By November 1970, conditions for American prisoners being held by North Vietnam were reaching their darkest days. More than 450 were captive, they were dying from torture and starvation, and many already had been prisoners for some 2,000 days. The U.S. military was looking for any opportunity to rescue them.
In 2021, filmmaker Ehren Parks finished "27 Minutes at Son Tay," a documentary film that goes behind what it took to put 56 Special Forces soldiers on the ground in North Vietnam, in the middle of hundreds of thousands of enemy troops.
"These guys today, they know the story they want to tell," Parks tells Military.com. "We're telling the story that they told us. We've removed the political layer, and we talk about it in terms of the relation to the troops on the ground."
In 1970, the U.S. got intelligence that an estimated 61 prisoners were being held at Son Tay Prison, just 23 miles west of Hanoi, so American planners decided to act. The Army, CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) teamed to plan Operation Ivory Coast, the rescue of American POWs from the Son Tay complex.
The top-secret mission was the first military operation conducted under the direct control of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It required 148 troops and 28 aircraft and was the U.S. Navy's largest nighttime carrier operation of the war. It went off almost without a hitch. The only problem was that after the Special Forces soldiers assaulted the prison compound, they found there were no POWs held there.
The movie is a story told by the Vietnam veterans who were there for the raid and features high-resolution graphics and live-action recreations of what happened on the ground. Having the veterans' input for truth and accuracy was of prime importance to the filmmakers.
"Usually, in a documentary, the subject doesn't have any say in the content; it's a journalistic integrity kind of thing," Parks says. "But for me, having the veterans involved and willing to sign off is super important. I knew that if I could get it right and have these guys approve of it, then I know that all the U.S. special operators will like the movie."
They even constructed a 3D rendering of the prison, using the memories of one Son Tay prisoner, Bob Jeffreys, by recalling his daily trip to the bathroom.
Parks is a film producer and professor who was teaching a 58-year-old retiree in one of his classes. That retiree was Lt. Col. Dan Smith, a longtime Special Forces veteran. Smith was still known to the special operations community, having served from 1975 until 2008 in Special Forces and military intelligence. He was working on a script about the Son Tay Raid. Smith asked Parks whether he wanted in on the project.
A fellow producer who had worked with Parks on a series about Fort Benning told him he should do it. Parks had never heard of Operation Ivory Coast.
"He told me, 'Ehren, if this guy knows the Son Tay Raiders, you have to do this project. You don't understand how cool it is,'" Parks says. "From there, we dedicated ourselves to do it and then we interviewed a bunch of raiders at a reunion. We kicked it off that way."
Parks is a Nebraska native with no familial ties to the military. His dad was passed over for the Vietnam War draft, but there were a few veterans around when he was growing up. He packed his production team with veterans to develop a level of trust with their subject matter.
"Military guys may not say certain things to a non-veteran the way they might to someone who served," Parks says. "So it was important to have that for the interviews, and then for the recreation team, everything had to be period accurate, so we hired vets wherever we could."
Immediately upon starting work on the film, Parks was floored by how much he didn't know about the Son Tay Raid -- or the Vietnam War in general.
"I was actually really shocked when I started researching it, because it's really not out there as part of the Vietnam story," Parks recalls. "I start looking at the political narrative, but then you start talking to these combat guys, and hey, this is the thing that really brought the North Vietnamese to the table. It was a military operation that had results, because we are really not taught that in the Vietnam narrative, as it is today, so I think it's important."
Parks' work on the film soon uncovered more facts he never knew, not just about Vietnam but also about the history of special operations.
"I got a PowerPoint that showed this mission is still being taught at Fort Bragg," says Parks. "This is like the number one piece of special operations tactical and educational material out there, and the 90% of Americans who didn't serve don't know anything about it."
When the raiders landed in the Son Tay Prison complex, it was just after 2 a.m. local time. The assault began with strafing the guard towers as four elements of SOF soldiers, codenamed "Blueboy," assaulted the prison buildings. Outside the prison, team "Greenleaf" waited in case of enemy action or to reinforce Blueboy's efforts. Team "Redwine" was on the prison perimeter to be the first line of defense in case any of the thousands of North Vietnamese stationed nearby came in force.
Room by room, the soldiers cleared each prison building, killing guards and looking for POWs. After two complete sweeps of the prison and a firefight between Greenleaf and some NVA troops holed up in what was thought to be a school, the raid was over. It took 27 minutes from start to finish.
The success of the raid, coupled with the failure to bring home rescued POWs -- the prisoners had been moved from the complex in July of that year due to flooding -- has led to the raid being known as a "successful failure" by the intelligence community. By 3:15 a.m., all the raiders had left North Vietnam with no men killed in action, but no POWs were rescued, either.
For the POWs, some said the raid improved their lives slightly. Former prisoners of North Vietnam said morale among prisoners was raised when they heard about the Son Tay Raid. Others reported a slight improvement in food and treatment afterward.
For Parks, who will soon screen "27 Minutes at Son Tay" for veterans of the raid, it changed the way he looks at special operators and Vietnam veterans in general.
"It just really brought home how much the American media crapped on those guys in Vietnam, you know?" says Parks. "I really would just love the chance to set the record straight, not just about this mission, but like all of Vietnam, because we still have time to do that."
Catch the trailer for "27 Minutes at Son Tay" by director and producer Ehren Parks, and writer, producer and Special Forces veteran Dan Smith on Vimeo. It will be available for viewing to the public in 2022.
To learn more about the film, filmmaker or the team of veterans who produced it, check out the Operation Kingpin website.
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