Like walking on missiles: US airman recalls the horror of the Vietnam ‘Christmas bombings’ 50 years on

Sunday | December 18, 2022

It was one of the heaviest bombardments in history. A shock-and-awe campaign of overwhelming air power aimed at bombing into submission a determined opponent that, despite being vastly outgunned, had withstood everything the world’s most formidable war machine could throw at it.

In December 1972, during Operation Linebacker II, more than 200 American B-52 bombers flew 730 sorties and dropped more than 20,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam over the course of 12 days. This brutal attack was intended to shake the Vietnamese people “to their core,” in the words of Henry Kissinger, the US national security adviser at the time.

On December 17, the eve of the expedition, US President Richard Nixon replied to Kissinger, “They’re going to be so god damned startled.

Swathes of Hanoi were destroyed during what became known as “the Christmas bombings” in America and “the 11 days and nights” in Vietnam (Christmas day was not bombed).

In an operation that some have compared to the World War II Hamburg bombings due to the sheer scope of the destruction and civilian death toll, an estimated 1,600 Vietnamese were killed amid some of the most terrifying moments of the combat.

The terrible losses were not entirely in one direction. At the same time, the US Air Force suffered losses that are incomprehensible today. The pride of America’s fleet, 15 B-52s, were shot down, including six in a single day, killing 33 pilots.

Tragically, some people think that most of these fatalities were in vain, and historians continue to disagree on how much of an impact the operation had on the wider battle.

Following the operation, both sides declared victory: Washington asserted that it had gotten the Vietnamese back to the negotiating table for peace talks, while Hanoi portrayed it as a valiant act of resistance in which it had absorbed all of its adversary’s resources and still managed to hold out.

However, while the fog of war made it difficult to evaluate those assertions, it hasn’t done much to tarnish the memories of the US servicemen who can still recall flying through the North Vietnamese air defenses fifty years later.

One veteran US airman remembered, “It nearly felt like you could walk across the tips of those missiles in the sky there were so many fired at you.”

The flak was so bright, he said, you could “read a newspaper in the cockpit.”

Death at Christmas

The airman recounted a mood at his base that was everything but festive in an interview with CNN to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the “Christmas bombings.”

The bombing flights were carried out at night with B-52s taking off from U Tapao, Thailand, and Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in order to provide the best cover possible. The crews would not learn who among their coworkers had failed to return until breakfast the next day because those who made it back to base would land in darkness.

According to Wayne Wallingford, an electronic warfare officer based in U Tapao who flew on seven of the 11 raids B-52s carried out over Hanoi, “you’d see the trailer next to yours with doors open on both ends and airmen loading (the occupant’s) personal belongings into a trunk to be shipped back to their families, so you knew that crew didn’t make it.”

“Seeing that was quite depressing.”

The dreadful ritual was carried out 33 times throughout the course of the 12-day span.

While the US Air Force’s losses were extraordinary, the B-52s’ devastation was also unprecedented.

Vietnam War historian Pierre Asselin wrote in his 2018 book, “Vietnam’s American War: A History,” “The resulting physical destruction was staggering: 1,600 military installations, miles of railway lines, hundreds of trucks and railway cars, eighty percent of electrical power plants, and countless factories and other structures were taken out of commission.”

The North’s ability to maintain the war in the South as a result of its socialist metamorphosis was destroyed by the Linebacker bombings, according to Asselin.

Such was the devastation that one Soviet diplomat warned that North Vietnam faced becoming “a wasteland.”

‘To this day, they smell the bodies’

On the ground, the human cost was nearly unfathomable.

The Christmas bombings were her families’ most harrowing experience of the entire war, according to Duong Van Mai Elliott, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her book “Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family,” which details her family’s experience.

Elliott reported that “the buildings rocked.” They believed they were going to pass away.

She claimed, “Those who survived reported they went out to look and saw dead bodies strewn around.” “They can still smell the decaying bodies nowadays.”

