[2.0] The B-52 In The Cold War

v1.0.8 / chapter 2 of 3 / 01 may 15 / greg goebel

* The B-52 became the backbone of SAC's strategic bomber force during the height of the Cold War, standing on alert to conduct "doomsday missions" if it came to that. With a hot war in Southeast Asia during the 1960s, however, the B-52 also ended up performing large numbers of conventional strikes, pounding enemy concentrations with massive firepower.

Boeing B-52 in Vietnam colors

[2.1] B-52 ON ALERT

[2.1] B-52 ON ALERT

* In service, crews called the B-52 the "Buff", for "Big Ugly Fat Fella" or something close to that, and also as a contraction of sorts of "B-Fifty-Two". The name "Stratofortress" was of course almost never used by the people who flew the beast. Well-known aviation writer Walter J. Boyne, who was an Air Force captain when he first encountered the B-52, gave a tidy pocket description of what it was like to fly the thing:


When you took off, the wings flew before the fuselage, so the flight surfaces had to be used while the wheels were still on the ground. The crosswind landing gear took some getting used to. You could be looking out the side window while landing. The control surfaces were small so you used trim a lot, and it had a stabilizer trim not found on the B-47. Visibility was better than the B-47. Side-by-side seating was a hell of a lot better.

It gave you a very good ride at altitude. The wings flexed. Turbulence was readily dampened. But at low level ... it was like being hammered. You'd really get thrown around in your harness. You'd get knocked around. The aeroplane responded to more than one gust variation at a time and hence was never in synch. If the B-47 was a truck, the B-52 was an eighteen-wheeler [tractor-trailer / articulated rig].

Put it this way: the Buff pounded along while the B-47 cleaved the air. The spoilers took some getting used to. It wasn't like having conventional aileron control.

The B-52 was not difficult to land. You had a lot of mass coming down of the sky for a reunion with the ground. When you were lined up, you didn't have any trouble landing on the spot where you intended. You did not want to land nosewheel-first because the aircraft could porpoise [bounce fore and aft]; that could ruin your whole day, but it was almost impossible to do. Normally the rear trucks landed first.


Up until the mid-1960s, the Buff served as the first line of America's strategic nuclear deterrent, providing a bridge between the B-47 and the arrival of the US strategic nuclear missile force. As mentioned, although the B-52 had been designed for high-altitude bombing, improved Soviet defenses forced the adoption of low-level tactics. Coming in "on the deck" helped evade Soviet SAMs, though at the expense of a rough ride that was hard on aircrews and airframes.

In October 1957, the Air Force implemented an "alert" strategy for the B-52 force. A third of the force, including both bombers and their supporting Boeing KC-135 tankers, was to be always available for takeoff on a live nuclear attack mission within 15 minutes. The aircraft were set up on standby in dedicated flightline alert facilities, known as "Christmas trees" for their branched layout. The facilities included "alert shacks" where the crews could reside, dashing to the aircraft when the alarm was sounded.

Air Force brass refused to comment on whether all B-52s on alert status were fully armed, though it is certain that at least a good proportion of them were. The standard nuclear weapon for the B-52 in the 1960s was the B28 fusion bomb. Four B28s could be carried on a "clip" that could be towed out to the flightline and quickly loaded into the B-52's bombbay. Two clips could be accommodated in the bombbay, but it appears that usually only one was loaded, with the remaining space taken up by Quail decoys.

B28 bomb clip at USAF Museum

The B-52 could also carry the more powerful "B41" and "B53" fusion bombs, with a yield roughly an order of magnitude greater than that of the B28, and the "B57", a tactical weapon with a yield in the range of about ten kilotons. These three weapons were introduced in the 1960s.

An upgrade program was conducted in 1963 and 1964 to fit the engines of a number of B-52s with pyrotechnic cartridge engine starters, the starters being fired off simultaneously to get all eight engines up to speed immediately, cutting the amount of time it took to get the bomber into the air. More B-52s were refitted with cartridge starters in a follow-on program a decade later. The aircraft would get into the air as fast as possible, one following another off the runway. Such "minimum-interval takeoff (MITO)" exercises were hazardous, since there was a danger of a disastrous pileup, greatly aggravated by the clouds of black smoke pouring from water-injected J57s fitted to all Buffs, except the B-52H, that reduced visibility to near-zero for all but the first aircraft in the stream.

