Chapter 3 - A Changing Role

(Part 3)

Yankee and Dixie Stations

Even before the American aircraft carriers became officially involved in Vietnam, a Navy plane was lost to enemy fire. On June 6, 1964, an RF-8 Crusader reconnaisance aircraft was shot down over Laos. The pilot was captured, but later escaped. On August 2, North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the destroyer USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. Two days laters, the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy were attacked, again by North Vietnamese patrol boats. In retaliation, on August 5, 60 planes from the USS Ticonderoga and USS Constellation bombed port and oil installations at Vinh in North Vietnam. Two of the aircraft were shot down, and one pilot was killed and the other captured. On August 7, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving the President the authority to commit American forces to war against North Vietnam. This was the beginning of a gradual escalation of hostilities that would continue for almost ten years.

At the outbreak of hostilities, the United States had a total of 16 attack carriers and 10 carriers that had been converted for anti-submarine warfare. Pacific 7th Fleet carriers that participated in the War were the USS Ticonderoga, USS Constellation, USS Hancock, USS Oriskany, USS Ranger, USS Coral Sea, USS Bon Homme Richard, USS Kitty Hawk, USS Midway, and USS Shangri-La. Because of the need for more carrier support later in the War, several carriers from the Atlantic Fleet were eventually reassigned to the Pacific. These included the USS Enterprise (the first nuclear powered ship to engage in combat), USS America, USS Intrepid, USS Forrestal, USS Independence, USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, and USS Saratoga.

USS Essex
During the Vietnam War, the United States had
a mix of modernized Essex-class . . .

USS Midway
. . . and modernized Midway-class carriers, . . .

USS Forrestal
. . . plus several of the newer and much larger
Forrestal-class ships and . . .

USS Enterprise
. . . the ultra-modern, nuclear-powered
USS Enterprise CVAN-65

In some ways the use of aircraft carriers in Vietnam was similar to their use in Korea. In both wars the carriers' aircraft were used primarily for close air support and for interdiction of supply lines. Similarly, in both wars restrictions were placed on the targets that could be attacked. In Vietnam, however, these restrictions were so extensive that air power, both naval and land-based, was essentially ineffective. From 1965 to 1968, for example, targets in the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi and the major port of Haiphong were totally off limits. Additionally, most North Vietnamese airbases were restricted targets until April 1967. Surface-to-air (SAM) missile sites in civilian areas were off limits until 1968. Most shipping in Haiphong harbor -- the single most important supply route into North Vietnam -- was never attacked. And a 30-mile buffer zone along the North Vietnam-China border was also restricted.

On February 13, 1965, President Johnson authorized the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder, around the clock attacks on targets in North Vietnam. The first "Rolling Thunder" strike took place on March 1st. But "Rolling Thunder" missions were suspended on May 13, and then resumed again five days later. Another halt to "Rolling Thunder" strikes was called on December 25, with the intention of starting peace negotiations. But when the peace talks got nowhere, the bombing campaign was again started on January 31, 1966. Short bombing halts and unilateral cease fires continued through the end of 1972. The only apparent, though unintentional, effect of these bombing halts was to allow communist forces time to resupply their troops without the threat of attack from the air.

Missions against targets in North Vietnam were assigned by dividing the country into seven zones, with certain zones assigned to Navy aircraft and other zones assigned to the Air Force. Zone 1, nearest to the border between North and South Vietnam, and Zones V and VI-A in the northernmost section of North Vietnam were assigned to the Air Force. Zones II, III, IV, and VI-B, along the North Vietnamese coast on the Gulf of Tonkin, were assigned to the Navy. The station in the Gulf of Tonkin from which carrier operations against targets in North Vietnam were launched was designated "Yankee Station." By June 5, 1965, five carriers were active in "Yankee Station." Further south was "Dixie Station," the location from which carrier operations in support of ground troops in South Vietnam originated. "Dixie Station" became operational in May 1965.

