Friday, August 10, 2018

Defending The Skies Of North Vietnam -- 1965 - 1975

On March 2, 1965, 250 U.S. and South Vietnamese aircraft struck two enemy targets near the town of Dong Hoi, just north of the Demilitarized Zone. Operation Rolling Thunder had begun. The U.S. Air Force attacked one of the targets, Xom Bang Ammunition Depot, with 160 aircraft. Five were shot down; four others were damaged. The South Vietnamese air force planes struck the more lightly defended Quang Khe Naval Base with 90 planes. Two were damaged. President Lyndon B. Johnson had ordered the U.S. military on Feb. 24, 1965, to launch the attacks even though assessments by the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and State Department’s Intelligence Bureau indicated that bombing alone would not break Hanoi’s will. Unfortunately for Johnson and his advisers, the intelligence analysis turned out to be correct.

North Vietnamese Communist Party leader Le Duan, who consolidated his hold on power in December 1963 by pushing aside Ho Chi Minh and other party officials, was committed to unifying Vietnam rapidly. He placed the military on a wartime footing in July 1964 and sought Chinese and Soviet military assistance. 

Le Duan received virtually everything he requested. Some aid had already arrived in early 1964. America’s first airstrikes took place on Aug. 5, 1964, as the Johnson administration retaliated for an August 2 torpedo boat attack on a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. Within days, North Vietnam’s allies began sending advisers, technicians and military equipment to fill Hanoi’s air defense requirement.

The Soviet Union and China had previously established training programs for Vietnamese pilots. The initial group of pilots went to the Soviet Union for instruction in 1956, the year the North Vietnamese air force was founded. Moscow’s advanced jet aircraft training program graduated its first Vietnamese pilots in December 1963. Two months earlier Hanoi had combined the North Vietnamese Air Force and the Air Defense Force under one command that oversaw ground-based anti-aircraft

The Soviet Union delivered 36 MiG-17s in February 1964, and that month North Vietnam formed its first fighter unit, the 921st Sao Dao (Red Star) Fighter Regiment. China provided four Shenyang F-4s (a version of the Soviet MiG-15) and 36 F-5s (MiG-17s) in late August. Airfields capable of handling jets increased from two in 1958 to 33 by December 1964 and to 44 by June 1965.

In September 1964 North Vietnam and China set up a joint air warning system that enabled Hanoi to track air traffic over the Gulf of Tonkin and Laos. By December the North had more than doubled its anti-aircraft batteries and radars. Hanoi brought its air defense systems together in an integrated network in January 1965 and set up the operation’s headquarters at Bac Mai Airfield, where the air force also had its headquarters. 

One section at the air defense headquarters, the Air Situation Center, processed air defense data. Another section, the Weapons Control Staff, coordinated the response to approaching enemy aircraft and decided which air defense center would take on the attackers. Some 2,600 Soviet air defense personnel, both civilian and military, had arrived undetected by mid-February 1965.

Moscow delivered radar-guided SA-2 surface-to-air missiles to North Vietnam in March, surprising American military leaders, including Rolling Thunder commanders, the Air Force’s 2nd Air Division and the Navy’s aircraft carrier Task Force 77. Ten SAM training centers had been completed by the end of March or early April.

Also in early April, U.S. military officials began making formal requests to strike the SAM locations, but Defense Secretary Robert McNamara rejected those requests. He did not believe the North Vietnamese had the expertise to use the SAMs and figured Soviet technicians in Vietnam would not risk starting a war with the United States by attacking American aircraft. SAM sites with missiles in place became fully operational in July.

The first SAM strike came on July 24, 1965, when an SA-2 downed an Air Force F-4C Phantom II. One crewman was killed, and the other was captured. McNamara then deployed aircraft equipped with radar-jamming equipment to Indochina and agreed to consider retaliatory strikes on a case-by-case basis against the specific SAM sites that attacked U.S. forces. Hanoi, forewarned of the first approved U.S. counterstrikes through its intelligence operations, deployed 120 anti-aircraft guns around each targeted site and moved the SAM batteries to new locations. The guns downed six American aircraft and severely damaged nearly a dozen more.

Three North Vietnamese SAM regiments were active by August 1965, but Soviet domination of the SAM command-and-control systems created potential coordination problems because language differences could trigger launches against friendly aircraft. Hanoi’s air defense headquarters reduced that risk by adding a third section, a bilingual group that translated air surveillance system reports and verified the SAMs’ target identities. The coordination problems gradually decreased as Soviet-trained Vietnamese personnel took over the critical operational positions in the SAM units.

By September 1965 American aviators faced a constantly improving North Vietnamese air defense system. Because most American planes lacked radar warning devices and electronic countermeasures (such as radar-jamming equipment), the pilots had to rely on visually sighting missile launches in time for a “SAM-break” maneuver—a tight turn and dive—to evade the missile. But that meant ditching their bombs and descending into anti-aircraft gunnery range. There they faced increasingly intense fire, starting with heavy guns harassing the incoming flights as they passed, followed by medium and light weapons concentrating on the lead aircraft as the flight got closer to the target. Small-caliber guns engaged the planes as they reached their bomb-release point.

America’s flyers also had to contend with North Vietnam’s fighter pilots who—although outnumbered and technologically handicapped—tried to intercept isolated U.S. aircraft leaving the target area or ambush inbound planes encumbered with bombs. Other North Vietnamese aircraft protected the interceptors from American fighter escorts. As with SAM engagements, the attacked inbound U.S. aircraft ditched their bombs to survive. If errant bombs hit civilians, the tragedy became grist for Hanoi’s propaganda mill.

McNamara’s emphasis on maximizing sorties and bomb tonnage aided Hanoi’s air defense. To achieve more sorties per day, pilots had to fly direct routes to their targets, reducing the distance and flight time. They also needed to fly on fixed schedules with standardized bomb and fuel loads to create an assembly-line efficiency that generated more takeoffs from airfields and launches from carrier decks. But those requirements also precluded the use of deceptive techniques, such as aerial feints, since these increased flight time and fuel consumption, reducing the possible number of sorties and bombings. The rigid, predictable sortie rates and bomb tonnage, a pattern for most of 1964-66, were a gift to Hanoi’s air defenders.

North Vietnam’s knowledge of U.S. air operations went far beyond the predictability of the sortie schedules. From 1965 to 1968 Hanoi consistently acquired 24 to 48 hours’ notice of the daily target list and strike times, enabling its forces to position air defenses around the most critical targets and transit routes. Speculation about the source of that inside information continues to this day, but U.S. commanders in Southeast Asia took aggressive steps to shut off security leaks.

Hanoi also got warnings from Soviet ships monitoring U.S. carriers in the South China Sea. Other alerts came from operatives and listening posts in Laos and near U.S. bases in Thailand and South Vietnam. Those warnings often didn’t reach air defense stations until minutes before the planes appeared on their radarscopes, but combined with the intelligence from other sources, they helped the North Vietnamese identify, track and counter the airstrikes. Ground-control intercept operators often knew the Americans’ weapons and fuel status and shared that information with their pilots.

That advantage was particularly telling from 1965 to mid-1967 when American aircraft were flying into North Vietnamese air space without sufficient aerial surveillance or adequate signals intelligence support. U.S. forces in the Rolling Thunder campaign had only limited radar coverage of North Vietnam’s air space for much of the operation’s first year. They relied primarily on a radar facility atop Monkey Mountain near Da Nang, radar on Navy ships and “airborne early warning” radar on E-1 Tracer planes based on aircraft carriers.

Hanoi's advantages played a critical role in the early air-to-air engagements. On April 3, 1965, a flight of four MiG-17s from the 921st Fighter Regiment surprised Navy F-8 Crusaders attacking the Tao Bridge and severely damaged one fighter. The next day the North Vietnamese shot down two of four F-105 Thunderchiefs but lost one of their own to the F-100 Super Sabre fighter escorts. EC-121 aircraft, with early warning radar, were deployed to Indochina one month later.

Hanoi learned that the U.S. military had divided North Vietnam into six geographic target zones, called “route packages,” within weeks of the plan’s implementation on Nov. 10, 1965. That same month the Soviet Union delivered MiG-21s, giving the North Vietnamese Air Force its first truly modern fighter-interceptor.

But by the time the pilots were fully qualified on the Soviet jets, Hanoi had begun to lose its intelligence advantage. The U.S. Air Force initiated a drone reconnaissance program in February 1966, and the drones uncovered the SAM operating parameters and tactics. Other improvements in information collection came from covert radar and listening stations in Laos, along with new radars and signals-intelligence equipment on America’s airborne early warning planes.

American aviators also began to employ deception techniques after Air Force Colonel Robin Olds’ Operation Bolo downed five MiG-21s on Jan. 2, 1967. His success inspired commanders to change flight routes and formations to hide the number and types of aircraft and cause confusion about potential targets. Sometimes fighters armed for air-to-air combat flew along routes traditionally used by bombers. All of those changes, combined with other new measures and equipment, paid off in the summer of 1967, when U.S. fighters downed 40 percent of North Vietnam’s fighters, mostly MiG-17s.