* The alert system meant long and tedious work weeks; it was hard on marriages and family life. Much of the time on alert was spent reviewing mission plans and procedures, ensuring that paperwork was in order, plus occasional surprise practice alerts to keep the crews on their toes. Failure to follow proper procedures was punished severely. There was also the underlying tension that the crews were really preparing for the Apocalypse. Even if they survived their missions, their bases would very likely be incinerated, along with their homes and families.

The target list of the B-52 and other nuclear strike elements in the US arsenal was outlined by a series of ultra-secret "Strategic Integrated Options Plans (SIOPs)", which determined the order in which targets would be attacked and what platform would attack them. As the US strategic missile force was built up, the B-52 were increasingly assigned to mobile targets not easily targeted with missiles.

* SAC claimed to have achieved the one-third alert level by May 1960. In March 1961, US President John F. Kennedy raised the alert level to half the force, and SAC claimed this goal met in October 1961. In reality, it appears that some "imaginative accounting" was used to claim compliance, with the actual number of aircraft immediately available for combat falling well short of stated goals. Given the logistical difficulties involved, the alert system was still impressive.

In the spring of 1959, SAC leadership had proposed an extension of the ground alert system, the "airborne alert" system, in which a number of bombers were kept armed and in the air at all times. While SAC proposed that a sizeable percentage of the B-52 force be kept on airborne alert, in practice the expense and complexity of the scheme meant that only a handful of aircraft were assigned this duty. Formally, SAC described it as a "training effort" in this timeframe.

The airborne alert system was greatly expanded during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, with alert status raised to a "threshold of war" level. Bombers orbited outside of Soviet airspace, the crews prepared to attack the instant they received the order. After the crisis, the airborne alert force was reduced to a much more modest level, with about a dozen B-52s kept in the air with a load of nuclear weapons.

The "Dirty Dozen" stayed on patrol through most of the 1960s, but the scheme had serious liabilities. On 15 October 1959, a B-52F on airborne alert had collided with a Boeing KC-135 tanker over Kentucky and crashed with two nuclear weapons on board. The weapons were recovered intact and there was no release of radioactive materials. However, on 17 January 1966, a B-52G collided with a KC-135 in a similar accident over Palomeres in Spain. The resulting crash caused the rupture of two of the four bombs on board, leading to a troublesome environmental cleanup operation. Just as bad or worse, one the bombs disappeared into the ocean off the coast, leading to an intensive search to find it and make sure it was accounted for. The weapon was discovered on 15 March and finally recovered on 7 April.

The entire incident made the front pages over all the world, becoming a major embarrassment to the USA. The airborne alert system stayed in place for the moment, but in late January 1968, a B-52G crashed on the Greenland ice pack while trying to perform an emergency landing at Thule AFB. There was another release of radioactive materials and consequently a big cleanup effort.

That was the end of the airborne alert system; B-52s no longer flew with nuclear weapons as a regular practice, though nuclear-armed Buffs still stood by in the alert areas. By this time, the US strategic missile force was well up to strength, and the need to keep B-52s flying around, waiting to nuke the Reds on a moment's notice, was no longer as great. Other tools were available for that job.



* Although the primary mission of the B-52 was nuclear strike, it was also capable of conducting missions with conventional high-explosive bombs. In 1964, the Air Force decided to improve the B-52F's conventional bombing capability by modifying it to carry 12 standard 340 kilogram (750 pound) bombs on multiple ejector racks fitted to each Hound Dog pylon, along with the existing conventional warload of 27 bombs in the bombbay, for a total of 51 bombs.

The initial "South Bay" conventional bombing upgrade program was completed in 1964, with 28 B-52Fs refitted. It was followed by the similar "Sun Bath" program in 1965, which performed the upgrade on 46 more aircraft. The Sun Bath program was driven by immediate necessity, since the B-52F was now going to war in Southeast Asia.

* In response to attacks by Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communist) guerrillas on US forces in South Vietnam in early 1965, the US conducted a series of limited strikes on North Vietnam, codenamed FLAMING DART. A decision was made in February to transfer 30 B-52Fs to Anderson AFB on Guam, with 32 Boeing KC-135 tankers sent to Kadena AFB on Okinawa. From Kadena, the KC-135s would be able to meet the B-52s midway on strikes into Southeast Asia.

