“Burn Them Out Completely”: The Air War in South Vietnam, 1965-1967

Across South Vietnam, U.S. strike sortie rates for all three U.S. air branches (Air Force, Marines, and Navy) rose continuously from 1965 through the end of 1967. In 1965, the U.S Air Force flew 37,645 strike sorties. In 1966, Air Force planes flew 73,911 sorties; and in 1967 the number climbed to 122,638. B-52 sortie rates likewise increased from 1,538 in 1965 to 4,290 in 1966 and to 6,611 in 1967.[1] The U.S. Navy and Marines flew thousands of additional sorties during this same period.  In late 1966, the Air Force acknowledged that only 15% of its strike sorties were directed against Communist soldiers engaged in combat with U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. The remainder of airstrikes targeted hamlets, trails, base camps, and supply depots.[2]

General William C. Westmoreland knew that the majority of U.S. air strikes hit fixed targets, such as hamlets, rather than enemy troops; and that worried him, because if the American people learned that the U.S. air campaign in South Vietnam involved the indiscriminate bombing of the countryside, public support for the war might plummet.

In order to obscure the true nature of the air war in South Vietnam, and forestall a further decrease in homefront support for U.S. involvement, Westmoreland decreed in mid-1966 that all strike sorties in South Vietnam would henceforth be classified as “close air support missions.” The new terminology implied that all U.S. bombing sorties in South Vietnam directly supported Allied ground units engaged in combat.  Although the new terminology confused the American public and may have contributed to the stabilization of a shaky U.S. homefront, it did nothing to alter the air war.  In the months and years that followed, the U.S. military intensified the indiscriminate bombing of rural South Vietnam and it did it with the full support of the President and his advisors.[3]

The U.S.’s increased strike sortie rate from 1965 through 1967 was achieved by a larger aircraft presence on U.S. airbases within South Vietnam and on board U.S. aircraft carriers in the South China Sea.  Not long before his death, historian and Vietnam expert Bernard Fall expressed concern over this large American air presence.  He wrote, “You know, Viet-Nam to [sic] [by] all accounts is really taking a terrible beating for a small country or for a country that size. We’ve never really fought that intensive a war over that small a piece of real estate.”[4]  By 1966, the U.S. Air Force had so many aircraft flying missions in the South that on any given day there were six times as many sorties available for close air support than were actually needed by troops on the ground.[5]  But those planes not needed for ground support did not remain idle; they were still assigned to missions against hard targets or targets of opportunity.

By mid-1966, American planes had dropped such a large amount of ordnance in the preceding year and a half on South Vietnam that U.S. air units began running out of bombs. By July, eight different types of bombs, weighing between 250 and 3,000 pounds, were in critical short supply. Planes started flying missions without full bomb loads. Westmoreland and Air Force Chief of Staff General John P. McConnell became so worried about the bomb shortage that they sought assistance from President Johnson, who responded with National Security Action Memorandum 346, which directed that the highest national priority be given to the production of 250-, 500-, and 750-pound bombs. With the power of the presidency behind the effort, American factories increased their bomb production from 7,500 tons a month to 60,000 tons a month by the end of 1966.  In 1967, to the relief of Johnson, Westmoreland, McConnell, and air commanders in South Vietnam, American planes again had the ordnance to fly missions with full bomb loads.[6]

Many Americans at the time, and since, believed the air war against North Vietnam to be the focus of U.S. air efforts in Indochina. In fact, 75% of all U.S. air missions took place in South Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1968, U.S. planes dropped 2.2 million tons of bombs on South Vietnam and 643,000 tons on North Vietnam.[7] Neil Sheehan estimated that by the end of 1966, still two and a half years before both U.S. troop levels and U.S. air activity peaked across Indochina, the U.S. expended about 850 tons of bombs and air munitions a day within South Vietnam.[8] To put that amount into perspective, 850 tons equalled 3,400, 500-lb. fragmentation bombs. The monthly rate of munitions expenditure by the end of 1966 reached 25,500 tons, which was the equivalent of 102,000, 500-lb. bombs.

