Bill Bouldin

Bill Bouldin

If there’s one saving grace to a summer cold, it’s the double helping of pity it can generate.

Get a cold in February, and it’s all “Suck it up, buttercup, you’re not alone,” but that same cold in July is greeted with “Poor baby,” and pots of chicken soup.

If you think for a minute I’m above exploiting my summer cold for extra rations of sympathy, you don’t know me. When it comes to fishing for attention, my middle name is Shameless.

Still, no amount of kind-hearted solicitude can exempt me from my weekly obligation to crank out a column, even if that column is an expansion and explanation of a previous effort.

Not long ago, in describing an incident during the air war in Southeast Asia (that’s Vietnam to you Millennials), I made the rookie mistake of assuming everyone on Earth knows about B-52 bombers. I realize now they don’t. Let me try to fill that gap.

Back in 1965, the U.S. noticed that air strikes from fighter/bomber aircraft were only moderately effective in repelling attacks by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong infantry. Ten or twelve bombs dropped from an F-4 just weren’t making the desired impression on the enemy.

I can just hear the conversation in the Pentagon. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could drop 100 bombs at a time? Or 200? Or 300?”

So, in the time-honored tradition of “If a little bit is good, a lot more is better” the USAF decided to retrofit the B-52, an eight-engine strategic nuclear bomber, into a close air support bomber to be used against troop concentrations and supply depots.

With 24 bombs on wing pylons and 84 bombs in the internal bomb bay, each B-52 by itself was capable of delivering a staggering blow. Three of them flying in formation and releasing their 324 bombs simultaneously could create hell on Earth.

Flying at 30,000 feet, the bombers were unseen and unheard by the enemy on the ground. Their first hint that something was amiss came when the real estate around them levitated about 50 feet and the air suddenly contained more flying steel than oxygen.

B-52 strikes were credited with breaking the sieges of Khe Sanh and Con Thien and probably saved the hides of countless Marines and Army grunts.

Were mistakes made? Oh, you know it.

One day in 1972, I was on a routine photo reconnaissance mission over Cambodia when I got an urgent message from Airborne Combat Control Center. I was to stop what I was doing, and proceed immediately to coordinates they provided by KAK wheel. (The KAK wheel was a small decoding device that looked like a board game spinner. We called it our Secret Squirrel Card.)

I did as directed, and flew to a point on the banks of the Mekong river opposite Phnom Penh where I found the tell-tale line of bomb craters of a B-52 strike, as they marched in single file through the middle of a large village.

I got the photos and returned to base, not knowing that I had memorialized the worst accidental bombing of the Vietnam war, in which more than 400 innocent Cambodian villagers were killed or wounded.

The village was Neak Luong, and you might remember it as the first scene of the movie The Killing Fields, in which Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian interpreter Dith Pran reported on the bombing for the New York Times.

A few months later, I learned what caused the accident.

The mission that night of the lone B-52 was to bomb a suspected troop concentration in the jungle about 15 miles northeast of Neak Luong. Because it was night and all jungles look alike, the idea was to perform what is known as radar offset bombing.

In that technique the bomb aimer puts the crosshairs on a known radar return, like a building near a river, and then calculates the distance from the radar return to the target – for instance, 13 miles north by six miles east – and then sets those figures into the computer.

By flipping a switch, the bomb impact point shifts from the radar return to the real target – the radar offset target.

You’re probably ahead of me on this, and you’re right. The bomb aimer set the offset figures into the computer, but neglected to flip the switch.

All 108 bombs fell exactly where the computer told them to land – on the radar return under the crosshairs, which in this case was the hospital at Neak Luong.

It was a tragic mistake, and it came to characterize a war many defined as one mistake after another, with no one held accountable for the bombs that went astray or the lives that were shattered.

I had a back-seat navigator who once calculated that if the Air Force, Navy and Marines had dropped bowling balls instead of bombs, we could have blocked the Ho Chi Minh trail inside of a year. Navigators tend to have too much time on their hands.

INTERESTING HOLIDAYS THIS WEEK. July 13 – Embrace Your Geekiness Day; 14th – Bastille Day (if you’re French) National Nude Day (if you’re not) 17th – National Peach Ice Cream Day, also Yellow Pig Appreciation Day. 18Th – National Caviar Day (an acquired taste, for sure.) Enjoy.

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