Dragon's Jaw

An Epic Story of Courage and Tenacity in Vietnam


By Stephen Coonts

By Barrett Tillman

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The epic Vietnam War story of the multi-year air campaign to destroy Ho Chi Minh's "Invincible" bridge–one of the most dramatic actions in aviation history
  Every war has its "bridge"–Old North Bridge at Concord, Burnside's Bridge at Antietam, the railway bridge over Burma's River Kwai, the bridge over Germany's Rhine River at Remagen, and the bridges over Korea's Toko Ri. In Vietnam it was the bridge at Thanh Hoa, called Dragon's Jaw.   For many years hundreds of young US airmen flew sortie after sortie against North Vietnam's formidable and strategically important bridge, dodging a heavy concentration of anti-aircraft fire, surface-to-air missiles and enemy fighters. Many American airmen were shot down, killed, or captured and taken to the infamous POW prisons in Hanoi. But after each air attack, when the smoke cleared and the debris settled, the bridge stubbornly remained standing. For the North Vietnamese it became a symbol of their invincibility; for US war planners an obsession; for US airmen a testament to American mettle and valor.   Using after-action reports, official records, and interviews with surviving pilots, as well as previously untapped Vietnamese sources, Dragon's Jaw chronicles American efforts to destroy the bridge, strike by bloody strike, putting readers into the cockpits, under fire. The story of the Dragon's Jaw is a story rich in bravery, audacity, sometimes luck and sometimes tragedy. The "bridge" story of Vietnam is an epic tale of war against a determined foe.


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Bridges are the tangible products of the advance of a civilization that urges people to pool their resources and join together to construct a permanent way over a watercourse or chasm not only for their use but also the use of those who will come after them. When war comes, as it often does, bridges become the focal point of military strategy to exploit, defend, or destroy.

Military history is full of bridges: Xerxes’ boat bridge across the Hellespont in 480 BC, Horatius at the Tiber bridge, Scottish hero William Wallace at Stirling in 1297, the Old North Bridge at Concord, Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam, “the bridge too far” across the lower Rhine at Arnhem, the Ludendorff Bridge across the Rhine at Remagen—to mention just a few. Battles for bridges have determined the outcomes of campaigns and the fate of empires.

French colonial administrators in what was then French Indochina in the late nineteenth century were determined to build a rail network in Vietnam to tie the country together, and bridges were a key part of that plan. The Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi was named after the French colonial administrator Paul Doumer (Du-MAY), under whose administration the work was begun. It was completed in 1902, and for a time its mile-long cantilever design was the longest span in Asia.

Eighty miles south of that the French built another bridge across the Ma River (Song Ma) that, from time immemorial, people and livestock had crossed in small boats, or sampans. French engineers decided that the best place to bridge the river was nine miles inland from the Tonkin Gulf, a site three miles northeast of the provincial capital of Thanh Hoa, where the river flowed between a jagged limestone ridge on its west side and a small hillock on the east. The river gorge was about fifty feet deep. The Vietnamese who lived nearby thought these geological features looked like bones on the sides of a dragon’s jaw, so that became the popular name for the location and where the French built their bridge. Completed in 1904, the Cau Ham Rong, or the Dragon’s Jaw Bridge, was a single span of 532 feet, a double-steel arch with vertical beams supporting the deck.

After France surrendered to Germany in World War II, a pro-Axis Vichy French regime took over in Indochina, one that cooperated with the Japanese. Japanese troops occupied the country, which they probably would have done regardless of whether the French cooperated.

In 1945 the Vietnamese resistance, the Viet Minh, looking for a way to interrupt Japanese-Vichy logistics, decided to destroy the bridge at Thanh Hoa. Popular legend has it that they hijacked two locomotives, loaded them with explosives, and set them racing to crash head-on in the center of the bridge. Whatever the truth may be, an explosion did indeed destroy the bridge.