The North Vietnamese quickly changed their tactics and became adept at close-in combat maneuvering—something the U.S. had dropped from most of its pilot training programs in the early ’60s. Between October 1967 and May 1968 North Vietnamese MiG-21s downed 16 U.S. aircraft and lost only one. MiG-21s inflicted 22 percent of all U.S. aircraft losses in 1968.

Those North Vietnamese successes spurred the United States to re-institute air combat training and establish fighter schools, such as the Navy’s “Top Gun,” to ensure no opponent would enjoy an advantage in aerial combat.

When the United States brought in new technology, North Vietnam often identified countermeasures and tactics within days of the Americans’ “first use.” For example, SAM units foiled American jamming equipment and new U.S. anti-radiation missiles—which locked on to the radiation emitted by radars at SA-2 sites—by putting the SAM guidance radars in standby mode until the final phases of an engagement. As the Americans developed systems to detect the radars on standby, Hanoi received modifications from Moscow that enabled SAM units to guide the missiles visually to the target. The SAM sites also instituted “mass missile launches” to overwhelm jamming efforts and employed “radar shifting” tactics—connecting multiple radars to a control unit and varying the ones used during an engagement.

But the North Vietnamese never developed successful tactics to counter the Air Force’s SR-71 Blackbird, a supersonic spy plane with radar-absorptive paint that gave it “stealth” characteristics. No North Vietnamese fighters could reach its 100,000-foot operational altitude, and no SAM ever came within 2 miles of damaging one. From its first flight over North Vietnam on March 21, 1968, to its last in 1975, the SR-71’s capabilities and well-planned missions enabled it to operate over North Vietnam with virtual impunity.

Despite the Air Defense Force’s perceived success, Le Duan faced political problems in 1968. Hanoi’s archives indicate that he faced almost open rebellion in the party ranks after that year’s horrendous losses during the Communists’ Tet Offensive, which began January 31 and continued into March. To gain time to reassert his power and rebuild his forces, Le Duan agreed to enter peace talks if the United States ended the Rolling Thunder bombings, which Johnson did on Nov. 2, 1968. Le Duan, however, ordered his negotiators to sign nothing, just keep the talks going. He used the 13-month hiatus in U.S. airstrikes to purge the party’s “dissidents,” repair and enlarge the country’s damaged infrastructure, expand the air force and reinforce the army, particularly the troops going to the South.

Hanoi’s air defense commanders also reorganized. They reduced the number of deployed radars by a third to build a reserve of functioning equipment that could become immediate replacements for losses. They also decommissioned all the heavy anti-aircraft weapons, which had proved ineffective against high-performance aircraft. Some went to coastal defense units, but most were put in storage and their personnel transferred to the ground forces.

Over a third of the light and small-caliber anti-aircraft guns went south to protect ground units against air and helicopter strikes. These moves reduced Hanoi’s home anti-aircraft artillery force from as many as 8,000 weapons of all sizes in 1966 to 862 23-57mm weapons by 1971. However, the North Vietnamese employed deception units to make it appear that three times that number remained in play. More than 5,000 small-caliber weapons, many operated by women and students, were concentrated around the most critical targets.

Upon taking office in January 1969, President Richard Nixon limited air operations over the North to aerial reconnaissance, but he authorized counterstrikes against North Vietnamese forces that fired on the reconnaissance aircraft, delegating regional commanders discretionary authority to strike North Vietnam’s air bases. That forced Hanoi to move fighters to other airfields after landing and replace them with dummy aircraft or planes that were unsalvageable. Civilian volunteers and work crews, including Chinese military engineers, quickly put the bombed airfields back in use, but aircraft maintenance and operational readiness suffered.

Nixon launched Operation Linebacker on May 9, 1972, in retaliation for Hanoi’s Easter Offensive that began on March 30. Linebacker employed B-52 Stratofortress bombers with powerful support that included new tactics, electronic warfare systems and precision-guided bombs, as well as real-time intelligence and surveillance. After some initial successes against the Linebacker strikes, North Vietnam’s air defense fortunes rapidly declined.

Hoping to get another bombing halt, Hanoi invited “pacifists” and sympathizers from around the world to witness the American bombers’ “criminal destruction.” Progress at the Paris peace talks in October 1972 led Nixon to end Linebacker I on October 23. But the North Vietnamese left the negotiating table when talks broke down in December, and Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker II, which began on Dec. 18, 1972.

Linebacker II, America’s largest bombing campaign between World War II and Operation Desert Storm in 1991, included massive B-52 strikes on critical targets in and around Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor. Hanoi again invited “pacifists” to witness America’s inhumane bombing, but Nixon didn’t relent until Hanoi returned to the Paris peace talks and accepted his terms.

The Paris Peace Accords were signed on Jan. 27, 1973. But Le Duan had no intention of honoring the agreement, which removed the bulk of U.S. troops from South Vietnam and enabled him to reconstitute his devastated forces in the South in preparation for the final offensive that captured Saigon on April 30, 1975.

By war’s end North Vietnam had built the world’s densest integrated air defense system, and the American response can still be seen in integrated air campaign procedures, comprehensive battle space management procedures, precision-targeted weapons fired from outside the range of anti-aircraft artillery, paint schemes that make U.S. planes more difficult to spot, tactics to suppress air defenses and intense air-combat training.

Hanoi’s air defenders gained their greatest successes largely because of shortcomings in American planning, policies and operations early in the war. Despite the menace of SAMs and North Vietnamese fighter aces, anti-aircraft guns remained the primary threat to American planes during Rolling Thunder. The later introduction of precision bombing all but eliminated that threat during the Linebacker operations.
The North Vietnamese air defenses’ real success was political, not military. Although the air defense network never threatened American air superiority, it prevented American air power from forcing Hanoi to abandon its plans for conquering South Vietnam. It also weakened America’s political will by reducing the bombing campaign’s accuracy and effectiveness while inflicting heavier losses than Americans expected.

North Vietnam’s Air Defense Force was but one component of a comprehensive war strategy directed at a single objective—unifying Vietnam under Hanoi’s rule. As long as Le Duan enjoyed Chinese and Soviet support, only invasion, his army’s total destruction or his removal from power would force him to abandon unification. Hanoi modified military and diplomatic tactics in response to American actions and technology, but the strategic objective remained unchanged. Negotiations were offered only to gain time to prepare for the next step toward conquering South Vietnam.

If Johnson had ramped up his Rolling Thunder operation before or during the 1968 Tet Offensive and bombed North Vietnam with the force of Linebacker II, the combination of an effective bombing campaign and devastating troop losses might have forced Le Duan to sign a peace agreement earlier. Le Duan likely would have ignored that agreement too; however, it seems unlikely that the Johnson administration and Saigon regime would have completed the economic and political reforms needed to withstand a Communist assault.

Thus, the ultimate outcome of the war would probably have been the same as it was in 1975. But America’s large-scale involvement would have ended much sooner, saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

Historians may debate whether the United States should have resumed the bombing or continued supporting Saigon when North Vietnam breached the 1973 peace agreement, but renewed bombing was unlikely because America had lost its will to continue the war. South Vietnam’s political shortcomings and its long, almost indefensible border also would have complicated any attempts at a sustained defense. What’s more, another U.S. intervention risked a negative reaction in the international community and a response from China and Russia that could have harmed diplomatic initiatives to improve relations with those countries.

North Vietnam’s leaders entered the war with a strategy, a thorough knowledge of their opponent, a complete understanding of the resources required to achieve their objective and a willingness to do whatever it took to win. America’s most senior leaders understood neither their enemy nor the impact of their operational restrictions on U.S. forces.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The 100th Heavy Bomb Group -- "The Bloody 100th"

Only one World War II U.S. Army Air Forces tail flash survives in the present-day U.S. Air Force: the Square D. Seventy-five years ago, on June 25, 1943, the 100th Bombardment Group (Heavy) first wore that emblem into battle.

The 100th was constituted as a heavy bomber group inside the Eighth Air Force, which, at peak strength on D-Day, June 6, 1944, fielded 40 groups of Boeing B-17s and Consolidated B-24s. The 100th’s tail marking of a bold “D” on a square background was rendered on the vertical stabilizers of its B-17s, whose big, parabolic-shaped tail fins made for an effective if utilitarian canvas. In 2018 the Square D still adorns a Boeing aircraft—the KC-135R—though the 100th is now an aerial refueling wing. Even still, the Square D carries with it the heroic, bloody history of the 100th Bomb Group.

In November 1942, Colonel Darr Alkire was the first commander assigned to head up the 100th. By December, several hundred men formed the initial flying cadre of the group’s four bomb squadrons—the 349th, 350th, 351st and 418th—along with the requisite administrative, engineering and ground support units. While each unit was actively training, the Army Air Forces identified leaders who could forge the ungainly mass of civilians into airmen.

Among the commanders serving under Colonel Alkire were two officers who became synonymous with the unit’s early dashing, devil-may-care notoriety. John “Bucky” Egan was originally the 100th operations officer, and Gale “Bucky” Cleven was the initial commander of the 350th Bomb Squad­ron. Just two of the several Bucks or Buckys who would serve with the 100th, Egan and Cleven were excellent pilots and charismatic men. More than a few of the 100th’s young airmen came to view the two Buckys as inspirational figures, modeling their own behavior on that of these older leaders.

