The B-52 in Southeast Asia – Deployment/Early Ops (Jun 1965)

In 1965 the B-52 Stratofortresses of Strategic Air Command represented (along with intercontinental ballistic missiles housed in underground silos or in submarines) the United State’s major strategic nuclear deterrent.  A number of B-52s, like the B-47s before them, sat on nuclear alert 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in the event of an all-out nuclear war.  Their use in the growing conflict in Southeast Asia was resisted by SAC but the aircraft’s huge bomb-carrying capability and long range that enabled them to be based well out of harm’s way, made them an attractive proposition for commanders in Vietnam.  The US reaction to Viet Cong raids on Pleiku and Camp Holloway included the rapid deployment of B-52 to Guam, although at the time very little thought had been given as to the best way to use these valuable aircraft.

A total of 30 B-52Fs were drawn from the 20th BS, 2nd BW at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana and the 441st BS, 320th BW from Mather AFB, California.  The aircraft took off from their bases on 11 February accompanied by 30 KC-135 tankers and two C-135 transport aircraft.  The B-52s arrived at Andersen AFB on the island of Guam after a non-stop flight while the tankers landed at Kadena AFB on Okinawa.  The choice of the older B-52F model was dictated by the fact that 28 of them had been modified in 1964 to increase their conventional bomb carrying capacity.  The modified aircraft could carry 27 x 750lb bombs internally and a further 24 under the wings on the pylons originally fitted to carry the Hound Dog missile.  The aircraft’s bomb load was almost doubled from 20,250lb to 38,250lb.  Following the deployment of the modified aircraft to Vietnam in February a further 46 B-52Fs were modified in June and July.

For four months after their arrival on Guam the B-52s flew only training flights until a role for them in the war could be found.  In May 1965 the 20th BS was replaced by the 9th BS, 7th BW from Carswell AFB, Texas thus starting the pattern for rotational deployments among the B-52 squadrons.  Each squadron would typically spend about six months at Guam before the personnel were sent back to the USA.  Aircraft were usually passed on to replacement squadrons as they arrived.

As the B-52s sat idle at Andersen arguments raged as to their role in Southeast Asia.  SAC did not want them involved in the war at all as the aircraft were no longer under their sole control once deployed to Guam.  If they were to be involved then SAC wanted the aircraft to used in a strategic bombing campaign against the industry and cities of North Vietnam.  Most commanders in South Vietnam, including General Westmoreland himself, wanted the B-52s to add their enormous firepower to the tactical air campaign against the Viet Cong in the South.  Eventually Westmoreland won the arguement although with hindsight it is difficult to see the logic in such a decision.

Under the generic code name Arc Light the first B-52 raid on South Vietnam was planned for 25 May but was cancelled when it became apparent that the VC had moved out of the area to be bombed.  The first raid was eventually flown on 18 June with disastrous results.  In addition to the loss of two valuable aircraft and eight crewmen, the bombing accuracy had been less than outstanding and in any case there was evidence following the strike that the area had been vacated shortly before the bombers arrived.  It was an inauspicious start to the B-52’s Arc Light missions over South Vietnam.  However, the campaign continued, the B-52s flying 140 sorties in July, 165 in August and 322 in September.  The B-52 raids would continue over South Vietnam for seven years and would be extended into North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  Most B-52 raids were flown in multiples of cells, each cell consisting of three aircraft and each cell given a colour as a radio call sign.  The early raids were flown by all 30 aircraft but later it was realised that a smaller number of aircraft assigned to each target gave greater flexibility and enabled more targets to be struck.  On 15 November 1965 B-52s were used in direct support of ground troops for the first time.  The 4133rd BW (Provisional) was formed at Andersen on 1 February 1966 to control all squadrons on rotation to the base.  In March 1966 the first Big Belly modified B-52Ds arrived on Guam.  These aircraft could carry a total of 108 bombs (84 x Mk82 500lb bombs internally and 24 x 750lb bombs externally) giving a total bomb load of  60,000lb.  On 11 April 1966 the B-52s made their first bombing raid over North Vietnam starting a series of small scale raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and on 30 July 1966 the first raid on targets in the DMZ itself took place.  In April 1967 a second B-52 base was opened at U-Tapao in Thailand which in September 1970 took over responsibility for all Arc Light missions in Southeast Asia.  However, more would be heard of Andersen in 1972 when the revitalised air war over North Vietnam brought the war to a temporary conclusion.

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