The Missile Men of North Vietnam

A look at the air war waged from the ground.

Surrounding an SA-2 on its launcher, North Vietnamese missileers rally against an intimidating foe. Despite diminished effectiveness by the end of the war, the missiles and crews are still celebrated in Vietnam for protecting major cities against American air raids. (National Museum of the USAF)
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What does it feel like to push a button, launch a surface-to-air missile, and blow a B-52 bomber out of the sky? Ask Nguyen Van Phiet. As a young North Vietnamese military officer, his SA-2 rockets were credited with downing four of the giant Boeing Stratofortresses during U.S. raids on and around Hanoi in December 1972.

More than 40 years later, sitting in his comfortable Hanoi rowhouse, the wizened, soft-spoken Phiet, 76, a retired lieutenant general and former deputy commander of Vietnam’s air defense force, shows little emotion when recalling those deadly days. “The Americans were disturbing our freedom,” he says in Vietnamese as we sip tea from delicate china cups at his dining room table. “I was fulfilling my responsibility to the nation.”

Among the many weapons in North Vietnam’s anti-aircraft arsenal, few were more feared than the type of missiles Phiet commanded: the Russian-built S-75 Dvina (the SA-2 “Guideline,” in NATO parlance). U.S. combat crews likened the two-stage, 35-foot-long SA-2 to a flying telephone pole. The 5,000-pound missile had an effective range of about 21 miles, streaking toward its target at more than four times the speed of sound, up to an altitude of 90,000 feet to deliver a 430-pound fragmentation warhead that could shred anything within its nearly 300-yard maximum blast radius.

William Robinson and Peter Tsouprake celebrate their 100th F-105 mission. In Vietnam, SAMs and F-105s dueled. (National Museum of the USAF)
A hit! An F-105 trails smoke after contact with shrapnel from an SA-2. (National Museum of the USAF)
Trucks carried radar that guided SAMs. (David Freed )
North Vietnamese soldiers prepare an SA-2 for action. (Popperphoto/Getty Image)
Artillery from the war is commonly displayed in Vietnam’s cities, sometimes creating odd contrasts: In Hanoi, children march past an SA-2 launcher. (Reuters)
Damage caused by a SAM. (National Museum of the USAF)
Old wounds: A B-52’s landing gear rests half-submerged in Hanoi’s Huu Tiep Lake. (Aisleen Marley/lifesgreatadventures.com)

In 1960, an SA-2 brought down Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over the Soviet Union. Seven years later, an SA-2 knocked the right wing off of John McCain’s carrier-based A-4 Skyhawk, forcing McCain to eject and parachute, badly injured, into Hanoi’s Trúc Bach Lake, where he was fished from the water and taken prisoner. And it was the SA-2 that delivered what the Vietnamese today regard as their greatest aerial triumph: the destruction of more than a dozen B-52s during the so-called Christmas bombings of 1972. A gleaming museum in Hanoi celebrates the achievement; its name, the B-52 Victory Museum.

Time, vegetation, and urban development have erased virtually any trace of the mobile SA-2 sites that once ringed Hanoi and made its airspace among the most heavily defended in the world, but examples of the missiles themselves aren’t hard to find in the Vietnamese capital. On the grounds of military museums in what was once called North Vietnam, they stand like the statues of Greek gods. As an American, seeing the weapons that shot down so many U.S. airmen was jarring, if not a little unnerving.

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Nguyen Van Pheit joined the North Vietnamese military in 1960. Five years later, as a young lieutenant, he was sent to the Soviet Union along with about 1,000 of his countrymen for SA-2 training. For nine months, they studied and drilled 14 hours a day, seven days a week, learning enough Russian that many became conversant with their instructors. The Soviets regularly served them bacon. Used to a Vietnamese diet rich in rice and vegetables, Phiet initially found the meat unappetizing, but he eventually got used to it. The culmination of his training was launching SA-2s at two unmanned aircraft. Phiet and his crew nailed both of the targets and toasted their hits with champagne.

After graduating from missile school, Phiet was deployed to Hoa Binh Province, southwest of Hanoi, to work on the city’s outer ring of air defense. Like the other SA-2s deployed to defend the North, the six missiles assigned to Phiet were arrayed in a rough circle on mobile, truck-towed launchers, with each missile positioned about a mile from its control and support vehicles.

A typical SA-2 battery relied on a truck-mounted Spoon Rest acquisition radar unit, which provided target location data to a rudimentary computer, and Fan Song guidance radar, which aided in missile guidance as well as target acquisition. To operate each SA-2, a minimum of five primary crewmen, in addition to maintenance and other support personnel, were required: three radar operators, one controller, and a battery commander.

On the afternoon of October 22, 1966, with his Soviet advisers looking on, Phiet received a report from headquarters in Hanoi that approximately two dozen U.S. warplanes were inbound from Thailand. When the formation was within about 37 miles of his position, says Phiet, he ordered his radar operators to turn on their scopes, then reported back to his superiors that he’d electronically acquired the enemy formation. He was instructed to fire one missile when ready. His SA-2 roared off its launch rail. Though he was confident in his training and abilities, Phiet says he was nonetheless surprised when it hit its intended target, a U.S. Air Force F-105 Thunderchief.

U.S. records show that no F-105s were lost on that day over North Vietnam. The day before, however, a “Thud” assigned to the 469th Tactical Fighter Squadron, based in Thailand, was seen exploding in a fireball on a bombing mission south of Hanoi. The pilot, Captain David J. Earll of Dallas, Texas, was initially reported missing in action. Twenty years later, his remains were located.

“The whole aircraft exploded,” Phiet remembers, gazing placidly into space.

Like other SA-2 crewmen, Phiet and his soldiers rarely got a day off or were granted leave. When they weren’t on alert, they dozed inside their trucks or slept on the ground outside. The army supplied them with rice and other rations, which were often augmented with fresh meat and produce that North Vietnamese civilians living nearby provided.

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