The road and railway bridge at Thanh Hoa south of Hanoi spanned the Ma River and was a vital link in the movement of communist troops and supplies. For the better part of a decade, U.S. Navy, Marine and Air Force aviators braved the flak-filled skies over North Vietnam on missions to destroy the 56-foot-wide bridge, christened the “Dragon’s Jaw” by locals, and sever that link. Dragon’s Jaw: An Epic Story of Courage and Tenacity in Vietnam, by New York Times bestselling author Stephen Coonts and noted aviation historian Barrett Tillman, chronicles that epic campaign, whose early failures became a symbol of North Vietnamese resolve and resistance to American air power.
Originally built by the French during the colonial period, the bridge was destroyed in 1945 by communist-led Viet Minh forces fighting for independence and replaced with a stronger structure that opened in 1964. American military planners targeted the Dragon’s Jaw in Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign initiated on March 2, 1965, to interdict enemy transportation routes.
Air Force F-105D Thunderchiefs based in Thailand attacked the Dragon’s Jaw twice in April 1965, blasting it with 348 bombs and missiles. The assaults blew out chunks of supporting concrete, cratered the approaches to the structure and temporarily suspended road and rail traffic across the Ma River—but the bridge refused to fall.
Both land and carrier-based aircraft continued to attack the bridge without success. In May 1966 alone, Navy pilots dropped 128 tons of ordnance on and around the Dragon’s Jaw, and no fewer than 30 airstrikes were conducted against the bridge between January and March 1967. Yet, after every strike, teams of North Vietnamese dutifully emerged to inspect and repair the damage. The Americans, it seemed, were only capable of knocking the bridge out for a few days at a time. “We thought of calling Hanoi,” joked one Navy pilot, “and saying we’d push three A-4s [Skyhawks] overboard if they would just blow up that damn bridge!”
Coonts and Tillman contend that the American military was surprisingly ill-equipped to slay the Dragon. U.S. air crews were armed primarily with undersized conventional munitions, “dumb” bombs, that lacked the accuracy and punch to destroy a steel truss bridge reinforced with concrete piers. Pilots reported that only half of their bombs landed within 450 feet of the target, and ordnance analysts determined that more powerful weapons—not standard issue 500-pound, 750-pound and 1,000-pound bombs—were required to demolish the bridge.
Making the job even more difficult was North Vietnam’s sophisticated defenses. American planes hurtling down through the clouds had to run a gauntlet of MiG fighters, surface-to-air missiles and radar-guided anti-aircraft artillery. By late 1968, the North Vietnamese had increased the number of anti-aircraft guns from 700 in 1965 to more than 8,000.
The Thanh Hoa bridge, write Coonts and Tillman, “became the most heavily defended target in North Vietnam, which is to say, at that time in human history, the most heavily defended target on earth.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson, hoping perhaps to influence the peace process in Southeast Asia, terminated Rolling Thunder on Oct. 31,1968, stopping the airstrikes against the bridge. Over the course of the bombing campaign, 12 aircraft had been lost attacking the Dragon’s Jaw—and 13 airmen were dead or missing. Seven more were captured by the North Vietnamese and imprisoned for years, some subjected to torture at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”
President Richard Nixon gradually resumed air operations against North Vietnam. He reauthorized airstrikes in the Thanh Hoa area in 1971 and, after the communist Easter Offensive on March 30,1972, expanded the air war to cover all of North Vietnam with Operation Linebacker I. Loaded with specially built 3,000-pound laser-guided bombs—precision munitions that would revolutionize air warfare—Air Force fighter-bombers attacked the Dragon’s Jaw in May and nearly destroyed it. That October Navy A-7 Corsairs with laser and electro-optical guided bombs delivered the coup de grace.
A gratifying, throttles-forward thrill ride, Dragon’s Jaw poignantly captures the terror, heroism and sacrifice of aerial combat in Vietnam.