On the way to operational readiness, the group trained in Walla Walla, Wash., and, by the end of November, in Wendover, Utah. The third phase of training occurred in Sioux City, Iowa, where the crews focused on formation flying and navigation. In February 1943, the fliers were dispersed throughout the western United States and relegated to the role of instructors for new units. Ground personnel were assigned to the air base at Kearny, Neb. While in limbo, the group’s airmen regressed in their march toward combat readiness.

In April the lack of preparation and three months spent apart manifested in a training mission gone badly awry. Of 21 aircraft scheduled to make the 1,300-mile run between Kearney and Hamilton Field in California, three landed in Las Vegas (including Alkire’s ship) and one flew the opposite direction to Tennessee. The whole group, sans Alkire, who lost this command over the debacle (though he would later lead a B-24 unit), was sent back to Wendover for a much-needed refresher. 

One of the more intriguing outcomes of continuing to keep the 100th Stateside for more training was the decision to replace all the group’s copilots with a recently graduated class of multi­engine pilots from Moody Field in Valdosta, Ga. In a recent interview, a member of that class, John “Lucky” Luckadoo, said that breaking up crews who had worked for months to establish camaraderie and trust had a profoundly negative impact on morale. The 96-year-old Luckadoo called the decision “ludicrous” because it forced him and his classmates, who were sitting in the right seat of a B-17 for the first time, to undergo a difficult “learn-on-the-job” experience. Luckadoo recalled that he had accrued less than 20 hours of B-17 flight time prior to making the transatlantic crossing to Britain.

The 100th Bomb Group arrived in England in early June 1943, just one of the dozens of heavy bomber groups comprising the Eighth Air Force’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd air divisions. After a brief stay at an incomplete airbase in Podington, the 100th set up shop at Thorpe Abbotts airfield in East Anglia. The group’s airmen began flying over England and the Channel to get the lay of the land as they prepared for their first mission over enemy territory.

That first mission came on the morning of June 25, 1943, when 30 B-17s took off from Thorpe Abbotts for a raid on the submarine pens at Bremen, Germany. By the end of the day, the group had lost three Flying Fortresses and 30 crewmen, including pilot Oran Petrich and his crew, one of the first assigned to the 100th. The group acquired its reputation as a hard-luck unit very early in its operational history, and it would go on to become known as the “Bloody 100th,” a nickname laden with the weight of sacrifice. 

On August 17, less than two months after its initial foray over enemy soil, the 100th flew to Regensburg for the first time. The raid was in the men’s self-interest, for it targeted a factory where Messerschmitt Me-109s—fighters that would torment them in the months to come—were assembled. It was a complex mission, requiring the coordination of two separate masses of Eighth Air Force bombers (the second was headed to Schweinfurt and its ball-bearing works) and Republic P-47 escorts. Ultimately it required the Regensburg-bound bombers to shuttle to North Africa, with a planned return to England at a later date. In the end, the 100th, located at the tail end of a 15-mile bomber stream, was left unescorted when one of the P-47 units never appeared.

As they approached Regensburg, “what seemed to be the whole German Air Force came up and began to riddle our whole task force,” wrote 418th Bomb Squadron navigator Harry H. Crosby in A Wing and a Prayer. “As other planes were hit, we had to fly through their debris. I instinctively ducked as we almost hit an escape hatch from a plane ahead. When a plane blew up, we saw their parts all over the sky. We smashed into some of the pieces. One plane hit a body which tumbled out of a plane ahead.”

Of the 24 American bombers lost that day over Regensburg, more than a third bore the 100th’s Square D on their tails. The 100th put up 220 fliers in 22 B-17s, and 90 of those men and nine For­tresses didn’t make the return trip to Thorpe Abbotts.

The group’s reputation as a hard-luck unit was sealed in the second week of October 1943, during missions to Bremen and Munster. On October 8, Lucky Luckadoo put his nickname to the test over Bremen. That day, he was flying in a combat formation position with the darkly humorous nickname of “Purple Heart corner,” the low plane in the low group.

Luckadoo noted that the Luftwaffe favored head-on attacks during those first months of combat flying by the 100th. The German fighters would “get out in front of our formation—in line abreast of 25 or 30 Focke-Wulfs or Messer­schmitts—and spray the formation with cannon fire, rockets and .30-caliber machine guns.” As a result, he said, “We suffered tremendous fatalities.” Anti-aircraft artillery also took a toll, and Crosby noted that as they approached Bremen, the group encountered “Flak, a whole, mean sky full of it.” Luckadoo and his crewmates returned to Thorpe Abbots that day, but seven B-17s were lost and 72 aircrew died on the Bremen mission.

Crosby’s shot-up B-17 barely made it back on three engines to crash-land at an abandoned RAF airfield. After catching a ride in a lorry to Thorpe Abbotts, Crosby and his fellow crewmen, who were presumed lost, found their beds stripped and personal possessions removed. “On the bare cot were two clean sheets and two pillowcases, two blankets, one pillow, all neatly folded,” he wrote. “Ready for the next crew.”

Two days later, 21 Forts departed Thorpe Abbotts for Munster, but just 13 reached the target. The losses on the Munster mission were devastating: 12 aircraft and 121 men. A single B-17, Rosie’s Riveters, piloted by Lieutenant Robert Rosenthal, bombed the target and returned to Thorpe Abbotts that day.

The perceived impact of the losses was compounded by the attrition in squadron leadership: 350th Bomb Squadron commander Major Bucky Cleven was shot down over Bremen, and Major Bucky Egan, CO of the 418th Squadron, was downed over Munster on October 10 while trying to exact revenge for his best friend Cleven. The two commanders found themselves at the same POW camp. Legend has it that when Egan arrived, Cleven said, “What the hell took you so long?” The loss of the two Buckys, seen by the rank and file as exemplars of everything that a flier should be, was crushing. 

Several days after these disastrous missions, the 100th was able to muster only eight aircraft for a raid that nearly broke the back of the Eighth Air Force. October 14, 1943, became known as “Black Thursday.” On that autumn day, 291 B-17s assembled to make a second raid on the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt. American losses were appalling: 60 aircraft shot down, 17 written off and more than 100 others damaged. The loss of more than a quarter of the aircraft participating in the raid was clearly unsustainable, both in the eyes of VIII Bomber Command and, perhaps more important, the American people.

In a twist of fate that served to highlight the randomness inherent in warfare, the 100th Bomb Group emerged comparatively unscathed that dreadful day. All eight B-17s that it contributed to the mission returned to Thorpe Abbots.

The October 1943 missions wound up being among the last bombing raids deep into German airspace that the Eighth Air Force flew without end-to-end fighter escort. Though the bombers bristled with .50-caliber machine guns (ultimately 13 in the B-17G, with its added chin turret to counter frontal attacks) and adhered rigorously to combat box formation flying to provide mutually supportive defensive fire, it was obvious that the B-17s in the European theater were vulnerable to Luftwaffe hunters. In the end, the primary tool for redressing the imbalance of power between the hunters and the hunted was to import a newer, more capable long-range fighter, the North American P-51 Mustang.

Though the fuel burn of aircraft is typically measured in gallons per hour, it’s also instructive to think in the traditional earthbound measure of miles per gallon. The P-51 was a pilot’s dream in terms of speed and maneuverability, but its real superiority was that it could eke out twice as many miles from a gallon of 100-octane avgas as could a P-47. With the Mustang, Army Air Forces planners finally had a fighter that could stay with the bomb groups all the way to Berlin and back. 

Commander of the Luftwaffe Hermann Göring had once pompously bragged that Allied bombers would never be seen in the skies over Germany. By March 4, 1944, Allied bombers weren’t just flying over Germany, they flew all the way to Berlin. On that date, the 100th and their mates in the 95th Bomb Group became the first fliers to successfully bomb the German capital. For its efforts, the 100th was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation. 

The ability to provide fighter escorts end-to-end on bombing missions had a profound effect on bomber losses suffered over Germany. The Eighth Air Force had lost nearly 30 percent of the bombers that took part in raids during the second week of October 1943. During what became known as the “Big Week” in February 1944, Eighth Air Force bombers suffered losses of only about 2 percent. 

German flak and fighters weren’t the only dangers the heavy bomber crews faced. Flying in the foul English weather along the coast on instruments could be a formidable challenge. John Clark, a copilot in the 418th Bomb Squadron, flew the bulk of his combat missions in the depths of the wet and cold winter of 1944-45. He described instrument flying as “something you’re doing with the aircraft that was unique and important, to get this big device [bomber] through impenetrable fog or night…and bring it down to the ground.”

Danger wasn’t found only in the skies. Simply repairing and maintaining the massive B-17s could be hazardous to one’s health. At a recent gathering of 100th veterans, Master Sgt. Dewey Christo­pher, a crew chief in the 351st Bomb Squadron, recounted how a live magneto combined with the necessary act of hand-propping a Wright Cyclone R-1820 led to his being tossed 30 feet through the air by a suddenly active propeller as the engine tried to start. He landed on his head and then in the infirmary with a broken shoulder.

While the 100th lost only a single bomber on the first Berlin mission, the use of P-51s to provide air cover over Germany didn’t completely eliminate the group’s propensity for bad days. Two days later, on March 6, the 100th suffered its worst losses of the war—15 aircraft and 150 crewmen—on the second mission to Berlin. 

