Helicopters were widely used for the first time in Korea to move troops and equipment. They were not used in World War II. In Vietnam, helicopters were used for the first time on a large scale as an instrument of war. Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post wrote: "Helicopters were a part of the landscape of wartime South Vietnam. Their thwoketa-thwoketa rumble was nearly always in the air."

Helicopters were used to quickly move in troops and carry away the injured. They were also used to located and attack enemy positions. One of the main mission of helicopters was draw fire so B-52s where to drop bombs. The Vietnam-War-era base of An Khe was the world's largest helipad. It covered an area of 1¼ by 1¾ miles an could accommodate 434 helicopters.

A total 16 different helicopters were used in the Vietnam War. The primary ones were: 1) Bell UH-1 Iroquois (Huey), which was used to move small numbers of troops for patrols, rescue wounded GIs and machine gun enemy from the air; 2) Boeing CH-47 Chinook, a supply and troop carrier that could move in and take out 50 or so troops at a time; 3) the Bell AH-1 Cobra / HueyCobra (Bell 209), an attack helicopter that could fire rockets and missiles and machine enemy troops; and 4) the Bell OH-58 Kiowa, a sort of cross between a Huey and a Cobra.

The Huey was the main combat helicopter in the Vietnam War. There were scout versions of these helicopters, which were not equipped with the machine guns and rockets carried by the larger Huey gun ships. Both versions were widely used. The Cobra and Kiowa were introduced in smaller numbers towards the end of the war.

The CH-47 Chinook is a dual-horizontal-rotor helicopter designed to carry a crew of three and 33 passengers. Weighing 11 tons when empty, it is used primarily as a troop carrier. Some were equipped machines guns on the left side door and the high side escape hatch. Chinook helicopters could be used to rapidly transport supplies. If an airbase was captured supplies could be airlifted with heavy-lift helicopters and military transport planes such as C-130s.

North Vietnamese Attack on an American Helicopter

Describing an American helicopter mission, David Halberstam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: "In the late afternoon as the choppers were coming in to pick up the Vietnamese, the Communists opened up extremely heavy fire...They had begun to zero in with a large variety of weapons on the small chopper site in the center of the mountains. Circling up above in a gas-turbine chopper, Capt. Ray Vining and Capt. Joseph Josh were flying rescue and evacuation."

"As they circled above, they saw the last aircraft take off under particularly brutal fire...[It] reached about 100 feet when Josh suddenly saw a ball of orange flame hit the body of the chopper. They watched it auto-gyrate to a point on the ground where there was no protection."

The downed helicopter "was sitting in an open area exposed to the fire from the ridge up above, the same fire which had shot it down...Vining landed in a position between the ridge and the chopper...Three of the eight Vietnamese in the chopper had been killed instantly. All three Americans were wounded. The crew chief...though badly hurt, had managed to stamp out the fire in the craft and then the others out and force them to go to the rescue craft. 'They were all in shock,' Josh said."

Helicopters and General James F. Hollingsworth

General James F. Hollingsworth is believed to have been the inspiration for the Robert Duval character in “Apocalypse Now” . The journalist Nicholas Tomalin wrote, "After a light lunch" on June 1, 1966, Hollingsworth, of the Big Red One, took off in his personal helicopter and killed more Vietnamese than all the troops he commanded. "'Our mission today,' says the General, 'is to push those goddam VC right off Route 13 and 16...so we could run supplies up'...The General's UH18 helicopters carries two pilots, two 50-caliber machine gunners...It also caries the General's own M16 carbine (hanging on a strut), two dozen smoke bombs, and a couple of CD anti-personnel gas-bombs."

After landing the general asked a major, "You killed any 'Cong yet?"..."Well no General..."Yeah. Well Major, you spread out your perimeter here a bit, then get to killing' VC's will you?" The general then climbed back into his helicopters and ordered his pilot to head to an area where bombers were dropping napalm. "In one movement he yanks his M16 off the hanger, slams in a clip of cartridges and leans right out of the door, hanging on his seatbelt to fire one long burst on the general direction of the bush...The aid drops a smoke canister, the General find his ammunition and the starboard machine-gunner fires rapid bursts into the bush, his tracers bouncing up off the ground round it."

