COLUMN ONE : B-52 Fears Echo From a Past War : Vietnamese survivors of U.S. bombing recall the terror. But they also caution against underestimating the endurance of America’s current enemy.
More than 15 years have passed since Vu Duy Thanh heard the train of death rumbling through the sky above, that dreadful drone of the American B-52s and the horrible few seconds that followed each time, as 1,000-pound bombs whistled down on his hometown of Haiphong.
“You do not forget this sound, ever,” Thanh said. “North Vietnamese people, we know what is B-52.” Thanh relived the memory just weeks ago in Iraq, where, as a road-crew worker, he observed the latest B-52 bombing sorties.
Truong Nhu Tang, a Viet Cong survivor of bombing along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, has similar memories. He pressed himself against a bunker floor during his first B-52 attack, feeling as though he “had been caught in the apocalypse.”
“The terror was complete,” he later wrote in memoirs. “One lost control of bodily functions as the mind screamed incomprehensible orders to get out.”
Both men offer insight into what Saddam Hussein’s troops may be experiencing as B-52s shower them with bombs day after day in the Kuwaiti war zone. There are probably many deaths. And if the Vietnam experience is a guide, some Iraqi soldiers are having nervous breakdowns. Others are suffering from ruptured eardrums, nosebleeds, speech impairments, long-lasting headaches, nausea and disorientation.
North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong recall the B-52s and their bombs as among the most terrifying weapons used against them, with potential for both physical and psychological devastation. The U.S. military is counting on that, relying on bombing by B-52s and other aircraft to sap the Republican Guards and other Iraqi front-line troops of both the strength and will to fight.
But there may be another lesson from Vietnam: B-52 bombing may fall short of accomplishing its goals. Vietnamese soldiers suffered under the shower of bombs, but they did not give up. Bunkers provided some physical protection; a certain stoicism gave them psychological support. Bombing strikes leveled acres of jungle but did not stop the flow of North Vietnamese troops, ammunition and supplies.
As a result, no one can predict whether B-52 bombing of Iraqi troops, protected by concrete and steel-reinforced bunkers deep beneath the desert sands, will bring a speedy conclusion to the war.
“No army has ever surrendered because they were subjected to heavy bombardment,” said retired Rear Adm. Eugene J. Carroll Jr. “I don’t think anyone can count on (the Iraqis) saying, ‘OK, we’ve had enough’ and just quitting.”
Former North Vietnamese Col. Bui Tin, who trekked the Ho Chi Minh Trail under U.S. bombing and went on to accept the surrender of Saigon in 1975, agreed. Despite its horrors, so-called carpet bombing will fail in Iraq as it failed in Vietnam, he predicted.
“The first two times that I was under carpet bombing, I was very afraid,” said Tin, a former deputy editor of the North Vietnamese army newspaper who was interviewed in Paris. “All of a sudden there’s a terrible noise, trees falling everywhere, huge explosions in the sky. . . . You’re petrified.
“But by the third time, you’re used to it. You’re not afraid anymore.”
Once, the B-52s dropped about 300 bombs and succeeded in killing only two people and wounding some, Tin said. “You stop being afraid if it takes 150 bombs to kill one person,” he said.
He acknowledged that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army regulars were usually warned of B-52 attacks by Soviet trawlers in the South China Sea that radioed each time the planes took off from Okinawa or Guam. But, he said, his troops were able to survive the onslaught in trenches only about three feet deep.
As in Vietnam, he suggested, the U.S. military once again has failed to predict the endurance and tenacity of a Third World army.
“The Americans are still relying on their large, sophisticated war machine with electronics and awesome carpet bombs. That’s their strong point,” he said. “But they have always underestimated their enemy. That’s their weakness. . . .
“Of course the bombardment directed at the Iraqis is more sophisticated, more high-tech, but it is people who determine the outcome of a war, not materiel,” he said.
U.S. military officials have insisted that significant improvements in bomb targeting and accuracy, as well as key differences in geography, supply lines and the nature of the Gulf War, make it misleading to compare the carpet bombing of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with the bombardment of Iraq and Kuwait.
Pentagon officials even object to the very term “carpet bombing.” They say precise targeting and delivery of B-52 bombs has made “saturation” or “strategic” bombing more accurate.
“Carpet bombing implies that we’re indiscriminately releasing a large number of weapons without regard for accuracy,” Air Force spokesman Maj. Dick Cole said. " . . . B-52s are very accurate.”
During most of the Vietnam War, B-52s dropped their bombs from an altitude of 35,000 feet or more. At that height, the planes could not be heard and were nearly impossible to shoot down, Cole said. Most of the B-52 losses were planes shot while flying low during the massive 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong.
In the Gulf, B-52 pilots can now fly under radar and bomb from an altitude of 200 to 500 feet, Cole said. They fly at night and vary their approach, making them trickier targets for gunners on the ground, he said.
Vietnamese coming out of Iraq confirm reports that the bombing within Iraq itself is more selective than the bombing in Vietnam.
Tran Ba Dinh, who along with Thanh was one of more than 100 Vietnamese construction workers who escaped Iraq and spent time in a Jordanian refugee camp before heading home this week, said he spent many of his 15 years in the North Vietnamese army trying to dodge the bombs.
“I remember the B-52 bombs, believe me. . . .” he said.
“It’s very different now because the target in Vietnam is not like Iraq. Anything and everything was to be destroyed in Vietnam--the transportation, the economy, the military and, mostly, the people. In Iraq, the targets are more limited. Some bridges, most military but people only by accident.”
His colleague Thanh agreed. He said the recent B-52 bombing that he witnessed 50 miles north of Basra--bombing not directed at the Republican Guard--was different from what he experienced all those years before.
