A half century has gone by since Rolling Thunder broke over North Vietnam. Frustrated by continual attacks against American installations in South Vietnam and the increasing support of Viet Cong in the South by the communist regime in the North, the Johnson administration decided to take action. An air campaign designed to apply slowly increasing pressure on North Vietnam by moving attacks farther and farther north was ordered, a campaign to be executed gradually, like a line of thunderstorms advancing across the countryside—thus, Rolling Thunder.
Success would be achieved when the offensive forced the North Vietnamese to meet at the negotiating table and stop supporting the Viet Cong. U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine airmen flying from bases in Thailand and South Vietnam and from aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin were to apply that pressure in the North by disrupting supply routes and destroying resources that facilitated aggression in the South. Specific targets included electric power, war-supporting industry, transportation, military complexes, petroleum storage facilities, and air defenses.
Unfortunately, the campaign was compromised and circumscribed by unprecedented micromanagement emanating from the White House and the Pentagon and relayed through the cumbersome chain of command to the pilots and aircrewmen trying to do their jobs in the actual theater of war. At the start of the campaign, prohibited bombing zones were established around Hanoi and Haiphong, within 25 to 30 miles of the Chinese border, and in other areas. There was also a requirement for specific approval from Washington and the commander-in-chief, Pacific, in Hawaii to strike individual targets above the 19th parallel, which was about 175 miles north of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam..
Most aircrews were not particularly discomfited with such rules. That was more a bother for commanders. Flying one or two combat flights each day, the aircrews on the line had enough to do with the missions available. It was the weather that more directly affected them. During long periods of the year, November through March, monsoon-driven fog and overcast precluded visual strikes, and the only truly all-weather aircraft, the A-6 Intruder, was just making its first appearance. In these frequent bad-weather periods the North Vietnamese had ample opportunity to rebuild roads and bridges, replenish munitions, and send support south.
Initial Attacks to Alpha Strikes
Southeast Asia was not entirely new to American airmen. In 1955 a Marine unit delivered AD Skyraiders to the French in Da Nang for use against the Viet Minh insurgency, and in the later 1950s there were reconnaissance flights from carriers, by Navy patrol planes operating from the Philippines, and by the Air Force. In 1960 a Navy group was established in Saigon to train the South Vietnamese in the Skyraider. Then in 1964, in response to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and other aggressions, U.S. aircraft flew several retaliatory strikes.
In April 1965, Rolling Thunder officially commenced with attacks on targets in southern North Vietnam by Air Force planes flying from their shore bases and by Navy aircraft flying from Task Force 77 carriers operating in the Gulf of Tonkin—“Yankee Station.” Soon thereafter “Dixie Station” was established off the coast of South Vietnam, a point from which assigned carriers launched air support for ground forces fighting the Viet Cong in the South.
Both the bombing of North Vietnam and air support for troops in South Vietnam continued for the rest of 1965, the former evermore constrained by rules guided by the belief that by applying gradual military pressure “We can get the signal through to convince North Vietnam to stop attacking its neighbor.” When that didn’t seem to work, the United States attempted to bring Hanoi to the peace table by using a different tactic: A bombing halt was declared over the Christmas season of 1965. That also failed.
It did work for the North Vietnamese, however. During the pause they installed new antiaircraft artillery (AAA or flak) and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites; improved and increased other air defenses; reconstructed and improved roads and bridges; put most of their petroleum, oil, and lubricants (POL) storage underground; dispersed their military-support base; and sent increasing amounts of matériel to South Vietnam via a winding route through mountains and jungle along the Laotian border that came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Aircrews were the unwilling beneficiaries of all this when Rolling Thunder operations resumed on 31 January 1966. Although there was a plethora of targets, such as newly reconstructed roads, bridges, and storage sites, on the minus side there was more intense flak on almost every mission and as time went by more and more SAM sites were built. Also, the mission had subtly changed. No longer was the goal merely to encourage the North to negotiate; now it was interdiction to shut off the supply of men and matériel to South Vietnam. Operations, however, were still mostly restricted to the southern half of North Vietnam, and most Navy missions continued to be flown in connection with cyclic operations; that is, a launch and a recovery every 1.75 hours within a 12-hour flying day for each ship. To effect more complete coverage, flying days were staggered among the several carriers on station so that there would be some effort over North Vietnam at all hours. In the first half of 1966, very few large “Alpha,” or “Alfa,” strikes were flown, but that began to change at the end of June.
