Operation Thunderhead: The True Story of Vietnam’s Final POW Rescue—And the Last Navy SEAL Killed in Country

Kevin Dockery, Operation Thunderhead: The True Story of Vietnam’s Final POW Rescue—And the Last Navy SEAL Killed in Country, Berkley Press, 2009. 294 pp., photos, appendix, index.

Review by John Darrell Sherwood
Naval History and Heritage Command

The story of the American prisoners of war (POW) in Vietnam has been told many times with the definitive account being Stuart Rochester and Frederick Kiley’s Honor Bound: The History of American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973 (Naval Institute Press, 1998). This “new” POW book by Kevin Dockery re-hashes the story of John Dramesi’s ill-fated May 1969 escape attempt and ends with a coda about an aborted June 1972 U.S. Navy special operations mission to assist Dramesi in a second attempt that never happened.

Air Force Captain John Dramesi was a brash young officer from South Philadelphia who in May of 1969 made a daring escape attempt from the “Zoo Annex” prison in Hanoi with fellow Air Force Captain Ed Atterberry. The two men planned to break out of the camp disguised as Vietnamese peasants, steal a sampan, and paddle down the Red River to the Gulf of Tonkin , where they hoped to be picked up by the U.S. Navy. Escaping from the prison proved to be the easiest part of the mission, but the two men never fully considered how they would be able to travel over 110 miles through hostile, heavily populated territory to the coast. The fact that neither man was of Asian heritage or spoke Vietnamese compounded their difficulties.

The escape attempt occurred without the blessings of compound’s senior ranking POW, Air Force Captain Konrad Trautman. Trautman felt he could not order Dramesi and Atterbery to cancel the attempt because the Code of Conduct specifically demanded that POWs make every effort to escape, but he did believe that the attempt was ill-advised and could cause severe repercussions for other POWs held at the Zoo Annex.

The two men escaped from the compound at night by crawling through an attic above the cells and clamoring down the roof of the facility to the street. A North Vietnamese patrol discovered the two men at sunup the next day in a bramble thicket about four miles from the Zoo Annex. Over the course of the next two months, the prison authorities severely tortured the two escapees plus two dozen other American POWs. One officer, Lieutenant Eugene “Red” McDaniel, received 700 lashes as well as electric shocks and a form of rope torture during the ordeal, which he called his “darkest hour.” After seven days of severe torture, Atterbery died—a death Dockery attributes to pneumonia, but which Rochester and Kiley argue had to have been caused by excessive torture and medical neglect.

Dockery, a “radio broadcaster, gunsmith, and historian” and the author of a number of popular histories of the SEALs, staunchly defends Dramesi throughout the book as an American hero. But other historians of the POW experience view his actions in a more critical light. Rochester and Kiley define him as an “accident waiting to happen,” whose actions caused unnecessary pain and suffering for their fellow POWs. Operation Thunderhead also yields no new information on Dramesi or his escape, and because no sources are cited in the book, I am left wondering if Dockery even interviewed Dramesis or simply constructed his narrative from Dramesi’s memoir Code of Honor (Norton, 1975). There are also some embarrassing errors in the book, such as the misspelling Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Robinson Risner’s last name, “Reisner,” in several places in the book. A Korean War ace, Risner was one of the longest serving senior officers in the Hanoi Hilton, and the recipient of the Air Force Cross. Any historian of the American POW experience should have been able to spell his name properly.

But what irritates this reviewer the most about Operation Thunderhead is the book’s misleading title. Only the last 62 pages of the book focus on the SEAL effort to assist Dramesi in a second escape bid in the spring of 1972. This portion of the book focuses solely on the SEAL operation to penetrate North Vietnamese territory, using the special operations submarine Grayback (LPSS 574). According to Dockery, the SEAL mission was plagued by problems from the very onset. During an attempt to land on an island in the Red River , a SEAL Swimmer Delivery Vehicle (SDV) ran out of battery power while fighting the strong currents of the river, forcing the 4-man SEAL and Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) crew to abort the mission, and destroy the SDV. After being rescued by helicopter and transported to Long Beach (CGN 9), the four operators attempted to return to Grayback by dropping from a helicopter and diving to the boat, but in the insertion attempt, one of the SEALs, Lieutenant Spence Dry, hit the water too hard and died, and several of the others were badly injured. A rescue helicopter eventually retrieved Dry’s corpse along with the three survivors.

Communications difficulties had prevented Dry from informing Grayback of their attempted return to the boat, and so the boat launched a second SDV before their jump. This SDV, however, sunk almost immediately after launch, forcing the operators to scramble out of the vehicle and swim to the surface, where they were eventually rescued by a helicopter. The SEALs planned to make a third attempt with an inflatable boat, but this attempt was ultimately cancelled after the Grayback’s commanding officer suddenly shifted his boat’s location upon hearing chains being dragged near his boat.

Dockery does not reveal his sources for this section of the book either, but presumably, he gleaned his details from interviews with some of the surviving special operations personnel. No official documents or after action reports are cited. The author also does not discuss Operation Mole—Dramesi’s second escape plan in which he and several others were to tunnel out of Hoa Lo Prison and pose as German tourists. Operation Mole was cancelled after some of the participants were transferred out of the jail, and Air Force Colonel John Flynn, the Senior Ranking Officer at the time, decided that the chances of success were minimal and the probability of severe reprisals against the other POWs, extremely high.

Operation Thunderhead offers no new insights on the American POW experience during the Vietnam War and limited new material on Operation Thunderhead. It is a work of popular history of little use to serious scholars of the war in Southeast Asia . Until more official documents are released on special operations in North Vietnamese territory, this chapter of the war will remain shrouded in mystery.

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