Christmas on the Rock: Dec. 18-29, 1972

  • Published
  • By Tara K.
  • 36th Wing Historians Office
The first weeks of December are typically filled with the hustle of people preparing for the holidays. In Guam, this busy, festive atmosphere is no different. However, 36 years ago, the activity on the island during the holiday season was for an extremely different purpose.

After several months of buildups, the 155 bombers deployed to Andersen became the largest concentration of B-52s in the Strategic Air Command. Following the North Vietnamese Army's 1972 Easter offensive, Operation Bullet Shot increased the number of Airmen, aircraft, staff, and support personnel in the region. Within months, the base population tripled to over 12,000 people.

President Richard Nixon ended the bombing campaign, Operation Linebacker I, in October as a sign of good will, hoping to hasten the signing of the peace agreement. However, it became clear the only effective means for encouraging communication with the North Vietnamese was by shattering their ability to wage war.

Linebacker I was credited for compelling Hanoi to make concessions and draft a peace agreement. However, once the bombing lessened, so to did the North Vietnamese cooperation and willingness to reach an accord. December's meetings in Paris proved initially promising, until it was discovered on Dec. 13 the North Vietnamese made 17 changes to a previously completed portion of the peace agreement document. The deception resulted in President Nixon's demand to utilize military power decisively to win the Vietnam War.

On Dec. 15, the 8th Air Force commander, Lt. Gen. Gerald Johnson, received word of the Joint Chiefs of Staff contingency plan that called for swift and continuous raids on targets in the heart of North Vietnam. Linebacker II's purpose was to end the war using heavy bombers in their intended role, concentrated strategic bombardment.

Briefings to B-52 crews on Dec. 18 dispelled any hopes of returning home for Christmas. One-hundred twenty-nine B-52 crews learned they were finally headed "downtown."

The mission demands were met due to the escalation of Airmen and aircraft at Andersen throughout the spring and summer of 1972. Neither the base nor the island was fully prepared to handle such an influx, creativity and cooperation at all levels managed to supply everyone with a bed, meals and transportation. Tents, metal buildings, spare barracks and hotels were overfilled with temporary duty personnel. The tripled base population affected all routine services including the dining hall, legal offices, security police and supplies.

Also vital to the preparations for the mission was the 303d Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Wing. Over 5,000 personnel strong, the wing maintained the 155 B-52s prior to and during Linebacker II. Their schedule included servicing 120 jet engine overhauls a month (24 times the average) and providing maintenance for over 60 B-52 sorties a day (the typical number a bomb wing flies per month). The push for success was intensified when the operation over Hanoi and Haiphong was officially announced.

On Dec. 18, at 2:51 p.m., the first B-52 took off with 26 others following. Linebacker II's plan called for a series of successive night raids using three waves of B-52s, each striking objectives at four- or five-hour intervals. Targets, including railroads, power plants and storage areas, were carefully chosen around the cities. Accuracy was essential for keeping civilian casualties at a minimum. However, the strikes were certain to cause anguish and fear in the people of North Vietnam as bombs fell from over 30,000 feet, with no aircraft seen or heard.

The first night aircrews achieved a 94 percent success rate hitting targets, though sadly three B-52s were shot down. Aircrews followed the same flight path the next two days leading to a deadly day three. After losing six B-52s, plans were revamped.

During a 36-hour hiatus for Christmas, President Nixon asked the North Vietnamese to return to the negotiating table. Hanoi's refusal to the president's offer to meet by Jan. 3 prompted the most formidable day of the operation.

On Dec. 26, 120 B-52s struck 10 targets within 15 minutes. Knowing the enemy had spent the respite stocking piling defenses, airfields and surface-to-air missile storage units were key objectives. The following day, Hanoi agreed to resume peace talks in January. However, Linebacker II continued for two more days until it was certain that North Vietnam was ready to reach an agreement and resume talks. In 11 days, B-52s stationed on the Rock flew 729 sorties. Over 15,000 tons of bombs were dropped over Hanoi and Haiphong.

Although force size at Andersen was reduced, the final B-52 mission over Southeast Asia was not flown until August 1973.