"No posterity, you will never know how much it has cost us to preserve your freedom. My hope is that you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in heaven that I have took half the pains to preserve it.” –John Adams
30 June, 1970
30 June, 1970
“Oh God, Oh God, Oh God!” Captain Jacob Walden yelled out through his oxygen mask as his ejection seat violently propelled him through the Vietnam sky.
The sounds of his yells were muffled by the oxygen mask over his face and the almost deafening sounds of the ejection seat rockets that just seconds before lifted him out of the exploding aircraft he was in. Over the mid-morning sky of Vietnam, the rockets propelling Captain Walden’s ejection seat extinguished, his parachute opened, and the ejection seat separated, falling towards the earth almost 20,000 feet below. The entire time from initial ejection to the point where the parachute fully opened took about five to eight seconds, but for Captain Jake Walden it seemed like an eternity.
For Jake, this was the first time that he had been exposed to this level or type of danger. The 24-year-old Captain had been assigned to Vietnam less than a month, and although he had received training in what to do if he were shot down—the training was still much different from the reality.
The previous violent moments were now transitioning to a surreal quietness and peacefulness. The cold sweat Jake experienced was caressed by the breeze of the air as Jake drifted under his parachute. As he regained his composure, he looked around and then down to see what under normal circumstances any sport parachute enthusiasts would be thoroughly enjoying. It was eerily quiet, except for the slight sound of the air passing through the parachute as he had begun from an unusually high altitude of about 20,000 feet.
During his descent, Jake was transitioning to becoming one more American falling victim to the Vietnam War. While Jake already had memberships in several personal and professional organizations and clubs, he was about to join a unique and somewhat ironic privileged membership in three more, one as a Prisoner of War and another as a Veteran of the Vietnam War. The third one, however, would not receive any real recognition for the sacrifices made by soldiers like Jake Walden. People like Jake did not receive recognition, memorials, or even a national monument in their honor or remembrance. Captain Jacob Walden was about to take up membership in a fraternity of “Forgotten Soldiers.”
Missing In Action
Four Months Later
18 November, 1970
By mid-November of 1970, the fate of Jake Walden and many other Americans who were missing and presumed captured was uncertain. Months earlier in July of 1970, the outcome of the Vietnam War had, for the most part, already been determined, and while the war did not end for almost three more years, President Nixon had already put into place plans and negotiations for ending it. The Vietnam War was highly politicized, dramatized, and in some cases very personalized by the American people. In many instances, Americans were disconnected from the reality of the individuals making the sacrifices—individuals like Jake who had been shot down. Back in the United States, at places like the San Francisco airport, people were spitting and yelling at soldiers who proudly wore their uniforms as they walked through airport terminals.
While there was no lack of public opinion and political agendas, one view of the military leadership focused on the recovery and rescue of its own people. In June, 1970, discussions began in Washington DC concerning options to conduct rescue operations. President Nixon was quite interested in the possibility of not only rescuing prisoners, but also forcing the North Vietnamese to the peace negotiations.
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, FLORIDA
18 November, 1970
Air Force General Leroy J. Manor, his staff, and less than a hundred other military personnel were at a secret operations center at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. A few months earlier General Manor had been appointed the Commander of a secret operation, named Task Force Ivory Coast, to research, prepare, and possibly execute a rescue operation of American Prisoners of War inside North Vietnam. The second in command was Army Special Forces Colonel Arthur D. “Bull” Simons. Bull Simons recruited Army Special Forces volunteers—Green Berets—from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to sign up for a mission that they were told nothing about, except it was classified and they may not make it home. Without hesitation, they all volunteered, as did the Air Force crews that would fly the helicopters and other support aircraft on the operation.
During the mid-afternoon, another rehearsal of a rescue operation at a mock POW camp had just finished. General Manor, Colonel Simons and other staff members were going over their daily post rehearsal details, which had become more of a routine than rehearsal. On this day, however, the briefing was interrupted by a knock on the door of the briefing room, followed quickly by a Sergeant sticking his head inside the room.
“General, call for you on one. Think you're gonna want to take this one, sir.”
General Manor walked over to the table where the secure telephone was located and got on the phone with the Secretary of Defense. General Manor listened for a moment and then said, “Thank you sir.” After hanging up the phone, General Manor looked around the room at everyone and then at Colonel Simons with a slight smile: “The President has given his approval. We’re a go.”
Eager to get the operation going, Colonel Simons cracked an ever so slight smile.
19 November, 1970
After General Manor had received the green light, it didn’t take long for the Task force to get loaded up on an aircraft headed for Thailand. When they departed Eglin, however, the members of the Task Force were told they were heading to California for more training. The flight ended up passing through Alaska, Japan and on 19 November ended up at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base north of Bangkok, Thailand, an air base that also doubled as a CIA secret compound.
The following day at 1800 hours the 56 men of the ground force were assembled at a theater on Takhli waiting for a mission briefing from Bull Simons. While they waited the men talked among themselves about the still unknown location of the upcoming operation. During the previous three months at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the Green Berets and Air Force Crews had prepared and rehearsed for the upcoming tasking. During that time, they conducted a total of 170 rehearsals on a mock-up of the POW camp, but they were never told the actual location. The camp was a replica built from a photograph of the actual camp where the mission would take place. The entire operation and training, which included the daily breakdown of the camp and rebuilding of it to prevent pictures from being taken by the daily fly over of Soviet satellites, had to be kept secret...
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