On 29 June, Task Force 77 aircraft hit the Haiphong POL, up to that time out of bounds. Results were spectacular. Fireballs lifting from the exploded tanks were caught on camera and the photographs published in Newsweek. Smoke rose to 20,000 feet. That success seemed to break the ice with the authorities in Washington, and from then on an increasingly higher percentage of Task Force 77 effort was in the form of Alpha strikes—large multi-plane, often full-deckload, efforts against POL, electric-generating stations, bridges, storage sites, missile emplacements, and a few smaller airfields.
When Alpha strikes weren’t tasked or the weather closed in, road and waterway reconnaissance, searching out traffic, truck parks, moving barges, and bridges continued. When all else failed, ordnance was used on not-very-effective road cuts.
None of this pushed the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table. They were dug in, determined, and resilient. Though aircrews were also determined, they more and more came to the realization that “We aren’t going to end this war by catching Ho Chi Minh under a manhole cover.” (When the air-raid sirens sounded in urban areas, many North Vietnamese would climb down manholes to seek shelter underground).
Nevertheless, aircrews pressed on. Aircraft continued to fly “over the beach” and deliver ordnance as directed despite the losses of too many friends and shipmates.
Defenses and Countermeasures
North Vietnamese opposition mostly consisted of AAA—lots of it. While generally increasing in intensity as one got closer to Vinh, Thanh Hoa, Haiphong, or Hanoi, it could be expected everywhere. Every peasant, it seemed, had a gun. Artillery from 12.7-mm to 105-mm abounded. Aircrews could tell which kind it was by the color of the bursts—black for 105-mm, white for 88-mm, a stream of tracers for 12.7- and 35-mm—and countered it when they could by weaving and jinking. Over some targets the flak was so thick it looked like newsreel scenes of World War II B-17 raids on Berlin. The only choice was to press on . . . and there is no record of anyone ever turning back. The smaller the caliber, the greater the rate of fire, and the 12.7-mm tracers coming up, especially at dusk, looked like a stream from a garden hose. Sometimes larger aircraft standing off from the action could jam targeting radar, but the best defenses against the flak were to stay high until close to the target and to weave and jink continuously while over land. Still, more Navy and Air Force aircraft were lost to flak than to any other North Vietnamese defensive system.
SAMs were always a concern but not a real problem until mid-1966. By the middle of 1967 as many as 80 SAMs would be launched against just one strike. While some aircraft were indeed lost to them, their more lethal effect was to drive the attacking planes down into the AAA envelope as they maneuvered to evade the missiles.
When Navy carrier aircraft first deployed to Southeast Asia they had no specific defense against SAMs other than what the pilots called “The Mark 1 Eyeball” and maneuver. Everyone was well aware that electronic warfare (EW) was the key to defense against the missiles, but without any such defenses on board attacking aircraft, their pilots had to depend on remotely stationed EW aircraft such as the EA-3B Skywarrior operating from the carrier, the Marine EF-10B (later the EA-6A) operating from Da Nang or Chu Lai, or U.S. Air Force aircraft. These were standoff platforms and advisory in nature. Active on-board defense was needed, and fortunately bright people back home knew the problem and came up with quick fixes.
Even while deployed, new electronic warfare (EW) systems were installed that proved their worth almost immediately. Aircrews now received both a visual (a red light on the instrument glare shield) and an aural warning when either a SAM or AAA radar was active. Another kind of warning sounded when a SAM was tracking, shifting tone when the pulse repetition rate changed. This was paralleled with a strobe on a small cockpit-mounted scope showing the direction the SAM was tracking. Thus there was afforded an opportunity for maneuver and evasion. Also, an automatic feature on board aircraft spread the radar blip on an enemy launch team’s weapons-tracking radar, thus complicating the AAA gunfire solution. Once the aircrews gained confidence in these systems, no one wanted to go over the beach without them. Nevertheless, with or without AAA and SAM warning, as soon as any aircraft crossed the beach, jinking and weaving would begin.
Aside from maneuvering and on-board EW equipment, the AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missile carried by specially equipped A-4, A-6, and, later, A-7 aircraft proved effective. The Shrike was designed to take out a SAM battery’s guidance radar. Very often a radar operator detecting a Shrike would shut down his equipment, causing a miss—not as good as a kill, but okay. Without the radar the SAM wouldn’t guide and the strike group could get in and out of the target area with either no missiles launched or SAMs launched without guidance. Very soon special two-plane sections of A-4s (later, A-7s) with Shrikes, called “Iron Hands,” would accompany each strike
A third concern for attacking aircraft, much publicized but not nearly so lethal, were North Vietnamese MiGs—MiG-17s and MiG-21s. They did not oppose many strikes, and Navy attack aircraft never considered them a major threat because they never disrupted a carrier-plane strike. Navy fighters—F-4 Phantom IIs and F-8 Crusaders—looked for them and did shoot down some. To them goes the credit for keeping the MiGs that did show themselves off the backs of attack aircraft.
