As the F-105s played their deadly game of hide-and-seek with the SAM batteries, the next phase of the action opened. Eight Phantoms ran in towards Hanoi from the south-west at 26,000ft, each carrying nine chaff bombs. The role of these planes was similar to that of the ‘Window Spoof’ forces in the Second World War. At 9.47 a.m. these aircraft entered the Hanoi SAM-defended zone and each released a single chaff bomb. After a short fall the casings split open and each disgorged millions of metallized strips each thinner than a human hair. At 15-second intervals along the route to the enemy capital, each plane released a further chaff bomb.
During the run-in the Phantoms flew in the so-called ‘jamming pod formation’, with two lots of four aircraft flying in line abreast with 2,000ft horizontal separation and stepped up to one side with 600ft vertical separation between adjacent planes. This formation offered a high degree of protection against the SA-2, the only long-range missile system then used by the North Vietnamese. Each Phantom carried a jamming pod under the fuselage, and the noise-jamming from the four-plane formation produced a wedge of overlapping strobes on the enemy gun and SAM control radars. The SAM operators could see the incoming formation, but they could not pick out the individual planes accurately to engage them.
That, at least, was the theory. It worked only if the crews held their positions in formation. As the Phantoms closed on the enemy capital the crews watched the clouds of orange or white smoke on the ground as the enemy missiles blasted away from their launchers. During its boost phase each missile left a smoke trail, but when this ended there was nothing to see until then missile itself hove into view. Captain William Byrns recalled:
A SAM came for us and someone yelled ‘Look out!’ I turned my head and my reaction was to pull back on the stick. That was not the normal reaction — I should have gone down. But I believe God took my hand and made me go the other way. The missile went underneath my plane, underneath the F-4 across the way and exploded on the far side of him. If I had gone down it would have hit us and we would probably not have got out.
Several of the crews experienced similar scares, and a few planes suffered a shaking as missiles detonated within a few hundred feet. Yet the protective cocoon of jamming conferred a high degree of safety: only one chaff bomber was hit by missile splinters, and these caused little damage.
Having released the last of their chaff bombs, the two flights sped away from the target area. Behind them they left more than seventy clouds of chaff that now spread out to form a corridor two miles wide, more than a mile deep and eighteen miles long. At the end of that corridor lay the Paul Doumer Bridge.
Five minutes behind the chaff bombers, the first of the main attack formations entered the Hanoi missile zone. Flying through the corridor of chaff laid to assist it, the Paul Doumer Bridge attack force headed for the target flying at 620mph at 13,000ft. ‘Goatee’, Napkin’, ‘Biloxi’ and ‘Jingle’ Flights, each with four Phantoms in jamming-pod formation, followed each other at two-mile intervals.
Flying ahead of the Phantoms and far below them, a fresh team of four ‘Wild Weasel’ F-105Gs fanned out in pairs, looking for active SAM sites. Yet despite this harassment and the radar jamming from the Phantoms and their supporting EB-66s, the defending batteries lay on an impressive display of wrath. Holding position in a jamming-pod formation under SAM attack has been likened to the first time one snuffs out a candle with one’s fingers — it was an unnatural act and it required courage to overcome one’s basic instincts. Captain Lynn High commented:
We had to sit in formation and grit our teeth when the SAMs came through the formation. It took nerves of steel to watch a SAM come straight at you, even though you knew that in all probability it would not hit you and if it detonated it would detonate too soon or too late. I watched about six SAMs do exactly that.
Meanwhile the leading attack flight, ‘Goatee’, commenced its bombing run on the Paul Doumer Bridge with electro-optical guided bombs (EOGBs). These weapons homed in on the image contrast of the target against its background, and the Phantoms were to attack the bridge broadside-on from the south. In each plane the back-seater operated a small hand-held controller to position the bridge under the sighting reticle on his TV screen and pressed a button to lock the target image into the first bomb. He then switched to the second bomb and repeated the process. Colonel Carl Miller, the Flight Leader, pushed his plane into a 30-degree descent and the other three planes followed. At 12,000ft the Phantoms released their bombs in a salvo.
During the recent war in the Persian Gulf the newest types of EOGBs demonstrated an impressive degree of accuracy. Earlier weapons of this type were considerably less effective, however, and on this occasion they performed miserably. The exasperated Miller watched his bombs go their separate ways:
One made a 90-degree turn and went for downtown Hanoi, I think it impacted near the train station. I don’t know where the other went. The EOGB was a launch-and-leave weapon, they were supposed to stay locked-on after release. But they didn’t.
