Friday, March 31, 2017


For American aircrews flying into North Vietnam some fifty years ago, the most notorious target in Southeast Asia was the Thanh Hoa Bridge.  Crossing a swift-flowing Ma River seventy miles south of Hanoi, the double-span bridge was dubbed “The Dragon’s Jaw” for its anchoring karsts.  It was both a vital point for war materiel headed south and a symbol of national pride.  Communist Party Chairman Ho Chi Minh personally dedicated the bridge when completed in 1964.

U.S. Air Force and Navy squadrons tried repeatedly to destroy the bridge throughout the dolorous Vietnam War.  The first attempt by four dozen F-105 Thunderchiefs on April 3, 1965, did little more than scrape the paint.  The follow-up effort the next day did no better, losing two “Thuds” to Vietnamese MiGs while another fell to flak gunners.  In all, six U.S. and South Vietnamese planes were lost in the two days with five pilots killed and one captured.

The problem was multi-tiered.  First, the Vietnamese seriously over-engineered the combined rail-highway structure, ensuring its immunity to conventional ordnance.

Secondly, the U.S. lacked the heavy weapons to destroy the steel structure.  One Thunderchief pilot who flew both missions said, “I laid my string of eight 750-pounders right across the bridge but when the smoke cleared the damn thing was still there.”

Follow-up air strikes over the next three and a half years also failed.  The rail tracks and approaches to the bridge were frequently disrupted but the industrious Vietnamese always repaired the damage.

Then in 1968 Democrat President Lyndon Johnson blew the whistle, ending the first half of “The Southeast Asia War Games.”  LBJ, who had escalated the conflict three months before the 1964 election, alternately tried to force and cajole Hanoi to the bargaining table.  There was no reason for the Communists to negotiate: they had large forces in South Vietnam with sanctuaries in Laos, Cambodia, and much of the North.  All they needed was time.  And they had time a-plenty.

By then at least thirteen U.S. planes had been lost directly attacking the bridge with twenty fliers killed or captured.  The biggest loss occurred in May 1966 when an unconventional mission launched air-dropped mines from C-130 Hercules transports.  The first night’s effort failed but the “Herc” escaped.  When headquarters foolishly ordered a repeat the following night, the defenders were ready.  They shot down the big, slow target with all eight fliers killed.

At year-end Republican Richard Nixon won a landslide election.  After taking office in January 1969, Nixon relaxed some of the more onerous restrictions about bombing the North but generally pursued a wait-and-see approach.  The Hanoi politbureau—not surprisingly—saw Nixon’s patience as weakness.  In April 1972 the North launched a massive conventional army against the South,

After more than three years of fruitless negotiating by Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s ineffectual secretary of state, the gloves came off.  U.S. air power was unleashed against priority targets throughout the North, including Hanoi, the vital port of Haiphong—and Thanh Hoa Bridge.

Though the defenders had enjoyed years to improve defenses with anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles, the attackers also had prepared.  A new generation of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) improved upon the largely ineffective “smart” and “dumb bombs” used before. 

On May 13 the famed 8th Tactical Fighter Wing from Ubon, Thailand, rolled in on the Dragon’s Jaw with 2,000-pound bombs armed with laser designators.  The Paveways were deadly accurate—they knocked the western span of the bridge off its moorings.  And the strikers got away clean.

Two final losses occurred during 1972: an Air Force Phantom with crew recovered in late April, and a Navy photo-reconnaissance jet in mid-June.  The tailhook aviator was flying again the next day.

The Air Force and Navy continued sending conventional bombers against the bridge over the intervening five months, with little effect.  Therefore, on October 9, Vought A-7 Corsair IIs from the carrier USS America launched to slay the Dragon for good.  They put their one-ton TV-guided weapons on the remaining part of western span and snapped it in two—the remains toppled into the Song Ma.

