The Dragon's Jaw
The Dragon's Jaw
SYNOPSIS: The Thanh Hoa Railroad and Highway Bridge, spanning the Song Ma River, is located three miles north of Thanh Hoa, the capital of Annam Province, North Vietnam. It is a replacement for the original French-built bridge destroyed by the Viet Minh in 1945 - they simply loaded two locomotives with explosives and ran them together in the middle of the bridge. In 1957, the North Vietnamese rebuilt the bridge. The new bridge, completed in 1964, was 540 feet long, 56 feet wide, and about 50 feet above the river. The Vietnamese called it Ham Rong (the Dragon's Jaw), and Ho Chi Minh himself attended its dedication. The bridge had two steel thru-truss spans which rested in the center on a massive reinforced concrete pier 16 feet in diameter, and on concrete abutments at the other ends. Hills on both sides of the river provided solid bracing for the structure. Between 1965 and 1972, eight concrete piers were added near the approaches to give additional resistance to bomb damage. A one-meter guage single railway track ran down the 12 foot wide center and 22 foot wide concrete highways were cantilevered on each side. This giant would prove to be one of the single most challenging targets for American air power in Vietnam. 104 American pilots were shot down over a 75 square mile area around the Dragon during the war. (Only the accounts of those specifically known to ve involved in major strikes against the bridge are given here. Some losses were aircraft involved in operations against other targets. Note also, that because aircraft came in on this target from a wide geographic area, some personnel lost outside the 75 mile range may have been inadvertently overlooked in this study.)

In March 1965, the decision to interdict the North Vietnamese rail system south of the 20th parallel led immediately to the April 3, 1965 strike against the Thanh Hoa Bridge. Lt Col. Robinson Risner was designated overall mission coordinator for the attack. He assembled a force consisting of 79 aircraft - 46 F015's, 21 F100's, 2 RF101's, and 10 KC135 tankers. The F100's came from bases in South Vietnam, while the rest of the aircraft were from squadrons TDY at various Thailand bases.

Sixteen of the 46 "Thuds" (F105) were loaded with pairs fo Bullpup missiles, and each of the remaining 30 carried eight 750 lb. general purpose bombs. The aircraft that carried the missiles and half of the bombers were scheduled to strike the bridge; the remaining 15 would provide flak suppression. The plan called for individual flights of four F105's from Koran and Takhli which would be air refueled over the Mekong River before tracking across Laos to an initial point (IP) three minutes south of the bridge. After wepon release, the plan called for all aircraft to continue east until over the Gulf of Tonkin where rejoin would take place and a Navy destroyer would be available to recover anyone who had to eject due to battle damage or other causes. After rejoin, all aircraft would return to their bases, hopefully to the tune of "The Ham Rong Bridge is falling down."

Shorty after noon on April 3, aircraft of Rolling Thunder Mission 9-Alpha climbed into Southeast Asia skies on their journey to the Thanh Hoa Bridge. The sun glinting through the haze was making the target somewhat difficult to acquire, but Risner led the way "down the chute" and 250 pound missiles were soon exploding on the target. Since only one Bullpup missile could be fired at a time, each pilot had to make two firing passes.

On his second pass, Lt. Col. Risner's aircraft took a hit just as the Bullpup hit the bridge. Fighting a serious fuel leak and a smoke-filled cockpit in addition to anti-aircraft fire from the enemy, her nursed his crippled aircraft to Da Nang and to safety. The Dragon would not be so kind on another day. The first two flights had already left the target when Capt. Bill Meyerholt, number three man in the third flight, rolled his Thunderchief into a dive and squeezed off a Bullpup. The missile streaked toward the bridge, and as smoke cleared from the previous attacks, Capt. Meyerholt was shocked to see no visible damage to the bridge. The Bullpups were merely charring the heavy steel and concrete structure. The remaining missile attacks confirmed that firing Bullpups at the Dragon was about as effective as shooting BB pellets at a Sherman tank.

The bombers, undaunted, came in for their attack, only to see their payload drift to the far bank because of a very strong southwest wind. 1Lt. George C. Smith's F100D was shot dow near the target point as he suppressed flak. The anti-aircraft resistance was much stronger than anticipated. No radio contact could be made with Smith, nor could other aircraft locate him. 1Lt. Smith was listed Missing In Action, and no further word has been heard of him. The last flight of the day, led by Capt. Carlyle S. "Smitty" Harris, adjusted their aiming points and scored several good hits on the roadway and super structure. Smitty tried to assess bomb damage, but could not because of the smoke coming from the Dragon's Jaw. The smoke would prove to be an ominous warning of things to come.

