The VVA Veteran® Online

January/February 2014

Linebacker II: Dien Bien Phu in the Air

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Vietnamese and Americans lack a common vocabulary for discussing years of shared war. Americans call it “the Vietnam War”; the Vietnamese call it “the American War.”
Americans call the December 1972 bombing of North Vietnam the “Christmas Bombing.” But the word “Christmas” has little meaning in Vietnam, a largely Buddhist nation where Christmas and Buddha’s birthday are both workdays.

Some American sources refer instead to “Eleven Days,” perhaps reflecting the twelve-hour difference between Washington and Hanoi. However, B-52 bombs shattered North Vietnam at night. While B-52 pilots had a holiday for Christmas, other American planes continued their assaults. Hanoi was in rubble and flames: Vietnamese remained on twenty-four-hour alert. That’s why the Vietnamese call it “Twelve Days and Nights.”

“Linebacker II” is problematic as common vocabulary, since football is hardly known in Vietnam. Likewise, for most Americans, the Vietnamese term “Dien Bien Phu in the Air” is all but meaningless.

The Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 essentially ended the French War and sounded the death knell for colonialism. Although the Vietnamese had Chinese advisors, that battle’s leadership came from President Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the modern Vietnamese state, and from Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, founding commander of the Vietnamese People’s Army—known in the U.S. as the North Vietnamese Army or NVA.

On December 27, 1972, Gen. Giap called for “Dien Bien Phu in the firmament over Hanoi.” The battle’s Vietnamese name soon became “Dien Bien Phu in the Air.”

Roots of Defense

It’s intriguing that Vietnam, a desperately poor country with an army less than thirty years old, could defend itself against B-52s. Greater understanding may come from examining the roots of the Vietnamese defense.

Vietnam’s two-thousand-year history of fighting invaders has a tradition of “people’s war,” perhaps best expressed by poet-strategist Nguyen Trai in 1428:

Our people from all four directions form one family, thrusting our flag aloft,

Our officers and troops, like fathers and sons, share river water and sweet wine.

While Americans might begin their version of the Christmas Bombing in 1972, Vietnamese start their story a decade earlier. Like much in modern Vietnamese history, the account of Dien Bien Phu in the Air begins with references to Ho Chi Minh, even though he had been dead for three years.

In 1962 Phung The Tai, who had just been chosen as Air Defense commander, had a congratulatory meeting with Ho. Tai had been deputy commander of the 320th Infantry Division and commander of the 349th Artillery Division. In 1939 he’d been the president’s first bodyguard.

Ho congratulated him, saying, “Once, you were my bodyguard. Now, you guard the firmament over our Homeland.” Toward the end of the meeting, Ho asked, “Tai, have you heard of B-52s?”

“I was stupefied,” Gen. Tai recalled. “I didn’t know what Uncle was talking about.”

Ho said: “Our current anti-aircraft can’t touch B-52s. They fly too high. Starting now, as Air Defense commander, you must concentrate on B-52s.”

In October 1963 the People’s Army combined two services into the Air Defense-Air Force, with Tai as commander and Dang Tinh as political commissar. The Vietnamese army had dual leadership, with the commander covering strategy and tactics, and the political commissar in charge of ideology and motivation. Dang Tinh had commanded the Air Force with several transport planes but no MiGs, although a newly formed MiG-17 regiment was training in the Soviet Union.

On August 5, 1964, the Air Defense shot down eight planes during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. At a celebration afterward, Ho said: “If the American imperialists and their lackeys come to the North, then all our people will be determined to defeat them. Whenever the enemy arrives, you must fight. Whenever you fight, you must win. Each person must do the work of two. This time, you shot down eight aircraft. Next time, double eight to sixteen. The third time, triple it to twenty-four.”

The Soviet Politburo decided on November 17, 1964, to increase military aid to the North Vietnamese, which made greater defense possible. Despite the Soviet policy of instructing missile crewmen only in Soviet training centers, at Ho’s request Soviet advisors traveled to Vietnam to provide training.

On April 3, 1965, Vietnamese MiG-17 pilots shot down two F-8Us near Dragon’s Jaw Bridge on Route 1. Villagers took two American pilots into captivity.

“You must not be drunk with the arrogance of victory,” Ho counseled.

“At the time,” Tai said, “I didn’t understand Uncle’s advice.”

The next day Tai sent four fighter pilots against twenty-four American planes. His planes downed two more U.S. aircraft. Exultant, he was about to telephone President Ho when he heard that he had lost three MiGs and the pilots, with the fourth pilot landing his MiG in Laos. Phung The Tai and Dang Tinh met with the president.

“The pilots were willing to sacrifice,” Ho Chi Minh said. “But people who are generals must know how to save every drop of their warriors’ blood.” He paused, then added: “For the first time, our nation has risen from the mud to the sky to fight invaders. You must never again get drunk with victory. Tomorrow, Giap will meet directly with your troops. Tai, you must prepare a totally truthful report about the two battles’ strengths and weaknesses. We already know the strengths. Enough about that. You must ferret out weaknesses, especially weaknesses in senior leadership.”

