Captain Jim "Bones" Schneiderman, a B-52 copilot who attended the first briefing, was not impressed. "It was clear before we even took off on the first mission that the tactics were really dumb, everybody coming in from the same direction, same altitude, same exit routes," he says. "It was so much like the image of the British in the Revolutionary War—all lined up, marching in straight rows making easy targets—that it was bizarre."
Even for the northeast monsoon season, the early evening of December 18 was exceptionally cold and rainy in the small village of Nghe An on the western edge of North Vietnam. Dinh Huu Than, the commander of the 45th Radar Company, 291st Radar Regiment, Vietnamese People's Army Air Defense Corps, was just outside the village, serving as the first line of the North Vietnamese early warning system. Than and his crew were hunched over the scopes of their Soviet-made P-12 early warning radar when a line of blips appeared, proceeding north in a stately procession up the Mekong River, which divides Thailand from Laos. The blips were surrounded by heavy static, and from the jamming patterns Than and his company knew that the blips were made by B-52s, America's largest strategic bombers, some capable of dropping 30 tons of bombs. The 45th's operators had seen B-52 returns many times before, but never in this number, and they watched transfixed as the blips moved up to Point 300, the point where the B-52s normally turned west to bomb targets in Laos or east toward targets in the North Vietnamese panhandle.
But tonight the B-52s moved past Point 300 and continued north. Than suddenly realized that they were following a course that many U.S. strike aircraft used when they attacked Hanoi. He watched the returns for a few seconds longer, then at 7:15 in the evening Hanoi time, he sent a message to his regimental headquarters: "Large numbers of B-52s have flown past Point 300. B-52s appear to be on a course for Hanoi."
The regiment quickly forwarded the message to the Air Defense Command Headquarters in Hanoi. After a delay of a few moments, Than was asked to repeat the message. The last U.S. battle of the Vietnam War was about to begin.
Than and his radar crew were part of a North Vietnamese air defense radar network that covered the whole country in depth, but the radars were cobbled together into a manual system that had difficulty dealing with multiple raids or a rapidly changing situation. Than's information about the raid went to the Air Defense Command Headquarters. The hub of the headquarters, a large amphitheater, was dominated by a large transparent map overlaid with a grid. On one side of the map sat the air defense staff with telephones connected to all missile units. On the other side, a team of plotters marked the progress of the raid on the map, and as the aircraft moved, the positions were called out to them by officers tracking the flights on early warning radars. The plotters wrote the information backward so it could be read by the air defense staff on the opposite side.
The Hanoi region was the responsibility of the 361st Air Defense Division. The division had numerous radars and anti-aircraft guns, but its heart was three SA-2 Guideline regiments: The 261st Regiment was responsible for the area north and east of the city, while the 257th and the 274th Regiments covered the south and west. Each regiment had a number of early warning radars and was assigned three SA-2 missile battalions, each one equipped with its own early warning radar, a Fan Song missile guidance radar, and six SA-2 missile launchers.
The SA-2 Guideline system had been used for the entire war but had achieved mixed success against highly maneuverable U.S. fighters. Overall, the system was reliable but unsophisticated, using vacuum tubes and slow, mechanical computers, and the Fan Song guidance radar had proved vulnerable to various types of electronic jamming. The success of the system depended almost entirely on the skill of its seven-man crew.
The experienced Hanoi missile crews had been defending against U.S. air attacks for years, and they were especially anxious to shoot down a B-52. The big bombers had devastated North Vietnamese forces at Khe Sanh and recently pummeled North Vietnamese units fighting elsewhere in the south. North Vietnamese experts had been studying the B-52s' standardized tactics and jamming procedures almost daily as the aircraft attacked targets in Laos and southern North Vietnam, and at an October 1972 conference the Hanoi missile battalion commanders reviewed hundreds of feet of Fan Song and Spoon Rest radar film of B-52 jamming, provided primarily from units in southern North Vietnam. After that conference, the air defense headquarters produced a book entitled "How to Fight the B-52" and distributed it to all the SA-2 units.
While the weather on the ground was cold and rainy, above the solid cloud deck it was a beautiful night, with clear skies and a full moon that reflected on the clouds. U.S. support forces shepherded the B-52s in. The strike package included F-4s—some dropping strips of metal foil, or chaff, and others acting as fighter escorts—EB-66 electronics jamming aircraft, and the much-feared Wild Weasels, aircraft specially configured with electronics and the anti-radiation Shrike and Standard ARM missiles, which could home in on the SA-2's Fan Song radar (see "Counterpunch," Aug./Sep. 1998). As the force approached Hanoi, low-flying FB-111 fighter-bombers attacked North Vietnamese MiG airfields. The B-52s followed in three-ship cells.
At the command post plotting map, Dong Thi Van, one of three women who worked as plotters in the headquarters, became very nervous as the B-52s approached. "At first…one flight, then two flights, then several flights coming like a swarm," she recalls, "but my soldier's sense of responsibility helped me regain my composure and continue to plot the flights." The 361st Division headquarters watched the raids approach, then began to allocate numbers to cells of bombers and assign them to the battalions to attack.