Author lived to tell tale of POW raid

September 10, 2004|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

GREENCASTLE, Pa. - Greencastle native William "Bill" Guenon says he took part in one of the more unusual missions of the Vietnam War - a daring raid to rescue 61 American prisoners who were being held in a rural POW camp about 20 miles west of Hanoi, the North Vietnamese capital.

According to Guenon (pronounced Gunnon), the raid into the Son Tay POW camp on Nov. 21, 1970, was a success except for one thing - no American prisoners were there to rescue.

The camp was chosen for the mission because it was isolated. However, the North Vietnamese had moved the GIs to another prison camp, Guenon said.


Guenon, 64, grew up at 505 E. Baltimore St., one of two sons of William Guenon Sr., a local physician, and Dorothy Guenon.

A 1958 graduate of Greencastle-Antrim High School, Guenon wrote "Secret and Dangerous - Night of the Son Tay POW Raid," a self-published book about the mission. It's in its third printing, he said.

On the night of the mission, the planes flew out of a base in Thailand. "It was a seven-hour, round-trip, low-level flight," Guenon said.

He was the copilot on the C-130 that led six helicopters. Its job was to fly low over the prison compound and drop flares so the helicopters could land in their designated areas, he said.

The first helicopter, carrying 14 U.S. Army Special Forces troops, landed inside the compound. The others were empty and landed outside. They were to carry out the rescued POWs, Guenon said.

"The Special Forces troops were to warn the POWs with bullhorns that Americans had landed and were there to rescue them," Guenon said.

"All of the cells were empty. The guards only had a skeleton crew," he said.

The mission, while it failed to rescue any POWs, turned out to be a success, if not in the way it was planned, Guenon said.

After the raid the Communists, fearing similar rescue missions, closed the outlying POW camps and brought the prisoners to a big prison in downtown Hanoi. It was overcrowded so they had to put three or more prisoners in each cell, he said.

POWs had been kept in solitary confinement. Putting them together in the big prison allowed them to talk to each other and exchange information. It boosted their morale, he said. Guenon joined the Air Force in 1962 after graduation from West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, W.Va.

He said he trained as a pilot and was assigned to the 779th Troop Carrier Squadron at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina.

The unit flew troops and supplies into Vietnam, he said.

"One day, four C-130s showed up at the base. They were painted in black and green camouflage and were protected by armed guards," he said.

Intrigued by the planes' presence, Guenon learned that they were to be deployed for classified missions. He managed to join the outfit and spent the next few years flying training missions with Special Forces troops in Florida and in Europe. "We did a lot of low-level flying," he said.

The unit was sent to Vietnam for a year then returned to Europe until it was assigned to fly the Son Tay mission. Planning for it took months, Guenon said.

He retired from the Air Force in 1984 and worked in marketing for Raytheon for 20 years. He retired from there earlier this year.

Now he spends his time doing presentations before groups on the Son Tay Raid. He said he only charges travel expenses for the presentations. "They give me a chance to sell my book," he said.

Guenon lives in Ashland, Mass., with his wife, Ursula. The couple has two grown children.

For information on the book, e-mail Guenon at

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