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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Columnists > Looking Back: At Vietnam

Rolling Thunder Pt.1

Sep 10, 2020

By Capt. Richard R. Freda, (Ret.) - columnist

A USAF B-52 dropping bombs on the “Ho Chi Minh” trail.
One morning early in my tour as a C-123 pilot in Vietnam, we were flying toward an isolated airstrip called An Loc very near the Cambodian border when our radio on “guard” channel suddenly announced:aAttention all aircraft--Rolling Thunder-- position 20 miles west on the 270 degree radial of the An Loc vortac.” We hurriedly consulted a nav chart and found the named vortac (A Nav facility which emits radio signals like the radial spokes of a wagon wheel--with corresponding distance) and found the location of the warning to be about 30 miles ahead of our flight plan. Yikes!
We speedily did a sharp turn away and shortly got to witness a spectacular firepower display. Unseen and unheard from their high altitude, B-52 bombers unleashed hundreds of tons of bombs on their target, disintegrating acres of jungle into debris, smoke and dust shooting high in the air. Wow!
This was my first experience with “Rolling Thunder,” a massive bombing campaign directed against the “Ho Chi Minh” trail along the Cambodian border and restricted targets in N.Vietnam.

Rolling Thunder History
In early February, 1965, the action in Vietnam shifted to the central highlands, where the S. Vietnamese headquartered in the town of Pleiku. Nearby was Camp Holloway, where about 400 U.S. servicemen were billeted next to a helicopter facility. On the night of February 6 the Viet Cong attacked the camp. In the brief assault, using only small arms and mortars, eight U.S. soldiers were killed, 128 were wounded, and ten aircraft were destroyed. This forced then President Johnson to immediately authorize a 4-stage bombing campaign against N. Vietnam code named Rolling Thunder. This operation lasted from March 2, 1965 until November 1, 1968, during which time millions of tons of bombs were dropped on North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail more than the combined tonnage of WWII in Europe.
Phase I (March-June 1965) A variety of targets, including ammunition depots, radar sites, and barracks, were hit in an attempt to persuade North Vietnam to come to the negotiating table. It accomplished little other than hardening the resolve of the Communist regime and spurring the creation of one of the world's most sophisticated air defense networks.
Phase II & Phase III(July 1965-October 1966) targeted roads, bridges, boats, railroads and POL dumps. Phase IV (October 1966-Nov.1968) shifted the campaign to industrial facilities and power-generating plants. Significantly in Phase IV, U.S. warplanes struck targets in Hanoi for the first time, but these more aggressive tactics did not have much impact on the N. Vietnamese leadership or its forces in S. Vietnam.
Heavy Aircraft losses
Overall, the air campaign only produced limited interdiction gains but had cost the United States greatly in the number of aircraft lost. A Department of Defense claimed the devastating loss of 599 fixed-wing aircraft from all the services and 255 helicopters—a total of 854 aircraft.
Despite Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis Lemay's boast that “we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age,” the bombing campaign never did force North Vietnam to end its support of the Viet Cong, nor did it reduce the flow of supplies delivered to the VC from the North.
The Rolling Thunder bombing failure is beyond dispute, but laying the fault to airpower is questionable. It was incompetently manipulated by politicians in Washington. There is no way to know what an all-out bombing effort in 1965 might have achieved. Perhaps no amount of bombing would have done the job, but when Rolling Thunder ended, our best chance of knocking North Vietnam out of the war early was gone. Rolling Thunder had not been planned to succeed, and it didn't.
Next--The Thuds, Phantoms, Jolly Green Giants and Pedros of Rolling Thunder--Pt.2.

The author is retired Air Force and commercial pilot Dick Freda of Damascus, Pa., who saw a year of active duty in 1966 in Vietnam during his 8-year USAF career. His column recalls his experiences in Vietnam as well as flying for American Airlines for 28 years. Capt. Freda logged over 20,000 hours during his 36-year career. Looking Back: At Vietnam appears twice a month - on the second and fourth Fridays of the month. For comments and questions please email him at

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