it to the compound area. Plan Blue was if Blueboy didn’t make it.  Most of Redwine would then assault the compound by scaling and breaching the walls and Greenleaf would assume it’s and Redwine’s mission. Plan Green was if Greenleaf didn’t make it to the objective area.  Redwine would assume Greenleaf’s duties as well as its own.  Little did we know that plan Green would automatically go into effect when, Apple 1, carrying Greenleaf  landed at the wrong compound. Redwine never missed a beat and immediately deployed into plan Green when Greenleaf did not land as expected.  Plan Red was if Redwine didn’t make it to the objective area.  Greenleaf would assume Redwine’s duties as well as its own.  Blueboy did not fit into any of the alternate plans as its sole responsibility was inside the compound to free the POIWs at any cost.  

Blueboy’s training differed considerably from the other two groups in that its mission was to eliminate the guards inside the compound and free the POWs.  This required extreme marksmanship skills and precise timing.  The other two groups would primarily train to secure and hold certain areas and deny enemy soldiers access to those areas.  It was during this second phase of training that the commanders would select their personnel to accomplish their missions. Needless to say the training became very competitive. It was not uncommon to see daily changes in the teams’ rosters as mistakes were made and/or one man’s proficiencies overcame another’s.  I was never able to make any of the teams during this phase of training.  I would pull a lot of support on the ranges and in the cantonment area.  I was however exposed from time to time on all three groups’ plans.  It was during this second phase that the mock compound was built and 360 degree live fire exercises became the norm.  Most training was conducted at night and for safety reasons only one group at a time could conduct live fire. The other groups would practice other skills out of range of the live fire.

On September 28th the third phase began when we integrated with the Air Force. From there on every rehearsal involved the particular type of helicopter and the exact aircrew that would fly the actual mission.  Synchronization, speed, surprise, and violence of action at the objective was the goal and the Air crews were just as professional as the ground forces.  Their professionalism and expertise were most impressive.  Live fire rehearsals could last several hours and would often entail long flights over and through the mountains of Georgia.

It was during this phase that I was selected for a slot on Blueboy’s assault element 1 when an unexpected vacancy occurred in the second week of November. The other commanders were unwilling to release any of their well trained members to join Blueboy, as they knew the mission could launch any day and the last thing they needed was a new guy to train on short notice.  Four of us from the back up team competed for the slot during live fire rehearsals that emphasized marksmanship as the primary selection criteria.  I outshot the other three and was elated when CPT McKinney selected me for the position.  I had just turned 22 and was the last person selected for the raid. My first combat experience would be as a member of the Blueboy assault element 1 on perhaps the most spectacular mission of the war.         


"CPT Meadows"

Modern Forces: You ended up being part of the Blue Boy Assault Group led by Dick Meadows. Can you describe your role in the mission and working with Dick Meadows?
Pat St.Clair:
As previously mentioned, I was a member of Blueboy assault element 1, commanded by CPT Dan McKinney. The other two members were MSG Galen Kittleson (Pappy) and SFC Lorenzo Robbins (Robby). On insertion, my role was to lie on the tail ramp on the port side of the aircraft and fire on the northwest tower of the compound as we approached it.  Also, the lead ship, Apple 4, was to place a heavy volume of mini-gun fire on it.  Pappy would also fire his M-60 loaded with 100% tracers on it from the side window of our bird, Banana 1.  On the raid, I actually performed this task twice.  Due to a slight navigational error, our first approach was on a compound described only as a secondary school located approximately 400 meters south of the POW camp.  As we approached the secondary school, I could see a large volume of fire being concentrated on the northwest corner, although no guard tower was there. Not to be outdone, I emptied my 30 round magazine into that corner and inserted a fresh one and braced for the impending “controlled crash landing”. Instead of crash landing the bird momentarily flared and then took off with such force I could feel myself being sucked out of the aircraft. Robby’s job was to hold me buy my ankles to prevent me from falling out.  He performed this task superbly and even managed to pull me back to my original position. 

