Veterans remember 50 years since Vietnam War’s largest bombing campaign
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COLUMBIA, Missouri (KOMU) -- John Clark and Wayne Wallingford were 30,000 feet apart during Christmas of 1972.
Clark, a U.S. Air Force pilot who had been shot down 5 years earlier, was a prisoner of war in Hanoi, the capital city of North Vietnam.
"That was probably the safest place you could have been in North Vietnam when all that was going on," Clark said about the largest bombing campaign in the Vietnam war.
"Because all of our bombers knew where it was. And the guys were scared to death that they might accidentally drop a bomb where we were."
The campaign was officially known as Operation Linebacker II.
But back home in the United States, it was referred to as the "Christmas Bombings," because it ran from Dec. 18 to Dec. 29, with no bombing on Christmas Day.
One of the men mentioned above, Wallingford, became a tenured combat pilot. He flew more than 300 combat missions in Vietnam, and says he did more flights than anyone else in the B-52 bomber during the operation.
Today, Wallingford is the director of Missouri's Department of Revenue.
"We wanted to get out of there, we wanted to end the conflict and go home, and more importantly, free our 591 POWs," Wallingford said. "And that's what we accomplished. So it was worth it in my mind.”
Clark, who lives in Columbia, was one of those 591 prisoners of war.
“Impending death seems to seek me out," Clark said. "Like getting shot down and then almost dying was a POW."
By the time his release came in early 1973, Clark had spent 6 years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese.
The U.S. military credits Operation Linebacker II for forcing the North Vietnamese back to its diplomatic talks and causing a ceasefire agreement, which also freed the prisoners of war.
"On December 13, the North Vietnamese walked out of the Paris Peace Talks," Wallingford said. "And so when Henry Kissinger reported that to President Nixon, he was very upset about that and gave the North Vietnamese an ultimatum."
Some believe the North Vietnamese would have resumed negotiations without the bombing campaign.
But now, 50 years later, Wallingford and Clark hope important lessons are carried forward despite the bloodshed during that pivotal moment in the war.
More than 1,600 North Vietnamese were killed during the campaign. The Air Force claims there were "minimal civillian casualties."
The U.S. lost 26 total aircraft during the campaign.
Today, the two give talks and presentations on their experiences in the war.
Despite only formally meeting a couple years ago, Wallingford calls Clark one of his "best friends."
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