The Last Year of the Vietnam War.
By Gordon L. “Box” Bocher
Major, USAF Retired
Eight years ago I retired from all work and decided to write a novel based upon my experiences in the United States Air Force. I served from January 1968 until June 1980. From February 1972 to February 1973, I served in the 16th Special Operations Squadron as a fire control officer (FCO) assigned to fly the AC-130A Gunship. During that year I flew over 170 combat sorties. I was in-theatre when the armistice was signed in Paris on January 27, 1973. Unlike those men who fought on the ground, my aircraft covered virtually all the areas of combat throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, I was the flight examiner FCO and so I was privy to classified briefings from several CIA representatives.
In doing research for the book and later on when I went on a speaking tour, I found a great deal of misinformation regarding the last year of the war. In one speaking engagement, a high school student came up to me and stated that Vietnam was an “unwinnable” war. What she thought was factual was anything but. I was not angry at her because she only parroted what she was taught. Somebody needs to set the record straight, and that’s what I intend to do with this essay.
In the spring of 1972, the United States was involved with the process of electing a new president. The leading Democrat was Sen. George McGovern from North Dakota who campaigned on the promise to immediately end all combat operations in Southeast Asia. The Republican incumbent, President Richard Nixon, took a hawkish stance in promising to continue the war until its natural conclusion. Four years earlier, the Vietcong conducted the first Tet Offensive in order to embarrass and politically damage (then) Pres. Lyndon Johnson. As result of that offensive operation in 1968, most of the combatants who formed the Vietcong were killed. The Vietcong as a fighting force had to be repopulated by members of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The first Tet Offensive was a military victory for the United States but a political disaster for Pres. Johnson. Our fighting forces killed at least 40 of their fighters for every one that we lost. However, our losses were in the tens of thousands and that was politically unacceptable to the American public. As a result, Pres. Johnson was forced out of the race for reelection in 1968. Four years later, with Pres. Nixon facing reelection, the North Vietnamese tried the same strategy and instigated a second Tet Offensive because it was in the North Vietnamese political and strategic interests to elect Sen. McGovern to replace Pres. Nixon.
Unlike the first Tet Offensive which started in January 1968, the second Tet Offensive started in late March 1972. The reason that it was delayed was threefold. First was the weather. March through September is the wet season in Southeast Asia. During this time the monsoons regularly drive through this area causing low clouds and continuous precipitation. This reduced visibility created difficult flying conditions which hampered any effort to aid our friendly ground forces using air power. The second reason was a scheduled refit of the H-model gunships which included the following: upgraded engines; the aft 40mm cannon was replaced by a 105mm Howitzer which went from a fixed position to being placed upon a movable mount which would allow this particular weapon to be “slaved” to the sensor that was made primary by the FCO; and finally, the analog computer was replaced by a digital computer which freed the pilot from the necessity of flying a precise circle around the target in order to fire accurately. This digital computer would immediately correct for deviations in flight parameters, i.e., angle of bank, airspeed and altitude. This refit was scheduled for this time of year because of the aforementioned weather. The third reason was due to manning levels. While all the H-models were down because of a scheduled refit, the A-model crews were only half manned because most of the new incoming FCOs were assigned to the more advanced H-model system. As a result, the H-models crews were fully manned but their aircraft was not flyable and the A-models, who could fly, had only half the crews fully manned. We had 26 A-model crews and only 14 FCOs to man them.
I learned from a CIA briefing that the second Tet Offensive would be centered around the city of An Loc which was located on State Route Seven between Saigon to the south and Cambodia to the north. The CIA agents told us that if the North Vietnamese were successful in capturing the city, then An Loc would be named the provisional capital of the “People’s Republic of South Vietnam”. That would have created a huge political embarrassment for Pres. Nixon and made it harder for him to win reelection in November of that year.
Frankly, this plan would have worked a year earlier, but not in the spring of 1972. What the enemy did not know and which was a carefully guarded secret by our forces was that the AADS -6 Infrared System was replaced by the AADS-7 Infrared System in November 1971. This top-secret upgrade made it possible to see through a great deal of moisture as well as triple canopy jungle. The AADS-6 was primitive in its design and lacked effectiveness. The AADS-7 upgrade was a massive leap in technology. Weather was still a factor… but not the factor it would’ve been a year earlier. The AADS-7 allowed us to see the ground in most cases and be determinative in locating various forces even though the weather was dismal.
At that time, I was an A-model FCO. I flew two to three sorties a day starting at the end of March until the end of April 1972. Those combined combat missions lasted approximately 9 to 15 hours of flying time which translated to 15 to 19 hours of crew duty-day. What eventually helped was the fact that the Air Force recognized the need to speed up the refit of the H-models which they did. By the end of the third week of April, the newly refitted H-models were coming online and were able to enter the fray. On or about April 29th, my crew was assigned to work the southern part of the city and assist an US Army Ranger and forward air controller (FAC) whose call sign was Tunnel Ten Alpha. On that particular night, the wind at altitude was so strong that most of our A-model pilots would not have been able to get into the proper firing geometry. One of those exceptions was my pilot, Maj. Conrad Story who was the best pilot that I have ever encountered. Tunnel Ten Alpha led a band of several hundred South Vietnamese Rangers. The friendlies and an overwhelming enemy force were facing each other with a road separating the two opposing sides. Tunnel Ten Alpha estimated the enemy force between 1100 to 1500 NVA. We opened fire and inside of eight minutes, we “Winchestered” the aircraft (fired every available round of ammunition). Tunnel Ten Alpha reported that the entire enemy force was destroyed… No survivors!
