Operation Linebacker II

On, 29-DEC 1972, Operation Linebacker II Ends

49 Years ago, Operation Linebacker II unfolded over the 12-day period of 18­-29 DEC 1972. Because there was a one-day stand-down on Christmas Day, the operation came to be known by many as the “11-Day War” or the “Christmas War.”  The museum features stories about two B-52 pilots who flew in Operation Linebacker II.  B-52’s are nicknamed BUFFs (Big, Ugly Fat F _ _ _ _ _ or Fellow).  

The two pilots are LTC Steve Brown and CAPT Robert John Morris.  Captain Morris did not survive the mission.  LTC Steve Brown shared his story with the museum and gives us a wonderful first-hand account of Operation Linebacker II.  Their stories are on this website.

Capt. Robert John Morris

The courage of the U.S Seventh Air Force and U.S. Navy Task Force 77 during Linebacker II ultimately brought about the end of the Vietnam War.  There are still eight Airmen missing in action who flew in Linebacker II missions.

As Linebacker II operations unfolded, a number of critical elements played a role in the execution of the attacks, including routes, spacing, altitudes, bomb loads, and basing. The routes to and from the targets were governed by many factors, including disposition of surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, the proximity of the Chinese border, and strength of the prevailing winds. Flight tactics called for multiple formations of three B-52s, separated by 500 feet in altitude and one mile in horizontal distance.  

Unlike bomber forces in the Korean War, the B-52s were under the command of Strategic Air Command.  SAC headquarters had ordered aircraft commanders not to take evasive action in the face of threats from either SAMs or MiGs (MiG-21s, Russian Fighters) during the long run in from the initial point to bombs away. The Vietnam War was the first modern war in which guided antiaircraft missiles seriously challenged highly advanced supersonic jet aircraft. It would also be the first and only time that the latest and most modern air defense technologies of the Soviet Union and the most modern jet fighter planes and bombers of the United States confronted each other in combat.

The speed and direction of the turn after the bomb drop was designed to get the bombers out of SAM range as soon as possible. The tactics were needed primarily because SAC wanted to preserve electronic countermeasures integrity of the three-ship formations while making sure that only military targets were hit.

It took nearly two hours for the formations of B-52s from Guam to taxi, take off, and become airborne on the afternoon of Dec. 18, 1972. They then were joined in the attack by 42 additional B-52s flying out of U Tapao. This was the largest attacking bomber force assembled since World War II. The B-52 targets on the first day were airfields, vehicle repair sites, rail yards, a railroad repair facility, and the main Hanoi radio station. 

The North Vietnamese leaders had expected US air attacks, but they were surprised by the intensity of the assault on 18-DEC. Reacting swiftly, the North Vietnamese used their SAMs effectively and quickly began to concentrate their efforts on the post-target turn.

The SAM Dangers

The post target turn after bombs away, was the point of greatest B-52 vulnerability for three reasons. First, it was here that the North Vietnamese radar had the greatest chance to “burn through” the B-52 cells’ combined electronic countermeasures protection. Second, a banking B-52 presented a greater radar cross section to the defenders. Finally, the turn would reverse the benefits of the wind, transforming a 100-knot tailwind into a head wind that slowed down the enormous aircraft.

On Day 1 of the campaign, the Communist forces fired more than 200 SAMs, often sending them up in four or six volleys. It was reported, once the air was filled with more than 40 SAMs. On that day, the US lost three B-52s, two from Andersen and one from U Tapao, as well as one F-111. The losses were lighter than had been expected and were not considered unacceptably high. 

For the entire 11 bombing days, the BUFF crews pressed on regardless of the ferocity of the enemy attack. On Day 1, SSgt. Samuel Turner, tail gunner on Brown 03, also shot down a MiG-21, the first in B-52 combat history.

Tactics were revised slightly on Day 2 of the attack, but routes remained the same. Bomber cell altitudes were lowered to 34,500 and 35,000 feet, the better to place the B-52s more securely within the chaff corridors being laid by the F-4s. Time separation between cells and between Times Over Target (TOTs) was increased to four minutes. Evasive action was authorized on both inbound and outbound routes. The results of the changes seemed to be positive. On Day 2, the North launched some 180 SAMs at the 93 attacking B-52s, but no losses occurred.

