Nearing the end
America's role in the Vietnam War was winding down by 1972. U.S. military manpower, which had peaked at 543,400 in April 1968, had dropped to 184,000 by the end of 1971, and the ground war was almost exclusively the responsibility of South Vietnam. Peace talks in Paris between the United States and North Vietnam that had begun in 1968 were close to reaching an agreement in October 1972, and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger announced that “peace is at hand.” South Vietnam objected to the terms, however, and the North broke away from the talks in December.
SAC clears path
Reacting to North Vietnam's move, President Richard Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker II to begin Dec. 18. The bombing operation, directed from Strategic Air Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, targeted transportation, power and defense facilities in North Vietnam.
Dennis Ryder of Omaha, one of the B-52 pilots who took part, said he will never forget the chilling words of his commander, Brig. Gen. James R. “Russ” McCarthy: “Gentlemen, your target tonight is Hanoi.”
“Our hope was that he was going to tell us the war was over,” Ryder recalled years later. “I felt like someone had hit me in the chest with a sledgehammer.”
The bombing took a break on Christmas but resumed the next day with a raid that broke the back of the North Vietnamese air defense.
Operation Linebacker II had become the largest bombing raid since World War II by the time Nixon ended it Dec. 29.
On Dec. 30, the North Vietnamese government requested a resumption of truce negotiations.
Twenty-seven B-52s were lost in the operation, and 33 crew members died. McCarthy, who flew during the operation, compared piloting a B-52 to driving a Mack truck without power brakes or power steering.
The main menace to the lumbering aircraft was the barrage of surface-to-air missiles. Electronics warfare officers on each plane tried to jam the tracking devices of the missiles, causing them to go off course.
Retired Lt. Gen. Andrew B. Anderson Jr., who later became SAC chief of staff and then deputy executive director of the Air Force Association, commanded the Guam-based 57th Air Division (Provisional) during the operation.
“The thing I remember most was ... reading off the tail numbers as the aircraft returned from their missions,” he recalled. “It was terribly emotional when numbers were missing, when they didn't show up.”
Did the bombing end too soon?
“As far as I'm concerned, we stopped at the wrong time,” Anderson said years later. He argued that the North Vietnamese were out of air-defense missiles. “Just as we were close to substantial victory, we stopped.”
Nixon had ended the bombing, in part, because of fears that China would enter the war, and McCarthy said he didn't totally blame him. “It took a lot of guts by the president to order the bombing” in the first place, he said.
The peace accord was signed Jan. 27, 1973, in Paris. The United States was finished with the fighting in Vietnam and began its withdrawal with the cease-fire in place. More than 500 American prisoners of war were released beginning in February 1973. Bombing was not officially halted in Cambodia until August, after congressional hearings revealed the extent of U.S. involvement there. Both the North and South Vietnamese disregarded the provisions of the Paris accord, but the South could no longer count on U.S. backing. Less than 2½ years after the accord was signed, the communist North conquered South Vietnam. The war cost more than 58,000 U.S. lives.
Sources: World-Herald archives, “The Air War in Southeast Asia” (Herman L. Glister/Air University Press)
Operation Linebacker II
Linebacker II operations against Hanoi and Haiphong in 1972 are associated in popular memory almost exclusively with B-52s, but other planes flew nearly half the Air Force sorties. Sorties from Dec. 18 to 29, 1972:
Targets as a percentage of total sorties flown over North Vietnam:
Source: "The Air War in Southeast Asia" (Herman L. Glister/Air University Press)
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