After releasing their bombs, the aircraft of ‘Goatee’ Flight turned west and engaged their afterburners to get clear of the defended area as rapidly as possible. As this was happening, ‘Biloxi’, ‘Jingle’ and ‘Napkin’ Flights sped towards a point immediately to the east of the bridge, ready to attack along its length with their laser-guided bombs (LGBs). As he was about to turn in to attack, Major Bill Driggers glanced to his left to observe the result of ‘Goatee’ Flight’s attack with EOGBs. He had expected to see them burst around the bridge and demolish parts of the structure, but the reality was quite different:
As we rolled in to attack the bridge I saw big waterspouts rising from the Red River. The first EOGBs fell short; those that made it to the bridge went through the gaps between the pylons. I saw two, maybe three, of the bombs explode in the water on the other side.
None of the EOGBs hit the target — a profoundly disappointing result during the first operational use of these expensive weapons over North Vietnam.
Two by two, the Phantoms of ‘Napkin’ Flight pulled into their 45-degree attack dives. The 37mm and 57mm anti-aircraft guns around the target opened up a powerful defensive fire and colourful lines of moving tracer, punctuated by stationary puffs from exploding shells, criss-crossed the sky over the eastern side of Hanoi. At 12,000ft each Phantom let go its bombs and pulled out of its dive. In the leading plane in each pair, the back-seater operated a small control stick to hold the laser-designator on the required aiming-point. A laser seeker head in the nose of each bomb steered the weapon to the point thus marked. The first salvo of four bombs exploded against the bridge or in the river beneath it, hurling smoke, spray and debris hundreds of feet into the air.
At the head of ‘Biloxi’ Flight, the next to attack, Captain Lynn High noticed that the enemy anti-aircraft gunners seemed to be aiming at the wrong part of the sky:
The Vietnamese gunners obviously expected us to release from a lower altitude: they coned their fire on a point 7,500 feet to 9,000 feet above the target. It looked like an Indian tepee sitting over downtown Hanoi. But we released our bombs at a higher altitude — we kept out of it.
The Flight’s eight 2,000-pounders threw up further columns of debris, smoke and spray around the bridge.
‘Jingle’ Flight bombed last, and Captain Mike Van Wagenen piloted the final aircraft to attack the bridge:
There was so much going on, it was impossible to comprehend everything. The human mind cannot take that many inputs so it rules a lot of them. The radio seemed to go quiet, the radar warning gear went quiet, everything appeared to go quiet as I tracked the Doumer Bridge underneath my sighting pipper. We just stopped thinking about the other things going on around us. My back-seater was calling off the altitudes: 15…14…13 [thousand feet]…The pipper was tracking up the bridge, I had the parameters like I wanted to see them and released both bombs.
Van Wagenen hauled on the stick and watched the horizon sink rapidly past his windscreen as the g forces asserted themselves and pushed him hard into his seat:
As we came off the target it was like plugging in the stereo: slowly one’s senses came back and one could hear the radar warning gear, the radio transmissions, everything else. The human computer was working again. I jinked hard left and right, picked up Mike [Captain Mike Messett, his element leader] and joined up on him. Then I rolled back to the right to see where my bombs had gone. It appeared all four, Mike’s and mine, had hit the first span on the east side of the river. I took one more look to see if the span was standing but I couldn’t tell, there was a lot of smoke around.
As Van Wagenen left the bridge none of the spans had dropped, despite the fact that several of the laser-guided bombs had scored direct hits on the structure and caused severe damage. Two spans at the eastern end had broken apart, however, and the bridge was impassable to wheeled vehicles.
As the Phantoms sped out of the target area some of them had fleeting brushes with MiGs. Lieutenant Rick Bates recalled:
As we came off the target we passed a Thud [F-105] followed by a MiG followed by a Thud. Then I saw a MiG-21 that looked as if it was trying to turn on us. But we were going so goddarn fast he had no chance…Those three or four minutes was [sic] absolute and total chaos as far as I was concerned; my pulse rate was going at about eight million a minute…
As the Phantoms of the bridge attack force left the target, the raiding force heading for the Yen Vien rail yard began running through the chaff corridor laid earlier. The sixteen F-4 bombers followed the same route as the bridge attack force and Major Kelly Irving was surprised at the ease with which he could follow the line of chaff through the defended area:
I was impressed at how well it showed up on my air intercept radar. That was how we made sure we were positioned in it. That was a godsend — we drove up that thing like it was a highway.
The bombers ran towards their target at 15,000ft, pulled up to 20,000ft and swung into echelon right as they peeled into their 45-degree attack dives. Captain Jim Shaw, in the leading flight, recalled:
We followed the other three down the chute and Bud Pratt [his pilot] pickled [released] the bombs. When we pulled off I looked back, and saw somebody’s bombs do a pretty good job across the south chokepoint. While in the target area we tried to change something — heading, altitude or speed — every ten seconds to defeat the radar-aimed fire.
