The Arc Light Memorial at Andersen AFB, Guam honors all B-52 crew members who died in Southeast Asia, including those killed in Operation Linebacker II, carried out from 18-29 December 1972. Fifteen B-52s were lost in that campaign. Last week, the CBS reality show “The Amazing Race” used the wreckage of one of those downed B-52s as a checkpoint during a segment in Vietnam. (Wikipedia photo)
For once, we agree with Bob Beckel.
The veteran Democratic operative and panelist on Fox News Channel’s “The Five” was outraged over a recent segment on the CBS’s reality show, “The Amazing Race.” And rightfully so. On a swing through Vietnam, someone thought it would be a swell idea to have the contestants pick up a clue in front of the wreckage of a U.S. B-52 bomber, shot down by an SA-2 battery during the war.
From The New York Post:
In the episode, the twisted metal of the downed plane is treated as any other prop, with a bright ‘Amazing Race’ ‘Double-U-Turn’ signed planted in front of it, signifying to contestants the next phase of their scavenger hunt.
The show also had contestants learn a song that was performed for them by children in front of a portrait of North Vietnam communist leader Ho Chi Minh, with subtitled lyrics that included “Vietnam Communist Party is glorious. The light is guiding us to victory.”
“It’s like One Direction,” one contestant said of the performance, referring to the popular boy band.
Apparently few viewers understood the symbolism of that “memorial.” But one Vietnam vet did, and he sent an e-mail to “The Five” co-host Greg Gutfeld, who mentioned it to one of the show’s producers. That, in turn, led to a segment on the FNC program, which generated this response from Mr. Beckel:
“I’m so outraged by this I can’t believe it. CBS is idiotic; they’re stupid,” Beckel said. “To have people go to a memorial where Americans died, then you ought to get off the network.”
Why should anyone care? After all, we’re talking about a war that most Americans choose to forget–never mind that 58,000 Americans gave their lives in that conflict.
But for a small group of veterans, the wreckage that served as a prop on a reality show has much greater meaning. It symbolizes liberation and their long-awaited journey home.
We refer, of course, to the American POWs who languished for years in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” and other detention campus. Most were pilots or aircrew members, shot down during missions over Vietnam, beginning in 1964. John McCain was among that group; so was Admiral James Stockdale, Brigadier General Robbie Risner, and Lieutenant General John Flynn. All suffered horrible brutality and deprivation at the hands of their captors. They never lost faith, but at times, freedom must have seemed a distant dream.
Their hopes were finally raised in December, 1972. When the North Vietnamese walked away from the Paris Peace Talks (yet again), President Nixon decided to force Hanoi’s hand militarily. He ordered his commanders to prepare a “maximum air effort” against the North. Unlike earlier, incremental air power campaigns (such as Rolling Thunder), the new offensive, dubbed Linebacker II, would feature large numbers of sorties against a wide range of North Vietnamese targets from the onset. And most importantly, the new campaign would send waves of B-52s over Hanoi, in the largest American bomber raids since World War II.
The offensive began on December 18, 1972. North Vietnam’s Soviet-designed air defense network (built around the SA-2 surface-to-air missile system), offered massive resistance. By some estimates, almost 2 SAMs were launched for every “Buff” sortie, meaning that North Vietnamese crews fired over 200 missiles during some of the nighttime raids.
Making matters worse, B-52 crews were severely constrained by “top-down” tactics dictated by Strategic Air Command Headquarters in Omaha. SAC, which “owned” the Air Force’s heavy bomber fleet, had been anxious to prove the ability of its warhorse to penetrate sophisticated air defenses and demolish critical targets. But there were also concerns about potential losses; if too many Buffs went down over North Vietnam, SAC would have difficulty maintaining political support for its bomber force and B-52 losses were irreplaceable, since the Boeing assembly line had been shut down a decade earlier.
Flying in three-ship “cells” (to maximize their mutual jamming capability), the B-52s flew into Hanoi in a single wave, at the same altitude. SAC also ordered a long, meandering turn to the west when coming off their targets, which put them into a stiff headwind, reducing ground speed and extending their time in the SAM belt. The egress maneuver also turned their ECM antennas away from the radars they were attempting to jam.
The heaviest losses occurred in the early phases of the campaign; three B-52s were lost on the first night over Hanoi, and six more (4 “G” models and 2 “D” models) went down on the third night, forever known as “Black Thursday” in the B-52 community. Overall, SAC lost 15 Buffs during Linebacker II, including the one now used as a memorial in North Vietnam. A total of 33 B-52 crew members were killed, and an equal number were captured by the North Vietnamese. Among the six men who flew on the B-52 whose wreckage now forms that memorial, only four survived.
But the bombers achieved their goals. North Vietnam suddenly decided to finalize the Paris Peace Accords, wondering what that “madman” Nixon might do next. Inside the Hanoi Hilton, hundreds of American POWs also noticed a change of heart. Senator McCain (and others) recall seeing genuine fear on the faces of their guards, who had mocked and taunted their prisoners for years. With the B-52s roaming over Hanoi, they too, were worried about what might be in the offing. Treatment of the POWs finally began to improve.
On February 12, 1973, barely six weeks after the last B-52 sortie over North Vietnam, a U.S. C-141 landed in Hanoi to repatriate the first group of American prisoners
. Among the men on that flight was Navy Commander Everett Alvarez, the first pilot taken prisoner by North Vietnam in 1964, and Air Force Technical Sergeant James Cook, a B-52 gunner who suffered two broken legs, a broken back and fractures in his shoulder and arm during the bailout from his stricken aircraft, which was hit by three SA-2s. When the C-141 landed in the Philippines, Cook saluted the American flag from his stretcher.
The Homecoming flights continued for almost two months, until the last of 591 POWs were repatriated. They returned with their honor and courage intact, a tribute to their own indomitable spirit, and to the men who went downtown during Linebacker II. Many flew B-52s, but they were supported by F-4s, A-7s, F-111s, EB-66s and other tactical aircraft that struck other targets; performed MiG-cap and SAM suppression missions and laid chaff corridors for the B-52s. Those squadrons suffered their own losses, and played a critical role in the ultimate success of the operation. Overall, 43 aircrew members died during Linebacker II, so that their fellow Americans might regain their freedom, and the U.S. could end its experience in Vietnam.
That’s why the wreckage of that Buff matters. And that’s why the producers of a reality show made a terrible choice by making it a way-point in their silly game. The families of the men who died in that B-52 deserve an apology from the production company and CBS, along with the thousands of other Americans who served in Vietnam. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the producer (Jerry Bruckheimer) or the President of CBS (Les Moonves) to admit they made a mistake.
ADDENDUM: On the island of Guam, at Andersen AFB, there is a simple memorial, listing the names of all B-52 crew members who died during Arc Light missions over Southeast Asia, including those who perished in Linebacker II. If the Amazing Race ever decides to tape a segment on Guam, we hope the folks at Andersen will bar them from the base.