"The General falls back from his seatbelt into his chair...'That's it,' he says, and turns to me, squeezing his thumb and finger into the sign of a French chef's ecstacy..."There's no better way to fight that going' out to shoot VCs. An' there nothing I love better the killing 'Cong. No sir.'

Also See Story of Lt. Col. Bruce Crandall and the Battle Ia Drang Valley Under Famous Battles.

Helicopter Missions in Vietnam

Michael Herr wrote in "Dispatches", "I was already down at the strip waiting for a helicopter to come and take me out of there... At one lz the brigade chopper came in with a real foxtail hanging off the aerial... "Best way’s to just keep moving," one of them told us. "Just keep moving, stay in motion, you know what I’m saying?" We knew. He was a moving-target-survivor subscriber, a true child of the war, because except for the rare times when you were pinned or stranded the system was geared to keep you mobile, if that was what you thought you wanted. As a technique for staying alive it seemed to make as much sense as anything, given naturally that you were there to begin with and wanted to see it close; it started out sound and straight but it formed a cone as it progressed, because the more you moved the more you saw, the more you saw the more besides death and mutilation you risked, and the more you risked of that the more you would have to let go of one day as a "survivor." Some of us moved around the war like crazy people until we couldn’t see which way the run was even taking us anymore, only the war all over its surface with occasional, unexpected penetration. As long as we could have choppers like taxis it took real exhaustion or depression near shock or a dozen pipes of opium to keep us even apparently quiet, we’d still be running around inside our skins like something was after us, ha ha, La Vida Loca. [Source: Michael Herr, "Dispatches", Knopf, 1977 ***]

"In the months after I got back the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in began to draw together until they’d formed a collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle-saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door-gun fire in the other, fuel, heat, vitality and death, death itself, hardly an intruder. Men on the crews would say that once you’d carried a dead person he would always be there, riding with you. Like all combat people they were incredibly superstitious and invariably self-dramatic, but it was (I knew) unbearably true that close exposure to the dead sensitized you to the force of their presence and made for long reverberations; long. Some people were so delicate that one look was enough to wipe them away, but even bone-dumb grunts seemed to feel that something weird and extra was happening to them. ***

"Helicopters and people jumping out of helicopters, people so in love they’d run to get on even when there wasn’t any pressure. Choppers rising straight out of small cleared jungle spaces, wobbling down onto city rooftops, cartons of rations and ammunition thrown off, dead and wounded loaded on. Sometimes they were so plentiful and loose that you could touch down at five or six places in a day, look around, hear the talk, catch the next one out. There were installations as big as cities with 30,000 citizens, once we dropped in to feed supply to one man. God knows what kind of Lord Jim phoenix numbers he was doing in there, all he said to me was, "You didn’t see a thing, right Chief? You weren’t even here." There were posh fat air-conditioned camps like comfortable middle-class scenes with the violence tacit, "far away"; camps named for commanders’ wives, LZ Thelma, LZ Betty Lou; number-named hilltops in trouble where I didn’t want to stay; trail, paddy, swamp, deep hairy bush, scrub, swale, village, even city, where the ground couldn’t drink up what the action spilled, it made you careful where you walked. ***

"Sometimes the chopper you were riding in would top a hill and all the ground in front of you as far as the next hill would be charred and pitted and still smoking, and something between your chest and your stomach would turn over. Frail gray smoke where they’d burned off the rice fields around a free-strike zone, brilliant white smoke from phosphorus ("Willy Peter/Make you a buh liever"), deep black smoke from ‘palm, they said that if you stood at the base of a column of napalm smoke it would suck the air right out of your lungs. Once we fanned over a little ville that had just been airstruck and the words of a song by Wingy Manone that I’d heard when I was a few years old snapped into my head, "Stop the War, These Cats Is Killing Themselves." Then we dropped, hovered, settled down into purple lz smoke, dozens of children broke from their hootches to run in toward the focus of our landing, the pilot laughing and saying, "Vietnam, man. Bomb ‘em and feed ‘em, bomb ‘em and feed ‘em." ***

