Text: Richard Plos

Ilustrace: Adam Tooby


The last major offensive of the Vietnam War was launched by the North Vietnamese Army on March 30, 1972, under the name Nguen Hue. In response to this “Easter Offensive,” President Nixon suspended the ongoing peace talks and ordered the launch of the airborne Operation Linebacker. Intended to disrupt supplies to enemy troops, it was conducted from May 9 to October 23, 1972, when it was suspended on the promise of further peace talks. But these collapsed again, and so Linebacker II was launched. Beginning on December 18, an intensive twelve-day bombing campaign began, during which more than 20,000 tons of bombs were dropped on military and industrial targets. Fifteen B-52s were shot down in the process, mostly by SAM anti-aircraft missiles. One Stratofortress was claimed by Pham Tuan, future Vietnam’s first astronaut, who took off against the enemy on the night of 26–27 December in MiG-21MF No. 5121 from Noi Bai base. The GCI directed him to a B-52 formation, and he was given permission to attack with two missiles and withdraw immediately.

It was the ninth day of Operation Linebacker II and a total of 57 B-52s were sent to the airstrikes that night. These were to bomb railway stations at Lang Dang, Due Noi and Trung Quan, six were to target warehouses at Van Dien and three formations of three aircraft were to attack three different SAM missile sites. Over Due Noi, Black 03 suffered minor damage but returned to Utapao base without incident. Much worse was the situation over Trung Quan, where 12 bombers were targeted by 45 SAM missiles   and one of them hit the Cobalt 01 of Capt. Frank D. Lewis. All crew members suffered injuries, navigator 1/Lt. Ben. L Fryer being mortally wounded. The machine was engulfed in flames, electrical systems failed. Shortly after the hit, the pilot ordered all crew members to eject. In the process, Maj. Allen L. Johnson, EWO, lost his life. This was the last B-52 shot down with its crew captured. The event, which occurred during an attack on a SAM site VN-243, had a happier ending despite its drama.

The Ash 02 of Capt. John D. Mize was one of a trio bombing that target and one of the 15 SAM missiles fired at them hit his left wing while he was executing a steep turn away from the target after dropping the bombs. Shrapnels injured the pilot’s left leg and arm. The badly damaged B-52 lost all its left engines, one of which was on fire. The bomber fell several thousand feet before Mize was able to get it levelled off. It was almost superhuman effort, as the big bomber had lost most of its boosters, not to mention the asymmetrical thrust of the engines. Morerover, Mize was wounded, as was the navigator, 1/Lt William L. Robinson, who anyway was able to give his pilot a heading to leave the target area without navigational equipment. “It was not a question of making it back to the base, but one of how far we could get before we had to abandon the aircraft”, Mize later said, flying the crippled bomber only by his skills and instincts as all he had left of his flight instruments were the airspeed indicator and altimeter.

A rescue ship HC-130 joined Ash 02 on the border with Laos and, sitting on its right wing, gave it cross-check and directed Mize and his men to a safe area. But the badly wounded B-52 was literally disintegrating in mid-air. Mize was about to give the order to eject, but the navigator cautioned him that they were over mountains, and if they could stay airborne for some thirty miles, they would have flat rice-paddy fields under them. With the last of his strength Capt. Mize kept his aircraft in the air, but after a while he had to give up and order the crew to eject. Lt. Robinson suffered an ejection system malfunction and informed his Captain he would attempt to jump out through the hole made by ejection of radar navigator. Mize gave him three minutes, knowing that once the navigator left his seat, he would lose contact with him. Almost exactly after that time elapsed, all electrical systems failed, and Mize had no choice but to eject himself as well. But, to his relief, the whole crew landed safely on parachutes and was rescued. Capt. Mize was awarded the Air Force Cross for his heroic performance. He was later promoted to rank of Major and stayed in service until August 1, 1984. He passed away on June 15, 2012. Other crew members were awarded the DFC and the Purple Heart.

And what about Pham Tuan? It is highly unlikely that his missile could have caused such extensive damage to a B-52, nor does the testimony of the crew itself add up. The Vietnamese fighter fired his missiles, but they probably didn’t hit anything. His MiG-21MF is now on display in a museum with eight kill stars under the cockpit, but at least one of them is surplus ...