To each squadron any loss was heartbreaking, but overall, despite the heavy defenses, losses to enemy AAA, SAMs, and MiGs were not catastrophic and never compromised performance on the part of the rest of the aircrews. When a loss did occur, perhaps two to three per squadron per cruise on average, shipmates would fill the gap until a replacement arrived from home and a new aircraft could fly out from Cubi Point in the Phillipines. Morale in individual squadrons remained high.
Hitting Northern Targets
Strike tactics would vary a bit among air wings, but rendezvous after launch generally would be over the carrier with separate altitudes for different squadrons. Once the group assembled, the strike leader would head toward the “coast-in” point and the fighters would take on fuel. The main body of the group—the attack aircraft—would cruise in loose formation at about 14,000 feet, the fighters weaving to maintain a good cruise speed and slightly above and behind. Nearing the coast, the leader would initiate a gentle weave, back and forth and up and down. In the event of intense flak or SAMs, the weave would become more vigorous. Approaching the target, the group would begin a gentle descent, still weaving, to reach about 12,000 feet at the roll-in point.
A few miles before reaching the target, the fighters (assuming there were no known MiGs in the vicinity) would accelerate ahead to roll in on the target’s gun defenses, dropping their bombs, generally four 500- or 750-pounders with variable-time fuses, two set high and two set low, to detonate just as the attack aircraft were rolling in on the main target. The attack aircraft rolled in immediately behind the fighters, attempting to achieve a 50-degree dive and a bomb release at 5,000 feet. All attackers endeavored to be out of their dive by 2,000 feet and banking hard to the pre-briefed retirement direction, generally toward the coast. Strike aircraft would then make a running rendezvous by sections (two aircraft) and head for the water. Once “feet wet,” aircraft would check one another for hung ordnance or battle damage. Happiness was being overhead the ship followed by landing, the intelligence debrief, and a hearty snack in the wardroom.
Before 1967, or when the weather was too unfavorable to hit the primary target, secondary targets in better weather areas—usually in the more southern part of North Vietnam—were attacked. In these instances, targets would be assigned to four-plane divisions, and if the mission was some sort of reconnaissance, road reconnaissance say, tasking would devolve to two-plane sections. For such missions, one aircraft would scout low while the other remained high, ready to dive and attack any fleeting target the low plane may have spotted.
Each strike and each cycle of combat operations was supported by a number of other units. On larger strikes an RA-5C Vigilante would make a pass over the target immediately after the strike group departed to take photos for battle-damage assessment. At least one E2 Hawkeye would be airborne to coordinate tanking and search and rescue (SAR) should that be necessary. One or two KA-3 Skywarriors would be available for tanking, routine to extend the range of fighters and emergency for any battle-damaged aircraft. Several helicopters were airborne from the carrier, other supporting ships, and frequently the Air Force for rescue, sometimes far inshore. During large strikes, Marine EF-10B Skyknights, and later EA-6A Prowlers based in South Vietnam and Air Force early-warning aircraft based in Thailand, would assist. Then, in the northern Gulf of Tonkin, a pilot information and radar advisory zone (PIRAZ) cruiser or guided-missile frigate would broadcast MiG warnings, advise when aircraft were getting too close to the Chinese border, and assist in SAR with their on-board helos and radar vectors.
Action Down South
Not all of the Navy’s air effort was over North Vietnam. Task Force 77 maintained one carrier at Dixie Station, a point in the South China Sea on about the same latitude as Saigon, from which air support was flown to friendly forces in South Vietnam. From aircrews’ perspective, the South was a very permissive environment with only occasional small-arms fire—“a piece of cake.” The assigned carrier was usually new to the theater or one just coming out of R&R, and the missions were a kind of warm-up for the bigger show at Yankee Station. Later, some Dixie Station missions were actually flown from Yankee Station.
Weapons included napalm for use against bunkers, cluster bomb units (CBU) for structures, 500-pound bombs against training areas or troops in the open, and 1,000-pound bombs with daisy cutters for clearing helicopter landing zones. In the event the forward air control (FAC) had been fired on, 20-mm cannons might be used.
