The detailed story of American pilots’ attempts to destroy a key bridge during the Vietnam War.
Bestselling novelist and decorated Navy aviator Coonts (The Armageddon File, 2017, etc.) teams up with air warfare historian Tillman (On Wave and Wing: The 100 Year Quest to Perfect the Aircraft Carrier, 2017, etc.) for an account that looks well past its nominal subject to give a wide-ranging history of the Vietnam War in the air. The Thanh Hoa bridge, completed in 1964, got the name “Dragon’s Jaw” from the rock formations on which it was built. Carrying a highway and a railroad line, it was a strategic transportation link as well as a matter of national pride for North Vietnam. As such, the bridge became an important target for American forces. But its robust construction—and the defensive measures around it—made it an infuriatingly resistant target. The authors detail one assault after another, listing pilots killed or captured in the attempt and providing the stories of those who attacked it without success. Coonts’ novelistic skills make the set pieces compelling, and attentive readers will get an education in the evolving technology of air warfare and anti-aircraft defense. The narrative is especially memorable for its account of the naval aviators who launched their attacks from carriers, many of whom are quoted at length. The authors also draw on North Vietnamese records, though with a degree of skepticism. At the same time, they are scathing in their attack on American leaders, especially Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara, for their failure to press the air war as hard as they might have out of fear of bringing Chinese troops into the conflict. Several bombing halts gave the North time to build up its forces and launch offensives. In the end, advances in weaponry gave the bombers the edge they needed to bring down the bridge—though it took years of relentless attacks and the loss of numerous planes and pilots to do so.
A vivid history of the long campaign against the Dragon’s Jaw Bridge; especially recommended for aficionados of air warfare.