Sgt. James R. Cook is listed as a POW by the North Vietnamese government (1972)
Frustrated by problems in negotiating a peace settlement, and pressured by Congress and the American public wanting an immediate end to our involvement in Vietnam, President Richard Nixon ordered the most concentrated air offensive of the war. This operation was known as “Linebacker II”, and was launched in December 1972. During the offensive, sometimes called the “Christmas bombings”, 40,000 tons of bombs were dropped, primarily over the area between Hanoi and Haiphong. White House Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler said that the bombing would end only when all U.S. POWs were released and an internationally recognized cease-fire was in force.
“The Christmas Bombings”, despite press accounts to the contrary, were some of the most precise the world had ever seen. American pilots involved in the immense series of strikes generally agreed that the strikes against anti-aircraft and strategic targets were so successful that the U.S., had it desired, “could have taken the entire country of Vietnam by inserting an average Boy Scout troop in Hanoi and marching them southward.”
To achieve such precision bombing, the Pentagon thought it necessary to adhere to a regular flight path. For many missions, the B-52 bomber strikes were easily anticipated and prepared for by the North Vietnamese. Later, however, flight paths were altered which nearly eliminated any hostile threat from the ground.
However, the bombings were not conducted without exceedingly high loss of aircraft and personnel. During the month of December 1972, 62 crewmembers of B-52 aircraft were shot down and captured or went missing. Of these 62 crewmembers, 33 men were released in 1973. The others remained missing at the end of the war. More than half of these survived to eject safely.
One B-52 aircraft flown by Capt. Robert J. Morris, Jr. was shot down near Hanoi on Dec. 26, 1972. The crew onboard included Capt. Michael H. LaBeau; Capt. Nutter J. Wimbrow III; Lt. Robert M. Hudson; Lt. Duane P. Vavroch; and Sgt. James R. Cook. The pilot gave the bailout order and the crew of the aircraft parachuted to safety.
The North Vietnamese captured LaBeau, Vavroch, Hudson and Cook almost immediately. Cook had been badly injured. These four spent the next six weeks as “guests” in the Hanoi prison system. Ultimately, they were released in Operation Homecoming on February 12, 1973. These four airmen considered themselves very lucky. In November 1996, James Cook retired from the United States Air Force as a Senior Master Sergeant, 24 years after being listed as a Prisoner of War, December 26, 1972.
– Scott T. Farb
Scott Farb is a local historian who currently works with the Indian Trail Historical Society.