In Vietnam: Remembering 'The Terror'

During the Vietnam War, B-52s dropped millions of tons of bombs on North Vietnamese targets. Last week NEWSWEEK's Ron Moreau, who covered the war and saw B-52 strikes firsthand, returned to Hanoi to talk to civilians and military sources about their recollections:

Anyone who has survived a B-52 bombing raid will never forget it. Some say it's like being caught in an earthquake, others like being struck by lightning. Still others recall its deafening roar. If the explosion doesn't kill you, the bomb's concussion can. A B-52 raid can suck the air out of your lungs and shatter your eardrums. American soldiers used to tell tales of seeing North Vietnamese soldiers who had survived a B-62 strike staggering around the moonscape of bomb craters, bleeding profusely from the nose and ears.

The residents of Hanoi's Kham Thien Street will certainly never forget the night of Dec. 26,1972, when a B-52 destroyed a square half-mile of their neighborhood during America's massive "Christmas bombing." Nguyen Dinh Vuong, now 58, and his family were asleep when the air-raid sirens sounded at 10 o'clock. He quickly jumped into a bunker with a cement cover in front of his house; his family went to a shelter in the rear. "It was so loud, so terrible, so close, I really don't remember feeling anything," he says. Five members of his family perished in the backyard shelter. Before the direct hit, Vuong had been frightened by earthquakelike tremors from B-52 raids on military targets outside the city. "We had no idea how bad a B-52 hit could really be," he says.

The Vietnamese military, which lived for years under constant B-52 raids in the north, on southern battlefields, on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and in sanctuaries in Cambodia, has a grudging respect for the bomber. Round-the-clock B-52 raids inflicted heavy losses during the long and bloody siege at Khe Sanh in 1968. Vietnamese airfield, SAM and antiaircraft sites were also hit hard in the north. The B-62 "is most damaging to anything that's sitting on top of the ground," says Maj. Gen. Tran Cong Man, former editor of the Vietnamese Army daily, Quan Doi Nhan Dan. "If you gather your forces for an attack and it hits you, it can be devastating."

But the North Vietnamese gradually learned to exploit the bomber's weaknesses. In those days the B-52 could crater large areas but was not "a precise weapon," as General Man puts it. When B-52s were used near residential areas, they left high civilian casualties. The bomber was also vulnerable to SAM missiles. Despite flight escorts and electronic countermeasures, North Vietnamese gunners bagged 15 B-52s during the Christmas bombing. "The plane can't change direction, so we fired in front of the planes with SAMs that were set to explode at a certain altitude," General Man recalls.

On the ground, North Vietnamese forces prepared for B-52 strikes by fanning out. They dug deep bunkers for camouflage and protection. Command and control centers were sometimes located more than eight yards underground. Another ploy was to stay close to U.S. troops so American commanders would have to risk hitting their own men. "Hang onto the American soldier's belt to fight him" became a North Vietnamese motto.

In the long run, Man says, the B-52's biggest impact was as "an instrument of terror." He concedes "our soldiers had a deep psychological fear of the B-52s when they first went into battle." But he says that once they survived a few attacks, they learned to weather.the punishment. He guesses that Iraq's Republican Guards may be learning to live with constant B-52 poundings as well. "The Pentagon thinks airstrikes will break the Iraqi Army's military capacity," Man says. "Bombing can weaken the Army, but it can't defeat it."