The Christmas Bombings: Thankful for Being Alive

Courtesy Wikipedia A U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52F-70-BW Stratofortress (s/n 57-0162, nicknamed “Casper The Friendly Ghost”) from the 320th Bomb Wing dropping Mk 117 750 lb (340 kg) bombs over Vietnam. This aircraft was the first B-52F used to test conventional bombing in 1964, and later dropped the 50,000th bomb of the “Arc Light” campaign. B-52Fs could carry 51 bombs and served in Vietnam from June 1965 to April 1966 when they were replaced by “Big Belly” B-52Ds, which could carry 108 bombs.

The Christmas Bombings: Thankful for Being Alive

I got out of the Air Force in 1968 after flying in Viet Nam. Thank God for the B-52, the greatest airplane ever made. It saved our lives more than once. I pulled four tours in it, flying 138 missions out of Guam, Okinawa, and Thailand. We got shot at by MIGs, SAMs, and shotguns, but never got hit. A hit by even a shotgun slug was a death sentence. The airplane was just a flying bomb, with bombs, JP-4 fuel, hydraulic fluid, and aluminum parts that will burn.

Wayne Lambert was the pilot on the last crew I flew with. He ended up with 225 missions in Viet Nam. When I got on his crew in 1967 he was worried about making major. He had been a StanBoard co-pilot in the B-52s, and before that a co-pilot in the B-47. But he had never had his own crew, which is essential in making promotions. He had been in the Air Force 11 years.

He worried every day. Would we make a good take-off, would we make a good airborne refueling, would we get the bombs on target, would we be on time over target, would we make a good landing? He needn’t have worried. Augie Vilseck, the bomb aimer, had shacks on his first 16 missions. That had probably never been done in the history of aviation. The guys that bombed Germany in WWII only got about 25 percent of their bombs on target.

In the next decade Wayne was promoted to major, light colonel, full colonel, brigadier general, and major general. He was on the fast track, and could have made another two stars and been the commander of the whole Air Force. But he chose to retire after 34 years and move home to Bainbridge, Georgia, where he and his wife Pee Wee still live. He is now 79 years old.

On July 6, 1967, the airplane flown by Capt. John Suther collided with another aircraft flown by Capt. George Westbrook. They were changing leads in a three-aircraft cell when their wings touched. Both airplanes exploded like the flying bombs they were. They were south of Saigon, being directed to their bomb drop by a ground controller. They changed leads in a turn, which should never have been done.

The wing commander on Guam, Maj. Gen. William J. Crumm, was on the lead airplane and was killed. His wife and daughter were waiting for him back on Guam. They had already packed their household belongings and were going stateside. Gen. Crumm’s body was never recovered.

The co-pilot on the Suther crew was Lt. Wilcox Creeden, the radar man was Maj. Paul Avolese, the navigator was Lt. William Gabel, the EWO was Capt. David Bitten, and the gunner was SSgt Lynn Chase. All were killed.

The other crew members on the Westbrook crew were co-pilot Capt. Dean Thompson, radar bombardier Capt. Chuck Blankenship, navigator Lt. George Jones, EWO Capt. Toki Endo, and gunner MSgt. Olen McLaughlin. Only my friend Toki got out alive, with a fractured right elbow. He was back on duty again in less than two months, and retired as a Lt. Colonel.

The three aircraft in this cell were flying a formation that scared the bejesus out of us for months. These huge airplanes, 186 feet wide and 156 feet long, were flying like F-15 fighters, 15 feet apart. Someone read the aircraft operating manual (the “Dash One”) that night (I suspect it was the one-star who replaced Gen. Crumm), which said never to fly this airplane in a tight formation. We never flew this way again. I stopped getting grey hairs.

Another tragedy happened two days later when one of the aircraft from our squadron got hit over Vinh and lost hydraulic power. This meant they had no brakes. The pilot was Maj. Gene (Swede) Brown. They got diverted to the airbase at Da Nang. No one told Swede that Da Nang was a fighter base. More importantly, no one told him that at the end of the runway was a mine field. He came in hot and landed long, according to one of the ground crew, and ran off the runway at the end. The aircraft blew up, leaving only the tail section intact.

