Aerial gunnery is an antiquated concept in modern air combat.
In the age of cruise missiles, stealth and BVR (Beyond Visual Range) engagements the idea of aviators dueling with guns at close range is largely obsolete.
So it was on Christmas Eve, 1972 above Hanoi, North Vietnam. A massive bomber force of B-52G and tall-tailed, big-bellied B-52D’s streamed toward Hanoi for the relentless pounding of North Vietnam called Linebacker II.
The idea, perhaps tacitly, was to force the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table at the Paris Peace Talks. Nixon had issued an ultimatum earlier in the month. He directed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to warn Hanoi that if they didn’t return to the negotiating table in Paris within 72 hours North Vietnam would face “grave consequences”. Those consequences were to be administered by the B-52 Stratofortresses from Andersen AFB in Guam and Utapao Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand. Christmas was coming, the budget for bombing was running out and a new Congress would soon sit. They threatened to end the Vietnam Conflict with legislation instead of lethality.
For the 43rd, 72nd and 307th Bomb Wings of the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command it was crunch time. Get the job done or lose the job to the new Congress.
The B-52 is a horrific weapon in its tactical/conventional role. It has struck terror in the enemy from the Viet Cong to the North Vietnamese to Saddam’s Republican Guard and to Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda at Tora Bora. To this day the Stratofortress serves as a capable “bomb truck” that can loiter above troops in contact and drop precision guided weapons designated by ground forces or other aircraft and obliterate entire grid squares with hell-thunder carpet bombing. The few people who have survived a B-52 strike describe it as an unimaginable cauldron of deafening noise. The earth heaves in fatal seizure as fire and shards of red-hot shrapnel fill the air like a plague of Satan’s locust. After B-52 strikes in the Gulf War thousands of Saddam’s “elite” Republican Guard abandoned their weapons and marched south with their hands in the air. Such is the terror of the thundering death rained from the stratosphere without warning by the B-52.
Strategic aerial bombing had come a long way, or so we thought, since WWII. Especially according to the Strategic Air Command and their original boss, General Curtis LeMay.
LeMay nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki and gone on to preside over the formation of a nuclear deterrent force that was trained to race over the North Pole and attack Russia. LeMay’s doctrine of high, fast nuclear megadeath even gave brief life to the new XB-70 Valkyrie triple-supersonic high altitude bomber. But the Valkyrie died in a midair collision over the western U.S. desert during a publicity photo shoot soon after LeMay had been put out to pasture in retirement as think tanks began to envision a different kind of air war, a tactical air war with strategic goals that mixed bargaining table with bombing runs to leverage compliance through diplomacy along with carpet bombing.
So that night, in the skies above Hanoi, bombers designed to attack Russia from high altitude after racing over the arctic were now raining iron bombs on the North Vietnamese in a series of raids that looked more like the B-24, B-29 and B-17 missions in WWII than some futuristic vision of air war.
And the North Vietnamese were ready.
Old ideas die hard in military doctrine so, while the XB-70 had no provision for self-defense machine guns like the ancient B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator and B-29 Superfortress from WWII, the B-52 retained at least lip service to self defense in the form of a tail gunner. He manned a deadly quadruple stinger of four .50 caliber machine guns aimed remotely from his cupola in the tail of the Stratofortress. Most of the time he was a bored passenger in the back of the B-52 on a bombing mission, but during Linebacker II, he would earn his pay, and his gunpowder.
Air defense above Hanoi was interlaced with guns, missiles, radars and MiGs in a lethal gauntlet bent on decimating the American bomber streams. It was the “flying telephone pole” SAM missiles the American bomber crews feared the most. Not the MiGs. The Soviet Built SA-2 Guideline missile was a morbid predator of American bomber crews. Beginning in a glowing flash from its launch rail tens of thousands of feet below, the SA-2 SAM flying telephone pole would arc upward toward the bomber stream as the B-52 tail gunners watched helplessly. They hoped the missiles would run out of fuel, fail to track accurately and fall away. Most of the time they did. But not always. When I visited Hanoi in 2002 government officials proudly showed me the helmets of downed B-52 crewmembers in a glass case and touted the wreckage of a B-52 stuck in a lake in the center of Hanoi as a great monument to the Communist victory in the “American War”.
