By May, the massive air strikes had stripped the main thrust of the North Vietnamese assault, and now the Americans turned their attention to destroying the supply chain. The North Vietnamese had large armies in the field that were in constant combat, and these forces had to be supported with a steady stream of supplies. Cutting this massive supply flow was expected to be much easier than before the invasion, when North Vietnamese forces simply refused to fight if supplies were low.
On May 9, 1972, the Nixon administration made its next move as the president decided to move the air campaign back into Route Package VI to seal off North Vietnam from China and destroy the supplies already there. This escalation of the air war was first called Rolling Thunder Alpha, but it was quickly renamed Operation Linebacker (Linebacker I), allegedly because of the president’s fondness for football. It soon became clear that Linebacker was going to be different from Rolling Thunder and even Freedom Train. The first mission of Linebacker, called Pocket Money, was the dropping of delayed-action mines in Haiphong harbor and all of the other smaller harbors in North Vietnam; three days later they were activated, and the harbors were effectively closed for the duration of the war. Few events were as symbolic in showing the differences between Linebacker and Rolling Thunder, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff had asked for permission to mine the port of Haiphong and other ports on the North Vietnamese coast from the beginning of the war and the Johnson administration had denied it. Now, expectations were high that Linebacker operations would seriously cut the flow of supplies into North Vietnam.
Linebacker was in practical ways unrestrained, especially when compared to Rolling Thunder. In general, Nixon allowed the military to make all the decisions on targets once the general guidelines and rules of engagement were established. There was no policy of “gradual escalation” in Linebacker; most of the major targets in Vietnam were quickly put on the target list, and on the list there was no time limit; the target could be struck when tactically feasible. The commanders were given tactical latitude about how and when to strike targets on the list and were allowed to choose the weapons the wings thought were appropriate. The expanded target list not only allowed a more tactically flexible bombing strategy but also ensured that, when the weather over a target was bad, there was a list of lucrative alternate targets that could be struck. All this made Linebacker strikes much more effective—with many fewer casualties—than Rolling Thunder strikes.
In concept, the overall aim of Linebacker was the same as Rolling Thunder—interdiction of the North Vietnamese supply lines—but in execution it was very different. Linebacker’s standing operations order was to disrupt transportation from the DMZ to the Chinese buffer zone (30 nautical miles wide to 106 E longitude, then 25 miles from the 106 line to the Gulf of Tonkin), but unlike Rolling Thunder, all of the North Vietnamese air defenses—SAM sites, most airfields, TCI radars—were included in targeting plans.
To keep the pressure on, one Air Force Linebacker strike was planned to the Hanoi area every day and flown if the weather permitted. The original list of Linebacker targets was intended to isolate Hanoi and Haiphong by neutralizing their defenses, destroying the rail and road links to the north and south, and then destroying all war material in storage or in transit. Still, not all of the restraints were removed. Fixed transportation targets (bridges, rail yards) within 10 nautical miles of Hanoi and Haiphong and the Chinese buffers zone needed Joint Chiefs of Staff approval, and the secretary of defense had to approve B-52 strikes above Route Package I. Linebacker bombing strikes were also instructed to avoid prisoners-of-war camps, churches/shrines, hospitals, and third-country shipping and to minimize civilian casualties. There were also occasional short-term restrictions. From May 21 through June 5, Hanoi was not bombed to avoid casualties during Nixon’s visit to Moscow, and the Haiphong area was off limits from May 25 through 30 for the same reason. Following the president’s return, strikes resumed.
But even with the restraints, Linebacker felt very different to combat aircrews. Approval for new targets was quickly granted, and as the operation continued, many of the rules of engagement were gradually or temporarily relaxed; in August and September, for example, there were twice the number of sorties into the upper route packages as there were from May to July. The military was quite pleased with the rules for Linebacker; the Seventh Air Force commander summed up their feelings when he said, “We were not constrained. In some of the sensitive areas, for example, I was allowed the take out all the power [major electric power plants] in a very short time with the exception of one power plant, and that was the thermal power plant for Hanoi itself.”
