Mission is on to save historic barracks at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida Panhandle

The Northwest FloridaDaily NewsJune 30, 2013 

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE -- Nearly 43 years ago, a group of special operations soldiers were training hard at a compound at Duke Field, but didn't know why.

They were working closely with special operations airmen at Eglin, practicing long flights over the Gulf of Mexico and rehearsing an operation in which they entered a replica of a guarded building deep in the woods.

It wasn't until the men landed in Southeast Asia that they found out the nature of their mission: to force their way into the Son Tay prison in North Vietnam and free more than 50 American prisoners held there in tortured duress.

"For 90 days we were locked up in Duke Field," said retired Army Capt. Dan Turner of Columbus, Ga. "It was a very important part of lives."

Recently, Turner, now 70, visited the Army 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) cantonment along with three other men involved in the Son Tay Raid on Nov. 21, 1970.

They were in town to talk about a plan to save the officers' barracks at Duke where some of the soldiers lived while training for the raid. It is scheduled for demolition later this year.

They want to move the barracks to the 7th Group's property and use it as a museum, not just for the Son Tay Raid and the Army 7th Special Forces soldiers that participated in it, but for the history of American Special Forces in general.

The Air Force Special Operations Command is at Hurlburt Field and the Army Rangers have Camp Rudder near Duke. They all would benefit from the museum, said Army Lt. Col. John Cathell, executive officer of the 7th Group.

He said preserving the barracks and establishing a museum could help troops feel connected to those who came before them.

The 7th Group is one of the most deployed units in the Army.

"They just go and go and go," Cathell said. "When you are doing that you are so focused on today's mission (that) you lose track of history."

They will need to raise $116,000, primarily through donations, to move the barracks.

Last week's session kicked off the fundraising drive.

"I am really proud to hear you are rescuing some of the history of how we got to where we are today," said retired Air Force Gen. Leroy Manor, who lives in Shalimar and served as task force commander of the raid. "That's something that could have easily been forgotten."

During training, the troops were told nothing about their mission; they were cut off from the rest of the world.

"No momma," Turner said. "We had some beer and fights in the club, but nothing else."

After being in the dark for so long, when they were excited when they found out they would try to rescue prisoners.

"Everyone in the military was anxious to do something to help the POWs," Turner said. "Being chosen to do this was an opportunity of a lifetime, something we knew we had to do."

The prisoners were suffering. They were subjected not to waterboarding-type psychological torture, but the "broken bones, maimed for life, death kind of torture," Turner said.

After months of planning and preparations, more than 50 soldiers and nearly 100 airmen participated in the raid.

That night, a quarter moon hung low in the sky -- not too dark to see but not too bright to be seen.

Helicopters landed inside the Son Tay compound and soldiers penetrated the prison walls.

But the cells were empty and the raiders were devastated.

"There is no American word for how we felt," Turner said. "There's nothing in the English language that really describes it. It was the worst feeling of my life."

The feeling Turner had that night continued every night for three years until the POWs were released, he said.

The prisoners had been moved months before, before commanders even had selected a location for the mission, Manor said.

"They didn't know we were coming because we didn't know we were coming," he said.

He said that although they were unable to save any prisoners, the mission was not a failure.

"Our primary mission was to get the message to the prisoners that we had not forgotten about them."

After they were released at the end of the war, the former POWs reported that conditions improved dramatically after the raid.

The Son Tay raid, which went off as planned, led to a revolution in intelligence gathering and was used as an example of a successful joint clandestine special operation for years to come.

The officers' barracks and one other building scheduled for demolition at Duke are the only two structures that remain from when the men trained for the historic mission.

"We will not let a piece of history be destroyed, even if we have to go over there at 2 a.m. and take it apart piece by piece and bring it here ourselves," Cathell said.

To learn more, contact sontayraiders@gmail.com. Donations can be made to the 7th Special Forces Association, Attn: Nichole Vild, Son Tay Raiders, P.O. Box 2395, Crestview, FL 32536.

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