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 next thing I knew, I was tumbling in the cold air of the stratosphere, thinking, ‘That was a dumb thing to do. I'll bet the plane was still flyable. Where is it? Maybe I can crawl back in.' A moment later, I felt the parachute opening. So far, so good.

"I checked for a good chute, then looked down for the first time. Between my boots, I saw the inferno that made up the three targets that we had hit over the last 20 minutes. As I watched, I saw a series of explosions walk though the target, another string of 27 bombs finding paydirt. Then, [just ahead on the ground] I caught another series of explosions—right in line with my drift. ‘Oh, God, now what?' There shouldn't be another target over there; that was our escape route. As I looked down, I realized that this fire was shaped like an arrow—our B-52 had plowed in flames into a village.

"Now panic was beginning to replace concern. Where were the #$%@& clouds that had covered the ground when I first bailed out? With the full moon I could see the ground clearly all around, and the white panels in the canopy and my white helmet were not going to be assets as I slowly descended to the ground no more than 10 kilometers north of Hanoi."

The North Vietnamese could see nothing through the heavy overcast, and it was several minutes before the Air Defense Command Headquarters received word that a B-52 had crashed on the outskirts of the city. A few minutes later calls began to come in about the capture of three B-52 crew members, including Bob Certain. Shortly after his capture, Certain was shown the body of his commander, Don Rissi, who had apparently died from wounds sustained during the SAM strike.

As the first raid moved away, the tension in the North Vietnamese command posts eased—they had absorbed the B-52 attack and had been able to strike back. Trucks from the missile battalions began to pick their ways through the muddy streets and burning buildings to warehouses where new missiles were waiting. Workers at the warehouses frantically assembled the missiles and loaded the finished weapons onto the trucks to carry back to the missile emplacements. Just before midnight, U.S. fighter and support aircraft once again appeared on the radar screens. Another B-52 strike was on its way.

On the ground in a Hanoi prison, Norb Gotner, one of the few U.S. air crewmen recovered from Laos and brought to North Vietnam, heard the air raid sirens, then the crackle of anti-aircraft fire and the roar of fighters in afterburner. He recently recalled that he "had been close to B-52s bombing in Laos, and recognized the first string when it went off. I remember commenting that the ‘BUFFs [nickname for B-52s] are here and that this would bring an end to this damn war.' There was no sound of incoming aircraft, and that made it more scary for the North Vietnamese. The deafening steady roar of the bomb string going off would roll down the streets and go through the cells. The concrete cells would sway back and forth as in an earthquake.

"We really didn't have windows (too big of a luxury) but we managed to cut away a small sliver of the wooded slats that covered the barred openings. It was like looking out of a keyhole. We could see the yard between cellblocks and a small piece of the night sky and we couldn't believe so many B-52s got shot down as we could see the hits and the flaming planes come down. The next morning the ground was covered with chaff."

The second wave of B-52s came in on the same route as the first, heading for many of the same targets. Peach 02, the second B-52 over a target that had been bombed by the first wave, dropped its bombs and immediately rolled into its post-target turn when it was hit by a missile. The pilot managed to drag the badly crippled bomber back to Thailand, where the crew bailed out safely.

Back at U-Tapao, Lieutenant Colonel John Yuill was leaving the third wave's briefing when the crews from the first wave came in. "They didn't say a word, but looking at their eyes I knew it must have been a bad day at the office," he said.

As the second wave withdrew to the south of the city, the commander of the 77th Battalion, Dinh The Van, discussed with his fire control officer, Nguyen Van Duc, how they might shoot down a B-52 using the automatic tracking function of the Fan Song guidance radar. While automatic tracking was very accurate, it was generally considered to be impossible to use when the target was jamming. One battalion commander later said, "No one dared think of [automatic tracking] when discussing the method of fighting the B-52s because it was too idealistic…. The three radar screens had been used automatically only in 1965 and '66…when there was no radar jamming and the enemy had not been so crafty."


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