"Flying over jungle was almost pure pleasure, doing it on foot was nearly all pain. I never belonged in there. Maybe it really was what its people had always called it, Beyond; at the very least it was serious, I gave up things to it I probably never got back. ("Aw, jungle’s okay. If you know her you can live in her real good, if you don’t she’ll take you down in an hour. Under.") Once in some thick jungle corner with some grunts standing around, a correspondent said, "Gee, you must really see some beautiful sunsets in here," and they almost pissed themselves laughing. But you could fly up and into hot tropic sunsets that would change the way you thought about light forever. You could also fly out of places that were so grim they turned to black and white in your head five minutes after you’d gone. ***

Surviving a Helicopter Crash in Vietnam

Helicopter pilot USMC Gunnery Sergeant Paul Moore told the journalist Peter Alan Lloyd, "I had one particularly close call was when I was flying an H-34 to determine some control problems. I had a VNAF Capt as co-pilot and we were observing a flight of Army HU-1s on a mission on a mountain. I auto-rotated down the mountain side and when I added power and pulled up the collective to recover from the auto rotation, the helicopter began a rapid spin and loss of fore and aft cyclic control. (Later I discovered that the tail pylon had sheared resulting in an extreme out of balance fore and aft). [Source: USMC Gunnery Sergeant Paul Moore, with Peter Alan Lloyd, Eyewitness Accounts The Vietnam War, May 2013 |~|]

"I followed the known emergency actions which I was very familiar with, since I also taught them, as we dropped approximately 1,500 feet, including auto rotation prior to the flare at about 500 ft when the tail pylon failed and the spin began. We hit nose down because of loss of fore and aft control, then I applied full left cyclic to wind up the Main rotor blades, as they struck the ground. These procedures were: ) Reduced the hand throttle to idle to stop or reduce the spinning; 2) Turn off the battery switch; 3) Turn off the magneto switch. These actions were to help prevent a fire when crashing. Then I had to stop the main rotors before they came through the cockpit. I did that by full left cyclic so the main blades would strike the ground, and stop their travel before they could hit the cockpit. I was on the bottom left side of the helicopter, and the VNAF Captain disappeared out through the right side window, leaving me with my left leg trapped. |~|

"I finally got out on my own, and had several banged-up areas and some bleeding. Then I saw the Captain standing in the flooding Av Fuel, firing finger flares in the air. I quickly got that under control, and then he wanted to start walking towards Nha Trang, which was several miles away.I told him "Good luck with any possible VC and the land mines around the perimeter of the area there." I decided to stay with the wreckage, and he also wisely decided to remain. We were without a radio, the one in the chopper being unusable, but luckily, after about twenty minutes, the Army HU-1s flew over and I then I safely fired some finger flares. The army helicopters suspected a possible VC trap and circled around us for a while, then finally one came down and saw who we were – although the door gunner had us covered, just in case. |~|

Bombing Missions in the Vietnam War

American warplanes dropped bombs for the following reasons in the Vietnam War: 1) to destroy military and infrastructure targets; 2) to terrorize the public so the government would make concessions; 3) to kill enemy soldiers; 5) to disrupt supply lines; 6) to assist soldiers being attacked by the enemy; 4) and to clear away vegetation that the enemy could hide in.

American bombing missions were carried out with political aims as well as military ones. American pilots who flew missions over North Vietnam regularly engaged enemy MiG fighters that flew from air bases the American were forbidden from bombing. The United States launched "retaliatory" strikes against North Vietnam. The objective of the strategy was not to win the war but to signal America’s resolve against North Vietnamese aggression so a political deal could be worked out. See Pleiku

The workhorse of the Vietnam War bombing missions were B-52 bombers, planes that were still widely used in Afghanistan in the 2000s. These planes often approach at high altitudes so they are out of range of anti-aircraft fire. Forces on the ground often don’t see or hear them until their 70,000 bomb payloads have been dropped. The first hint that something is amiss is the whistling sound of the approaching bombs. Seconds later there are thunderous booms as large numbers of bombs explode when they hit the earth. The bombs leave craters and cerate deadly shock waves. Those who are not killed by these waves often suffer from heavy ear and nose bleeding and are often dizzy for days.