The bombers were held in reserve for several months while the politicians and the brass figured out what they wanted to do with them. The US State Department didn't want to use them against North Vietnam, since they regarded such a step as a major escalation of the conflict. There was also a worry that the loss of a B-52 from North Vietnamese air defenses would be a serious embarrassment for the United States. It also might persuade the American public that the "limited war" was spiraling out of control -- though in fact it was.

However, Army General William Westmoreland, the theater commander in South Vietnam, wanted to use B-52s immediately for carpet-bombing Viet Cong enclaves in South Vietnam. SAC brass didn't want to go along, being opposed to the use of the precious B-52s in the tactical role on principle. SAC was born and bred for the strategic mission, and diverting B-52s to support a brushfire war in the Far East was an annoying distraction. Westmoreland was a persistent man, and finally got his way. 46 more B-52Fs were transferred to Anderson in June 1965, with these aircraft upgraded by the Sun Bath program in great haste. The first B-52 bomb raid in Southeast Asia, codenamed ARC LIGHT, took place on 18 June 1965.

27 B-52Fs left Anderson to perform a tactical strike on a concentration of Viet Cong forces north of Saigon. The mission was a disaster. Two B-52Fs collided in midair, with both aircraft lost and eight of the twelve crewmen killed, while technical problems forced one Buff to return to base. The enemy had already left the area by the time the survivors dropped their bombs.

That was the only B-52 raid conducted in June. Five more ARC LIGHT raids, totaling 140 B-52F sorties, were conducted in July 1965, and five more, totaling 165 sorties, took place in August. Although no B-52s were lost in these ten actions, the Buffs were still ineffective. One of the problems was that ARC LIGHTs had to be approved by the White House. By the time a request had been sent from the tactical commander back to Washington DC, run through the approval process, then passed back to Anderson for execution, the enemy had usually moved on.

By late August, decision-making authority for ARC LIGHTs had been moved down slightly, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which simplified that issue a bit. More importantly, the Air Force had revised their tactics. Although large raids were still conducted with 30 or so Buffs, the tendency was now to commit them in smaller numbers -- eventually settling on three as more or less the norm -- and conduct raids on multiple locations simultaneously.

The B-52s also began to expand their area of operation, performing raids into Laos to pound the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which the enemy used to supply the war in South Vietnam. The first raid on Laos took place on 12 December 1965, with the number of strikes rising from that time. The raids were authorized by the US ambassador to Laos, William H. Sullivan, who became so fond of B-52 strikes that he acquired the nickname of "Arc Light Sullivan".

The raids were supposed to be secret, and in fact the government of Laos was neither told of the initial raids in advance, nor informed of them after they happened. The truth leaked out quickly; too many people were involved and the effects of the raids were hard to conceal, to put it mildly. However, the war in Laos remained a shadowy affair at the time, and still remains shadowy decades later.

The B-52Fs settled into a routine of conducting about 300 sorties a month. They were given a new paint scheme, with the white anti-flash paint on the undersurfaces repainted black to reduce visibility in night strikes. The natural-metal finish on the upper surfaces was retained. That was the first step towards the extinction of the pristine silver-and-white colors that had characterized the Buff in its first decade of USAF service.

The pattern of B-52 activities for most of the war had been set. The B-52 became a jungle fighter, dumping fire on enemy concentrations in the field. The Buffs did range into the southern region of North Vietnam, just above the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between South and North Vietnam, though the Air Force became more skittish about such actions after the enemy moved SAMs into the area. The North Vietnamese thought shooting down a B-52 would be a major propaganda victory, and really wanted to blast one out of the sky.

With the B-52s staying south, the "Downtown" areas around Hanoi and Haiphong were the turf of the Air Force's strike fighters, such as the Republic F-105 Thunderchief and later the F-4 Phantom, under the ROLLING THUNDER campaign. In other words, the Air Force was using tactical aircraft in a strategic role, and strategic aircraft in a tactical role. It was somehow consistent with the often backwards way the war was fought.