The main hazard over the South was congestion caused by so many aircraft in the vicinity of any one target. Often two simultaneous patterns would be over the same target, one working clockwise, the other counterclockwise. For the aircrews, which were delivering their ordnance against targets they often couldn’t see, there was no “psychic income,” as there was against most targets up north, where when a bomb was dropped or missile fired something usually blew up. None of the above, by the way, should be confused with close-air support missions flown later in the war in support of Marines on the ground in the I Corps area. Those missions were anything but a warm-up.
Carriers, Aircraft, and Morale
Throughout Rolling Thunder the Navy kept three to four carriers on station. Their capabilities ranged between the Enterprise (CVN-65), the largest carrier then sailing, to a number of World War II–vintage Essex-class carriers with the “27 Charlie” and 127 modifications: angled deck, steam catapults, and the optical landing system. Fighters on the larger ships were F-4 Phantoms IIs, while F-8 Crusaders flew from the 27Cs. Light attack aircraft were the A-4Bs, Cs, and Es until late in 1967 when A-7 Corsair IIs began replacing them. Some ships flew A-4s until the end of the war, however. Medium-attack A-6 Intruders deployed as early as 1965 but only on board the larger ships and then only with a lot of growing pains. Once problems were sorted out, they became a mainstay, especially at night and in bad weather. First flown in 1948, A-1 Skyraiders deployed on board Task Force (TF) 77 ships throughout Rolling Thunder but were gradually replaced by Intruders on board larger carriers. Smaller carriers continued to carry Skyraiders until the end of the war, albeit they were used almost exclusively in-country and for SAR.
To keep three to four carriers on the line, at least seven had to be deployed. In addition to the four, one of the other three would be at Cubi Point, one at Hong Kong and one at Yokosuka, Japan. The latter had the only real ship repair facility in the western Pacific, with an aircraft repair facility close by, although lighter maintenance and less extensive alternations could be effected in Cubi as well. As for crew liberty, no one seemed to complain about any of the three ports.
By and large, morale was good throughout TF 77, especially among the aircrewmen who were doing what they had been trained to do. There were a few who left when their obligated service was complete, but by and large they never flinched from their duty while in TF 77. Only a very few aviators decided that air combat was not for them. Their reasons were many and varied, but unrest and student demonstrations at home seemed to be least among them. As for “Hanoi Hannah” and her radio broadcasts, we thought they were uproariously funny.
What was not so funny were the constraints put on those who flew over North Vietnam. While proceeding to a target on a clear summer day with good visibility, it was tough to see fat freighters lying at the piers in Haiphong and not be able to hit them. The supplies offloaded soon would be going down the Ho Chi Minh Trail by truck and backpack to support the Viet Cong, and U.S. aircrews would be expected to ferret them out in bits and pieces somewhere in a mountainous and canopied jungle. It was tough knowing that SAMs and other ordnance were arriving from China but striking them wasn’t allowed within the buffer zone along that border. It was tough only to be allowed to hit the targets approved in Washington, even though, admittedly, there were otherwise enough targets go to around.
Rolling Thunder ended officially on 1 October 1968, but strikes below the 19th parallel continued at a less intense pace until 1972, when President Richard Nixon initiated Operation Linebacker I. That was followed by Linebacker II—the 1972 “Christmas Bombings” of Hanoi—which finally drove the North Vietnamese to the Paris negotiating table and eventually allowed TF 77 to retire from the Gulf of Tonkin.
Much has been written about the micromanagement of the air war, but for those on the line flying one and two missions a day, though frustrated with bombing restrictions, that fight was left to TF 77 seniors in Saigon and Hawaii. It was only with the outcome of the Hanoi Christmas Bombings that what might have been became apparent.
Then and Now
All of that is behind us now. With only ten carriers in the entire fleet, we probably never again will see as many of the ships in one theater as we did in the Gulf of Tonkin. On the other hand, during the Vietnam War weaponeers would calculate how many bombs it would take to destroy one target. Now it’s the number of targets that can be destroyed with one aircraft’s weapons load. Massive Alpha strikes are a thing of the past. Except for the A-6, night and bad-weather flying over North Vietnam was more of a hazard than flak, missiles, or MiGs. Flying combat in all weather is now routine and expected.
