The air war transcended the borders of Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia, where similar insurgencies threatened the two royal governments. While each air campaign was considered a sideshow to the war in Vietnam, both provided vital assistance to America’s allies who were each fighting a growing Communist threat. The air war in Laos was significantly connected to the air campaigns in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Cambodia. The Royal Laotian Government required American assistance in fighting its own insurgents, the Pathet Lao, while the southern region of Laos served as a conduit between North and South Vietnam and Cambodia via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As a result, the air war was divided into two distinct missions: ground support in the north and interdiction in the south.
After the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, the United States decided once again to increase involvement in the struggle between the Pathet Lao and forces loyal to the Royal Laotian Government. American aircraft had already been engaged in northern Laos, flying armed reconnaissance missions in support of neutralist generals Kong Le and Vang Pao, both of whom were loyal to the Royal Laotian Government. The Government forces relied on American firepower, through Operation Barrel Roll, to serve as an equalizer to the better-equipped and motivated Pathet Lao, North Vietnamese, and occasional Chinese forces involved in the fight.
Interdiction was the predominant type of air sortie in the south. Operation Steel Tiger, which began on April 3, 1965, focused on interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Using existing intelligence, aircraft bombed the trails and roads, conveys, and depots established in military regions III and IV. Despite the high number of sorties flown and tonnage dropped, North Vietnamese traffic through Laos actually increased. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was of the highest strategic value for the war in Vietnam, and resources were diverted to the region to maintain trail activity. On December 6, 1965, part of the Steel Tiger area of responsibility was handed over to General Westmoreland to better coordinate air and ground interdiction missions. Operation Tiger Hound concentrated on interdiction, but also focused on the need to bottleneck North Vietnamese supplies at the major passes between North Vietnam and Laos. Even if the United States could not destroy the Trail complex, it could at least slow down the progression of supplies and personnel.
When Johnson halted bombing missions over North Vietnam in November 1968, Laos was the beneficiary of a surplus of aircraft and personnel. As a result, the United States shifted operations to Laos and initiated Operation Commando Hunt on November 15, 1968. The objective of this air campaign was interdiction and focused on the region between the 16th and 18th parallels. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, which had developed from a series of foot-trails to a well-established network of roads, trails, and pathways with truck stops, storage facilities, and rest areas, was the primary target. Commando Hunt created a serious obstacle to the movement of personnel and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but it did not achieve its ultimate objective of shutting down the transit system. The air operation did throw off the North Vietnamese timetable for its 1969 offensive, and provided a period of time for Nixon’s Vietnamization program to develop. In the end, however, it did not prove to be a deciding factor in the war’s conclusion.
American air asserts were next challenged during the failed Lam Son 719 operation in which the United States attempted to test Vietnamization using South Vietnamese troops to capture the strategic Laotian town of Tchepone. United States efforts were hampered by the December 1970 Cooper-Church Amendment to the defense appropriations bill, which prohibited American troops from entering Laos or American advisors from accompanying their ARVN counterparts into action. However, the amendment did not include air assets. While the ground operation failed, American helicopters managed to extract a number of soldiers from their precarious positions deep within Laotian territory, losing more than 100 of the aircraft in the process.
The Laotian air campaigns are noteworthy for the several variables that restricted American action. As a result of the 1962 Geneva Agreements that underwrote Laotian neutrality, most of the United States missions were not publicized. This secret war in Laos made it difficult to expose North Vietnamese violations of Laotian neutrality, as American personnel and aircraft were not technically allowed in that air space. Topography and weather also played an important role in the air campaigns. Laos was a rugged country with a primitive road network and a monsoon season that dictated the opportunity, and type, of air sorties. The wet season, April to November, isolated troops on both sides as the dirt roads turned to mud and the rivers became impassable. The numerically inferior Royal Laotian Army used American air mobility during this season to launch offensive operations against the Pathet Lao. Transporting the royal forces by air, American aircraft bypassed the quagmire created by the monsoons to engage isolated Pathet Lao units who were often cut off from retreat or reinforcement. During the dry season, November to April, United States airpower was used defensively to help against the numerically superior and offensively minded Pathet Lao and NVA troops.