Long range B-52 bombers took from bases in Japan, Thailand, the Philippines and Guam as well South Vietnam. They often dropped their bombs while making banking curves. There was usually a long delay between when the bombs were dropped and when they exploded.

Bombing of North Vietnam

More U.S. bombs—measured in terms of tonnage—were dropped on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War than the Allies dropped on Germany in World War II. The U.S. carried out thousands of bombing missions that hit every single road and rail bridge in North Vietnam, as well as 4000 of North Vietnam’s 5788 villages. About 4,000 bridges and 50,000 miles of roads were destroyed or damaged.

Hanoi was hit by bombing raids in the Vietnam War in 1965, 1968 an 1972, which were concentrated mainly on the bridges across the Red River, the train station am industrial areas in the perimeter of the city. Haiphong, North Vietnam’s largest port and second largest city, was also hit. Particularly nasty was the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972.

Curtis Le May, a hero in World War II and the mastermind behind the firebombing of Tokyo, suggested bombing North Vietnam "back into the Stone Ages." Known as Gen. Jack D. Ripper among his critics, he and other military advisors had raised the idea of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Richard Nixon, with help from Henry Kissinger, showed the “dangers of a president deploying force with a free hand.”

South Vietnamese targets were bombed as well as North Vietnamese ones. Thousands of tons of bombs, shells and chemicals were dropped on Quang Tri province, near the DMZ, by B-52s capable of carrying 30-ton payloads in one last ditch effort in 1972 to bomb the hell out of Vietnam to get the North Vietnamese to agree to more favorable terms at the negotiation table.

Impact of the Bombing Missions on North Vietnam

When the bombers began arriving in North Vietnam groups of soldiers would often gather with rifles and try to shoot the planes down. When North Vietnamese officials greeted guests they often did so in underground shelters because of American bombing raids.

In December 1965, British journalist James Cameron wrote: "Through the daylight hours nothing moved on the roads of North Vietnam, not a car, not a truck." It is the "roads and bridges that are being bombed; it is no longer safe after sunrise to be anywhere near either...The famous Ham Rong bridge...has been attacked more than 100 times, by at least 1,000 aircraft; it is scarred and pitted and twisted and the area around is a terrible mess, but the bridge still carries the road and the railroad.

"Then the sun goes down and everything starts to move," Cameron wrote. "At dusk the roads become alive. the engines are started and the convoys grind away through the darkness behind the pinpoints of masked headlamps. There are miles of them, heavy Russian-built trucks, anti-aircraft batteries, all deeply buried under piles of branches and leaves, processions of huge green haystacks. North Vietnam by day is abandoned; by night it thuds and grinds with movement."

Bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail

The United States launched Operations Steel Tiger and Tiger Hound to try and shut down the Ho Chi Minh. More than 1.7 million tons of bombs were dropped, setting the forest ablaze and littering the roads with charred bodies and scorched vehicles. One North Vietnamese told the Los Angeles Times, "I remember watching from behind bush, three girls take off their clothes and bathe in a stream. When they emerged they looked like fairy princesses. They were so young, so beautiful...An hour later, they were killed in a B-52 raid."

Rain-inducing techniques were used to try and flood the Ho Chi Minh Trail out of existence. Agent Orange was used to strip the jungle away. Sensors were dropped from "invisible" parachutes that relayed data to intelligence sources. The North Vietnamese confused the sensors by placing buckest of urine and water buffalo dung next to the sensors.

The CIA estimated that only one North Vietnamese soldier died for every 100 bombs dropped. The North Vietnamese claim they shot down 2,500 war planes over the trail The U.S. says only 500 planes were shot down. Sustained bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail began in 1965. B-52 bombers dropped loads of 750-pound bombs in 30 seconds, clearing a section of forest the length of 12 football fields. Huge Daisy Cutter bombs carved out 100-meter-wide craters.

