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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Once again the North Vietnamese watched incredulously as the B-52s flew the same routes to attack the same targets they had bombed eight hours before. Almost immediately a B-52 was hit in its post-target turn, but the pilot was able to fly the damaged aircraft to Laos, where all but one of the crew bailed out. Two more were shot down in the next 15 minutes.

At the U.S. Air Force fighter bases in Thailand, there was a new opinion of B-52 crews. For years, fighter pilots, who flew at low altitudes over heavily defended territory, had ridiculed the bomber crews for flying so high over un-

defended areas and never suffering combat losses. During Linebacker II, U.S. airmen watched the B-52 crews fly through a hail of SAMs, lose their crewmates, and go back night after night. From then on, the comments impugning the courage of the bomber crews stopped.

When word of the losses arrived at the B-52 base at U-Tapao, the 17th Air Division commander, Brigadier General Glenn Sullivan, decided he had had enough. "I called the operational commanders, Colonel Don Davis and Colonel Bill Brown, and told them to get a bunch of the experienced guys together as soon as they landed and give me some changes to go to SAC with," he recalls. "I was opposed to the single-file ‘bomber stream' concept, every night at the same altitude, and the other dumb tactics. These guys came up with a bunch of smart changes and put them in a message. Early that morning I signed the message out directly to General J.C. Meyer, CINCSAC, and sent an information copy to my boss at Eighth Air Force, General Jerry Johnson. I wanted it to get to SAC right away. Some of the people were afraid I would get in trouble for sending it to Meyer directly, but we had to do something."

The message had some effect. After seeing Sullivan's recommendations, the B-52 commanders in Guam followed with a message supporting his suggestions. The next night the post-target turns were drastically altered, but SAC still insisted the bombers use the same routes and single-file tactics to the target, and two bombers were shot down. Because of the losses, for the next three nights SAC directed raids on targets other than Hanoi. No raids were conducted on Christmas day. The night of the 26th, the B-52s went back to Hanoi, but the missions were planned by the Eighth Air Force using the ideas developed by General Sullivan and the combat crews.

It was about 10 o'clock on the night of December 26 when the North Vietnamese early warning radars detected the massing of escort forces that meant B-52s were on the way. The radar controllers watched a large B-52 raid moving up through Laos, but then another force of B-52s appeared coming in from the Gulf of Tonkin. The two B-52 raids bracketed the city and began to spread out around both Hanoi and Haiphong. Then, at almost the same time, over 110 B-52s turned inbound to their targets, attacking from all directions on the compass.

In 15 minutes it was over. The North Vietnamese controllers tried desperately to track the raids, but their manual system was overwhelmed as the B-52s swept in from different angles almost simultaneously. Additionally, instead of making their standard—and deadly—post-target turn, many of the B-52s continued straight ahead or delayed their turn until they were out of missile range. Missiles engaged most of the raids, but by the end of the attack only one B-52 had been shot down over Hanoi (another crashed at U-Tapao on landing). It was clear that the North Vietnamese defenses could no longer expect to shoot down large numbers of B-52s, and the next day, December 27, North Vietnamese negotiators told their U.S. counterparts that they would be willing to resume negotiations in Paris.

There were details to be worked out, and the raids on Hanoi continued. The night that the North Vietnamese agreed to return to Paris, 60 B-52s went back to the capital and two B-52s were lost, and on the nights of December 28 and 29, the B-52s raided without loss. Then, on December 30, because enough progress had been made, President Nixon ordered a final bombing halt, and by the end of January, the Paris Peace Agreement ended the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Thereafter both sides agreed that Linebacker II had been the critical battle, the battle that had ended the war, but that is where agreement stopped.

After I talked with the some of the missile crews and other veterans, the Vietnamese picture of the Christmas bombing slowly fell into place for me. The crux of the issue is that the United States and North Vietnamese leadership had different views of the purpose of the bombing campaign. For the United States, the Paris Peace Agreement fulfilled Nixon's aims—it brought the POWs home and enabled the nation to end its participation in the Vietnam War, with its credibility and its commitment to South Vietnam intact.


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