Operation Linebacker II: How the US Lost 6 B-52 Bombers in One Night

The B-52 bombers have impressive capabilities, but as we will see, there is no such thing as an unbeatable system. Fifty years ago, the US lost 6 bombers in one night that were shot down. 

It was during Operation Linebacker II in Vietnam. Except for the cataclysm of the world wars, the Vietnam War (direct US involvement – 1965-1972) represented the greatest military disaster in American history.

Totally losing popular support as well as the American media, the US Army was engaged in a war of attrition in which it lost approximately 60,000 men.

Washington perceived the Vietnam War as the Korean War. The mistake was that if there were a conventional war in Korea, the conflict in Vietnam would be dominated by guerrilla warfare. American technology and weapons provided to the South Vietnamese forces did not count against the “peasant army” of the communist North.

After the American withdrawal through the “honorable peace” sought by President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, then Secretary of State, North Vietnamese Communist troops and South Communist guerrillas conquered South Vietnam.

In the first phase of the conflict, the US military aviation managed to stop the conquest of the South and bombed the industry of North Vietnam. The effects were not the desired ones, especially due to the fact that North Vietnam received help from the USSR and China.

But despite this first-stage success and the fact that American military aviation literally razed communist military bases, weapons and equipment depots, the determination of the North Vietnamese and guerrillas did not weaken.

As public support in America for the war collapsed, it became clear that the Army no longer wanted to continue fighting either.

The day the US lost 6 B-52 bombers during Operation Linebacker II.


Operation Linebacker II: How the US Lost 6 B-52 Bombers in One Night in America's Greatest Military Disaster
American B-52 bomber during the Vietnam War. Photo: US Air Force Museum


Re-elected with a promise to end the war in search of an “honorable peace,” Richard Nixon found himself at the end of 1972 in a difficult situation where the North Vietnamese Communists rose from the negotiating table.

In this sense, Nixon and Kissinger gave the green light to Operation Linebacker II: The massive bombing of North Vietnam with the aim of forcing Hanoi back to the negotiating table.

During Operation Linebacker II, which lasted 12 days in December 1972, more than 200 American B-52 bombers flew 730 missions and dropped more than 20,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam.

The Americans, however, had losses that today seem inconceivable: 15 B-52 bombers were shot down, six of them in one day. The bombings took place at night.

The iconic B-52 bomber could fly for up to 100 years.

The story of Operation Linebacker II was published by CNN late last year on the 50th anniversary of the events.

Compared to the bombing campaigns of previous years, North Vietnam’s anti-aircraft defenses were now supported by Soviet SA-2 anti-aircraft systems, capable of launching missiles at an altitude of 60 km at three times the speed of sound.

On the first night that B-52 bombers unleashed hell on North Vietnam, the Communists launched 200 rockets. Three bombers were shot down, and two others were damaged.

On the second night, the Americans fared much better. None of the 93 bombers that launched new bombs were shot down; only two were slightly damaged.

But the third night brought the heaviest loss. CNN says the Vietnamese were able to learn American tactics and shot down no less than 6 B-52 bombers in one night.

During Operation Linebacker II, the Americans lost 33 soldiers; the damage on the ground and the death toll among the Vietnamese were immeasurable.

The Americans carried out air missions from military bases in Thailand and Guam. The cited source recalls that despite the fact that the B-52s were state-of-the-art bombers, American generals were fighting using World War II tactics.

Vietnam was undoubtedly a cold shower and a lesson for the most powerful army in the world.

Currently, in American memory, the disaster of the Vietnam War is surpassed only by the American Civil War.