The co-pilot was Capt. James Davis, the radar bombardier was Capt. William H. Pritchard, the navigator was Capt. Anthony K. Johnson, the EWO was Capt. Donald J. Reynolds, and the gunner was MSgt. Albert (Jug Butt) Whatley. Jug was the only one who got out. Marine Corporal Jeff Lewis had to cut him out of the tail section. Lewis got a medal for bravery for his actions.

We were great friends with Swede’s crew. We played together in the little time we had off duty. We would go down to the beach and play volleyball and snorkel. After about a three-month wait we got the use of the one little boat the Air Force had at Anderson AFB. We were dying to do some deep sea fishing and had both crews on the little boat. But an accident that happened less than ten miles out of port put an end to our day.

Don did not know how to operate the outriggers and when we got a hit on the right one, he pulled the line in hand over hand. It was on a bamboo pole. The outrigger broke and hit the boat captain an inch below his eye, cutting a huge gash in it. We had to turn around and take him back to the hospital, ruining our day. And we never got to go again.

The biggest smile I ever saw on Swede happened when we were coming in one day from taxi crew duty and Swede was coming back from the golf course. He was an avid golfer, and had shot his first hole-in-one that day. He had the biggest smile I have ever seen on a human.

The biggest regret I have about the whole deal was the 33 troops killed in the Christmas Bombings of 1972. Pres. Richard M. Nixon decided to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong using B-52s to try to force the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table in Paris. He put a fighter pilot, Gen. John C. Meyer, in charge of planning of the missions. Meyer had made a lateral move from TAC fighters to SAC bombers. He had the B-52s going in headed northwest from the South China Sea, to the left of Hanoi and Haiphong, making a right turn of 180 degrees, and bombing headed southeast.

They were at 35,000 feet, inviting death and destruction from MIG fighters and from SAM-2 missiles. They should have been flying at 200 feet, or 500 feet, so they would have been much harder to knock down. But SAC planned everything from the top, which was utterly stupid.

We lost 15 bombers in less than two weeks, by far the worst losses ever encountered in the history of the Air Force. Most of the losses were to SAM-2 missiles. Some 33 airmen were killed and another 33 were captured and made prisoners of war. Another 26 were rescued. Another six Air Force aircraft were shot down or crashed in the bombings. The Navy lost six aircraft, also. The North Vietnamese claimed that they had lost over 1,600 people to the bombings.

If Meyer had listened, we could have both won the battle and kept these men alive. Finally, Gen. Gerald Johnson, a two-star general and commander on Guam of the Eighth Air Force, called Gen. Meyer, the four-star, and insisted that the tactics be changed. Meyer outranked him, of course, so it took a lot of courage for Gen. Johnson to tell Meyer that he had to change the tactics. It ruined Gen. Johnson’s career.

They started going in using different routes, which saved a lot of lives. The history of the B-52 bombings was that it was controlled from the White House. Under Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson, the chain went Viet Nam village chief, local Army guy, Army guy in Saigon, Army guy in the Pentagon, White House, Air Force general on Guam, mission planners, B-52 crews. Meyer followed the same kind of thinking.

We had our own close calls. On Easter Sunday, 1966 we went north for the first time to bomb Mu Gia Pass. We turned 180 degrees left after the bomb run and headed south. As soon as we rolled out the gunner, Bill Grissom, called out, “Pilot we have a fighter back here.” It was 3:30 a.m.

Dale Christian, the pilot, said, “How far back is he Gun?” Bill said, “About 75 yards, sir.” That meant we were about to die. We jinked for a few minutes but the fighter had no problem staying with us. After we fired a warning burst, he dropped off. For 40 years I wondered why he didn’t shoot us. Two years ago my buddy Hue Huynh told me his guns probably jammed. Hue (pronounced “Way”) flew F-105’s for 11 years in the South Vietnamese Air Force.

We also had a close call the first time we went over Khe Sanh. The VC were kicking our Marines pretty badly, and we helped them out. We went over at noon. But the VC shot 12 SAMs at us that day. They all missed. They simply shot them like shotguns, and did not go into guidance function. The guidance signals would light up all the red lights in our airplane, meaning “Get out now.” I thank God every day for being alive on this Mother Earth.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a scholarship program for Native college students in Albuquerque. They are accepting applications for the fall term of 2016 and encourage students to apply. He can be reached at CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com.

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