A Furious Return to Downtown - Day Eight
Day Eight marked a return of massed strikes on targets in the high threat Hanoi area, and the most ambitious to date. For the first time in since Day One, over one hundred B-52s would fly into North Vietnamese airspace, 120 B-52 sorties were launched. But, this time there would be a major difference. On the first three days of bombing, the three waves were separated by three to four hours, this night from the time of the first bomb release to the time of the last release was to be just 15 minutes. This would also mark the return of flights over North Vietnam by G model aircraft, however, all Gs would be those with the Rivet Rambler ECM modification kit.
The target list was:
Target..........................................Aircraft.....TOT (Zulu).........Assigned Cells
Thai Nguyen Rail Yard (1)....B-52G..........1530 - 1545.........Opal, Lavender, Wine, Sable, Lemon, Walnut
Kinh No Complex (2)...............B-52D..........1530 - 1535.........Black, Ruby, Rainbow
Duc Noi Rail Yard (3)............B-52D..........1537 - 1545.........Indigo, Brown, Ash
Gia Lam Rail yards (4)...........B-52D.........1530 - 1536........Snow, Slate, Cream
Hanoi POL storage (5)...........B-52D.........1538 - 1545.........Lilac, Pinto, Cobalt
Giap Nhi Rail Yard (6)...........B-52D..........1530 - 1545.........Pink, White, Ivory, Yellow, Ebony, Smoke
VN 549 SAM Site (7)............B-52D..........1530.......................Rust
Van Dien Supply Point (8)....B-52D..........1532 - 1545.........Maroon, Amber, Silver, Red, Gold
Haiphong Rail Yard (9)..........B-52G..........1530 - 1542.........Paint, Brick, Grape, Purple, Copper
Transformer Station (10).......B-52G..........1530 - 1542.........Maple, Hazel, Aqua, Bronze, Violet
Due to the compression of aircraft, airspace and a desire to keep the North Vietnamese guessing, multiple ingress and egress routes were planed. It also called for the use of multiple flight levels which had, in the past, pretty much been limited to 36,000 feet.
Black cell would lead Ruby, Rainbow, Indigo, Brown and Ash cells in from the west, turn southeast and fly along Thud Ridge to their targets in a fairly straightforward manner. After the bomb run, they would turn to the northeast and exit along Snow cells ingress route.
Snow cell would lead Slate, Cream, Lilac, Pinto and Cobalt in from the east over Cam Pha, near the Chinese border, where they would separate into two diverging tracks until about 40 miles from the target then turn south and converge on the their two targets, a PTT to the northwest to avoid Pink cell then exit over Laos.
Pink cell would lead their stream in from Laos on almost a due north course then turn east toward Hanoi. After the bomb run they would turn 90 degrees to the south and exit on the same track Rust had taken inbound.
Rust cell would lead Maroon cell and the following cells north over Nam Dinh turn directly toward their intended target then execute a 90 degree PTT to avoid both Pink and Snow streams the southwest also exiting over Laos.
Paint cell would parallel Snow cell’s track to the south, and over Cam Pha turn towards Haiphong and after bomb release turn 90 degrees to the southeast to avoid Maple cell and exit “wet feet.” Maple cell would fly almost a reciprocal course to the Paint cell stream.
Opal cell’s stream would fly north from Thailand well to the west of the SAM coverage area, swing to the north of it and swoop down on Thai Nguyen. Post target they would reverse course and exit along their own ingress route.
The plan of attack kept the weaker B-52Gs from the high threat “downtown” Hanoi area.
Three F-111A strikes on Lang Lau rail yards, Bac Giang rail yards and Viet Tri storage complex would occur about an hour before the B-52 strikes and 15 minutes prior to the B-52 arrival 4 F-111A attacks on the airfields of Yen Bai, Kep, Hoa Lac and Phuc Yen. After B-52 bombers had left, three F-111A bomb runs would take place at Kep RR, Hanoi Radio and Bac Giang TSP to keep the enemy guessing about whether there would be more attacks that night.
Over 200 sorties were flown in support of the nights attacks. SAM suppression would be in the form of 9 F-105G, 4 F-4Cs and 5 F-4Es, 34 escort/CAP flights from F-4s and 23 F-4 chaff flights. A further 10 A-6 and 11 A-7 came from the Navy.
That afternoon about an hour before the B-52s at Andersen took off the Hanoi electrical transformer station was bombed by 32 Air Force A-7D using LORAN aiming. No results were observed.