David Lamb wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "Trying to stop the infiltration of men and supplies into South Vietnam, the United States bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail for eight years, setting forests ablaze, triggering landslides, denuding jungles with chemicals and building Special Forces outposts along the Laotian border. The Americans seeded clouds to induce rain and floods, launched laser-guided bombs to create choke points and trap truck convoys, and parachuted sensors that burrowed into the ground like bamboo sprouts, relaying data on movement back to the U.S. surveillance base at Nakhon Phanom in Thailand for evaluation. But work never stopped, and year after year infiltration into the South increased, from 1,800 soldiers in 1959 to 12,000 in 1964 to over 80,000 in 1968. [Source: David Lamb, Smithsonian magazine, March 2008 **]

"After each aerial attack, hordes of soldiers and volunteers scurried to repair the damage, filling craters, creating bypasses and deliberately building crude bridges just beneath the surface of river water to avoid aerial detection. By 1975, truck convoys could make the trip from the North to the southern battlefields in a week—a journey that had once taken soldiers and porters six months on foot. Antiaircraft artillery sites lined the road; a fuel line paralleled it. The trail made the difference between war and peace, victory and defeat, but it took a terrible toll. Upward of 30,000 North Vietnamese are believed to have perished on it. Military historian Peter Macdonald figured that for every soldier the United States killed on the trail, it dropped , on average, 300 bombs (costing a total of $140,000)."

Bombing of Cambodia

The secret bombing began on March 18, 1969. Between that time and 1975, when the Vietnam War ended, the United States dropped four times as many tons of conventional bombs (539,000 tons) on Cambodia as were dropped on the Japan during World War II. “Huge areas of the eastern half of the country were carpet-bombed, killing what is believed to be many thousands of civilians and turning hundreds of thousands more into refugees. Many of the bombs were dropped after the peace treaty with Vietnam was signed and American soldiers had been evacuated from Vietnam. As bad as this was Laos had even more bombs dropped on it.

United States bombing of enemy troop dispositions and guerrilla sanctuaries in Cambodia-- particularly in the summer of 1973, when intense aerial bombardment (known as Arclight) was used to halt a Khmer Rouge assault on Phnom Penh--bought time for the Lon Nol government, but did not stem the momentum of the communist forces. United States official documents give a figure of 79,959 sorties by B-52 and F-111 aircraft over the country, during which a total of 539,129 tons of ordnance were dropped, about 350 percent of the tonnage (153,000 tons) dropped on Japan during World War II. Many of the bombs that fell in Cambodia struck relatively uninhabited mountain or forest regions; however, as declassified United States Air Force maps show, others fell over some of the most densely inhabited areas of the country, such as Siemreab Province, Kampong Chhnang Province, and the countryside around Phnom Penh. Deaths from the bombing are extremely difficult to estimate, and figures range from a low of 30,000 to a high of 500,000. Whatever the real extent of the casualties, the Arclight missions over Cambodia, which were halted in August 15, 1973, by the United States Congress, delivered shattering blows to the structure of life in many of the country's villages, and, according to some critics, drove the Cambodian people into the arms of the Khmer Rouge. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987*]

The bombing was by far the most controversial aspect of the United States presence in Cambodia. In his book Sideshow, William Shawcross provides a vivid image of the hellish conditions, especially in the months of January to August 1973, when the Arclight sorties were most intense. He claims that the bombing contributed to the forging of a brutal and singlemindedly fanatical Khmer Rouge movement. However, his arguments have been disputed by several United States officials--including the former ambassador to Cambodia, Emory C. Swank, and the former Air Force commander in Thailand, General John W. Vogt--in an appendix to the second volume of the memoirs of then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. *

Daisy Cutters and Other Bombs Used in the Vietnam War

The Americans used white phosphorous bombs, car-size CBU-55 bombs (powerful enough to suck all the oxygen from an area a kilometer across), 15,000-pound "seismic" bombs, fragment bombs and experimental bombs that release thousands of tiny darts. Their arsenal also contained 15,000-pound bombs made of napalm-like "jellied slurry" used to "scare people and clear helicopter zones."