The pilot quickly performed an S turn and we approached the actual POW compound; guard towers included.  I once again emptied a magazine from my CAR-15, reloaded and braced for the controlled crash landing.  We hit with so much force, the term “controlled” crash landing did not apply.  The trees were much larger than expected and we hit with such violence, I saw sparks and momentarily became disoriented.  Robby merely grabbed me and pointed me in the right direction and we sprinted towards the northwest guard tower. Robby and I were to make sure the northwest guard tower had been neutralized. We each hosed it down with a 30 round mag of ammo and quickly reloaded. Then as we rounded the corner of one of the buildings, we ran into a group of North Vietnamese. We opened up on them, killing most and forcing the others to retreat around the building into the covering fire of 1st Lt.Petrie and MSG Kemmer who killed the rest of them. We then searched our assigned areas and buildings.  Unfortunately all we found were North Vietnamese who unwittingly gave their lives for their godless communist country. Once all the buildings were searched and all the enemy were killed we exited the compound by a hole blown in the wall by MSG Moore.  We moved to the LZ and boarded Apple 1 and ex-filled back to Thailand.  Working for Dick Meadows was very exciting.  He was a true warrior and Special Forces legend.  He was very smart and had the ability to plan and execute flawlessly down to the last detail.        


"Pre-mission prep"

Modern Forces: Do any other team members stand out in your memory?
Pat St.Clair:
Yes. All of them.  They were the most extraordinary men I have ever worked with in my life.  They epitomized the very essence of the American fighting man. Specifically on Assault Element 1, CPT McKinney was a true combat commander.  Straight forward, deliberate, and courageous as all great leaders are. Papa Kittleson was truly a father figure.  He was the most experienced man in the Army when it came to POW camp raids.  Son Tay would be his fourth. He was a great mentor.  Robby was extremely relentless when it came to dealing with the enemy and was a cold calculating killing machine.  He took war very seriously and believed it was your duty to kill as many of the enemy as possible. He was always very quick to point out any of my deficiencies.   He even gave me some very sound advice, he said, “St.Clair, you screw this thing up, and I’ll put a bullet through your head.”  Nothing like putting pressure on the new kid, but he helped me out anytime I struggled. 


"Billy K. Moore, my hero and mentor"

MSG Billy K. Moore, although not on my element, taught and mentored me probably more than anyone.  He taught me how to overcome my fears and anxieties. He assured me it’s OK to be nervous and apprehensive (manly men try to avoid the term “scared”) going into your first combat.  He understood what was going to go through my mind on that long flight in and taught me how to deal with it. After the final briefing by COL Simons just prior to lift off, he said “Patrick, have you figured it out yet”? I could only give him the “ugh” look and he said “one way or another, we’re going to make history tonight”.  That’s when the realization hit me that we could very well die that night.  


"On the C130 from Takhli to Udorn. CPT Meadows, Pappy Kittleson, far right, CPT MCKinney and Myself"

Modern Forces: Can you describe how the mission played out? 
Pat St.Clair:
We took off from Udorn RTAFB at 2317 hrs for the three hour flight to Son Tay.  We were informed as we entered Laotian and then North Vietnamese air space.  Most of the area we flew over was sparsely populated.  Electricity was scarce and I remember seeing small fires and other flame producing light on the ground and in the huts.  I remember thinking how poor this area was and wondered what they thought when they heard the aircraft go by overhead.  We flew in very low through a lot of valleys and I remember looking up to see the ridges during most of our flight . In order to maintain formation speed, we (Banana 1) had to draft off the wing of the C-130. The moon lit fuselage of the C-130 in such close proximity seemed surreal.  It was total black out flying. I went through the motions of trying to sleep like the rest, but only managed a short cat nap or two.

At about 15 minutes out, everyone was awake and preparing for the insertion into the compound.  We arrived at the IP at 0213 which put us around 5 minutes out.  The  ramp was lowered by the loadmaster at that time. Then at two minutes out, Cherry 1 (C-130) dropped the flares over the compound and Billy K. and I assumed our positions on the tail ramp. At 0219 Blueboy crash landed in the compound, Greenleaf landed at the secondary school and Redwine landed at their assigned location.  Inside the compound, all hell broke loose as North Vietnamese were running everywhere creating a target rich environment. Meanwhile Greenleaf had stirred up a hornet’s nest at the secondary school and was engaged in a fierce firefight that eventually left a lot of whoever was there dead (it was never established who or what nationality the residents of the secondary school were).  None-the-less, Greenleaf decimated them in the ensuing firefight.  Redwine, once on the ground and realizing Greenleaf did not land as planned, initiated plan Green.  