Lt. Cdr. Raymond A. Vohden was north of the Dragon when his A4C bomber was shot down. Ray was captured by the North Vietnamese and held in various POW camps in and around Hanoi until his release in February, 1973. (It is not entirely clear that this U.S. Navy Lt. Cdr. had a direct role in the attack on the bridge, but was probably "knocked out" by the same anti-aircraft fire.)

Capt. Herschel S. Morgan's RF101 was hit and went down some 75 miles southwest of the target area, seriously injuring the pilot. Capt. Morgan was captured and held in and around Hanoi until his release in February, 1973.

When the smoke cleared, observer aircraft found that the bridge still spanned the river. Thirty-two bullpups and ten dozen 750 pound bombs had been aimed at the bridge and numerous hits had charred every part of the structure, yet it showed no sign of going down. A restrike was ordered for the next day. The following day, flights with call signs "Steel", "Iron", "Copper", "Moon", "Carbon", "Zinc", "Argon", "Graphite", Esso", "Mobil", "Shell", "Petrol", and the "Cadillac", BDA (bomb damage assessment) flight, assembled at IP to try once again to knock out the Dragon. On this day, Capt. Carlyle "Smitty" Harris was flying as call sign "Steel 3". Steel 3 took the lead and oriented himself for his run on a 300 degree heading. He reported that his bombs had impacted on the target on the eastern end of the bridge. Steel 3 was on fire as soon as he left the target. Radio contact was garbled, and Steel Lead, Steel 2, and Steel 4 watched helplessly as Smitty's aircraft, emitting flame for 20 feet behind, headed due west of the target. All flight members had him in sight until the fire died out, but observed no parachute, nor did they see the aircraft impact the ground. Smitty's aircraft had been hit my a MiG whose pilot later recounted the incident in the "Vietnam Courier" on April 15, 1965. It was not until much later that it would be learned that Smitty had been captured by the North Vietnamese. Smitty was held prisoner for 8 years and released in 1973. Fellow POW's credit Smitty with introducing the "tap code" which enabled them to communicate with each other.
MiG's had been seen on previous missions, but for the first time in the war, the Russian-made MiG's attacked American aircraft. Zinc 2, an F105D flown by Capt. James A. Magnusson, had its flight bounced by MiG 17's. As Zinc Lead was breaking to shake a MiG on his tail, Zinc 2 was hit and radioed that he was heading for the Gulf if he could maintain control of his aircraft. The other aircraft were busy evading the MiG's, and Magnusson radioed several times before Steel Lead responded and instructed him to tune his radio to rescue frequency. Magnusson's aircraft finally ditched over the Gulf of Tonkin near the island of Hon Me, and he was not seen or heard from again. He was listed Missing In Action.

Capt. Walter F. Draeger's A1H (probably an escort for rescue teams) was shot down over the Gulf of Tonkin just northeast of the Dragon that day. Draeger's aircraft was seen to crash in flames, but no parachute was observed. Draeger was listed Missing In Action.

The remaing aircraft returned to their bases, discouraged. Although over 300 bombs scored hits on this second strike, the bridge still stood.

From April to September 1965, 19 more pilots were shot down in the general vicinity of the Dragon, including many who were captured and released, including Howie Rutledge, Gerald Coffee, Paul Galanti, Jeremiah Denton, Bill Tschudy, and James Stockdale. Then on September 16, 1965, Col. Robbie Risner's F105D was shot down a few miles north of the bridge he had tried to destroy the previous April. As he landed, Risner tore his knee painfully, a condition which contributed to his ultimate capture by the North Vietnamese. Risner was held in and around Hanoi until his release in 1973, but while a POW, he was held in solitary confinement for 4 1/2 years. Besides the normal malaise and illnesses common to POW's, Risner also suffered from kidney stones, which severely debilitated him in the spring and summer of 1967.

By September 1965, an innovative concept had taken shape - mass-focusing the energy of certain high explosive weapons. The Air Force saw its application against the old Dragon and devised a plan to destroy the bridge using the new weapon. They would call the operation "Carolina Moon". The plan necessitated two C130 aircraft dropping the weapon, a rather large pancake-shaped affair 8 feet in diameter and 2 1/2 feet thick and weighing 5,000 pounds. The C130's would fly below 500 feet to evade radar along a 43 mile route (which meant the C130 would be vulnerable to enemy attack for about 17 minutes), and drop the bombs, which would float down the Song Ma River where it would pass under the Dragon's Jaw, and detonate when sensors in the bomb detected the metal of the bridge structure.