The 15,000-pound BLU-82 "daisy cutter" bombs, first used in the Vietnam War, is one of the most powerful non-nuclear devices in the world and the largest bomb in the U.S. arsenal. The size of a minivan, these bombs were designed to incinerate everything within a half-mile radius. The BLU-82 is carried one at a time on a pallet in a MC-130 cargo planes and pushed out the back. It floats to the ground on a parachute and is detonated three feet above the ground by a probe that extends from the bottom of the devise. A slurry of ammonium nitrate and aluminum dust are ignited to produce a huge fireball.

The BLU-82 was originally designed to clear helicopter landing zones in the Vietnam War without leaving a crater but now are used primarily to kill people and scare the dickens out anyone who survives or sees it action. One army official told AFP, "It produces a heck of a bang when they go off." People that survived the blast are often left with ruptured lungs or broken eardrums. There are tactical nuclear weapons that pack less punch

Cluster Bombs

Cluster bombs made up of tennis-ball-size bomblets backed with ball bearings that can kill from a distance of 40 meters. These garbage-can-sized ones used today are comprised of clusters of 202 yellow bomblets designed to pierce light-armored vehicles, start fires and kill people with shrapnel flying in all directions. The bomblets explode independently when their nose hits a surface and have small parachutes to helps them land nose done.

Cluster bombs are regarded as the best weapon against masses of enemy troops. They were often dropped from B-52s. The newest versions of the bombs had special wind-corrected devises that allowed them to be dropped accurately from as high as 45,000 feet. The bombs also have special tail fins that compensate for wind and other aerodynamic obstacles that can through them off course.

About 5 percent of the cluster bomblets don’t explode, especially those that a hit a soft surface. They can easily be detonated later by a foot fall or the touch of a hand and are regarded as dangerous as mines. Some regard them as more dangerous than mines because they can’t be sniffed out by dogs.

The "daisy cluster" was cluster bomb with a long casing designed to scatter tennis-ball-size bomblets over a 3,000-square-meter area. The bomblets either exploded on impact or remained in the ground like land mines not big enough to kill a person but big enough to badly maim someone.


Napalm is a compound of jellied gasoline that sticks to anything it touches and burns at 3,000°F. Invented by Harvard chemist Louis Fieser during World War II and named after its two principal ingredients, aluminum napthenate and coconut palm oil, it is made from an aluminum soap that thickens gasoline, making it burn slower and allowing it to ignite more secondary fires.

Napalm can be used in grenades, ariel bombs, flamethrowers, artillery shells, missiles and tank cannons. It can be hurled at greater distances from flame throwers than other chemicals. Dropped form an airplane, it can torch an area the size of a football field and destroy a tank without hitting it. Hurled into a tunnel it can suck up enough oxygen to suffocate anyone there.

Before World War II the most effective incendiary was rubber mixed with gasoline. After the Japanese seized the major rubber-producing regions the Allies were forced to come up with substitutes. The army liked napalm because it was easy to make and effective. The first use of napalm was in the fire bombing raids of Tokyo in 1945, when M-29 napalm bombs (bombs that burst at high altitudes releasing hundred of smaller bombs) were dropped in flaming Xs and Japan’s wooden buildings went up in flames, producing fire storms that lasted for days.

Napalm Victims in Vietnam

In Vietnam, napalm was widely used in anti-personal bombs and as a village burning device. Its ability to stick to anything made it particularly effective at burning people to death. On the aftermath of a napalm attack on human victims, former boat operator Michael Walsh told the Washington Post: "It looks like you melt. Faces gone, noses, gone, limbs gone, but still alive."