Economists reckoned during the Vietnam War America expended about ten dollars to inflict one dollar of damage upon the Communists.  A large part of the effort was 3.3 million “iron bombs,” most of which inflicted no significant harm.  However, a relative handful of PGMs destroyed not only Thanh Hoa Bridge but other vital targets including additional bridges in the never-ending logistics battle.

Hanoi signed the “peace agreement” in January 1973, a cynical arrangement that neither side expected to last.  The Communists completed their “reunification” of Vietnam in 1975 when the U.S. Congress refused to send additional military aid to Saigon.

In the blush of peace—or its reasonable facsimile—the Viets began rebuilding the bridge.  The wartime structure was scrapped and replaced in the mid 70s, with additional spans added downstream, the most recent a modern structure erected by a Japanese firm.

There the story lingered for decades.  The Viets claimed 104 Yankee Air Pirates downed in the area around Thanh Hoa, an oft-repeated claim.  However, my search of daily records shows about fifteen losses specifically targeted against the bridge.

Then last July a former Navy attack pilot brought the Dragon’s Jaw back into focus.  Stephen Coonts, best-selling author of Flight of the Intruder and more than twenty other books, announced his intention to tell the full story of Thanh Hoa Bridge.

He said, “Barrett Tillman and I are in the early stages of writing a book about The Dragon’s Jaw: The Thanh Hoa Bridge. I was very reluctant to emotionally go back to Vietnam, so this project dragged for a couple of years. Finally I decided to suck it up and do it while I was still able and many of the men who flew the missions were still above ground to talk to…I am soliciting your help.  If you flew one or more missions against the Dragon’s Jaw…or against the associated rail-yard, barracks, SAM or flak sites, we would like to hear from you.”

And did we ever hear from “you.”  Not only aircrews but weaponeers, structural engineers, and a surprising variety of Vietnamese sources answered our call.  Their responses will enable us to tell the Dragon’s Jaw tale from both sides—or all sides, depending on how they’re reckoned.

History has a shelf life, and some of the participants in the Thanh Hoa story have departed the pattern.  But we got an early enough start to tell The Dragon’s tale, and the manuscript will be delivered to the publisher next year.

Watch this space.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017


President Donald Trump wasted no time after his inauguration.  That week he repeated his campaign pledge to rebuild the U.S. military, worn down from 15 years of deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Naval aviation figured prominently in Trump’s reckoning as he expressed willingness to slash the trouble-plagued Lockheed-Martin F-35 triservice fighter-bomber.  Defense Secretary James Mattis has directed a thorough investigation of the perennially late, over-budget Lightning II, still incomplete in its twentieth year of development.  Trump has mentioned possibly upgrading the Navy and Marine Corps’ current FA-18 Hornet, less capable than intended for F-35 but a proven entity and far more affordable.

Meanwhile, the new administration appears willing to continue the new-generation aircraft carrier.  The USS Gerald Ford (CVN-78) also has suffered significant delays and cost over-runs, and likely will be delivered without full operational capability.  But two sister ships have been approved, and they are unlikely to be cut.  Thus, the Trump administration seems to grasp the world-historic significance of American seapower.
In December 1941 the aircraft carrier burst upon the world stage in a 20th century version of Shock and Awe.  Literally overnight the flattop leapt into the global spotlight with the stunning Pearl Harbor attack.  Thus, the carrier resembled the proverbial country-western musician who worked twenty years to become an overnight sensation.

The U.S. and Japanese navies had commissioned their first carriers in 1922, beginning two decades of perfecting ships, aircraft, operating technique and doctrine.  But the global leader was the British Royal Navy, which initiated the carrier to combat in World War I.  In 1917 the battle cruiser HMS Furious was converted to operate Sopwith biplanes, and the next year she launched what a future generation termed a “power projection” mission against a German Zeppelin base.

Actually, the aircraft carrier’s origins predated the Great War.  In November 1910, pioneer flyer Eugene Ely of the Glenn Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company demonstrated the potential of ship-based aircraft by taking off from a platform rigged on a U.S. Navy cruiser.  Two months later he plunked his pusher down on the improvised deck of another warship, dragged to a stop by hooks that snagged ropes stretched across the platform.  The captain of USS Birmingham declared Ely’s feat the most important landing since the dove returned to Noah’s ark.

