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This Day in History: Operation Ivory Coast tries (and fails) to rescue Vietnam POWs

On this day in 1970, the United States tries—and fails—to rescue POWs being held near Hanoi, Vietnam. What a disappointment! Preparations had been ongoing for months. But, in the end, more than 70 prisoners would remain behind, still captives in Vietnam.

“[E]very man involved in Operation Ivory Coast brought home a broken heart,” one POW would write many years later. “The raid had failed to free American prisoners. Their disappointment was deep.”

Preparations had begun months earlier, with the help of Air Force Brigadier General LeRoy J. Manor and Army Colonel Arthur D. “Bull” Simons. At the time, men were being recruited for a “classified mission with considerable risk involved.” The potential volunteers were also told that there would be no extra pay. Normally, that might be a disincentive? Not for our military! More than 500 men volunteered to help anyway.

Ultimately, a much smaller group of men were chosen for the mission. They would spend months training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. A replica of the prison camp had been built there, allowing the troops to rehearse their rescue over and over again.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the replica wasn’t just any ol’ replica. It was made of wood and cloth and could be assembled and torn down quickly. After all, Russian satellites flew overhead once a day, and secrecy was of the utmost importance.

The Special Forces team practiced its mission 170 times! By the time it was finished, everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to do. The men had worked and worked (and worked) until they’d gotten their total time for the raid down to a mere 26 minutes.

Finally, on November 20, the team gathered in Thailand and learned where they were going. The news prompted “thunderous applause,” at least according to one account. Operation Ivory Coast was headed to Son Tay, just outside Hanoi. Intelligence indicated that about 70 POWs were being held in a camp there.

“We could get caught in a firefight and never come back,” Colonel Simons told the room. “If there is anybody who doesn’t want to go, get out now!”

No one moved a muscle.

Instead, the Special Forces team got ready for its raid. Naval forces nearby began a diversionary attack along the coasts of North Vietnam. Everything was going according to plan—until it didn’t.

Special Forces arrived at the prison camp, only to discover that the POWs weren’t there. There was no one left to rescue.

They couldn’t then know it, but the POWs hadn’t been moved too far away. In fact, some American captives were close enough to hear the attack and wonder if their country was trying to find them.

Naturally, their captors worked hard to squash that hope. They wanted our POWs to believe that we’d forgotten them.

Why didn’t American intelligence know that the POWs had been moved in the first place? Well, some people probably did know—or at least wonder. But, as one participant later summarized: “The raid was allowed to take place because those who had the correct intelligence information were not aware that someone was contemplating a POW rescue.”

Operation Ivory Coast had several positive effects, despite the initial failure: Many Americans were relieved to have solid evidence that their military and President were committed to bringing the POWs home. They’d been losing confidence, but now morale was restored.

This day so long ago had a sad ending, but it wasn’t the end of the story, either. The POWs were finally released in 1973.

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