by Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs
6/18/2015 - BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. -- Fifty
years ago, the B-52 entered combat for the first time as part of
Operation Arc Light in Vietnam, which was the culmination of several
years of planning and preparation.
Strategic Air Command had always harbored a residual conventional
capability with its bombers, but it was not until the early 1960s that
its leaders began planning for limited war capabilities. Originally
designed as a cold war nuclear bomber, the B-52 required modifications
to allow it to carry conventional weapons.
"SAC had been testing a conventional bomb training program for selected
B-52 wings since 1963," Shawn Bohannon, AFGSC History Office, said. "In
particular, the 320th Bomb Wing at Mather AFB, California, tested
dropping more than 100 conventional bombs from a B-52.
The 320th was one of the units selected by SAC to train and be ready to
use conventional bombs on short notice, Bohannon said. By October 1964,
all the wing's aircraft had undergone a modification enabling them to
carry 24 750-pound bombs externally, almost doubling the bomber's
original conventional bomb load. Lt. Gen. Archie J. Old, Jr., Fifteenth
Air Force Commander, was quoted as saying:
"If anyone had suggested a few years ago that we hang iron-bombs from
our airplanes, we would have thrown up our arms in horror. Now we are
begging to stay in the plan - to get in on the fighting, and make use of
our unique capability to pin-point targets."
In February 1965, 30 conventionally-laden B-52Fs deployed to Andersen
Air Base, Guam. The crews, who hailed form Mather and Barksdale Air
Force Bases, planned to strike targets located in North Vietnam.
However, the B-52s sat on the ground for several months before they were
"Political reasons proved to be the chief reason for the delay,"
Bohannon said. "Many in political and military circles equated using
B-52s in combat with an escalation in the war, likely as the bombers
were nuclear capable. Until the B-52s were used for the first time,
smaller Air Force and South Vietnamese tactical aircraft were, however,
flown on strike missions in South Vietnam."
Bohannon added that after President Johnson's issuance of National
Security Action Memorandum No. 328 on April 6, 1965, which permitted a
wider employment of U.S. troops, and his appeal to bring more friendly
nations into the fight - only South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia
responded with troops - the fighting in Vietnam began to intensify as it
transitioned to an American-led war. This set the stage for the combat
debut of the B-52.
On June 18, 1965, 30 bombers (15 from the 7 BW and 15 from the 320 BW)
took off from Andersen headed for a target located in South Vietnam and
measuring about one mile by two miles square. Earlier, weapons
technicians had loaded twenty four of the B-52s with 51 750-pound
general purpose bombs while the remaining six carried 27 1,000-pound
semi-armor piercing bombs internally and the normal 24 750-pounders
externally. In all, the 30 bombers carried 1,530 bombs into combat.
"The B-52s brought an enormous bomb load to bear an enemy targets and
base camps, far more than was possible with tactical aircraft," Bohannon
said. "Plus, the altitudes that the B-52s flew at introduced an element
of surprise as the enemy could neither see nor hear the bombers as they
approached the target area."
Unfortunately, that first mission was fraught with difficulty. It began
with tragedy when two of the B-52s collided, killing eight of the crew
while another was declared as missing-in-action. Next, another bomber
with mechanical malfunctions could not receive fuel from an orbiting
KC-135 and had to return to Guam. Lastly, prior to arriving at the
target, several aircrews realized they would not be able to release
their weapons due to mechanical malfunctions. Nonetheless, the remaining
B-52 crews entered the target area and released 1,299 bombs.
A quick survey by allied recon teams found little to no damage in the
target area and few dead. The press immediately focused on the
unorthodox use of a strategic bomber drawing the analogy of "using a
sledge hammer to kill gnats." But, while the criticism tended to focus
on the costly B-52 air-to-air collision, the military considered the
mission a success. Historians later wrote, "that the B-52's mission was
to harass the VC, to disrupt his normal activities, to permit him no
respite from danger even in his jungle redoubts, and to wear him down
However, in the months that followed, while B-52 crews continued to
harass the Viet Cong, they eventually accepted a new mission, a mission
to directly support the allied ground forces. This began in November
1965 during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, the first major encounter
of the war between U.S. Troops and the North Vietnamese Army. But later
in December, B-52 crews also supported the Marines during Operation
By the end of 1965, SAC's 30 bomber force had increased its monthly
sortie rate to roughly 300 and by the end of 1966 more than half the
B-52 strike requests came from field commanders.
In a short amount of time during the war in Vietnam, B-52 crews
transformed the airplane from a Cold War nuclear bomber to a
close-air-support juggernaut. B-52 crews provided support to ground
forces, harassed the Viet Cong, and wrote a new chapter in the bomber's
Editor's Note: Portions of this article are re-published from the
Dec. 4, 2012, story, "ARC LIGHT marked beginning of B-52 involvement in
Vietnam." The AFGSC Office of the Command Historian also contributed to