* The B-52F remained in combat service in Southeast Asia for less than a year, being replaced in March 1966 by the B-52D, which had been optimized for the role. Beginning in late 1965, all B-52Ds had been given the "high density bombing (HDB)" or "Big Belly" upgrade, which modified the aircraft to carry 84 225 kilogram (500 pound) or 42 340 kilogram (750 pound) bombs in the bombbay. The upgraded B-52Ds could also carry 24 340 kilogram bombs on the pylons, for a total maximum warload of an astounding 27,200 kilograms (60,000 pounds) of conventional bombs.

The B-52Ds also sported a new paint scheme, with the black underside as used on the B-52F, and the top surfaces painted in a disruptive jungle camouflage scheme with tan and two shades of green. About 42 B-52Ds were initially committed to the war, the number gradually rising to twice that number, with crews serving six-month combat tours. Aircrews from other B-52 variants were included in the rotation to make sure everyone got their fair share of combat.

The effectiveness of the B-52s was enhanced by the introduction of the "Combat Skyspot" bombing system, which greatly improved the accuracy of strikes. The B-52's own BNS was not very useful in Vietnam, since the targets were generally featureless jungle with little distinctive terrain or structures to mark them. Combat Skyspot involved the siting of a network of ground stations with AN/MSQ-77 or AN/MSQ-181 radar across the country. The ground stations would track them bombers, guide them to the precise target, and tell the crews when to release their warloads. Combat Skyspot allowed the B-52Ds to be used in battle areas where friendly forces were present, with greatly reduced risk of friendly-fire casualties.

Another improvement was the deployment of B-52s to U Tapao Royal Thai Air Base, the first bombers arriving on 10 April 1967. U Tapao meant a much shorter trip to the target area and back, and no need for tanker support except for backup. Initially U Tapao was used as a forward base; bombers would perform a raid from Anderson to land at U Tapao, conduct eight more raids out of Thailand, and then perform a final raid that would end back at Anderson. At that time, U Tapao lacked the facilities for really extensive service on the B-52s, and so any serious work had to be performed back at Anderson.

The B-52D also received new upgrades to improve its combat effectiveness, most significantly with the "Rivet Rambler" program, conducted from 1967 through 1969 to provide an improved ECM suite. Rivet Rambler, more officially referred to as the "Phase V ECM Fit", fitted the B-52Ds with the following gear:

* The Buff gradually became an important weapon in the war, providing a form of "flying artillery" that could dump overwhelming firepower, making a profound impression on the enemy. General Westmoreland commented: "We know, from talking to prisoners and defectors, that the enemy troops fear B-52s, tactical air, artillery, and armor ... in that order."

Three B-52s could level a swath miles long through the jungle, with the aircraft flying so high that the enemy had no idea they were under attack until the bombs began to hit. The shock of such concentrated high explosive was tremendous, with tales of scouts on the ground finding entire enemy units dead without a mark on them, simply killed by concussion. Survivors of such attacks were demoralized or shellshocked. The Buff would also ultimately take on the jungle tunnel complexes that frustrated the Americans for so long, carpeting them with heavy bombs fitted with delayed action fuzes. The bombs would bury themselves deeply into the ground and then detonate, caving in the tunnels.

However, the B-52 itself could not really do much to change the course of the war, since the Johnson Administration, hobbled by fears of a "wider war", failed to devise any effective military and political strategy to deal with the insurgency in Vietnam. The B-52 was devastating when targets could be found, but in many cases the enemy was elusive, and all the bombers accomplished was to level stretches of jungle and kill lots of monkeys.

It has been debated ever since whether there was any rational way to win the conflict. Optimists claim the often absurd "rules of engagement" for attacks on the enemy, imposed from the top by US President Johnson and his defense secretary Robert S. MacNamara, crippled the ability of US forces to fight. The Johnson Administration tried to fine-tune the war, selectively increasing the pressure to try to force the North Vietnamese to negotiate, while avoiding any major escalation. The result was clumsy micro-management directly from the White House, aggravated by MacNamara's intellectual contempt for the generals who reported to him, and Johnson's red-faced refusal to listen to bad news.

The ROLLING THUNDER campaign was a particularly vivid example of this policy, with American strike pilots seriously hobbled on what they could attack, and the strikes conducted in a sporadic and ineffective fashion until the Johnson Administration gave up on them in the fall of 1968, just ahead of presidential elections.