After World War II a new French government sent administrators and troops to reclaim their lost colony, only to run into a whirlwind of Vietnamese partisans. The war dragged on until 1954, when the French army was massively defeated at Dien Bien Phu. In 1954 a multination Geneva Convention divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel of latitude. President Diem refused to recognize the division, claiming that fair elections were impossible in the Communist north, a claim that was indubitably true. An estimated one million Vietnamese moved south of the 17th parallel, and Hanoi began supporting Communist guerillas in the south.

The fact that the Vietnamese partisans in the north were avowed Communists, led by a longtime Communist named Ho Chi Minh and supported by the Communist governments of China and the Soviet Union, was political poison in the United States. Despite the fact that Vietnam, a tropical backwater of rice paddies and mosquitos with a subsistence economy, was literally on the other side of the world from the United States, the conventional wisdom in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations was that its fate was tied to all of Indochina and, ultimately, Indonesia and Australia. At the height of the Cold War no administration, Democrat or Republican, could afford to be called “soft on Communism.” The Eisenhower and then Kennedy administrations gave money and military assistance to the South Vietnamese government after the Geneva agreements of 1954.

In 1957, twelve years after World War II ended and three years after Vietnam’s partition into North and South, the Communist regime in Hanoi decided to rebuild the Thanh Hoa Bridge across the Ma River. The decision to rebuild the rail and road network along the coast that linked the nation—north or north-and-south combined—together was absolutely inevitable. The new structure was built in precisely the same location, the Dragon’s Jaw, as the old bridge destroyed by the Viet Minh in 1945. It was largely designed by Nguyen Dinh Doan, a structural engineer.

Some Westerners considered the bridge overengineered and overbuilt; certainly it was up to the task. Two steel truss spans met in the middle of the river on a massive, oval-shaped, reinforced concrete pier measuring sixteen feet across at the narrowest point. The cantilever spans from both banks were affixed to concrete abutments anchored against the bridge’s limestone ridge on the west and the hillock on the opposite bank, and the “free ends” met on the concrete pier. These free ends were moveable due to the stresses and natural flexing of the structure. Fifty-six feet wide, the bridge supported a narrow-gauge railway track with concrete roadways on either side. The bottom of the structure measured about fifty feet above the surface of the river at normal flow. The French design had been elegant; the Vietnamese was practical and designed to carry more traffic. Like the French bridge, the structure was oriented east and west, a location dictated by the natural channel of the river. The railroad approaches on both ends were about two miles in length.1

The North Vietnamese worked on the bridge for seven years, finishing it in 1964. Although the first train had crossed on May 15, the bridge was dedicated on President Ho Chi Minh’s seventy-fourth birthday, May 19. The Dragon’s Jaw Bridge represented North Vietnam’s emerging status in the region and was a source of national pride above the 17th parallel. Although President Ho was not there, the Vietnamese politburo was well represented at the dedication ceremonies. The luminaries included Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, Deputy Prime Minister Le Thanh Nghi, and other Communist officials, including the ministers of transportation and heavy and light industry and the first secretary of the youth central committee. Communist propaganda organs pulled out all the stops: newspapers all over the North trumpeted the brilliant work of engineers, factory workers, laborers, and, above all, the superb leadership of the Communist Party in bringing this grand national achievement to fruition.

The same month the Dragon’s Jaw was dedicated, the Americans began frequent reconnaissance flights over Laos, supporting the Laotian government in Vientiane, which was also under attack by Communist guerillas. Frequently the jets were fired upon, and in June Communist Pathet Lao shot down two US Navy planes. Both pilots were eventually recovered, but tensions between the United States and North Vietnam increased.

While the North Vietnamese were building a bridge on the Ma River, John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States.* In his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, he said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Fine rhetoric, but even the most optimistic must have wondered just how far Kennedy would push it.

Behind that rhetoric was a policy dilemma with which the Kennedy administration was soon grappling. The Eisenhower administration had relied heavily on nuclear deterrence to keep world peace and allowed America’s military conventional war capability to atrophy from lack of investment. The Korean War, which lasted three years and ended in a stalemate, revulsed the American public, which was thoroughly sick of wars. Was there a compromise, some way between these two extremes to militarily resist Communist aggression? The Bay of Pigs incident at the start of the Kennedy administration, followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis, made these policy choices the subject of great debate in Washington.