Because the slow-moving C130's would need protection, F4 Phantoms would fly diversionary attack to the south, using flares and bombs on the highway just before the C130 was to drop its ordnance. The F4's were to enter their target area at 300', attack at 50', and pull off the target back to 300' for subsequent attacks. Additionally, an EB66 was tasked to jam the radar in the area during the attack period. Since Risner had been shot down in September, 15 more pilots had been downed in the bridge region. Everyone knew it was hot.

The first C130 was to be flown by Maj. Richard T. Remers and the second by Maj. Thomas F. Case, both of whom had been through extensive training for this mission at Elgin AFB, Florida and had been deployed to Vietnam only 2 weeks before. Ten mass-focus weapons were provided, allowing for a second mission should the first fail to accomplish the desired results.

Last minute changes to coinside with up-to-date intelligence included one that would be very significant in the next days. Maj. Remers felt that the aircraft was tough enough to survive moderate anti-aircraft artillery hits and gain enough altitude should bail-out be necessary. Maj. Case agreed that the aircraft could take hits, but the low level flight would preclude a controlled bail-out situation. With these conflicting philosophies, and the fact that either parachutes or flak vests could be worn - but not both - Maj. Remers decided that his crew would wear parachutes and stack their flak vests on the floor of the aircraft. Maj. Case decided that his crew would wear only flak vests and store the parachutes.

On the night of May 30, Maj. Remers and his crew, including navigators Capt. Norman G. Clanton and 1Lt. William "Rocky" Edmondson, departed DaNang at 25 minutes past midnight and headed north under radio silence. Although the "Herky-bird" encountered no resistance at the beginning of its approach, heavy, (although luckily, inaccurate) ground fire was encountered after it was too late to turn back. The 5 weapons were dropped successfully in the river and Maj. Remers made for the safety of the Gulf of Tonkin. The operation had gone flawlessly, and the C130 was safe. Although the diversionary attack had drawn fire, both F4's returned to Thailand unscathed.

Unfortunately, the excitement of the crew was shortlived, because recon photos taken at dawn showed that there was no noticable damage to the bridge, nor was any trace of the bombs found. A second mission was planned for the night of May 31. The plan for Maj. Case's crew was basically the same with the exception of a minor time change and slight modification to the flight route. A crew change was mad when Maj. Case asked 1Lt. Edmonson, the navigator from the previous night's mission, to go along on this one because of his experience for the night before. The rest of the crew included Capt. Emmett R. McDonald, 1Lt. Armon D. Shingledecker, 1Lt. Harold J. Zook, SSgt. Bobby J. Alberton, AM1 Elroy E. Harworth, and AM1 Philip J. Stickney. The C130 departed DaNang at 1:10 a.m. The crew aboard of the the F4's to fly diversionary included Col. Dayton Ragland. Ragland was no stranger to confilct when he went to Vietnam. He had been shot down over Korea in November 1951 and had served two years as a prisoner of war. Having flown 97 combat missions on his tour in Vietnam, Ragland was packed and ready to go home. He would fly as "backseater" to 1Lt. Ned R. Herrold on the misson to give the younger man more combat flight time while he operated the sophisticated technical navigational and bombing equiptment. The F4's left Thailand and headed for the area south of the Dragon. At about two minutes prior to the scheduled C130 drop time, the F4's were making their diversionary attack when crew members saw anti-aircraft fire and a large ground flash in the bridge vicinity. Maj. Case and his crew were never seen or heard from again. During the F4 attack, Herrold and Ragland's aircraft was hit. On its final pass, the aircraft did not pull up, but went out to sea, and reported that the aircraft had taken heavy weapon fire. A ball of fire was seen as the plane went into the sea.

Reconnaissance crews and search and rescue scoured the target area and the Gulf of Tonkin the next morning, finding no sign at all of the C130 or its crew. Rescue planes spotted a dinghy in the area which Herrold and Ragland's aircraft had gone down, but saw no signs of life. The dinghy was sunk to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. The bridge still stood.

In Marck 1967, the U.S. Navy attacked the Thanh Hoa Bridge using the new "Walleye" missiles, but failed to knock out the bridge. Before the war ended, 54 more Americans fell in the Dragon's Jaw area.

In late 1986 the remains of Harworth, Zook, and Case were returned and buried with honor befitting an American fighting man who has died for his country. Ragland, Herrold, Alberton, McDonald, Edmondson, Shingledecker, Stickney, Smith, Draeger, and Magnussen are still Missing In Action.

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