716th Bomber Squadron 307th Strategic Wing, SAC
Major Nutter Jerome Wimbrow III was raised in the Whaleyville area of Worcester County, MD. While in elementary school his father had moved the family from Berlin to reside with his grandparents who were in failing health and needed assistance. His father had owned the original Style Guide clothing store on Main Street in Berlin. His grandfather, Nutter Jerome Wimbrow, along with two brothers were business partners in a tomato canning and a sawmill business. He and one brother operated a general store in Whaleyville for sixty years.
Nutter (his nickname was Nut,) graduated from Stephen Decatur Junior/Senior High School in 1957 and continued his education by enrolling in Salisbury State Teachers College. He was especially bright in math which he had planned to teach. Upon graduation in 1961 he decided that he did not wish to teach and instead volunteered for the U S Air Force. He was inducted in the spring of 1962. The air force commissioned him an officer and ordered him to California for navigation training. He was being trained to become an Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) for which he had to have navigation training. A EWO was a member of the six man crew of the air force B-52 subsonic Stratofortress bomber. That officer is a navigator who has been trained in electronic warfare principles and overcoming enemy air defenses. They are specialists in finding, identifying and countering radar, infrared, and optically guided surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery as well as enemy fighter planes. Upon completion of his navigator training Lt. Wimbrow was assigned to Randolph AFB in Texas for EWO training. Upon completion there he was presented with his wings. He was then assigned to a B-52 stratofortress crew stationed at Kincheloe AFB in Michigan.
It is not known just when Lt. Wimbrow’s plane was assigned to participate in the escalating war in Vietnam. It is known that the first use of the B-52 in the war was in June 1965. These missions were flown from Anderson AFB in Guam and because of the distance required in-flight refueling. All missions were over South Vietnam supporting the ground war. It is also known that it was in the spring of 1967 that the big bombers began using U Tapao Thai airfield near the Gulf of Thailand. It gave the planes the advantage of not having to refuel in flight. The first B-52 destroyed by hostile missile fire was not until November 1972 over the city of Vinh in North Vietnam. That crew abandoned their aircraft over Thailand.
In December of 1972 then U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered the most concentrated air offensive of the war. The action was brought about by the American Congress and the American public wanting an immediate end to American involvement in Vietnam. The offensive was code named, Linebacker ll. It was sometimes called the Christmas bombings or the twelve day war. Nearly 100 B-52 bombers would bomb industrial targets in and around the city of Hanoi and the port of Haiphong on the Gulf of Tonkin. The planes would be flying from both Guam (which was a flight of 2400 miles, one way,) and the Thai base U Tapao which was a 600 mile flight. All missions would be flown at night. The planes at U Tapao flew every night. Because of the long distances, the planes at Guam flew every other night. In the interim Wimbrow had been promoted to Captain. His plane was stationed on Guam. Forty two B-52D’s from U Tapao and 89 B-52D’s and B-52G’s from Guam would participate in the attack. The operation began on the night of December 18th 1972.
Three planes were lost on the 18th, six were lost on the 20th, two were lost on the 21st. Crews began to complain about the flight path orders to the target. (One pilot refused to fly the route ordered. He was court martialed and discharged.) All planes had been ordered to fly in trail. That is, each cell of three planes would be immediately behind the cell in front of them by one minute on a straight line route until about 100 miles southwest of Hanoi before turning east towards their assigned target. Moreover, standard procedure called for the bomb bay doors to be opened one minute before the target, and finally after the bombs were dropped all planes were to turn back to the west which put them into a prevailing head wind of 105 knots slowing their air speed considerably. Many crews complained and when asked why such orders were issued were told that Strategic Air Command planners in Nebraska had ordered the flight path “for ease of planning.” It was obvious that the enemy had figured out the flight path and knew exactly when and where to expect to aim their missiles. [This was confirmed by the North Vietnamese after the war.] Additionally the premature opening of the bomb bay doors was creating a larger radar signature for the radar directed Russian made surface to air missiles (SAM’s). As losses mounted the 307th Wing Commander persuaded SAC headquarters in Nebraska to listen to the air crews and change the flight plans. When approval was finally given the cells began approaching the target area from several different directions and different altitudes; bomb bay doors were kept closed until the final seconds, and finally, by allowing the planes to exit the area to the east over the Gulf of Tonkin an additional tailwind of 105 knots allowed them to nearly double their air speed out of the heavily defended missile area. Losses dropped immediately and significantly.
On Christmas Day the crews were given a day of rest. It actually concerned many of the crews because they had noticed that fewer missiles had been fired the last two missions and moreover no planes had been lost. They were concerned the break would give the enemy time to replenish his missile supplies. Bob Hope had visited the Thai base just prior to Christmas. In addition to
his comedy routine he had conveyed to the bomber crews messages of new respect and admiration from the American fighter crewmen in Thailand for the way the B-52’s continued to go back into the maelstrom of SAM’s and AAA around Hanoi night after night.
