What It Was Like to Blast Vietnam in a B-52

Listen to rare audio from a dangerous mission over Hanoi.

Last week, crowds of young Vietnamese cheered President Obama as he visited Hanoi and lifted a U.S. arms embargo on Vietnam.

On a Tuesday night nearly forty-four years ago, the parents of those young Vietnamese were doing their best to kill U.S. airmen over Hanoi.

Given that Obama’s trip occurred so close to Memorial Day, it seems fitting to look back at a rare artifact of one the last battles fought between America and Vietnam. Audio tapes recorded the radio and intercom chatter aboard one of the B-52s that struck Hanoi and Haiphong on December 26, 1972.

The big Strategic Air Command bombers were President Richard Nixon’s big stick to compel North Vietnam’s leaders to sign a peace agreement, and finally, finally get the United States out of a conflict that most Americans just wanted to forget. But on that night after Christmas, the big eight-engined bombers ran into an dense Soviet-made network of fighters, anti-aircraft guns and especially surface-to-air missiles that could take down a B-52 from their bombing altitude of thirty-three thousand feet.

Poor U.S. tactics didn’t help. Strategic Air Command planners, accustomed to rigid procedures for aiming nuclear-armed bombers at the Soviet Union, persisted with inflexible bombing missions that sent the B-52s over the same flight paths and the same altitudes, and making it easier for the same North Vietnamese SAM crews to track their targets. Some B-52s lacked adequate jammers to disrupt radar and SAM guidance systems. Two bombers were shot down or fatally damaged, out of a total of fifteen bombers brought down by the North Vietnamese.

Listen to these five YouTube videos that offer a glimpse of what it must have been to fly into an inferno of fiery missiles, exploding bombs and flaming aircraft. In a twenty-first-century world, where airpower consists of a few high-tech planes delivering a few smart bombs, the sounds of a hundred bombers flying into the teeth of a tough air defense network truly seems to belong to a different era, one that has more in common with B-17s over Berlin than F-35s that one day may fly over Syria. But it’s a measure of time’s passage that the Vietnam War is chronologically closer to World War II than the War on Terror.

Either way, what shines from these tapes is the coolness and professionalism of B-52 crews under heavy fire. Let this Memorial Day be a testament to their bravery.

The audio tapes can be found here:

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force