Kennedy brought into his administration highly educated young men from the northeastern US establishment, the New Frontiersmen. Robert S. McNamara, the new secretary of defense, had been president of Ford Motor Company for five weeks and was a disciple of quantitative analysis. He staffed the defense department with his “Whiz Kids,” young men who believed wholeheartedly in quantitative analysis and distrusted senior military officers, whom they regarded as intellectually inferior fossils who relied upon “military experience,” which these Whiz Kids distrusted instinctively. The Whiz Kids were arrogant, condescending, and inclined to ignore the advice of military professionals, if they asked for it at all.

Kennedy’s national security adviser was former Harvard dean McGeorge Bundy, another tweedy elitist with self-confidence oozing from every pore.

Kennedy and McNamara found an ally in retired General Maxwell Taylor, former Army chief of staff, and they brought him back to active duty and again installed him as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Taylor had written a book—always a door opener with JFK—in which he argued that the policy of massive nuclear response to Communist aggression was obsolete and needed to be replaced with one of flexible response. Taylor reveled in the role of the administration’s military Richelieu.* He gradually took over the function of the JCS and often failed or refused to pass the Chiefs’ policy positions to the White House, preferring instead to rely upon McNamara’s civilian staffers and his own infallible judgment.

There were civilian staffers who urged Kennedy to get more militarily involved in Vietnam—against the advice of the uniformed professionals. Army chief of staff General George H. Decker said bluntly that “we cannot win a conventional war in Southeast Asia,” so he was forced to retire after his first two-year term.

In his seminal work, Dereliction of Duty, H. R. McMaster wrote, “Already predisposed to distrust senior military officers he had inherited from the Eisenhower administration, the Bay of Pigs Cuban incident and the Laotian Crisis motivated the president to seek a changing of the guard at the Pentagon. After the Bay of Pigs, an unsatisfactory diplomatic settlement in Laos, confrontation with the Kremlin over a divided Berlin, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s bullying rhetoric persuaded Kennedy that the United States needed to ‘make its power credible.’

“‘Vietnam,’ Kennedy concluded, ‘is the place.’”2

So more money and military assistance flowed to the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon.

Yet during the Kennedy administration the South Vietnamese, even with American help, were losing the war with the Viet Cong. The Diem regime was blatantly corrupt and militarily incapable. It was obvious to Washington decision-makers that unless something changed, the Viet Cong, backed by North Vietnam, would eventually conquer the South. That truth was not shared with the American public.

South Vietnam was not a modern nation in any sense of the word. There was no concept of a loyal opposition or open and free debate on public issues. The government was venal and corrupt. So-called sects—or armed gangs—existed by shaking down the population. Military units were tied to the area from which their personnel were recruited and could not be used for offensive thrusts elsewhere in the country. The generals in charge of the military could be compared to feudal warlords. South Vietnam in the 1960s resembled England in the fourteenth century.

Several months before he died, hoping for a more stable government in Saigon, Kennedy authorized the CIA to arrange a coup, one that resulted in the murder of President Diem and his brother by South Vietnamese army officers on November 1, 1963. The situation in Saigon got no better, and in the ensuing months seven coups followed, one after another.

The assassin’s bullet that killed Kennedy on November 22, 1963, a mere three weeks after Diem’s murder, dropped Vietnam into Lyndon B. Johnson’s lap.

Big, blustery, and quick-tempered, Lyndon Johnson’s political style tended toward intimidation more than leadership. Even his most ardent fans admit that Johnson had neither the intellectual capacity nor the executive experience to understand the consequences, intended and unintended, resulting from policy choices. Nor did he have the moral courage to be a war leader.

McMaster noted, “Both Lyndon Johnson’s self-doubt and his willingness to forego the truth would color his relationship with his principal military advisers and shape the way that the United States became more deeply involved in the Vietnam War.”3 Baldly, Johnson had a real propensity for lying for his own political benefit. In Robert S. McNamara he found a soul mate.