At quarter after four (local, 0815Z) Andersen AFB was the site of the largest ever single B-52 launch in history took place. One hundred combat loaded B-52s* sat nose to tail along the taxi way (78 for the mission, plus 12 spares). The first B-52, B-52D-25-BW, serial number 55-0680, with Major Bill Stocker at the controls and Colonel James McCarthy, in the observer seat, as overall Airborne Commander (ABC), roared off the runway at 1618 local (0816Z) and at 90 second intervals, for the next two and a half hours, B-52 after B-52 followed it to join the long stream of aircraft heading west. To keep the runway at Andersen clear for uninterrupted takeoffs, aircraft experiencing problems were to divert to Agana Airport (the commercial airport for Guam) 60 miles to the south, This meant Agana airport, the only other concrete strip on the island capable of handling the BUFF, had to be kept clear of all traffic. One unfortunate Pan Am flight due in to Agana around 1600 requested landing instructions from Agana Approach Control only to be asked how much fuel he had on board, when he replied about 3-1/2 hours, he was told to remain in a holding pattern at 10,000 feet, 70 miles south of the island and expect a three hour delay, when the Pan Am flight asked why the delay, the response was: “for tactical considerations . . ."
At Kadena, the tanker support launch hit a snag when an inbound C-141 had a serious in-flight emergency this shut down the runway for about 20 minutes. The tanker support for Wave III was going to be about 15 minutes late. This threw the whole plan into jeopardy, not only from a tactical point of view, but since egress and ingress routes overlapped, mid-air collisions were highly likely. The mission might have to be scrubbed.
The ABC for Wave III, Maj Tom Lebar and his navigators, Maj Vern Amundson and Capt Jim Strain calculated that if the refuel point was moved closer to the inbound tankers and modified their routing they might be able to catch up with Wave I and II. Colonel McCarthy in Wave I instructed Lebar to make the attempt, but if they could not be in position by the time Wave I crossed the 17 parallel, the mission would be scrubbed. Just as Wave I began its turn north over the Gulf of Tonkin, Wave III joined up as scheduled. The mission was “GO”.
It took about 45 minutes for a B-52 to cross the coast/border, make their bomb run, and exist to safe country, either the Gulf or into Thailand. The NVN had used the previous day off to good effect and the SAM sites had loaded up with missile and were freely expending them this night. Once the entire force was committed to the attack, Col McCarthy had little to do, so he settled back in the jump seat and counted SAMs, he got to 26 before they started to come too fast to count. MiG activity was also abundant. In some cases MiG 21s would fly formation off the wing of a B-52 radioing altitude and heading information to SAM and AAA batteries, in others attempting to close within range to fire an Atoll missile, but breaking off went illuminated by a tail gunner’s radar.
Over Gaip Nhi, Ebony 02 was hit by a SAM and exploded almost immediately, the Radar Navigator, Navigator, Co-pilot, and Gunner escaped the aircraft and were captured, the pilot and EWO were killed. About two minutes later Ash 01 had a SAM explode over the right wing knocking out the outboard pair of engines and wounding the tail gunner, losing altitude and struggling to maintain control it headed for the coast. Ash 01 would make it to within a mile of U-Tapao, and while on the second attempt to set down on the runway, now with all four engines on the right side out, the damaged B-52 succumbed to its injuries, rolled over and crashed. The aircraft was too low for the downward ejection seats to be used so the entire crew elected to take their chances in the crash. The Pilot, Navigator, Radar Navigator, and Electronic Warfare Officer were killed, the Co-pilot** and Gunner were pulled from the wreckage moments before it exploded, both severely injured.
All in all, the mission was judged a success. Nineteen targets were bombed and 231 sorties flown, at a cost of two B-52s, and six lives.
Lt Col Donald A. Joiner
Maj Lawrence J. Marshal
Capt Robert J. Morris
Capt Roy T. Tabler
Capt James M. Turner
Capt Nutter J. Wimbrow III
*This would represent 2/3 of the total number of B-52s assigned to Andersen AFB at that time. Considering that Arc Light missions were still being supported, that is a truly outstanding readiness rate. One has to admire the dedication and effort of the men of the 303rd Consolidate Aircraft Maintenance Wing.
** On 11 September 2001, Robert Hymel, the Co-pilot of Ash 02, now a management analyst working at the Pentagon, was killed when AA Flight 77 was deliberately crashed into the building.