The Air War against North Vietnam: The Thanh Hoa Railroad and Highway Bridge (Part 1)

By van Geffen, Theo | Air Power History, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

The Air War against North Vietnam: The Thanh Hoa Railroad and Highway Bridge (Part 1)


van Geffen, Theo, Air Power History


The Thanh Hoa Railroad and Highway Bridge, over the Song Ma River, was the second largest bridge in North Vietnam. It carried Rail Line Four and Route 1A. Rail Line Four was the only rail line between the capital of Hanoi and Vinh and south of the 20th parallel. Route 1A was the main road to the south. Interdiction of the bridge was to eliminate through traffic between Hanoi and Vinh and would accordingly make transportation of supplies into South Vietnam more difficult and costly for the North Vietnamese. However, the bridge proved to be a formidable and frustrating target for the Americans as it would withstand numerous strikes by Air Force and Navy planes until it was finally downed by four Navy A-7C Corsair IIs on October 6, 1972.

When it became apparent that the U.S. share in the war in Southeast Asia would have to be increased, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) set up a working group to investigate alternatives for air operations against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam). After the workgroup had looked at about 451 possible targets, a first list with 99 targets was presented on May 22, 1964 to the Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC) with the request to comment. Taking his and other comments into account, the original list was modified and on August 24,1964 a version with 94 targets, the 94 Target List, was presented to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.

Retaliation

The 94 Target List included targets such as railroad and highway bridges, oil storage sites, railways and power plants, largely the limited industrial infrastructure of the country. Additional targets included military objectives such as air bases, barracks and ammunition storage sites. The list would serve as a guideline when the U.S. government decided to attack the country on a large(r) scale.

Two of the targets had already been attacked before the 94 Target List was presented to McNamara. As a retaliation for the supposed attacks on August 2 and 4, 1964, by North Vietnamese Swatow patrol boats against the USS Maddox and C. Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin, on August 5, sixty-four U.S. Navy (USN) aircraft from the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) and USS Constellation (CVA-64) attacked targets in the country in Operation Pierce Arrow. They included the home of the PT boats and an oil storage site at Vinh. Two aircraft were lost, one A-1 Skyraider with its pilot, Lt (jg) Richard Sather, becoming the first naval aviator to die in the conflict, and an A-4E Skyhawk with its pilot, Lt (jg) Everett Alvarez, Jr, the first naval aviator to become a POW.

Special thanks to Colonel Vern Kulla.

In addition, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) presence in Southeast Asia was expanded with, among others, KB-50J aerial tanker, B-57B Canberra, RF-101C Voodoo, (T) F-102A Delta Dagger and F-105D Thunderchief aircraft, equipment and personnel.

JCS 14

One of the targets on the 94 Target List was JCS 14.00, the highway and railroad bridge across the Song Ma River. It was situated some 18 kilometers inland, 4.6 kilometers north of the city of Thanh Hoa and 120 kilometers south of Hanoi. The bridge was the longest one below the 20th parallel and an important link in the country's transport system. The original bridge, built by the French, was destroyed by the Viet Minh in 1945. With Chinese aid, the North Vietnamese started to build a new bridge in 1957, which was opened by Ho Chi Minh in 1964. The bridge was called Ham Rong, "the Dragon's Jaw". It was 162 meters long, almost seventeen meters wide, positioned fifteen meters above the fast flowing river and it consisted of two steel spans. In the middle, the spans rested on a massive pier of reinforced concrete with a diameter of almost four meters and at each end on land abutments of similar reinforced concrete of about 1.20 meters which were firmly anchored in the hill slopes on both sides of the river. Centrally situated on the bridge was a 3. …

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