The North Vietnamese were good at using their SAM missiles. The Russians had taught them. During Linebacker II they would launch over 1,000 of them. And along with the low and medium altitude flak and high altitude SAM missiles came another threat- Communist MiGs.
The MiG-21 and MiG-17 are both capable interceptors, especially the ‘-21, NATO codename, “Fishbed”. They can both get into the air quickly from airfields around Hanoi and, if they survive fratricide from the SAM missiles buzzing upward like angry bees from a broken hive, it is easy for them to find the B-52’s. Both MiGs bristle with cannons and the MiG-21 can mount Atoll air-to-air missiles, a capable knock-off of the American Sidewinder. They are a genuine threat to the B-52’s raining dynamite-death on Hanoi.
This night 22 “Big Belly ‘D’s”, B-52D Stratofortresses with their distinctive high tail and sinister camouflage cloak over a gloss-black belly, will hit the steel mills at Thai Nguyen near Hanoi in the hopes of further destroying the Communist infrastructure. This bomber stream will launch from Thailand, in much the same way as B-29’s launched from the Marianas during WWII.
Inside the tail of the B-52D named “Diamond ‘Lil”, aircraft number 55083, USAF Airman 1st Class Albert Moore from San Bernadino, California will be manning the Browning quad .50 caliber machine guns. He is only 18. Almost exactly like his forefathers in the tail of the B-17 Flying Fortress or a B-24 Liberator, Moore’s task is lonely and tedious. It is over half a football field from where Moore sits at his gunnery station in the tail (actually, behind the tail) of the B-52 to where the flight crew, navigator, bombardier and radioman sit. In between them are tons of high explosives packed into the aircraft, up to 88 general-purpose 500 pound bombs.
If the mission succeeds the 22 tons of bombs they are carrying will turn Thai Nguyen railway into a moonscape. Tonight the B-52 Moore is flying in is call sign “Brown Three”.
The mission was relatively routine even following bomb release. Then it changed.
Moore saw a fast moving, green blip on his radar screen. It arced from upper left toward center. The radar contact was low, below the bomber stream. Moore noticed it at the 8:30 position of his screen, ascending on what appeared to be an intercept vector.
It is coming to kill them.
The B-52 is absurdly vulnerable to fighters. Without an escort shield like the B-17’s and B-24’s had in world war two from their P-51 Mustangs, the B-52’s over Hanoi were lumbering sky-cows ripe for a MiG slaughter. It’s takes a few grid squares to turn a B-52. In formation at night, that is impossible without the risk of midair collision. It is easy to imagine the North Vietnamese MiG pilot racing up to decimate the B-52’s must have known this would be easy. With the massive heat signature from eight engines on the B-52 and its non-existent maneuverability the MiGs could be… almost leisurely in their predation.
We don’t know what happened inside the cockpit of the MiG-21 that lit up Airman Moore’s radar screen that night. To this day the Vietnamese are guarded about many aspects of the “American War”. But it is easy to imagine the MiG pilot arming his Atoll air-to-air missiles, cheap flight gloves covering an index finger moving to the trigger on the center of the MiG’s control stick. Left hand continuing to advance the throttle. Climbing, climbing… ahead and above the night sky framing the giant swept wing bombers that grow larger in the MiG’s windscreen by the second…
Moore calls the contact to the rest of his crew over the intercom inside the B-52. He sees it is climbing to kill them, and realizes he is their only hope. Whether it is B-52’s and MiGs over Hanoi in the 20th century or stones and cavemen, it is all the same, one man will die, one will live. These next few seconds will decide.