On Day 3, tragedy struck. Only 90 of 99 planned B-52s sorties were effective and six BUFFs were shot down. Two B52Gs and one B52D were lost in the first wave and an identical number were downed in the third wave. Three were struck prior to bomb release and three afterward; four went down near Hanoi while two made it out of North Vietnam. None of the lost B-52Gs had been modified to carry the new AN/ALT-22 ECM equipment. In the first three days of the campaign, five unmodified Gs and only one modified G had been lost. Of the total of nine B-52s lost to date, five had been hit during their turn off the target.

This constituted an unacceptably high seven-percent loss rate. Even so, Gen. John C. Meyer, the commander in chief of SAC, made the tough decision to press on, calling for even heavier strikes on SAM sites and storage areas. His decision proved to be correct, for the enemy had been hurt, too, and now was rapidly expending SAMs.

Tactics were altered again.  Cell separation and TOTs were compressed to 90 and 120 seconds, respectively. The altitude separation between cells was increased, and withdrawal routes were changed, enabling some bomber streams to withdraw directly toward the Gulf of Tonkin. Electronic warfare officers received authorization to add an ALT-28 ECM transmitter to their system with the intent of jamming the SAM downlink frequency.

On 26-DEC Robert John Morris a B-52 pilot from St. Charles Missouri, was killed in action. 

The final two days of Linebacker II would see two more B-52s lost.  On the final day of the campaign, Day 11 on 29-DEC, USAF crews – both bomber and support were at peak form while the enemy was in obvious distress.  The North Vietnamese were only able to fire only a total of 23 SAMs.  They had once salvoed six SAMs at a time.  They now were reduced to individual launches. They were almost out of SAMs.  In addition, most of their MiGs were shut down and their radar and communication links were disrupted. 

At this point, they had little defense against the raids.  

The U.S. had proved decisively that B-52s, supported by tactical air assets, were an effective force, able to meet and defeat the enemy. In the miserable prisons in which they were held, American prisoners of war experienced an unimaginable elation at seeing their brutal captors frightened and suddenly polite.

The result of Linebacker II was exactly what had been predicted by those who had advocated full application of airpower against North Vietnam: a military victory. The badly shaken North Vietnamese accepted that the war was at a stalemate, returned to the negotiating table in Paris, and signed the Paris Peace Accords on Jan. 27, 1973. Within 60 days of the signing, 591 American POWs were released and back in the United States.

In Linebacker II, SAC’s B-52s had flown 729 sorties out of a total of 741 planned sorties and dropped 15,000 tons of bombs. North Vietnamese forces had fired about 1,240 SAMs. The Air Force lost fifteen B-52 bombers, which amounted to a loss rate of less than two percent. Of 92 B-52 crew members involved in the losses, 26 were recovered, 25 came up missing in action, 33 became prisoners of war, and eight were either killed in action or later died of wounds. In addition, the US lost two F-111As, three F-4s, two A-7s, two A-6s, one EB-66, one HH-53, and one RA-5C.

Not long after the end of Linebacker II and the formal return of the US prisoners of war, United States forces at last formally disengaged from the war in Southeast Asia. There then followed what Henry Kissinger described as a “decent interval” of about two years, after which Hanoi, knowing that it no longer faced any realistic threat of another Linebacker II, invaded South Vietnam across a broad front. The Communist forces entered Saigon on 30-APR 1975 and unified the two Vietnams under Hanoi’s totalitarian control.

To Air Force observers, the events of 1975 pointed up a classic case of “what might have been.” To them, full application of airpower in a Linebacker II-type campaign in 1965, a decade earlier, would have achieved military victory, prevented the long and costly US involvement in Southeast Asia, saved South Vietnam as a nation, and allowed the US to escape the calamitous effects that the Vietnamese war has afflicted on America ever since.

Please contact the St. Charles County Veterans Museum Oral History project at sccvetsmuseum@gmail.com or call 636-294-2657 for more information and lets’ talk. We want to hear from you because we know…Every Veteran has a story.