The 100th Bomb Group flew its final combat mission on April 20, 1945, just days before the cessation of hostilities in Europe. As the war in Europe wound down, the 100th and numerous other Eighth Air Force bomber groups celebrated the weeks leading up to V-E Day on May 8 by exchanging their 500-pound general purpose bombs for containers of food, medical supplies, clothing, candy and cigarettes. The so-called “Chowhound” missions dropped thousands of tons of supplies to the long-suffering people of the Netherlands and France. So many 100th fliers wanted to be a part of the humanitarian efforts that the oxygen systems, unnecessary at low level, were removed from the B-17s, freeing up room for as many as four extra crewmen on each plane. The missions helped the 100th put a positive spin on what had been a harrowing experience.

Over the course of 22 months of aerial combat, the aircrews of the 100th had served a deadly apprenticeship as they honed their skills and tactics. In an unemotional analysis of the raw numbers, the Bloody 100th’s wartime losses were not the worst suffered by the Eighth Air Force, though they were in the top three of losses by heavy bomber groups. The official history from the 100th Bomb Group Foundation cites 184 missing aircrew reports on 306 missions. In his memoir An Eighth Air Force Combat Diary, 100th copilot John Clark pointed out that “50% of the Group’s losses occurred in only 3% of its missions.” Like a gambler whose luck has gone cold, when the crews of the 100th had a bad day, they had a very bad day.

More than 26,000 Eighth Air Force personnel sacrificed their lives in service to the war effort. The total number killed or missing in action was slightly more than that suffered by the U.S. Marine Corps, and a little less than half the losses sustained by the entire U.S. Navy. Comparisons such as these do nothing to diminish the contributions of other mili­tary branches, but rather point out the gargantuan scale of the Eighth Air Force’s effort. The 100th Bomb Group’s portion of those losses was 785 men killed outright or missing in action and 229 aircraft destroyed or rendered unsuitable for flight. 

In 2016 the Bureau of Veterans Affairs estimated there were 620,000 World War II veterans alive, but that we lose 372 per day. The responsibility for remembering, for commemorating the service of those veterans has fallen to their children and their grandchildren. In the case of the 100th Bomb Group, a number of organizations have taken up that obligation.

The 100th Bomb Group Foundation maintains an extraordinarily useful website, and its members hold a biennial reunion. Last October, 17 group veterans, all in their 90s, attended the most recent reunion outside Washington, D.C. A smaller reunion takes place in February of each year in Palm Springs, Calif., in collaboration with the Palms Springs Aviation Museum. Other institutions connected with the 100th include the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum at the former Thorpe Abbots airfield; the American Air Museum at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, England; the Museum of Air Battle Over the Ore Mountains in Kovarska, Czech Republic; and the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force near Savannah, Ga.

More than seven decades on, the actions of the men of the Bloody 100th still loom large in our cultural memory. Each time we refresh those memories, we ensure that their hard-earned lessons are not forgotten.

Suggested Reading: 

A Wing and a Prayer: The "Bloody 100th" Bomb Group of the U.S. Eighth Air Force in Action over Europe in World War II By Harold H. Crosby 

Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany By Donald L. Miller 

The Mighty Eighth: The Air War in Europe as Told by the Men Who Fought It By Gerald Astor 

Suggested Viewing: 

World War II In HD -- The Air War


Friday, August 3, 2018

General Stoneman's Raid -- March 23rd, 1865 - April 26th, 1865 "Leaving Nothing For The Rebellion"

Six-foot-four-inch Major General George Stoneman, powerfully built, ‘with a face that showed the marks of long and hard service in the field,’ watched as 6,000 men and horses formed up just outside of Mossy Creek, Tennessee, in late March 1865. These blue-clad troopers of the Cavalry Division of the District of East Tennessee were preparing for a raid into northwest North Carolina and southwest Virginia, their orders to ‘destroy but not to fight battles.’ The war was winding down, but the punishment of Southern civilians continued apace, its aim to demoralize an already beaten people.

A wagon, 10 ambulances, four guns with their caissons, and two pack mules–one for ammunition and one for the men’s mess–rode along with the advancing Union column. The division, under the immediate command of Brig. Gen. Alvan C. Gillem, was composed of three brigades: Colonel William J. Palmer’s First Brigade, brevet Brig. Gen. Simeon B. Brown’s 2nd Brigade, and Colonel John K. Miller’s 3rd Brigade, as well as a battery of artillery under Lieutenant James M. Regan.

On March 23, the division moved east to Morristown, Tenn., where each man was issued five days’ rations, one day’s forage of corn, and four horseshoes with nails, to go along with the 63 rounds of ammunition each already carried.

The land and the people, hard pressed though they were, would have to provide most of the Federals’ supply needs. On March 24, the division moved toward Taylorsville, Tenn., where they took the turnpike leading to Watauga County, N.C. In the land ahead, a tremor of fear passed through the population. Rumors of the approaching raid caused citizens to hide their food and valuables.

As commander of the East Tennessee district, Stoneman was personally accompanying Gillem’s cavalry division to oversee its mission. Originally, Stoneman had been ordered to raid into South Carolina, but Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s rapidly moving forces had precluded that need. His revised orders from Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, were to ‘dismantle the country to obstruct Lee’s retreat’ by destroying parts of the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, the North Carolina Railroad, and the Danville-Greensboro line.

Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Union commander, believed that Stoneman’s raid, in conjunction with a simultaneous raid by Northern cavalry in Alabama, would ‘leave nothing for the rebellion to stand upon.’ While Stoneman ravaged, Brig. Gen. Davis Tillson’s 4th Division of the Department of the Cumberland would follow the cavalry column and occupy key mountain passes in northwest North Carolina to protect Stoneman’s and Gillem’s rear.

Very little in the way of Confederate defenses awaited Stoneman’s men. Confederate home guardsmen were scattered about in various places such as Watauga County, where Major Harvey Bingham had two companies, or Ashe County where a Captain Price commanded a small company. The area had been placed under the direction of General P.G.T. Beauregard, but the regular troops in his command were described as ‘insufficient to stop [Stoneman].’

Yet Stoneman would not march unopposed, as the people of Watauga County quickly demonstrated. At 10 a.m. on March 28, as the Federal forces moved on the Taylorsville turnpike toward the village of Boone, N.C., the troopers learned that a meeting of the local home guard would occur in Boone that same day. Stoneman quickly sent his aide-de-camp, with the 2nd Brigade’s 12th Kentucky Cavalry, to assault Boone and take on the home guard. The Union troopers responded, riding into Boone and down Main Street, firing at anything that moved.

Mrs. James Councill heard the firing and stepped out onto her porch, her child in her arms, to investigate when ‘a volley of balls splintered into the wood all around her.’ Home guardsmen and citizens grabbed their weapons and tried to fight back. Steel Frazier, a 15-year-old boy, was chased by six Federals to a fence, where Frazier took cover, turned, and took on his pursuers, killing two of them. He then retreated into the woods. Calvin Green tried to surrender, but when the Federals continued to shoot at him, he resumed the fight and shattered the arm of one of the invaders with his musket.

Other citizens, however, weren’t so lucky. Warren Green was shot to death as he tried to surrender; Jacob Councill, an elderly man over the conscript age, was shot down beside his plow despite his appeals for mercy. When the smoke cleared, the Federals had killed nine, captured 68, plundered several homes and burned the local jail.

With Boone neutralized, Stoneman decided to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains and move to Wilkesboro, about 50 miles away on the Yadkin River, to obtain supplies and fresh horses. He opted to separate his command to accomplish this, sending Gillem with Brown’s brigade and the artillery, followed by Miller’s brigade, on a roundabout route to Wilkesboro in order to destroy a factory near Lenoir. Stoneman would take the direct route, through Deep Gap to Wilkesboro.

At 9 p.m. on March 28, Gillem reached Patterson’s Factory, a cotton mill at the foot of the Blue Ridge, and took the workers by surprise. Finding a useful supply of corn and bacon, the men spent the night there. The next day the column moved on to Wilkesboro, leaving a rear guard to destroy the factory and any food that remained.

By late afternoon of March 29, Gillem’s men had caught up with Stoneman just outside Wilkesboro. That evening, Stoneman sent the 12th Ohio Cavalry into Wilkesboro where ‘they came in with a yell and ran completely through the place, frightening a small body of Confederates out of their wits and out of the place.’ The weather presented a problem that night, however, as ‘the very heavens opened their floodgates,’ swelling the Yadkin River so much that it became impassable. Stoneman’s men had been in the process of crossing the river in order to head north when it rose, thus becoming separated by the river. At least one man drowned during the aborted crossing.

The blue cavalry could do no more than inch a few miles east until the Yadkin became passable. Their time was spent ‘carrying off all the horses and mules, and burning the factories,’ as well as doing a little drinking, for ‘the stuff was warm in the stills.’ The Federals even seized the horse of the local citizen James Gordon, one of Jeb Stuart’s men who had been killed at Spotsylvania, and paraded it in front of the man’s house for a couple of hours.

