The B-52s: Operation Arc Light

B-52 bombing raids at the Battle of Ia Drang Valley in November 1965.

Taking off from bases on Guam, Thailand or Okinawa, U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-52 bombers headed for targets in Vietnam to dump their huge bomb loads. During these strikes, they concentrated on areas where the most intense enemy presence had been indicated. These sorties were conducted as part of a campaign code-named Operation Arc Light.

During the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, fear of provoking a global nuclear conflict led to a reversal of aerial roles. Tactical fighters and fighter-bombers flew strategic missions over North Vietnam, while B-52 strategic bombers were limited to ground-support missions over South Vietnam and aerial interdiction sorties over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. It was not until the Nixon administration's Linebacker I and Linebacker II operations that the strategic bombers were utilized as strategic assets.

The first Arc Light missions were flown from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam on June 18, 1965. In mid-1967, following the expansion of U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield on the Gulf of Thailand, it became a secondary base of operations. This relieved crowding in Guam and reduced the flight time to Vietnam. Later, some Arc Light missions began to fly from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa to support the increasing operational tempo, which peaked in 1968.

The B-52 Stratofortress in Vietnam

The B-52 is a swept-wing, eight-engined, long range bomber. It can refuel in flight and can carry virtually any weapon. They were originally designed in the 1950s for the purpose of delivering a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China. Beginning in late 1965, some B-52s underwent "Big Belly" modifications increasing their bomb load to 60,000 pounds — ten times the capacity of the B-17 Flying Fortress strategic bomber that was used during World War II.

Arc Light missions from Guam were grueling nine hour round-trips. Once over their jungle target the bombers attacked in "arrowhead" formations of three planes each, to maximize destruction in a mile by half-mile area. This was called saturation bombing, or "carpet bombing". When the bomb release-point was reached, each B-52 Stratofortress dropped some 30 tons of explosives on targets more than 30,000 feet below.

Down in the jungle, one could neither see nor hear them coming, due to their lofty elevation. All of a sudden, the ground would erupt in a 30 second earthquake, during which the terrain was transformed into a "carpet" of destruction.

The B-52s inflicted massive punishment when the enemy could be found, but dense jungle cover and highly mobile Viet Cong forces made targeting difficult. The location of guerrilla units needed to be accurately pinpointed, while the long Arc Light reaction time to reports of enemy concentrations frustrated mission planners. The presence of Viet Cong spies within South Vietnamese army units compounded these challenges.

Arc Light Operations at Andersen AFB in Guam

In Guam, Strategic Air Command men and equipment were employed to the fullest extent. When a B-52 returned from a bombing mission, ground support personnel immediately prepared it for another sortie. The crew deplaned and proceeded straight to a maintenance debriefing. Those debriefings provided ground crews with information needed to resolve any problems, before the bomber took off on a turnaround mission.

The huge bombers would squat at the beginning of the runway with black smoke billowing out from under, down on their shocks from their own weight, with their ordnance-laden wings drooping down. Finally, at the end of the runway they would struggle into the air and become airborne.

What Was Combat Skyspot?

Bombing accuracy and flexibility was greatly improved by deploying the Strategic Air Command's radar ground-directed bombing system. This system was integrated into the Tactical Air-Control System, by means of which the Air Force coordinated operations with the other services. The ground-directed bombing operation, called Combat Skyspot, served both fighter-bombers and B-52s.

Combat Skyspot reduced the need to preplan B-52 strikes. Frequently, the bombers were launched to a predetermined point, where they received directions to the highest priority target from the Skyspot controller. Following a voice countdown by radio, "hack" was announced and the payload was released. This procedure greatly reduced SAC's reaction time in placing bombs on-target. The combination of Combat Skyspot and B-52s subjected enemy forces, supply areas and lines of communication to a constant threat of destruction.