On Mar. 2, 1965, North Vietnamese guards at an ammunition storage area near Xom Bang heard the telltale sounds of massed aircraft overhead. They then learned why the F-105 Thunderchief earned the nickname “Thud” as 5,000 pounds of bombs from each of the passing planes hit the Earth around them.
The United States Air Force had just launched Operation Rolling Thunder, a bombing campaign over North Vietnam that lasted more than three years. Photographer Cade Martin set out to document and preserve the memories and images of the men who flew those dangerous missions.
Martin was just seven years old when the Vietnam War ended. What he knew about it came from movies and documentaries. Then, one day, he went to a Thud pilot reunion in San Antonio, took their portraits, and listened to their stories — the revelation of the war from their perspective rendered him speechless. Their stories were many and, as one might imagine, incredible.
“We have since learned that our target list was shared through Switzerland with the enemy to ensure no civilians were harmed. Well, that’s no way to win a war. The enemy would move out and set up somewhere else, ready to hit us on our way in and out. And, sometimes… Chiefs of Staff would send us five days in a row.” – John Piowaty, USAF
Rolling Thunder was an effort to break the will and ability of the Communists in the North and bring a negotiated end to the aggression against the non-Communist South. But, like many other aspects of the Vietnam War, it restricted the warfighter for political reasons and failed to achieve its overall strategic goals. Meanwhile, the men flying above North Vietnam were performing acts of valor and heroism without knowing what’s happening in Washington.
“In my junior year of high school, 1952, the Korean War was in full swing. Our fighter pilots were picking up where the aces of WW2 left off. Now in jets engaging in dogfights with the MiGs of North Korea and China. I wanted in. Went directly from high school to flight school. My all-time childhood dream come true.” – Gerald McGauley, USAF
Thoe pilots who flew those missions hit thousands of targets in North Vietnam, dropping more ordnance than was dropped during the bombing campaigns of World War II. The problem was that the classic targets of such a campaign were not as abundant or as vital to the North Vietnamese war effort than they were in Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. Much of North Vietnam’s weapons and materiel for the war was provided by Communist China and the Soviet Union.
“I finished first in my class, giving me first choice of assignment. I went to “Gun School” at Luke AFB in Phoenix. There, I was in a class of seven. Three years later, only three of us were still alive… and this was before the war had begun.” – John Morrissey, USAF
Even though it was a Rolling Thunder target, the main distribution network for these supplies – the Ho Chi Minh Trail – was not effectively halted, as it was a simple network of roads and trails, hidden under jungle canopy and traversing steep mountain passes. The pilots could not hit what they couldn’t see and the trail remained an effective means of distribution.
“The F-105 – It was the sweetest thing you’d ever want to wrap your hands around. Once you got it airborne the sensation was like flying a Cadillac. 52,000 pounds, 65 feet long, 38-foot wingspan. Couldn’t turn with a MiG but could outrun them. Great airplane.” – Ben Bowthorpe, USAF
A simple cost-benefit analysis of the campaign shows the failure of the strategic initiative. At a cost of 0 million, the US wreaked only 0 million worth of damage to the North. It also forced the Vietcong to increase troop levels in South Vietnam, which further escalated the war. The North came to the negotiating table as President Lyndon B. Johnson called off the campaign — but they were not cowed into a negotiated peace as the U.S. had hoped.
Rolling Thunder ended fifty years ago, on November 2, 1968 — but the war raged on in various forms until 1973.
“My heroes growing up were soldiers and pilots. They played big roles in the movies and stories of the time, making aviation look exciting and romantic. I daydreamed and sketched airplanes through my early childhood. This led to building and flying models until finally in high school I got a chance to take flying lessons.” – Ed “Moose” Skowron, USAF
The Air Force was also hamstrung by leadership in Washington over available targets. While military commanders wanted more decisive action and an unrestricted bombing campaign, political leaders wanted to humble the North Vietnamese with an impressive display of American military might. While the display was made, the North would not concede. After spending the better part of a decade ousting the French from Vietnam, the Communists knew that a war of attrition was their best chance at defeating a power like the United States.
“They had so many different kinds of guns. 37, 57, 85, 100 millimeter guns. 1,700 guns in place circling Hanoi. We had briefing, we knew where the guns were at… but you couldn’t avoid all of them. We had to go in there and take our chances.” – Cecil Prentis, USAF
In the years that followed Vietnam, photographer Cade Martin noted that the men who flew the F-105 mission during Rolling Thunder were silent in the postwar years, sitting back as the world Monday-morning-quarterbacked their performance in the war. The Thud pilots lost some 922 aircraft in the skies over North Vietnam and more than a thousand American service members were killed, captured, or wounded.
“You can’t run a war from the Oval Office. I would have loved to have McNamara or Johnson on one of those flights with me.” – Cal Jewett, USAF
Martin’s project, called Over War, seeks to document and share the history of the Rolling Thunder pilots that they have shared among themselves for the last fifty-plus years. You can check out more of their personal statements, photos, and testimonies at Cade Martin’s Over War website.