Operation Linebacker I – 1972 by Marshall L. Michel III

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In the spring of 1972, the North Vietnamese launched a three-pronged attack against South Vietnam: from the Demilitarized Zone, the Central Highlands, and Cambodia. With few Americans remaining in country working primarily as advisers while Nixon’s Vietnamization was in full swing, the South Vietnamese were expected to protect themselves. That appeared impossible in face of the North’s disproportionate number of personnel, tanks, and artillery.

President Nixon responded by deploying massive American air power in “an almost unrestrained way” against the North, according to Marshall L. Michel III in Operation Linebacker I 1972: The First High-Tech Air War (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper: $9.99, Kindle). Using new technology in Linebacker I, Michel says, the United States “brought to bear the start of an air power revolution.”

Linebacker I and II coincided with Michel’s Air Force career. From 1970-73, he flew 321 combat missions as part of both campaigns. Last year he wrote Operation Linebacker II 1972: The B-52s Are Sent to Hanoi, which is an excellent companion to this book.  https://vvabooks.wordpress.com/2018/10/04/operation-linebacker-ii-1972-by-marshall-l-michel-iii/

In this look at Linebacker I Michel provides a detailed account of political and military actions prior to and during the bombing operation, including explaining Nixon’s changing diplomacy. Linebacker I concentrated on interdicting North Vietnamese supply lines, much like Rolling Thunder had done from 1965-68. Linebacker I had broader approval to target airfields, SAM sites, and GCI radars than Rolling Thunder did.

To buttress his claim that this was the start of “an air power revolution,” Michel describes the use of new equipment on Linebacker I missions from April through October 1972.

He calls precision guided munitions (PGM) “the most important Air Force weapon in the campaign.” These 2,000-pound smart bombs either were laser guided (LGB) by a designator in the back seat of an F-4 or they were electro-optically guided (EOGB) by a Pave Knife external pod.

Delivering LGBs required two aircraft: one to lase and one to bomb. Pave Knife allowed an aircraft to deliver and track its own EOGBs, as well as those dropped by the rest of an attacking flight. Full-page illustrations in the book help explain this maneuver and others tactics, such as the mining of Haiphong Harbor.

Smart bombs were not new in 1972. When I flew with Spectre in 1970, our F-4 escorts occasionally carried LGBs, which our slowly orbiting gunship targeted with lasers against antiaircraft sites or road intersections in the relative safety of Laos. The advantage enjoyed with smart bombs during Linebacker I occurred from marrying them to sophisticated electronic gear that permitted aircrews to guide their munitions while flying at high speeds in extremely hostile environments.

The new technology’s many successes included new accuracy that destroyed the Paul Doumer and Thanh Hoa (Dragon’s Jaw) bridges, vital transportation links that had survived years of attacks.

During Linebacker I, chaff received fresh life. Chaff bombs established corridors one hundred miles long, allowing aircraft in these paths to become invisible to equipment on the ground.

Improved technology did not solve every problem, though, according to Michel. The USAF and Navy used different air-to-air tactics, which created dissent, he says. Navy pilots who had trained under the Topgun program scored a high victory ratio over MiGs, while USAF crews suffered losses as a result of poor tactical maneuvers. Michel show how MiG domination against the Air Force pilots brought about the creation of the Red Flag training program and modernized tactics.        

Along with technological gains, command-and-control changes further increased air power effectiveness. B-52s delivered their “incredible number of bombs day or night in any weather conditions,” as Michel puts it, and “changed targets quickly to meet the ground tactical situation very close to allied troops.” As a result of these capabilities, the 200 B-52s from Guam and Thailand concentrated their strikes on close air support in South Vietnam during Linebacker I.

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Bombing a bridge in North Vietnam, May 1972

What’s more, the Navy’s Red Crown GCI system provided instant information to attacking aircraft. On the other hand, Teaball—a new USAF GCI system—proved of “limited usefulness” because communications broke down and caused “high value losses,” Michel says.

On the ground, the North Vietnamese improved defenses by moving SA-2 launch sites closer to the DMZ and employing shoulder-launched SA-7s on the battlefields.

From start to finish, Michel repeatedly lauds the less glamorous C-130 combat support sorties that kept South Vietnamese forces supplied at An Loc and Kontum. In conclusion, he cites an over dependency by the ARVN on American air power, a point proved when North Vietnam again invaded the South in 1975. The ARVN “collapsed,” he says, “ending the conflict once and for all.”

Michel excels as a military historian because he impartially presents well-researched views of observers and participants from both sides of the war.

As usual, this Osprey Publishing book includes outstanding images. Artist Adam Tooby provides three dazzling double-page pictures of aircraft. Additionally, virtually every page has one or more evocative photographs.

—Henry Zeybel

The Hunter Killers by Dan Hampton

Dan Hampton is a retired USAF F-16 pilot who flew in the Iraq War, the Kosovo conflict, and the first Gulf War during his twenty-year military career. He also is the author of—among other books—the best-selling 2012 memoir Viper Pilot. Lt. Col. Hampton turns his attention to the Vietnam War in his latest book,The Hunter Killers: The Extraordinary Story of the First Wild Weasels, the Band of Maverick Aviators Who Flew the Most Dangerous Missions of the Vietnam War (Morrow, 352 pp., $27.99)

Hampton offers up two related stories in The Hunter Killers: his in-the-trenches air combat chronicles of the titular Hunter Killer Wild Weasel flyers in the Vietnam War (“an elite group of men”), and his detailed and opinionated analysis of the history of the Vietnam War.

