When Leighton Warren “Snuffy” Smith was commander of Attack Squadron 86 on board the carrier America in 1972, an intelligence officer approached him and suggested he claim a target he had not hit: “Just put down that you cratered the approaches to the bridge or something,” he suggested. Smith replied, “I didn’t crater the approaches; I put the damn bombs in the water.” The officer still refused to write a truthful report, so Smith told him to remove his name from the document. Smith remembered episodes like that more than his successes, which included helping destroy the famous “Dragon’s Jaw” bridge at Thanh Hoa. He’s an example of a young officer from the Vietnam War who helped lead the Navy with great integrity many years later.
Smith flew three tours and 280 missions in Vietnam, but his most memorable experience was the attack on the Thanh Hoa Bridge. The Dragon’s Jaw was one of the strongest and best-defended targets in North Vietnam. Completed in 1964, the 540-foot-long bridge was first attacked by the Air Force in April 1965. Thereafter, Air Force and Navy aircraft struck the bridge dozens of times, but to no avail, and the bridge ended up surviving the three-year-long Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in-tact. On 13 May 1972, a 14-plane Air Force strike finally knocked down two spans with laser-guided bombs. While the attack took the bridge out of commission, the bombing campaign against it did not end on that date. In order to hinder repair efforts, the Air Force flew two more missions against the target; and the Navy, 11. Smith’s mission occurred on 6 October 1972. As Smith recalled, “We rolled in simultaneously. Pulled the power back, popped the speed breaks and we got our scopes locked-on to the bridge and I said, ‘Lock-on.’ Once everyone confirmed that they had locked-on, I counted ‘three, two, one, launch.” The four Navy A-7s hit the bridge on the west side of the center piling and that’s where it broke in half. Later that afternoon, an RA-5 Vigilante flew over the structure and took a picture, confirming that the bridge was down for good.
Many years later as the Commander in Chief, Allied Forces Southern Europe in 1995, Admiral Leighton Smith initiated Operation Deliberate Force in the Balkans—a politically sensitive NATO air operation against Serb forces. At one point in the campaign, U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrook, who was negotiating with the Serbs, wanted Smith’s forces to continue launching Tomahawk missiles and air strikes, even if it meant hitting targets twice. Smith did not concur. Recalling his Vietnam experience, Smith observed, “You don’t go back and hit old targets. You don’t bomb holes in the ground. You lose all kinds of credibility with the forces you lead if you say, ‘Hey, guys, we got to keep up this charade, this facade. Let’s go bomb some more targets. And oh, by the way, don’t worry about that exposure out there.’” Smith held firm, and as a result of the air strikes and a coincidental offensive by Bosnian Muslim and Croat forces, the Serbs acceded to U.N. terms for ending the conflict. Smith paid a price for his principled stand. Despite leading an especially successful air campaign, Smith was retired from the Navy in 1996. Smith’s run-in with Holbrook ended his promotion prospects in the Clinton administration.