While the air campaign in Laos failed to achieve its objectives, it was a necessary part of the United States’ war in Vietnam. Laos was strategically significant to the war in Vietnam and was also experiencing an insurgency within its borders. To aid South Vietnam but neglect Laos would have been an anathema to American foreign policy. There were over 500,000 American sorties and 2 million tons of munitions delivered on Laos during the course of the air campaign. While this was not enough to maintain the government or interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it did force the North Vietnamese to divert a tremendous amount of resources to the region to maintain the Pathet Lao and keep the Trail open. It is certain that the North Vietnamese needed these resources for the war in South Vietnam and the diversion proved costly for the North Vietnamese war effort.
As the American war in Vietnam wound down, so did the air war in Laos. On February 21, 1975, the United States signed a cease-fire agreement with the Pathet Lao. By August, the Pathet Lao had overrun the country and established the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
The Air War in Cambodia
Cambodia also presented a unique challenge to the United States in Southeast Asia. Under Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia had pledged neutrality in the Vietnam War but, through its actions, had established a close, and profitable, alliance with North Vietnam. By allowing North Vietnamese supplies and personnel to transit the country, as well as ignoring the establishment of Viet Cong base areas along the Cambodian–South Vietnam border, Cambodia had exposed itself to the brunt of American escalation. The Johnson administration failed to react to these blatant violations of neutrality, and did not make any response to the changing stance of Sihanouk. It was not until Richard Nixon entered the White House that American airpower was brought to bear on Cambodia. While the air campaign in Cambodia was effective, it arrived too late to change the course of the Vietnam War, and helped to push Cambodia toward a dark and torturous future.
In July 1968, General Creighton Abrams, who had assumed command of MACV, requested an air campaign to destroy the North Vietnamese sanctuaries that had been established within a three- to ten-mile area inside the Cambodian border. Operation Menu, broken down into missions called Breakfast, Lunch, Supper, Dessert, and Snack, commenced on March 18, 1969. Because Cambodia still proclaimed neutrality in the war, Menu remained secret until May 2, 1970 when The New York Times ran a story about the damage inflicted by the air campaign. During Menu, American and South Vietnamese aircraft delivered approximately 120,000 tons of bombs on the North Vietnamese base areas. While the sanctuaries were not permanently destroyed, the bombing did disrupt the planned 1969 offensive against South Vietnam, which was to originate from Cambodia.
On April 30, 1970, Nixon announced that the United States had begun a limited incursion into Cambodia, with the objective of locating and destroying North Vietnamese and Viet Cong personnel and base areas. The incursion had come at the request of Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, who had succeeded in replacing Sihanouk on March 18, 1970. During the offensive, there were 12 named air operations concentrating around two of the points of incursion, the Parrot’s Beak and the Fish Hook. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong personnel, base areas, and supply depots were located and destroyed; however, the main fighting forces were not. Airpower did play a decisive role, however, in limiting American and South Vietnamese casualties during the 60-day operation.
As the incursion continued, the Joint Chiefs of Staff formulated a new air campaign designed to interdict North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces attempting to enter South Vietnam via Cambodia. Operation Freedom Deal, which absorbed Menu, concentrated on the area of greatest concern for the Cambodian Army and American armed forces. Freedom Deal was marked by the conflicting nature of the air war. It relied on quick and accurate intelligence to strike at the enemy, but also took great care not to damage or destroy culturally significant structures or artifacts in the region. In many respects, the United States tried to fight a culturally sensitive war against an enemy who used this restriction to its advantage. As the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong began to avoid Freedom Deal strike areas, General Abrams expanded and renamed the operation to Freedom Action.
Freedom Action began on June 20, and stopped at the end of the month when the last of the American forces withdrew from Cambodia. This air campaign, which delivered approximately 384,000 tons of munitions combined with the incursion, did disrupt North Vietnam’s ability to use Cambodia as a launching point for further attacks directed against South Vietnam. After 1970, the United States used its airpower to aid the Royal Cambodia Government in its battle against the Khmer Rouge, a Communist insurgency similar to the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. After the incursion, the Khmer Rouge became more of a threat to Cambodia’s stability as the North Vietnamese provided greater assistance to the group. While American airpower continued to serve as an equalizer, it did not diminish the insurgency. FANK forces became dependent on American military assistance and airpower in their fight. When this support was halted as a result of the Public Law 93-53, which prohibited the funding of United States operations in Cambodia after August 15, 1973, the Khmer Rouge swept through Cambodia. Lon Nol’s forces surrendered on April 17, 1975 and, when Phnom Penh fell, the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, ushered in a reign of terror unprecedented in that country’s long history.