Pessimists point out the clear historical evidence, with the American Revolution as an example with strong parallels and very close to home, that it is very hard for a foreign power to deal with an insurgency in a distant country. The US was trying to prop up the South Vietnamese government, which was not effectual and not credible, and there was nothing that could be done to make it so. The matter is now academic, though the military did learn many hard lessons that they would put to good use later.



* One of the most important actions of the B-52 in the Vietnam War was during the siege of Khe Sanh in early 1968. The North Vietnamese surrounded an isolated US Marine outpost there and began conducting a methodical siege, building trenchworks that crept closer to the outpost while the two sides traded fire. Concentrated bombardments by B-52s, dropped with precision just outside the perimeter of the outpost, cratered out the North Vietnamese entrenchments and inflicted heavy casualties, forcing them to give up the siege. 2,548 B-52 sorties were flown under the appropriately-named Operation NIAGARA in support of the defense of Khe Sanh, dropping a total of 54,129 tonnes (59,542 tons) of bombs.

Raids were not only flown out of Anderson and U Tapao, but from Kadena in Okinawa, where B-52Ds had been sent to counter aggressive North Korean moves. The fact that Kadena was performing raids on Southeast Asia was kept secret to keep from inflaming Japanese public opinion. The Japanese had been on the receiving end of American heavy bomber strikes only a few decades before, and it took no great wisdom to realize they would find even passive involvement in such activities very disagreeable.

While the bombers were formally restricted from dropping their bombs any closer than a kilometer from the Khe Sanh base perimeter, the Marines lied to the aircrews and sometimes put them at 500 meters or even closer. When the enemy finally withdrew, Americans scouting out the abandoned North Vietnamese positions found a moonscape of craters with no trees standing, littered with hundreds of enemy dead.

* However, although the North Vietnamese suffered greatly at Khe Sanh, one of the goals of the siege was as a diversion, successfully distracting American attention from a buildup for an uprising across all of South Vietnam that began on Tet, the Vietnamese New Year's Day, in 1968. The Tet uprising was crushed and proved a tactical failure, but it would later be seen as a strategic victory for the Communists, since it destroyed the credibility of US military claims that the war was gradually being won. American public support for the war, which had been wavering, now began to fade away. Richard M. Nixon won the US presidential election in the fall of 1968, partly on promises that he would disengage the US from the conflict. The Nixon Administration pursued a policy of "Vietnamization", trying to build up South Vietnamese forces to fight for themselves, while pursuing diplomatic efforts led by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The B-52D force in the theatre was drawn down. In September 1970, B-52 combat operations were halted at Anderson and Kadena, with ARC LIGHTs continuing from U Tapao, the base having been built up to the status of a full-service facility for the Buffs. 42 of the bombers were operated from U Tapao, the same number that had been originally committed to the theater.

By this time, the Buffs were performing raids not only on South Vietnam and Laos, but on Cambodia as well. The Nixon Administration had approved this expansion of the war not long after entering office in the spring of 1969. The Cambodian effort would eventually turn out to be something of a fiasco. It is unclear how much damage was done to the enemy in their enclaves there, but it is perfectly clear that the raids did much to destabilize the Cambodian government, eventually leading to its downfall to the notoriously savage Khmer Rouge regime. Like the Laos raids, the raids on Cambodia were supposed to be secret -- but as with the Laos raids, it was impossible to really conceal them.



* The Vietnamization of the war was put to the test in the spring of 1972, when the North Vietnamese launched a full-scale offensive across the DMZ, supported by tanks and heavy artillery. By this time, the US was no longer in the forefront of the ground war, with South Vietnamese units taking the blows. However, America was still providing air power, and US combat planes flew vast numbers of strikes, smashing the North Vietnamese. Although there had been no campaign of strikes into North Vietnam since the end of ROLLING THUNDER, the Nixon Administration ordered a new air offensive, initially codenamed FREEDOM TRAIN and then becoming LINEBACKER, with relatively few restrictions on targets that could be hit.

The B-52 force in the region was built up to 206 aircraft, including B-52Gs, with Anderson back in the act to support the expanded bomber force. The Buffs conducted a limited number of strikes against North Vietnam as part of this campaign, though most of their sorties were on ARC LIGHT missions elsewhere. The North Vietnamese offensive was crushed, but the strikes on North Vietnam continued, only winding down in October, ahead of the US presidential elections. Richard Nixon was re-elected, and the attacks quickly ramped up again in November.

