Setting the Stage
I spent a little over twenty years in the U. S. Air Force and retired from active duty in 1984. In the USAF, I was a good airman and very rarely questioned the orders given me by my superiors: Implementation yes, orders, no. But there was one occasion that I did and I have never once regretted the decision that I made.
It was 1973, just about a year after I had married. The Vietnam War was still going on and we had conducted B-52 bombing raids over North Vietnam in the "Operation Linebacker" series (May to October and then again from 18-29 December 1972, following Kissinger's "Peace is at hand" statement in October).
The Strategic Air Command (SAC) had an extensive personnel system with tentacles reaching into all the U. S. based B-52 units. Both the B-52s and the personnel that supported them performed temporary duty (TDY) to the deployment bases on Guam, Okinawa and Thailand. Air Force personnel with certain skills needed to maintain or support B-52 operations were identified beforehand and given activation line numbers. I believe that the deployment process was called "Bullet Shot".
So, one day at March AB, California, I learned that my deployment number had been activated: I was sent TDY to Anderson AFB, Guam in the Mariana Islands, one of the bases in the Pacific that were staging the B-52 missions. I was deployed to Guam to support the headquarters intelligence group. When I reported in to headquarters on Guam, the Intel Group Commander, a senior Colonel who was called "The Saint", was surprised to see me since they had not activated my line number. The system had apparently burped and I ended up on Guam. However, since I was there, the decision was made to have me stay.
TDY on Guam
Anderson AFB and Guam were not prepared to handle the massive amount of GIs that deployed to support the B-52 operations. Anderson had a peacetime complement of about 3,000 personnel. However, in 1972, that number grew to approximately 12,000. People were billeted all over the island. There was even a tent camp that stayed up for a long time. Being TDY on Guam was not the trip to a tropical paradise that the tourists enjoyed.
Linebacker II Mission Overview and Results
The Guam-based B-52 crews routinely flew 12- to 18-hour missions from Guam to their targets in North Vietnam. It was approximately 2.600 miles from Guam to Hanoi but due to mission routing, some crews actually flew over 8,000 miles on some round trip missions. Each B-52 normally carried a crew of six but occasionally would also have an extra crew member(s) onboard. The B-52's normally flew in three-ship cells carrying call signs such as Rose-1, 2, & 3, Tan-1, 2 and 3, Straw-1,2 and 3, etc.
The B-52 missions were supported by a variety of other aircraft: Some flying missions to suppress/destroy the surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and their associated radars as well as the AAA sites, other aircraft to electronically monitor the North Vietnamese fighter defenses as well as the detection of SAM launches. The monitor aircraft would broadcast warnings of fighter and SAM launches over a frequency that all U. S. aircraft taking part in the raids would receive. I suspect it was on the Guard channel.
The following was paraphrased and extracted from: Linebacker II - A View From the Rock, published in 1979 by BG James R. McCarthy and LtCol George B. Allison as part of the USAF Southeast Asia Monograph Series:
In the space of 11 days, we flew 729 B-52 sorties against 34 targets expending over 15,000 tons of ordnance. 498 of the sorties penetrated the especially high threat zones immediately surrounding Hanoi and Haiphong. There were 92 crew members aboard the 15 aircraft that went down; 61 crew members were involved in the 10 B-52 losses over North Vietnam. In 1979 the estimates were: 14 were known or declared KIA and 14 were MIA. 33 were POWs and later repatriated. Of the 31 crew members not downed over North Vietnam, 24 bailed out over Thailand and Laos and were rescued. A 25th man is listed as MIA in Laos and six men were involved in a crash at U-Tapao, Thailand that killed four. (You can Google the title and find this document online.)
So, while we in the support roles were safe back on Guam, the crews that flew the B-52's endured hours of boredom getting to the war zone and then sheer hell over their target areas; And some lost their lives whiles others were captured and endured as POWs. We support troops had it made compared to the B-52 crews.
My task and why I said No
As I said earlier, I went TDY to Guam because of a clerical error and the net result was that there was little of value that I could offer. So one day, The Saint gave me a box of B-52 mission tapes and two tape recorders: My task was to listen to the crew tapes and copy funny crew dialogue onto a blank tape that would be given to one of the generals that was retiring.