Air War in South Vietnam
While the air campaigns in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam required an extraordinary effort to maintain, they did not match the variety of air assets used in South Vietnam. The United States dominated the skies and, as a result, was able to effectively utilize airpower not only for attack and ground support but also in a variety of ways that buttressed the American effort in Southeast Asia. Airmobility, search-and-rescue, defoliation, and tactical airlift all played a significant role in the air war and allowed the United States to use its resources effectively. The greatest advantage the United States held was in firepower, which became an important part of the ground support mission in South Vietnam.
The nature of the United States’ build-up in South Vietnam, one of gradualism, coupled with the strategy of attrition (that is, destroying more of the enemy than he can replace) increased the significance of ground support missions in South Vietnam. Over a six-year period, from 1963 to 1968, American forces in Southeast Asia increased from 16,000 to 543,000. After the introduction of combat forces in March 1965, the mission changed from advice and defense to limited, and then active, engagement of the enemy. The objective of the air war in South Vietnam was to apply continuous pressure on the enemy as American forces built up strength, and to support the overall attrition strategy. As a result, airpower was present in all named military ground operations throughout the war. Because the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong seldom concentrated in force for a long period of time, direct military engagements were brief and the delineation of battlefronts was often blurred. American airpower, often in the form of ground support missions, helped the United States forces identify, locate, and then destroy enemy targets while lessening the exposure to American troops. Within this air campaign, Arc Light missions became one of the United States’ most potent, if not controversial, weapons.
Using B-52 bombers, the Strategic Air Command initiated Arc Light missions on June 18, 1965 in South Vietnam. The B-52 was noteworthy for the amount of munitions it could deliver over a target. As General Westmoreland described them, Arc Light missions were designed, “to assist in the defeat of the enemy through maximum destruction, disruption, and harassment of major control centers, supply storage facilities, logistic systems, enemy troops, and lines of communication in selected target areas.” The number of B-52 sorties supporting Arc Light missions increased during the war. By 1968, using the model F series, a flight of three B-52s over a pre-determined target could deliver approximately 114,750lb of munitions. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong stationed in South Vietnam did not have an effective defense against the B-52, and rarely did they receive warning of a planned attack. Surprise and the overwhelming firepower made the Arc Light missions a valuable weapon in the war, but there were some disadvantages. B-52s were not designed for precision bombing but, rather, to carry nuclear warheads against the Soviet Union. Carpeting an area with 153 750-lb bombs (each B-52F carried 51 bombs) often meant over-saturation of the target and sometimes resulted in the destruction or death of unintended targets. The mission, however, was vital to American strategy in Vietnam, and helped serve as a critical component to the American war in Southeast Asia.
If the B-52 represented American firepower in Vietnam, the helicopter became the symbol of American airmobility in the Vietnam War. Its introduction to the battlefield changed the strategy and tactics of how to fight a war. The helicopter was introduced into Vietnam in December 1961 as a means to move ARVN troops. As the war escalated, its role increased. The UH-1 Iroquois was the most recognized helicopter of the war. The “Huey” was a utility helicopter and was modified for a number of missions beyond transportation, including fire support, search-and-rescue, medical evacuation, defoliation, and reconnaissance missions. Another helicopter employed in the war was the AH-1 Cobra.
Usually organized into assault helicopter companies or within two airmobile divisions, the helicopter was a formidable weapon of the air war because of its significant firepower capability. Helicopters served as a troop multiplier when the United States was building up its forces, and an equalizer to the many obstacles and hazards presented by Vietnam’s topography. The helicopter made it possible for American forces and their allies to operate in the rice paddies, highlands, jungles, and bush of Vietnam.
The ability to move troops over inhospitable terrain quickly often resulted in surprising enemy forces. Rather than have to exhaust a force by land movement, the helicopter brought fresh troops to the field of battle and extracted casualties. The helicopter, as well as a dedicated fleet of fixed-wing transport aircraft, enabled the resupply of remote sites and forces operating in areas inaccessible by land. Airmobility allowed the United States to take the battle to the enemy, even if it meant that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would have the option of choosing the terrain on which to engage the United States. As a result, there was no place in South Vietnam that was free from the threat of an American operation.
