Valor: A Bridge Downtown

Jan. 1, 1992

Some targets have become legends in the history of air warfare. Among those of World War II are Berlin, Schweinfurt/Regensburg, Ploesti, and Rabaul. The Vietnam War’s counterpart to Berlin was Hanoi, “Downtown” to the fighter pilots, with one target at the top of the list–the Paul Doumer railroad and highway bridge over the Red River. In March 1965, the Joint Chiefs of Staff submitted to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara a list of 94 targets in North Vietnam that should be hit in a 12-week campaign that stood a good chance of taking North Vietnam out of the war. The highest-priority target, once North Vietnam’s line of communications south of the 20th parallel had been severed, was the Doumer Bridge.

Why was that bridge, 8,500 feet long including its terminal viaducts, so important? Four of five major rail lines came together to cross the bridge from the north into Hanoi. All supplies moving by rail from China and the port of Haiphong had to cross the Doumer Bridge, as did much truck traffic. This valuable North Vietnamese asset was defended by 300 AA positions with 37-mm, 57-mm, 85-mm, and 100-mm guns; 85 SAM sites each with four to six missiles; and MiG fighters on several bases in and near Hanoi.

The 1965 JCS target list was never implemented as a concentrated campaign for fear of antagonizing China and the Soviet Union by bombing high-priority targets in and around Hanoi. Lower-priority targets north of the 20th parallel were released from time to time, and the F-105 “Thud” pilots who did most of the bombing went north when weather permitted, carrying their iron bombs. (Guided “smart” bombs didn’t come along until a few years later.)

One of the Thud pilots who had gone north many times was Col. William C. Norris, who had flown 100 F-51 missions in Korea, had spent most of his career in fighters, and now commanded the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing’s 333d Squadron. He remembers those days in Southeast Asia with a mixture of pride and bitterness. “During Rolling Thunder [the limited air campaign against North Vietnam], we lost 252 F-105s. Every day, those pilots who went to the Hanoi area went to one of the most heavily defended areas in modern warfare. Worst of all, they were forced to fight under the most ridiculous rules of engagement. Those unrealistic rules certainly contributed to our heavy loss rate and also hindered us from accomplishing our mission. To go to Hanoi day after day not only took great courage, but, more important, it took loyalty to your country”–whose leaders seemed not to understand air operations or the hazards to their own men, which they were compounding.

On the morning of Aug. 11, 1967, the Doumer Bridge was released for attack that afternoon. Colonel Norris wanted to lead the attack force, but, since he had just recovered from a morning strike on railyards near Hanoi, he was not allowed to do so. Instead, because of his experience as a strike force leader who had flown more than 90 missions in the North, he was selected to plan the mission, which would be led by Col. Robert White (of X-15 fame). A span of the rail bridge and two spans of the highway bridge were knocked down in a highly successful mission. It was vital to go back while the weather still was good and ensure that the bridge would be out of use for weeks or months. This time the enemy defenders would be fully alerted, knowing the bridge was no longer off-limits. Colonel Norris was chosen to lead a force of F-105s and F-4s, including F-105 Wild Weasel defense-suppression aircraft. As force commander, he also was leader of the flak-suppression flight that would go in first to attack AA gun positions. As they crossed Thud Ridge with Hanoi in sight, the strike force was hit by MiGs, one flight boring in on Colonel Norris from 11 o’clock. He told his pilots, “Hang onto those bombs, and we’ll barrel through them.” Turning head-on into the MiGs, he opened fire with his cannon, scattering them in all directions. Within seconds he had to get back in position to go down first against the enemy guns. The bridge was hit again, and all of the strike force made it home safely–an indication of the success of Colonel Norris’s flak-suppression flight and the performance of the Wild Weasels. Some 300,000 tons of war supplies would not reach Hanoi over that bridge while it was down until early October.

Colonel Norris, today a retired major general, was awarded the Air Force Cross for his leadership of the Aug. 12 mission. Rather than being remembered for that award, he says, “I would much rather be remembered as an F-105 Thud pilot of the Rolling Thunder campaign in 1967.” There could be no finer tribute to comrades who fought, died, and suffered in Hanoi’s prisons. Knowing what lay ahead, the best of those men competed for a place on the toughest missions. The reason may defy layman’s logic. They did it because they were fighter pilots.

Published January 1992. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.