POW recounts Operation Linebacker II

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jenna K. Caldwell
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. – It was December 26, 1972. The vibration from bombs exploding in the distance resonated through the walls of the North Vietnamese prison.

In his cell, an American pilot peered through the barred windows where he saw the silhouette of a B-52 Stratofortress in flames. He could only watch as the same fate that lead him to his prison cell was handed over to his fellow Airmen.

This American pilot is retired Col. Peter Giroux, a B-52 pilot and a captain at the time, who now resides in Kansas. He was taken as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese December 22, 1972, while supporting Operation Linebacker II.

Operation Linebacker II was an 11–day aerial bombing campaign that occurred near the end of the Vietnam Conflict. The heavy bombing strikes were an effort by the U.S. to get the North Vietnamese government to return to the discussion table for a cease-fire agreement. In the first three days of the operation, the U.S. lost nine B-52s, according to the Air Force historical fact sheet.

On day four of the offensive, Giroux and his crew were sent to Hanoi on a bombing mission. This particular target was right in the middle of the city where enemy Surface-to-Air Missile defenses were concentrated.

“It was going to be the highest risk mission we’d flown,” said Giroux. “You bet your boots we were concerned about it, but that’s it. We had to do our job and hope that the tactics and strategies were going to work out.”

Before takeoff, the crew learned from flight records that the aircraft they were to use had radar failure on the previous mission. However; the crew took off despite the risks. As they began the turn for the bomb run, the bomber’s radar navigation system failed. As lead aircraft, Giroux was forced to swap formation positions.

“We were going to attempt to get in behind them and let the second aircraft gunner direct our bomb release,” said Giroux. “That is difficult under normal circumstances and it’s extraordinary difficult in a combat environment because we can’t see them visually or on radar.”

While the aircraft was attempting to change formation positions, Giroux got a call from the gunner who said he believed they had an enemy aircraft behind them.

“We immediately go into a defense turning maneuver,” said Giroux. “As we’re maneuvering up here, down on the ground are all these SAM operators that have been watching us for days, and they have started to figure things out.”

As they evaded a possible enemy aircraft, Giroux’s aircraft was separated from their formation. They were without radar and could not complete their bombing mission. They also lost the protection of mutual electronic countermeasures that could deceive enemy detection systems. They then began to take missile fire from enemies on the ground, and their aircraft was hit.

“We immediately had both wings on fire,” said Giroux. “All the system lights and fire lights were going off and the aircraft was difficult to control. The gunner calls on the intercom and says we have fire on the right side past the tail so we shut down two engines. I’m was still using differential power and I still can’t get the aircraft to fly straight.”

Unbeknownst to him, the parachute used to pull the large right tip tank off the aircraft had deployed and made control of the aircraft nearly impossible. At that point, the aircraft had complete electrical failure and all the lights went out. The crew then ran through emergency procedures, to no avail.

“You got to do what you got to do,” said Giroux as a matter of fact. “We were compromised. We had no choice. I ordered the crew to bail out. I knew we had to eject and were probably going to get captured, if we didn’t get killed first.”

The aircraft was above 30,000 feet when it depressurized. Giroux temporarily lost consciousness. When he came to, the aircraft had gone belly up. He then managed to pull the ejection handle on his seat.

“I woke up on the ground in a field, semi conscience, surrounded by a bunch of North Vietnamese,” said Giroux. “The next time I wake up I’m on the back of a truck on a stretcher that is headed into Hanoi. I had a broken left arm, was burned and was in rough shape from the ejection.”

For the next few hours Giroux drifted in and out of consciousness. He received basic medical care and was then transported to a prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” where he joined other recent “shootdowns.” About ten days later he was given treatment at a medical facility where they set his arm and put him in a chest cast.

“I was just happy to be there; happy to be alive,” said Giroux recalling his prison cell. “We were in a long church-like room. It had a platform and we each had a long heavy wooden palate and a bamboo mat. We had mosquito nets and rats. The rats would be running around in the middle of the night.”

Giroux was in a prison cell with 30 plus other prisoners; many of whom had been POWs for five to six years. He made a point to try and reassure them that the end of the war would be soon because of the effectiveness of the bombing.

“I knew what damage we’d inflicted on the enemy so I was pretty optimistic,” said Giroux. “They were still skeptical. I was trying to tell the other prisoners who had been there for six years the amount of effort and the amount damage we were inflicting so that they had a rough idea of what was going on.”

By the end of Operation Linebacker the 700 nighttime sorties flown by B-52s and 650 daytime strikes by fighter and attack aircraft persuaded the North Vietnamese government to return to negotiations, according to the Air Force historical fact sheet.

At last, the news came in that cease-fire negotiations had been sorted out. POWs were to be released in waves, in order of shoot down and medical status. In February 1973, Giroux was released. He returned to the U.S and reunited with his family, where he received proper medical attention and corrective surgery.