The pilot takes what evasive maneuvers he can, wagging the B-52 slightly in the night sky. It is a useless gesture against the nimble MiG, like a goat tied to a post before a tiger.
The 18-year old Moore orders chaff and flares, countermeasures designed (quite poorly) to confuse the MiG’s ability to use radar or infra-red heat signature to lock onto the B-52 for a missile shot or a cannon pass. The bright magnesium flares rocket outward from the B-52 in an arcing fan, swirling in its vortex to create a dazzling display that ruins the MiG pilot’s night vision of the giant bomber. Clouds of metallic confetti chaff fill the air like a panicked buffalo emptying its bowels after a lion’s pounce.
The chaff and flares do nothing.
Hauntingly, the MiG seems to dangle motionless on the radar screen behind the B-52. It is beginning to match speed and altitude. For a firing solution. Moore knows what he must do to save the airplane and crew.
Unlike the gunners in a B-17 or B-24 during WWII the gunner in a B-52 does not hold onto the gun itself. He does not feel all of the recoil from the big Browning .50 caliber machine gun in his spine. He does not swing the barrel of the machine gun against the maelstrom slipstream through an open window in the bomber. He likely never even sees the plane he is shooting at. It is only a blip on a radar screen, like an early video game. Moore controls the four .50 caliber machine guns from his station slightly above and behind the guns. The four guns are mounted in a large gimbal. He moves the gimbal with his gun controls, anticipating the path of the oncoming MiG.
Moore angles his shot down and left of his B-52. He must fill the sky with hot lead in the flight path of the MiG and hope it flies into his bullets.
He will have one chance before the MiG has an opportunity to fire on the wallowing Stratofortress.
Clamping down on the trigger control the four big Brownings buck underneath Moore, rocking back and forth from their recoil and sucking in belts of bullets through a metal feed rail. Given the airspeed of the B-52, the ballistic trajectory of the bullets and the angle, closure rate, speed and altitude of the MiG this is, literally, a longshot.
His first burst misses.
Moore steadies himself as though it mattered in the wagging tail of the squirrely B-52. He sends another streak of .50 cal tracers arcing in front of the MiG.
Time is running out. The MiG will attack in the next few seconds. Moore has one final chance. He fires his longest burst, thousands of rounds going through the feed rails, into the four guns and arcing into the night sky. The gun barrels begin to overheat. He is running low on ammunition.
Airman Moore cannot see what happens through his canopy, but on his radar screen the MiG seems to glow… even brighter. The radar contact “…grows to three times its size” Moore would write in his after-action report.
In the tail of another B-52 Tech Sgt. Clarence Chute sees the MiG get torn apart when its flies through the death-ray arc of Moore’s bullets. Chute, the only eyewitness to the MiG kill, later wrote, “Several pieces of the aircraft exploded, and the fireball disappeared in the under-cast at my 6:30 position.”
There is no official record of who was flying the MiG-21 that attacked Moore’s B-52. The North Vietnamese did not acknowledge the loss. The pilot of the MiG remains anonymous, a flyer doing his deadly job. When I asked about the loss of MiG pilots during Linebacker II on a visit to Hanoi the government appointed guides feigned misunderstanding of my question. They only mentioned there were “…many heroes…”
For his incredible aerial gunnery, gallant and courageous defense of his aircraft and crew, and calm repose under imminent attack Airman 1st Class Albert Moore was awarded the Silver Star, the third highest award for valor in the U.S. military. Moore’s aerial victory was one of two by B-52 gunners during Linebacker II. About a week earlier USAF Staff Sergeant Sam Turner had also downed a North Vietnamese MiG-21 with the tail gun of his B-52.
By December 29, 1972 the U.S. Air Force was running out of targets for their B-52’s. Strategic bombing operations north of the 20th parallel were stopped. Industrial targets in North Vietnam were in ruins. But still the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fought on. On January 2, 1973 peace discussions in Paris resumed. It is widely believed among U.S. experts, and staunchly denied by Vietnamese experts, that the Linebacker II strikes forced the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table.