According to the Vietnamese publication VN Express International, 287 people were killed in one night alone in Kham Thien, a neighborhood in Hanoi, largely women, children, and the elderly, and 2,000 buildings were devastated by US bombs.

A journalist from Agence France Presse visited Kham Thien soon after the US strike and reported seeing “mass devastation… despair and sadness.”

Some homes are still standing on Kham Thien, although many of them lack roofs and windows. The landscape is dotted with dozens of craters that are about 12 yards in diameter and three yards deep, according to a dispatch by Jean Leclerc du Sablon that was published in The New York Times on December 29, 1972.

He focused on one survivor in particular.

An elderly woman seated on a heap of rubble muttered in a mournful, almost religious tone, “Oh, my son, where are you now? May I locate you so I can bury you. How barbaric you Americans are.”

Nixon’s bid for ‘peace with honor’

The freshly reelected President Richard Nixon, who was anxious to end America’s involvement in a divisive conflict before the start of his second term in January, was the impetus for the Christmas bombings.

Just over a month earlier, Nixon had won reelection on a platform promising to bring about “peace with honor” in Vietnam, where the US had been at war since 1965. Nixon was hurt when negotiations with North Vietnam abruptly broke down.

He ordered Linebacker II even as a new set of demands were being issued to the North Vietnamese, warning Hanoi that it would suffer the consequences if it did not return to the bargaining table in good faith.

The Air Force responded quickly, and on December 18 129 B-52s took off from Thailand and Guam bound for North Vietnam.

The world’s best air defenses were what were ready for the world’s most powerful bombers.

‘America’s fortress’

At the time, the B-52 bomber was the gold standard of aerial firepower.

The eight-engine Stratofortress, some of which could carry more than 80,000 pounds of ordnance, first flew in 1954 and was designed to be an intercontinental bomber that could deliver nuclear payloads anywhere in the world.

Alongside intercontinental ballistic missiles and ballistic missile submarines, it formed one prong of the nuclear triad America hoped would deter any possible atomic war with the Soviet Union.

But in the 1960s it began to take on more conventional bombing missions as the US enlisted its help in its struggle against Soviet-supported communist expansion in Indochina.

Its tremendous payloads would appear out of nowhere, devastating both physically and psychologically.

The B-52 was airpower’s greatest tool for the job, historian T.W. Beagle stated in a 2001 report for the US Air Force’s Air University Press. “(Nixon) desired maximum psychological damage on the North Vietnamese,” Beagle wrote.

Nevertheless, despite how powerful the B-52s were, their strategies had little changed since World War II.

And some of their personnel would lose their lives as a result.

Fly into the danger zone

Soviet-made SA-2 antiaircraft missiles, which could launch a 288-pound warhead to an altitude of 60,000 feet at a speed greater than three times the speed of sound, supported North Vietnam’s air defenses.

They resembled telephone poles with lights, according to US aircrew, and would light up the entire night sky.

North Vietnam launched 200 of them towards the advancing US bombers on the opening night of Linebacker II, and at least five of those missiles hit their intended targets.

Two more B-52s sustained damage, and three were destroyed.

As if that weren’t intimidating enough, it was made clear to the crews at U Tapao that additional casualties were anticipated.

The general’s statements from that day are permanently etched in Wallingford’s memory.

Wallingford reported that he added, “Well, we thought we were going to lose a lot more of you than we did. “That speech wasn’t particularly inspiring,” someone said.

An open US playbook

In U Tapao and Guam, the B-52s’ dismal first day may have hurt morale, but Hanoi saw the opposite effect.

Nguyen Van Phiet, a North Vietnamese missile gunner credited with shooting down four B-52s during Linebacker, claimed to Smithsonian magazine in 2014: “We all feared the B-52 at first because the US believed it was unstoppable.” However, on the first night, we realized the B-52 could be sunk like any other aircraft.

The B-52s performed better on the second night, suffering only two damages out of 93 flying, and none were lost.

