Rolling Thunder (Mar 1965)

The retaliatory Flaming Dart raids appeared to have had no effect on Viet Cong activity in the South nor on the North’s open support.  Frustration at the lack of response led President Johnson to order a more sustained air campaign against North Vietnam to be put into operation.  The campaign was named Rolling Thunder and was intended to be a graduated and measured response to North Vietnamese support for the VC in the South.  As early as April 1964 the Joint Chiefs of Staff had drawn up a list of 94 potential targets in North Vietnam that would form the basis of a 12-week sustained air offensive.  In the event, this intensive campaign was not pursued and many of these lucrative targets were not released for attack until years after the start of Rolling Thunder thereby blunting the impact that American air power could have had.  The targeting policy and the hesitant way in which the war was fought also had a direct detrimental affect on US aircraft losses.

Instead of an all-out air offensive the intention was for air strikes to start in the southern provinces of North Vietnam and gradually move north, slowly approaching the major cities of Hanoi and Haiphong by which time it was hoped that the North Vietnamese would have capitulated.  However, the North Vietnamese showed no such signs of giving up and the US, not wishing to fight an all-out war, imposed restrictions on its air operations. Limitations during the whole of 1965 included no-go areas of 30-mile radius around Hanoi and 10-mile radius around Haiphong and a 30-mile buffer zone along the Chinese border.

It soon became apparent that the many operational restrictions imposed on US airmen limited the types of lucrative targets that could be hit.  Industry, ports and, perhaps most surprising of all, airfields were not allowed to be attacked.  The range of worthwhile targets that could be struck fell mainly in the category of lines of communications: railways; roads (particularly junctions); rail and road bridges; and, most difficult of all, moving traffic.

The USAF flew the first Rolling Thunder mission on 2 March with the Navy’s TF 77 joining in on the second mission on 15 March.  By late August 1965 an average of 65 aircraft were operating daily against North Vietnam, rising to 120 the following month.