Both ships were anchored, and neither stunt was repeated.  But the seed had been planted; it germinated, sprouted, and cropped.
During the 1920s and 30s ships and aircraft evolved, forming an increasingly potent binary.  Fabric-covered biplanes gave way to all-metal monoplanes with greater speed, range, and ordnance capacity. 

When World War II erupted in 1939 the Royal Navy was confronted with enemies in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean—and potentially in the Pacific.  Though possessing the world’s most powerful fleet, Britain had to allocate its ships according to geo-strategic need.  Thus, in November 1940 HMS Illustrious launched 21 obsolescent Swordfish biplanes to attack the Italian fleet in Taranto Harbor.  The nocturnal attack was a spectacular success, sinking or sidelining three enemy battleships.  The naval balance in the Middle Sea had shifted—overnight.

Historians still argue the influence of Taranto on Japanese plans for Hawaii, but the similarities are obvious. 

Carriers defined the Pacific War: in fact, only flattops could have launched the attack against Hawaii in December 1941.  The Imperial Navy showed the world the way to naval supremacy by grouping six carriers into a unified striking force—something that no one else had remotely approached.  When the smoke cleared on December 8, the world’s greatest ocean became a giant chessboard with squares defined by degrees of latitude and longitude.  With America’s naval kings—battleships—sidelined, the mobile, long-range queens carried the fight. 

Over the next four years aircraft carriers were essential to both navies.  Four major carrier battles were fought in 1942, providing America essential victories at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal.  Midway in June proved decisive: U.S. carrier planes sank all four Japanese carriers engaged, with one American flattop lost.  Thereafter Japan never regained the strategic initiative.

A new generation of U.S. carriers spearheaded the Central Pacific offensive of 1943-45.  With new aircraft on their decks, Essex and Independence class ships enabled nearly every amphibious operation of the Pacific War.  Their victory off the Mariana Islands in June 1944 ended the Imperial Navy as an offensive arm, and provided roosts for General Curtis LeMay’s firebirds as B-29s began searing Japanese urban-industrial areas.

Meanwhile, carriers proved vital in the Atlantic.  U.S. and British escort carriers—small, slow ships operating specially-trained antisubmarine squadrons, helped defeat Admiral Karl Doenitz’s U-boats.  The mission largely was accomplished by May 1943, clearing the translatantic convoy routes that enabled the D-Day landings 13 months later.
Since then the carrier has never lost its prominence on the world’s oceans.

But new threats arose in new realms.  Only five years after VJ Day, when America possessed 99 carriers of all types, merely fifteen remained in commission.  When General Quarters sounded in Korea, just five were assigned to the Pacific Fleet.

For the next three years U.S. and British carriers launched an endless succession of strike and interdiction sorties against Communist forces.  During the critical weeks of summer 1950, tailhook aircraft were essential to staving off total defeat for the South Korean and American armies.  Compressed into the shrinking Pusan pocket, with few Air Force units remaining on the peninsula, allied ground forces could not have survived without naval aviation.  Later that year, blue airplanes helped offset the enormous disparity of ground forces when China’s quilted masses spilled south of the Yalu.

Long story short: aircraft carriers helped save the Republic of Korea.
Throughout the Cold War, carriers stood sentry on the periphery of the Soviet empire, a capability that Russia still cannot match.  Naval aviators logged more than half the sorties over North Vietnam, and however misdirected “Mr. Johnson’s War,” tailhookers were always there, always “ready on arrival.”
Since then, carriers have launched jets in an immense variety of seas and missions, including Britain’s Sea Harriers that enabled retaking the Falklands in 1982.  Subsequently sea-based airpower has been felt repeatedly in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and now Syria. 