“I remember in Vietnam, the Americans would try to hit a bridge,” he said. “They would destroy everything for two kilometers around it, but bridge is still standing. This time, very different. This time, they hit the bridge and damage only 200 meters around it.”
Thanh spoke of seeing children in Iraq playing soccer just a few hundred yards from a burning oil refinery that had just been bombed. “It is not that they are brave,” he said of the children. “They know the bombing is very accurate, so they know which is a dangerous place and which place is safe.”
Thanh was asked whether he believed this new accuracy was because the American pilots had improved or whether they simply had more sophisticated equipment for their air war on Iraq.
“Neither,” said the former North Vietnamese barge pilot, who spent more than a decade ferrying ammunition and supplies from the port of Haiphong to North Vietnamese army regulars at the front during the war. “Objective different in Iraq. . . . In North Vietnam, Americans wanted to destroy whole country.
“This bombing in Iraq, very exact. The planes only miss sometimes. Very small targets. They try to hit important places, military places. They do not try to destroy all of Iraq. Believe me, I know. I have seen America destroy a country--my country.”
In Vietnam, civilians near the Laotian and Cambodian borders, as well as those near Viet Cong strongholds, also became well-acquainted with the B-52s. Because the planes flew so high, people on the ground could neither see nor hear the aircraft coming; they knew they were under attack only when the first bomb hit. The Vietnamese called it “whispering death.”
“The earth shakes first,” said Liem Huu Nguyen, a former air traffic controller whose village about 50 miles from Hue was leveled by B-52s in 1972. “The sounds come after. I never saw the planes.”
But some of the heaviest bombing was aimed at the jungles that obscured the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
A former South Vietnamese official who was captured by the Viet Cong during the 1968 Tet offensive has memories of a hair-raising forced march up the trail--from Hue across the 17th parallel and 600 miles north--all the while under massive B-52 bombardment.
“We heard sounds like a hurricane, like a tornado,” said the man, who spent more than 12 years as a North Vietnamese prisoner and now lives in Northern California. He asked to be identified by his pen name, Hoang Lien.
He said he was kept handcuffed in a 15-foot-deep bomb shelter along with two other prisoners and two guards. “We heard the trees falling,” he said. " . . . Even the tanks were trembling. We had the impression that we were moving back and forth, even though we were in a (shelter). . . . We felt the pressure in our chest. It was very difficult to breathe.”
One of his fellow prisoners, an American, would joke that they were more likely to be killed by an American bomb than by the North Vietnamese, he said.
Afterward, they would march past bomb craters that were 30 meters in diameter and 20 meters deep, and would sometimes fill up with water like a fishpond.
Orrin DeForest, a retired CIA officer who interrogated more than 700 Indochinese prisoners of war and defectors, said that nearly every round of B-52 attacks brought a wave of deserters.
“The guys would say, ‘Well, I just couldn’t go through another B-52 strike,’ ” DeForest said.
“They all talked about the shock wave,” he added. “I had several who had punctured eardrums, and they had been deep in bunkers, like 10 to 20 feet, when the bomb went off. They were very bitter about that because they had no place to hide.”
Though it is impossible to predict damage in Iraq without better intelligence as to just how many troops have been able to build deep, reinforced bunkers, DeForest concluded: “The Republican Guard has got to be suffering.”
One former Hmong soldier now living in Santa Ana described watching through binoculars as an entire division of Pathet Lao soldiers vanished during a B-52 strike in northern Laos in 1971. He said that although Iraqi soldiers will not be found so unprotected, they have a grave weakness: Unlike the Indochinese guerrillas, they cannot melt back into the jungle and live off the land.
“The Iraqis will not win a prolonged war simply because of the food and water supply,” he said. “Iraq is not like Laos. It’s desert.”
But Tang, like former Col. Tin, said that “sooner or later, the shock of the bombardments wore off. . . . The veterans would no longer scrabble at the bunker floors convulsed with fear.
“Instead, people just resigned themselves,” the former Viet Cong minister of justice wrote in his memoirs. " . . . The B-52s somehow put life in order. Many of those who survived the attacks found that, afterward, they were capable of viewing life from a more serene and philosophical perspective.”
Bombing Iraqi troops in the Kuwaiti war zone presents its own set of special difficulties. The soft desert sand has become an ally of the Iraqis, cushioning the impact of the huge bombs and diminishing their effect.
Sand absorbs some of a bomb blast’s force, and shrapnel flies less far from the impact point than it would on harder ground. Marine Col. Andy Lloyd, who flew Marine jets in Vietnam, estimated that the shrapnel range in the desert may be a 10th of what it was in Vietnam--one reason that B-52 bombing in the Persian Gulf region needs to be more accurate than the carpet bombing of Vietnam.
Even though the bombs may inflict less damage in the Gulf, Lloyd said, they still provide a psychological advantage for the allies by terrifying the Iraqis. “I think it’s a bad place to be an Iraqi right now,” he said of Kuwait.
American veterans of Vietnam recalled that even after months and years of B-52 strikes in Indochina, ground troops were still confronted with enemy soldiers who emerged from hiding desperate, angry and ready to kill.
“Bombing alone, even concentrated, sustained bombing by B-52s, will not do the job,” said Ken Berez, who was an 82nd Airborne corporal and is now with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in Washington. “President Bush has said over and over again that we will not fight this war with one arm tied behind our back like (in) Vietnam. . . .
“The fact of the matter is, we used everything short of nuclear weapons in Vietnam and still we fought an enemy that, man for man, gave us hell.”
Efron reported from Santa Ana, Calif., and Fineman from Azraq, Jordan. Douglas Frantz in Saudi Arabia also contributed to this story.