Now that the B-52 was confronted with SAM defenses, it was only a matter of time before the enemy got lucky. That finally happened on 22 November 1972, when a B-52D was damaged by an SA-2 SAM in a raid on Vinh, an important rail center in the southern part of North Vietnam. The bomber's pilot, Captain N.J. Ostrozny, managed to get the burning machine back to Thailand before the crew bailed out, leaving the Buff to crash. All the crew were recovered safely.

In the meantime, the Americans had been continuing negotiations to hopefully allow the US to withdraw from Vietnam in peace, and get back prisoners of war (POWs) rotting in North Vietnamese POW camps. The negotiations had been a frustrating, quarrelsome joke for years, and in late 1972 the Nixon Administration finally ran out of patience and ordered an all-out air offensive against North Vietnam. Nixon said privately, in characteristic style: "The bastards have never been bombed like they're going to be bombed this time!"

He meant every word of it. The raids began on 18 December 1972. Colonel James R. McCarthy, head of the 43rd Strategic Wing on Guam, briefed his crews that morning and started off with: "Gentlemen, your target for tonight is Hanoi." Everybody knew how well "Downtown" was defended, and McCarthy said that for the rest of the briefing "you could have heard a pin drop."

The new campaign, codenamed LINEBACKER II, involved very heavy attacks by almost every strike aircraft the US had in the theater, with the B-52 playing a prominent role. The initial plan scheduled attacks for three days. Along with heavy strikes by Air Force and Navy tactical aircraft, 48 Buffs went into battle on 18 December, with the crews under strict orders to fly straight and level on approach and not release bombs unless they were sure they were on the target. The brass didn't want reports showing up in the news media that they had bombed a hospital by mistake.

The Buffs were assisted by F-4 Phantoms laying down corridors of chaff and providing "BARCAP (barrier combat air patrol)" against North Vietnamese MiGs; Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star / College Eye radar aircraft tracking the comings and goings of enemy fighters; F-105 Thunderchiefs performing "Wild Weasel" attacks on SAM sites; and EB-66 Destroyer jamming aircraft blinding enemy radars and communications.

The countermeasures did not work as well as expected and B-52s began to fall from the sky, victims of vast numbers of SAMs launched against them. One of the aircrew, Lieutenant Colonel Hendsley Connor, described the scene:


I saw the SAMs as we came in closer to the target area. They made white streaks of light they climbed into the night sky. As they left the ground, they would move slowly, pick up speed as they climbed, and end their flight, finally, in a cascade of sparkles. There were so many of them it reminded me of a Fourth of July fireworks display -- a beautiful sight to watch if I hadn't known how lethal they could be.


Three B-52s were lost on the 18th. 93 Buffs flew raids on the 19th, with no losses, but the strike plan was basically the same as it had been the day before. The North Vietnamese rarely missed a trick and noticed the pattern. 99 B-52s flew strikes on 20 December, and the enemy was ready and waiting. Six Buffs were blown out of the sky.

B-52 crews had been getting increasingly frustrated with the predictable tactics, knowing they would lead to trouble sooner rather than later, and the result of the losses was an outburst of protest and anger. The crews were perfectly willing to fly combat missions, but they were not happy about dead-head military bureaucracy setting them up like ducks in a shooting gallery. The Air Force has never been very specific on what exactly happened, some sources claiming that they had a near-mutiny on their hands, but it is clear that the brass decided to sit down and work on getting the house in order.

The B-52G was taking a disproportionate share of the losses. The "wet wing" of the B-52G made it more vulnerable to battle damage, as did the fact that not all of the B-52Gs had the same level of countermeasures fit as the B-52D. This situation was made all the more ironic because the B-52G, with no capability of carrying bombs on its external pylons, could only carry about half the conventional bombload of the B-52D.

The B-52Gs were ordered to stand down for two days while fixes were hurriedly implemented. 30 B-52Ds out of U Tapao flew strikes on 21 December, but the results were still bad, with two bombers lost. The next night, the 22nd, 30 B-52Ds came back again, but this time their attacks were performed from unpredictable directions, and there were no losses. Strikes were made on SAM sites to help wear down the defenses for later.

The same approach, 30 bombers using unpredictable tactics, was repeated on the 23rd and 24th, once again with no losses. The raids were called off on Christmas Day as a good-will gesture, to which there was no response. The Air Force hadn't been expecting any different, having spent all of Christmas Day setting up an operation that would take advantage of all the lessons that had been learned in the campaign.