The North Vietnamese were not surprised on June 18, 1965, when the first thirty B-52s from Guam struck South Vietnam, carpet-bombing bases fifty kilometers from Saigon. Details soon reached Hanoi. North Vietnam’s SAM-2 missile regiment was still in training.

The next day Ho visited a missile unit, where he presented the five points that became basic political instruction: “First, enhance your determination. If you’re determined, you can do anything. Second, these warheads are expensive. Concentrate so your first strike hits your target. Third, constantly draw lessons from experience. Fourth, in every battle, use all available resources for the best response. Fifth, maintain unity. Everyone wants to say he downed an airplane, yet no one claims failures. That’s not right. Achievements should be shared. Assigning blame to others is individualism.”

A week later, on June 26, the Vietnamese shot down a BQM-34A drone and another on February 13, 1966. When troops brought a drone to headquarters for scrutiny, Ho said: “Sooner or later, B-52s will strike Hanoi. This BQM-34A flies very high, yet you shot it down. You can shoot down B-52s.”

On April 12, 1966, B-52s struck Vinh Linh north of the DMZ. On their own initiative, Vinh Linh villagers, who’d already suffered from heavy U.S. bombing, had secretly dug tunnels three stories underground. As soon as B-52s struck Vinh Linh, Phung The Tai suggested to Ho that the newly trained 238th Missile Regiment practice in Vinh Linh, where it would have citizen support and B-52 targets.

Three months later, on July 13, Ho Chi Minh arrived unannounced at a missile unit near Tram Pagoda. As was his custom, he checked the latrines, the barracks, and the kitchen before meeting troops. He stayed for lunch, and then, to much surprise, he settled in for the afternoon.

Ho wanted to absorb the missile warriors’ ambiance while he wrote a major radio address, in which he said: “The war may last five years, ten years, twenty years, or longer. Hanoi, Haiphong, and industrial cities may be destroyed. But the Vietnamese people are determined that they will not be afraid. Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.”

The Air Force commanders may not have been afraid, but they were worried. They’d been awaiting news of a B-52 downed at Vinh Linh. Days passed; months passed. The leaders’ discussions grew more intense. The days of “failure” approached three hundred.

Ho sent Dang Tinh to Vinh Linh. He returned to recommend senior officers be stationed at the DMZ. Deputy Missile Defense Commander Hoang Van Khanh left with a team right away. On September 17, 1967, within weeks of the team’s arrival, the regiment shot down its first B-52. Khanh returned to Hanoi in late 1967 with twenty-three pages of diagrams and handwritten notes about B-52 flight patterns and jamming.

Phung The Tai had been shifted to army deputy chief-of-staff, with Dang Tinh serving as both Air Defense and Air Force commander and political commissar. Tai remembers meeting with Ho before Tet 1968.

“Sooner or later,” Ho told him, “the American imperialists will send their B-52s to strike Hanoi. Only when we have defeated the Americans in that battle will the United States accept defeat.”

“Once again,” Tai said, “I was stupefied.”

Drafting a Plan

Phung The Tai stayed up all night, scrutinizing maps to determine likely B-52 routes to bomb Hanoi. The next morning he called in his senior colleagues. They drafted a defense plan, which predicted five B-52 approaches to Hanoi, with the primary approach from the northwest. Indeed, in 1972, 70 percent of the approaches to Hanoi came from the northwest, with 30 percent from the other four predicted routes. The forecasts for the two approaches to Haiphong were 100 percent accurate.
On January 1, 1969, Ho Chi Minh set out the overall strategy for ending the war in his New Year’s poem. Vietnamese veterans can all recite the poem’s fourth line: “Fight so the Americans leave, fight so the quislings collapse.”

By then, Vu Xuan Vinh had combined the twenty-three pages of notes from the DMZ with other data into The Missile Soldiers’ Method for Striking B-52s, a thirty-page mimeographed manual with a red cover, which became The Red Handbook. Many years later Gen. Vinh was head of international relations for the Vietnam Veterans Association. As its president, he hosted several Veterans Initiative delegations from Vietnam Veterans of America.

By the end of 1972, fifteen anti-aircraft regiments covered the predicted approaches from Thailand through the northwest to Hanoi and from Guam and the Philippines to Hanoi and Haiphong. In addition, Hanoi’s local self-defense forces had four platoons with 100mm anti-aircraft guns and nearly two hundred local sites with shorter-range weapons. The Air Force had several MiG-21 regiments but lacked trained pilots.

Information from thirty radar stations arrived at Hanoi’s Combat Operations Bunker. Staff recorded invading airplanes’ coordinates on a huge Plexiglas map with the recorders on one side and the commanders on the other. The map on the recorders’ side was reversed, left to right. The recorders tracked American sorties in red, Vietnamese MiGs in blue. The officers facing them could follow the changes and plan their defense.