It was not until April 2 that Stoneman was able to ford the Yadkin River and get his men moving once again. The Federals pointed their horses north, toward Virginia and the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad.

The march to the Virginia border took Stoneman’s men through Dobson to Mount Airy, N.C. While in Mount Airy, the Federals learned that an enemy supply train had passed through the town earlier that afternoon on its way across the Virginia border to Hillsville. Stoneman immediately ordered Palmer to pursue and capture the train. On the morning of April 3, the rest of the division followed Palmer’s detachment north. By 1 p.m., the Federals had reached Hillsville, where they caught up with Palmer’s empty-handed detachment. The pursuit was renewed, however, and within a few hours 17 Confederate wagons filled with forage were in the hands of Brown’s brigade.

Stoneman divided his forces once more in Hillsville in order to cover more of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad. He ordered Miller to take 500 men from his brigade, move to Wytheville, and destroy the railroad bridges and supplies there. Stoneman took the main body in the direction of Jacksonville, Va.

Shortly after dark, Stoneman’s advance met some weak resistance. The battle-hardened Federals quickly responded, however, driving the Rebel force several miles. By midnight, the situation had calmed enough for Stoneman to bivouac his men.

The next morning, April 4, Stoneman’s force moved out early and reached Jacksonville by 10 a.m. The general sent out yet another raiding party from this point, consisting of 250 picked men under the command of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry’s Major Wagner. Wagner’s objectives were the railroad bridges in and around Salem, Va. The division’s main body resumed its march that afternoon and occupied Christianburg, Va., by midnight.

The destruction now began in earnest. On April 5, Stoneman ordered Palmer and his 1st Brigade to tear up the railroad tracks east of Christianburg while Brown’s brigade dealt with the tracks to the west of the town. With the Federal forces divided into four separate detachments, over 150 miles of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad were ruined.

Miller’s detachment, however, met with trouble in its raid toward Wytheville. A Confederate force of infantry and cavalry contested his advance, charging them with a yell. Miller’s men, although they successfully repulsed the Rebels, suffered 35 casualties in the skirmish. Stoneman ordered Miller to retire to Hillsville and then to Taylorsville, Va.

Meanwhile, Wagner and his detachment were playing a significant, if unknowing, part in Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. Reaching Salem by 2 p.m. on April 5, Wagner’s men set about their work. Although they were delayed by word that Lee had evacuated his Petersburg trenches, the Federals managed to destroy the nearby railroad bridges by April 7. Wagner next moved to within six miles of Lynchburg, but reports of the presence of a strong Confederate force nearby turned them away. His mission completed, Wagner moved to rejoin the main body.

The effects of this small detachment went far beyond its actions. Lee, as he retreated west from Petersburg, had hoped to pivot south and move his army through Danville to join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina. Rapid Union moves had closed that option to Lee, leaving the west as his only avenue of escape. Reports of Wagner’s activities soon reached Lee at Amelia Court House. Lee, in the light of rumors that this was part of a Union army invading Virginia from the west, concluded that he was hemmed in and surrendered his once unconquerable force on April 9.

Stoneman set his forces in motion to return to North Carolina on April 7. The 2nd and 3rd brigades moved uneventfully south through Patrick County, Va., toward the state line. Palmer’s brigade, however, had somehow misinterpreted the route it had been directed to take and went through Martinsville, Va., by mistake. About 250 Confederate cavalrymen met Palmer in the streets of the town and killed one Union trooper while wounding five others. After a brisk skirmish, the Confederates were chased from the town.

Stoneman’s command was reunited by April 9 in Danbury, N.C. The war may have been over for Lee, but Stoneman wasn’t finished. In fact, Stoneman’s detour into Virginia had completely confused the people of North Carolina. Thinking that the dreaded raid was over, the state relaxed what little defense it had mustered. If Stoneman had proceeded to Salisbury from Wilkesboro in March, he would have found a large body of Confederates awaiting him. Instead, he feinted into Virginia before returning to North Carolina to reap a large harvest of destruction.

On April 10, Stoneman and his troopers continued their southward trek. By noon, at the village of Germantown, they stopped briefly to provide an escort for a party of ex-slaves who had fallen in behind the column. The escort took the blacks to east Tennessee, where a large number of them volunteered for active duty in the 119th U.S. Colored Troops.

Stoneman, confident that the Rebels would offer little resistance to his forces, once more divided his column. He detached Palmer’s brigade to destroy the large cloth factories around Salem and the rail lines around Greensboro. The remainder of the division moved at 4 p.m. The next day, April 11, they reached Shallow Ford, on the Yadkin River, and captured 100 muskets after chasing off a small enemy detachment.
Palmer’s brigade, meanwhile, had been greeted by the white flag. As they approached Winston and the neighboring town of Salem, their respective mayors, accompanied by two other prominent citizens, officially surrendered the two towns. The towns were, as a result, spared excessive harm. One citizen, a member of the local Moravian congregation, wrote that ‘had it not been for the noise of their horses and swords…it would have been hardly noticed that so large a number of troops were passing through our streets.’

Palmer immediately sent his men out into the countryside to work. One detachment captured and burned the Dan River Bridge, cutting a vital link in the Piedmont Railroad. A few hours earlier, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had traveled over that same bridge as he fled from Virginia to Greensboro with what remained of his government and treasury. Moving to meet Johnston to discuss future plans, Davis was told of the proximity of Federal cavalry. His narrow escape prompted him to grin, ‘A miss is as good as a mile.’ It would not be the last time Davis would dodge Palmer’s men.

Palmer’s men completed their objectives with speed and efficiency, unaware that the Confederate president was within their grasp. Lieutenant Colonel Charles M. Betts of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry routed the 3rd South Carolina Cavalry at Buffalo Creek, just two miles from Greensboro, and then burned the bridge there. Other detachments fired bridges and factories at Jamestown, Florence, and throughout the countryside. Seventeen hundred bales of cotton were burned by Federal raiders at High Point, a North Carolina railroad de pot. By April 11, Palmer concluded that his detachment had done enough damage. The brigade turned back, rejoining Stoneman at Shallow Ford, west of Winston.

The reunited division next moved south with their eyes on the grand prize of Salisbury. The town was a major military depot for the Confederacy, containing several military hospitals, an ordnance plant, and the state district headquarters for the Commissary of Subsistence. Supplies recently evacuated from Raleigh and Richmond due to Sherman’s and Grant’s advances were also in Salisbury. Most important to the men in the saddles, though, was the six-acre, 10,000-man prison in the town.

The prison, in operation since 1861, had a ‘frowning stockade, the dirty enclosure honeycombed with dens and holes in which the shivering captives. . . burrowed like animals.’ Nearby, about 12,000 graves stood as reminders of the tragedies that had occurred at the prison. The Federals didn’t know, however, that the prisoners had recently been evacuated because of the terrible conditions at the prison.

A small body of Rebels challenged the Federal advance near Mocksville, only to be dispersed by a savage Federal charge. By 8 p.m. on April 11, Stoneman bivouacked his troops in the road 12 miles north of Salisbury, within striking distance.

The division would not wait. At 12:30 a.m., with Miller’s brigade in advance, the Federals moved. The rattle and creak of caissons and the neighing of horses sounded in the night. After covering three miles, they reached the South Yadkin, a deep and rapid stream with few fords. Crossing the river unopposed, the Yankee troopers continued their trek until they reached a fork in the road. Since both roads led to Salisbury, Stoneman sent one battalion of the 12th Kentucky Cavalry by the old road and the main body by the western road. The Kentuckians were to demonstrate at Grant’s Creek, two miles outside of the town, and cross the upper bridge there if possible. The Federals were to then converge on Salisbury.

At daylight on April 12, the main column reached Grant’s Creek, chased away some pickets, and approached the bridge. Confederates emplaced across the creek announced that Salisbury would be defended, opening up with small arms and artillery fire and checking the horse soldiers. In the distance, behind the crack of the skirmishing, the chug of moving trains could be heard. The Confederates were trying to evacuate everything they could from Salisbury.

Across the creek was a hodgepodge of about 500 men and two batteries of artillery. Two hundred ‘galvanized’ Irish who had been recruited from among Federal prisoners, several junior reserves, some local citizens, and even a few artisans in the employ of the Confederate government prepared to defend the town. The regular commander of Salisbury, Brig. Gen. Bradley T. Johnson, was in Greensboro that morning, leaving Brig. Gen. W.M. Gardner in command.

At Gardner’s side that spring morning was the silver-haired Colonel John C. Pemberton, former commander of all Confederate forces at Vicksburg, Miss. Although he had resigned his generalcy in 1863 in disgrace, Pemberton, in January 1865, had taken a commission as a lieutenant colonel of artillery in defense of Richmond. Upon the evacuation of Richmond, Pemberton had fled to join his old friend Davis, but Stoneman’s troopers had cut the railroad nearby and compelled him to stop in Salisbury. Now, Gardner had an experienced man to help him hold the Federals long enough to allow Salisbury’s supplies to be evacuated. The officers had placed their men wisely and removed the flooring of the bridge to hinder a Federal crossing, but their men were quite inexperienced.