McNamara later stated that on his ascendency to the presidency,

Johnson was left with a national security team that, although it remained intact, was deeply split over Vietnam. Its senior members had failed to face up to the basic questions that had confronted Eisenhower and then Kennedy: Would the loss of South Vietnam pose a threat to U.S. security serious enough to warrant extreme action to prevent it? If so, what kind of action should we take? Should it include the introduction of air and ground forces? Launching attacks against North Vietnam? Risking a war with China? What would be the ultimate cost of such a program in economic, military, political, and human terms? Could it succeed? If the chances of success were low and the costs high, were there other courses—such as neutralization or withdrawal—that deserved careful study and debate?

Lyndon Johnson inherited these questions (although they were not presented clearly to him), and he inherited them without answers. They remained unanswered throughout his presidency, and for many years afterward.4

McNamara, although nominally only secretary of defense, became President Johnson’s principal adviser on Vietnam. “McNamara would dominate the policy-making process because of three mutually reinforcing factors: the Chiefs’ ineffectiveness as an advisory group, Johnson’s profound insecurity, and the president’s related unwillingness to entertain divergent views on the subject of Vietnam. Above all President Johnson needed reassurance.… McNamara could sense the president’s desires and determined to do all he could to fulfill them. He would become Lyndon Johnson’s ‘oracle’ for Vietnam.”5 And he would not raise these basic policy questions with the president that he identified in his apologia, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.6

* It is not our purpose in this book to write a history of the Vietnam War but to illuminate Americans’ efforts to destroy and, to the extent we can, North Vietnamese efforts to defend just one bridge, the Dragon’s Jaw at Thanh Hoa. Still, to understand the battles over the bridge, we must see them in context, so a brief discussion of America’s involvement is in order.

* Cardinal Richelieu was the powerful minister of France who basically ran the country during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and drastically curtailed the power of the aristocracy. Taylor did the same to the JCS.



On the afternoon of August 2, 1964, the US Navy destroyer USS Maddox (DD-731) engaged three hostile torpedo boats off the North Vietnamese coast in the Gulf of Tonkin. The ship was monitoring North Vietnamese radio traffic and South Vietnamese commando raids against the north.

Due to intercepted communications, Maddox officers believed the Communist PT boats intended to attack, and so they retreated from several miles off the coast to about twenty-eight miles out. Maddox was capable of making twenty-eight knots at top speed, yet the enemy boats were capable of fifty. Maddox’s commanding officer (CO), Captain John J. Herrick, ordered his gunners to fire three warning shots when the enemy boats closed to ten thousand yards.

They did so, opening the battle.

The Vietnamese launched torpedoes that Maddox evaded as the enemy boats zipped along at high speed with machine guns hammering as the destroyer’s three- and five-inch batteries blasted away. It would have been quite a feat for the American gunners to hit tiny targets skittering along at fifty knots, and they didn’t, even though they whanged off 280 shells at the enemy. Still, it was a dilly of a little sea battle. Yet the Americans had backup. While the American destroyer and Vietnamese boats exchanged torpedoes and gunfire, four F-8 Crusader fighters from USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14)—the “Tico”—arrived and dove into the fight. The fighters shot up the boats with 20-mm cannon and rockets as the Vietnamese retreated toward the coast.

Four North Vietnamese sailors were killed and six wounded in the incident. The Maddox sustained one small hole from a North Vietnamese machine gun bullet. Interestingly, the Johnson administration conveniently forgot about the warning shots that Maddox fired and always insisted that the North Vietnamese fired the first shots.

Two days later the USS Turner Joy (DD-951) joined the Maddox to reinforce right of passage in international waters. With darkness falling, US shipboard radar detected a distant contact, prompting a hasty conclusion that the Vietnamese were attacking again. But they weren’t. The nervous sailors on the sonars and radars were seeing echoes, or ghosts. Once more, Tico Crusaders were summoned, and for more than two hours the Americans shelled and strafed the area.

