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Interview with Michael J. (Mike) Connors, 1981

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Summary
Mike Connors flew B-52 bombers in Operation Linebacker in 1972. He describes preparation for the Operation, and the experience of bombing Hanoi while the North Vietnamese launched surface-to-air missiles at him and Naval radio reported enemy plane sightings on the radar. He comments on changes in bombing strategies during Linebacker in contrast with earlier missions during the war, and describes the view from the air.
Topics
Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Aerial operations, American, Operation Linebacker, 1972, United States--History, Military--20th century, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Military missions, Surface-to-air missiles, Bomber pilots, United States. Air Force
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Transcript

Preparation for the Christmas Bombings

MIKE CONNORS
Roll...Beginning Mike Connors Roll three. Take three.
Interviewer:
Something I’d like to ask you about. When you first heard of the operation and what that meant. Did you get briefings or anything special?
Connors:
What we first heard was a lack of hearing actually because the work was very routine up to a certain point and everyday the schedules would be posted and things just rolled along, and all of a sudden the schedule stopped, and we didn't know what was up, but we knew something was up. And, that was our first indication.
And for about two days, they planned these missions, I guess, and then schedules started appearing on the boards and the briefings were all of a sudden more classified, and the people who came out of the briefings wouldn't tell us what they had been briefed. I, see, the first two missions, I did not fly. My first mission was on day three.
So, I had, of course, after the first mission everybody was talking because they had to describe the real war experiences. But, that was our first indication was, nothing happened all of a sudden. No planes were flying and maintenance was getting them all in shape and nobody was talking.
Interviewer:
But, what about the actual flight? Where were you coming from and what was that experience like?
Connors:
I was flying out of Guam. Ah. It was quite a different experience from my previous missions. I had all told about 265 missions over there in B-52's. This was quite a bit different because the missions were like the schedule. It got very routine. Bombing South Vietnam. Ah. No risk ah. Same time, same place day after day after day, and all of a sudden, we were really going to go to war. It was frightening.
Ah. The first thing you hear about, really going to Hanoi, you know, the most highly defended missile complex in the world. You're pretty scared. Some people didn't want to go, but it was very interesting ah, I was told at the time that the rolls of the sick people decreased. In other words, people were fighting to get off of their temporary sick status, sick status, so they could go because nobody wanted to be left behind or to be seen as a malingerer.
Ah. There's a great amount of group unity that comes to the fore when people get in danger and ah not a patriotic thing particularly. Just guys not wanting to seen be seen by their peers as being malingerers.

Threats to American aircraft during the Hanoi bombings

Interviewer:
What about the visuals? When you arrive over North Vietnam, what do you actually see physically? Do you see SAMs coming up or...?
Connors:
We bombed at night so we couldn't see the landscape. There was nothing unusual about that. Yes, but from miles and miles away we could see the SAMs going up. Ah. My first mission I was well back in the wave, so the first guys probably hit an hour or two hours before me. I don't remember.
But, for miles and miles you could see little firecrackers like going off and it was very distinct, very obvious that those were SAMs being shot up and as you got closer they just started going up around you.
And, at first you were afraid because you wanted to move away from every one you saw, but after you calmed down and realized, sure, there's a SAM and it's going up, but it's going off there and you kind of ignored it. It took a little while to get used to that, but after a while that became routine and once in a while they would come close enough, you'd want to dodge them. And, you dodged them.
Interviewer:
Cut.
End of SR #2828. Nothing else on this side of tape.
SND #2829
SIDE 2
Camera Roll #4
Mike Connors
Interviewer:
...when you first saw them, how many of them you saw...
Connors:
It was...your first impression was that it was beautiful. Because...
Interviewer:
Sorry, please start again. Say, with SAMs, your first impression of SAMs was that...
Connors:
Okay. My first impression of SAMs when I approached Hanoi was that they were beautiful. Because I was well back in the stream. So from the SAMs being fired at the people very far in front of me I could see them going up.
And at first it was very much like a panorama way in the distance. It was something you could sit back detached, and watch like a fireworks display. And here they were going up, we could see them explode in the dark across the sky, and as we got closer through, which seemed to happen quite slowly, because as your mind races, events kind of slow down, and we could see them coming closer and closer and after a while you became used to the fact that sometimes they'd go off to the side, and once in a while one would come close.
But there were so many aircraft in the air, and so many SAMs going up and all over the place that really not that many really could very close to you. We did not feel in imminent danger all the time. But you could see many of them, maybe forty, that night, I could see, but from a distance most of them. Although many of them were quite close too. Now this was night three.
They had shot their best SAMs, so to speak, on nights one and and night two, and it suffered a lot of damage, so we were not seeing the best they had to offer. By the end of the war, toward night eight or nine or ten, they were shooting the worst SAMs they had, they suffered terrible damages. We could see SAMs blowing up on the ground. Because these were SAMs that were the worst they had. They would go out of control. They would go up and spin, they were using the bottom of the barrel. We had no fear at the end of the war. The SAMs, we could just watch them blowing up, at wrong altitudes, blowing up on the pad, failing, you know.
Interviewer:
What about the other threats? I mean [inaudible]...
Connors:
There were MIG calls, the radios were very active. The Navy was calling all the time because they had radar picket ships out in the harbor. But the only MIGs that came up, we think, were to judge altitude.
Because their SAM site was not sophisticated to judge our altitude. The MIGs did not seem to want to engage us to shoot us down. Now, we did shoot a couple of MIGs down during that, but they were not after us, really, we don't think, only a few MIGs...
Interviewer:
What about the actual target? And how was that arranged? Did you have any idea of what you were hitting? Or could you change your target information from base, or was it a fixed line that you...?
Connors:
The whole mission was very fixed. We knew what the target was, we were briefed quite explicitly what it was. Of course, we could not see the target. But the whole mission every air speed, every altitude, every turn point, every target was quite structured and quite inflexible. Every maneuver we did was quite inflexible.
In stark contrast to other parts of the war, for instance, I was a forward air controller flying out of Da Nang, Tanki and Chu Lai, in 1971, and that was completely unstructured. I was my own boss, I flew as high or as low or as fast or as slow as I wanted, wherever I wanted, almost, whenever I wanted. It was a very independent free flowing operation where you went out and looked for people on the ground, or contacted army units and asked if they needed any help—totally different kind of war.
Interviewer:
What about the actual lead up to the dropping performances? Does the plane change its feel...was there anything physical about it, when the bomb [incomprehensible] down, or...
Connors:
When the bombs are actually dropping, you can't feel them, just a slight vibration throughout the aircraft. On normal routine mission there's very little to be felt, though. Now over Hanoi, we were jinking as much as a B-52 can jink, quite wildly, to put it mildly.
So the bomb runs were quite hectic, quite exciting, very active at that time. But you could not feel the bombs, there was many other sensations that overruled those minor vibrations of the bomb leaving the aircraft at that time.
Interviewer:
What about what about the fears amongst people while you were flying? Were they the most intense that people had because of the anti-aircraft, was it because of the size of the operation, how did it differ from other operations?
Connors:
The fears we had were due directly to SAMs. The MIGs were not a big factor. The air was so crowded with our own B-52s and our own fighters that we were a little bit afraid of mid airs also. There were an awful lot of planes up there.
Interviewer:
Cut.

