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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Thang tracked the movement of the jamming strobe on the scope, and once the return was stabilized, he gave the order to the three guidance officers to take over tracking the target manually, a task requiring extraordinary skill. In a 1982 Vietnamese newspaper article, Thang described the problems: "It is difficult enough to guide the missiles manually under normal conditions in which the targets are clearly seen. It is even more difficult looking at the silky crepe [jamming] of the B-52 aircraft on the radar screen. An uneven rotation or a mere jerky movement of the control wheel could cause the missiles to deviate from the target by thousands of meters or even detonate in the air."

As the B-52 approached, Thuan fired two missiles, and the guidance officers focused even more closely on their scopes and guidance wheels. Then, 24 seconds after the missiles had been launched, a light on the control panel flashed, indicating the first missile's proximity fuse had gone off, followed by the flash of a second light. The azimuth guidance officer, Nguyen Van Do, called out that he had lost the strobe, followed by the elevation guidance officer, Le Xuan Linh, reporting that the target's jamming strobe was rapidly losing altitude.

Bob Certain's B-52, Charcoal 01, had almost reached the assigned target. In his memoir, Certain describes what happened next in the lower deck of the B-52's crew compartment: "The radar navigator, Major Dick Johnson, and I had suppressed all emotion to concentrate on this critical phase of the mission. Fifteen seconds before bombs away, we opened the doors, and five seconds later I restarted my stopwatch as a backup to the drop should anything go wrong. Almost immediately, it did.

"The radar screens went blank and other instruments lost power. My first thought was that the copilot, Bobby Thomas, had accidentally knocked the generators off line. Before I could speak, though, Bobby was shouting over the intercom, ‘They got the Pilot! They got the Pilot!'

"The EW [electronic warfare officer], Captain Tom Simpson, was also shouting, ‘Is anybody there? Gunner, gunner!'

"I looked over my left shoulder and saw fire in the forward wheel well through the porthole in the door behind me. My first thought was of the twenty-seven 750-pound bombs in the bomb bay right behind the fire, and I turned to the RN [radar navigator] and yelled, ‘Drop those damn bombs!' He safetied them (we didn't know where they would land), and hit the release switch. They all seemed to drop away from our now-crippled B-52. My next thought was that the fire was also directly below the main mid-body fuel tank, loaded with 10,000 pounds of JP-4.

"Then aircraft commander Don Rissi's voice came weakly over the intercom. ‘Pilot's still alive.'

"Figuring it was time get out of here, I called, ‘Copilot, this is the Nav, escape heading is 290.'

"It was now about 10 seconds after the first of two SAMs hit the plane and I heard the call, ‘EW's leaving!' as Tom Simpson ejected. I heard the explosion of his hatch above me and the boom from his seat as it rocketed up and out, but felt no decompression. I looked at the RN. Our eyes met, and we both started preparing for ejection. I threw my flight case as far to the rear of the cockpit as I could, grabbed the ejection handle, looked at the RN again, and then turned to face forward. I saw the ejection light come on showing the pilot ejected, and pulled the handle. The seat failed.

"At least, that's what I thought. The ballistic activators were supposed to blow the hatch below my seat and fire me out of the bottom of the plane in one-tenth of a second, but I was so scared that the panels in front of me seemed to be barely moving at first, then to move up in slow motion.


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