B-52Gs at Andersen AFB during Linebacker II 1972
U.S. air campaign to close an important North Vietnamese port. North Vietnam relied on the Soviet Union, China, and other communist countries for war materials, all of which had to be imported, mostly by sea. By 1971, because of the Sino-Soviet rift and the warming relations between the United States and China, 85 percent of all military supplies entered North Vietnam through Haiphong Harbor.
Haiphong is located 10 miles north of the Gulf of Tonkin at the mouth of the Red River, the silt of which would close access were it not for dredges. As a kind of metaphor for the air war, these dredges were off-limits to U. S. bombing throughout the war. From 1964, the Joint Chiefs of Staff called for mining of the harbor, but the White House ruled that out for two reasons. First, President Lyndon Johnson feared that a mistakenly sunken Soviet merchant ship might lead to World War III. Second, Britain, France, and other U. S. allies traded with North Vietnam, and their ships regularly visited Haiphong Harbor.
Due to interservice rivalries between the U. S. Air Force and Navy, North Vietnam was divided into a system of route packages (known as “route packs”) to evenly portion out the bombing. Haiphong was in Route Pack 6b and reserved primarily for naval air action, although Air Force sorties were sometimes targeted there. In June 1967, Air Force F-105s flying over the Cam Pha Peninsula north of Haiphong strafed the Turkestan, a Soviet freighter. The local USAF wing commander tried to cover up the incident and Washington denied that it had happened, but when Premier Alexei Kosygin presented President Johnson a 20mm slug with U. S. markings on it at the Glassboro, New Jersey, summit in July, denial turned to embarrassment.
Haiphong became fair game during Operation LINEBACKER. On 8 May 1972, as a part of a concerted air effort aimed at stemming North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive, President Richard Nixon ordered Haiphong and the port at Dong Ha closed by mining. During his televised address on the evening of 8 May, Nixon announced that as he was speaking A-7 Corsairs and A-6 Intruders were sowing acoustical and magnetic mines across the harbor entrance. He gave shipping 72 hours to vacate the harbor, and then the mines would be activated. After 11 May, the harbor remained closed until the Navy started clearing the mines away on 5 February 1973, after the Paris Peace Accords brought an end to U. S. involvement in the war.
Like Hanoi, Haiphong suffered very little damage from U. S. bombing during either ROLLING THUNDER or the two LINEBACKER operations. For most of the war, the docking facilities and storage areas around the harbor were rarely targeted because of fear of collateral damage to Soviet or allied merchant vessels. But the closing of Haiphong Harbor during the critical days of the Easter Offensive of 1972 probably did more to turn the war in the favor of the United States than any other single operation. This one act effectively denied the North Vietnamese Army the supplies it needed to sustain a 14-division offensive inside South Vietnam. Given the increased pace of U. S. bombing along the infiltration corridors, and the stiff resistance offered by a better-trained and better-led Army of the Republic of South Vietnam, North Vietnam’s big offensive was made to pay a price it could not afford.
LINEBACKER II (1972)
Code name for the operation that came to be known as the so-called Christmas bombings-intense bombing campaign against North Vietnam in late 1972 to coerce the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table. When North Vietnamese negotiators walked away from the Paris peace talks in December 1972, U. S. President Richard Nixon issued an ultimatum for them to return to the talks “or else.” The North Vietnamese rejected Nixon’s demand, and the president ordered an all-out air campaign against the Hanoi- Haiphong area to force an agreement on a cease-fire. This operation involved the concentrated use of B-52 strategic bombers supported by Air Force fighter-bombers flying from bases in Thailand and Navy fighter-bombers flying from carriers in the South China Sea. During the intensive air campaign, 700 B-52 and 1,000 fighter-bomber sorties were flown against targets near Hanoi and Haiphong, dropping 20,000 tons of ordnance on airfields, petroleum storage facilities, warehouse complexes, and railroad marshalling yards.
During the LINEBACKER II raids, the North Vietnamese fired more than 1,000 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) at the attacking aircraft and deployed MiG fighter-interceptor squadrons. Eight MiGs were shot down, two by B-52 tailgunners. U. S. losses were 26 aircraft shot down, including 15 B-52s. Three aircraft were downed by MiGs; the rest, including the B-52s, were downed by SAMs. Nine were shot down during the first three days of the operation, causing a change in tactics that had more favorable results.
US. antiwar activists labeled the LINEBACKER II raids the “Christmas bombings,” and the charge was made that it involved carpet-bombing-the deliberate targeting of civilian areas with widespread bombing designed to completely cover a city with bombs. However, the bombing was targeted against military targets; 1,318 died in Hanoi and 305 in Haiphong.
By 26 December, the Christmas bombing had inflicted heavy damage on all assigned targets. With its air defenses in shambles and most military targets destroyed, Hanoi was virtually defenseless, and on 26 December the North Vietnamese agreed to resume negotiations. LINEBACKER II ended on 29 December. The Paris Peace Accords were signed less than a month later on 23 January 1973.
Some airpower advocates point to LINEBACKER II as evidence that the war could have been won by airpower alone, but this argument neglects the fact that Nixon’s policy aims in 1972 were much more modest compared to Lyndon Johnson’s in 1965-1968.
References Momyer, William. Airpower in Three Wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1978. Morrocco, John. The Vietnam Experience: Rain of Fire-The Air War, 1969-1973. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1984. Tilford, Earl H. Jr. Crosswinds: The Air Force’s Setup in Vietnam. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1993. Allison, George B. LINEBACKER II: A View from the Rock. USAF Southeast Asia Monograph Series, Volume 6. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1979. Morrocco, John. The Vietnam Experience: Thunder from Above: The Air War, 1941-1968. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1984. ______. The Vietnam Experience: Rain of Fire. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985.