Articles

The human cost of the most daring special operations raids in history

A joint U.S.-Peshmerga raid on an ISIS compound in Iraq freed some 70 prisoners, killed many ISIS fighters, and captured five of them. The cost was four injured Kurdish fighters and one U.S. Delta Force operator killed in action. Some would say the price of one KIA for rescuing 70 people is a fair cost, others might say a Delta Operator is an invaluable loss. No matter which side of the debate you stand, risky raids are rarely without casualties. Here are a few of the most famous raids, with what was gained and at what cost, to help determine which were worth the risk. Some are more obvious than others.


Operation Ivory Coast (1970)

The commando raid on the Son Tay prison camp in North Vietnam was one of the riskiest missions in spec ops history. Planning for the mission began in early May 1970 after Air Force aerial photos confirmed the camp's existence, which for years had been suspected of housing more than 60 POWs. 130 Special Forces began training at a secret base in Florida over several months. Commandos and Air Force Special Operations air crews rehearsed the raid on a scale model of the camp.

In the late hours of November 20, support aircraft including A-1 Skyraiders, F-4 Phantoms and F-105G Wild Weasels and the assault force of six Jolly Green Giant helicopters lifted off for the rescue from bases in Thailand and South Vietnam. At about 2:00am, 50 Green Berets deliberately crash landed their helicopter into the main courtyard of the prison camp guns blazing. After a methodical search of the prison barracks and multiple engagements with guards, the assault force boarded a second helicopter for its exfiltration, empty handed.

Though the mission didn't recover any of the POWs (intelligence later found they had been moved in July), the raid was a major success, involving a host of joint service assets — including a Navy decoy mission using A-7 Corsairs and A-6 Intruders that tied up North Vietnamese air defense assets as cover for the raid.

POWs Rescued: 0

Guards Killed: 42

Cost: 2 wounded, 2 aircraft down

Israeli Raid on Lebanon (1973)

In response to the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics by the Palestinian terror organization Black September, Israeli intelligence (Mossad) launched the intelligence operation with the coolest name ever: Operation Wrath of God. Wrath of God was directed by Mossad to assassinate members of Black September and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) responsible.

On April 10, 1973, as part of Wrath of God, Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Sayeret Matkal (the Israeli equivalent to Delta Force) special operatives came ashore near Beirut and Sidon, Lebanon. They met Mossad agents on the beaches who drove them to their targets in rented cars. At the same time, paratroopers raided a building guarded by 100 militants and engaged in close-quarters battle as they cleared the structure. Two IDF troops were killed. Another paratroop unit destroyed a PLO garage in Sidon and Shayetet 13 commandos (IDF equivalent to Navy SEALs) destroyed an explosives workshop. Steven Spielberg recreated the raid in his 2005 film Munich.

All Israeli forces either returned to the beach to leave the way they came or were airlifted out by the Israeli Air Force.

Enemy Killed: 100

Cost: 2 IDF paratroopers

Raid on Entebbe (1976)

In June 1976, Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked AirFrance Flight 139 on its way from Tel Aviv, Israel to Paris, France. Two PFLP hijackers and two Germans from the German Revolutionary Cells captured 12 crewmembers, 246 mainly Jewish Israelis, and 58 other passengers. They ended up Entebbe, Uganda, which was under the control of the notorious dictator Idi Amin Dada at the time.

Supported by Amin's troops, the hijackers moved the hostages to Entebbe's passenger terminal, where Amin visited them everyday and promised he was working for their release. The PFLP demanded $5 million and the release of 53 Palestinians prisoners, 40 of whom were in Israel. They promised to start killing the hostages if their demands were not met in three days.

The hijackers separated the Jewish and Israelis from the rest of the passengers. 48 sick and elderly non-Jewish hostages were released. When the Israelis agreed to negotiations, the hijackers extended their deadline by an extra three days and release 100 more non-Israeli passengers. This left 106 hostages in Entebbe. When diplomacy failed to secure their release, the Israelis launched a rescue attempt.

Israeli C-130s and a Boeing 747s flew from the Sinai Peninsula over Saudi, Egyptian, Sudanese, and Ugandan territory at 100 ft to avoid detection. The landed and offloaded a Merecedes-Benz and motorcade of Land Rovers similar to Amin's own motorcade. they drove right up to the terminal, took out two sentries and entered the terminal shouting in Hebrew and English that they were Israeli soldiers there to rescue the hostages. Three hostages and all the hijackers were killed. the remaining C-130s launched Armored Personnel Carriers (APC) to pick up the hostages and take them back to the waiting 747s. The Israelis had to shoot their way back to their planes as Ugandan soldiers descended on them, injuring five and killing one Yonatan Netanyahu, older brother to current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A hostage who was taken to the hospital in Kampala, Uganda due to illness was killed by Ugandan Army officers after the raid.

Hostages Rescued: 102 

Hijackers Killed: 4

Cost: 4 hostages, 1 IDF commando killed

4 IDF commandos wounded

Desert One (1979)

This is the disastrous attempt to rescue American hostages being held by Iranians at the former embassy in Tehran. To this day, President Carter maintains the biggest mistake of his Presidency was not sending one more helicopter.

Desert One was a secret staging area in Iran set up by special operators where eight Navy helicopters and Delta Force aboard three C-130 transport planes. Three more C-130s with 18,000 gallons of fuel for the helicopters were also supposed to deploy at Desert One. The Navy helicopters would refuel and fly the Delta Forces to Desert Two, another desert area South of Tehran, conceal the helicopters and hide out during the day.

