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OPERATION NIAGARA: A Waterfall of Bombs at Khe Sanh

Besieged U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh, Vietnam, watch as a U.S. Air Force F-4 makes close air support strike over the area. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Besieged U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh, Vietnam, watch as a U.S. Air Force F-4 makes close air support strike over the area. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A U.S. Marine photographer is shown taking a photo of a USAF F-100 accurately delivering its bombs just a few yards outside the perimeter wire at Khe Sanh on March 15, 1968. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A U.S. Marine photographer is shown taking a photo of a USAF F-100 accurately delivering its bombs just a few yards outside the perimeter wire at Khe Sanh on March 15, 1968. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Marines rush to unload cargo from a USAF C-130 at Khe Sanh while a forward air controller (FAC) flies cover in the O-2 in the background. The FAC could quickly call in close air support to keep the enemy from firing mortar rounds at the C-130. Note the hole left in the ramp by a mortar. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Marines rush to unload cargo from a USAF C-130 at Khe Sanh while a forward air controller (FAC) flies cover in the O-2 in the background. The FAC could quickly call in close air support to keep the enemy from firing mortar rounds at the C-130. Note the hole left in the ramp by a mortar. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Air Force B-52s drop their loads of bombs on a close air support mission over Khe Sanh. Even from very high altitudes, they could accurately place their bombs within one-sixth of a mile of the besieged American forces. The aerial bombing campaign in support of the besieged American forces at Khe Sanh was named OPERATION NIAGARA for this “waterfall” of bombs. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Air Force B-52s drop their loads of bombs on a close air support mission over Khe Sanh. Even from very high altitudes, they could accurately place their bombs within one-sixth of a mile of the besieged American forces. The aerial bombing campaign in support of the besieged American forces at Khe Sanh was named OPERATION NIAGARA for this “waterfall” of bombs. (U.S. Air Force photo)

As seen from another aircraft, bombs released from a B-52 fall on communist forces attacking Khe Sanh. The aerial bombing campaign in support of the besieged American forces at Khe Sanh was named OPERATION NIAGARA for this “waterfall” of bombs. (U.S. Air Force photo)

As seen from another aircraft, bombs released from a B-52 fall on communist forces attacking Khe Sanh. The aerial bombing campaign in support of the besieged American forces at Khe Sanh was named OPERATION NIAGARA for this “waterfall” of bombs. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The intensive B-52 bombardment of enemy forces at Khe Sanh was shown by this montage pieced together from reconnaissance photos. White dots indicate where bombs fell (white areas on right show cloud cover). The heavy saturation of pock marks in the enemy-held area above Khe Sanh shows the remarkable accuracy of the B-52s. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The intensive B-52 bombardment of enemy forces at Khe Sanh was shown by this montage pieced together from reconnaissance photos. White dots indicate where bombs fell (white areas on right show cloud cover). The heavy saturation of pock marks in the enemy-held area above Khe Sanh shows the remarkable accuracy of the B-52s. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Altogether, the 98,721 tons of bombs dropped in OPERATION NIAGARA weighed more than the 93,000-ton aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65). (U.S. Air Force graphic)

Altogether, the 98,721 tons of bombs dropped in OPERATION NIAGARA weighed more than the 93,000-ton aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65). (U.S. Air Force graphic)

"From the beginning until the 60th day [the 60th day of the siege at Khe Sanh] B-52 bombers continually dropped their bombs in this area with ever growing intensity and at any moment of the day. If someone came to visit this place, he might say that this was a storm of bombs and ammunition which eradicated all living creatures and vegetation whatsoever, even those located in caves or in deep underground shelters."
- Entry in an enemy notebook captured at Khe Sanh

In the first months of 1968, the enemy attempted to capture a strategically located U.S. Marine combat base and its supporting outposts at Khe Sanh in northern South Vietnam. Reminded of how the communists had defeated the French forces at Diem Bien Phu in 1954, the world watched the siege unfold. However, air power applied by the U.S. Air Force helped the Marines successfully break the siege.

Cargo aircraft supplied the Marines with 160,000 artillery and mortar rounds they fired during the siege and also removed the wounded. The aerial bombing campaign was named OPERATION NIAGARA because of the "waterfall" of bombs that would fall on the communist forces. Together, USAF, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine aircraft provided effective close air support that kept the communists from successfully assaulting the main camp. Meanwhile, B-52s flying ARC LIGHT missions provided carefully controlled close air support that destroyed enemy positions and large numbers of communist soldiers. Altogether, the 98,721 tons of bombs dropped in OPERATION NIAGARA weighed more than the 93,000-ton aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65).

Using B-52s for close air support at Khe Sanh was considered a radical move. During the battle, Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. military operations in the Southeast Asia War, personally decided what targets they struck. Later, while talking to the B-52 crews at Andersen AFB on Guam, Westmoreland said what broke the communists' backs "was basically the fire of the B-52s." 

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Find Out More
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Other Resources
Air Power and the Fight for Khe Sanh (Provided by AFHSO)
Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support (Provided by AFHSO)
Tactics and Techniques of Close Air Support Operations, 1961-1973 (Provided by AFHSO)
Project CHECO Report, Khe Sanh (Provided by PACAF)
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