The Christmas Bombing

In December 1972, B-52 bombers that North Vietnamese missile crews had been waiting for came to Hanoi. Night after night. Over virtually the same track.

A munitions specialist prepares a bomb to be used during Operation Linebacker over North Vietnam. (USAF)
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The missile crews had been alerted that the B-52s were inbound, and trucks in the missile sites had long since started up their noisy diesel engines to provide power to the radar and command vans, each about the size of an 18-wheeler. The un-air-conditioned command van was the heart of the SA-2 battalion. Inside the van were the battalion commander, a fire control officer, three guidance officers, a plotter, and a missile technical officer, who was responsible for monitoring the status panels of each of the six launchers and their missiles. The battalion commander was in phone contact with the regimental headquarters and sat in front of the radar scope of a Spoon Rest acquisition radar, where he watched the raids come in while waiting for orders assigning the battalion a target. Next to him was a transparent plotting board showing his battalion's area of responsibility, overlaid with the same grid references as the map at headquarters, and standing behind it was the plotter, also connected by phone to headquarters. When the battalion was assigned a target, the commander located the aircraft with the Spoon Rest search radar while the plotter tracked the raid manually on the plotting board; this process ensured that, if jamming prevented the battalion commander from locating the assigned target on his radar scope, he could watch the target's position and course on the plotting board and determine when he could began the engagement.

The fire control officer sat a few feet away on the commander's extreme right; in front of him was a Fan Song radar scope that he used to locate and track the target. In front of him the three guidance officers—each one responsible for one coordinate (elevation, azimuth, and range) of the missile—had radar scopes with large control wheels beneath them. The officers turned the wheels to keep crosshairs on the target's radar return.

The van was tightly sealed to keep out light so the operators could focus on their radar scopes, and the only sound other than the voices of the crew was that of loud cooling fans, necessary to control the temperature of the vacuum tubes in the relatively primitive electronics of the SA-2 system. "The background noise of the fans was not a big problem," recalls a battalion commander who asked not to be indentified. "It was quite noisy, but you got used to it. The tone of voice set the tone for the crew, and each battalion commander had his own style, based on his personality and how he trained his crew."

The first B-52s flying into North Vietnam that night were a group of 21 from U-Tapao, Thailand. The 28 B-52s from Andersen fell in behind, and the 49 bombers moved single file from the northwest corner of Vietnam down to the southeast toward Hanoi.

"As we turned eastbound out of Laos to enter North Vietnam for the bomb run," Bob Certain recalls in his memoir, "we were all focused on making this the best, most accurate mission we had ever flown. We would be in lethal range of SAMs [surface-to-air missiles] for about 20 minutes, but we couldn't be distracted by the threats. The radar navigator and I turned off our exterior radios so we could concentrate only on our checklists and crew coordination.

"We had been ordered to take no evasive action from the initial aiming point to the bomb release point. Those orders seemed to become increasingly suicidal as we heard multiple SAM calls from the B-52s from U-Tapao that had entered the target zone 30 minutes ahead of us."

The first SAM battalion to pick up the raid was the 57th Battalion, 261st Regiment, just north of the Red River. The 57th's commander, Nguyen Van Phiet, was a veteran. He had been defending against U.S. air strikes for five years, but he had never seen jamming like this. "All the radar returns were buried in the bright, white fog of the jamming," he recalls. "The screens of the fire control officer and the guidance officers showed many dark green stripes slanted together, changing at abnormal speeds, one strobe overriding and mixing with another, this strobe joining that one and splitting away. After that, hundreds and thousands of bright dots specked the screens like bunches of target blips moving sluggishly. With all that mass confusion coupled with a constant blinking on the radar scopes that looked like a downpour of rain, how were we expected to distinguish between fighter jamming and B-52 jamming, or which was EB-66 jamming and which was the passive chaff strewn across the sky by F-4s?"

Soon the buildings and ground in Hanoi and the surrounding area, including the vans of the missile battalions, began to tremble slightly as the first bombs hit the MiG bases at Hoa Loc and Phuc Yen. The North Vietnamese Air Defense Headquarters pressed the battle watch commander of the 261st:

"Have you seen the B-52s yet?"

"Have any units opened fire yet?"


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