One of the most riveting photographs taken during the war shows a screaming nine-year-old girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running naked down a road, her clothes burned off her body and her body burned from "friendly fire" napalm dropped on her village near Saigon by a South Vietnamese plane on June 8, 1972. He face expresses her pain and suffering. Here arms are extended out in helplessness. She had flung off her clothes after the napalm melted through them and was burning her skin. "Too hot! Too hot!" she was shouting in Vietnamese when her picture was snapped. Running down the road with her are four other children. Some credit the photograph for changing the course of the war. Today, some have argued that it has become so famous that it has become an “icon felt as a powerful aesthetic object but disconnected from the history.”

The photograph won Associated Press photographer, Nick Ut, a Pulitzer prize as well as some international awards. Kim Phu lost two brothers in the attack and received third degree burns or worse over 30 percent of here body. Ut took her to the hospital, where she underwent 17 operation and spent 14 months recovering her burns. The extensive burns on her back and arms left her without sweat glands.

Margie Mason wrote in Associated Press "It was June 8, 1972, when Phuc heard the soldier's scream: "We have to run out of this place! They will bomb here, and we will be dead!" Seconds later, she saw the tails of yellow and purple smoke bombs curling around the Cao Dai temple where her family had sheltered for three days, as north and south Vietnamese forces fought for control of their village. The little girl heard a roar overhead and twisted her neck to look up. As the South Vietnamese Skyraider plane grew fatter and louder, it swooped down toward her, dropping canisters like tumbling eggs flipping end over end. "Ba-boom! Ba-boom!" [Source: Margie Mason, Associated Press , June 1, 2012 ]

"The ground rocked. Then the heat of a hundred furnaces exploded as orange flames spit in all directions. Fire danced up Phuc's left arm. The threads of her cotton clothes evaporated on contact. Trees became angry torches. Searing pain bit through skin and muscle. "I will be ugly, and I'm not normal anymore," she thought, as her right hand brushed furiously across her blistering arm. "People will see me in a different way." In shock, she sprinted down Highway 1 behind her older brother. She didn't see the foreign journalists gathered as she ran toward them, screaming. Then, she lost consciousness.

"Ut, the 21-year-old Vietnamese photographer who took the picture, drove Phuc to a small hospital. There, he was told the child was too far gone to help. But he flashed his American press badge, demanded that doctors treat the girl and left assured that she would not be forgotten. I cried when I saw her running," said Ut, whose older brother was killed on assignment with the AP in the southern Mekong Delta. "If I don't help her — if something happened and she died — I think I'd kill myself after that."

"I had no idea where I was or what happened to me," Phuc said. "I woke up and I was in the hospital with so much pain, and then the nurses were around me. I woke up with a terrible fear." "Every morning at 8 o'clock, the nurses put me in the burn bath to cut all my dead skin off," she said. "I just cried and when I could not stand it any longer, I just passed out." After multiple skin grafts and surgeries, Phuc was finally allowed to leave, 13 months after the bombing. She had seen Ut's photo, which by then had won the Pulitzer Prize, but she was still unaware of its reach and power.

Agent Orange

About 20 million gallons of herbicides and defoliates were sprayed on South Vietnam from planes and helicopters during the Vietnam War, defoliating about 14 percent of the country by some estimates. More than 60 percent of the herbicide used was Agent Orange, a powerful chemical with high levels of the carcinogen dioxin TCDD. The spraying was halted after it was discovered that Agent Orange caused cancer in rats.

The spraying of defoliates was labeled Operation Ranch Hand. The use of Agent Orange was authorized by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr., the commander of U.S. naval forces from 1968 to 1970, to deprive the Communists of their dense vegetation cover, which they used to hide their movements and ambush American troops.

Agent Orange was dropped on rain forests, jungles and other areas of dense vegetation in wide swaths by warplanes. It was used from 1962 to 1972 in strategic areas of South Vietnam between Quang Tri Province near the DMZ to the Mekong Delta. In areas where it was used fruit quickly spoiled and leaves fell off trees in three to five days. People caught in the "milky gog" experienced skin rashes, nausea, dizziness, breathing difficulties and eyes and nose problems.