B-52s did not strike alone. During daylight F-111s, F-105s, F-4s, and A-6s used “snake” maneuvers to destroy the airstrips, radar, anti-aircraft, and missile launchers that U.S. reconnaissance planes had mapped. The Americans flew the B-52s only at night, with F-4s providing cover. The Vietnamese say successive B-52 detachments flew only a minute or two apart and left their navigation lights on. The B-52s always reversed direction immediately after dropping their loads. The pilots’ predictable 180° turns created their greatest vulnerability.

Despite all the preparations, Hanoi remained vulnerable. On December 18 Nguyen Van Ninh commanded the Combat Operations Bunker. In early 1965 he’d overseen Hanoi’s evacuation of children and non-essential workers. “By 1972,” he said, “the Americans had been bombing Hanoi for years. Everyone still in the city had access to three bunkers—at home, at work, and en route. We lined our sidewalks with individual concrete manholes large enough for someone hunkering inside. We made the lids from tightly twisted rice straw, which we usually burn for fertilizer. Our loudspeakers announced approaching sorties’ decreasing distances. Our people were safe unless directly hit.

“The afternoon of December 18,” he said, “Phung The Tai told me he was leaving for the airport. That meant Le Duc Tho was arriving from stalled talks in Paris. That’s how I knew B-52s were coming, even before our intelligence alert.” With both hands, Nguyen Van Ninh patted his shoulders. “As commander of the Operations Bunker, I knew our response was on my shoulders. I knew many people would die.”

Professor Phat remembers the early radar warnings about the first B-52s. But the B-52s nearing Hanoi spread chaff. “Our radar was useless,” he said. “We couldn’t aim. But soldiers in the 59th Battalion, 261st Regiment were savvy. They’d noticed the navigational lights on the first sortie of B-52s. When the second sortie arrived, the 59th trained artillery binoculars, which have a ten-kilometer range, on the running lights. That battalion downed the only B-52 taken out the first night. The next night, other battalions followed its example and shot down three B-52s.”

Gen. Giap ordered his men to harvest electronic equipment and documents from downed planes. Villagers gave Giap’s younger son, who’d been evacuated, a book with bombing orders and coordinates of missile and anti-aircraft sites. The book had been stamped, “Secret. Strategic Air Command. Eyes only. Department of Defense.” Giap added, “Except for Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense,” then passed the documents to his staff.

Reports of Giap’s Death

By day, Vietnamese political and military leaders visited defense units and devastated communities. Giap was traveling by Jeep on the Day River Dike when several U.S. air-to-surface missiles landed nearby. Western media reported Giap’s death from a B-52. Leaders of socialist countries inquired at Vietnamese embassies, and political prisoners in South Vietnam held secret memorial services. In fact, Giap had ducked into a ditch.

Several days later, on December 22 (the anniversary of establishing the People’s Army), Voice of Vietnam recorded Giap’s remarks in his office. Army staff added an applause track as if Giap had spoken before a huge audience during the bombing.

U.S. bombing silenced Voice of Vietnam Radio, but within minutes an alternate VOV station went on the air. Visitors to Hanoi still can see the damaged 500-watt speaker in front of VOV’s headquarters.

For the Vietnamese, the biggest prize was a “double strike”—a downed aircraft and a captured pilot. Some wounded pilots say they were tortured because the Vietnamese denied them medical treatment until late the next night. Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan, a surgeon retired from Hanoi’s prestigious 108 Military Hospital, tells a different story.

“I wasn’t afraid of bombs,” she said. “We’d continue our surgery. I wasn’t afraid of Americans. As doctors, we’d had lectures in humanitarian principles before we studied medicine. We took a doctor’s oath. The pilots were patients. What did I fear? Our soldiers. We had few pain-relieving drugs. Rescue units would bring Americans in at 02:00, when we hoped our wounded would be asleep. We worried our soldiers would awaken and attack the wounded Americans. Those Vietnamese patients were under my command. I’m a colonel. I worried I couldn’t control my troops.”

The greatest Vietnamese loss in a single air strike came on Christmas Eve in Thai Nguyen Province. A bomb hit the 915th Bac Thai Company of Volunteer Youth. Most were young women ages sixteen to eighteen. Volunteer Youth repaired roads and bridges and handled supply and liaison. A bomb struck the unit’s bunker, killing sixty.

Vietnamese honor the death anniversary of loved ones. Year after year, between December 18 and 30 and for days afterwards, in households across northern Vietnam, Vietnamese hold ceremonies to honor loved ones killed during Dien Bien Phu in the Air.

Not surprisingly, the Vietnamese claimed victory, as did the Americans. After the bombing stopped, the U.S. and North Vietnam returned to private talks in Paris. Within days the two sides agreed to essentially the same document as the October draft, initialing the agreement on January 23, 1973, and signing it on January 27. With that formality, the Vietnamese finalized the first step—“Fight so the Americans leave”—of the two-stage strategy Ho had promulgated on New Year’s Day 1969.

Lady Borton is a journalist-author and activist who has lived and worked in Vietnam for many years. Her books include After Sorrow: An American Among the Vietnamese.

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