The Federal cavalry division, however, was anything but inexperienced. Rather than risk heavy casualties in a forced crossing of the creek, Stoneman ordered Gillem to send out flanking elements to turn the Rebel positions. Gillem assigned the 13th Tennessee Cavalry to cross Grant’s Creek below the enemy position while another detachment moved across the creek lower than the 13th Tennessee. Meanwhile, a detachment of the 11th Kentucky Cavalry was directed to cross the creek two and a half miles above the bridge and ‘get in the rear of Salisbury and annoy the enemy as much as possible.’ They were to also keep an eye out for the trains escaping from Salisbury.

Gillem, as soon as the parties sent across the river became engaged and the rattling fire of the 11th Kentucky Cavalry’s Spencer rifles announced that the enemy’s left had been turned, ordered the main body to cross the bridge. The Federals first laid a deadly fire across the creek so that a detachment could repair the bridge. Then Palmer’s brigade charged in handsome style, followed closely by Miller’s brigade, and hit the Rebel positions. The ensuing 20-minute fight soon had the Southerners on the run as they dropped arms, knapsacks, and all else that impeded their flight. Brown’s brigade followed in close support.

The Rebels were falling back all across the line. A Federal flanking element came across some tracks about two miles outside of town, blocked them, and was soon rewarded with the whistle of an approaching train. The Federals fired into the train and captured it, finding among the cargo the sword, uniform, papers and family of slain Confederate Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk. All along the battlefield, the Federals had captured 17 stands of colors, 18 artillery pieces and hundreds of prisoners. Pemberton later said he witnessed ‘the capture of our last piece of artillery and narrowly escaped the same fate myself.’

The horse soldiers reassembled on the other side of Grant’s Creek and continued the pursuit. As they charged into Salisbury, the battle continued in the streets. One ‘galvanized’ Confederate, although shot through the lungs, continued to fight back until he fell on the porch of Mrs. M.E. Ramsay. ‘Though the balls fell thick about him,’ Mrs. Ramsay dashed onto her porch and dragged the soldier inside. As she cared for his wounds, the man gasped, ‘I die a brave man; I fought them as long as I could stand.’ The man would actually survive and return to thank Mrs. Ramsay three weeks later.

Soon, Salisbury was secured. The Federals gladly set about the task of destroying the Rebel supplies, facilities and prison. Until midafternoon of the next day, four entire squares in Salisbury were filled with burning supplies. The conflagration was visible 15 miles away. All told, the Federals destroyed more than 10,000 stands of small arms, 10,000 rounds of artillery shot, 70,000 pounds of powder, 100,000 uniforms, 160,000 pounds of bacon, 20,000 pounds of harness leather, 10,000 pounds of saltpeter, 35,000 bushels of corn, 50,000 bushels of wheat, $100,000 worth of medical supplies, four large cotton factories, and the hated prison itself.

While in Salisbury, Stoneman sent out a detachment to capture the vital railroad bridge over the Yadkin, six miles above town. The 10-year-old bridge, the longest span of the North Carolina Railroad, was considered vital to the collapsing Confederacy. Beauregard had sent one-armed Brig. Gen. Zebulon York, a Louisianian, with about 1,000 men to defend it at all costs. These men provided the Confederacy with one of its last successes of the war.

As the Federal detachment approached the bridge, resistance erupted. The Confederates were entrenched on the high bluffs across the river, laying down heavy fire to prevent a crossing. One boy who was there watched as the Confederate guns mowed down trees and held the Federals at bay. The Union troops brought up captured artillery from Salisbury to shell the Rebels, but to no avail. By nightfall of April 12, the Federals returned to Salisbury with ‘no wild cheers [and] no war whoops of victory.’

Regardless of their failure at the Yadkin bridge, Stoneman’s troops did manage to destroy a considerable amount of railroad track around Salisbury. The damage ensured that the flight of the Rebel government would have to depend not upon trains, but rather upon horses. On the night of April 15, Jefferson Davis rode past Salisbury on his way to Charlotte–in a carriage.

Moving as quickly as ever, the cavalry division, minus Palmer’s brigade, left Salisbury at 3 p.m. on April 13, en route to Statesville. (Palmer had been sent to destroy railroad track in the direction of Charlotte.) By nightfall, the advance guard entered the town, firing as they went. Statesville was only occupied for a few hours by the Federals, long enough to destroy some government stores and the railroad depot. The office of the Iredell Express, ‘a paper which was obnoxious from the warmth with which it had advocated the cause of the Confederacy,’ was also burned.

The Federals soon left, headed west. Statesville, however, had not seen the last of the Union foe. After midnight on April 14, Palmer’s men arrived, fresh from their successful raid toward Charlotte and the South Carolina border. The brigade remained in Statesville until April 17, skirmishing with local bands of defenders.

Palmer was then ordered to watch the line of the Catawba to help prevent the Confederates from using the ridges and valleys in the area for guerrilla warfare. Moving to the town of Lincolnton, the Federals captured a large trunk of valuables, including $2,000 in gold. Upon discovering that the trunk belonged to Mrs. Zebulon Vance, wife of the governor of North Carolina, Palmer collected ‘every article and every cent’ and returned the trunk to her with his compliments.

Rumors were flying about the end of the war. On April 19, Palmer was notified by three Confederate soldiers of the armistice between Sherman and Johnston. Stoneman and the main body reached the village of Taylorsville, N.C., on April 14 and were greeted with news of Lee’s surrender. Regardless, the Federals continued moving west.

On Easter Sunday, Stoneman’s men reached the town of Lenoir. Gillem had called Lenoir a ‘rebellious little hole,’ sentencing it to receive its full share of punishment. Stoneman’s presence, however, prevented the troops from excessive mischief. The flying reports of the war’s end prompted Stoneman to judge that his mission was complete.

As a result, Stoneman left the division for east Tennessee on April 16, along with a guard detachment and about 900 Confederate prisoners. The prisoners themselves–mostly hungry and exhausted old men and young boys–had a tough trip ahead of them. Stoneman directed Gillem to take the 2nd and 3rd brigades and move toward Asheville, aiming at the mountain passes in the area. Gillem, already known to North Carolinians as’supercilious, insulting, and unfeeling’ because of the destruction he had brought, eagerly complied.

The war dragged on in the North Carolina mountains for the cavalry division, regardless of the cessation of hostilities by the major armies. Gillem had begun his trek to Asheville, only to find a bridge over the Catawba River, a couple of miles east of Morganton, blocked by Rebels. About 50 men under Maj. Gen. John McCown, not the 300 men that the Federals had estimated, were waiting at the crossing with one artillery piece. As the two Union brigades approached the river, they met with a continuous and effective fire which prevented their efforts to cross. To avoid useless casualties, Gillem sent a small detachment to outflank the Confederates and cross about two miles upriver. A battery of artillery was then dismounted and placed in a strategic position to bombard the Confederate gun.

Just as the flanking movement began to unnerve the Rebels, the Union battery opened fire. The first shot missed, but the veteran gunners readjusted. The second shot slammed home, breaking the axle on the Confederate gun’s caisson. With their enemy now bereft of artillery cover, the dismounted cavalry troops charged their enemy. It was only a few minutes until the Rebels had been ousted from their rifle pits and the road lay open. Morganton and its supplies of corn and bacon were soon in Federal hands.

As Gillem continued to pound away at them, the Confederates kept trying to scrape together what they could to defend their homes. Brigadier General James G. Martin, a Petersburg veteran, was the commander of the District of Western North Carolina. When he learned that Federal cavalry was headed for Asheville, he moved his command–one brigade and one regiment–to the land around Swannanoa Gap, placing his regiment in the gap itself to defend Asheville.

Gillem reached Swannanoa Gap on April 20 and found it to be effectually blockaded by about 500 men with four pieces of artillery. Once again, Gillem used the tactic that had successfully carried the command through the Confederate homeland. He ordered Miller to remain at the gap and ‘deceive the enemy by feints’ while he took a detachment to outflank the Rebel right. The flanking movement, due to the mountainous terrain, had to be an extremely wide one. The Federals rode hard. On April 21, Gillem reached Rutherford, 40 miles south of Swannanoa Gap. By dusk of April 22, the Federals had fought through only’slight resistance’ to cross the Blue Ridge at Howard’s Gap. Gillem now lay squarely in the Confederate rear.

The veteran General Martin had not been deceived. He ordered his lone brigade to meet the Federals at Howard’s Gap and repulse them. On April 22, however, news of Johnston’s surrender to Sherman finally filtered to the Confederates. On the basis of this news, Martin’s men refused to obey his order to stand and fight. Gillem, therefore, met only slight resistance at Howard’s Gap, when he could have faced a force equal to his own. Fortune was smiling on the Federal cause.

With Swannanoa Gap in Federal hands, Gillem continued his march on Asheville. At daylight on April 23, Gillem’s advance entered Hendersonville. There he received information that some Confederate troops and artillery had been waiting for him in the town the day before, but had retired toward Asheville. Gillem detached the 11th Kentucky Cavalry, with the 11th Michigan in support, to ‘pursue, attack, and capture’ the enemy force ‘at all hazards.’ By noon the Union detachment had found the Confederates, seizing four artillery pieces and 70 men. The Federals had become the masters of the countryside.

