MUTINY AT U-TAPAO AIR BASE
LEONARD LE BLANC III
The crucible of war can bring some men to perform great feat of heroics. It can also bring some men to, and past, their physical or emotional breaking points for many reasons. No better example of this conundrum occurred during Operation Linebacker II during the Vietnam War.
This military operation was an intensive, short-lived bombing campaign the U.S. Air Force and Navy waged against military and civilian targets in North Vietnam in December 1972. This operation originally sprang from the Paris Peace Talks which began in October 1972. President Richard Nixon was anxious to add to his legacy by successfully concluding the peace talks, ending the Vietnam War then withdrawing all U.S. forces from South Vietnam. Although the talks were initially concluded on 31 October and an agreement was to be signed, South Vietnamese President Thieu objected with many of the agreement points and further talks to clarify his objections stalled.
The North Vietnamese negotiators walked away from the table on 16 December and showed no signs of returning. They had become increasingly obstinate during the re-negotiations. Nixon wanted to force the North Vietnamese back to the table and conclude a final agreement for domestic political reasons prior to the start of the new U.S. congress in January 1973. Operation Linebacker II was devised as a way to do force the Vietnamese back to the negotiations.
The operation was planned to saturate North Vietnamese military and civilian targets with continual B-52 bombing and other attacks from 18-29 December 1972. Unfortunately the bombing tactics devised by the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command were more suited to undefended stretches of jungle and strategic targets in the Soviet Union. The bombing route had the B-52’s attack Hanoi and Haiphong targets at night in three separate groups. Each of the groups or waves would be using the same approach paths and flying at the same heights. Some of the B-52’s had limited Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities.
The B-52’s were formed into three-plane clusters known as "cells" for improved EW jamming or defensive measures. The combination of repetitive tactics, degraded EW systems, and limited jamming capability plus the intense response of the North Vietnamese using a barrage of Surface-to-Air (SAM) missiles hit the B-52 units hard. Some U.S. Air Force pilots strongly felt the bombings runs over Hanoi were “suicide missions”. During the 12-day operation 16 B-52s were shot down, four suffered heavy damage and five others medium damage. Some 43 crewmembers were killed in action and 49 taken prisoner. During this time Captain Michael Heck began to question the morality of these bombing missions.
On 26 December 1972, Heck, then stationed at U-Tapao Air Base, told his wing commander he could no longer in good conscience fly any more bombing missions over North Vietnam. Some U.S. Air Force officials believed Heck refused to fly more missions due to either combat fatigue or sheer fright. But Heck, a decorated pilot with many combat missions under his belt, said fear had nothing to do with his decision. "If they tell me now to go on milk runs, the B-52 targets over South Viet Nam where nobody gets shot at, I would feel no different. I would even refuse a ground job of supervising the loading of bombs or refueling aircraft. I can't be a participant." Why? “Because,” he explained, "the goals do not justify the mass destruction and killing."
By that time Heck had accumulated a long list of reasons to object to the war on moral grounds. There were four previous U.S. Air Force pilots who had refused to fly combat missions over Southeast Asia during the same year, including Captain’s Donald Dawson and Dwight Evans, both stationed at U-Tapao. But Heck’s case was the first that came to be known publicly on moral grounds. Heck was quickly reassigned to administrative duties following his decision.
Heck eventually claimed conscientious objector status as opposed to resigning his commission. He requested an honorable discharge, but this was denied. The investigating officer recommended Heck receive a court-martial. The American Civil Liberties Union represented his case and he filed a second resignation under Other-than-Honorable terms. This was accepted on 8 February 1973. Heck received the lowest grade discharge an officer can receive without a court-martial.
Capt. Heck told TIME's Peter Simms in January 1973: "This is the first time in my life that I have been able to feel really happy and good, because I have made the right decision."