Fifty years ago, the Christmastime night sky over North Vietnam was not an idealized, star-studded obsidian wonderland. Beginning on December 18, 1972, American B-52 aircraft delivered holiday death and destruction to Hanoi in one of the most intensive and lethal bombing campaigns of the Vietnam War.
I arrived early for a propitious rendezvous with Natalie.
Hunched against the cold on a midtown Manhattan sidewalk this late December evening in 1972, I dodged rushing Christmas shoppers while restlessly checking the clock shouldered by a life-size statue of Atlas, high above the jewelry store’s Art Deco entrance.
I was looking forward to a very merry holiday—and beyond. I had been home from Vietnam for nearly a year and a half. I was back in school at Long Island University in the daytime. Nights, I pursued my fledgling journalism career in the newsroom of WCBS Radio. My Army days—more specifically the Vietnam war—were behind me. Natalie and I had decided to announce our engagement on Christmas. This night, we were meeting at Tiffany’s to pick out her ring.
A full moon glowed above gayly decorated 57th Street, like a heraldic star of hope, peace and love. Intoxicated by its light, I overcame my impatience and surrendered to an imaginary visage of a jolly old elf streaking across the frigid New York skyline in a magical, jingling sleigh.
But half a world away, the Christmastime night sky over Hanoi was not an idealized, star-studded obsidian wonderland. That same night–under the same moon—North Vietnam was indeed busily visited by otherworldly aircraft. But they weren’t imaginary; and they weren’t jolly. On December 18, President Richard Nixon ordered a new bombing offensive over North Vietnam. Before the New Year of 1973 would ring in, unrelenting waves of US Air Force jets would drop more than twenty-thousand tons of bombs in the most intense air offense of the Vietnam War—one of the most staggering sustained air attacks in the history of warfare. This year-ending campaign of death and destruction was officially dubbed Operation Linebacker II. The Vietnamese would remember it always as The Twelve Days of Darkness.
Natalie and I choose a ring of white-gold piled modestly with cut diamonds in a snowflake pattern. We left Tiffany’s, made a left on Fifth Ave., and meandered to Rockefeller Center. Our faces were frozen in smiles. Our ears rang with the excited squeals of children marveling at the animated Saks department store window displays. The peal of bells from St. Patrick’s Cathedra kept time for the Christmas carols skaters sang along to in the ice rink below the giant holiday tree.
The people of Hanoi, however, experienced only apocalyptic terror that night. First came the ominous low-pitched drone of the B-52 Stratofortress bombers which clumsily approached to deliver lethal holiday greetings. BUFFs—Big Ugly Fat Fuckers–the bombers were impiously nicknamed. Nearly 130 of them flew from Guam and Thailand, making more than 725 high-altitude attacks night after night through December 29. Then they heard thunderous explosions. Boom. Boom. Boom. The attacks lasted all night long. The result was annihilation.
The carpet-bombing attacks from 30,000 feet were inherently imprecise. Railroads and shipyards were the primary targets, but whole neighborhoods became collateral damage. The busy residential and shopping area of Kham Thien was the scene of hundreds of dead and wounded in one devastating attack that leveled more than 2,000 homes and buildings. At the city’s largest hospital, the Bach Mai medical center, twenty-eight doctors and nurses were killed. It took more than four days to dig out the bodies.
The Christmas Bombing was not a surprise to the people of North Vietnam. As many as a half million were evacuated from the Hanoi area in advance. Bomb shelters were ubiquitous every few blocks throughout the city; small ones for one, two or three people; some large enough for dozens. No shelter, however, could withstand the direct hits of a 500 pound bomb. Each B-52 carried nearly 100 of these high explosives. They killed, maimed and destroyed with monstrous blast waves. They spit forth high-velocity shrapnel—razor-sharp steel fragments—fatal to an area of more than two city blocks.
When the B-52s released their mortal gifts to the people of Hanoi, there was no peace on that earth. It trembled and cleaved open. Ramshackle villages were devoured. City buildings were razed to rubble. Residents were buried alive; torn asunder; vaporized by the cacophonous, bone-pulverizing blasts. The experience of a B-52 raid, say those who have survived, borders on madness. Control of bodily functions ceases and the mind silently screams for relief at any cost.
On Christmas Eve, Natalie and I made the rounds of our friends and relatives to share our happy news. We clinked glasses, drank toasts, showed off her sparkly, wintry bling. We blushingly received their congratulations. We basked in the comfort that our days, weeks and months of separation, worry, and fear during the war, lay behind us.
Like most of the rest of the world, we were oblivious to the desperate life or death battle being waged by the people of Hanoi. They answered bravely the murderously cynical bid to break their will, putting on a frantic airborne light show of anti-aircraft fire. Flame-tailed surface-to-air (SAM) missiles shot down more than two dozen aircraft, including fifteen B-52s. Nearly 100 US airmen were wounded, killed, captured or went missing. But these defenses were no match for the overwhelming volume of attacks. The Vietnamese took a tragically lethal pummeling. Somewhere between 1,300 and more than 2,000 were killed on the ground, mostly civilians. If ever there was a nightmare before Christmas, this was it.
When Natalie and I visited Hanoi five years ago, we came face to face with a Christmas bombing time capsule of sorts on a casual walk through a quiet residential neighborhood. In an urban lake no bigger than a city square block, lies the wreckage of a B-52 bomber shot down on December 27, 1972. The memorial plaque nearby refers to the battle as “Dien Bien Phu in the sky,” a reference to the turning point battle that defeated French colonial rule of Vietnam in 1954.
On Christmas eve this year, there will be a midnight mass in North Vietnam’s Cathedral of St. Joseph, just as there was fifty years ago. But this time, it will indeed be a Silent Night. The “Ave Maria” is certain not be interrupted by the roar of attacking aircraft, the wail of alert sirens, the deafening crush of high explosives. Vietnam’s dark days are no more. Heaven and angels, and the people of Hanoi, will sing joyously this Christmas season.