By Jeffrey N. Meyer, 36th Wing Historian
/ Published December 18, 2017
ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam -- Thirty-nine years ago, Andersen Air Force Base became involved in Operation Linebacker II, an operation that would arguably be the most significant event in the installations long and distinguished history. Andersen AFB became the site of the most immense buildup of air power in history. More than 12,000 Airmen and 153 B-52s took up five miles of ramp space on the flight line. This article is about the operation that had many names, to include "The Eleven Day War", "11 Days of Christmas", "December Raids or Bombings" and "The Christmas Bombings"- but whatever moniker is used, it boils down to the massive bombing effort of North Vietnam from December 18-29, 1972.
For there to be an Operation Linebacker II there must have been a Linebacker I. The first operation was in response to the "Easter Offensive" when North Vietnamese Army invaded South Vietnam. From May 9 to Oct. 23, 1972, units of the Air Force and Navy bombed targets in throughout North Vietnam. Although the B-52s were minimally used in these northern bombings they continued their traditional Arc Light missions of bombing Vietcong positions south of the Seventeenth Parallel.
As part of the build-up for Linebacker I, Strategic Air Command (SAC) launched Operation Bullet Shot, which sent 124 more B-52s from bases in the U.S. to Guam; bringing the total B-52 strength available for operations in Southeast Asia to 207. One hundred fifty three B-52s were at Andersen AFB (55 B-52Ds and 98 B-52Gs) and another 54 B-52Ds were based at U-Tapao, Thailand. Over 12,000 airmen on Guam were packed into the dorms, with spill-overs residing in temporary steel dorms called Tin City. Canvas Courts, a collection of tent shelters and available off base hotels, and even the base gymnasium were converted to living quarters to house all of the Airmen. The last time there were this many bombers and Airmen on Guam was 1945, for World War II air operations against Japan.
After the Linebacker I bombings halted, Secretary of State Kissinger announced that "peace is at hand." It seems that history has a bad habit of repeating itself. Similarly, after the Munich Conference with Adolf Hitler in 1939, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared, "peace for our time" right before World War II started. The North Vietnamese rebuilt their military strength during this "peace". On December 13, 1972, the North Vietnamese delegates walked out of the Paris peace talks, and two days later President Nixon (a big football fan, thus the operation's name "Linebacker") ordered the implementation of Linebacker II and the continuation of airstrikes against North Vietnam. However, these new bombing missions would be much different; the big B-52 bombers would have the central role in the operation. The majority of U.S. Air Force personnel stationed on Guam and in Thailand were surprised by the new air offensive, but most air crews agreed that it was about time that B-52s were used in this capacity.
On the first night of the operation 129 bombers launched, 87 from Andersen AFB and another 42 from U-Tapao. There were an additional 39 support aircraft from Seventh Air Force, Navy's Task Force 77 (Six aircraft carriers in the era) and Marine Corps F-4 fighter escorts, F-105 Wild Weasel SAM-suppression missions, Air Force EB-66 and Navy EA-6 radar-jamming aircraft, chaff drops, KC-135 refueling capability, and search and rescue aircraft. The skies over North Vietnam were dominated by U.S. airpower to guarantee the success of the operation and the safety of the aircraft involved.
Even with these precautions, three B-52s were shot down the first night after being hit by SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Tragically, an Andersen crew aboard a B-52G, call sign Charcoal 01, seconds after dropping bombs on target, would be hit by a SAM. The pilot, Col. Donald L. Rissi (who should have been safely in states), and gunner, Master Sgt. Walt Ferguson, were killed. Three other crew members: Maj. Dick Johnson, radar navigator; Capt. Bob Certain, navigator; and, Capt. Dick Simpson, electronic warfare officer, survived the attack, but were captured. They were later released from captivity in 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming, the return of U.S. service members held as POWs in North Vietnam. The remains of Lt. Robert J. Thomas, copilot, were later identified and returned to his family in 1978.
Another B-52D from U-Tapao, Rose 1, was shot down the first night and crashed into a lake in the Hanoi suburbs. Two of her Airmen are still listed as missing-in-action (MIA) and four became Prisoners of War (POW). The wreckage of the aircraft has been left in the lake, part of its fuselage and the landing gear visible above the water, and it serves as memorial for the Vietnamese people's war effort against the United States. Today, Huu Tiep Lake is also known as B-52 Lake. The list of Airmen killed, MIA, and captured would repeat itself almost daily until the last day of operations.
The third day of operations was the deadliest of the entire operation. The North Vietnamese were learning the repetitive tactics used on the B-52s bombing runs. As waves of B-52s were approaching Hanoi, North Vietnamese MiGs would keep their distance and not attack. This was because the MiGs were reporting the B-52s heading, altitude, and air speed to SAM sites on the ground. Heavy SAM launches followed and they flew directly into the bombers paths resulted in six B-52s shot down. Five of the aircraft lost were from Andersen AFB and of those five, four were G models. Only about half of the B-52Gs models during Linebacker II were modified for Southeast Asian operations as the B-52D. The G models did not have the EW systems and robust jamming capabilities of the veteran D models, which led to dire consequences. This resulted in Andersen's B-52s being returned to their traditional Arc Light missions in South Vietnam and U-Tapao's aircraft taking the bulk of the North Vietnam bombings until the eighth day of operations. Besides the EW issues with the G model, U-Tapao's location was much closer to its targets, meaning quicker turnaround and no mid-air refueling.
After a 36-hour Christmas break, aircraft had completed maintenance checks and air tactics were changed. Day Eight would be the second largest attack of the whole campaign as 120 B-52s from Andersen and U-Tapao attacked military areas around Hanoi and Haiphong. Though the Air Force lost two additional B-52s from U-Tapao, the mission was a huge success because North Vietnam contacted Washington D.C. afterwards to resume peace talks. However, President Nixon would not call off the bombings until talks had actually resumed. The final two days of Linebacker II would see two more B-52s lost. One of those was from the Andersen's 43d Strategic Wing.
Linebacker II ended on December 30 1972 and on January 23, 1973, the cease-fire was signed effectively ending the war for the U.S.
Overall Air Force losses during Operation Linebacker II included fifteen B-52s, two F-4s, two F-111s, and one HH-53 search and rescue helicopter. Navy losses included two A-7s, two A-6s, one RA-5, and one F-4. Seventeen of these losses were attributed to SA-2 missiles, three to daytime MiG attacks, three to antiaircraft artillery, and three to unknown causes. Bombers stationed at Andersen flew729 sorties, each one a long 12 to 18 hour mission over the11 days.
More than 20,000 tons of bombs were dropped on targets in and around Hanoi and Haiphong, with relatively few civilian casualties. The was because the operation was focused on military sites and not on striking civilians. During Linebacker II, 1,624 people were killed in North Vietnam, 1,318 in Hanoi and 306 in Haiphong. By comparison, during nine days of bombing on Hamburg, Germany in 1944, less than 10,000 tons were dropped and more than 30,000 people died.
Andersen AFB will hold a Linebacker II memorial ceremony at the 36th Wing Headquarters on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017 at 2:00 p.m.
Of final note, there are still eight Airmen from Andresen AFB's MIA who flew in Linebacker II missions.