Document created: 15 October 2003
Air University Review, November-December 1974

The Hanoi Pol Strike

Colonel James H. Kasler

 

Until mid-1966, the USAF’s aerial bombardment of North Vietnam was restricted to targets of comparatively little importance. These restrictions were a direct result of such thinking as that reflected by the then Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, who declared that “the targets that are influencing the operations in the South, I submit, are not the power, the oil, the harbor, or the dams. The targets are the roads and the war material being moved over the roads.” There were also no-strike areas surrounding Hanoi and Haiphong, thus making a virtual sanctuary of these areas. The North Vietnamese were well aware of this sanctuary and took the utmost advantage of it, especially in the positioning of strategic war materials.

As it became increasingly obvious that the destruction of targets such as vehicles, roads, small bridges, and river traffic was causing hardly a ripple insofar as affecting the Communists’ ability to carry the war to the South, it was decided in Washington in June 1966 not only to increase the tempo of air strikes against the North but also to include targets of greater strategic significance. The first of these targets was the great petroleum, oil, and lubricant (POL) facility located just outside Hanoi. The following account is my recollection of that 29 June day when I led Thailand-based aircraft of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing on one of the most spectacular and successfully conducted missions of the air war.

On the afternoon of 28 June, I had just returned from a mission and, after my intelligence debriefing, had stopped in at the Wing Command Post. The Deputy for Operations motioned me into his office and told me that my squadron had drawn the lead for the Hanoi POL storage complex. (I was Operations Officer of the 354th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Takhli, Thailand.) He also informed me that the Wing Commander, Colonel William H. Holt, would lead the mission and that Colonel Holt had asked that I finalize the navigation and attack plan and prepare the combat mission folders for the strike. On 21 June, when we had first been informed of the contemplated strike, we had been directed to identify to Wing Operations those pilots who were to participate. They were to be selected according to their skill and experience. It was one of the most difficult decisions I ever had to make because there was no pilot in the squadron whom I considered to be unqualified, and I knew how disappointing it would be for those not selected. Two of my most experienced flight commanders, Captain Lewis Shattuck and Captain Norman Wells, assisted me in planning the mission.

Air-to-ground combat is the most exacting type of flying in the Air Force and certainly the most dangerous, as the combat casualty records of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam bear out. Moreover, low-level navigation at speeds in excess of 500 knots requires the utmost in skill in that a one- or two-degree heading error can throw one miles wide of the route in a few minutes. In addition, timing is essential because each element of the attack must mesh exactly or the mission will be seriously degraded in effectiveness. I feel that there are three elements necessary to increase the air-to-ground combat pilots’ chances of survival: planning, execution of the mission, and luck. Of course, experience and skill in the planning and execution phases decrease one’s dependence on luck.

We spent six hours planning, checking, and double-checking every facet of the mission. This was our first detailed study of the defenses in the Hanoi area, and we found little in the aerial photographs to give us comfort. The enemy’s air defenses, formidable from the start, were becoming more formidable each day. By every estimate, Hanoi had the greatest concentration of antiaircraft weapons ever known in the history of aerial warfare. In Vietnam itself, there were from 7000 to 10,000 fast-firing antiaircraft weapons of 37-mm caliber or larger. In addition, the Russians had provided the Vietnamese with a sophisticated radar and communication network for detection and coordination of their surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and MIG fighters.

Surprise was pretty well ruled out as a possibility in our attack plans. For one thing, the Navy attack fighters were striking the Haiphong POL complex fifteen minutes prior to our time over target (TOT). For another, the defenses would certainly be alerted in the Hanoi area because our sixteen aircraft would be preceded in the attack by eight aircraft from the 388th Wing.

The intelligence planning room to an outsider would resemble a madhouse located in a paper factory. Once the mission leader has laid out the route and attack plan, every pilot must prepare his own charts. The charts are cut, glued, and then folded in accordion fashion. Routes are drawn down the center of the page and ticked off in time and distance. Each turn requires another chart because the route line must remain centered for ease of navigation.

By midnight, we were satisfied with our work and headed for our quarters. Usually, the briefing for the first mission of the day was scheduled between 0100 and 0900 hours, but this one was special. Except for a few selected strikes, involving only a few aircraft, the Hanoi raid was the only one scheduled for our wing on the 29th. Our briefing time was scheduled for 0830, with time over the target at 1210.