Leading the fighters was Commander James B. Stockdale, who was asked by an intelligence officer when he trapped back aboard the Tico if he saw any boats. “Not a one,” Stockdale replied. “No boats, no wakes, no ricochets off boats, no boat gunfire. For goodness’ sake, I must be going crazy. How could all of that commotion have built up without something being behind it?”*1

Although evaluation of radar and sonar records produced no confirmation of hostile action on August 4, President Lyndon B. Johnson seized the hilt of the sword with both hands and jerked it free of the stone. With a presidential election barely ninety days away, Johnson was not going to risk being called “pink” in contrast to his hawkish conservative opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater. Johnson was the moderate candidate, but he saw the possibility of armed retaliation against the North Vietnamese as a gift from heaven, allowing him a political masterstroke. Johnson wanted to win the election “bigger than anyone had ever won.”2

Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam the next day, August 5, resulting in two planes shot down, with one US pilot killed, Lieutenant Richard C. Salter, and one captured, Lieutenant Edward Alvarez Jr. As a prisoner of the Communists, Alvarez would be subjected to torture and physical abuse for eight and a half years.

On August 7, 1964, Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing military action without a declaration of war.* There was almost no opposition; only two Democratic senators dissented. During the debate Wayne Morse of Oregon said, “I believe that history will record that we have made a great mistake in subverting and sabotaging the Constitution of the United States.” Although defeated for reelection in 1968, Morse would remain a leading Democrat dove for the rest of the war.3

The die was cast. The storm had been gathering for years. The Johnson administration was determined to escalate the conflict, and the fanatic ideologues in Hanoi had no intention of giving up their ambition to reunite the country under Communist leadership. An armed cataclysm with the United States, the most powerful nation on the planet, was inevitable.

At first the American plan was to use air power gradually against North Vietnam, then the United States would increase pressure slowly. Robert McNamara’s “graduated response” was supposed to force the North Vietnamese Communists to abandon their goal of reuniting Vietnam while ensuring that Red China did not send troops across the border to prevent North Vietnam’s military collapse.

McMaster noted in his seminal work, Dereliction of Duty, “Graduated pressure depended on the assumption that the limited application of force would compel the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table and exact from them a favorable diplomatic settlement. There was no need to pursue military victory because negotiations would achieve the same political objectives with only the threat of more severe military action. The only question was when, not if, the enemy would be induced to negotiate.”4

It was a prescription for military and political failure.

Cyrus Vance, McNamara’s deputy secretary of defense during the Johnson years, said in 1970 that “we had seen the gradual application of force applied in the Cuban Missile Crisis and had seen a very successful result. We believed that, if this same gradual and restrained application of force were applied in South Vietnam, that one could expect the same result.”5 Of course, US troops were not fighting in Cuba, a fact that made the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War incomparable, nor was the Soviet Union engaged in total war to unify the nation. Sadly, this flawed premise was the intellectual foundation for how the United States conducted the war in Vietnam during the Johnson administration.

As journalist David Halberstam said of McNamara, “He was—there is no kinder or gentler word for it—a fool.”6

So the air-power storm was coming, and Thanh Hoa Bridge, that strategic target on Route One, was doomed. Or was it? The Americans soon learned that they lacked the air power weapons necessary to destroy the bridge, and the Vietnamese learned that they could bleed American air forces with guns, fighters, and missiles.

In 1964 there were 23,000 American military personnel in South Vietnam and 6,500 in Thailand. The numbers soon skyrocketed. In 1965 nearly 185,000 American servicemen were in Vietnam, 26,000 of them Air Force personnel; in Thailand, where the Americans had built air bases, there were another 9,000 Air Force servicemen.7

By June of 1965, ten months after Lyndon Johnson threw down the bloody gauntlet and seven months after he was reelected, the US Air Force had moved 460 aircraft to Southeast Asia, yet fighter-bombers were few: seventy-nine F-105 Thunderchiefs and eighteen F-4 Phantoms. The F-105s had been designed to deliver nuclear weapons in the event of total war with China or the Soviet Union. Both these airplanes had an air-to-air capability if they weren’t carrying bombs under their wings. They lacked any computer or radar that would simplify the pilot’s job of dropping bombs. This meant that conventional high-explosive bombs were delivered the same way they had been delivered since the 1920s, with the pilot looking through an optical-mechanical bombsight as he dove at the target and then pushing a button to release the weapons.

