During the dead of night in late November 1970, an HH-3 Jolly Green helicopter deliberately crash landed into the courtyard of the Son Tay Prisoner of War (POW) camp near Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam and one of the most heavily defended cities in the world. US Special Forces soldiers poured out the helicopter as rehearsed and assaulted the camp, eliminating North Vietnamese Army guards and securing prison cells to rescue the 61 American POWs believed to be held at the prison camp. At the same time, other helicopters landed around the camp to disembark additional assault teams; a total of 56 Special Forces soldiers surrounded and secured the camp within minutes. The assault force executed the mission flawlessly…however, they discovered that the cells were empty and no POWs were found on the target. Flying away from the camp, each member of the assault force stared across the dark helicopter into the faces of their fellow assaulters and saw the same shock and disbelief that they themselves felt, anguishing over the fact that they had failed their mission despite months of exhaustive planning and preparation. For the last 5 months the team had planned and rehearsed the operation thousands of times on a full scale mock-up of the prison camp in the sweltering heat of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
Despite the operators’ initial sense of failure, the mission was in actuality a tremendous success. Recognizing that the US was willing and able to launch raids deep into its territory to rescue POWs, the North Vietnamese drastically improved conditions for imprisoned US service members held across the North. The operation, which many felt was impossible due to the significant challenges involved, demonstrated that anything is possible if led by ambitious leaders who dream big and embrace challenge. This operation became a striking model of success and has influenced Special Operations missions for decades after the act. The lessons learned from the Son Tay raid have continued to influence elite military units, which can even be seen in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
The key to their success was in their spirit and preparation. Despite being up against tremendous challenges with no certainty of success, the operators accepted the challenge head on. Even though an operation of this size and complexity had never before been attempted, they were only concerned with what needed to be done and ignored the suggestions that their task was impossible. The opportunity to succeed against the odds is what fueled the operators during the hundreds of hours of planning and rehearsals that enabled the mission’s flawless execution. The detail of the planning and preparation far surpassed anything that had been done before, but was absolutely necessary due to the fine tolerances demanded of hostage rescue missions.
Challenge yourselves and your team. If you aren’t a little uncomfortable with the tempo of your work, then you’re not pushing hard enough. You can do more. If you’re concerned about the increased risk of doing more work in a shorter amount of time, remind yourself that this risk can be controlled with effective planning and preparation. Push your teams to do more than they think is possible, then support and resource the effort and be amazed at the success your team will achieve. We can’t allow ourselves to be on cruise control if we want to be the best. Don’t settle only for what is acceptable-redefine what is possible.