At precisely the same time we were operating just south of An Loc, a newly refitted H-model, working north of the city along Route Seven, found a column of 25 T–54 Russian battle tanks moving from the Cambodian border southward to join up with the forces facing Tunnel Ten Alpha and his men. This H-model gunship fired 26 rounds of 105mm shells at those tanks. The first shot gave the FCO the gun line error. He placed the correction in the brand new digital computer and they opened up on the tanks. Each of the next 25 shots found its mark. 25 shots resulted in 25 destroyed tanks. This happened precisely the same time that we were killing between 1100 to 1500 NVA regulars south of the city. In that 10 minute span, the enemy lost two major forces without a single friendly casualty!
The breaking of the siege of An Loc in reality ended the second Tet Offensive. In fact from May 1972 to the end of the war (27 JAN 1973) the enemy never again gathered in large numbers in South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese learned a hard lesson at An Loc. They knew from that moment on that they could no longer come together in a large offensive force as it would be a large target and liability rather than a military capability. Gunships made that option a nonstarter!
The next turning point was in December 1972. Approximately seven weeks after Pres. Nixon was overwhelmingly reelected he ordered Linebacker II. This operation was an all-out strategic assault on virtually every enemy military asset throughout North and South Vietnam. For the nine weeks of its duration Pres. Nixon changed the rules of engagement which in turn, gave the North Vietnamese basically nine weeks of World War II rules. Permission to fire on targets in populated areas which was an absolute “no-no” before Linebacker II became an everyday event. Our B-52s decimated all targets of strategic value in North Vietnam. The new infrared technology combined with smart bombs allowed us to take out all the bridges which connected North Vietnam to China thereby eliminating the main source of resupply of their diminished military assets. For the nine weeks of Linebacker II, it was nonstop destruction of their forces and infrastructure… Not unlike the bombing that Germany endured in the last year of World War II.
In 1977, I was going through a refresher course in survival training in the state of Washington. On my last day there, while waiting for my return flight, I met a Colonel who in 1973 was assigned as an intelligence officer. One aspect of his job was debriefing our returning POWs. Because of his rank, he was selected to interview a full colonel B-52 pilot who was shot down in the second or third day of Linebacker II. The following is the story that was related to me by the Colonel assigned to intelligence:
The B-52 pilot was captured almost immediately upon parachuting to the ground after being shot down by a surface-to-air missile. He was placed in one of the “Hanoi Hiltons” where he was interrogated on a daily basis. Every day for the next eight weeks or so he was brought to a room with three or four men who would take turns beating him. Finally one day after they brought him into the room for his daily beating and interrogation when something different happened. Before they got started, the door opened and a wizened old man with his own entourage entered the room. The interrogator and all the guards immediately “popped” to attention. The POW colonel noticed how nervous they were and realized that this old man was probably a member of the North Vietnamese Politburo.
The old man sat down and then asked the POW colonel, “How long does he think President Nixon will continue the bombing?” His question was immediately translated by the interrogator.
The Colonel pointed his finger at the interrogator and told him to tell this elderly gentleman exactly what he said and not to soften the meaning of his words. The interpreter nodded his agreement nervously and then the colonel looking directly at the wizened old man replied, “Pres. Nixon will continue the bombing until there are not two bricks left stuck together in this f—-ing country!”
The interrogator, with much trepidation, translated the colonel’s response. The old man’s eyes bulged momentarily and then he nodded that he understood. He said something to the interrogator in Vietnamese and immediately left with his retinue. Our POW was returned to his cell without his daily beating and his treatment was immediately improved until he was freed. More importantly is what happened the very next day. The North Vietnamese decided to accept our terms for an armistice. That is how the war ended.
How and why did we lose the peace? In August 1974, Pres. Nixon resigned rather than face an impeachment trial in the Senate. The Congress feeling that they were now the superior branch of government defunded all aid to South Vietnam, our allies in Cambodia and the Hmong tribesmen in Laos. What was even more egregious, was the directed Congressional defunding of all gunship operations in Southeast Asia. The last AC-130 Gunship left Thailand on 15 December 1974. Four months later (15 APR 75), Saigon fell. Eliminating the gunships from theatre operations was like removing all law enforcement from the Wild West. What followed was a slaughter of our indigenous allies. Upwards of 3 million people who chose to tie their fate to the West were killed by various Communist forces in the three countries. As long as the gunships where there, the indigenous friendly forces were safe. Removing the gunships allowed our enemies to gather in force and overwhelm those friendly governments and other allied groups. Once the Communists achieved power, they went on a killing spree of Holocaust proportions.
That war was won by our brave men who fought all of those battles for more than 10 years. The hard part was done. The ensuing peace was lost because our Congress would not make the minimum investment needed to aid our allies and allow gunship operations to continue to protect the friendly indigenous forces. In essence, Congress eviscerated the sacrifice of over 58,000 men whose names are etched on a black wall in Washington because they would not see our commitment through to fruition…One of the darkest periods of our history.
The misinformation and the downright lies that have become the “accepted history” of the Vietnam War are in contrast to the true facts. I was there and I know what I saw. I am reminded of the old saying, “Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it”. And repeat it we did. In this case, it was Iraq and the politicians who voided the sacrifice of over 4000 men and women who fought to stabilize that country because they (the politicians) would not see it through to its fruition. Now we have to deal with ISIS and an enlarged state sponsored terrorism threat. In both cases, the military won the war– only to have the politician surrender the peace.
How many times must we repeat the same mistake before we learn?