Quang Ngai Province received a severe thrashing from the air. Journalist Jonathan Schell visited Quang Ngai in 1967 to chronicle the U.S. air war in South Vietnam. During his visit, he interviewed U.S. pilots, South Vietnamese officers, and South Vietnamese civilians. He also flew in U.S. aircraft on missions over Quang Ngai. The results of his research were published in 1968 in a book titled The Military Half. Schell noted that the consequences of U.S. bombing were readily apparent across the countryside: “…it [the bombing] wasn’t a subtle thing. The fire and the smoke was pouring up to the heavens…The flames were roaring around you. I mapped it all out and seventy, eighty percent of the villages [in Quang Ngai Province] were just dust – ashes and dust.”[9]

Comments made to Schell by American and South Vietnamese officials provide insight into the military rationale behind the bombing campaign. One U.S. pilot told Schell, “Look. Those villages are completely infested with V.C., just like rats’ nests and the only solution is to burn them out completely.”[10] A South Vietnamese official explained to Schell why the Americans were bombing Vietnamese settlements. He said, “Sometimes the villages support the V.C., and they are too strong, so they must be destroyed.”  A South Vietnamese captain expressed exasperation to Schell at the extent of the destruction being visited on his homeland: “The Americans are destroying everything…If they get just one shot from a village, they destroy it…Who has made this new policy?”[11]

The U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, provided yet another justification for the bombing of rural South Vietnam.  He wrote, “Much of their [the Vietcong] strength has been because, in this medievally [sic] structured country, they too, organized themselves in medieval fortresses which were totally impregnable on the ground, where they could stay in safety with plenty of rest for long periods, coming out to make very well prepared attacks on what the govt had been doing in the countryside. This made the govt’s job quite hopeless. Now we are destroying the fortresses.”[13] In other words, Lodge justified the bombing because the Vietcong and its supporters had fortified their hamlets and villages against…American air strikes and artillery barrages.

The Americans did not just bomb settlements. U.S. bombs struck rubber plantations, rice paddies, irrigation ditches, canals, coconut groves, vegetable gardens, and the uninhabited jungle. Because U.S. jets flew at high rates of speed and dropped unguided “dumb” bombs, many bombs missed their intended targets. Bombs went awry, darting off in unintended directions, causing unintended damage or what military spokesmen referred to vaguely as “collateral damage.”

By the end of 1967, the U.S. had blasted millions of bomb craters into the South Vietnamese countryside. In an area of the Iron Triangle (northwest of Saigon) it was reported that at least a third of all rice paddies had been hit at least once by bombs or artillery shells. Some paddies had been completely consumed by overlapping bomb craters. In Quang Ngai Province, Schell saw the effects of just one 1,000-pound bomb on agricultural land, “[The] bomb turned an entire rice field into a crater about thirty-five feet across and six feet deep, and splashed mud over the surrounding fields.”[13] Frederick Downs, who served as an infantryman in Quang Ngai Province, remembered a helicopter ride over the countryside west of Duc Pho in November 1967, “The ground we had passed over during our flight had been pocked with the explosive pellets of destruction that were hurled into its soft skin. How many dinks had we killed with all of that instantaneous force? There were thousands and thousands of pockmarks below us. It seemed impossible that anyone could have escaped, if indeed anyone had been there.”[14]

The cratering of rice paddies and the ever-present threat of U.S. air strikes and artillery barrages made it difficult, and dangerous, for farmers to work their land. There was also the added risk of stepping on unexploded ordnance or detonating dud bombs with plows and hoes. Trinh Thap, who lived in Sa Huynh, Quang Ngai Province, remembered, “The whole village was destroyed by the bombs and the shelling, the houses, even the palm trees. The farmers couldn’t work because they had to stay underground, in the shelters.”[15] When asked what she wanted most, one rural woman told an American aid worker, “…to be away from the bombing.”[16]

The uninhabited jungle also took a pounding from the air. Reporter Michael Herr recounted a helicopter ride over a segment of the Central Highlands, “Sometimes the chopper you were riding in would top a hill and all the ground in front of you as far as the next hill would be charred and pitted and still smoking….”[17]  Referring to the destruction of a section of jungle hit by B-52s, U.S. soldier John Merrell said, “…we went down into the valley after the raid was over and we walked down the lanes created by the bombs, and there were massive lanes…It was like a four lane highway – it was just that big…That was probably one of the neatest things I saw when I was over there.”[18] In 1966, Marine General Lewis Walt spoke with American journalist Peter White while the two men flew in a helicopter over the Central Highlands west of Danang. White recalled a snippet of their conversation, “General Walt looked out at a slope turned blackish brown. Defoliation planes had done that. “Napalm too,” said the general. He also pointed out yellowish craters left by 1,000-pound bombs from B-52’s. And he looked westward, toward Laos. “I’m from Colorado,” he said. “Aren’t those mountains beautiful? A little like the Rockies.”[19]