Linebacker: The First Day
On the morning of May 10, the Air Force launched its first strike of Linebacker against the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi and the Yen Vein railroad yard. Oyster was the first Combat Tree MiGCAP in the area and was patrolling at low altitude when they picked up MiG activity on their Tree equipment. The F-4s turned toward the MiGs and set up a head-on pass, knowing that, since they were the only U.S. fighters in the area, they could fire their AIM-7s head on without visually identifying the MiGs. Oyster’s radars showed there were four MiGs, and the F-4s locked on and closed; the F-4s were below the MiGs and seemingly undetected, in what looked like a perfect attack set-up. Once in range Oyster 1 fired his first Sparrow; it went about 1,000 feet in front of the F-4 and detonated prematurely, so Oyster fired a second AIM-7 at what he could now identify as four MiG-21s. The missile guided well and hit the second MiG in the flight. Oyster 2 fired two AIM-7s at almost the same time as the third MiG and also scored a hit. As the missiles hit, the first MiG flashed by, and Oyster 1 turned to pursue him; meanwhile Oyster 3 and Oyster 4 attacked the fourth MiG. As the MiG started a right turn, Oyster 3 fired two AIM-7s; the first went under the MiG without detonating, but the second hit the MiG amidships. At this point, all was going well for Oyster flight; three MiGs were fireballs, and Oyster 1 was behind the last MiG, maneuvering for the kill.
Oyster 1 was flying an F-4D without a cannon and found himself too close to the MiG to fire a missile. As he maneuvered to drop back far enough behind the MiG to fire, suddenly four MiG-19s appeared behind the F-4 (they apparently had been trailing the MiG-21s at low altitude).
The MiGs flew poorly; they overshot Oyster 1 and were slightly in front of and close off the left wing—in easy sight had the crew looked in that direction—but despite warning calls from Oyster 2, neither Oyster 1’s pilot nor the WSO (who was temporarily distracted) saw the MiGs, and Oyster 1 continued his attack. The MiG-19s pulled back behind the F-4 and slid in close; as Oyster 1 fired and missed with an AIM-7 at the MiG in front of him, the MiG-19s opened fire with their 30-mm cannon. Oyster 2 saw the long flames from the MiG-19s’ guns and again warned, “Hey lead, break right, break right, break right, they’re firing.” OT was too late; the MiGs hammered the F-4 with their heavy cannon, and it went into a flat spin. The back seater asked the front seater to bail out, but he demurred and said he would stay with the burning aircraft. The back seater ejected and, after several weeks on the ground, was eventually picked up. The front seater was killed in the crash.
A few minutes later, Cleveland, four F-4s escorting LGB flight, was attacked by a MiG-19 and was introduced to the maneuverability of the new fighter. The four F-4s saw the MiG crossing behind them perpendicular to their flight path at very high speed, and Cleveland 1 said to himself, “There is no way he can make that turn. . . . I just knew he couldn’t make the turn, but he cranked in the bank, pulled it around, made square corner, and stopped” very close behind Cleveland 4. The MiG began to fire, hit Cleveland 4 in the wing, and the F-4 went down in flames. Cleveland 1 pursued the MiG, who apparently lost sight of the F-4. He pulled behind the MiG at low altitude and began to fire missiles, first an AIM-9 that went ballistic and then two AIM-7s. The first AIM-7 exploded off the MiG’s wing, forcing the startled North Vietnamese pilot to jerk back on the stick and snap his aircraft out of control into a spin. Cleveland 1 pulled off and “was going to watch him and see him hit the ground, just for the satisfaction of saying I got him. A kill is a kill.” Just as the MiG was about to hit the ground, “He [the MiG-19 pilot] recovered the damn thing right in the weeds. When he came out of the spin, he was in a stall, just staggering along pretty close to the ground . . . still headed home.” Overall that day the Air Force shot down three MiGs for two losses, both MiG-19s.
That same afternoon, after the Air Force strike, the Navy struck the Haiphong area with Alpha strikes, and a large number of MiGs attacked the strike force. The Navy was waiting for the MiGs and had two surprises: the Topgun-trained F-4 crews and a tactic that it had used successfully in the last engagements of 1968—communications jamming. Navy jammers, operating from close off shore, jammed the North Vietnamese communications, leaving the MiGs to fend for themselves, without GCI to warn them that the F-4s were attacking. Both tactics showed their effects; the well-trained Navy F-4 crews had a field day against the MiGs.
In the morning Silver Kite, two F-4Js on Target CAP (TarCAP), sighted two MiG-21s taking off and shot one down. During the afternoon strikes, the MiGs were up in force, and as the battle began, the Navy specialists began jamming the MiGs’ communications with their GCI. Despite their loss of communication, the MiGs stayed to fight; it was a mistake. An F-4J on Iron Hand escort destroyed one MiG-17, and a few minutes later, two F-4Bs on MiGCAP engaged and destroyed another MiG-17. At almost the same time, another F-4 MiGCAP, Showtime, attacked a MiG-17 who was chasing an A-7. More MiG-17s poured in, and a large dogfight erupted; in the melee, Showtime 106 destroyed two MiG-17s. The MiGs kept coming. Another Showtime flight on a flak suppression mission on the Haiphong rail yard had just dropped their bombs when two MiG-17s attacked them from behind. Showtime 100 forced the first MiG to overshoot and fired an AIM-9 as the MiG flew in front of him, blowing it up. As the second MiG closed from the rear, Showtime 100 accelerated away to “drag” the MiG in front of his wingman. Unfortunately, his wingman had his hands full with two more MiGs that had attacked him, so Showtime 100 outran the MiG and rejoined with his wingman, and the two F-4s turned back to the battle.
