When it became clear that Secretary of Defense McNamara was publicly losing faith in the bombing campaign, and wanted to halt it, the Senate Armed Services Committee forced another 16 targets onto the Rolling Thunder list, including 19-span Paul Doumer Bridge.
Conceived as a supersonic striker, with the capability to carry a tactical nuclear weapon internally, the F-105 in Vietnam had its bomb-bay filled with extra fuel tanks for its huge J75 engine. Bombs were instead hung under its small wings and 64-ft long fuselage.
Facing the most formidably concentrated air defences in history, pilots of the F-105D flew against North Vietnamese targets day after day during the 43 months of Operation Rolling Thunder.
As told by Peter E Davies in his book F-105 Thunderchief Units of the Vietnam War, when it became clear that Secretary of Defense McNamara was publicly losing faith in the bombing campaign, and wanted to halt it, the Senate Armed Services Committee forced another 16 targets onto the Rolling Thunder list, including 19-span Paul Doumer Bridge.
One of five rail and road routes identified by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) as main target choice in April 1964, the bridge was the only railway crossing point over the Red River. As such it was the primary route for supplies being brought into Hanoi from Haiphong and China.
The Paul Doumer Bridge was 8437 ft long and 38 ft wide, which in turn meant that the 3000-lb M 118 bomb that had been used for other large ‘strategic’ bridge targets from May 1966 was the weapon of choice.
Target clearance was issued unexpectedly to the 355th TFW on Aug. 11, 1967, and the day’s ordnance loads of 750-lb bombs and wing tanks were rapidly replaced by the heavier weapons for an attack that same afternoon. Col John C Giraudo, who had only taken command of the Takhli wing on Aug. 2, quickly appointed his second-in-command, Col Bob White, as mission leader and 333rd TFS CO Lt Col Bill Norris as mission planner.
Flown by the wing’s most experienced pilots, five flights of F-105s from the 355th TFW, a 388th TFW Wild Weasel flight and bombers from the 388th and 8th TFWs (as well as three MiGCAP from the latter wing) executed a faultless mission in clear weather. The Wild Weasels, led by Lt Col James McInerney (13th TFS CO) and Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) Capt Fred Shannon, took out two SAM sites immediately and neutralised four more during the course of the mission – both men were subsequently awarded Air Force Crosses for their efforts on the day.
Takhli aircraft penetrated intense AAA, and the second F-105D flight’s M118s dropped the middle span of the bridge. Further direct hits were by Col Robin Olds‘ F-4 wave and the 388th TFW F-105s led by 469th TFS CO, Lt Col Harry Schurr. In all, their 94 tons of bombs destroyed one span of the rail link and two road spans. Schurr reported, ‘You could see the 3000 “pounders” popping like big orange balls as they struck the bridge’. No jets were lost and an attempted interception by MiGs failed. As usual, the Seventh Air Force ordered a follow-up mission the next day, which was also planned by Lt Col Norris. This too succeeded, and the resulting damage closed the bridge for two months.
In another coincidence of names, Capt Thomas Norris (469th TFS) only F-105D casualty (62-4278) during the Aug. 12 mission. His Iron Hand jet was hit by AAA near Gia Lam Airport and he ejected, being captured a short while later.
Although tie ingenious North Vietnamese had repaired the bridge by early October, bad weather prevented a re-attack until the 25th of the month, when a force of 21 Takhli F-105s aimed 63 tons of M 118s on the bridge. Two spans were dropped for the loss of 354th TFS jet 58-1168 (a MiG killer) — Maj Richard Smith ejected into captivity. A 333rd TFS aircraft (59-1745) was set ablaze by AAA later that same day when Phuc Yen airfield was attacked as part of the ongoing USAF/US Navy suppression of MiG activity, Capt Ramon Horinek being captured.
Further strikes on the bridge caused severe damage on Dec. 14, when it was the target for 90 3000-lb bombs. Another attack was made four days later, leaving the Paul Downer Bridge inoperable until the `bombing halt’ began in November 1968. A pontoon bridge constructed to take part of the railway traffic, however.
F-105 Thunderchief Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Historic Rail & Roads Stan Stokes and U.S. Air Force