On the morning of the strike, I walked into the wing intelligence building at about 0810. General George Simler, the Deputy for Operations of Seventh Air Force, was standing by the door with Colonel Holt. General Simler looked at me and said, “Major Kasler, how would you like to lead this mission?” I said, “Yes Sir, I certainly would!” General Simler handed me the combat mission folder that I had prepared for Colonel Holt the preceding day. I looked at Colonel Holt, who did not appear too happy, and said, “I’m sorry about that, Colonel.” He muttered something and stalked into the briefing room. I had not meant for it to come out the way it sounded because I knew how anxious he was to lead the mission, and I was sincerely sorry. Every fighter pilot dreams of leading a mission of this importance, but few ever have the opportunity.

As it turned out, all the wing commanders whose units were participating in the Hanoi raid, whether in the strike, top cover, or a support role, had scheduled themselves to lead their wings. But they were all removed from the mission by order of General Joseph Moore, Commander of Seventh Air Force.

The general briefing preceding a mission is little more than a refresher of those items that the pilots have learned and memorized about the route, tactics, and target defenses. The things the pilots are most interested in are the weather and bombing winds in the target area. The weather for the Hanoi area that day was perfect for fighter-bomber operations. It was forecast as clear with light and variable winds to 10,000 feet.

General Simler concluded the briefing with a short talk, in which he emphasized the importance of the Hanoi POL complex to the Vietnamese supply lines. He pointed out that the facility at Hanoi contained twenty percent of all North Vietnam’s petroleum products. He also made it clear that under no circumstances, even if hit, was any pilot to jettison his bombs into the city of Hanoi.

The role of our sister wing, the 388th at Korat, was to initiate the attack on the POL complex with eight aircraft. Their plan was to approach the Communist capital from the south, low behind the screen of high mountains southwest of the city. At the mountains, they would pop up over them and then dive in low over Hanoi and strike the target.

The 355th struck from the north. The plan was to cross the Red River 100 miles northwest of Hanoi, turn east, and descend to low altitude to avoid SAM missiles. Our route took us parallel and north of Thud Ridge, the 5000-foot razorback mountain running west to east through the heart of North Vietnam. The eastern tip of the mountain ended about 25 miles due north of Hanoi. We would screen ourselves behind the mountain until we reached the eastern tip, then make a 90-degree turn south toward Hanoi.

The operations order had also directed that all attacks would be executed on a south-to-north heading to preclude tossing a hung bomb into the city of Hanoi. Approaching from the north, we had to make a 180-degree pop-up maneuver to strike the target as ordered.

What the attack order meant was that every aircraft would be rolling into the bomb run at approximately the same spot, heading in the same direction. Not too smart from the pilot’s viewpoint, but, in the interest of protecting civilian populations, such orders were commonplace in Vietnam. Ideally, attacks should be on divergent headings to confuse the gunners and thus prevent them from zeroing in on one spot.

Following General Simler’s remarks, a short briefing with the other three flight commanders was conducted. Each aircraft was carrying eight 750-pound bombs armed with a fraction-of-a-second delayed fuse. It was decided to change the fusing of the two bombs carried on the outboard wing stations to an instantaneous setting, to ensure that there would be some flying shrapnel among the fuel storage tanks in the event of a near miss.

A final briefing was held in the squadron before the pilots headed for their aircraft. The crew chief greeted me as I stepped from my pickup. He walked around the aircraft with me as I made the preflight inspection. I told him that if I gave him the abort signal after I had started the engine he was to get the ladder back up immediately because I was heading for the ground spare. He said, “Major Kasler, my assistant and I have spent the last nine hours checking every system on this airplane, and you aren’t going to abort.” He was right! I have never found more dedicated or experienced airmen than those who worked on our aircraft in Vietnam. In the 91 missions I flew there, I never had an abort or an armament malfunction—a fantastic achievement.

We started engines and taxied to the marshaling area at the end of the runway, where the maintenance crews made a final inspection of the aircraft. We then lined up on the runway and were cleared for takeoff. Our takeoff weight was around 51,000 pounds, the maximum gross weight for the F-105. In the hot Thailand summer, this meant a long ground roll and a lift-off speed of 205 knots.

I breathed a sigh of relief when my gear was in the well, not because I was concerned about the takeoff but because 95 percent of our aborts occur on the ground. I was airborne with a perfectly functioning aircraft leading the biggest mission of the Vietnam war to date.