The F-105 Thunderchief had a single engine and single pilot and, thanks to a large afterburner, was supersonic—but not while carrying external weapons. The Air Force’s policy of demanding that all tactical aircraft be supersonic meant that the wings were not optimized for carrying bombs, so subsonic performance suffered. Still, the Thud, as it was called by those who flew and maintained it, could escape the target area at supersonic speed after the bombs were gone, an advantage Thud drivers came to appreciate.

The F-4 Phantom II was a Navy design and, thanks to the idiocy of the admirals, lacked guns. It was designed as an interceptor to protect the fleet. It was touted as a Mach 2 fighter and carried missiles—heat-seeking Sidewinders and radar-guided Sparrows. The two crewmen, seated in tandem, could also use the raw power of two internal engines and afterburners to haul bombs for visual delivery, then escape at supersonic speeds if fuel was not a concern. Air Force Phantoms were not intended to launch from and land aboard aircraft carriers, but they had the same landing gear, tailhook, and beefed-up airframe of the Navy versions. Amazingly, they were supposedly several hundred pounds heavier than the Navy version, the F-4J.


  • "Master military storytellers Coonts and Tillman have impressively combined their literary firepower to craft a detailed and eminently readable tale about the long­ sought take-down of the notorious Thanh Hoa Bridge. Dragon'sJaw reads like the powerful thriller that it is--but it's no fiction!"—Christina Olds, coauthor of Fighter Pilot
  • "Vietnam War naval aviator Stephen Coonts and top military historian Barrett Tillman describe the long bombing campaign against one of the hardest targets in history, the Thanh Hoa Bridge. Almost mystically preserved after years of attacks, the bridge ultimately fell to American courage, skill, and persistence. This book is especially valuable for its presentation of the Vietnamese point of view."—Colonel Walter J. Boyne, USAF (Ret), former direction of the National Air and Space Museum
  • "In this path-breaking book, Vietnam A-6 Intruder pilot Stephen Coonts and noted military aviation historian Barrett Tillman have joined their formidable backgrounds and skills to lay bare the underlying strategy, planning, and execution of the campaign-within-an-air campaign to drop this formidable and deadly target. Readers will learn what it was like to fly against it, the price America paid in lost and captured airmen and destroyed airplanes, and the bankruptcy and lasting efforts of Johnson-era Vietnam strategy."—Dr. Richard P. Hallion, aerospace historian and former Historian of the US Air Force
  • "A powerful story about the quest to drop the Thanh Hoa Bridge during the Vietnam War and how Washington made it even more challenging for our aircrews. Riveting action! Unmatched authenticity as Steve Coonts flew many harrowing missions in that war. A must-read for all naval aviators, past, present, and future!"—Admiral Jay L. Johnson, USN (Ret), Vietnam F-8 pilot and former Chief of Naval Operations
  • "The Thanh Hoa Bridge is emblematic of the American experience in Vietnam. The bridge's mythical status arose from years of failed attempts to destroy it, as well as the tenacious Vietnamese defenses surrounding it. It's all here—the professionalism, the sacrifice, the maddening political decision-making, and even Vietnamese accounts. This book has it all, in a manner that made Flight of the Intruder and On Yankee Station famous!"—Peter Fey, author of Bloody Sixteen: The USS Oriskany and Air Wing 16 During the Vietnam War
  • “A vivid history of the long campaign against the Dragon’s Jaw Bridge; especially recommended for aficionados of air warfare.”—Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
May 11, 2021
Page Count
320 pages
Hachette Books

Stephen Coonts

About the Author

Stephen Coonts is the author of sixteen New York Times bestsellers, the first of which was the classic aviation fiction thriller Flight of the Intruder. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross medal for his naval air service during the Vietnam War. A former lawyer, he lives and writes full time in Colorado Springs.   Barrett Tillman is a widely recognized authority on air warfare in World War II and the author of more than forty books, including Clash of the Carriers and Whirlwind. He has received numerous awards for history and literature, including the Admiral Arthur Radford Award. He lives in Arizona.

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