One area Ken Burns covers only in passing.
Ken Burns’ riveting documentary on the war in Vietnam stirred emotions and brought back haunting memories of a dark slice of our long national nightmare.
One aspect of the war that received only passing coverage was the massive air war (largely one-sided) that raged throughout the campaign.
During the war over 7 million tons of bombs were rained down on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, more than the total bombs dropped in Europe and Asia during World War II.
During the war, U.S. airmen flew a total of 5.25 million sorties (missions) over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. And, casualties in the air war were severe — 2,556 Navy and 2,580 Air Force killed in action.
In Vietnam, thousands of U.S. aircraft were lost to antiaircraft artillery (AAA), surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and fighter interceptors (MiGs). The great majority of combat losses in all areas of Southeast Asia were due to AAA.
Among fixed-wing aircraft, more F-4 Phantoms were lost than any other type of plane in service with any nation. In total, the United States military lost almost 10,000 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
The combined loss of Air Force, Navy, and Marine F-4 Phantom jets in Vietnam was staggering, as 533 planes were lost in combat and another 156 in non-combat accidents.
Other U.S. aircraft suffered comparable casualties. For example, the F105 Thunderchief lost 330 planes in combat and another 62 in noncombat incidents.
Also, the Navy and Marines lost 276 A-4 Skyhawks in combat action and another 87 in noncombat.
Various other familiar aircraft in the war suffered similar casualties:
- O1 Bird Dog (USAF, ARMY, USMC) — 426 combat, 50 noncombat;
- F100 Super Sabre — 198 combat, 45 noncombat;
- A1 Skyraider (USAF, USN) — 198 combat, 58 noncombat;
- A6 Intruder (USN, USMC) — 78 combat, 11 noncombat;
- A7D Corsair (USAF, USN) — 59 combat, 47 noncombat;
- RA5 Vigilante (USN) — 18 combat, 9 noncombat.
But the steepest losses in the air war in Vietnam were the helicopters, which suffered devastating casualties. For example, the Army and Marines lost a staggering 3,254 HU-1 Huey, 277 AH-1 Cobra, and 132 CH-42 Chinook helicopters.
By contrast, North Vietnamese aircraft losses were much lighter largely due to the fact that they deployed far fewer planes. Over the course of the war the enemy lost 60 MiG-21s (the plane that shot down 13 U.S. aircraft), 63 MiG-17s, and 8 MiG-19s.
The air war in Vietnam was tilted heavily in favor of the U.S. America’s air power dwarfed North Vietnam’s and, in theory, that dominance should have had a decisive impact on the outcome of the war.
America’s air power had three major prongs. First, were U.S. bases in South Vietnam such as the major air base at Danang. Next, the wide variety of fixed-wing aircraft which flew from U.S. aircraft carriers deployed in or near the Tonkin Gulf off the shores of Vietnam. And, finally, waves of huge B-52 bombers flew from bases in Thailand and Pacific Islands such as Guam to bomb various targets throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
There were those in America who supported the idea of simply bombing North Vietnam into submission by totally destroying the country. For example, Air Force General Curtis LeMay argued that the U.S. should simply “reduce North Vietnam to rubble.” Some “hawks” in the White House at the time no doubt would have been sympathetic to that scorched earth strategy.
Divergent opinions about the war continue to rage over 42 years after the fall of Saigon. America was sharply divided over the war back then and remains so even today. The wounds that the war inflicted on our national psyche may never heal, even as post-war Vietnam has healed and flourishes today with annual growth in GDP averaging 7-8%.
Regardless of individual opinions about the war, there is one thing on which we can all agree:
GOD BLESS THE INTREPID AIRMEN OF THE VIETNAM WAR!
(Mr. Skoning is a Chicago lawyer who served as an officer on an aircraft carrier in the Vietnam era.)
Before an F-4 night mission, 1967 (U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons)