The Christmas Bombing, and Courage

Over the weekend I visited a homeless shelter. Not to call attention to that, but it is related to this story.

I brought some copies of my books to donate, and, not sure how, went to the check-in window to talk with whoever was working it.

A volunteer, an older man – gray, glasses, moustache (guess that’s me without the moustache) – was there and I first asked him where I could get a cup of coffee. Nice as he could be he directed me around the corner to come in and help myself. I then presented my books to donate to the “library” which was little more that a wooden box outside by a shack. He looked at the covers. “You a pilot?” he asked. Yes, I said, back in the day, and my novels are about today’s aviators. How about you, I asked him.

“Yeah, Vietnam. C-7’s at first.”

Yes, the Caribou, I said.

“Yes,” he said, surprised that anyone would know that (those of you who know me well are smiling). He then added, “Then I went to B-52’s.”

I was impressed and said “wow” or something like that.

“Yeah, I was in Linebacker II.”

Wow I said, with my eyes big and full of respect. The “Christmas Bombing” I added.

“Yeah, the Christmas Bombing. I was there – glad I made it.”

The so-called “Christmas Bombing” in December 1972 ended the Vietnam War. For over ten days hundreds of B-52 sorties originating from Guam and Thailand rained destruction on Hanoi to get the North Vietnamese back to the table, end the war, and bring our POWs home. The powerful but lumbering B-52s had not yet ventured into the Hanoi area of North Vietnam, the most heavily defended airspace on earth. Lethal surface-to-air missiles took a fearsome toll, but the bombers kept coming. I knew about their need to change tactics to avoid greater losses, but what can you do in an airplane bigger than most airliners and not much more maneuverable? The crews knew the dangers, and after three nights of doing the same thing, how dumb that was. But they persevered – they went in.

So when my friend and fellow aviator Ed Beakley sent this fascinating video clip to his network, the story of one man who displayed courage and spoke truth to power, I watched with new-found respect. BGen G.R. Sullivan said no, we aren’t going to keep coming at them the same way night after night, and he took a courageous stand for his men. The men in this clip are all in their 70’s and 80’s now; the youngest might be 68. Take 35 minutes to watch this story, the story of Linebacker II, that served to end the Vietnam War, which began 45 years ago tonight, December 18, 1972.

My new friend at the shelter described going in at night, seeing bombers ahead of him burst into brilliant flame when hit, and watching the flaming wreckage fall to earth amid fireworks of rockets climbing to meet the next targeted bomber. He told me that he just tightened up in the cockpit and all but closed his eyes waiting for it to be over, a sensation I’ve heard related by other Vietnam aircrew. He obviously survived, and said he soon left the Air Force, having served our country with honor…and serving society today as a volunteer. Looking at him today you would never know what he did then. Shakespeare wrote that, “Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages, What feats he did that day.”

Tonight, let’s lift a glass to the aviators – in Thailand and Guam and aboard the carriers at sea – of Linebacker II as you enjoy Sully: A General’s Decision (Painting by Robert Bausch, USAF Art Collection)

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