As they returned to the target area, the F-4s saw a low-altitude wheel of eight MiG-17s with three F-4s in the middle. Showtime 100 saw that one of the F-4s had three MiGs behind and dived in to help; as he did, he saw several MiG-21s in the area and was attacked from behind by two MiG-19s. Showtime 100 stayed fast—550 knots—to keep the MiGs from closing and continued toward the F-4 that was under attack. At first Showtime 100 was unable to fire because he was afraid his missile would home in on the F-4 instead of the MiG, but after several radio calls, the F-4 broke away, and Showtime 100 fired his missile. It hit the MiG, and the pilot ejected. As the missile hit, several MiG-21s began to attack Showtime 100; severely outnumbered and with no F-4s in sight, Showtime 100 broke off the engagement at high speed and headed for the coast.
On the way, Showtime 100 saw a single MiG-17 and turned for a head-on pass; as he passed, the F-4 went into a climb and turned back after the MiG, but to his surprise, the MiG began to climb with him. Showtime 100 thought this would be an easy kill if he just outclimbed the MiG and then dropped behind him, but before he could outzoom the MiG, it pulled behind him and opened fire, forcing the F-4 to dive away. The F-4 and the MiG went through several more vertical maneuvers; Showtime 100 took a chance in one of the zooms and slowed down rapidly; the MiG flew in front of him, and Showtime 100 had his fifth kill, which made the crew the first American aces of the Vietnam War.
Showtime 100 then turned and joined with another F-4 in the area and departed; on the way out, they passed very close behind several more MiGs, but low on fuel and without a gun for a quick kill, the F-4s had to continue out. At the coast Showtime 100 was hit by a SAM that knocked out its hydraulics, but he was able to get off shore and eject. The crew was picked up by a helicopter.
The Navy plan had worked to perfection; supported by the jamming of the North Vietnamese GCI, the well-trained Navy pilots shot down eight MiGs without losing an aircraft. In the melee several F-4s were very close to MiGs and reported they would have had several more easy kills if they had had a cannon. Most of the kills were in dogfights with the supposedly more agile MiG-17s, and all of the kills had come with AIM-9s; it was a stunning success for the Navy’s post–Rolling Thunder training program.
At the end of the first day of Linebacker, six U.S. aircraft had been lost, two to MiGs. U.S. fighters had shot down eleven MiGs for their biggest day of the war, but the day had not been a good one for the Air Force. Despite their Tree equipment, they shot down only three MiGs for the loss of two F-4s. The loss of Oyster 1 had been especially disturbing; he had been a wing weapons officer at Udorn and was generally acknowledged as a “guru” of the 432nd tactics and the most knowledgeable pilot in the wing about the Combat Tree system. He had scored his third kill just before he was shot down, and he appeared to have been well on his way to being the first Air Force ace. After the back seater was picked up and explained how the front seater had deliberately ridden the aircraft down rather than take a chance on being captured and interrogated by the North Vietnamese, no one was surprised—“He was that kind of guy” was the common opinion.
The next day, May 11, the MiGs were active again, and the North Vietnamese tried new tactics. Tuna, a flight of four Iron Hand F-105Gs, was inbound into the target area when they were fired on by a barrage of unguided SAMs; distracted, the F-105s failed to see two MiG-21s attacking from below, and one of the MiGs shot down Tuna 4 with an Atoll. A few minutes later, a MiGCAP flight, Gopher 1 and Gopher 2, pursed an aircraft they could not identify. Gopher 1 closed to make an ID pass from the rear: as he approached he saw the target was a MiG-21, so he broke away and cleared Gopher 2 to fire an AIM-7. Seconds after Gopher 2 fired, he saw a missile hit Gopher 1 in the rear and down the F-4. This distracted Gopher 2’s attention, and he did not see the result of his missile. During postmission debriefings the possibility was raised that Gopher 1 had been hit by the other F-4’s malfunctioning AIM-7. (It was not until over two years later that the event was successfully reconstructed. Gopher 1 had been hit by an Atoll from a trailing MiG-21, unseen by either of the F-4s, and Gopher 2’s AIM-7 had hit the lead MiG—probably a decoy—and destroyed him.)