The air-combat sections zero in on pilots who flew the U.S. aircraft known as Wild Weasels. These were most often F-105 and F-100 jet fighter bombers with new, secret electronic countermeasure equipment that detected, suppressed, and destroyed North Vietnamese missile and anti-aircraft sites. In these sections, Hampton uses the words of surviving Wild Weasel aviators to creatively recreate often dramatic and dangerous missions over enemy territory.

In his extensive sections on the history of the Vietnam War, Hampton focuses on the use of American air power, but also offers his opinions on the war’s origins and the policy making of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.  Hampton places the blame for outcome of the war on both civilian political leaders and the top military leadership, especially Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Gen. William Westmoreland.

It is “simplistic,” he writes, to blame civilian amateurism alone since professional military officers expect this from any administration. However, those in uniform who fail others in uniform are more culpable.” He then points his finger directly at Gen. Westmoreland, accusing him of ignorance and incompetence. If the MACV commander “didn’t now how to better conduct the war,” Hampton writes, “he should have known. Others did.”

Hampton says the war’s “most significant strategic error” was “neither recognizing nor admitting that the conflict was a civil war.” He also deals with the issue of how Vietnam veterans were treated when we came home from the war. Some “were welcomed home and others, to our national shame, were not,” he notes.

Hampton goes on to praise the effectiveness of the Hunter Killers–“they did win,” he says. “The Vietnam War might have been ambiguous, but the courage of those who fought it was not. Certainly as long as America has men like this then it shall remain America. Their legacy lives on today, and when we once [again] go to war against those would destroy us, then we will know what to do—men like the Hunter Killers showed us how.”

The author’s website is www.danhampton.org
—Marc Leepson

Taking Fire by Kevin O’Rourke and Joe Peters

Kevin O’Rourke and Joe Peters’s Taking Fire: Saving Captain Aikman: A Story of the Vietnam War (Casemate, 216 pp., $32.95) is a tribute to airmen who are dedicated to saving lives. The authors have created a vivid, page-turning narrative of war from the first to the final page. A few times I thought I was watching a movie and not just reading about loyalty, courage, sacrifice, and true heroism.

O’Rourke and Peters use an unusual writing technique. Nonfiction books usually are written in the past tense. These veteran authors, however, switch to the present tense when describing the action scenes. This creates the sensation that the reader is in the midst of the action. Dozens of well-placed photos support this real-time sensation.

Retired Gen. Dale Stovall opens his Forward with a quote from Gen. John Voght that he says made him cry: “I had to decide whether we should risk the loss of maybe a dozen airplanes and crews to get just one man out. Goddamn it, the one thing that keeps our boys motivated is the certain belief that if they go down, we will do absolutely everything we can to get them out. I just said, go do it!” This becomes a theme of the rescue mission.

In their Introduction, the authors remind the reader that the number of American ground forces dropped to about 25,000 by 1972. The North Vietnamese used the draw down to upgrade and strengthen their armed forces with Russian and Chinese assistance.   

Sgt. Chuck McGrath of the 40th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron is introduced on the first page the book. Following McGrath through his rigorous rescue training the reader gains insight into the character of the men who did a dangerous job—men who lived up to their motto, “That Others Might Live.”

The Air Force men of the squadron became known as PJs, somewhat easier to pronounce than Pararescuemen. They flew Greyhound-bus-sized Sikorski II helicopters, those workhorses more commonly known as Jolly Green Giants.

The intensity of the story builds with each chapter as the reader learns about the activities of the pilots before, during, and after June 27, 1972, when four USAF F-4 Phantoms were shot down .The reader is given a front-seat view of what American pilots faced when flying upcountry.

O’Rourke and Peter hurl us into the middle of antiaircraft fire and MIG fighters that had to be dealt with before any actual bombing took place.  Appreciation of the pilots’ evasion skills increases exponentially on the flight north.

When Lynn Aikman and Tom Hamilton, his backseat man, eject from their doomed plane, the reader floats earthward into a world of danger, violence, and imminent death. Capture by the enemy is very likely, but thanks to the PJ teams, rescue is at least a strong possibility.

The rescue extraction doesn’t work well on the first try. so a second team led by pilot Dale Stovall has a go at the rescue. To hear these men recall their work on June 27, the rescue sounds like a dangerous but “just doing our job” kind of event. After vicariously experiencing the details of the rescue mission, this reader will remain forever in awe.

On the 10th anniversary of his rescue, Aikman invited several of his rescuers to a cookout at his home. Sharing hitherto untold stories with his old friends was eye-opening to his family. It also opened up something inside Aikman.

As the guests were leaving, Aikman’s father thanked Dale Stovall for saving his son’s life. Stovall responded that it had just been his mission.

The elder Aikman said, “No, not ten years ago. I meant today.”

—Joseph Reitz

Lynn Aikman