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Bombing the Dragons Jaw: The Incredible Story of the Thanh Hoa Bridge

Here’s What You Need to Know: In all, some 873 air sorties were flown against the bridge, and it was hit by hundreds of bombs and missiles before being finally destroyed.

Throughout the history of warfare, there have been targets that have been notably reluctant to fall. One such highly resistant target was the Thanh Hoa Railroad and Highway Bridge spanning the Song Ma River three miles northeast of Thanh Hoa, the capital of Annam Province in North Vietnam. The Vietnamese gave it the nickname Ham Rong, or “Dragon’s Jaw,” since the terrain in the immediate area is flat with the exception of a jagged ridge to the west known as Rong Mountain and a small hill to the east known as Ngoc (Jade) Hill. Together, the two promontories figuratively form the jawbones of a dragon’s mouth on either side of the river.

Between 1965 and 1972, during the Vietnam War, the bridge was the objective of many unsuccessful attacks by United States Air Force and Navy aircraft. Designed by Nguyen Dinh Doan and originally built by the French during the colonial era in Vietnam, the Thanh Hoa Bridge was destroyed in 1945 by Viet Minh guerrillas when they ran two TNT-laden locomotives together at the midpoint of the bridge. The North Vietnamese began to rebuild the bridge in 1957. It was completed in 1964 with a span of 540 feet, a width of 56 feet, and a height of 50 feet. Ho Chi Minh himself attended the dedication.

The rebuilt bridge had two steel truss spans that rested in the center on a gigantic reinforced concrete pier 16 feet in diameter, with concrete abutments at each end. Hills on both sides of the river provided solid bracing for the structure. Between 1965 and 1972, eight concrete piers were added near each end to give the bridge additional resistance to bomb damage. A one-meter-gage railway track ran down the 12-foot-wide center of the bridge, which had 22-foot-wide concrete highways on either side. The structure would prove to be one of the most challenging targets for American airpower during the war.

The First Day of Bombing

The first and largest strike against the bridge was led on April 3, 1965, by Lt. Col. James Robinson “Robbie” Risner. It comprised 79 aircraft, including 46 F-105 Thunderchiefs armed with AGM-12 Bullpup air-to-ground missiles as the main strike force, 21 F-100 Super Sabres serving as fighter escorts, two RF-101 Voodoos for reconnaissance, and 10 KC-130 tanker aircraft. The Bullpup was roll-stabilized and visually guided by the pilot or weapons operator using a tracer flare on the rear of the missile to track the weapon in flight while using a control joystick to steer it toward the target using radio signals. It was initially powered by a solid-fuel rocket motor and carried a 250-pound warhead.

Shortly after noon on the day of the strike, aircraft of Rolling Thunder Mission 9-Alpha climbed into the Southeast Asia skies on their approach to the Thanh Hoa Bridge. The sun glinting through the haze made the target difficult to acquire, but Risner led the way “down the chute,” and soon missiles began exploding on the target. Since only one Bullpup could be fired at a time, each pilot had to make two firing passes. On Risner’s second pass, his aircraft was hit just as his Bullpup struck the bridge. With blinding smoke in his cockpit and his aircraft leaking fuel like a sieve, Risner somehow coaxed his damaged aircraft back to Da Nang.

Captain Bill Meyerholt was in the third flight. As he pushed his Thunderchief into a dive and fired a Bullpup, the missile streaked toward the bridge. When the smoke cleared, Meyerholt was shocked to see no visible damage to the bridge. The Bullpups had merely charred the heavy steel-and-concrete structure. The remaining missile attacks confirmed that firing Bullpups at the Dragon was about as effective as shooting BBs at a battleship.

Pilots in the last flight of the day, led by Captain Carlyle S. “Smitty” Harris, adjusted their aim points to allow for the crosswind and scored several hits on the roadway and superstructure. Harris tried to assess bomb damage but could not do so because of smoke obscuring the target. The smoke would be an ominous warning of things to come.