Pilots referred to the air strikes directed against areas of dense forest as “jungle busting raids” or “monkey killing raids.” This was because the pilots doubted the raids killed anything but trees and forest creatures. Yet, the raids over forested regions of South Vietnam did affect people. For example, the South Vietnamese peasants who resided along the coastal plain close to the timbered foothills of the highlands travelled into the forest fringe to harvest timber for the production of charcoal and for building materials. The Vietcong and North Vietnamese hid in those same hills – adjacent to the populated lowlands. Knowing the Vietcong had base camps in the foothills near the coastal plain, the Americans laid down a great deal of ordnance on those areas.  The intensive and unpredictable bombing of the foothills made it extremely dangerous for the rural population to acquire wood. This situation partly explains why, as the war progressed, housing construction materials across South Vietnam changed from wood to an assortment of materials, including sheet metal, discarded U.S. plywood, crate wood, flattened beer and soda cans, and plastic sheeting. As the bombing campaign intensified, it became too risky for the South Vietnamese to make the trip to the foothills to harvest the trees there.

At higher elevations in the highlands, American planes often targeted river valleys because the Communists utilized the flat terrain of the interior valleys to move men and supplies across the otherwise hilly landscape. Hill peoples, who were referred to collectively as the Montagnards, depended on those same valleys as transportation routes, sites for agricultural production, and areas for the placement of village settlements. In seeking to interdict the enemy, the Americans bombed regions vital to the Montagnards – a group the United States needed as allies in its war against the Vietcong.

U.S. planes also bombed areas of deep jungle. Although these raids may have been nothing more than “monkey killing raids,” the killing of monkeys and South Vietnam’s other mammals, including the gaur, sambar deer, and wild elephants, had a detrimental effect on the Montagnards, who hunted the jungle’s small animals for food and who employed elephants as work animals. The Americans killed untold numbers of wild elephants across the highlands, depriving the Montagnards of their primary heavy-lift transport animal. Bombing and other military activities also interfered with elephant migration patterns, which made it more difficult for the Montagnards to capture the big animals.

Westmoreland and many others within the U.S. high command believed bombing was necessary to save U.S. lives, achieve a high enemy body count, and push the Vietcong out of hamlets under its control. However, there were Americans who believed the profligate use of airpower complicated the U.S. and GVN effort to win over the rural populace to the Allied cause. An early opponent of a heavy reliance on airpower was renowned U.S. advisor John Paul Vann. Vann once argued that the best weapon to kill the guerrilla was the knife, the next best – the rifle, and the least effective, air strikes. To the consternation of Vann, the American military in South Vietnam remained wedded to airpower. (It should be noted that later in the war, Vann became a strong advocate of the use of airpower in the South. And during the 1972 Easter Offensive, Vann directed B-52s against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces massed on the outskirts of Kontum. Vann believed that U.S. airstrikes saved South Vietnam from certain defeat in 1972). Other U.S. officials shared Vann’s early concerns about the use of airpower. An anonymous American official stated, “Nothing is doing more to lose the war for us here than the indiscriminate use of air power.”[20]  In late 1967, none other than Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker voiced concerns about U.S. air operations across South Vietnam, telling presidential advisor Walt W. Rostow that a major air campaign in the Delta, something being considered by General Westmoreland, could create such a large number of refugees that it “…could turn the people of South Vietnam against us.”[21]

Although some questioned the wisdom of conducting an intensive, indiscriminate air campaign in the South, powerful voices argued for its continuance, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary. Toward the end of 1965, U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge sent his superiors in Washington an upbeat appraisal of the air campaign. “There are growing signs of declining morale among Viet Cong military units as well as in the population in Viet Cong-dominated areas. This decline appears to be the result of tactical setbacks and the impact of sustained U.S.-GVN air attacks on Viet Cong areas.”[22] According to Lodge, U.S. airpower was a necessary and useful weapon against the insurgents.

In early December 1965, top administration officials, including Rusk, McNamara, McNaughton, McGeorge Bundy, Clark Clifford, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Earle Wheeler met to discuss the direction of the war and the ongoing troop build-up in the South. During the course of the meeting, Clifford questioned the need for still more U.S. troops in the South. He argued that in lieu of more troops, the U.S. should send additional air assets to South Vietnam. Bundy, who took notes of the meeting, penned the following: “Clifford wonders where the Hell we are going – further & further in with no prospect of a return…Can’t we use Air Power & hold in defensive positions on ground. Without 600,000 ground troops in jungle war.” Wheeler responded to Clifford by arguing that the air campaign in the South was helping the U.S. to turn the tide against the Communists. He said, “We have got a real initiative. No one ever won anything by remaining on the defensive. We already are pouring air on in SVN [South Vietnam] – a quantum jump in air power.” No one at this meeting questioned the “quantum jump in air power” and its consequences for the people and environment of South Vietnam.[23]