The following day the F-4s continued to have missile problems but still scored. Harlow, a four-ship F-4D MiGCAP, was flying near Yen Bai airfield when they saw four MiG-19s taking off. Harlow 1 attacked the leader and fired four AIM-7s, but all missed. Harlow 2 attacked the other three and fired three AIM-7s at the fourth MiG; the last AIM-7 hit, and the MiG crashed. There was no more MiG activity until May 18, when the Air Force struck a large POL storage area just northeast of Hanoi; using LGBs, the strike flights destroyed more than 5.5 million gallons of fuel. The MiGs were active that day; two flights of F-4Ds on MiGCAP intercepted two MiG-21s and probably damaged one. Fifteen minutes later, four F-4s were engaging a MiG-21 when, in an attack reminiscent of May 10, they were attacked by two MiG19s, who shot down number 4.
Meanwhile, the Navy F-4Bs continued to set a fast pace. That afternoon a section of two Navy F-4Bs, Rock River, was on MiGCAP for an Alpha strike over North Vietnam when it received a call from Red Crown that there were MiGs airborne over Kep airfield. As the F-4s turned toward the airfield, they saw two silver MiG-19s in front of them, in trail at low altitude. Rock River 1 began an attack knowing the MiGs had been using decoys to set up trailing MiGs for attacks, and Rock River 2 went high to cover and look for these trailers.
As Rock River 1 began his attack, the MiGs saw him, jettisoned their external tanks, and began to turn into the F-4. The agile MiGs soon began to outturn Rock River 1, so Rock River 2 moved in to help and fired an AIM-9; the MiGs split up, one turning to defeat the missile and one heading off in the other direction. Each of the F-4s now was in a turning engagement with a MiG-19, and the MiGs were working toward an advantage when, inexplicably (perhaps they lost sight of one of the F-4s), both MiGs rolled out and one flew in front of Rocker River 1. As the F-4 began his attack, the second MiG-19 pulled behind him but in front of Rock River 2. Rock River 2 fired an AIM-9; the missile detonated about five feet behind the MiG and shot him down with an AIM-9.
Unfortunately for the Air Force, on May 20 another aspect of their poor training program reappeared. An F-4D MiGCAP was attacked by two MiG-21s; in a hard break to avoid the MiGs, one of the F-4s—untouched by MiG fire—went out of control because of adverse yaw and crashed. On May 23 MiGs were again very active and challenged both Air Force and Navy strikes. Balter, an Air Force flight of four F-4Es, was assigned as a chaff flight escort, then was supposed to convert to MiGCAP when the chaff flight completed its mission. After completing its escort role uneventfully, Balter was en route to a MiGCAP orbit when the F-4s passed a few miles north of Kep airfield and saw several MiG-17s, -19s, and -21s in the traffic pattern. Balter 1 turned to attack two of the MiG-19s but overshot his original pass and repositioned for a Sparrow shot, dropping low so his radar and missile had a “look up” angle to avoid ground clutter problems. Balter 1 fired two AIM-7s; the first hit and destroyed the MiG. Balter 1 then turned back and found that the MiG-19s had set up a wagon wheel; he made several passes on the wheel without results. As Balter 1 pressed the wheel, Balter 2 saw two MiG-21s attacking and turned to engage. He pulled his F-4 behind one of the MiGs and opened fire with his cannon; the MiG slowly came apart, rolled over to the left, and hit the ground.
The Navy scored well that same afternoon. Rock River, a section of two F-4Bs on the MiGCAP for an Alpha strike on Haiphong, received vectors for MiGs over Kep and turned toward the airfield. As they approached at 3,000 feet, the F-4s passed head on with two MiG-19s; they turned to engage, then found themselves surrounded by MiG-17s. The MiGs had been flying the trail of the MiG-19s, hoping to “sandwich” the F-4s, but they had been too close. The two F-4s were now in a low-altitude engagement with the two MiG-19s and about four MiG-17s. After several turns with the MiGs and after firing two AIM-9s, which the MiGs outmaneuvered, Rock River 1 found a MiG-17 close behind him, firing. The F-4 pulled into the MiG to try to make the MiG overshoot, but this simply allowed the very maneuverable MiG-17 to get in very close. As he closed, Navy training took over. Rock River 1 realized the MiG was pulling so much lead to fire his cannon that the pilot was in a position where he could not see Rock River 1 over his nose; he was simply expecting the F-4 to continue on and flew in front of the F-4, who fired a Sidewinder that blew off the MiG’s tail.
Meanwhile, Rock River 2 had another MiG-17 behind him, so Rock River 1 called for him to accelerate away and fly toward him to “drag” the MiG in front of him. As Rock River 2 accelerated away with the MiG behind him, Rock River 1 pulled behind the North Vietnamese and fired his last missile, not expecting a good result because the missile had not worked in the pretakeoff ground checks. To his surprise the missile guided perfectly and hit the MiG; the MiG pilot ejected, and the F-4s departed the area.