But by night three, the North Vietnamese gunners had seen the US game plan and were familiar with it much like their American adversaries.

In order to avoid antiaircraft guns, the bombers would fly in lengthy columns along established tracks before releasing their cargoes and turning in a banked direction to return home. At this point, their electronic jammer equipment would be facing skyward, making them susceptible.

Wallingford added, “We were advised to maintain straight and level for the last two minutes of the bomb run, which means you are a sitting target.

He claimed that the bomber’s massive bomb bay’s doors were opened, further increasing its radar signature. It’s somewhat of a losing endeavor.

When considered as a whole, this meant that the raids were “so predictable that any enemy would be able to knock you down kind of like the arcade at the carnival,” according to Ron Bartlett, another B-52 electronic warfare officer, who was speaking on a podcast produced by the Distinguished Flying Cross Society.

Six B-52s were destroyed in a crash on night three.

Nixon “raised holy hell” about the bombers flying the same routes every night and was concerned that the significant loss of America’s most powerful warplanes would “create the antithesis of the psychological impact (he) desired,” according to Beagle. The American public and Nixon did not take kindly to those losses.

The bombers were instructed to approach their targets from different heights and directions starting the next night, and not to fly in formation or over recently struck objectives.

Only six further B-52s were shot down over the final seven days of bombing.

Was it all in vain?

After day eight of the bombardment, North Vietnam at some point let the US know it was prepared to resume peace negotiations in Paris.

Nixon argued that this made the operation justified. But many experts now contend that this would have occurred regardless and that Nixon might have prevented the horror and carnage on both sides if he had been more patient.

They claim that Hanoi’s military effort was already in trouble by the end of 1972. Resources were scarce, and it could not have continued the war effort for very long.

According to Brian Laslie, command historian at the US Air Force Academy, “by the time of Linebacker II, the North Vietnamese were ready to accept the demands outlined in Paris to get the United States out of the conflict.”

While waiting for the bombing to start on December 18, Asselin thinks the North Vietnamese Politburo agreed to inform Washington that they would resume the peace negotiations.

Unfortunately, it was already too late; Nixon had run out of options before it could inform the White House of its choice. The United States began its most brutal bombing of the North to date at 8 p.m. Hanoi time that day, according to Asselin.

Winners and winners (and losers)

There is no question that on January 8, 1973, the Paris Peace Talks restarted, and on January 27, an agreement was struck that signaled the beginning of the end for US involvement in the conflict.

According to Peter Layton, a fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia and a former RAAF officer, it was signed not only by the US and North Vietnam but also by the South Vietnamese who had been persuaded by Linebacker that “if North Vietnam attacked again, the US would return to bombing Hanoi.”

After the agreement was reached, Washington and Hanoi each declared themselves the Operation Linebacker II winners.

Others, like Airman Wallingford, are adamant that the US will win.

The operation that released our 591 POWs and put an end to the Vietnam War, he claimed. After the signing of the agreements, those American prisoners of war were released in February and March.

But some people even in America had their reservations.

Former US Air Force pilot Robert Hopkins advised against falling into the “Linebacker II was a success trap,” adding that it “seriously harmed morale for years to come” for the B-52 pilots.

There was also a more pressing issue.

Three years later, on April 30, 1975, Hanoi launched the massive assault of the South that resulted in the fall of Saigon, with the Communist troops mostly restocked and the US forces largely expelled from Vietnam.

“Linebacker II brought an end to the American portion of the war, but its effects were short-lived—just three years. Linebacker II did not result in enduring peace, according to Layton.

The historian Asselin stated that in Hanoi, “the story of the events of late December 1972 was a tale, not of tremendous loss and damage, but of courageous resistance by Northerners.”

In fact, the cost to the US soldiers was so great that Nixon was compelled to implore Hanoi to pick up the peace negotiations and to unilaterally and unconditionally stop bombing, the author claimed.

Or, as Kissinger, the then-US national security advisor, reportedly said: “We blasted the North Vietnamese into accepting our concessions.”

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