On 26 December, a total of 120 Buffs performed raids, with 113 reaching their targets nearly simultaneously, all dropping their bombs within a space of 15 minutes, overwhelming the defenses. Colonel McCarthy described the action:


The flak started coming up when we made our first landfall. We were most vividly aware of the heavy, black, ugly explosions of 100-millimeter shells, visible even at night. Since we were at a lower altitude that we'd flown before, our wave was more vulnerable to AAA [anti-aircraft artillery or "triple-A"] than on previous missions, and the closer we got to the initial point, the more intense it got.

Then the SAMs started coming. The missiles that had been tracking us lifted off and headed for the aircraft. Now that the whole force was committed and were on the bomb run, for the moment I had nothing to do, so I decided to count the SAMs launched against us. After 26 I quit counting. They were coming up too fast to keep an accurate tally. From the cockpit, it looked like they were barraging SAMs in order to make the lead element of the wave turn from its intended course. Some were close; some were too close for comfort.

About one hundred seconds prior to bombs away, the cockpit lit up like it was daylight. The light came from the rocket exhaust of a SAM that had come up right under our nose. The electronic warfare officer had reported an extremely strong signal, and he'd been right. That one looked like it missed by less than 15 meters.

At bombs away, it looked like we were right in the middle of a fireworks factory that was in the process of blowing up. The radio was completely saturated with SAM calls and MiG fighter warnings. As the bomb doors closed, several SAMs exploded nearby. Others could be seen arcing over and starting a descent, then detonating. If the proximity fuze didn't find a target, SA-2s were set to self-destruct at the end of a predetermined time interval.


Two B-52s were lost, but the North Vietnamese were beginning to run out of SAMs, and their air defenses were wobbly. 60 B-52s came back on the 27th, with two lost, but that was the last gasp of the defenders. 60 bombers hit again on the 28th, then on the 29th, with no losses on either night. The North Vietnamese agreed to negotiate on 29 December, and the B-52s stopped their strikes against North Vietnam.

* In 11 days of concentrated bombing, B-52s had performed 729 sorties and dropped 13,640 tonnes (15,000 tons) of bombs. The North Vietnamese claimed that almost 1,400 civilians were killed, though the fact that there weren't more was a testimony to the accuracy of the strikes, given the staggering amount of explosives dropped.

The campaign was expensive, and not merely in financial terms. 15 Buffs were lost, with 33 of their aircrew killed or missing in action. While the Air Force justifiably regarded the B-52 losses as severe, in one minor compensation North Vietnamese SAMs had hardly proven magical, with a kill ratio of only 2% to 3% of the number of SAMs fired. They had scored the kills by simply flooding the sky with SAMs, and the Soviets were not happy about the poor showing of their weapons. In another small compensation, North Vietnamese MiG interceptors proved completely ineffective at taking on the Buffs. According to US statistics, the MiGs scored no kills and two of them were claimed shot down by the "quad-fifties" in B-52 tail turrets. However, North Vietnamese records insist that two of the Buffs shot down were MiG kills.

Although the unrestricted bombing campaign was referred to by critics as "an attempt to pillage and burn the enemy to the conference table", LINEBACKER II, sometimes called the "Eleven-Day War", was in fact devastatingly successful in achieving its goals. Henry Kissinger contrasted the extremely uncooperative attitude of North Vietnamese negotiators before the raids with the great willingness to talk after them, and concluded: "These facts have to be analyzed by each person for himself." It is tempting to speculate that such a ruthless air campaign earlier in the war might have changed its course considerably -- but history isn't a controlled experiment, and speculation is all that it is.

A cease-fire was signed on 23 January 1973, with American POWs being flown out of Hanoi beginning on 18 March. However, the Buff's war was not quite over, with ARC LIGHT strikes on Laos continuing into April and on Cambodia into August.

For all the effort in establishing a peace treaty, it was no more than a face-saving gesture for the US, allowing the country to get troops and equipment out and bring American prisoners home. North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam again in the spring of 1975 and quickly conquered the country. Richard Nixon was no longer in office to witness this humiliation, having been forced to resign the previous August, in the shadow of impeachment over domestic political scandals.