Regardless of the political ramifications of Linebacker II it would remain one of the largest strategic bombing campaigns in history, and depending on whose metric you use, the most successful. It was also the last bombing campaign in which U.S. heavy bombers shot down enemy aircraft using guns in an air-to-air engagement, and the B-52 Stratofortress remains the largest aircraft in history to have shot down another aircraft in flight using guns.
Alert 5 contributor Tom Demerly has traveled to all seven continents and written for numerous publications including Outside magazine. He still can’t fly anything bigger than a Cessna.
32 thoughts on “Gunfight: The B-52 MiG Kills of Linebacker II.”
I was stationed at Utapao AB when Airman Moore shot down his MiG-21 and watched him paint his kill on his B-52.
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Jack, that is incredible. There is nothing more exciting than when someone who was there for these stories reads what we write. Thank you very much Sir. Appreciated.
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I was assigned on Guam during this time frame
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Martin, you guys were part of history and did an incredible job during a difficult time. Thank you Sir, very much. Tom D.
Really interesting read. Thank you Tom. If you have any further stories from this era i would be very grateful to read them. Do you or have you written any books on this subject matter?
TOMDEMERLY, would you consider doing a story on the downing of “Spectre 22” and subsequent rescue “The Easter Egg Hunt”. She was an AC-130 that was shot down in 1972 a few weeks prior to “Bat 21”. My cousin was a gunner on that flight and was the most severely injured of the crew.
I was up there, out of Guam, a few of those nights as a B-52 CP at the time. Flew a big-belly mod with 108 five hundred pounders. I recall the MIG calls off of “Bullseye”, which our Nav quickly plotted. Thankfully Airman Moore was handling them. Good read, thanks.
Who was Aircraft Commander for these two MIG kills.
I was a B-52 flight simulator operator (4017th Combat Crew Training Squadron (CCTS) at Castle AFB, CA leading up to Linebacker II. Trained many of the Pilots and Cos. I am proud of all of our BUFF crewmembers, and proud to have been involved in this campaign that I believed won this war for the United States, “Fly, Fight, Win!”
I spent 12 months on “The Rock”, 6 months at utapao and 3 months at Kadena working on this system (and these same planes). I thoroughly enjoyed this detailed account of how this system really worked. We always wondered if it would really work as designed.
I. Was. At. U_Tapao. During. LB. 2. Worked. At. Bomber. Ops. Lost. A lot. Of. Sleep. We. Worked. All night and tried. To. Sleep. In the day.
During the eleven years I was a B52 tail-gunner (TG) our standard combat ammo load for the FCS using the .50 cal. M3 Browning machine gun was Armour Piercing Incendiary (API); we NEVER carried tracer ammunition; tracer ammo is highly unreliable because the weight of the projectiles is constantly diminishing as the phosphorous burns up. The author was misinformed about the TG watching tracers go through the night sky. Another thing is that the TG would have been using only radar at night, not the periscope. Without external light on the Mig the periscopic sight would have been useless.
Chief Master Sergeant Stanley E. Allen, USAF, Retired
I was tdy to NKP during Linebacker II flying C-130’s. I remember Christmas morning before dawn on the flight line getting ready for our mission. Two contrails were visible lit by the dawn heading back to Utapao. B-52’s flew in cells of three. Then a single contrail. Then another set of two. The whole crew just stood there and watched in silence, contemplating what these guys had just been through and knowing that a lot of them had bought the farm or were being captured at that moment.
Later there was a story that one of the buffs made it back to Thailand before everyone bailed out of the damaged plane over the base. One of the crew hailed a taxi and arrived at the front gate carrying his helmet. Was this true?
