Week of April 4

Week of April 4

Week of April 4

Between April 3 and 4, 1965, during the early days of Operation ROLLING THUNDER, the United States Air Force sent over 100 fighter-bombers against a single bridge over the Song Ma, a river in North Vietnam. The Thanh Hoa Bridge, nicknamed the “Dragon’s Jaw,” was a massive structure of steel and concrete. Several U.S. aircraft were shot down during two days of attempts to destroy it. Three pilots were taken prisoner, while four others never returned.

The Thanh Hoa Bridge over the Song Ma, approximately 70 miles south of Hanoi, was a crucial choke point for Communist military logistics. For the supplies and troops moving south toward the Ho Chi Minh Trail system and the Demilitarized Zone, the bridge was a vital strategic crossing point, and North Vietnamese engineers had constructed the Dragon’s Jaw accordingly. Viet Minh insurgents had destroyed an earlier bridge at this location in 1945 during the French Indochina War. When the replacement bridge was completed in 1964, it was 540 feet long and 50 feet above the river. At 56 feet wide, it accommodated a central railroad line and two flanking paved highways. The bridge was solidly anchored into high hills that rose immediately on either side of the river, which increased the difficulty of making attack runs parallel to the bridge. The bridge itself was all steel and concrete, and between 1965 and 1968 the North Vietnamese continually added concrete reinforcement piers. It presented a formidable target.

Destroying the Dragon’s Jaw became a priority for U.S. Military Assistance Command from the beginning of Operation ROLLING THUNDER. On April 3, 1965, MACV assigned the U.S. Air Force to take first crack at it. A total of 79 aircraft participated in the mission, most of which were F-105 Thunderchiefs, each carrying either AGM-12 “Bullpup” missiles or unguided 750-pound bombs. The rest of the aircraft included F-100 Super Sabers assigned to suppress the antiaircraft fire in the area and other assorted planes.

The Thunderchiefs carrying the Bullpup missiles made the first attack runs. Despite numerous direct hits, observers reported that the missiles appeared to do no more than char the bridge’s steel and roadways. The bombing runs that followed also produced poor results. When bombs did strike the bridge, they seemed to almost bounce off.

While the F-105s made their attack runs, 25-year-old First Lieutenant George Smith from St. Louis, Missouri, was among those flying flak suppression passes in his F-100. During his second low pass, his aircraft was struck and immediately crashed. No one saw him eject, though the Super Saber was likely too close to the ground for ejection. The Air Force designated Smith missing in action, but he was almost certainly killed instantly. His remains were never recovered.

All together on April 3, U.S. aircrafts launched 32 missiles and more than 120 bombs at the Thanh Hoa Bridge. It nonetheless remained standing. Two other pilots were also shot down on April 3: Herschel Morgan and Raymond Vohden. They became POWs and were not released until 8 years later, in March 1973.

The Air Force, remaining determined, launched a second strike force against the bridge on the next day, April 4, 1965. The North Vietnamese were better prepared this time and greeted the aircraft over the bridge with not only withering antiaircraft fire but also several MiG-17 fighters. Diving from above and behind, one MiG-17 unloaded cannon fire at the F-105 flown by Major James Magnusson, Jr., a 30-year-old from Nahant Massachusetts. Magnusson was hit and he quickly turned the crippled plane toward the Gulf of Tonkin before ditching in the water. Despite search-and-rescue operations in the following hours and days, Mangusson was never found. Another pilot, Major Frank Bennett, also had his Thunderchief crippled, this time by ground fire. Bennett, who was 42 and from Warwick Neck, Rhode Island, was a highly experienced aviator. He had flown for the Navy during World War II and had been in military service for two decades. Bennett turned his aircraft out to sea and he successfully ejected. But by the time he was located and pulled from the water three hours later by the sailors of the cruiser USS Canberra, stationed nearby, he was dead.

Because several fighter-bombers were shot down, a number of rescue attempts were made in the wake of the second day’s strikes. Some of these were performed by South Vietnamese Air Force pilots, and one of their American advisors, Captain Walter Draeger, Jr., was among them. Draeger was 31 years old and from Deerfield, Wisconsin. He repeatedly hurled his A-1 Skyraider toward the deck, making several firing passes to allow recovery aircraft to move safely into the area. On one of these low passes he was shot down. Listed as missing in action, Draeger was never heard from again. One other pilot, Carlyle Harris, was shot down on April 4. He survived, but became a POW. Despite twice as many bombs dropped on the Thanh Hoa Bridge on April 4 as on the day before, the Dragon’s Jaw still stood intact over the Song Ma at the end of the day.

The saga of the attempt to destroy the Thanh Hoa Bridge became emblematic of the remaining limits of airpower in the 1960s. Despite hundreds of direct hits with unguided “iron” munitions, the bridge survived. These first attempts cost the lives of four American pilots. The U.S. Air Force and Navy launched numerous additional strikes on the Thanh Hoa Bridge in the following years before President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a general bombing halt in 1968. None of these strikes managed to take the bridge permanently out of service. It was not until 1972, with the advent of new precision electro-optical and laser-guided bombs, that the United States military succeeded in destroying the Dragon’s Jaw.

Those killed in the first attempts to knock out the bridge—George Smith, Frank Bennett, James Magnusson, Jr., and Walter Draeger, Jr.—are all memorialized together on Panel 1E, Line 100, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.1


1A.J.C. Lavalle, ed., The Tale of Two Bridges and The Battle for the Skies over North Vietnam (Washington D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1985); Jacob Van Staavern, Gradual Failure: The Air War Over North Vietnam 1965–1966 (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, United States Air Force, 2002); Ronald Bruce Frankum, Like Rolling Thunder: The Air War in Vietnam, 1964–1975 (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005); "The Wall of Faces" Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (accessed 3/28/19); “Smith, George Craig,” POW network (accessed 3/28/19).


 


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