Degree of the bombers' precision

Interviewer:
Could I ask you to explain what the pattern was of the bombing, was it the traditional box system or what was it?
Connors:
Okay, the traditional box that we bombed in the typical mission of South Vietnam would be a box about a mile wide or so. At first, in the very early days of the war, this is even before I got there, they would depend on one aircraft following the other, they would try to bomb the same spot and depend on enough natural dispersion that the bombs would obliterate a certain area instead of one train.
But the crews got so good that following directly behind the aircraft, that they laid three bomb trains right in line. So they had you come back with a tactic that caused us to separate ourselves laterally. And we tried to be as precise doing this as we were following airplanes directly.
So that then we would have one train 500 feet to the left, another train 500 feet to the right. Another train. But this was all done by ground radar, directing us. When we went to Hanoi, there was no ground radar directing us, it was all airborne radar.
And each aircraft was independently bombing in other words, we were not following the leader. So we bombed with our airborne radar which is slightly less accurate than the ground based radar. And there was no attempt at dispersal. The random effects of war made quite a bit dispersal, unfortunately... happen. But each we were trying, each one of us, to hit the same point. If, indeed, that was the target given to all of us.
Interviewer:
I think apart from that one incidental bombing of Bach Mai Hospital, there's no other example is there of widely off target?
Connors:
No. And it's always amazed me, but there never was. Because given a peacetime environment, we could all put our bombs right in the same area very closely. However, with the SAMs being fired at us, our bomb runs were quite erratic and quite wild even. It's amazing to me that even under those circumstances we managed to be as accurate as we were. I thought that it was fantastic that bombs weren't scattered all over the countryside because many times the tendency is to drop your bombs and leave no matter where they hit. I think it reflected very well upon our discipline that the bombing was so accurate in the face of such confusion and such fear and opposition.
Interviewer:
What about the bombing, you weren't involved in bombing Hai Phong at the same time, I just want to know what the difference was in what you were facing...
Connors:
I was in the D models and the D models had a better ECM and larger weapon carrying capability. So they sent us against targets where the ECM was needed most, which was Hanoi. The G models bombed a little bit more peripheral targets where ECM was not quite so great a factor. So they were the ones, I think, that bombed Hai Phong and a few more dispersed targets.
Interviewer:
Could you just explain the logistics of the whole Linebacker II Operation, what you saw, and what impression that they left?
Connors:
I was greatly impressed at the time and in thinking about it through the years, it's one of my outstanding impressions of the Linebacker II Operation. What a fantastic logistical operation it was. We took off one airplane a minute out of Guam for hours. Just on time takeoff after on time takeoff.
By the time we got over the Philippines, it was the middle of the night and I could envision this stream of bombers miles and miles long, and of course I couldn't see them all. And over the Philippines I could look off to my right and see a whole Christmas tree string of lights which were the tankers coming down from Okinawa. And I thought, Oh my God, I hope they know where we are. And sure enough they all joined up with us. I could see a string of bombers off to my left and part of the tankers joined up with them, and part of them joined up with us. We all got re-fueled. The tankers all went back to Okinawa. Very little radio chatter, if any. Everybody knew what they were doing. It was planned magnificently.
We got over South Vietnam and made a right hand turn to head north and as we made the turn we could see another whole Christmas tree of lights coming at us from the left. And these were the bombers coming in from U-Tapao.
Nobody told us these things were going to happen, and I could just see these lights coming and just kind of settling in position right along with us as it went along. It was a fantastic effort at planning, logistics, timing very impressive. Very impressive way to do business.
Interviewer:
Cut.
END OF SIDE 2
SND #2829
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