It was agreat story if not entirely accurate, I guess in the name of entertainment. I totally agree with the gentleman above, we flew only API. The truth is a B52, especially the “D” model was not an easy target and certainly not a sitting duck for either fighters or SAMs. The reason why there were only two confirmed shoot downs of MIGs (by the way there was also a third but it lacked independent confirmation) was because of the BUFs abilities. First the truth is that a B52 at altitude can easily out turn a fighter and especially the MIG21. The fighter has two attack choices, missles or guns. The missles were fairly easily defeated with a combination of Electronic Countermeasures (ECM), aircraft manuevering, and the CHAFF and Flares in combination. The second approach regures the fighter to get within gun firing range. Its not impossible to make a head on or frontal approach but the likelyhood of hitting the target is very very small considering the closing speeds and the actual firing time available and the likelyhood of making a “kill” shot on a BUF is even smaller. This drives a fighter into flying a pretty classical pursuit curve; a closing path on the target from approx the 5 to 7 o’clock position. Can be from high or low or even level but essentially because both aircraft are moving it ends up looking like a cone behind the target. The simple truth is the attacking fighter is within firing range of the B52 considerably before the B52 is in range of the fighters guns or cannon because of physics and unlike thye bombers of WWII, the radar guided and controlled guns on the BUF are very accurate. Nothing but kudos to Al and Sam and to Pat Bardsley who didn’t get confirmation. The rest of us were never fortunate enough to have a MIG pilot aggressive or foolish enough to make the attempt. Incidentally the BUFs defenses were generally very effective against the SAMs as well. Especially the “D” model tall tails which carried better ECM. The largest problem over Hanoi was not the number of airplanes in the air so much as the VC defense of vollying all their launchers as fast as they could be reloaded. Unfortunately with massive numbers of SAMs in the air at once, the guys simply ran out of places to turn without running into another one.
FYI – in the wee morning hours of 12-24-1972, 15 B-52Ds out of U-Tapao attacked a target 17 miles south of the Chinese border, northeast of Hanoi. We were the last bomber in the stream and as we crossed the coastline inbound, our gunner reported 4 bandits at our 6 o’clock. Halfway to the target, our EWO reported they had locked onto us with their airborne radar. All along Red Crown discounted our radio transmissions reporting our “bandit” company. After several bomb strings crossed the target, our gunner yelled: “They’re coming in!” as our bomber shook frm our 50s firing back. We dropped our bombs and as we rolled our of our post target turn, the EWO reported a lock-on at 3 o’clock that maneuvered into a tail attack. Immediately the EWO had another lock-on at 9 o’clock with the same sequences of events. With each new attack, our gunner responded with a shower of lead! During this time Red Crown had pulled his head out of his ass and was finally vectoring Navy F-4s towards us. After numerous single ship attacks, the Migs knocked it off as they were surely warned of the approaching F-4s. During our evasive maneuving from continuous Mig attacks, we had been separated from the other bombers. One of the F-4s reported he had a “lock-on” and requested from Red Crown for permission to fire. After our EWO confirmed he wasn’t locked onto us, we were screaming “FIRE!” However Red Crown directed the F-4 to close and make a visual ID of the target. Between 2 and 3 in the morning, at 35,000′ deep inside of North Vietnam, Red Crown directed our supersonic fighter to make a visual ID on the enemy’s supersonic Mig. YGTBSM! Naturally the Mig broke contact and lived to fight another day. You will never see anything about this bombing mission because the Migs were Chinese as our EWO confirmed by the frequency of their airborne radar. BTW – our gunner reported at two of the targets disapating on his radar scope. But in the “American way,” unless you have a witness – it never happened. May God bless all of our warriors still in the fight against evil.
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Hate to burst bubbles, but with all wars, the truth comes out later when each side gets to examine the actual records of the other. The NVPAF didn’t lose any aircraft to B-52’s, and no aircraft to any causes on the time and dates provided by the BUFF crews.