As the rest of the flight slid into position, I completed a slow turn back to the north and contacted our radar site. They gave me a bearing to our tankers 250 NM to the north.

Approaching the tankers, I could see a row of ominous thunderstorms stretched across the horizon to the north. It was obvious that the tankers were not going to be able to maintain their briefed refueling route. Fighters can refuel and even effect join-ups in thin cirrus clouds, but the turbulence and lack of visibility associated with heavy cumulus clouds create an impossible situation.

We began taking on fuel, but the tankers were unable to maintain their track because of the thunderstorms. Ten minutes prior to our drop-off time, the tanker lead advised that he had to turn back because he was unable to circumnavigate the storms ahead. We had all refueled, but we were not able to recycle through again to top off as planned.

I rejoined my flight in close formation, flicked on my radar, and picked my way between the thunderstorm cells. We were 60 miles southeast of our desired point of departure when we left the tankers. It was imperative that our timing be exact, so I had selected a prominent river junction in Laos as my starting checkpoint. As luck (the third element mentioned earlier) would have it, we broke out in a small hole directly over the point. I was three minutes ahead of time, so I made a 360-degree turn to use up time and set course to the north.

We immediately re-entered the clouds, and when we next broke out, after 20 minutes, we were directly over the Red River northwest of Yen Bai. My Doppler was functioning perfectly, and we were directly on course and time. I turned right and began a descent through several layers of clouds. Vietnam north of Thud Ridge was covered with ground fog. I continued the descent to 300 feet, which was just above the fog bank. At higher altitudes, SAM missiles have a nasty way of popping up through clouds at an unsuspecting pilot, and 300 feet was a fairly safe altitude to prevent this from happening.

We were skimming along the base of Thud Ridge, which towered above us to the right. As we approached its eastern tip, our external fuel tanks showed empty, and I ordered them dropped. I could hear Lieutenant Colonel James R. Hopkins, leader of the 388th, departing the Hanoi target area, and I asked him what the weather was. He said, “It’s clear in the target area, but there are MIG’s airborne.”

Looking far to the east, I could see smoke rising from the POL tanks at Haiphong, which the Navy fighters had already struck.

When we passed our initial point at the end of Thud Ridge, I called the flight to push it up and started a turn south toward Hanoi. As we turned, the fog bank faded away beneath us and we broke into the clear. At that same instant, flak began bursting around us. I glanced to the right toward Phuc Yen airfield and could see the flak guns blinking at us. Despite the fact that we were only 300 feet above the ground, the Vietnamese had leveled their heavy 85-mm and 100-mm guns and were firing almost horizontally at us. I called the flight to start “jinking,” a series of irregular evasive maneuvers designed to confuse ground gunners.

We were running parallel to the northeast railroad that leads into the city of Hanoi. This was North Vietnam’s most important supply link with the People’s Republic of China, and it was protected by flak guns of every caliber and description. Ahead, I could see two black smoke columns rising from a portion of the Hanoi POL field, just struck by the 388th. The sky was dotted with hundreds of white, grey, and black puffs, the remaining traces of shells that had been fired at the departing Korat aircraft. Thus we had a good idea of what was awaiting us over the target.

We approached slightly left of target. I called for afterburner and began my pullup. I climbed through 8000 feet and began a slow turn to the right until I reached my roll-in point at about 11,000 feet. I cut my afterburner, dropped dive brakes, and rolled into the bomb run. As I was turning in, I could see three ten-gun 85-mm batteries on Gia Lam airfield frantically firing. Ignoring these as best I could, I began my bomb run. I saw that two large tanks on the extreme left side of the complex and one on the right side were already burning. As I continued my dive between the rising columns of smoke, I could hardly believe my eyes—my entire view was filled with big, fat fuel tanks! I pushed my pickle button and made a rolling pullout to the right. When I cleared the smoke, I made a gentle left turn around the target complex. The huge fuel tanks were erupting one after another, sending up immense billowing fireballs.

By the time I had circled to the southwest corner of the target, each of my flight members had also made his bomb run and had rejoined me. The smoke now merged into one huge boiling red and black pillar, an unbelievable sight. As I climbed back to about 5000 feet, I could see flames leaping out of the smoke thousands of feet above me.