In 1966, the Rand Corporation, which had first recommended a sustained, widespread air campaign in South Vietnam back in late 1964, proposed a further intensification of U.S. air operations in the South.  In a report that circulated throughout the American national security bureaucracy in the first half of 1966, Rand wrote: “The intensification of military activities by the GVN and U.S. forces has had an adverse effect on VC morale and combat effectiveness.  The devastation caused by the B-52’s has had a profound impression.  Nevertheless the interviews [of Communist POWs] indicate no widespread or deep-seated popular hatred for the GVN or the Americans as a result of air and artillery attacks.  The villagers seem grateful for advance warning of attacks and sometimes seize the opportunity it offers to move to GVN-controlled areas.”  The report concluded: “Still greater use should be made of day and night air surveillance and interdiction.” The term “interdiction” referred to bombing.[24]

And if President Johnson, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and General Westmoreland needed any further justification to continue the saturation bombing of South Vietnam, it came during a meeting of foreign policy experts (known collectively as the Wisemen) at the White House on November 2, 1967.  A partial list of those in attendance at this meeting included Dean Acheson, Maxwell Taylor, Averell Harriman, George Ball, Bill Bundy, Omar Bradley, and Nicholas Katzenbach.  During the day-long series of discussions, none of the men questioned the efficacy, let alone the morality, of the air war in South Vietnam.  Presidential friend and advisor Clark Clifford went so far as to say of the bombing: “Any cessation in the South or the North will be interpreted as a sign of weakness of the American people.  If we keep up the pressure on them, gradually the will of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese will wear down….”  Clifford made it clear that he believed air operations in South Vietnam should continue at their present high level of intensity.  No one sitting around the large conference table disagreed with him.  When the meeting came to end, the president summarized the group’s thinking: “Generally everyone agrees with our present course in the South.”[25]

[1] John Schlight, The War in South Vietnam, The Years of the Offensive, 1965-1968, (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1999), Appendix 5, 257.

[2] Ibid., 216.

[3] Ibid., 137.

[4] Bernard B. Fall, Last Reflections on a War: Bernard B. Fall’s Last Comments on Vietnam, 1967, Reprint, (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2000), 28-29.

[5] Schlight, The War in South Vietnam, 188.

[6] Ibid., 78, 119, 154.

[7] Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam, 1989, Reprint, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 9, 129; Appy Patriots, 200.

[8] Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, (New York: Random House, 1988), 618.

[9] Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, (New York: Viking, 2003), 205.

[10] Jonathan Schell, The Military Half: An Account of the Destruction in Quang Ngai and Quang Tin, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), 164.

[11] Ibid., 164-165.

[12] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964 – 1968, Volume III, Vietnam, June – December 1965, “Document 146, Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State, September 22, 1965,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1996), 400.

[13] Schell, Military Half, 137.

[14] Frederick Downs, The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007), 99.

[15] Martha Hess, Then the Americans Came: Voices from Vietnam, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 124.

[16] U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees, “Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate,” May 10, 18; August 16; September 21; October 9, 10, 11, 13, and 16, 1967, U.S. Senate, 90th Congress, 1st Session. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1968), 66.

[17] Michael Herr, Dispatches, 1977, Reprint, (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 10.

[18] James R. Ebert, A Life in a Year: The American Infantryman in Vietnam, 1965-1972, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 323.

[19] Peter T. White, National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 131, No. 2, February, 1967, “Behind the Headlines in Viet Nam,” (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society), pp.149-188, 180.

[20] New York Times, “Air Strikes Hit Vietcong – and South Vietnamese Civilians,” Charles Mohr, September 5, 1965.

[21] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume V, Vietnam, 1967, “Document 410, Information Memorandum from the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson, November 21, 1967,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 1060.

[22] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume III, Vietnam, June – December 1965, “Document 199, Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State, November 11, 1965,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1996), 565.

[23] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume III, Vietnam, June – December 1965, “Document 218, Personal Notes of Meeting, December 6, 1965,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1996), 604-605.

[24] L. Goure, A.J. Russo, and D. Scott, “Some Findings of the Viet Cong Motivation and Morale Study: June-December 1965, Memorandum RM-4911-2-ISA/ARPA, (Santa Monica, California: The Rand Corporation, February 1966), ix, x.

[25] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume V, Vietnam, 1967, “Document 377, Memorandum From the President’s Assistant (Jones) to President Johnson, November 2, 1967,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 967.

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