Operation Vulture (French: Opération Vautour) was the name of the proposed American operation that would rescue French forces at battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 via B-29 raids based in the Philippines. The French garrison had been surrounded by the communist Viet Minh during the First Indochina War. Vulture was the sequel of the failed Operation Condor.
Viet Minh forces under General Võ Nguyên Giáp surrounded and besieged the French, who were unaware of the Viet Minh's possession of heavy artillery, including anti-aircraft guns. The attack that formally began the battle was launched 13 March 1954. French artillery outposts fell within hours, and a dismal trickle of wounded survivors into Dien Bien Phu’s garrison hospital began. The French tried to hit back with artillery and airpower, including some 30 US C-119 Flying Boxcars which had modified to drop napalm on the Viet Minh artillery and flown mainly by American employees of Civil Air Transport, the contract airline founded by Maj. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault, the head of the World War II Flying Tigers. Dien Bien Phu could be supplied only via airdrop, and dropping and retrieving supplies became a nightmare as Viet Minh artillery shrank the effective size of the drop zone. On 27 March, French Col. Jean Louis Nicot, the man in charge of the aerial resupply effort, had to raise the drop altitude from 2,000 feet to 8,000 feet. Drop zone accuracy declined, and some supplies inevitably fell into Viet Minh hands. The French, with the encouragement of some US officials based in Saigon, pressed hard for the US to launch an overwhelming air strike to save Dien Bien Phu.
Just ten days after the start of Giap’s initial assault, General Paul Ely, the French Chief of Staff, arrived in Washington to plead the French case to US policy-makers. Discussions involved General Ely, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Admiral Arthur W. Radford, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
One version of the plan envisioned sending 60 B-29s from US bases in the region, supported by as many as 150 fighters launched from US Seventh Fleet carriers, to bomb Giap’s positions. The plan included an option to use up to three atomic weapons on the Viet Minh positions. Radford, the top American military officer, gave this nuclear option his backing. US B-29s, B-36s, and B-47s could have executed a nuclear strike, as could carrier aircraft from the Seventh Fleet. U.S. carriers sailed to the Tonkin gulf, and reconnaissance flights over Dien Bien Phu were conducted during the negotiations. According to Richard Nixon the plan involved the Joint Chiefs of Staff drawing up plans to use 3 small tactical nuclear weapons in support of the French.
Decision against the operation
Nixon, a so-called "hawk" on Vietnam, suggested that the U.S. might have to "put American boys in". President Eisenhower made American participation contingent on British support, but London was opposed. Eisenhower also felt that the airstrike alone would not decide the battle. He also expressed concerns that the French Air Force was insufficiently developed for this sort of operation and did not want to escalate U.S. involvement in the war by using American pilots. In the end, convinced that the political risks outweighed the possible benefits, he decided against the intervention.
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