This attention to detail proved necessary, for as Shaw left the target his flight suddenly came under heavy fire:
Lead got away with it, No 2 flew through some of it, No 3 could not avoid it. We broke left and came very sharply back to the right. I got an eyeful of all the standard colours of smoke puffs. The larger the calibre the darker the smoke: white puffs were 23mm, light grey puffs were 3 mm, grey were 57mm and black puffs were 85mm. Beforehand every flight leader briefs that he will fly a wide arc coming off the target, so those behind can cut off the turn and join up for mutual support. But when they were being shot at, very few leaders do it to the degree their wing-men would like. We went out scalded-ass fast and it took a while to get the flight back in order. Everybody had a distinct interest in getting away from the people they had just been nasty to!
The attacks on both targets were now complete, but there was a further chore that had to be completed. North of Hanoi a pair of RF-4C reconnaissance Phantoms moved into position to photograph the targets for damage assessment. The aircraft accelerated to 750mph, keeping just below the speed of sound to retain a measure of manoeuvrability, and sped towards their objectives at between 4,000 and 6,000ft, continually varying their altitude to give the enemy gunners as difficult a target as possible. Major Sid Rogers led the pair, with Captain Don Pickard flying as wing-man behind and about 1,000ft to the right of his leader. The latter recalled:
After we passed the rail yard we got everything in the world shot at us. We started jinking and as we approached Hanoi there was a trail of black puffs from bursting shells behind Sid. I said to my back-seater, Chuck Irwin, ‘Good God, look at that stuff behind lead!’ Chuck replied, ‘It’s a good thing you can’t see the stuff behind us…!’
Moments later Pickard noticed a MiG-17 about 500yds behind and to the left, trying to get into a firing position. But the two Phantoms soon left the slower fighter far behind. South of Hanoi a SAM battery loosed off at Pickard’s aircraft. The pilot saw nothing of the missile until it detonated and the Phantom bucked under its blast:
I didn’t see the SAM but I saw a whole bunch of red things, like tracer rounds but fanning out, come past my nose [the hot splinters from the warhead]. I ducked; it looked like we were going to hit them.
Miraculously, all the warhead splinters missed the plane.
It was 10.14 a.m. and now all the bombers, the reconnaissance planes and the ‘Wild Weasel’ and jamming-support aircraft were heading away from the target. Four flights of Phantoms covered the withdrawal: one patrolled north-west of Hanoi, one was to the south-south-west, one was to the south-south-east and one was astride the withdrawal route near the Laotian border.
The earlier activity by MiGs had tapered off and now there was little sign of the defending fighters. Tempted by this inactivity, one flight moved west of Hanoi at 8,000ft trying to lure North Vietnamese fighters into battle. The stratagem succeeded only too well. Suddenly a MiG-19 zoomed into a firing position behind one of the Phantoms and delivered a snap attack. Exploding 30mm shells tore away chunks from the left wing and the fighter rolled into a dive and plunged into the ground. There were no survivors. The remaining Phantoms curved vengefully after their assailant and one launched missiles from extreme range, but the North Vietnamese pilot knew his business and dived away and disappeared as suddenly as he had come.
By 11.15 a.m. the whole of the raiding force was back on the ground. The 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon had sent out forty F-4s to lay the chaff corridor and deliver the attacks on the Paul Doumer Bridge and the Yen Vien railway yard; as a testimony to the effectiveness of the ‘jamming-pod formation’, all the planes had passed through the thickest part of the defences and all had returned, though one had suffered minor damage. The 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat sent twelve F-105s, four EB-66s and an EC-121 to support the operation; all these returned safely too. The 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Udorn had sent 28 F-4s and three RF-4Cs; its two F-4s shot down by MiG-19s were the only planes lost during the mission. Three North Vietnamese MiG-21 fighters had been shot down, all of them by ‘Oyster’ Flight during the initial encounter.
On the following day Phantoms delivered a second attack with laser-guided bombs on the Paul Doumer Bridge, during which they concentrated their weapons on the damaged eastern end of the structure. After further hits, the disconnected span toppled into the Red River.
Just over three weeks later there was an interesting sequel to the action. It will be remembered that Captain Roger Locher had ejected from his blazing Phantom shortly before it crashed into the ground. Although deep in enemy territory he avoided capture, living off any edible vegetation he could find. On June 1 Locher finally made radio contact with US aircraft, and the following day a large-scale rescue operation retrieved him. When he was picked up by a ‘Jolly Green Giant’ helicopter he had lost 30lb in weight and he was weak from starvation. For an air-crew survivor to remain at liberty, unassisted, for 23 days deep in enemy home territory and initiate a successful rescue was a record for the Vietnam War and it ranks with the most successful combat evasion episodes in history. The rescue also set a record for those who retrieved him, for it took the helicopters deeper into North Vietnam than any other such mission during the conflict.