Key Point: The B-52 was a deadly weapon, but they were also often shot down. Here's how America tried to use them to win and (when that failed) to compel peace.
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.
This first appeared in 2016 and is being reposted due to reader interest.
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: