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July/August Issue

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The article, “The ’65 Decision: Bombing Soviet SAM Sites in North Vietnam,” by John Prados in the January/February of The VVA Veteran issue tells of the start of the conflict in the skies over North Vietnam between American air forces and the Soviet anti-aircraft missile systems.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine, there exists a small organization of veterans who participated in combat operations during the Vietnam War. Its membership consists of a few dozen men, who between 1965-73 carried out their military duty by defending the Vietnamese people against what the Soviet Union called American aggression. This article is presented by the Ukrainian veterans of the Vietnam War. It is based primarily on personal reminiscences and impressions of former Soviet air defense officers and enlisted personnel. This group of veterans is preparing a book for publication, Heaven and Earth of Vietnam.

It is well known that the main events of the war took place in South Vietnam, where the main battles took place and both sides fought and suffered heavy losses. In support of North Vietnam, combatants of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, local militia and guerrillas, and regular units of North Vietnam (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam or DRV) fought side by side. All of these forces required regular and constant delivery of weapons, ammunition, equipment, medical supplies, fuel, and food. In addition to supplying the fighting force, the local population in areas that supported these forces also had to be supplied.

In order to accomplish this massive supply effort, there was a constant stream of soldiers and supplies using all roads and paths running north to south. These paths through the jungle became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Supplies were shipped using every available means of transport, including bicycles. As the fresh soldiers and supplies went south, the wounded and women and children needing relief were going north.

It was only logical that American air forces would attack airfields, roads, bridges, ferries, power stations, industrial facilities, and ports. To locate the supply routes through the jungles they employed defoliants such as Agent Orange.

In the summer of 1964, the first air attacks were repelled only by World War II-era anti-aircraft artillery guns, which had been produced by the Soviet Union, China, and Czechoslovakia. These were 100mm, 85mm, and 57mm cannons with limited fire-control systems, 37mm and 23mm self-tracking guns, and double- and quad-barreled anti-aircraft guns. The first American aircraft was shot down over North Vietnam on August 5, 1964. Vietnamese and Soviet officers were issued a badge with the date “5.8” commemorating the event.

The North Vietnamese Air Force had only one regiment, consisting of MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighters. However, the Chinese Air Force had MiG-19 fighters stationed on Vietnamese and Chinese airfields, but these aircraft did not take part in combat operations. The light MiG-21 fighter was a formidable aircraft, but the training of the Vietnamese pilots left much to be desired.

The United States had complete domination of the air. Along with fast-attack aircraft such as the A-1H Skyraider, A-4 Skyhawk, F-105 Thunderchief, and the F5 Freedom Fighter, the Americans had heavy fighter-bombers such as the F-4B Phantom, A-6 Intruder, A-7 Corsair, and F-111 Raven. Reconnaissance missions were carried out by the SR-71 Blackbird, U-2 and E-2C Hawkeye. Electronic jamming was performed by the EB-66 Destroyer and later the EA-6B Prowler. These high-performance aircraft, coupled with the excellent training of their crews (especially the carrier-based aviation) and the vast numerical superiority of the American forces demonstrated that the task of defending North Vietnam could not be solved with the available weapon systems.

The Soviet Union had already developed several anti-aircraft missile systems. More than fifty C-75 (SA-1) anti-aircraft missile complexes had been established, forming two concentric rings around Moscow. The Soviet air defense forces also had three versions of the C-75 missile system. These were the SA-75 Dvina, C-75 Desna, and the C-75M Volkhov. The Soviets also had the C-125 Neva short-range missile system in operation.

By the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union was shipping its anti-aircraft missiles to the countries of Eastern Europe and to China, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Algeria, North Korea, and Cuba. Officers and soldiers from many of these countries, including Vietnam, studied these systems in the schools and academies of the USSR. On May 1, 1960, a CIA U-2 aircraft was downed over Russia. On October 27, 1962, another U-2 was shot down over Cuba.

The training on these new systems was very well organized in the Soviet Union. Each military unit would conduct live-fire training every two years. All officers, as well as the soldiers and non-commissioned officers, received excellent technical training. The crews were able to prepare the systems for firing, carry out testing and calibration, troubleshoot, and conduct repairs with limited support. All of these skills insured effectiveness in battle. Many of the Soviet division, regimental, and brigade commanders were veterans of World War II and the Korean War.

No special criteria were used to select men to serve abroad. Nobody asked their consent; they were given an order and carried it out. Those selected for overseas assignments only had to pass a medical exam. Their destination was not specified. They were only told the type of climate to prepare for: hot and dry meant Libya or Egypt; hot and humid meant Vietnam, Cuba, or India. Everything was classified, regardless of the country of destination. They all had the same mailing address: Moscow 400.

At the end of 1964 and beginning of 1965, the government of the USSR decided to respond to the request of the DRV to create an anti-aircraft missile force. By the end of January 1965, all the preparations were completed, weapons systems were selected, and the first group of Soviet advisers was scheduled to fly to Vietnam to conduct reconnaissance on February 1-2, 1965. However, this plan failed.

The problem was that all arms, equipment, and food shipments were carried out through China, which at the time was in the middle of its cultural revolution. The USSR, headed by Leonid Brezhnev, and China, headed by Mao Tse-Tung, were on hostile terms. This tension led to direct armed conflict on Damanky Island on the Amur River. Vietnam was pressured by its dependency on China and obediently followed Chinese policy. Jumping ahead ten years, this “friendship” ended with the Chinese invasion of Vietnam. However, by this time, Vietnam was no longer dependant on others for protection, and China was forced to retreat.

The Soviet plan of sending a brigade of 12 missile batteries, a radio-engineering battalion, and two regiments of fighter-interceptors was flatly rejected by the Chinese. The Chinese insisted that the Soviet Union supply only military hardware without personnel. The Chinese would supply the combat crews and would train the Vietnamese. The Soviet Union rejected this proposal.

The problem was resolved after a visit to Hanoi by the Soviet Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Alexey Kosygin. The Vietnamese persuaded the Chinese to accept an alternate plan. This plan called for the Soviet Union to organize and manage training centers in Vietnam, supply arms and equipment, bring missile sites into operation, and train the Vietnamese missile crews. The time required to train a missile regiment was initially four months. It later was shortened to two and a half months. According to Soviet regulations, a training facility should have had a staff of 75 specialists; however, due to Chinese demands, this number was reduced to 36.

Vietnamese who had studied in the Soviet Union and knew Russian were the first ones selected to attend the training centers. Other candidates were those who had previous electrical and radio-engineering experience, including students. No one with less than eight years of education was permitted to attend the centers. The Vietnamese had excellent interpreters.

At the end of April, the first classes began on the theory of anti-aircraft defense using technical descriptions, technical manuals, and instructions on combat operations. By mid-May, the first shipments of military equipment had arrived, and the Vietnamese began receiving hands-on training with the systems. However, their training was cut short. An order was issued to immediately prepare two anti-aircraft missile batteries from the training centers to take up positions around Hanoi. Because of the complete air superiority held by the Americans and the small number of anti-aircraft batteries, there was no way to establish an effective, mutually supporting air defense system.

Due to this shortage, the decision was made to conduct air defense operations using ambush tactics along the main American flight paths. After each engagement, the missile systems changed locations. Every battery established one or two fake positions and simulated combat activity at them. No less than three anti-aircraft regiments protected each battery and simulated position. Local inhabitants built roads and the simulated positions. In order to reduce vulnerability, only three or four launchers were set up at each site instead of the standard six, and the requirement to switch on the missile guidance transmitters was eliminated.

On the night of July 23-24, the batteries secretly took up their positions, and at 2:25 p.m. on July 24, a battery launched two missiles at a group of four American aircraft. Two aircraft were shot down. On this same day, a second battery shot down another aircraft. The President of the DRV decreed July 24 as “Day of the Vietnamese People’s Army Anti-aircraft Missile Forces.” Until the autumn of 1965, Soviet crews fired all missiles, with North Vietnamese officers observing. Once the Vietnamese were ready, they switched places. The Vietnamese turned out to be good combatants. Soviet officers took on the role of instructor/advisers. However, for more than ten years, Soviet specialists were responsible for all technical preparations of the missile systems, troubleshooting, and firing in difficult conditions.

The successes of the first year of air defense combat operations were due to the quality of the missile systems and the excellent combat training of the Vietnamese crews, as well as the carelessness of the American pilots in conducting combat flights in close formations, primarily at medium altitudes where the missile systems were most effective. They also did not employ effective jamming, had difficulty in identifying primary and false launch positions, and prematurely launched anti-radar shells.

However, the tables began to gradually turn. As the efficiency of the aviation strikes began to increase, the effectiveness of the air defense systems began to decrease. It became clear that the Dvina missile system, operational since 1957, was no match for the ever-increasing capabilities of such aircraft as the F-4 and A-6. It was ineffective at low (less than 1 km) and high (over 23 km) altitudes. It was incapable of engaging high-speed targets and possessed low interference immunity.

The Vietnamese who had studied in the USSR knew that we had more modern and effective air defense systems. There were photographs of these systems in the newspapers, and they were shown in newsreels while on parade. The political and military leaders of Vietnam periodically requested delivery of these new systems. They were particularly interested in track-mounted anti-aircraft guns and self-propelled systems. They wanted the capability of taking AAA systems into South Vietnam.

The Soviet Union did not fulfill these requests. The decision was made to modernize the existing systems. Modifications were made at the factories and to the systems already in the Vietnamese theater of war. To accomplish this, special groups of advisers were created.

In addition to the Soviet missile systems, the Chinese supplied CA-75 MK systems (the “K” indicates its Chinese origin) that were in operation and being used by the Vietnamese air defense forces. Although the Vietnamese agreed not to pass documents and technology of the weapons modernization to the Chinese, they did not comply. At night, when the Soviet specialists had left, the Chinese gathered in the workshops and made alterations to their technical documents and carefully studied our components and technology. The Vietnamese ran interference for the Chinese, going as far as arranging for separate entrances to get the Chinese out before the Soviet specialists arrived.

Until March 1969, there was a great Chinese dominance in Vietnam. There were many ethnic Chinese in the country, and they held important positions in the Vietnamese Army. As Vietnamese troops were transferred to the south, they were replaced by Chinese troops in the north. And a good number of the military specialists and interpreters had studied in China and worshiped everything Chinese.

One day an interpreter praised the Chinese helmets: “They are so beautiful, well painted, with shining straps. Look how ugly these Soviet helmets are.” A commander of a Soviet launch battery, a tall strong Ukrainian officer, asked the interpreter to give him his beautiful helmet. Then he took his own helmet and the Chinese helmet in his hands and, with all his might, smashed them together. The Soviet helmet suffered only some minor paint damage, while the Chinese helmet cracked front to back. Soviet helmets were battle tested in World War II and were produced from the finest Ural steel. The next day, all the Vietnamese soldiers were wearing Soviet helmets.

Thus, only the CA-75M Dvina missile system was used in Vietnam. About 7,000 missiles and about 100 launch systems were supplied. But, by the beginning of 1973, only 40 systems remained combat ready. On average, every system was hit four times by American aviation strikes. The Soviet system of military repair made it possible to restore the missiles and their launchers quickly to full combat readiness. For example, on December 19, 1972, only 15 of the 20 batteries were operational in the Hanoi and Haiphong areas. By December 29, 19 of the 20 were operational. In addition, nearly 50 aircraft were shot down in this period, 30 of which were B-52 strategic bombers, according to North Vietnamese claims.

Anti-aircraft missile batteries were well protected by anti-aircraft artillery units. Some batteries were protected by as many as four anti-aircraft machine gun and artillery regiments. A wall of lead was created about the missile systems. During engagements, fragments from the shells and rounds fell thick like rain.

Because of the ever-reducing number of CA-75M missile systems in the Vietnamese Army, the Soviet Union began delivery of the C-125 Neva short-range air defense missile system to North Vietnam. This system was also called the Pechora. In 1973, twelve C-125 systems arrived and were put into operation by the North Vietnamese. However, the air war had already ended.

Who were the Soviet soldiers who took part in combat operations in Vietnam? There were small groups of sailors who cleared ports and rivers of mines, explosive specialists, pilot advisers who trained the Vietnamese on Soviet aircraft, and instructors who trained aviation engineers and technicians. The majority of the Soviet contingent, though, consisted of air defense officers: missile officers, specialists from the radio engineering corps, missile maintenance technicians, repair officers, staff officers, and political officers or commissars, as they were called in Vietnam. Soviet specialists never went below the 17th parallel into South Vietnam until after the consolidation of the country at the end of 1975.

The first specialists to arrive in Vietnam were officers of the training centers, who already were experienced in training (tactical, missile firing, technical) combat crews in the Soviet Union. This training culminated with strict testing and live firing on test ranges.

These men were followed by the missile regiments, which arrived along with the military equipment sent from the Soviet Union. They were given Vietnamese soldiers and officers, who mirrored all positions on the crews from commander to private. After an intensive training that lasted from 2-4 months, a regiment would begin combat operations, consisting of 1-2 batteries using ambush tactics. In 1965-66, all missiles were launched by Soviet crews with duplication by the Vietnamese. If the launches were successful, only then would the Vietnamese be able to launch. Soviet specialists formed regimental groups, consisting of 12-17 advisers, and worked in the batteries only when necessary. The technicians worked very hard, primarily at night, preparing and maintaining the missile systems.

Air defense batteries operated, as a rule, from ambush locations. These locations were in almost inaccessible terrain. Worse yet, the sites had to be cleared, thereby eliminating the natural cover provided by the jungle and making them difficult to disguise. Soviet officers tended not to use the positions chosen by the Vietnamese beforehand. These sites already had been discovered by the SR-71 and U-2 aircraft, reconnaissance drones, as well as by South Vietnamese spies.
After launching one or two missiles, batteries would quickly pack up their equipment and hide in the jungle, because once American reconnaissance was conducted, positions were bombed. If false launch sites were in the immediate area, strikes often were made on them. It was then that the anti-aircraft artillery and machine guns, as well as the detachments of the local militia, got involved in the action. American losses from concentrated AAA and small arms fire were great. The Vietnamese always verified shoot-down claims and searched for downed aircraft to collect serial numbers. On occasion, these searches caused them to penetrate across the border into Laos. They then tried to determine who shot the aircraft down. Was it air-to-air (extremely rare), air defense missile forces, air defense artillery, machine gunners, or the peoples’ volunteers?

There were occasions when an aircraft was downed by a missile at high altitude, and during its fall it was fired upon by everyone and would be torn apart. It was impossible to determine if a missile struck because it was riddled with holes. In the end, credit always went to the Vietnamese peoples’ volunteer army. It was, after all, a “people’s war.”

The air defense missile forces rarely were able to witness the results of their firing since most launches were conducted at targets 7-30 kilometers away from a battery’s position.

The combat operations of the air defense forces in North Vietnam had little in common with the war in South Vietnam. We did not fire from cannons or machine guns. We did not rush into the attack, and we did not sit in defensive fighting positions. We did not even have personal weapons. We never looked into the face of our enemy, unless we happened to meet on roads or in interrogations. The latter was often done behind a curtain.

This was the first war fought with modern technology. On one side were the most modern and advanced aircraft in the world, loaded with electronics, radio equipment, anti-radar missiles, laser-guided bombs, and jamming equipment. These aircraft were flown by well-trained, experienced, bold, and courageous pilots, confident in their futures and always aspiring to fulfill the missions given to them by their commanders.

On the other side were the first Soviet anti-aircraft missile systems, at the time not perfect, but which later became the best in the world, carrying missiles shipped thousands of miles. At the screens and helms of these missile-guidance systems sat young Soviet officers and their Vietnamese students. These opponents were clearly worthy of each other. Had they instead fought together, they could have defeated any foe.

Why did the Soviets have so much respect for the American pilots? First, there was the fact that Americans were concerned about their fallen comrades. Many times our officers witnessed Americans trying to rescue a downed pilot, pulling him from the sea or from the dense jungle. If a pilot ejected, the Americans blocked the area, doing all they could to rescue him by helicopter.

We do not have reliable and detailed information about the attempted helicopter rescue in the vicinity of Son Tay, outside of Hanoi. Unfortunately, the attempt was unsuccessful because information was somehow leaked, and the prisoners were transferred to different facilities prior to the American raid. But this attempt caused us to respect the Americans.

To the American pilots’ credit, they never violated agreements not to bomb certain objectives, places where Soviet specialists and diplomats were located. The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, held prisoners of war near the presidential palace, near the Hanoi electrical power station, in factories, and around military academies to prevent strikes on them.

American pilots behaved with dignity, even during interrogations. We could tell they knew that behind them stood a superpower. They knew their families were taken care of and that they would not be persecuted and exiled to Siberia, as was practiced with returning Soviet prisoners of war following World War II. Probably, American pilots adhered to the same principles as the officers of the Russian pre-revolutionary army: “Life to the Motherland, Heart to the woman, Honor to nobody.”

The first contact of the Kharkiv veterans of the war in Vietnam 1965-75 took place in 1999, when representatives of the US-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIA (USRJC) traveled to Kiev. These representatives were led by James Robert Bishop. The purpose of their visit was to learn what we knew about the possibility of American pilots taken to China or the USSR, the treatment of POWs by the Soviet and Vietnamese servicemen, interrogations of American pilots, details of American aircraft shoot downs, and if we knew about possible burial sites of Americans. The meetings were very tense. Shortly before the Americans’ arrival, NATO began bombing the capital of Yugoslavia. Our veterans remembered the years at the beginning of World War II and the bombings they endured in North Vietnam.

After several years, our meetings with the USRJC and Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office recommenced with the arrival of MSG Michael Lunini and James Connell. We helped them search for documents and organize meetings with veterans and the leadership of the Air Force University.

We were then visited by Robert Maras, Chairman of the VVA’s Veterans Initiative Task Force, and Margaret Porter, VVA’s Director of Communications and editor of The VVA Veteran. Since our first meeting, we have developed a strong and close relationship with these and other representatives of VVA. Their visits were made possible with the assistance and support of VVA President John Rowan.

They gave us the latest edition of The VVA Veteran (we enjoyed reading the article by Margaret Porter about their journey to Ukraine), information concerning veterans’ organizations in the United States, pamphlets on meetings with veterans, a collection of poems written by veterans entitled Landing Zone, and Sen. John McCain’s book Faith of my Fathers. We have known about this pilot and his history for a long time. We are now reading in our newspapers about his possible candidacy in the Republican Party for the post of President of the U.S.A.

We familiarized ourselves with the literature they provided us on the structure, organization, and functions of Vietnam Veterans of America. Indeed, America is a wealthy nation and can give such worthy provisions to support its Vietnam veterans. We were amazed by the great care and warmth shown to the veterans, the wide network of medical and rehabilitation centers, and organized assistance in such areas as housing, employment, transportation, medical equipment, and monuments in Washington and in other states.

It is obvious that this organization is well managed and operated. Nobody is forgotten, nothing is forgotten. Veterans are remembered and respected. Nobody says to them, “We did not send you to Vietnam,” as we are often told.

Our country, Ukraine, became independent only 15 years ago. We are only beginning to work our way toward a fair and successful society, in which our children and grandchildren will live. Friendship between our veterans’ organizations will help our future generations better understand each other.

We ask American Vietnam veterans to accept our wishes for happiness, health, and many long years of life.

Retired Col. Nikolay Shershnev is a Soviet veteran of the Vietnam War and a professor at the Kharkiv University of Air Forces in Ukraine. This article was translated from Russian by Irina Romanchenko and Michael Lunini.


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