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50 Years Since 1972: Reflections Back to '68 & Then to War's End!
By Ron Bunnell
As an airman and jet engine mechanic in the USAF, Strategic Air Command (SAC), it was all about regular maintenance and "Keep'n the BUFFs Flying." My fellow engine mechanics and I were focused on keeping all eight of those Pratt & Whitney J57-19 jet engines fully functional on every B-52 Bomber flying and dropping bombs—lots of bombs—during Rolling Thunder between March 1965 and November 1968. By then I was out of the war, so let me review and help develop the theme "50 Years Since 1972."
By 1972, I was completing my degree in Education at the University of Northern Colorado. My wife and I had already decided to pack it all in and move to Alaska in March of '72. The Alaska Pipeline might need help. There also might be work for a worldly experienced Social Studies Teacher and Coach! The GI Bill had made it possible to get to this point.
The summer before in 1971, I had landed a summer job through one of my College Advisors. I flew to Washington DC and became a Federal Intern with the State Department. For the summer, I lived on F Street, at what is now called the Hive, near the State Dept. Daily I rode on the bus to/from Arlington, VA. just across the Potomac River.
Some evenings I would go to a tavern just down the street. There I would engage with others about many things including the War in Vietnam. I served two six-month TDY deployments to Andersen AFB in Guam in 1967 and then Kadena AFB in Okinawa in 1968. Sometimes I would meet writers who wanted to learn tidbits about the War. The conversation always fell on deaf ears when it came to B-52s—it was like — what is there to be said?
It was a great summer as I hoofed it all over our Nation's capital and Georgetown. I learned that Dick Gregory, a comedian, author, and war protester would be in DC. I called the Pitts Hotel and bought a single ticket. On the given evening after work, I hailed a Zone Cab. The Cabby and I alone headed across town. Shouts could be heard from the front steps of houses as we made the long drive on that warm summer evening, "Hey, Cracker!"
I had read several of Gregory's books including, The Shadow That Scares Me and Nigger: An Autobiography of Dick Gregory. Dick had been on another long hunger strike protesting the War. Shortly after the show, he came to the bar where I was seated. What an honor. I learned quite a bit about myself that evening. Within a short time, I found a cab to carry me back to "Foggy Bottom."
Back in September 1968, when I was honorably discharged from duty, several things stood out. For the first time since my wife and I were married in 1966, we were finally really together. We had planned our own future and the stage was set! There was no other choice now but to hit the books in northern Colorado.
To establish a little comfort zone with my four years in the service, I decided to check out the VFW and maybe have a beer. I remember, there was one guy sitting at the bar. As I explained who I was to the barmaid, the fellow sitting at the bar did something to catch my attention. I looked at him and he just sat there flipping me off. I did not return his salutation and went on my way.
By late October 1968, I had met some other students including several veterans. As new veterans and wet behind the ears, we decided to go march with other veterans in the Veteran's Day Parade. We inquired about being involved and got the standard cold shoulder. "—there was no place for Vietnam Veterans in this parade."
So…on Veteran's Day, six of us went to the parade assembly area, looked around, and as the last of the parade proceeded down the street, we just filed in at the rear and followed the parade through town in our own little parade attachment. We were courteous and did not interfere with any of the rituals. This was 1968 and the "baby killers" as we were sometimes called were obviously not wanted.
In the cafeteria, someone asked if I was aware of the group calling itself Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Having spent considerable time linked into the South East Asia (SEA) Arena, it was then that I determined I was not a Vietnam Veteran. That is a distinction for boots-on-the-ground Vietnam Veterans who have earned that prominent service ribbon. On the other hand, I am very much a Vietnam War Veteran. I have had a great deal of pride in VVAW over the years but only joined as a life member in recent years.
But 1972 seemed to roll out as more of the same for the bombers that I had left 2+ years earlier. They were like a mile-long freight train full of coal pulling out of Wyoming—one after another. Every day, the B-52s made their daily 5,000+ mile round-trip bomb runs over Vietnam and back to Guam. Air Force troops on the ground, like I had been, kept those Big Ugly Fat Fuckers (BUFFS) flying.
Operation Linebacker II or the Eleven Day War came along late in December of 1972. The Allies combined air power unleashed 3,000 sorties and delivered 40,000 tons of bombs in what was the most concentrated air operation of the entire war over Vietnam.
Beginning on the day after Christmas, December 26, 1972, and during the next eleven days into 1973, the BUFFs dropped 15,000 tons of bombs in 729 sorties. Two B-52 Tail Gunners officially downed enemy fighter planes, while hundreds of military targets on the ground were destroyed. Within 15 minutes on December 26th, 1972, 120 BUFFs dropped bombs and hit designated targets.
A total of twenty-four B-52 Bombers were struck by Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) during that day after Christmas in December. Of these 24 Bombers, fifteen were shot down and lost. Thirty-one (31) of the B-52 crew members who were shot down were captured and held as Prisoners of War (POWs). A further 93 were listed as Missing in Action (MIA's) at the end of the 11-day operation although the final tally was officially 33 Killed or MIA.
B-52D's seated five crew members in the front and they were unique because they had a Tail Gunner in his own compartment at the tip of the tail of the fuselage with four 50 caliber guns. Unlike the ejection seats up forward, the Gunner's Compartment lacked an ejection seat. Gunners rarely survived any bailouts. This writing is especially dedicated to all the Tail Gunners who served on B-52D Stratofortress Heavy Bomber either in South East Asia or anywhere. Thank you!
I was discharged from the Air Force with an "early out" in September 1968. Other than the flight crew, I flew back almost solo to the States from Guam in a KC-135 Tanker. After refueling at Hickam, we landed at SAC Headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. I finally de-plained at Little Rock, Arkansas, and took a Greyhound Bus back to my home base at Clinton, Oklahoma. After two weeks, I had processed out of the United States Air Force after four years of service.
Ron Bunnell is a Member of VVAW. He was honorably discharged USAF(SAC) on September 5, 1970, with the rank of Staff Sergeant. A2C Ron Bunnell, 461 Field Maintenance Squadron Pride Airman of the Month, September 1966.