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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It’s easy to forget amid Hanoi’s bustle and thriving capitalism that Vietnam remains an authoritarian communist state. The government’s tight control of its message became clear when I went to visit another former SA-2 crewman, Ngo Xuan Chien, at the tiny, windowless apartment he shares with his wife down a dark, dank passageway, just off the city’s fashionable Bà Trieu Street.

I’d met the wispily bearded Chien, 74, while touring the Vietnam People’s Air Force Museum in Hanoi with Hong My and his British-educated nephew, Duc, who’d volunteered to be my interpreter. Chien, with his three-year-old grandson in tow and garbed in a shirt festooned with war medals, approached us as we stood near an SA-2 and said he too was visiting the museum for the first time. When Duc informed him that I was a writer from the United States, he smiled and shook hands vigorously. Chien had been a middle-school instructor teaching Vietnamese literature before joining the North Vietnamese army in 1964 and being assigned to an SA-2 battery. His job was to maintain the missiles and help prepare them for launch.

“We knew exactly when and from where the American aircraft approached,” he said proudly, “and we were prepared.” Chien told me his military service ended when he suffered a debilitating head wound during a 1970 B-52 strike. These days, he lives on a monthly government pension equivalent to about $140—slightly less than the pension his wife, a retired teacher, receives.

Chien had asked me to deliver some photos I’d taken of him and his grandson that day at the museum. When I arrived at his home a week or so later, his demeanor had changed radically. Gone was his warm smile, replaced by a palpable edginess. He’d been instructed by local authorities, he said, to tell me nothing more. He directed me to the B-52 Victory Museum for any questions on missile operations during the war.

The Victory Museum, its main entrance flanked by a brace of camouflaged SA-2s, houses a hodgepodge of war-related photos and memorabilia, much of which has little to do with B-52s. The surrounding grounds afford a vast collection of artifacts that are significantly more on point. They tell the story of Hanoi’s attempt to defend itself using principally SA-2s against what U.S. military planners code-named Operation Linebacker II and what the Vietnamese refer to today as “Dien Bien Phu in the air”—comparing it to their decisive defeat of colonial French ground forces in 1954.

After peace talks stalled, the Nixon administration had ordered raids on Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor to the north. It was hoped that by unprecedented, concentrated bombing, North Vietnam would be forced to return to the bargaining table and negotiate an end to U.S. involvement in the war. More than 200 Strategic Air Command B-52s based on Guam and in Thailand were given the job, along with hundreds of supporting Air Force, Navy, and Marine warplanes whose crews jammed radar and attacked anti-aircraft gun positions.

For Phiet and his SA-2 crews, the start of the bombing campaign brought plenty of anxiety. “We all feared the B-52 at first because the U.S. said it was invincible,” he says. “But after the first night, we knew the B-52 could be destroyed just like any other aircraft. The U.S. said they wanted to bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age. This was a mistake. You cannot use power to destroy the will of the people.”

If American military planners erred in choreographing the 11-night bombing campaign, author Phil Chinnery wrote in Air War in Vietnam, it was at the outset, when bombers were assigned routes and altitudes that varied little from one wave to the next. The B-52s flew above 30,000 feet and attacked in-trail, with a mile or more between each airplane. As a result, SA-2 crews were able to plot the B-52s’ movements without having to turn on their radars, launching salvos of missiles in the general direction of the bomber stream with virtual impunity. In all, according to Chinnery, the North Vietnamese fired 1,242 missiles. Fifteen B-52s were destroyed (the North Vietnamese claim to have shot down 34), resulting in the deaths of 43 airmen. Another 49 Americans were captured. Vietnamese officials reported more than 1,600 civilians killed as a result of the bombings and some 2,000 homes destroyed.

Despite the casualties, many historians believe that Linebacker II was strategically successful. Damage to North Vietnam’s rail system, petroleum reserves, and electrical power production was extensive. Perhaps more significantly, the B-52 strikes had depleted Hanoi’s stock of SA-2s. With few missiles left to defend itself from high-altitude bombardment, North Vietnam within weeks negotiated a settlement that soon led to the end of U.S. involvement in South Vietnam.

One poignant reminder of that violent period can be seen today in tiny Huu Tiep Lake, northwest of downtown Hanoi. There, jutting prominently from water thick with green algae, rests a large piece of the landing gear from a B-52 felled by an SA-2 on the night of December 27, 1972.

Nguyen Hoai Giang, 34, who runs the B-52 Café across the street from the lake and whose father served as a pilot in the war, is well-versed in what that night was like. Plummeting wreckage from the stricken bomber killed four neighborhood residents in their beds, she says, and narrowly missed an ancient Buddhist pagoda, which still stands a block away.

“Times change,” I tell Giang as she serves me iced coffee on her café’s patio. “America and Vietnam are no longer enemies. Why not remove the wreckage from the lake?”

“It is important to save the image of war,” she replies in halting English, choosing her words carefully, “so that people do not forget.”

About a mile from the lake, outside the Vietnam Military History Museum, an SA-2 on a rusting launcher points skyward, a testament to a clash of arms and ideologies that ended before most of Vietnam’s 93 million citizens were even born. I watch on a warm autumn afternoon as a young father tries without success to get his rambunctious son and daughter to stand still so he can snap their photo in front of the missile. I’m reminded of Phiet’s response to a question I’d asked him when we’d met, about how significant a role he believed the SA-2 played in the outcome of the war. “The equipment was important,” Phiet told me, “but humans will always be more important.”

Where missiles once roared, the skies above Hanoi on this day are a tranquil, hazy blue. Standing outside the museum, I try to imagine what it all must have sounded like: the shriek of rockets, the terrible cacophony of exploding bombs, and falling warplanes. All I can hear, though, is the raucous laughter of children.

About David Freed

Contributing editor David Freed is a pilot, novelist, and former Los Angeles Times reporter.

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