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Level: Hangar Deck
- American involvement in the Vietnam War lasted from 1961 to 1975.
- Between 1966 and 1969, the crew of USS Intrepid performed three tours of duty in the support of Operation Rolling Thunder, the gradual and sustained aerial bombardment campaign against the North Vietnam.
With roughly 3,000 crew members serving on board, Intrepid was like a city at sea. Each crew member had a task related to the war effort and to maintaining the ship and its crew. Serving aboard an aircraft carrier meant that these young men, some still teenagers, were removed from the fiercest fighting of the ground war, but they faced danger in the air and at sea. 21 crew members lost their lives during Intrepid’s service in the Vietnam War.This exhibit highlights the experiences of Intrepid’s crew at a time of war during one of the most divisive periods in American history.
The exhibit is a series of stories as seen through the eyes and experiences of the crew. One story from 1967 relates how four junior pilots shared a stateroom and captured their feats, fears and frustrations in a shared diary. The diary is in our collection and has been digitized so that visitors can read it themselves. A recreation of their stateroom is located on the gallery deck as part of officer berthing.
Other stories include life at sea from the tedious journey around the world and going on “liberty” at foreign ports. Examples of mementos and souvenirs purchased by the crew are on display. The joy of receiving mail from home is highlighted with actual letters from the crew to loved ones back home. These letters give a glimpse into the sailor’s life at sea during a time of war.
Artifacts and oral histories reveal the sadness of a pilot’s being lost, missing in action or becoming prisoners of war. One pilot, his remains being identified in 2011 after missing in action for 43 years, returned home to his family for a proper burial. Oral histories from former POWs describe trials and challenges of life in a North Vietnamese prison.
The exhibit also looks at the war from the perspective of the nation on the home front. The war in Vietnam divided American society. Antiwar sentiment, expressed through peace marches and demonstrations, steadily increased. Dramatic images bring to light this painful chapter in American history.
Photos & Videos
Video description: Curator of Aviation Eric Boehm describes the process of preparing aircraft for their missions. He starts in front of the Museum’s Vietnam War veteran A-4 Skyhawk jet-attack aircraft. He later moves to the port aircraft elevator. Historical footage is used throughout to further illustrate the different jobs on the flight deck.
As Cold War tensions mounted in Southeast Asia, the United States deployed aircraft carriers to the region. Operation Rolling Thunder, a strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnam, began on March 2, 1965. The U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy carried out the campaign jointly. The Air Force launched strikes from bases in Thailand while the Navy launched strikes from aircraft carriers.
The initial goal of Operation Rolling Thunder was persuasion. The United States hoped to compel North Vietnam to stop supporting the Communist insurgency in the South. But efforts to bring an end to the fighting repeatedly failed. As Operation Rolling Thunder progressed, its objectives shifted toward crippling the North’s ability to fight and stopping the flow of supplies from North to South Vietnam.
By 1965, Intrepid had not seen combat since World War II, two decades earlier. But the intense pace of Operation Rolling Thunder required additional aircraft carriers. On February 26, 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced that Intrepid would join the fight in Vietnam. The ship underwent minor modifications so that it could carry attack aircraft. By the spring, Intrepid was on its way to Southeast Asia.
Intrepid initially was deployed to a location in the South China Sea named Dixie Station. Its first task: supporting ground troops and bombing targets in South Vietnam. Within months, Intrepid moved north to Yankee Station. From there, Intrepid aviators began bombing targets in North Vietnam as part of Operation Rolling Thunder.
Intrepid’s pilots participated in alpha strikes, attacks on high-priority strategic targets. During an alpha strike, all squadrons in Intrepid’s air wing conducted joint missions with the air wing from one or more other carriers. Working together, up to 100 aircraft attacked targets such as bridges or power plants.
During the Vietnam War, Intrepid’s aviators were the only crew members to directly face enemy attacks. For this reason, aviators had a special status on board. Their job was the most hazardous, and they depended on the skills of the entire crew to help ensure the success of their missions.
Operation Rolling Thunder lasted nearly three and a half years. In this single campaign, one of many in the war, the United States dropped 643,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam and lost more than 900 aircraft. During the campaign, 1,084 Americans were killed, captured or missing in action.
While Operation Rolling Thunder was waged, the U.S. government realized that the campaign was failing. The relentless bombing did not compel the North Vietnamese government to negotiate an end to the war. Damage to the country’s strategic facilities did not hinder its ability to fight. North Vietnam shifted many of its supply lines to neighboring Laos and Cambodia.
In the face of losses and growing public disapproval, President Johnson announced that Operation Rolling Thunder would end on November 1, 1968. Intrepid was on the line when Johnson announced the halt. The ship spent one final period conducting air strikes, mostly over Laos. On December 27, 1968, Intrepid left the line for the last time and began the long journey home.
Operation Rolling Thunder and Intrepid’s service had come to an end, but the war in Vietnam carried on for another seven years. U.S. involvement ended in April 1975 when Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to North Vietnamese forces. The next year, North and South Vietnam reunified under a Communist government.
Intrepid served 3 tours of duty in Vietnam (1966, 1967, 1968)
|Days flying combat missions:||104|
|Combat-related sorties (flights):||7,666|
|Total flight hours:||17,435|
|Ordnance (bombs) dropped:||5,731 tons (5,199 metric tons)|
|Pilots killed in action:||3|
|Pilots taken prisoner:||3|
|Other crew losses:||3|