Thursday, May 23, 2013

THE BOMBER IN THE LAKE

Twisted wreckage of a US B-52 bomber in a Hanoi lake

“Your driver here,” my hotel clerk says. She's arranged my taxi today, since I’m looking for Huu Tiep Lake in Hanoi. Looking at my taxi, I find it’s a xe om, a motorbike taxi. There are plenty of auto taxis in Hanoi, but for some reason the clerk called a motorbike for this trip.

I grudgingly put on my helmet, and we’re off into Hanoi's crowded downtown streets. My driver doesn’t speak English, and as we motor on, he stops more than once to ask for directions. Apparently the little lake I’m seeking isn’t so well known. I grow impatient, as he doubles back to turn down a crowded alley. After several tight turns the alley narrows; we just miss hitting a pedestrian. Now I know why the hotel clerk didn’t get me a car. These alleys are so narrow, that only motorcycles and pedestrians can enter.

My driver finally pulls out between two apartment buildings, and there is Huu Tiep Lake before me, a small the lake surrounded by a crowded residential neighborhood.  As I dismount, children are walking out the front gate of a primary school. At one corner of the lake, a group of Vietnamese men are playing cards, while they smoke and lounge on plastic chairs.

It’s a quiet everyday scene, in a quiet Hanoi neighborhood. But one visible feature is out of place, and it’s out in the lake. Rising out of the greenish waters of Huu Tiep, clearly visible above the waterline, is the twisted wreckage from an enormous American jet.

Close up of the wreckage in Huu Tiep Lake

A nearby marker explains, “AT 23.05 ON DECEMBER 27TH 1972, THE BATTALION No 72 – AIR DEFENCE MISSILE REGIMENT No 285 SHOT DOWN ON THE SPOT A B52G OF THE US IMPERIALIST VIOLATING HA NOI AIRSPACE. A PART OF THE WRECKAGE FELL IN TO HUU TIEP LAKE”.

One can only imagine what it was like that evening. The city sirens went off as the air raid began, and everyone in Hanoi ran for shelter. They heard distant explosions, as the bombers found their targets. Then out of nowhere, this ton of wreckage dropped down out of the night sky, and crashed right into their tiny neighborhood lake.

Only part of the lower fuselage of the B-52 protrudes above the water line. I wonder, how much more lies beneath? Looking at this twisted wreckage raises so many questions. What happened to the Air Force crew aboard that night, and how many survived? What was their target in Hanoi, and were there any civilian casualties? This is only one section of the huge bomber, what happened to the rest? Since it broke apart in mid-air, other sections must have fallen onto Hanoi as well. Did any wreckage land on any houses?

Among the wreckage peeking above the lake water, are wheels from the bomber’s landing gear. These have been lying half submerged in the lake for so many years, that weeds are now growing out of the sides of the tires. The Vietnamese were so proud of having knocked this giant bomber down from over their skies, that they have left this section of twisted aircraft lying here in the lake ever since, as a kind of strange war trophy from those dangerous days. This lake even has a local nickname, '
Hồ B52', which translates as 'B-52 Lake'.
Wreckage from numerous downed US aircraft are piled together in a bizarre display in Hanoi
The American air assault on North Vietnam was first unleashed in 1964 as the US war began here. This continued until 1968, when the bombing was finally halted by President Johnson. Hanoi’s skies were then quiet for three and a half years, until they got pounded again in 1972. President Nixon resumed aerial bombing as a political weapon, hoping to pressure the communist leadership at the negotiating table. Hanoi was hit again and again, as Nixon tried to force the North Vietnamese communists to end the war. This was cynically known as, ‘Bombing for Peace’.

Although the bomber wreckage in Huu Tiep Lake is a grim reminder of those many years of destruction, it certainly isn’t the only reminder to be found in this city. On another day I head to Hanoi’s Military History Museum, where I find wreckage that is even more jarring.

There the Vietnamese have taken a heavily damaged fuselage from an American cargo plane, and left it standing vertically on its nose. Leaning up against the plane, and surrounding it
USSR made surface to air missile, used to shoot down many US aircraft over North Vietnam
on the ground, is an enormous pile of aircraft wreckage and metal debris. These are the remains of countless American made aircraft, that were shot down all over North Vietnam. There are wrecked B-52 engines, wing sections, an US Air Force F-111 engine, a propeller from a French flown Hellcat, remnants of an F-4 jet, and much, much more. Millions of dollars of expensive military aircraft, have been reduced to debris.
 

US aircraft dominated the skies over Vietnam, and they were occasionally opposed in the air. North Vietnam had its own small air force, but since their aircraft were inferior in numbers and performance, they didn’t often challenge America’s more experienced pilots. To take down the US Air Force and US Navy jets, the North Vietnamese relied much more on ground based weapons supplied by the Soviet Union.

Positioned behind the memorial of twisted wreckage, are many of these Russian made anti-aircraft guns that the NVA used to shoot down numerous US aircraft. The grand daddy of them all is
Logo on US aircraft wreckage in Hanoi's Military History Museum
also represented: a rusty Russian made surface to air missile and launcher, (aka SAM) is still aimed at the sky. SAM’s were what American pilots feared the most. These ‘flying telephone poles’ had such range, that they were even able to take out the high flying B-52s, like the one I saw lying in Huu Tiep Lake. You would think that the Vietnamese would give some credit to their Soviet patrons, who gave them the high tech SAM missiles in the first place. But there's no mention of their appreciation here.

Alongside the missile, other smaller anti-craft guns are on display, along with plaques that boast of how many aircraft each armament shot down. One gun alone lists the dubious claim that it shot down a total of 124 US aircraft. Although that figure isn’t likely to be true for a single weapon, American air losses during the long war in Vietnam were indeed costly. Between 1964 – 1973, more than 3,000 jets and planes were lost over Vietnam. An additional 4,000 helicopters were also
B-52 wreckage and disarmed bombs in a Hanoi park
destroyed. I wonder how many lives, and how billions of dollars, were destroyed this way.

In Vietnam, the USA had the world’s best fighter jets, bombers and helicopters, but even these were not able to bring about victory through air power. 


To be sure, America could have easily destroyed all of Hanoi with just one well placed nuclear bomb, but the war in Vietnam was a limited war. Using nuclear weapons would have caused not only massive civilian casualties, but it may have brought retaliation by the Soviets, or the Chinese. Then this limited war in Southeast Asia could have easily escalated into World War III.

The American people learned in Vietnam, that being a superpower does have its limits. 

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