Last year in a small theater in Vietnam's Bas'tang Cheu Thang B52—B-52 Museum—I watched a re-creation of the last U.S. bombing campaign of the Vietnam War, staged on three video screens and a large lighted terrain map of 1972 Hanoi. As a soundtrack of martial music accompanied by the noise of explosions and anti-aircraft fire filled the theater, the screens showed surface-to-air missiles blasting off into night skies and B-52s falling in flames. Flashing lights on the terrain map indicated where bombs hit and B-52s crashed. The video, interspersed with pictures of North Vietnamese leaders touring bombed-out buildings and giving encouragement to anti-aircraft crews, ended with a voiceover, translated for me by my Vietnamese guide: "The Dien Bien Phu in the skies, the 12 days and nights victory over the B-52s…is always the pride and spiritual strength of the good-willed and wise Vietnamese people…."
From This Story
I had come to Hanoi to research my second book about the air war over North Vietnam: the story of the December 1972 B-52 bombing of Hanoi, known as Linebacker II. I had arrived with the standard U.S. understanding of the raids. In early December 1972, President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, faced a political defeat. The North Vietnamese had broken off negotiations in Paris. It was clear that they were waiting for an anti-war U.S. Congress to return in January, cut off funds for the war, and give them a victory.
To force the North Vietnamese to sign the agreement, Nixon decided to bomb Hanoi. After initial heavy U.S. losses, B-52s were able to attack with relative impunity and, after 11 days of raids, the North Vietnamese returned to Paris to sign the agreement they had rejected in December.
But now, after a few days in Hanoi, I saw that the North Vietnamese had a different perception of the bombing. They considered Linebacker II the final Vietnamese victory over the United States, a victory on the scale of the battle that had forced the French from Indochina. I had come to the museum to try to resolve these dual and dueling images of a battle, and I left with my questions unanswered.
I exited the museum through a courtyard where broken B-52 pieces and parts had been piled in a heap about 20 feet high. Nearby were two SA-2 missiles on launchers, a Fan Song tracking radar, and the control van where missile crews tracked incoming bombers and tried to shoot them down. As I walked between the pile of B-52 parts on one side and the control van on the other, it occurred to me that the combatants fought in similar circumstances: six men in the cramped crew compartment of a B-52 targeted by the seven-man team enclosed in an SA-2 control van.
On Friday, December 15, 1972, Captain Bob Certain and the rest of his B-52G crew at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam were notified that all crew rotations Stateside had been suspended. It was a bitter blow. The crew members had been preparing to return to Blytheville Air Force Base in Arkansas on Monday, and this was another setback; they had been scheduled to return first on December 4, then on December 12. It was especially frustrating for Certain's aircraft commander, Lieutenant Colonel Don Rissi, who was in line to become the new squadron commander once Stateside.
In an unpublished memoir, Certain, a B-52 navigator, recalls how he and his crewmates reacted: "The crew's first thought—and hope—was that the war was over and we were being held on Guam to bring all the planes back to the U.S., but a quick tour of the flightline on Saturday morning and we saw all the B-52s were being refueled and loaded with bombs." (The full memoir is at www.airspacemag.com.)
When Certain's crew entered the briefing room at 11 in the morning on Monday, December 18, it was packed with over a hundred crew members. In a scene that seemed right out of the World War II film classic Twelve O'Clock High, the briefer came to the podium and announced, "Gentlemen, your target for tonight is Hanoi," as a slide of North Vietnam with a target triangle over the capital lit up the screen behind him. This was the first time the big bombers would be sent against Hanoi's heavy defenses.
Nixon had ordered the raids on December 14, and the Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, hastily devised a plan. The Eighth Air Force staff on Guam was surprised at the SAC decision to plan the missions in Omaha. The Eighth's mission planners had managed B-52 raids for years, and, since they were stationed on Guam, could discuss tactics with many of the B-52 crews. The distance between the SAC planners and the combat crews halfway around the world seemed to guarantee problems.
SAC's plan was to split the B-52 force—which would be flying from Guam and a U.S. base in U-Tapao, Thailand—into three waves, all attacking at night, with four hours between each wave. The bombers would fly almost identical routes, in single file, to Hanoi.