It is fitting in this written memorial to include a piece written by LtCol. Wilton W. Strickland USAF (ret.) He was a navigator/bombardier on one of the planes in Operation Linebacker II and an acquaintance of Captain Wimbrow at the time. His harrowing monograph of the final 8 seconds on a bomb run over an industrial target near Hanoi should be read to fully appreciate the experience of the bomber air crews. It reads:
“…at about 30 seconds from the release point, EWO (electronic warfare officer) called over the intercom, “SAM uplink, 2 o’clock!” (He could see on his equipment scope the guidance signal of a surface to air missile coming toward us.) Immediately, the co-pilot replied, “Visual SAM at 2 o’clock, I have the airplane!” The aircraft went into a HARD, shuddering, right turn at a steep bank angle. Almost immediately, there was a bright flash inside the crew compartment, we heard a muffled explosion, and felt an additional “bump”, as if driving over a speed bump. At the same time, EWO warned, “SAM uplink, 9 o’clock!” Immediately, the pilot confirmed, “Visual SAM on the left, I have the airplane!” We suddenly went into a HARD, shuddering (shuddering caused by tips of the wings in a high-speed buffet/stalling situation) turn to the left; again at a very steep bank angle. [note: remember, there are 21 tons of bombs in the fuselage and another 12 tons slung from pylons under the wings!] About halfway through the roll from hard right to hard left, I got a peek at my aiming point on the radarscope. Worried that the steep bank angles may cause the gyros in the bombing and navigation system stabilization unit to “tumble”, I was surprised and pleased to find my cross hairs remaining where I had placed them. I reported, “Still on the aiming point!” Again, there was a bright flash in the crew compartment, a muffled explosion, followed immediately by the slight bump or lurch of the aircraft flying through the exploding missile’s blast wave. I knew we were very close to the release point, but in a hard left turn going way off the required heading. I directed the pilot, “Roll it out, center the PDI!” (Pilot’s Data Indicator, a repeat of one of my instruments, showing direction to turn left or right to fly to the release point). As the aircraft rolled out with the needle centered, I reported again, “Still on the point!” At the same time, NAV (navigator), reading the time to go (TG) meter said, with his voice getting high and squeaky, “10 seconds!” (Elapsed time was more than 20 seconds from the beginning of these maneuvers because of the turns away from the release point.) Meanwhile, EWO was warning, “Two SAM uplinks, 12 o’clock!” (Two SAM’s launched directly in front of us and coming toward us.) Co-pilot confirmed, “Two visual SAM’s, 12 o’clock!” I glanced at the TG meter, saw that it indicated 8 seconds to go, and ordered “Hold it straight and level!”
“…The pilots were watching the two missiles coming while keeping the PDI centered; EWO was watching the guidance signals on his scope as the missiles approached; NAV was watching the TG meter with his face shield on his helmet down and locked and his hands on his ejection trigger ring; I was watching the TG meter while keeping my radar cross-hairs on the aiming point. The needle seemed to take forever to come off the 8 second mark. I watched it quiver slightly, I checked a couple of other indicators to make sure we were really going toward the release point and not around it. Again I ordered, “Hold it straight and level!” The needle continued to quiver and creep downward -7-6, at 5 seconds, I hit the door-open switch; it took another eternity for the needle to pass 4 & 3. I continued to monitor my cross-hair placement; the needle continued to quiver ever so slowly downward -2 -1. At 0, as I felt the aircraft shudder slightly, indicating that the bombs were being released, I simultaneously operated a set of “back up” switches to ensure that the bomb bay doors were fully open, and sent an additional release signal manually to all bomb racks. At the same time, my left foot had the intercom button depressed, and I was yelling, “Turn! Let’s get the hell out of here!” The pilot yanked the aircraft into another shuddering, HARD, right turn while I closed the bomb bay doors and brought the radar antenna up to look for other aircraft, rejoin the other two B-52’s in our “cell” of three and head back…continuing the evasive zig-zag for another five minutes or so as more SAM’s were fired at us from the rear…..all was quiet on the aircraft , except for the very loud scream of the slipstream and the eight jet engines. It was very hard for us to believe what we had just flown through. After a few minutes, the pilot quietly said to me, “Wilt, you will never guess where those two missiles went.” I replied, “No, where?” He asked, “You know where the auxiliary power unit sits on the ramp?” I replied: “Oh, no, you have to be kidding!” He said, “Yep, that’s where they went- just to the left of the fuselage in front of the left wing. Just as the nose of the aircraft moved to the right in that post-release turn, both missiles zipped past just to the left. If we had not turned at just the right moment, the missiles likely would have scored a direct hit on my crew position.”
We all agreed that we had, indeed, had our “lucky day.” The air crews stationed at U Tapao in Thailand had been flying every night. Because of this several crews were transferred from Guam to U Tapao to provide relief. Captain Roger Morris’ crew which included Captain Wimbrow was one of these crews. They probably arrived on Christmas Day. On the morning of the 26th LtCol. Strickland ran into the Morris crew at breakfast in the officer’s club. They had a great time reminiscing because they had all been stationed together in Michigan. The Morris crew brought the latest news from the states and asked the colonel for tips on flying over Hanoi. The Morris crew had flown one mission from Guam to North Vietnam. While having breakfast the Morris crew were notified that they would be flying that night. On the breakfast table was a Bangkok English language newspaper showing pictures of bomber crew members that had been lost a few nights before. As the men left the club, Captain’s Morris and Wimbrow told the colonel they were going to stop by the barber shop and get haircuts so they would “look good on Hanoi TV and in the papers tomorrow.” The colonel told them “so-long” and “good luck.”
