Fifty years ago, 200 American B-52 bombers flew 730 sorties over 12 days. They dropped over 20,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam in what was considered the heaviest aerial bombing by the US since World War II, claiming nearly 1600 Vietnamese lives.
Just over a month before the operation, former US President Richard Nixon had secured a second term of presidency based on a promise to end the American involvement in the Vietnam War that had become very unpopular in the US.
The US had been fighting in Vietnam since 1965, and while the US was engaging in peace negotiations with the USSR and China-backed Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) as part of what was known as ‘Paris Peace Negotiations’ but those talks had suddenly fallen apart.
Nixon warned the North Vietnamese government of dangerous consequences if it did not return to the negotiating table and called upon the US Air Force (USAF) to save the situation, which it did so by conducting an 11-day strategic bombing campaign called Operation Linebacker II, which later came to be known by several names such as ‘The December Raids’ and ‘The Christmas Bombings.’
From the start, the USAF had advocated for such a strategic bombing in Vietnam, and the service finally had the chance to execute the strategy.
Until then, US air campaigns in Vietnam were limited to interdicting the overland routes by which North Vietnam was resupplying its forces and Viet Cong forces operating in South Vietnam.
However, Linebacker II was different, as it intended to destroy high-value targets such as vital military installations, railway lines, energy plants, factories, etc., to shake the Vietnamese “to their core,” in the words of the then US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger.
This is precisely what Russia has been trying to do in Ukraine since early October, through repeated missile and drone strikes against Ukraine’s energy grid and critical infrastructure.
“They’re going to be so god damned surprised,” US President Richard Nixon said to Kissinger on December 17, and the next day, 129 B-52s took off from Guam and Thailand to obliterate the Hanoi and Haiphong areas in North Vietnam.
The Formidable B-52s Vs. The Formidable S-75 Anti-Aircraft Missiles
The legendary B-52 Stratofortress has been a bastion of the USAF’s bomber fleet since it was first introduced in the 1950s during the height of the Cold War. Seventy-six B-52Hs are still in service, with another 12 in reserve storage.
Of late, the nearly 70-year-old bomber has begun to show signs of aging, but the USAF remains determined to continue to fly the B-52s for decades to come, and as part of that, the aircraft has been going through continuing reforms to stay viable.
This is because, despite its age, the B-52 remains the USAF’s leading strategic nuclear and conventional weapons platform. It can carry more weapons than any other USAF jet and fly long-range missions from bases in the Pacific.
The bomber can carry 32,000 kilograms of nuclear or conventional weapons and fly at high subsonic speeds at altitudes of up to 50,000 feet (15,166.6 meters), beyond the range of naked eyesight, making its attacks both physically and psychologically catastrophic.
“(Nixon) wanted maximum psychological impact on the North Vietnamese, and the B-52 was airpower’s best tool for the job,” TW Beagle wrote in his thesis, dated June 2000, submitted to the faculty of The School of Advanced Airpower Studies, Air University.
However, it was not going to be easy for these B-52s, as what awaited them were the formidable Soviet-made S-75 Dvina (NATO reporting name SA-2 Guideline) high-altitude air defense systems that could fire a 195-kilogram warhead up to altitudes of 30,000 meters at more than Mach 3 speed – 3 times the speed of sound.
North Vietnam had fielded around 26 S-75 surface-to-air missiles (SAM), of which 21 were employed in the Hanoi/Haiphong area, with a heavy concentration of anti-aircraft artillery and a complex, overlapping radar network.
Also, the radar network had secretly been improved by introducing a new fire-control radar (FCR) that is said to have improved the accuracy of the S-75 weapons.
The B-52 fleet employed in Operation Linebacker II comprised G and D models. All the D models were upgraded with the latest electronic countermeasures modifications, but only half of the G models had been modified until that time which mainly made them vulnerable to SAMs.
Also, the tactics employed by the B-52s had not changed much since World War II, which also proved fatal.
The Operation Linebacker II Commenced…
On December 18, 1972, 87 B-52s took off from the Andersen Air Force Base (AFB) in Guam. They were joined in the attack by 42 additional B-52s flying out of U Tapao Royal Thai Airfield, Thailand, marking the beginning of Linebacker II. This was the largest attacking bomber force assembled since WWII.
From Guam, the mission would run for about 12 hours, and it required in-flight refueling, while from U Tapao, it would take only about three to four hours without the requirement of in-flight refueling.
On the first night of Linebacker II, North Vietnamese forces reportedly fired 200 of S-75 surface-to-air missiles at the attacking B-52s, of which at least five were able to find their targets. Three B-52s were shot down, and two others were damaged.
“It almost felt like you could walk across the tips of those missiles in the sky; there were so many fired at you,” recalled one retired US airman, interviewed by CNN.
The airman said the flak was so bright that you could “read a newspaper in the cockpit.”
The disastrous losses of the B-52s on the first night of the campaign hurt the crews’ morale back at Guam and U Tapao, whereas, in Hanoi, it boosted the confidence of the North Vietnamese forces.