After my number four man had rejoined the formation, I swung around to the north toward Phuc Yen airfield. I had seen a MIG on the end of the runway when we began our dash toward Hanoi and thought we might get a shot at it if it got airborne. I changed my mind when I saw the fantastic intensity of the flak bursting around us. I then banked my Thunderchief to the south, and as I did so I looked at the ground; there were so many guns firing that the valley reminded me of a desert city viewed from the air at night.

After we crossed south of the Red River, the flak diminished as the gunners apparently switched their attention to the fighter-bombers behind my flight. We headed west, searching the roads for targets of opportunity. As we approached Hoa Binh on the Black River, I noticed that a new road had been cut up the side of a high plateau that extended east back toward Hanoi.

Investigating, I popped over the rim of the plateau and dropped my nose; there, directly under my gunsight pipper, was a truck. I squeezed the trigger, and the 20-mm cannon shells tore into the truck, setting it on fire. All told, we found 25 trucks on the plateau. We set twelve afire and damaged at least six others. It appeared that the Vietnamese were floating supplies from China down the Black River on rafts to Hoa Binh, transferring them to trucks, and moving them across the plateau to Hanoi.

As I pulled out of one of my strafing passes, I looked back at Hanoi 35 miles to the east. It was a windless day, and the black smoke formed a perfect pillar reaching above 35,000 feet. By now our fuel was running low. We were forced to head for home. We did not have enough fuel to reach Takhli, so I planned a recovery at Ubon if we could not get fuel from the airborne tankers. Looking back toward Hanoi, I could still see the smoke column over 150 miles away. The GCI controller found us a KC-135 tanker; we refueled over the Mekong, and headed for home.

The Hanoi POL strike was one of the most successful missions of the Vietnam war. The complex was over 90 percent destroyed and was one of the few targets in North Vietnam that never required a restrike, as the Vietnamese abandoned the facility altogether.

Amazingly, only one of the strike aircraft was lost to flak in the raid; the pilot, Captain Neil Murphy Jones, was interned in North Vietnam until February 1973. Three aircraft suffered battle damage, with one pilot receiving minor wounds.

On the other hand, the MIG’s were conspicuously absent; they engaged only one flight of the SAM suppression aircraft. They inflicted minor damage on one of the F-105s, but the pilot was credited with a probable MIG kill in the brief aerial battle.

By comparison with the World War II Ploesti oil raid, when German Me-109 pilots flew through their own flak to get at the B-24s, the North Vietnamese MIG pilots’ efforts were far less courageous.

One of the puzzles of the raid was why the Vietnamese had not fired any of the dozens of SAM missiles that rimmed Hanoi. The day following the raid, they began firing SAM’s in volleys at our aircraft, which was a complete change in the tactics they had used previously. The answer to this question was learned two months later when I was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese.

Shortly after my capture on 8 August 1966, I was questioned by a Vietnamese interrogator while lying in a hospital room in Hanoi. The interrogator tried to get information from me concerning the Hanoi POL strike. He asked: “What did you think about our defenses during the Hanoi raid?” I said, “I figure you got a new air defense boss.” Just a guess on my part, but apparently a correct one as he became quite agitated and left. A short time later my room was invaded by four very stern-looking Vietnamese, who spent the next two days trying to figure out how I knew they had a shake-up in their air defense command.

The Hanoi POL strike was a supreme feat of courage, fortitude, and airmanship. The pilots who participated in the raid felt at the time that it was a major step toward shortening the war. Ironically, however, despite an almost perfectly conceived and executed mission, there was no perceptible slowdown in the North Vietnamese POL supply system, as Soviet tankers continued to discharge fuel supplies at Haiphong harbor until 1972. Had the port been closed and the fighter-bombers and B-52s used in conjunction with the strategic targets struck in 1966 as they subsequently were, America might very well have avoided the agonizing years of war that followed.

Air War College


Contributor

Colonel James H. Kasler (B.S., University of Omaha) is Vice Commander, 366th Tactical Fighter Wing (TAC), Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. He served as a B-29 gunner, 1944-46, including combat over Japan. He received his wings in 1951 and flew 100 combat missions in Korea, becoming an ace with six MIG-15s destroyed. He served as operations officer, 345thTactical Fighter Squadron, Takhli AB, Thailand, until shot down over North Vietnam in August 1966; he was captured and interned until March 1973. Colonel Kasler is a graduate of Air War College.

Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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