DANVILLE — Prisoners of War have always held a spot in Bob Blubaugh’s heart.
He understands what they go through, how difficult it is just to keep hope alive. And, as an Airman with the U.S. Air Force, he was part of an elaborate attempt during Vietnam to free a camp full of U.S. POWs.
“In my garage, on the wall is a POW/MIA flag. I put it there for two reasons — Every time I get in my car, it’s looking right at me. I thank myself I came back body and mind intact,” Blubaugh said. “Second, it always reminds me of the boys who have not been found. We hope those boys who have not been found are never forgotten.”
Blubaugh grew up in Danville and entered the Air Force in 1968. He was trained as a communication specialist and did his first tour in Italy, listening to air traffic in Albania.
From there, he returned to Texas and was then sent to Vietnam.
He spent most of his days in Da Nang, serving as a communication specialist, or as he called it — “a spy.” His job was to type in code, usually morse code, that was transmitted from the enemy in North Vietnam. He was a sergeant with top secret clearance because of his position.
On Nov. 21, 1970, he became part of one of the most secretive missions during the Vietnam War.
It was so secret, he said, that he didn’t know what was going on until it began.
“We didn’t know what was going on until the night it happened. We knew it was a big secret and some of the guys thought Congress has declared a full-scale war on North Vietnam,” Blubaugh said. “We only got to know what they thought you needed to know.”
Blubaugh’s job that night, as it was almost every night, was to keep an eye and ear on radio traffic from the North Vietnamese.
But, this night was special because they were going to attempt to save a group of POWs held at Son Tay, a camp about 20 miles west of Hanoi.
The U.S. Air Force was sending a decoy mission toward Haiphong, east of Hanoi, and Blubaugh’s job was to make sure the North Vietnamese were only concerned with that possible threat.
Meanwhile, the real force came from Thailand, through Laos, on the west side, under the cover of darkness to Son Tay.
Military intelligence had information that the prisoners at Son Tay were being mistreated and the U.S. was sending forces to break them free from the enemy. The whole operation was expected to take about 30 minutes.
“There’s a saying that’s still true today. There are three things needed in a raid — speed, surprise and simplicity,” Blubaugh said. “Our goal was to get in and out, and in 30 minutes, accomplish the mission.”
More than 100 men volunteered for the mission, which had 28 aircraft involved. More than 50 were going with “boots on the ground.”
The mission had been practiced approximately 170 times in Thailand, leading up to the big day.
The raid was nearly perfect, except for two things. First, a helicopter blade hit a tree and two were injured.
Second, and the biggest issue, was there were no prisoners there when the raiding party landed.
Blubaugh heard several reasons for that, including the water well had been contaminated and that the prisoners had been moved prior to the Tay River flooding the camp.
“Everything — the planning, carrying out the mission — was fine. But, that glitch still mystifies me,” Blubaugh said.
While that particular mission didn’t save any U.S. prisoners, it did have a positive effect on a lot of things. Blubaugh said it sent a clear message to the North Vietnamese that the U.S. would come get its men.
“It set the stage for future raids like the one you saw two weeks ago. Despite the fact there were no prisoners, it was a positive,” Blubaugh said. “The enemy knew we did it once, we’ll do it again to get our boys out of there.”
Blubaugh left Vietnam in April 1971 and was discharged in February 1972. He became a teacher, spending time in Steubenville and Danville.
“I have no regrets,” he said. “The fighting man is not political. They’re just there to do their job. I was raised to respect the fighting men and women. I will always be patriotic.”