See Environment, Legacy of Agent Orange

Claims of Yellow Rain and Poison Gas Used in the Vietnam War

In the early 1980s, Hmong insurgents claimed that the Lao People's Army (LPA) was using lethal chemical agents against them. The Hmong refugees in Thailand often referred to the chemical agents as "poisons from above;" foreign journalists used the term "yellow rain." The government vehemently denied these charges. The United States Department of State noted in 1992 that "considerable investigative efforts in recent years have revealed no evidence of chemical weapons use" in the post-1983 period. The LPDR again denied these charges. The United States Department of State noted in 1992 that "considerable investigative efforts in recent years have revealed no evidence of chemical weapons use."

Between 1975 and 1982, the U.S government once claimed, over 7,000 people were killed by toxic agents, dubbed yellow rain, purportedly sprayed over Southeast Asia by Soviet planes. Leaves with yellow spots collected by Hmong tribesmen in Laos believed to be evidence of yellow rain were analyzed by Harvard biochemists and determined to be bee excrement. [Source: Cathy Newman, National Geographic, October 1984]

In June 1998, Peter Arnett, CNN and Time magazine ran a story about the American use of Sarin nerve gas on American defectors in Laos in 1970 as part of initiative called Operation Tailwind. "They had just wiped out a village base camp," Arnett wrote, "killing about 100 people that included not only women and children but also some believed to be a group of American GIs who had defected to the enemy." The story ended up being a totally untrue. CNN and Time retracted the story, two CNN producers were fired and Arnett was released about a year later even though he helped put CNN on the map with his reporting in Baghdad.

Nuclear Weapons and the Vietnam War

The United States studied using using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. One 56-page report explored the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons to block passes between North Vietnam and Laos on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It concluded that the weapons would "offer the U.S. no decisive military advantage" and the political effects of such an action "would be uniformly bad and could be catastrophic."

In April 1972, on the eve of a major escalation, U.S. President Richard Nixon raised the idea of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. In a series of tapes released to the public in 2002, Kissinger suggested a series of initiatives including bombing power plants and docks. Nixon said: "I’d rather use the nuclear bomb." Kisisnger replied, "That, I think, would be too much." Nixon then said, "Does that bother you? I just want you to think big." He also said "I don't give a damn" about civilians killed by U.S. bombing. [Source: Associated Press, February 28, 2002 /+]

In another conversation, Nixon said, "We want to decimate that goddamned place...North Vietnam is going to be reorderd...It’s about time, it’s what should have been done long ago." There were those in the Pentagon that had similar ideas. One high-ranking officer was overheard saying "it might be a good idea toss in a nuke from time to time, just to keep the other side guessing." The tapes also revealed the war weighed heavily on Nixon's mind. "We can't lose 50,000 Americans and lose this war," Nixon told comedian Bob Hope on April 15.

In an interview with Time in 1985, Nixon said, "I rejected the bombing of the dikes, which would have drowned 1 million people, for the same reason that I rejected the nuclear option. Because the targets presented were not military targets." A month after April 1972 exchange with Kissinger, Mr Nixon said of North Vietnam: "We want to decimate that goddamned place."

Associated Press reported: "Nixon's thoughts about the nuclear bomb could have reflected mere frustration with the war or been part of a strategy to make the North Vietnamese believe he was a madman and could not be restrained — and so they should negotiate peace. "It was politically unacceptable," Vietnam historian Stanley Karnow said of the prospects of using the bomb. "Just because he said it doesn't mean it was really an option." The tapes are replete with Nixon blurting out outlandish remarks, said Nixon historian Stanley Kutler. "It's a frustrated, angry, confused president lashing out and calling on what he had access to, to defeat an intractable enemy," Kutler said, adding that he believed Nixon was not serious about dropping the bomb. In May, Nixon reminds Kissinger that civilians are an unfortunate casualty of all wars. "The only place where you and I disagree ... is with regard to the bombing," Nixon said. "You're so goddamned concerned about the civilians and I don't give a damn. I don't care." "I'm concerned about the civilians because I don't want the world to be mobilized against you as a butcher," Kissinger said. "We can do it without killing civilians." /+\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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