Christmas ’72 Stories: (4) MiG-CAP & Roman Candles

Perspective from John Chesire – VF-151 Switchboxes – flying MiG-CAP around Haiphong.

Of my nearly two years combat flying in SEA (Southeast Asia), the most spectacular and memorable sight occurred on December 20, the third and worst night of the of the historic Linebacker II Christmas Raids, designed to end the war.

Although we (F-4’s) never flew ‘planned’ night MiG-CAP “feet dry” overland, some of us were now tasked for this major strike to do so. My RO “TA” and I set up our CAP station in the vicinity of Haiphong, and hopefully on the outer ranges of their SAM sites. Fortunately, we took no serious enemy fire that night due to our range, but especially because of the North Vietnamese concentration on the higher value B-52s targets, rather than us in an F-4. Also, there were no MiG’s in our immediate vicinity, so we could somewhat ‘relax’ and just watch in total amazement.

We knew the Air Force had taken some serious losses on the first two nights of raids. We hoped that on this night, their tactics and fortunes would change. Looking up, high above our F-4, we could see the B-52’s still flying in their familiar, cells-of-three formations, same altitude, streaming observable contrails with each cell directly in trail of another. “Hadn’t these guys ever flown in hostile territory before,” we wondered? Apparently, they hoped their advanced electronic countermeasures (ECM) would protect them. Unfortunately that night, it would not.

[We had a 6-second rule: If you flew in the same direction, and same altitude for longer than 6 seconds, you were dead. We therefore always ‘jinked’ (abruptly and aggressively changing heading and altitude, dipping, diving, climbing, and turning … like a white wing dove during hunting season) so the enemy could never draw a good bead on us.]

That night, not only were the B-52’s flying straight and level at a most lethal SAM altitude, but they were in trail. [Enemy gunners usually didn’t pull enough lead, and their fire often went behind their intended target. Therefore, the last place you want to be obviously, is directly behind and “in trail” of an enemy targeted aircraft ahead.] But what was really incredible to us, they all had their lights on! We immediately knew it would not be a good night for them. And it was not.

My RO and I had seen a lot of SAMs and flak fired at us and our wingmen in the many months prior. But that night, it seemed the North launched more SAM’s and AAA than we had seen in all the many months before, combined! To the west, the darkness was lit up with literally sheets of AAA. It reminded me of the slanting sheets of rain coming from a Midwest thunderstorm. The barrage AAA was so thick, it had to hit some of the B-52′ flying through it, we thought, regardless of their very effective ECM (Electronic Counter Measures).

As spectacular was the sight of the intense Triple-A fire, the many SAM’s were totally mesmerizing. Launched repeatedly in pairs, over and over, from a distance they looked like multiple Roman candles fired on the 4th of July. Every few seconds, another pair would be launched from various SAM sites. It was an astonishing sight! Usually, the bright orange glow of the distant SAM’s in the night sky continued until their rocket motor burned out, and they abruptly disappeared into darkness.

Unfortunately, that was not always the case. We watched a few whose glow never went out.Their orange glow rose to altitude, stopped, became much more brilliant, then the glow much more slowly returned brightly back to earth, sometimes splitting. We realized we were witnessing some shoot-downs, both of B-52’s and a Navy A-7.

“Overall Air Force losses included fifteen B-52s, two F-4s, two F-111s, and one HH-53 search and rescue helicopter. Navy losses included two A-7s, two A-6s, one RA-5, and one F-4. Seventeen of these losses were attributed to SA-2 missiles, three to daytime MiG attacks, three to antiaircraft artillery, and three to unknown causes.”
(All losses in just a few days. Linebacker II link )

Thankfully, the Midway left Yankee Station after we returned that night, to spend Christmas in Singapore, and enjoy a Bob Hope show. But the “Christmas Raids” continued without us. It had been a long and extended line period . . . we had some losses, and we were all long overdue for a break.

Nevertheless, I will carry forever the vivid memory of that December night’s spectacular fireworks display – one that a lifetime of 4th of July’s could never approach.

(And one I still vividly recall in a flashback – unfortunately – whenever I see spectacular, but now thankfully benign fireworks even today, decades later.)

Juxtaposed with that spectacular, visual, pyrotechnic memory is also the agonizing and sickening feeling of watching helplessly, some of our courageous brethren dying before our eyes in the glowing night sky over the “North” on that fateful evening.

[In addition to the massive barrage of AAA, a total of 220 SAMs were fired, and six B-52s along with a Navy A-7 were shot down on that night!]

Listen to the action some nights later, and fortunately a bit less fateful on this Linebacker II B-52 audio/video.
It includes the background aural warning tones of many radar guided AAA and SAM launches  along with the loud “beepers” indicating downed aircrews on the night of Dec. 26. The tension is palpable even without the spectacular visual pyrotechnics of multiple SAM launches  and massive AAA being fired at them!
Impressive to me are the business-like transmissions of  these courageous and professional crews  while under intense enemy fire, and their losses. BZ

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