So here I am back on The Rock listening to mission tapes waiting for something funny to be said to dub onto the General's cocktail party tape. Sounds like a pretty cush job to have while others were slogging through the swamps and jungles of Vietnam or flying bombing missions and losing their lives.
Typical conversations before entering the threat areas was routine aircraft mission chatter and the occasional funny exchange. I dubbed the funny material on the party tape as directed. Then I listened to a tape that covered the actual bombing run of one of the missions. Even during this portion of the tape there was routine dialogue as the crew navigated to their targets: Entering the hot areas around Hanoi and Haiphong, identifying the navigation way points and the aim points leading to bomb release, the bomb releases and then the navigation away from the target area.
And then there was the non-routine communications, many from the monitor aircraft. So in the midst of a particular crew's communication with each other as well as with the other aircraft in their cell, you would hear something like: "SAM launch, vicinity Hanoi. Sam Launch, vicinity Hanoi." This would often be followed by the Electronic Warfare (EW) officer's alert to his fellow crew members that he had acquired a SAM uplink meaning that a SAM(s) was headed toward their aircraft.
While listening to a tape covering the bombing portion of a mission, I heard the sound that remains with me today. You have all heard the warning signals that many commercial trucks make when they back up, right? Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep... It continues until the truck shifts out of reverse. Well, the B-52 carried an emergency beacon that when activated sounded a lot like the truck signal. The B-52's beacon activated only under the most dire conditions, such as when it crashed.
On the tape I was listening to, it was the "usual" terse communications that took place during a bombing run over the North. And then in the background, beep, beep, beep, beep... On and on, fading slightly and then becoming strong again just like distant AM radio stations used to do when I was a kid. The crew tried to determine if the beacon was from one of the other two B-52's in their cell and in this particular case it was an aircraft from another cell in the wave. The crew finished their bombing run with the requisite crew communications needed to get their mission completed. The tail gunner reported that he saw a huge explosion on the ground that could have been a B-52. Over all the crew communications ("Bombs Away, turn right to heading...") and those from the monitor aircraft ("SAM launch, vicinity Haiphong. SAM launch, vicinity Haiphong.") was the constant sound of the emergency beacon: Beep, beep, beep, beep... The beacon continued it's surreal alert until the aircraft flew out of the range of the beacon's transmitter, or the beacon failed. I can still hear it after all these years.
As soon as the crew identified the sound as an emergency beacon, I realized that there were now at least six people who were most likely injured and soon to be captured or worse, dead.
As many as six men who would never return home to their families, never hold their wives or children again. This realization hit me between the eyes like the blow from a hammer. I was staggered to realize that from these tapes, I was supposed to extract "funny" dialogue for a party tape.
For those that wonder why I didn't feel the same feelings for the North Vietnamese when I heard "Bombs away", I can only say that it was my training that inured me to have no compassion for the enemy. We were at war. Today, I question all aspects of war, but in 1973, I was a G.I. doing what I had been trained to do and these were my comrades.
I packed up the recorders and tapes and returned them to The Saint and told him, "I can't do this." He asked why and I explained it to him as best I could. I suggested he listen to the tape that I had queued up for him and he would better understand. The next day, The Saint told me not to worry about it. Although he never said that he listened to the tape, I suspect that he did. Four years later, I worked for him again at SAC headquarters in Omaha and he never mentioned the tapes and neither did I. He was a good officer and I enjoyed working for him: He was a good man.
I doubt that I have expressed this very well. But the writing I hope will help. Lest you get the wrong idea, I am not suffering from PTSD, nor was my contribution to the B-52 missions of any significance whatsoever. This was not even my closest brush with destruction during the war: Once on a C-130 flare mission (called "Blindbat" missions) north of the DMZ, we were damn near shot down by NVA AAA. That was scary! But that memory actually pales when compared to the tape dubbing task on Guam.
I hope that this recounting of my personal little epiphany offers each of you some moment of reflection on the tragedies of war - not mine, but the many lives lost (on both sides) whenever men take up arms against each other.
I appreciate your time and interest in my story.
In a B-52 bomber over Hanoi an update to my story (after five years):
I never thought that I would hear the sound again. But if you click on this YouTube link, you will be able to hear what has stayed with me for 49 years. My attempt to pass on to you in words the nightmare sounds of a bombing mission over North Vietnam were pitiful at best. The audio recording says it all.