Air Force Vietnam War Vet Recalls Experience In Son Tay Raid
by U.S. Air Force Wesley Farnsworth
88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
November 21, 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the Son Tay Raid
near Hanoi in North Vietnam, meant to rescue and return about 70
American prisoners of war.
Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Jay
Strayer, who was born and raised in Jamestown, was one of the pilots
during this rescue attempt.
November 23, 2020 - Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Jay Strayer
in front of his military shadow box, inside his home in
Xenia, Ohio. Strayer was one of the pilots who flew an HH-53 Helicopter in the Son Tay prisoner-of-war rescue attempt during the Vietnam War in 1970. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wesley Farnsworth)
“I remember coming from my base in Thailand back to Eglin Air
Force Base in Florida, on a TDY to join the force and begin
practicing for a couple of months,” Strayer recalled. “We flew many
times during this period and always at night over Florida and
Georgia territories because our mission was going to take place at
It would end with mixed results, but the operation
became personal for the Ohio veteran.
Strayer received his commission as a second lieutenant in June 1956
through the Air Force ROTC program at Ohio State University. His
many career stops included stateside bases in Michigan and
California, along with overseas assignments in Germany and Thailand.
After 29 years of service, he ended his career in 1985 at
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as vice commander of the 2750th Air
The story of the Son Tay Raid was detailed in an
Air Force Magazine feature in November 1995. Planning began in the
spring of 1970 when it was reported that an increasing number of
American prisoners had died from beatings, torture and starvation by
their North Vietnamese captors. At the time, more than 450 Americans
were held captive in the undeclared war in Southeast Asia, 80
percent of them in North Vietnam. More than half had been in prison
longer than 2,000 days.
In August, ground troops began
practicing entry and escape from a training compound, while
aircrews, including Strayer, performed aerial refueling,
night-formation flying and flare-dropping techniques over the course
of more than 1,000 hours and 268 sorties – all without an accident,
according to the article.
Little information was known about
the POWs’ physical condition. It was only known they were being held
in some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable.
helicopter pilot that had been shot down and captured five years
earlier was a friend that I had been stationed with earlier in my
career in Germany, and he could have very well been a POW in that
camp, so I was excited to be able to rescue him,” Strayer said.
On Nov. 20, 1970, all air and ground force personnel assembled
in the base theater at Takhli Air Base, Thailand, where they were
told they were going to rescue as many as 70 American POWs. The
audience was stunned into silence, then a few let out low whistles.
Then, they stood up and applauded.
At approximately 11:30
p.m. that night, a seven-ship formation with three helicopters
carrying Army Special Forces on either side of a C-130 took off for
Son Tay. Three of the six helicopters carried the attacking force,
while the additional choppers would be used as backups and carry the
rescued POWs home.
“The lead helicopter carrying the initial
attack force was an HH-3E Jolly Green Giant, and it was to
crash-land inside the camp to get the rescue started,” Strayer
recalled. “The other two HH-53 helicopters, including the one I was
flying, carried the second and third parts of the attack that landed
outside the base.”
According to Strayer, it was around 2
a.m. when they arrived at the Son Tay camp. There was only a partial
moon out, so you couldn’t see much – other than the camp’s outline.
“We flew in and dropped off our force and then got out and flew
to a darkened and isolated rice-paddy field outside the camp, and
there waited for our call to come pick people up,” he said. “While
we were there, I remember using some night-vision goggles which were
provided to us that were still in the testing and experimental stage
to monitor for any enemy troops, and that was kind of interesting.”
Having practiced this mission several times, spirits were high
and everyone was looking forward to bringing Americans home.
“I was confident that this mission was going to be a success as
we had practiced it many times,” Strayer said.
As it turned
out, the prisoners had been moved prior to the team’s arrival, and
so for reasons still unknown today no POWs were rescued that day.
“The feeling of disappointment to find out people had been
moved was huge,” he recalled. “We had been practicing for a long
time, and then to find no one there when we arrived was simply
Though some might consider the mission a failure
because no POWs were rescued, Strayer disagrees.
mission itself was a success because we didn’t lose anyone and
everyone made it home safe and sound,” he said. “I also found out
from my friend that after our raid and their move, they were treated
a little better until he was finally released two-and-a-half years
Today, one of the HH-53 helicopters used to carry
troops in the Son Tay Raid bearing tail No. H357, and one of
Strayer’s uniforms, can be seen on display in the National Museum of
the U.S. Air Force.
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