I had not been in Southeast Asia in the spring of 1967 when I and many other pilots involved in the bombing of North Vietnam realized that we were spinning our wheels in the war there. It was obvious that our sustained bombing campaign was not having significant enough effect on the NVN. It seemed as though we were just going through the motions, attacking the same series of railroad yards, choke points and railroad marshalling areas week after week, with no observable long-term effect. We repeatedly returned to railroad targets on the northeast railroad, reaching from the Chinese border to Hanoi, railroad marshalling yards on the north side of Hanoi, and extending northward, highway and railroad bridges, convoys and truck parks the length and breadth of NVN.
From my additional duties in the fighter wing operations shop at Takhli RTAFB, I read many operational reports and intelligence reports detailing the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of many of our bombing attacks and of the air defenses our fighters encountered daily. Somehow, we never significantly reduced the amount of military troops and equipment flowing overland to South Vietnam; at least, not enough to be apparent to our forces in South Vietnam who were meeting increasingly lethal opposition from NVN and Viet Cong forces. Few days went by when I did not see reports of one or more of our aircrews shot down over the north.
I have to say that it was a great pleasure to be associated with many of our dedicated fighter pilots and combat “back seaters.” These guys were boisterous and rowdy when off duty, particularly after highly stressful missions or when one of our own was shot down. But whenever an aircrew was in trouble, whether from our wing or somewhere else, fighter pilots took incredible risks trying to protect the downed members until rescue forces could make a rescue attempt. The only exception to this was when someone went down in the flat delta area of NVN in the Hanoi area; it was accepted that if you couldn’t make it either to the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin or to the jungle covered mountains of NVN or Laos, you were on your own. Members of a flight or strike force tried to watch to see if the downed member made it safely out of his aircraft, but the delta area was just too dangerous for rescue crews to make rescue attempts there.
Through it all, our fighter aircrews maintained surprisingly high morale, somehow accepting their role as the “strategic bombers” in that strange war, while our B-52s were used as “close air support” for troops in the south, bombing suspected NVN troop concentrations in SVN and Laos and also highway choke points and NVN truck parks in the mountain passes of Laos and SVN. The fighter pilots always cheered when the targets in high threat areas of NVN were cancelled due to bad weather, and they were assigned less defended target areas in Laos, southern NVN, or close air support roles in SVN.
Attitudes changed dramatically whenever one of the high-priority targets in NVN (Those targets that only the President, Secretary of Defense or the military Joint Chiefs of Staff could authorize being targeted). Everybody volunteered to join the first attack on the Paul Domour highway and railroad bridge which passed over the mile wide Red River into the heart of Hanoi, the first time we were allowed to bomb the only Mig-21 airfield in NVN, and the first time we were allowed to hit the Thai Nuyen iron and steel plant, the only one in NVN. The few of this type of target we were allowed to attack gave us hope that perhaps we were really going to cripple NVN.
Unfortunately, these hopes were dashed whenever we passed near the NVN port of Haiphong; there were almost always multiple cargo vessels in that port with either Communist Chinese or Russian markings. These continued to be “off limits” to attack until late in the war when President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger authorized the mining of Haiphong Harbor.