The Vietnam War did not have any major aerial engagements, as in World War II, or unusual or singularly important strike missions, as in the Korean War. The aerial campaign was essentially one of close air support for ground troops in South Vietnam and limited strikes at carefully restricted targets in North Vietnam Some of the key milestones of the War involving naval airpower included the following:

-- On April 9, 1965, an F-4 Phantom from VF-96 was shot down by a Communist Chinese MiG-17 south of Hainan, while VF-96 claimed a MiG-17 kill.

-- On April 15, 1965, carrier aircraft bombed Viet Cong positions in the Black Virgin Mountains of South Vietnam.

-- In the first decisive aerial engagement of the War, two Phantoms from VF-21 shot down two MiG-17s on June 17, 1965.

-- The first strikes were launched against Zone VI, the Hanoi-Haiphong area, in September 1965.

-- The first successful "Iron Hand" mission, seek and destroy strikes against SAM missile sites, was made on October 17, 1965.

-- On April 19, 1966, carrier aircraft attacked the coal port of Cam Pha, 30 miles from the Chinese border.

-- Strikes against industrial targets in northeastern North Vietnam and all oil refining and storage facilities were added to the approved target list on June 29, 1966.

-- The first strikes against a North Vietnamese airbase, at Kep, was made on April 27, 1967.

-- Military targets in downtown Hanoi were attacked for the first time on May 20, 1967. Three days later, a 10-mile total restriction zone was placed around Hanoi.

-- On April 3, 1968, the bombing of North Vietnam was restricted to the area south of the 19th Parallel.

-- On March 28, 1970, an Phantom from VF-142 shot down a MiG-21. Because of restricted activity over North Vietnam, this was the only aerial kill during the period 1969 to 1971.

-- On May 8, 1972, the biggest aerial engagement of the War took place. Navy Phantoms scored eight MiG kills, including three by Lt. Randy Cunningham and his radar intercept officer, Lt. Willie Driscoll. With these three victories, which included the top North Vietnamese ace, they became the first American aces of the War. Air Force Phantom pilots scored another three MiG kills that same day.

-- On December 18, 1972, after the North Vietnamese negotiations became stalled, President Nixon ordered a resumption of unrestricted bombing of North Vietnam.

-- On January 12, 1973, a Phantom scored the last aerial kill of the War, the 61st by carrier aircraft.

In a strategic move that was recommended six years earlier by General Maxwell Taylor, the harbor of Haiphong was mined by Navy A-6 Intruders and A-7 Corsair IIs on May 8, 1972. With the Haiphong harbor essentially cut off, the flow of military supplies into North Vietnam virtually came to a halt. This one event had potentially the most positive military effect of the entire War, but it came too late. Many military analysts believe that if the Haiphong harbor had been mined earlier in the conflict, together with strikes against land supply routes from China, South Vietnam might have been saved from communist take-over, and the number of casualties on both sides could have been greatly reduced.

A cease fire agreement was signed in Paris on January 27, 1973, ending the American involvement in Vietnam. Communist forces, however, almost immediately took to the offensive against South Vietnam. Within a year, South Vietnam reported that 13,000 of its troops and 4,000 civilians had been killed by North Vietnamese. By April 1975, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam was overrun by the North Vietnamese, and all remaining Americans were evacuated by the Marines.

Although the American carriers that participated in the Vietnam War never came under direct attack, operational accidents did seriously damage to three carriers and resulted in many casualties. The USS Oriskany suffered an on-board fire in 1966, while the USS Forrestal and USS Enterprise suffered missile explosions in 1967 and 1969, respectively. The USS Enterprise was repaired in time to participate in the April 1975 aerial evacuation of Saigon. By the end of the Vietnam War, 17 carriers had participated. Navy and Marine aircraft flew 830,000 sorties over South Vietnam (vs. 1.7 million for Air Force planes) and another 302,000 sorties over North Vietnam (vs. 226,000 for the Air Force). Over 530 carrier aircraft were lost in action and another 320 in operational accidents. Admiral Arleigh Burke, former Chief of Naval Operations, was later quoted as having commented that in Korea and Vietnam, "the United States had control of the sea and air but didn't use them, primarily because we didn't want to fight a war." In both cases political restrictions on the use of sea and air power had essentially resulted in military defeats.

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