Operation Crimson Tide
On October 18, 1966 the first official mission to rescue an American POW was launched. It ended in disaster, with over 12 killed, 17 missing, two helicopters shot down, and no prisoners rescued. Largely forgotten, this mission should serve as an excellent lesson about proper planning of a mission and what should be avoided.
In the Spring of 1966 Colonel Alderholt, a well-respected Air Force Air Commando, had been tasked to create a recovery operation in SE Asia for the express purpose of rescuing pilots shot down in Vietnam and Laos. Later called the JPRC, or Joint Personnel Recovery Center, this group served as part of MACV-
based in Saigon, South Vietnam and was code-named "Bright Light." Originally, the task force was to be composed of Army Rangers, but the Army refused to give up control and Chinese Nung Mercenaries lead by Army Special Forces were used instead. For air Assets the JRPC had to go to 7th Air Force headquarters and requeast airlift and air support.
In September of that year a 17 year-old Viet Cong ( Guerrillas fighting for North Vietnam ) defected under the Chieu Hoi ( Open Arms ) Program. While being debriefed by US intelligence, he stated that he'd seen a black American in captivity at a POW camp; his description matched that of a Sergeant that had been captured while serving as an advisor to the S. Vietnamese Army. Later it was decided that the prisoner might also be Captain Carl Jackson, an Air Force officer that had been shot down in 1965. The decision was made to attempt a rescue, but it was felt that more information was needed. While members of the JPRC began to plan the operation, the Air Force attempted to get more intelligence on the camp.
RF-4 photo-recon planes attempted for two weeks to gain images of the POW camp but failed; in some cases shut out due to bad weather and in others they photographed the wrong areas. Finally in desparation, a member of the JPRC staff overflew the camp in a light scout plane at a high altitude so that he appeared to be merely transitioning and not scouting. In the back was a combat photographer, and the oblique-angled shots he took were shown to the defector who was able to identify the camp. The JPRC was finally given the offical go-ahead nearly a month nad a half after the defector had seen the American.
The basic plan was to airlift a company-sized force of Nung Mercenaries and their Speial Forces Advisors ( Led by Captain Frank Jaks ) to a LZ near the camp, where they would assemble and raid the camp, freeing the prisone. They were to be transported from Kotum to a forward base at Can To via Air Force C-130 and then airlifted to their LZ's in Army UH-1 Huey's Intelligence declined to make time for them.
Air Power played a key role in the mission as well. With the succession of Air Force General Momyer to Deputy Commander for Air Operations in July of 1966 the Air Force had begun a campaign to centrally control all air assets in Vietnam in order to maximize the efficiency of assets. The cargo aircraft were late specifically because the central planning office had detoured them to drop off some cargo, which caused the lateness when the offloading operation was delayed. In an effort to minimize waste or resources, the Air Force actually caused waste by over-tasking elements and not allowing for potential problems.
The Seventh Air Force had also changed the aircraft used for
Super Sabres, a supersonic fighter that had been pressed into the attack role, one for which it had not been designed and was not well suited for. There was no
attached to the force to help guide the F-100's in and the forces on the ground were probably not very familiar with the F-100's characteristics.
Had the JPRC been fully set up by the time the information about the US POW came in, and had the bureaucracy not been such a hinderance it is quite possible that an American serviceman might have been rescued.