War at sea is nearly extinct, and there can never be another Midway, let alone a Leyte Gulf.  But for territorial independence and oceanic power projection, the carrier remains unrivaled as America’s world-spanning ace card.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


Today is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a world-historic event that officially launched America into the Second World War.  Yet among the public attention in nearly every account, the stellar player often is taken for granted.

I refer to the Imperial Navy’s carrier striking force, the Mobile Unit or Kido Butai.

That Sunday morning the aircraft carrier was much like the proverbial musician who works 20 years to become an overnight sensation.  When the Imperial Navy stunned the world on December 7, Japan and America had two decades of experience operating carriers, perfecting equipment and techniques.  Both navies had commissioned their first flattops in 1922. 

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had risen to command the Combined Fleet in August 1939, days before the new war in Europe.  An aviation advocate, he had supported Japan’s carrier program and, once committed to war, he backed the Hawaii plan as preferable to the doctrinal “decisive battle” in mid-Pacific.  He had served in America between the wars, and realized that a pre-emptive strike was essential to Japan’s success—if success were possible at all.

Spurred by America’s embargo to protest Japanese aggression against China, the “Hawaii plan” began with a preliminary study in January 1941.  More details developed from April onward under Rear Admiral Ryūnosuke Kusaka, chief of staff of the newly formed First Air Fleet.  There was nothing else like it on earth: all of Japan’s six large carriers concentrated under Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

By comparison, neither the U.S. nor British navies had operated more than three carriers together—and never as a permanent unit with integrated operations.

However, in November 1940 HMS Illustrious launched a successful nocturnal strike against the Italian base at Taranto in the “heel” of the boot.  Three major combatants were knocked out of action, altering the naval balance in the Mediterranean literally overnight.  Taranto’s influence on the Pearl Harbor attack is still debated, but the concept was proven.

Intensive training began in late August, affording Nagumo’s aircrews barely three months to perfect tactics and techniques.  Commander Minoru Genda’s plan involved a triple blow: high-altitude level bombers, dive bombers, and torpedo planes.  However, Pearl Harbor presented a problem: the average depth was barely 40 feet, and Japanese torpedoes needed twice as much to recover, rise to the desired depth, and run safely.  Ordnance engineers found an inspired solution: disposable wooden fins that let the torpedoes run at a shallow setting.
The six carriers bound for Hawaiian waters were arrayed in pairs: the giant sisters Akagi and Kaga in the First Carrier Division; Soryu and Hiryu in the Second; and newly-commissioned Shokaku and Zuikaku in the Fifth.  They embarked some 420 bombers, torpedo planes, and fighters, while battleships and cruisers operated catapult-launched floatplanes. 

The carriers were escorted by two battleships, three cruisers, nine destroyers, and nourished by seven tankers.  The latter were more important than the escorts, as the striking force could not reach Hawaiian waters and return without replenishing at sea.

Kido Butai sortied from the Kurile Islands on November 26.  Crossing nearly 4,000 miles of the North Pacific under radio silence, the task force avoided detection during the eleven-day transit.  Meanwhile, submarines had already departed home waters and bases in the Marshall Islands.

Emperor Hirohito had approved war against the Western powers barely a month before, but did not permit the attack until December 1.  Thus, Nagumo’s force represented an arrow launched at the heart of the U.S. Pacific Fleet that might have been recalled in flight.  Instead, it flew straight to its target.

Early that morning, 230 statute miles north of Oahu, Kido Butai’s six carriers lofted 183 aircraft in 15 minutes—an achievement under any condition, let alone the Pacific’s pitching swells.  Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s practiced air groups quickly assembled, formed up, and set course.  A second wave of 167 followed.

The first wave was timed to arrive over Pearl about 30 minutes after Japanese diplomats delivered Tokyo’s refusal to accept Washington’s demands.  But the message from Tokyo took too long to decode, so the attack proceeded as a surprise.  The result was boiling anger throughout America, fueling a surging rage that never abated until VJ-Day.