"CPT Meadows, myself, CPT McKinney, and I believe Tapley"

Probably within that first minute inside the compound we did most of the carnage in eliminating the guards. I thought it odd that we did not hear any American voices, and a couple minutes later it became clear that perhaps no POWs were there. Eight minutes into the raid all the buildings had been cleared; it became eerily clear no POWs were there.  A minute later at 0228, and unknown to Redwine, Apple 1 dropped off Greenleaf at their designated LZ outside the compound. Just as Redwine and Greenleaf were about to engage each other in a firefight, LTC Syndor realized the situation and transmitted the urgent message that Greenleaf was now in Redwine’s area and not to fire at each other; thus averting a friendly fire catastrophe.  After every inch of the compound was searched, Billy K. Moore placed explosive charges on the fuel tanks of the HH-3 and then he blew a hole in the wall facing the Song Con River.  As the Blueboy element left the compound through the hole, Billy K. lit the fuse lighters to the charges (each charge was dual primed) on the fuel tanks of Banana 1.  We made our way to the LZ and reported to the MACO.  He checked our names off the list as we boarded Apple 1 for the ride back to Thailand. However, a couple minutes outbound there was a problem with count on the two aircraft (Apple 1 and Apple 2) carrying the raiders home.  Our airspeed dropped substantially while we were counted and then re-counted by shining a light on our face and crossing out our names.  The mistake was found and  our air speed accelerated to flat out.  Two SAM missiles were fired at us and I had no idea the HH-53s could do the maneuvers they did while dodging them.  We returned to Udorn and were de-briefed.

We had a lot of help from our navy and air force brothers. Over 110 aircraft from seven airfields and three carriers participated in the raid.  The Navy’s diversion over the Gulf of Tonkin and the Air Force’s MIGCAP trap from the west and north keep the North Vietnamese radar operators focused on those two groups while we snuck under the radar at low level. We were able to penetrate undetected and hit with complete surprise.    

Modern Forces: Can you describe the equipment, weapons and tactics used to assault the prison compound?
Pat St.Clair:
Each Blueboy assault member could pretty well take whatever he could carry. I carried a Colt CAR-15 rifle with an Armilite Single Point occluded scope mounted on it, 168 rounds of ammo in six magazines, a M1911A1 .45 ACP pistol in a shoulder holster with 21 rounds of ammo, a minor’s light attached to my LBE harness, a pair of dust goggles, and a survival knife. I wore the issue OD green jungle fatigues, an issue patrol cap, and a pair of issue jungle boots. I had a PRC 90 radio, an issue E&E survival kit, blood chit, special waterproof E&E map; and in my E&E ruck, I had extra food, water, ammo, poncho, and medical supplies. Collectively we had hand cuffs, tethers, coils of rope, crow bars, bolt cutters, fire extinguishers, machetes, woodman’s pals (crash hatchets),  bulls horns, hammer and nails, shape and other special demo charges, M-60 machine gun, various radios, several LAW rockets, CPT meadows had a night vision monocle. 

The single point occluded scope gave us a tremendous advantage shooting at night in close quarters combat. You had to keep both eyes open and look at your target and then merely place the dot on the target and squeeze the trigger.  The scope had been around a couple of years, but was not widely used in the US. It was designed to hunt in low light in the Scandinavian countries.   CPT Meadows had seen one at a gun show and ordered a couple to try out. It worked so well the entire raiding force ended up using it. That scope allowed us to instantly hit every target with one shot whether stationary or moving.

The entry techniques developed for Son Tay are pretty much the same as used today.  One person would “kick” in the door and a second and third person would immediately enter and engage enemy soldiers as quickly as possible.  We used a “high-low” technique, were as today, all entry personnel stack at the same height. We also used tactical breaching techniques that are used today. 
We emphasized speed and accurate quick kill shooting as we knew we had to kill all the guards as quickly as possible to avoid any retribution to the POWs. We accomplished this by practice, practice, practice.  Needles to say on that November night, our skills were honed to perfection and our reflexes lightning fast.  


