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.