While the leading squadrons winged southward under Lieutenant Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, Kido Butai continued as briefed.  At 7:15 the second wave of 168 planes lifted off its decks, comprising 54 level bombers, 78 dive bombers, and 36 fighters.

The first bombers over the target were 16 Nakajimas from Soryu and Hiryu.  Briefed to hit carriers on Ford Island’s northwest coast, they went for alternate objectives, destroying the target ship USS Utah and damaging a cruiser.

Akagi’s torpedo squadron led a devastating attack.  The Nakajimas swept in from the north shore of the harbor, skimming low between Hickam Field and the fuel tank farm, then nudging downward over the water.  Making 100 mph at 65 feet, they deployed as per individual briefings and turned onto their attack headings.  A quarter mile ahead lay the gray monoliths along Battleship Row.
Of 36 torpedoes dropped, probably 19 found their targets.  Hardest hit were West Virginia and Oklahoma moored outboard at the head of Battleship Row.  California, farther ahead of the others, took two hits and slowly settled onto the mud.

Five torpedo planes were shot down, all from succeeding waves as the defenders responded and fought back. 

The high-level bombers each carried an 800 kg armor-piercing weapon, designed to penetrate a battleship’s thick armor.  The ten planes targeting Arizona scored four hits and three near misses.  One of them found the sweet spot, smashing into Arizona’s forward magazine.  The 1,760-pound bomb ignited tons of gunpowder, destroying the ship in seconds with three-fourths of the crew.

At 8:40, almost half an hour after the first attack, 167 aircraft of the second wave were led by Zuikaku’s senior aviator, Lieutenant Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki.  No torpedo planes participated but 54 Nakajima level bombers struck three air bases.  The 78 Aichi dive bombers were assigned any carriers in port with cruisers as secondary goals.  Nearly three dozen Zero fighters established air superiority over Hickam and Bellows Fields plus Kaneohe Naval Air Station.
Much of the effort was wasted as many dive bomber pilots probably misidentified ship types; perhaps 28 Aichis dove on destroyers or auxiliary vessels. 

Brunt of the second dive-bombing attack was Nevada, the only battleship to get underway.  Already holed by a torpedo, she took six bombs in a few minutes and developed a list.  To avoid sinking, she was beached near the harbor entrance.

When the second wave departed northward, the entire attack had lasted not quite two hours, from 7:55 to 9:45.  In their slipstream the Japanese left a stunned result on Oahu, both physical and emotional.

The attack killed 2,335 U.S. military personnel and 68 civilians. 

Arizona was destroyed and Oklahoma written off.  Pennsylvania and Maryland were lightly damaged but saw no action until 1943. Tennessee and Nevada were refitted in 1942 and ‘43; California and West Virginia were refloated and fully repaired in 1944. 

Three cruisers and three destroyers were repaired or rebuilt from 1942 to 1944.  Finally, a minelayer was sunk but repaired and operational in 1944.

Combined U.S. aircraft losses ran as high as 350 destroyed or damaged—there is wide disparity in details.
At 11:15 Kido Butai began landing the second wave, completed an hour later.  The fliers were jubilant.  They knew they had inflicted severe damage and were eager to complete the task.  But Nagumo opted for prudence.  More than 70 returning planes were damaged, and he needed to conserve fuel oil.  The Imperial Navy had too few fleet tankers in 1941 and never caught up.  Nagumo turned for home.

None of the six Kido Butai carriers survived the war.  Four died at Midway six months later; another off the Marianas in June 1944, and the last, Zuikaku, at Leyte Gulf four months later.

Naval historian John Lundstrom aptly described Kido Butai as “a 1941 atom bomb.”  In contrast, the U.S. Navy did not field six big-deck carriers until early 1944.  So while honoring the defenders of Pearl Harbor, we should remember that the attackers demonstrated a high order of organization, competence and imagination—exceeding our own, truth be told.

We had to relearn that lesson on September 11, 2001.  We should never have to learn it again.