So what did Rolling Thunder accomplish? Not so much. A lot of ordnance was expended, vast quantities of materials of various sorts were used up, and hundreds of aircraft were lost to both operational accidents and combat. Air Force and naval aviators lost their lives by the score, and hundreds more became prisoners in Hanoi. Nevertheless, all those who flew and all those who supported them expected to be victorious in the American tradition; they were cheated out of that by misguided direction from Washington and increasing lack of support from politicians, friends, and neighbors back home.
Because of Rolling Thunder overspending and over-deployment, elsewhere fewer ships could get under way and fewer airplanes could fly. Readiness paled. Yet squadron department heads, flight leaders, and squadron commanders of Rolling Thunder stuck with it. They became the leaders of the Navy that recovered from that low point and did such outstanding work in the Gulf War. The Vietnam War was a huge price to pay, but at least those who were there can look to later success as a modicum of payoff.
May the politicians and leadership of the future do better.
A Routine Strike
Approaching North Vietnam from the southeast, from Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin, the coastline looms dull and flat through the haze. Huge gray streams looking like ribbons of silver flow toward the sea from the northwest. Rice paddies filled with placid black water spread from the meandering rivers. Here and there a clump of trees and a covey of dwellings mark a village, a church spire rising. Dike-roads connect the tree clumps. A railroad devoid of traffic riding a levee slashes across the waterscape.
In the far distance, silhouettes and shadows of mountains rise up. To the right sprawls Haiphong, its waterfront crowded with fat freighters. Dead ahead lies Hanoi. Closer at hand, just off to the right, is your target.
Crossing the coastline the adrenaline begins to pump; the jinking begins. The fighter flak suppressors move ahead. You double-check your navigation, check on your wingman, check your armament switches. Press on.
One of the fighters calls, “Flak at ten o’clock!” You see just a few puffs slightly low, no sweat. Then another call: “Missile lifting at two-thirty, just by the bend in the river.” You’re lucky. You see this one—first a cloud of dust at the launch point then a long, orange flame rising ever so slowly up and toward the strike force. You maneuver to keep it in sight. Pulling hard you look for launches two and three. Seldom do they fire singles.
SAMs pass clear, exploding astern in great orange puffs. A section of the strike group is detached to hit the launch site.
The target area is alive with sparklers—muzzle flashes from what seems like hundreds of guns. As you get closer, the flak begins in earnest. Black puffs, white puffs, gray puffs. It’s so thick you feel that your plane is being bounced around by detonating shells. There’s really only one thing to do: roll in on the target.
Roll nearly upside down, pop speedbrakes, pull through to the desired bomb line and target angle, level your wings with the gunsight on the center of the target, and set up a steady dive. Seven thousand feet. Correct for drift. Six thousand feet. Tracers are thickening. Five thousand feet. Pickle!
Pull hard! Roll left. Full throttle. More white puffs. Jink, and jink some more. Suddenly you’re clear; throttle back a bit, check in the mirror. Your wingman has stuck close, and glancing back they look like good hits. What a relief to head for the coast. Happiness is “feet wet” over the Tonkin Gulf. The last of the flight checks in feet wet; nobody missing, nobody hit, the bridge is down.
One more successful strike.
—Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn, U.S. Navy (Retired)
VADM Malcolm W. Cagle, USN (Ret.), “The Choice Taken: The Aerial Bombardment of North Vietnam,” in Frank Uhlig Jr., ed., Vietnam, the Naval Story (Annapolis, MD: Naval institute Press, 1986).
Edward J. Marolda, “Grand Delusion: U.S. Strategy and the Tonkin Gulf Incident,” Naval History, vol. 28, no. 4 (August 2014).
Edward J. Marolda, “Handling Rudder Orders from the Secretary of Defense: Naval Leaders and the Conduct of the Vietnam War,” paper delivered at the 2013 McMullen Naval History Symposium, U.S. Naval Academy.
John B. Nichols and Barrett Tillman, On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War Over Vietnam (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987, 2013).
Norman Polmar and Edward J. Marolda, Naval Air War: The Rolling Thunder Campaign (Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2015).
ADM Ulysses S. Grant Sharp Jr., USN (Ret.), Strategy for Defeat: Vietnam in Retrospect (San Rafael, CA: Presidio Press, 1978). Admiral Sharp was commander-in-chief of the Pacific Command from 1964 to 1968.
John Schlaight, “A War Too Long,” part 1, Air Power History, Air Force Historical Foundation, vol. 62, no. 2 (Summer 2015).
James A. Winnefeld and Dana J. Johnson, Joint Air Operations: Pursuit of Unity in Command and Control, 1942–1991 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993).