Vietnam War Commemoration Commission

Week of April 14

On April 10, 1967, a handful of U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortresses landed at อู่ตะเภา (U-Tapao Air Base), Thailand, after flying sorties in support of Operation JUNCTION CITY—the operation to locate and destroy the headquarters of South Vietnam’s Communist insurgency. Those B-52s that landed in Thailand became the first to be permanently based in Southeast Asia. Strategic Air Command moved them there from Guam so they could be closer to their targets, in response to General William C. Westmoreland’s increasing requests for strikes by the Stratofortresses. B-52s remained based at อู่ตะเภา (U-Tapao) Air Base through the remainder of the war.

The Air Force introduced the massive Boeing-built B-52 Stratofortress, nicknamed the “Buff,” in 1955. Designed during the height of the Cold War, these heavy bombers were built to carry nuclear weapons and provide the United States with a critical nuclear deterrent aircraft—one that could reach the Soviet Union from American bases if necessary. It was 160 feet long, had a wingspan of 185 feet, and carried a payload of up to 70,000 pounds at over 600 miles per hour across a range of nearly 9,000 miles. No one in U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam had true operational control over the B-52s. Instead, commanders had to request them from Strategic Air Command (SAC), which retained command of the Buffs, a fact that especially frustrated General Westmoreland. SAC, however, was worried about committing too many of the bombers to the Vietnamese theater. The more B-52s that were based in Southeast Asia, the fewer that were available to maintain the United States’ continuous nuclear deterrent, placing increased pressure on a vital arm of the nation’s nuclear triad.

During the early part of the Vietnam War, U.S. military commanders requested the capability of calling on B-52s for tactical air support and strike sorties in support of the ground war. These B-52 missions became known as “Arc Light” strikes. B-52s, however, had not been designed with such missions in mind, and thus had to be re-fitted to carry non-nuclear, conventional “iron” bombs.

The first Stratofortresses to arrive in-theater were based at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. By 1965, at the beginning of U.S. combat operations in Vietnam, approximately 30 B-52s were on hand at Andersen. But U.S. commanders, insisting on the utility of Arc Light strikes in support of ground troops, gradually made demands for more and more B-52 sorties, which strained Andersen Air Force Base’s resources. This strain led to the decision to move a handful of B-52s to Thailand in order to reduce the distance, cost, and effort required for Arc Light missions. The first of these aircraft landed at อู่ตะเภา (U-Tapao) Air Base on April 10, 1967, and by 1968, 28 B-52s flew missions from there. B-52s also began flying out of 嘉手納飛行場 (Kadena Air Base), Okinawa, in 1968. At the end of U.S. involvement in the war, in 1973, 53 B-52s were based at อู่ตะเภา (U-Tapao) and 150 were in Guam.

The most common locations of B-52 strikes remained along the Hồ Chí Minh Trail, in Laos and Cambodia, and near the Demilitarized Zone that divided North and South Vietnam. They proved frighteningly effective in support of ground forces, especially besieged or surrounded troops—B-52 crews were instrumental, for instance, in helping the Marines hold out during the battle at Khe Sanh in 1967–1968. A total of 30 B-52s were lost during the war. Of those, 18 were lost as a result of combat, mostly due to North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) during the 1972 LINEBACKER operations. The Stratofortress remains active and operational today and is now in its sixth decade of service in the United States Air Force.1

1John T. Correll, The Air Force in the Vietnam War (Arlington, VA: Aerospace Education Foundation, 2004); Spencer C. Tucker, Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War (2nd edition; Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 24; John Schlight, A War Too Long: The USAF in Southeast Asia, 1961–1975 (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1996), 31; John Schlight, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The War in South Vietnam: The Years of the Offensive, 1965–1968 (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1999), 256; “B-52: Five Decades and Counting,” http://www.boeing.com/defense/b-52-bomber/ (accessed 4/12/16).

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