Early in the afternoon, the cavalry division left Hendersonville to cover the remaining distance to Asheville. After three hours of riding, the Union troops halted their horses as a few Confederates presented Gillem a flag of truce. Martin had sent word from his headquarters in Asheville that he had received official notification of the truce. As a result, a meeting between Gillem and Martin was arranged for the morning of April 24 to discuss surrender terms.

The meeting went off quietly and in order. The Confederates agreed to cease resistance, following the terms Sherman had granted to Johnston at Durham Station. Gillem accepted and informed Martin that he would return his division to Tennessee. To prevent the Federals from foraging on their return trip, Martin agreed to give them what supplies he had. On April 25, Brown’s and Miller’s brigades began the long ride back. Gillem himself turned to other duties, leaving the column to join the Tennessee legislature, which was then assembling. The war, it seemed, had finally come to an end for the Cavalry Division of the District of East Tennessee.

Mysteriously, though, the Federals returned to Asheville on April 26 and sacked it. Martin said that he ‘had heard of no worse plundering anywhere.’ General George Thomas, it turned out, had notified Stoneman that Abraham Lincoln had rejected the terms of surrender between Sherman and Johnston. Stoneman’s cavalry was to ‘do all in its power to bring Johnston to better terms.’

The raid, after this last act of destruction, came to a close. Yet fate had something else in store for these veteran Union horse soldiers. The shooting war had ended, but Jefferson Davis and the remains of the Confederate government were still in flight–and they were close to Stoneman’s troopers. On April 23, Palmer was notified of Lincoln’s assassination and ordered to pursue Jefferson Davis to ‘the ends of the earth.’ Palmer, breveted to general and placed in command of the division, began moving his brigades south. He sent one by way of Spartanburg and the others from their position near Asheville, planning to join them at the Savannah River in South Carolina.

The grand chase was on. Moving through Anderson, S.C., where the Federals captured and ‘disposed of’ 300 bottles of wine, the division crossed the Savannah River and entered Georgia. As Palmer’s men moved through the state, they barely missed capturing the fugitive president on several occasions. In consolation, the division did capture four brigades of Confederate cavalry and General Braxton Bragg and his wife (who were on their way to be paroled at the time). Finally, on May 15, Davis was captured in Irwin, Ga., by another Federal unit, the 4th Michigan Cavalry.

Stoneman and his cavalry division thus passed out of the war and into local legend. The raid had been a powerful one. A force of only 6,000 men had destroyed uncountable tons of supplies and miles of railroad tracks, shocked the local citizens with the reality of war, traveled more than 600 miles through enemy territory, and assisted in the capture of Jefferson Davis. Stoneman, one historian appraised, had utilized the methods of Sherman in a’splendidly conceived, ably executed attack upon the war potential and the civilian population of the South.’ Sherman himself, the author of the concept of total war, admiringly referred to Stoneman’s raid as ‘fatal to the hostile armies of Lee and Johnston.’ Stoneman and his men, beyond any doubt, had amply fulfilled their orders ‘to destroy.’

Suggested Reading: 

Stoneman's Raid 1865 By Chris J. Hartley 

The 1865 Stoneman's Raid Begins: Leave Nothing for the Rebellion to Stand Upon By Joshua Beau Blackwell 

The 1865 Stoneman's Raid Ends: Follow Him to the Ends of the Earth By Joshua Beau Blackwell 

Monday, July 30, 2018

Valor At Dai Do -- April 30th - May 3rd, 1968 "Those Magnificent Bastards"

The Tet Offensive launched on Jan. 30, 1968, was North Vietnam’s strategic plan to split South Vietnam, cut off critical American military bases and destroy them piecemeal. When Communist forces attacked during the traditional period of truce they caught the allied forces off guard, but the result was not what Hanoi had expected.

In Saigon, 19 sappers who assaulted the U.S. Embassy were defeated. Tan Son Nhut airbase was attacked unsuccessfully. By February 5, the fighting was effectively over in Saigon. Hue City was the largest single battle, hard fought and won back by the Marines and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam by February 25. The dead there included 119 Americans, 363 ARVN and 7,000 enemy troops, as well as some 6,000 civilians who were victims of political mass murder by the Communists. The enemy achieved no significant victory.

The northern Marine outpost at Khe Sanh near the Laotian border had been attacked on January 21 to draw attention away from regions farther south. Ringed by North Vietnamese Army forces with heavy artillery, the Marines endured a siege that lasted 77 days. The defeated NVA retreated into their sanctuaries across the Laotian and Cambodian borders. Communist losses as a result of Tet totaled some 45,000 killed and 7,000 taken prisoner by April. “They had their asses handed to them during Tet,” said General William Westmoreland in retrospect, “and we were pretty sure we had heard the last of them for a while. We were wrong.”

In I Corps in the northeast, Quang Tri Province was hotly contested. If the North Vietnamese Army could sweep down the east coast, cut off the ports and roads, capture the strategically important bridge at Dong Ha and control the Cua Viet and Bo Dieu Rivers, it would choke the American supply routes. Intelligence proved the NVA planned to close off both rivers 2½ kilometers from Dong Ha. Just 13 kilometers south of the Demilitarized Zone and west of the Gulf of Tonkin, it was perhaps the most strategically valuable real estate in South Vietnam.

That region was under the command of the 3rd Marine Division, led by Maj. Gen. Rathvon McClure Tompkins, while Colonel Milton Hull headed the division’s 3rd Marine Regiment. The primary units were the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines; 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion (operating in the South China Sea and Cua Viet River); battalion landing team (BLT) 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines (2/4); and 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (1/3). The 2nd ARVN Regiment was to the west, as part of the 1st ARVN Division assigned that Tactical Area of Responsibility.

At 0400 on April 30, North Vietnamese in the hamlet of An Lac on the Bo Dieu River fired a 57mm recoilless rifle at two Navy LCUs (landing craft, utility) that ferried supplies on the river to the Dong Ha combat base. The NVA killed a sailor and wounded several others, forcing one LCU back toward Dong Ha. Hotel Company 2/4 reported the attack to its battalion commander, Lt. Col. William Weise, and Colonel Hull was then informed. The 3rd Marine Division closed down all river traffic to assess and neutralize the threat.

BLT 2/4, which had been in the area for two months, had detected enemy movement along Highway 1 north of Dong Ha. The South Vietnamese units had already made contact with the enemy during the last few days of April. Captain James E. Livingston’s Echo Company 2/4 was at Dong Ha bridge, placed under 3rd Marine Division command, while the rest of the battalion was given the assignment of investigating the enemy presence.

Golf Company 2/4 had a patrol base in Lam Xuan West to the north and near the adjacent hamlet of Nhia Ha. Foxtrot Company had been placed in reserve with two platoons at Mai Xa Chanh and one platoon east at My Loc. Hotel Company, under Captain James L. Williams, was nestled in a southwest corner. Mai Xa Chanh also was the location of the battalion command post with Headquarters and Service Company, along with the 4.2-inch mortars from the Whiskey Company, 2nd Battalion, 12th Marines reconnaissance platoon, two tanks, an engineer platoon and an amphibious tractor (amtrac) platoon. They had 105mm howitzer support from Hotel 3/12 as well as the Ontos assault vehicle platoon reassigned to 3rd Marine Division. That left about 125 Marines per company in the battalion.

Weise, the battalion commander, was a Korean War veteran, and his operations officer, Major George “Fritz” Warren, was equally seasoned. They suspected something was afoot.

“The enemy usually fired at the riverboats and ran,” Weise said. “This time I had a feeling that the enemy would not run.” After the brief attack on the riverboat, Weise ordered all of his companies to be on the ready. Hotel 2/4 assembled in Bac Vong, a little more than a kilometer from An Lac.

Weise ordered Hotel to take Dong Huan hamlet and then hit An Lac. The reconnaissance platoon and two M-48 tanks remained in Bac Vong to support Hotel. Weise requested permission for Echo to be released from bridge duty at Dong Ha and for Foxtrot and Golf to be moved at his discretion. Two of Foxtrot Company’s platoons and all of Golf 2/4 moved out. Foxtrot troops boarded amtracs for Bac Vong. Golf would be lifted by helicopters later that day, but Echo would not be released to Weise for another 36 hours.

Hotel’s first platoon to reach Bac Vong came under fire from Dong Huan, 200 meters to the south. The Marines also received fire from Dai Do, a hamlet 800 meters to the southwest. The creek and rice paddies offered no cover and little concealment as the Marines continued the 700 meters to Dong Huan.

Weise and his command post moved to Bac Vong to improve command and control. Along with Sgt. Maj. John Malnar and the forward air controller, he boarded a heavily armed flat-bottomed boat, an LCM-6 “Monitor,” for the trip. From this vantage point, Weise could observe the early action.
As Foxtrot moved, its amtracs were to cross a small stream and move through a cemetery to Dai Do, covering Hotel’s right flank. Upon firing into the hamlet, the Marines would engage the enemy positioned there and create a diversion. Once Golf arrived, both companies would attack Dai Do.

Fixed-wing fighters bombed and napalmed Dong Huan as Marines used smoke, artillery, naval gunfire and phosphorous to mask their movement until they hit the enemy perimeter.
Hotel Company secured Dong Huan, neutralizing the bunkers, positions and spider holes in two hours. Captain Williams was wounded during the action, and 1st Lt. Alexander “Scotty” Prescott, who assumed command, placed Hotel into a hasty defense.

