As these photographs graphically shows, the damage inflicted on the stern of the Higbee by Le Xuan Di’s solitary 250-kg bomb was severe. It effectively wrecked the destroyer’s aft 5-in turret, yet miraculously none of the vessel’s crew were killed.
In 1971, Vietnam’s military chiefs laid down the foundations for a special mission intended to deal a blow to the Americans. Ten pilots of the 923rd were picked for special ground-attack training, and with the help of Cuban advisor and pilot ‘Ernesto’ and his groundcrew, the Vietnamese began to train for a strike on shipping. By March 1972, six pilots were capable of flying maritime attack missions. Meanwhile, the 28th Technical Brigade was building a secret airfield at Gat, in Quang Binh province.
The 403rd radar unit was positioned near the Dinh river opposite the port of Nhat Le and given the task of keeping track of US warships.
At 1545 hrs on 18 April 1972, Le Hong Diep and Tu De of the 923rd Fighter Regiment took off from Kep. They flew their MiG-17s to Gia Lam, then on to Vinh and finally to Gat. On arrival the MiGs were quickly camouflaged and given a thorough inspection, before being handed over to the pilots selected for the mission.
Between 2300 and 2350 hrs that same day, Vietnamese radar picked up four US ships approaching the coast of Quang Binh and taking up station between ten and fifteen kilometres from the villages of Quang Xa and Ly Nhan Nam. Pilot Nguyễn Văn Bảy clearly remembers what unfolded;
‘The next day my leader, Lê Xuân Dị, and I were sitting in our MiG-17s preparing for the attack when, at 0930 hrs, the 403rd radar unit reported up to four ships 40 kms from Le Thuy and 120 kms from Dinh, and three ships 80 kms from the Sot river. Due to the foggy weather, we could not take off.
‘At noon the radar unit reported that the ships had moved to the south, and only two remained in position. By 1500 hrs the first group of four ships was 15 kms from Ly Hoa. The second two-ship formation was seven kilometres from Quang Trach, while three more warships were 18 kms from Ly Hoa. A new group of ships was spotted at 1600 hrs 16 kms from Nhat Le.
‘At 1605 hrs we received our orders to take off in the MiG-17s which had been specially converted for the bombing mission by engineer Truong Khanh Chau. We flew towards Hill 280, ten kilometres from the sea, and then turned to starboard. While flying over Ly Hoa, we saw puffs of smoke from the ships, and assumed they were firing at the coast. Le Xuan Di reported to the command that there were two ships in front of us at a distance of 10-12 kms. We received an order to attack.
‘Over the sea Le Xuan Di turned to the left towards the USS Higbee (DD-806) and increased his speed to 800 km/h, while aiming at the ship. At a distance of 750 m he released his bombs and broke to the left. Both of the 250-kg bombs hit the ship. He reported this to ground control, and at 1618 hrs he landed at Gat airfield. His speed was too great, however, and Le Xuan Di overran the landing strip and ended up in the arrester barrier, but fortunately neither he nor his jet was damaged.
‘While Le Xuan Di was attacking his target I flew on, and upon reaching the Dinh river I spotted two ships to the north-east. I was too close, and did not have time for a proper attack, so I overshot them. I had to return for a second pass, dropping my bombs from a distance of 750 m. Le Xuan Di asked me on the radio: “All right?” I answered “Not really”, since I thought I had missed my target. After returning to base at 1622 hrs, I was told that a 30 m-high column of smoke was seen out at sea, and later something burst into flames.’
The attack took just 17 minutes, during which four bombs were dropped on American vessels and four seamen were wounded. Higbee’s superstructure was badly damaged, and the rear gun structure that housed two 5-in guns completely destroyed. The flagship of the Seventh Fleet, USS Oklahoma City (CLG-5) sustained only minor damage. Among the American newspapers that reported the incident on 20 April was The Daily Independent in Long Beach, California;
‘. . . North Vietnamese MiGs, torpedo boats and shore batteries attacked US destroyers off North Vietnam on Wednesday, and the US Command reported one enemy plane was shot down and two torpedo boats were believed sunk. One MiG dropped a 250-lb (actually 250-kg) bomb on the rear deck of the Long Beach-based destroyer Higbee, wounding three sailors and destroying a 5-inch gun mount. Military spokesmen disclosed today that the flagship of the Seventh Fleet, the cruiser Oklahoma City, received minor damage from shrapnel resulting from shore fire. The American destroyers were shelling North Vietnamese coastal targets when the MiGs attacked. Torpedo boats swarming out from shore came under the guns of the guided missile frigate Sterett (DLG-31), the 54 command said.’
Guided missile cruiser Chicago (CG 11) steaming in the Pacific. The warship often served as the fleet’s “Red Crown” ship to monitor and direct U. S. operations in the air over North Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin.
Surface-ship sailors were part of the team that reduced the enemy’s MiG force. from 1965 to 1973 task force 77 positioned a cruiser equipped with advanced radars and communications gear between the enemy coast and the fleet at the PIRAZ (positive identification radar advisory zone) radar picket station. the ship, with the call sign “Red Crown,” tracked all planes over the eastern regions of North Vietnam and the gulf. Despite this precaution, in April 1972 two North Vietnamese MiG-17s attacked destroyer Higbee (DD 806), one of which dropped a bomb on the ship, wounding four sailors. A surface-to-air missile fired by cruiser Sterett (CG 31) positioned nearby then downed one of the assailants. [see note] Red Crown often alerted navy and air force aircraft of approaching MiGs and then sent escorting fighters to the rescue. senior Chief radarman Larry Nowell, serving on board guided missile cruiser Chicago (CG 11) in August 1972, received the navy Distinguished service medal for helping American air units destroy 12 North Vietnamese MiGs.
Despite the best efforts of naval aviators, fleet sailors, and air force fliers, the multiyear Rolling Thunder, Linebacker, and other major air operations did not achieve their primary objective of cutting enemy supply lines. moreover, the air war cost the death or capture of 881 naval aviators and the loss of 900 aircraft. The campaigns, however, undoubtedly destroyed an enormous amount of war material, delayed and weakened Communist ground offensives throughout Indochina, and finally persuaded Hanoi to negotiate an end to the war.
In reprisal for the Vietnamese success, the Americans attacked Dong Hoi on 19 April and the airfield at Vinh the following day. A few days later US pilots discovered the airfield at Gat, and up to 30 aircraft bombed it. One MiG-17 was damaged.