Linebacker II

Carolyn Nickels-Cox, RPCV Correspondent, Group 34

It was after dark on December 27, 1972.

Kalasin was on fire.

A shop at the city’s center had caught fire, and the flames were spreading to others along the street.  Chuck and I joined the throng at the city center to watch local firefighters do battle.

We were in our second year as PCVs, teaching at the boys’ and girls’ schools in Amphur Muang, and no one even noticed our presence that evening.  We had finally managed to blend into the community.

In the middle of the wongwien across the street, a huge, hand-painted portrait of the Prince stood, erected to commemorate the fact he would become Crown Prince the next day in Bangkok.  He was a handsome, young man.  I wondered as I looked at his likeness, what it must be like to be him, a future King.

My eyes wandered away from the Prince, and I looked up to check the height of the flames.  Then, I saw something that made me shudder.

Above the smoke, there were points of light passing silently across the night sky.  I began to count them as they made their way north and east above Kalasin.  I knew from my dad, an international airline pilot, they must be at cruising altitude, maybe 37,000 feet.  I counted twelve before the parade passed out of sight.  I had no idea how many I had missed before noticing them.

My blood boiled.  These had to be part of the December Raids I had read about in a recent issue of Time magazine.  I thought they had ended before Christmas.  But they appeared to have resumed under the cover of night.  Did the American public know about this?

I had seen these convoys in the previous months, but generally during daylight hours.  The only air traffic there ever was above Kalasin involved bombers from one of the U.S. bases in Thailand.  And the only aircraft that would be visible at night from the ground were B-52s out of U-Tapao.  I knew that for each of the B-52s, there were four fighter-bombers I could not see. I knew these smaller aircraft were most likely from Korat.  I knew that if I looked up thirty minutes later, I would see the same parade of lights heading south after dropping their bombs on the people of North Vietnam.

I tried to calculate the tonnage of the bombs just the B-52s might be carrying.  What had I learned from fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who lived near airbases, or from Time?  A single Fortress could carry something like 40,000 pounds of bombs.  That meant that with just the twelve B-52s, as many as 480,000 pounds of ordnance was being dropped somewhere on North Vietnam as I stood there in Kalasin watching the fire.

I stopped calculating. I did not want to try to figure out how many tons four fighter-bomber escorts per B-52 might be dropping that night.

When was this going to end?


Forty-two years later, I did a little online research and discovered that what I saw that night really had happened and was part of a larger U. S. effort in the fall and December of 1972 to get the North Vietnamese back to the “negotiating table” in Paris.  The operation even had an official name—Linebacker II.  Reading about it made me shudder, as I had on December 27, 1972. 

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