" the vn officer with SFC Valenvuela was Dai uy Phu, vn s4"

Modern Forces: Can you tell us about the post mission feedback, as our readers know there were no prisoners but the mission was considered a success.
Pat St.Clair:
We all felt badly that we were unable to rescue any of the POWs.  The press and big army were not too kind to us.  They considered it a big flop and labeled it as a failure.  We knew better and held our heads high.  Once the former POWs were repatriated, one of the first things they wanted to do was to meet us.  Mr. Ross Perot sponsored a big welcome home party and parade for them in San Francisco in April 1973, and invited us to attend with them.  They were very appreciative of our efforts and thanked us accordingly.  They assured us the raid was a success and noted after the raid their care improved dramatically. 

The Air Force always included the Son Tay Raid in their lessons learned curriculum and considered it a huge success.  After the catastrophe of Operation Eagle Claw (Desert One), the Army and especially Special Forces dusted off the after action reports and decided Son Tay was the blue print for conducting raids deep in enemy territory.   ADM McRaven is a raid expert and included Son Tay as one of the eight best Special Operations missions of all time in his book SPEC OPS, Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice.  In 2004 he gave one of the best lectures on Son Tay that I have ever heard. He noted all the things that were done, and done right, many for the first time created a benchmark for future raids. He also noted how we eliminated constraints that hampered missions prior to Son Tay.  As JSOC commander during the Bin Laden raid, I’m sure he relied on a lot of expertise gained from Son Tay, even down to crashing a perfectly good helicopter (just  kidding).

I’m an adjunct instructor at BlackHeart International and we recently had a group of Canadian Special Forces soldiers go through the foreign weapons course.  I was pleased and proud to learn that they study the Son Tay raid as a part of their leadership development program.  It is now one of the most studied missions of all time.

In 1970 the three parameters for a successful raid were speed, surprise, and violence of action at the objective.  We executed all three with perfection.  We even met ADM McRaven’s requirement of completing the operation within 30 minutes.

The Son Tay Prison Camp Now

A map of the Son Tay Prison Camp Area

http://www.rjsmith.com/Son-Tay-Complete.html

Modern Forces: Can you tell us about your career after the Son Tay raid?
Pat St.Clair:
After the Son Tay Raid, I went back to C Company, 6th SFG(A) and served out my enlistment.  Special Forces’ future did not seem that bright in 1971, as Group after Group was being de-activated, so I ets’d in July 1971.  In 1980 I joined C Company, 2nd Battalion, 19th SFG (A), West Virginia Army National Guard at Camp Dawson, WV.  During my tenure with the Guard, I had deployments to Europe, Thailand, Guam, Saipan, Vanuatu, Philippine Isles, South Korea, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa . As a CSM I served: as Post Senior Enlisted Advisor (SEA) for the state military reservation at Camp Dawson (twice); SEA for 1/201st FA, Self Propelled M109A6 Paladin Howitzer, SEA for Special Operation Detachment-Europe (SOD-E), and SEA for 771st Troop Command STARC.    


"Taking a break in Bashar, Northern Iraq 2003"


"Reporting to the BN Commander, LTC Ken Hurst, Iraq 2003"


"Iraq 2003"

Post 911: In 2002, I was assigned as BN CSM for the Forward Support Battalion, 10th SFG(A) at Fort Carson. I  deployed with them to Northern Iraq in March 2003 as a part of Task Force Viking- CJSOTF-North. I was 55 years old and 33 years after Son Tay I earned the star for my CIB.  When the CSOTF-N was deactivated, I was re-deployed to the JSOTF-HOA at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, Horn of Africa. From June to November, I served as the senior enlisted advisor for the JSOTF-HOA.  In 2008, upon reaching age 60, I retired from the military.  I was very fortunate and privileged to have served almost my entire adult life in the military; most of it in Special Forces.


"Reunion with Apple 1 in HOA. GEN Robinson, Myself, SGM Hunt, and COL Turner"

Ironically, I would have a reunion with the bird I flew out of Son Tay on, Apple 1, in the Horn of Africa in 2003.  We were the only two remnants of Son Tay still on active duty at that time. A photo isabove.