Another air campaign in South Vietnam involved the dispensing of herbicides to clear vegetation used by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to their advantage. By destroying the brush around heavily used roads, base camps, and villages, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces were exposed to American and South Vietnamese firepower. These defoliation missions also destroyed food supplies used by the Southern insurgents to sustain themselves during the war. The first defoliation mission occurred on November 28, 1961, in response to Viet Cong ambushes in the Mekong Delta. The United States Air Force modified six C-123 aircraft for the mission, which was deemed successful enough for continuation. The herbicide missions came under a new operation called Ranch Hand, which began on January 12, 1962. While the United States attempted many different types of defoliation missions, to include hand- and helicopter-mounted spray units, the slow-moving, but steady, C-123 proved to be the most efficient aircraft for the mission. Ranch Hand continued until 1971, spraying millions of acres with herbicides. The mission was successful in exposing enemy locations, destroying enemy food resources, and providing safer access along contested roads and canals. The effects of the herbicides have been controversial in the postwar period: some evidence has suggested that the chemicals used in the herbicides have caused long-term disease in those exposed to the spraying. While that controversy continues to elicit intense debate, it is fair to say that the defoliation of enemy terrain lessened the threat of casualty to American soldiers and their allies during the war. If the defoliation operation raised questions about the application of airpower during the war, other missions highlighted the usefulness of American air assets.
There is perhaps no more inspiring story of duty and courage than those involved in search-and-rescue in Vietnam. Those members of the Aerospace Rescue and Recover Service and supporting personnel risked their lives to save downed pilots and assist those injured in the line of duty. They also provided reassurance that aid was never too far away for those in distress.
Search-and-rescue missions began in Vietnam on April 1, 1962, and lasted the duration of the war. As the air war escalated, search-and-rescue operations expanded to Laos and Cambodia, and included non-military organizations such as Air America, Civil Air Transport, and Continental Air Service. Personnel earned numerous distinctions, including one Medal of Honor earned by Airman First Class William H. Pitsenbarger for his action near Cam My on April 11, 1966. When the 1st Infantry Division engaged the enemy and began suffering casualties, Pitsenbarger’s unit was called in to assist. He rode a hoist over 100 feet to the jungle floor where he then coordinated rescue and medical efforts. Pitsenbarger continued evacuating the wounded, refusing his own extraction until all were recovered, even after one of the two helicopters assisting the effort was damaged and forced to leave the battlefield. When the Viet Cong assaulted the position, Pitsenbarger, while defending himself, continued to aid the wounded, often exposing himself to enemy fire. Despite being wounded three times, Pitsenbarger continued his duties. The fighting was so fierce that the unit suffered 80 percent casualties. When the perimeter was breached, Pitsenbarger was fatally wounded.
Pitsenbarger’s decision to stay with the troops and help the wounded, rather than evacuate, resulted in his death. As his Medal of Honor citation reads, “His bravery and determination exemplify the highest professional standards and traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Air Force.” The courage and sacrifice of the search-and-rescue teams was remarkable; Airman First Class William H. Pitsenbarger was one of the many thousands whose job it was to ensure that the wounded soldier or airman received the fastest and best care available.
Whether the air war during the Vietnam War was successful is a matter of perspective. If one includes all of the air campaigns in Southeast Asia, combat as well as non-combat sorties, a positive answer is more likely. Aircraft, in a ground support role, allowed the United States to pursue a strategy of attrition, but that strategy was fraught with error. Laos and Cambodia surely would not have survived as long as they did without air assets to serve as troop multipliers and provide ground support but, in the end, each suffered a similar fate to South Vietnam.
The use of aircraft in non-military missions provided significant advances for modern warfare. Medical airlift, search-and-rescue, and tactical airlift were extremely successful, and provided services to the armed forces that were without precedent. However, neither the bombing campaigns against North Vietnam nor the interdiction missions influenced events as the United States had hoped. The air war did not stop North Vietnamese aggression, nor did it save the South. Even if one concedes that these actions were not specific to the objectives of the air campaigns, it is fair to assess the air war within these parameters. Success and failure are often measured in inches; in Vietnam, such fine distinctions are lost in the tragedy of war.