“We all feared the B-52 at first because the US said it was invincible,” Nguyen Van Phiet, a North Vietnamese missile gunner credited with downing four B-52s during Linebacker, told Smithsonian magazine in 2014. “But after the first night, we knew the B-52 could be destroyed just like any other aircraft,” he added.
On the second night, the B-52s performed better, with only two damaged and none lost, out of the total 93 that flew the mission. But by the third night, the North Vietnamese gunners had seen through the US tactics and knew them just as well as the B-52 crew.
The bombers would fly in long columns over predetermined tracks and, following the release of their payloads, make turns – involving the plane inclining, usually toward the inside of the turn – to return home.
While making these banked turns, their electronic jamming equipment would face skyward, leaving them vulnerable to SAMs.
“We were told for the last two minutes of the bomb run to stay straight and level, which means you are a sitting target,” said Wayne Wallingford, an electronic warfare officer based in U Tapao who flew on seven of the 11 raids B-52s undertook over Hanoi.
Wallingford further said that opening the doors to the bomber’s bomb bay increased its radar signature even further.
This meant the raids were “so predictable that any enemy would be able to knock you down kind of like the arcade at the carnival,” Ron Bartlett, another B-52 electronic warfare officer, told a Distinguished Flying Cross Society podcast.
On the third night, six B-52s were shot down. The burgeoning losses infuriated Nixon, who “raised holy hell about the fact that [the B-52s] kept going over the same targets at the same times,” according to Beagle.
Nixon feared that “a heavy loss of B52s—America’s mightiest war planes—would create the antithesis of the psychological impact [he] desired,” Beagle wrote in his thesis.
From the following night, the bombers were instructed to approach their targets from varying altitudes and directions and not to fly single file or over the targets they had just struck. Nevertheless, two B-52s were lost on the fourth night of the 30 bombers that flew.
On the following three nights – 5th, 6th, 7th – the USAF improvised on new tactics, making good use of their experience, and not a single B-52 was lost.
After that, the US bomber forces stood down on Christmas Day to give planners a chance to review events and provide the crews with some rest. In the final four days, only four B-52s were lost, two each on the 8th and 9th nights.
Death And Devastation On Both Sides
A total of fifteen B-52s were lost, with 33 airmen losing their lives.
Because the bombings were conducted at night, and the Bombers that made it back to base would land in darkness, the crew would not realize until the following day who among their colleagues had failed to return.
“You’d see the trailer next to yours with doors open on both ends and airmen loading (the occupant’s) personal belongings into a trunk to be shipped back to their families, so you knew that crew didn’t make it,” said Wallingford.
“It was pretty sobering to see that,” he said.
Over 12 days, that unpleasant ritual was performed 33 times.
The losses suffered by the USAF were unprecedented, and so was the devastation in Vietnam caused by the B-52s.
An estimated 1600 Vietnamese lost their lives in the bombings, of which 287 people were killed in one night alone in Kham Thien, an area in Hanoi, the majority of which were women, children, and elderly, according to the Vietnamese newspaper VN Express International.
An Agence France Presse journalist, who visited Kham Thien shortly after the US bombing, described a scene of “mass ruins … desolation and mourning.”
“On Kham Thien, some houses still stand, but many are without roofs or windows. Dozens of craters, some 12 yards in diameter and three yards deep, pockmark the area,” Jean Leclerc du Sablon wrote in a dispatch in The New York Times on December 29, 1972.
One survivor, in particular, caught his attention.
“On a pile of ruins, an old woman held her hands to her face and chanted hauntingly, in a near-religious tone: ‘Oh, my son, where are you now? May I find you to bury you? Americans, how savage you are.'”
According to Vietnam War historian Pierre Asselin’s book, ‘Vietnam’s American War: A History,’ “1600 military installations, miles of railway lines, hundreds of trucks and railway cars, eighty percent of electrical power plants, and countless factories and other structures were taken out of commission.”
Who Won The War?
Ten days following the end of Operation Linebacker II that is on January 8, 1973, the peace negotiations resumed, which culminated in the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on January 27 between the US government, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), as well as the Republic of South Vietnam (PRG) that represented South Vietnamese communists.
The accords marked the beginning of the end of the US involvement in the war.
However, both Washington and Hanoi claimed to have come out on top, with the former saying that Operation Linebreaker II brought the North Vietnamese back to the table for peace talks, whereas the latter portrayed it as a heroic act of resistance in which it took everything its enemy had and remained standing.
In Hanoi, “the story of the events of late December 1972 was a tale, not of massive loss and destruction, but of heroic resistance by Northerners,” wrote the historian Asselin.
Eventually, as it turned out, all Operation Linebacker II achieved was allowing the US a face-saving exit from the Vietnam war.
Three years down the line, with the majority of US forces out of Vietnam and the Communist forces largely replenished, Hanoi launched a large-scale invasion of South Vietnam which led to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
Therefore, several experts and historians doubt that the operation had any significant influence on the broader conflict, and all the death and destruction inflicted by the “Christmas Bombings” did not bear any gifts for the US strategically.