The next night Delta Force would board trucks driven by Iranian operatives, drive to Tehran, storm the U.S. embassy, free the hostages, and transport everyone to a nearby soccer field, where they would be picked up by the helicopters, who would then fly everyone to an airfield secured by Army Rangers and everyone would fly to Egypt on C-141 Starlifters after the helicopters were destroyed.

During the operation, three helicopters were unable to continue, forcing the team to abort the rescue. During the evacuation, one of the helicopters crashed into a C-130 carrying fuel and personnel, destroying both aircraft and killing eight troops, five airmen and three Marines, without ever getting close to the hostages.

Hostages Rescued: 0

Cost: 5 U.S. troops

Nord-Ost Siege (2002)

In 2002, 40 Chechen separatists besieged a Moscow theater holding more than 800 people captive for nearly a week, demanding the Russian withdrawal from the Republic of Chechnya. The terrorists killed two hostages after negotations failed. The Russians called up their elite Spetznaz Alpha Group to handle the situation.

The Russians used a specialized gas to knock out both the terrorist captors and their hostages through the theater's air ducts. The Spetznaz then stormed the theater, killing all 40 Chechen seprtatists, their suicide vests still strapped to their torsos, but barely conscious.

Most of the hostages were rescued, but more than 130 died from suffocating from the gas. It was the first time gas was used in such a way, but likely the last, as it also injured much of the Spetznaz response team. Welcome to Putin's Russia.

Hostages Rescued: 700

Cost: 133 Hostages Killed, 40 Terrorists Killed, 700 injured

Neptune Spear (2011)

This is the SEAL Team Six raid which ended in the death of Osama bin Laden. In the early hours of May 2, 2011, 79 SEAL Team Six operators and a working dog flew from Jalalabad in specially designed stealth Blackhawk helicopters in nap-of-the-Earth style. They arrived at bin Laden's compound in 90 minutes. The first Blackhawk experienced  hazardous airflow condition caused by the concrete walls surrounding the compound (practice runs used mesh fencing), causing the helicopter to softly crash land. No one was injured.

SEALs entered the house, killing defenders (including bin Laden), securing noncombatants and gathering all the intelligence they could, all within 40 minutes. The SEALs destroyed the damaged helicopter to protect classified technology. A reserve Chinook was sent to extract the team from the crashed helicopter and (with bin Laden's body) leave Pakistan for Bagram Air Base. Bin Laden would later be buried at sea.

A woman in Times Square celebrates the death of Osama bin Laden (wikimedia commons)

Enemy Killed: 5 (including Osama bin Laden)

Enemy Captured: 17

Cost: 1 Stealth Blackhawk

NOW: Here's what it's like when special forces raid a compound >

OR: An American soldier killed in Iraq while rescuing 70 ISIS hostages >

History

This pilot shot down an enemy fighter at Pearl Harbor in his pajamas

Comfort is important when doing a hard job. If it's hot on the work site, it's important to stay cool. If it's hazardous, proper protection needs to be worn. And comfort is apparently key when the Japanese sneak attack the Navy. Just ask Lt. Phil Rasmussen, who was one of four pilots who managed to get off the ground to fight the Japanese in the air.

Rasmussen, like many other American GIs in Hawaii that day, was still asleep when the Japanese launched the attack at 0755. The Army Air Forces 2nd Lieutenant was still groggy and in his pajamas when the attacking wave of enemy fighters swarmed Wheeler Field and destroyed many of the Army's aircraft on the ground.

Damaged aircraft on Hickam Field, Hawaii, after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There were still a number of outdated Curtiss P-36A Hawk fighters that were relatively untouched by the attack. Lieutenant Rasmussen strapped on a .45 pistol and ran out to the flightline, still in his pajamas, determined to meet the sucker-punching Japanese onslaught.

By the time the attack ended, Wheeler and Hickam Fields were both devastated. Bellows Field also took a lot of damage, its living quarters, mess halls, and chapels strafed by Japanese Zeros. American troops threw back everything they could muster – from anti-aircraft guns to their sidearms. But Rasmussen and a handful of other daring American pilots managed to get in the air, ready to take the fight right back to Japan in the Hawks if they had to. They took off under fire, but were still airborne.

Pearl Harbor pilots Harry Brown, Phil Rasmussen, Ken Taylor, George Welch, and Lewis Sanders.

They made it as far as Kaneohe Bay.

The four brave pilots were led by radio to Kaneohe, where they engaged 11 enemy fighters in a vicious dogfight. Even in his obsolete old fighter, Rasmussen proved that technology is no match for good ol' martial skills and courage under fire. He managed to shoot down one of the 11, but was double-teamed by two attacking Zeros.

Gunfire and 20mm shells shattered his canopy, destroyed his radio, and took out his hydraulic lines and rudder cables. He was forced out of the fighting, escaping into nearby clouds and making his way back to Wheeler Field. When he landed, he did it without brakes, a rudder, or a tailwheel.

There were 500 bullet holes in the P-36A's fuselage.

Skillz.

Lieutenant Rasmussen earned the Silver Star for his boldness and would survive the war, getting his second kill in 1943. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1965, but will live on in the Museum of the United States Air Force, forever immortalized as he hops into an outdated aircraft in his pajamas.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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