One pilot destined to become a prisoner of the North Vietnamese was Lt. Cmdr. Raymond A. Vohden, who was passing just north of the bridge when his Douglas A-4C Skyhawk was shot down. Vohden was captured and held in various POW camps in and near Hanoi until his release in February 1973. An RF-101C piloted by Captain Herschel S. Morgan was hit and went down some 75 miles southwest of the target area, seriously injuring Morgan, who was also captured and held around Hanoi until his release the same month as Vohden.

When the smoke finally cleared, observer aircraft found the bridge still standing. Thirty-two Bullpups and 120 750-pound bombs had been aimed at the bridge. Numerous hits had charred every part of the structure, yet it showed no sign of going down. Another strike was ordered for the next day.

MiGs on the Second Flight

On the second day of bombing, Harris was flying under call sign “Steel 3.” He took the lead and oriented himself for his run on a 300-degree heading. He reported that his bombs had hit the target on the eastern end of the bridge. Steel 3 caught fire as soon as he left the target. Radio contact was garbled, and other members of the flight watched helplessly as Harris’s aircraft, emitting a 20-foot-long trail of flame, headed due west of the target. Flight members had him in sight until the fire died out, but no one observed a parachute or saw the aircraft impact the ground. Harris’s aircraft had been hit by a MiG whose pilot later recounted the incident in the Vietnam Courier on April 15, 1965. It was not until much later that the Air Force would learn that Harris had been captured and held prisoner for eight years before being released in 1973. Fellow POWs credited Harris with introducing the “tap code” that enabled them to communicate with each other inside their prison cells.

MiGs had been seen on previous missions, but this was the first time in the war that the Russian-made planes had attacked American aircraft. “Zinc 2,” a Republic F-105D flown by Captain James A. Magnusson, had its flight bounced by MiG 17s. As Magnusson was breaking to shake a MiG on his tail, Zinc 2 was hit and he radioed that he was heading for the Gulf of Tonkin if he could maintain control of his aircraft. Magnusson’s aircraft finally ditched over the gulf near the island of Hon Me, and he was not seen or heard from again. He too was listed MIA.

One of the pilots’ guardian angels was Captain Walter F. Draeger, whose Douglas A-1H Skyraider was also shot down over the Gulf of Tonkin just northeast of the Dragon that day. Draeger was providing air cover for downed American pilots and rescue helicopters when he was struck by enemy ground fire. His aircraft was seen to crash in flames, but no parachute was observed. Draeger was listed as MIA. For his actions that day, Draeger earned the Air Force Cross. The remaining aircraft returned to their bases, discouraged. Although over 300 bombs had scored hits on the second strike, the bridge still stood.

19 Pilots Shot Down

From April to September 1965, 19 more American pilots were shot down in the general vicinity of the Dragon’s Jaw, including many who were captured and later released: Howie Rutledge, Gerald Coffee, Paul Galanti, Jeremiah Denton, Bill Tschudy, and James Stockdale. On September 16, 1965, Risner’s F-105D was shot down a few miles north of the bridge. As he landed, Risner injured his knee, which contributed to his ultimate capture. Risner was held in Hanoi until his release in 1973, spending 41/2 years in solitary confinement.

The Bullpup missile had too small a warhead to inflict any damage on the bridge. In addition to the lack of punch, the Bullpup also exposed the pilot to extreme danger as this was not a “fire and forget” weapon. The Bullpup was roll-stabilized and visually guided by the pilot or weapons operator using a flare on the back of the missile to track the weapon in flight while using a control joystick to steer it toward the target using radio signals. Therefore, the pilot had to stay on course as the Bullpup was steered to its target, exposing him to enemy fire. Some F-105s carried 750-pound bombs, but these were less precise, and when they did hit the bridge, they caused only minor damage. Some bombs fell on nearby roads, causing traffic to be stopped for a few hours. This was the only material result of the raid, at the cost of one F-100 and one RF-101 being shot down.

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