Weise ordered Foxtrot to attack Dai Do, but its assault was stopped by heavy fire. Golf Company was also engaged from Lam Xuan and Nhia Ha, which prevented the helicopter lift. Golf commander Captain Jay R. Vargas was wounded for the third time in three months. By the end of April 30, his men had been on the move for 36 hours straight.

Colonel Hull, a Navy Cross and Silver Star recipient, left his command post, braved enemy fire and met with Weise. He gave the battalion commander the use of Bravo Company 1/3, under 1st Lt. George C. Norris, to cross the Bo Dieu and attack An Lac. Bravo lost many men, including Norris. Foxtrot was ordered to withdraw from Dai Do and join Hotel in Dong Huan during the night. Bravo reported that the North Vietnamese had vacated An Lac.

On May 1, At 1040 Golf attacked Dai Do after a two-hour shelling and a bomb run by two A-4s. Hotel and Navy Hotel, joined by Bravo, engaged the NVA. craft provided supporting fire. Golf cleared bunkers and swept through the hamlet but suffered heavy casualties, and Vargas was hit again. Weise ordered Golf to fall back and take a defensive position. Vargas called in fire, and 60mm mortars responded, bolstered by naval gunfire. Foxtrot was soon pinned down trying to reach Golf (isolated 500 meters away), and Hotel was also beaten down.

Also on May 1, Livingston’s Echo Company was released back to Weise’s command.

“Our orders were to hump as rapidly as possible toward An Lac,” Livingston said. “My men had been surprised when, earlier, the trucks were unloaded with food, including steaks, soft drinks, and other delicacies. This kind of delicacy was rare in the field and a real treat. No sooner had the items been unloaded than I gave orders to mount up. The chow would have to wait.”

Abandoning their uneaten steaks, Echo’s Marines moved on foot from the bridge at Highway 1 toward An Lac. Avoiding harassing diversionary fire, Livingston pushed on to his objective. Taller Marines passed shorter Marines and their gear across a creek. Reaching An Lac, Livingston found that Alpha 1/3 had taken a beating. He reorganized the survivors, established a defensive perimeter and repulsed several enemy night attacks. The Marines learned from prisoners that 12 NVA companies were in Dai Do.

Livingston received his orders at 0300, and at 0500 on May 2, Echo Company fixed bayonets and attacked Dai Do from the northwest of An Lac, moving through Dinh To and toward Thuong Do, joining Golf and consolidating their position there. Well-concealed North Vietnamese soldiers greeted Echo with heavy fire as Livingston attacked from both the right and front of the enemy.

“We got up and headed straight into the enemy fire and then proceeded to drive right up the middle and through the entrenched NVA lines,” the captain said.

Echo and Golf then engaged a hundred bunkers, holes and positions, killing dozens of NVA and taking casualties as well. Livingston was wounded by shrapnel. He recalled that “the fighting at various times was furious and even hand to hand—really close.” Golf and Echo consolidated their position when Hotel, moving up the left flank near a stream, was heavily engaged. Hearing the calls for help, Livingston took Echo into the new fight. His troops ran into the enemy again head on, and this time Livingston was hit in his leg by heavy machine gun fire.

“The bone cracked, and bone fragments, muscle and skin blew out the exit wound,” Livingston said. “I was again covered with blood. Anyone who saw the event would have probably thought I was dead, sooner if not later.”

Livingston ordered his Marines to fall back and leave him. He refused to be evacuated until all of his casualties were accounted for.

It was lucky for Hotel and Golf that Echo arrived on the scene. Echo saved the day for a lot of Marines. Despite their heavy casualties, the Marines forced the NVA back briefly and the enemy suffered even greater losses. As the day faded into night, Echo (45 men left), Foxtrot (52), Golf (34) and Hotel (64) secured their small perimeters, with Foxtrot and Golf in Dai Do proper. They prepared for whatever the North Vietnamese would throw at them next.

Prescott, who had taken command of Hotel when Williams was wounded, had been wounded as well and was evacuated. Command fell to 2nd Lt. Baynard V. Taylor. Vargas suffered wounds again, but still managed to fight. Weise was ordered join an ARVN mechanized battalion. ARVN forces were assigned to attack Thuong Nghia while 2/4 attacked Dinh To and Thuong Do.

What was left of the battalion after two days of heavy fighting was going into the breach again. The Marines held on, reliably resupplied by skimmer boats.

The NVA sent probes to scout the strongpoints and locate any weak spots to exploit on the defenses. Many times, they would launch sporadic attacks, hurling grenades and firing weapons, only to be killed during the process. The evening of May 2, remaining elements of Bravo 1/3 were ordered to land at An Lac the following afternoon. The North Vietnamese, however, staged a mass assault, which gave the battle-weary Marines the morale boost of a turkey shoot. Aircraft, artillery and riflemen all cut down the enemy by the hundreds.

Following this irrational display by a panicked enemy, Golf led an attack, with Foxtrot in trail. Foxtrot, being stronger, would then pass through Golf and continue the attack. Weise and his command post were with Vargas when the attack was launched at 1500 hours and they entered Dinh To.

Golf was hit from the front and right flank as its men reached Thuong Do. Weise ordered Golf to hold and Foxtrot to move forward, but the Marines were not in position and were pinned down in the rice paddies. At 1700, Golf’s men received heavy fire from their left flank.

The company’s ARVN allies, who were holding that position, decided to leave the area without informing the Marines, allowing the NVA to maneuver and hit Golf from the rear. Golf was then hit with a frontal attack, and more enemy fire came from the right.

Vargas called Golf’s assault element back and formed a tight perimeter. He called in artillery, along with naval fire and air assets, almost on his own position, so close was the enemy. The Marines stopped the assault but suffered more losses. A rocket killed Sergeant Malnar, and most of his men were wounded. Weise and his radio telephone operators were wounded. Vargas was hit again and ordered to withdraw his men while helping carry Weise to the rear as Hilton called in air support. Vargas then collected the remaining Marines from Foxtrot and Golf to help with the wounded.

Weise passed temporary command to operations officer Warren, who reinforced Dai Do until relieved by the executive officer, Major Charles W. Knapp. The night of May 2-3 saw sporadic enemy probing, and on May 3, 1/3 easily entered Dinh To at 1500 hours and Thuong Do later in the afternoon. The NVA had effectively withdrawn from Thuong Do, and An Lac was secured by 1800. The remainder of BLT 2/4 withdrew to Mai Xa Chanh. The battle was over for the Marines. The battered 320th NVA Division retreated across the DMZ to recover.

For his spectacular leadership Navy Cross, and he retired as a brigadier general. De- cades later, Weise learned why the fight was so furious: Weise was awarded the Battalion landing team 2/4 had inadvertently stumbled right on top of the 320th Division’s command post and had engaged the bulk of the NVA force, numbering some 10,000 men.

BLT 2/4 suffered 81 killed and 397 wounded. On May 2, in Dai Do alone, 2/4 lost 40 killed and 111 wounded. The NVA saw 380 killed. The total American losses from April 30 to May 3 were: 3rd Marine Division, 233 killed, 821 wounded and one missing; the Navy, 15 killed and 22 wounded. ARVN losses were recorded as 42 killed and 124 wounded. The NVA suffered an admitted 2,366 killed and an unknown number of wounded, with 43 POWs.

The 2/4 unit was credited with 537 enemy dead, but the exact numbers of NVA killed may never be known because the North Vietnamese tended to drag their dead away whenever possible. One engineer said they buried more than 1,000 bodies from one location in a mass grave. The great imbalance in the casualty figures punctuates the overall historical significance of the three-day battle. The battle created heroes and legends and added a page of glory to the history of the Marine Corps and 2/4.

Just 600 Marines, facing a hardened, experienced NVA division of 10,000 or more, managed to advance and gain ground. Their efforts also had a long-term impact. If the Americans had lost the hamlets, as well as the river access points and the bridge at Dong Ha, the entire northern front would have collapsed. That would have allowed General Vo Nguyen Giap to move many more divisions unchallenged farther south, occupy major towns, fortify them and interdict all supply routes. It would have been the perfect staging ground for a final drive into the rest of the country by 1969.

The loss of the region would have been a tactical defeat but also a strategic debacle. Retaking those areas after the enemy had settled in would have cost at least 10 times the casualties lost in the victory. History also proves that it would have been an unparalleled—and irredeemable—public relations disaster.

For their actions and leadership, Vargas and Livingston were awarded the Medal of Honor. Many Marine, Navy and Army troops received awards for valor, and the Purple Heart was almost a 2/4 unit badge.

The Marines who fought and died are memorialized by the 2/4 Association. They are affectionately called the “Magnificent Bastards” for good reason. Their performance, determination and dedication to their objectives in the face of great numerical superiority were nothing less than magnificent.

Suggested Reading: 

Noble Warrior By James Livingston 

One Magnificent Bastard:BGEN William Weise, USMC (Ret.) By Mark Huffman 

The Magnificent Bastards: The Joint Army-Marine Defense of Dong Ha, 1968 By Keith Nolan