The next morning on the 27th the squadron learned that two bombers had been hit by SAM missiles on the previous night’s mission. One plane had made it back to U Tapao with all four engines out on one wing making it difficult to fly. It crashed near the runway with only two members of the crew surviving. The plane that Captain Wimbrow was on was struck with a direct hit near Hanoi, (they were over their target which was the Giap Nhi railroad yard.) Their plane’s call sign that night was Ebony two. Captain Morris was killed instantly. The co-pilot gave the order to bail out. The four forward crewmen ejected themselves out of the plane. The tail gunner would have had to jettison his guns and bail out.
It is reported officially that the Morris crew that night was flying a model B-52D plane on the mission. It is probable that they had been accustomed to flying the B-52G, many of which were stationed at Anderson AFB on Guam. The G model carried a much lighter pay load of conventional bombs because it had been modified to carry nuclear weapons. Nutter had hinted to relatives that his job was classified relative to the arming of nuclear weapons. The D model had been modified to carry a much heavier load of conventional bombs. (21 tons in the fuselage and another 12 tons hung from pylons under the wings.) Only D models were flown in Thailand. The pilots were probably flying a much heavier aircraft then they were accustomed to on the mission. All bombers participating in the operation carried conventional iron bombs.
In Whaleyville, MD during the early winter evening hours of December 27th the Wimbrow family was just sitting down to dinner when the phone rang. The call was from a U.S. Air Force official representing the wing commander of Kincheloe AFB in Michigan. This was the home base of Captain Wimbrow’s plane. The air force officer informed the family that Captain Wimbrow’s plane had been shot down near Hanoi. They were advised that he was officially being listed as MIA (Missing in Action.) Exactly thirty days later on January 27th, 1973 North Vietnam and America signed a peace agreement and all hostilities ended between the two countries. It is believed that Operation Linebacker II damage to infrastructure in the north forced the North Vietnamese to come back to the conference table and seriously negotiate a peace.
Weeks and then months passed with no word as to the status of Wimbrow. Because of his time in grade and training the family was notified that he had been promoted to the rank of major. The other four members of the crew had been captured almost immediately and imprisoned. Cook, the tail gunner had been badly injured. (Both of his legs were eventually amputated. (Cook had been ‘filling in’ for the regular gunner who was sick.) All had been released to the USA in Operation Homecoming just 49 days after having been shot down. Finally, eighteen months later, (June 1974) three representatives of the air force showed up at the Wimbrow home. They had brought a photograph with them. The parents, (now deceased), made a positive identification of their son’s body in the photo. He had been shot through the facial part of his head with a small caliber bullet (s). Major Wimbrow was officially pronounced KIA, (Killed In Action.)
Exactly how or when the air force had been able to obtain the photograph is unknown. It is curious since at that time the North Vietnamese government repeatedly denied having any knowledge of Capt. Morris or Capt. Wimbrow. Moreover the U.S. Government could not produce the body. The family arranged a funeral ceremony in the Whaleyville Methodist Church with their son absent.
In September of 1977, (four years later,) the Vietnamese announced that they “had discovered” the remains of Morris and Wimbrow. His body was returned to America. At the time the U.S. Congress heard testimony that the Vietnamese “stockpiled” the remains of many Americans in caskets to return at politically advantageous times. The family and military authorities arranged a second funeral with full military honors. Major Wimbrow was awarded The Purple Heart, The Distinguished Flying Cross, and a Bronze Star as well as other campaign theater ribbons. An American patriot was home at last.
CODA: The name of Major N.J. Wimbrow can be found on the Vietnam Memorial Wall at Panel W1, Line 105. He is buried in the Dale cemetery in Whaleyville, MD. At an air force memorial ceremony held in Missouri years later former squadron members informed the family that Nutter had never made it to the ground alive. He was shot while helplessly descending in his parachute. Interestingly, upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the United States agreed in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to destroy their entire inventory of 365 B-52G Stratofortress bombers with nuclear capabilities. Russian inspectors looked on while a huge guillotine like machine, day after day, sliced up the huge planes that had been designed to haul nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The plane’s “flyaway” value at the time was $ 66 million per plane. Nutter was this writer’s classmate in the small Salisbury State Teachers College graduating class of 1961. Our life paths crossed for a brief time. I was finishing my college degree with the Korean War era GI Bill having recently returned from the Orient; he was starting a military career during the Vietnam War era that would have him journey to the Orient. Many thanks to Wimbrow family members who gave their blessing and supplied data for this memorial: brother Vaughn Wimbrow, a surveyor; cousin Peter Wimbrow III, an attorney; and cousin Thomas Wimbrow, a retired Maryland secondary school principal.
~ George M. Hurley – Ocean City, MD – 2013