Well look at that, yes, communists never lie about their losses do they?
The NV”P”AF are of course lying, what else can you expect from Red Nazis.
Furthermore, as they started the war of agression against South Vietnam, they got almost what they deserved.
A B83 of course being what they really deserved. And still do.
Well, it is never to late…
Jim – Late to read you inslting post, but it warrants a response. Yeah, because the freaking Commie NVPAF made sure to admit their losses. You imbecile. Shameful, your comment.
would be an interesting and well written article, if the rhetoric didn’t make it almost un-readable at some points. Patriotism (something I normally call nationalism, but some unwritten law prescribes that yankees are patriots while others are nationalists) is good until it messes up basic reasonable concepts – for example, the Mig interceptors which, according to the author were targeted by their own SAM systems – it’s awfully disrespectful both to the truth and the men who fought there. North vietnamese air force sparingly used its small fighter force, well knowing that it could be wiped out in a single engagement by the massively greater numbers the USAF/NAVY sported. Hence, they deployed interceptors only when there was a high chance of success and low risk (in fact, unescorted B-52s made a good reason to launch missions). Sams and MiGs were equipped with IFF transponders. Also, NVAF planners would carefully avoid risk to their limited machines and trained crews. But the message you people keep repeating, it’s still that “whoever fights against the US are always savages people, employing obsolete tech with no regards to human lives, not even theirs as they shoot down their own people”. It’s ridiculous, and more ridiculous is that there’s many folks around the US believing that. NV crews fought and sacrificed their lives because of love for their country and people, because a B-52 dropping a full bomb load over Hanoi is a horrible threat to the lives of the people down below, military and civilian alike. Servicemen from every country do that, sacrifice themselves because it’s their duty to their people. This needs to be reminded, and respected.
Yes, if a country, as North Vietnam did start a war of agression, they will have to take the well deserved consequenses.
(If that is a problem for the communists living in hanoi they should take it up with their leaders, who are responsible for causing the bombings by starting the war.)
They almost did.
The deserved consequenses of course being a b83 at max yeild.
(gb). Although I agree with a large portion of your statement, I dare predict you have never shared the grave responsibility of eliminating “one’s enemy!” It is easy for “the protected” to espouse such noble observations over Warriors’ perceptions. However when it comes “nut cutting time,” you had better not be thinking of the enemy as “Mother Theresa!”
“THE ONLY PURPOSE FOR WAR – IS TO WIN!
Muchas gracias. ?Como puedo iniciar sesion?
As an engineer with the manufacturer of the A3A/MD9 tail defense system for the B52 I spent many a night preparing it for flight test the next morning. Including its two radars, its turret and optical drive electronics, it had over 500 vacuum tubes. When it was designed and built transistors were not yet available that could their work.
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It’s amazing how many times guns have been removed from airplanes because it’s antiquated only to have the combat crews wish later they still had them. Or how many times they have been reinstalled. Over the horizon kills are great but doesn’t always work with closure happening all the time. All it takes is one more bad guy than the missles you have…
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I was an Instructor Gunner at Castle AFB, CA and taught both Al Moore and Sam Turner in the academic phase of becoming gunners. I remember them both and will always be proud of their contributions. During my 143 missions over South Vietnam,,North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, I never had to use my guns on the enemy…but I trust I would have defended my aircraft and crew as well as did Al and Sam. God bless all of our crewmembers in SAC and all other sister organizations. MSGT Jerry Cochrane.
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nice essay. thanks for writing/posting quality literature.
Entries say the B-52 D with the taller tail had better ECM than the later short tail G model. Please clarify.
The D model was equipped with more antennas and specialized ECM gear to deal with the SAM threats. The G models had not received the same mods and upgrades so they did. It have the same level of defensive capability as the D’s. In addition the gunner provides another set of eyeballs outside the aircraft to visually see the threat and call for evasive maneuvers vs the G model where the gunner sat up front in the cave with the EW.