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Secrets of the Ho Chi Minh Trail

In 1959, after a communist revolution in North Vietnam, a turmoil quickly broke out between the North and South of Vietnam. The Northern communist party wanted a religion-free, government-controlled market, fascist run Vietnam, and the south wanted American style democracy. The conflict set the stage for a vicious proxy war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. U.S. firepower was massive, but the Viet Cong had one thing that kept them tipping the scale on allied forces, and that’s the Ho Chi Minh trail. We look deeper into the role of the Ho Chi Minh trail, and the role it played in securing a victory for the communist forces. Our story is accompanied by identical photos of the trail from the war and present times.

Not Their Fathers War

It would be only 1966 when President LBG learned the name of the most powerful leader of the communist party in Hanoi, Le Duan. Duan would lead a fierce communist campaign against the Allied forces in the south, and young American soldiers would get their first taste of a new kind of war.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) This is an iconic photo of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops passing through the Tha Me area, southwest of Sepon. (Right) Luckily the views are just as good now, and better still, you can ride your motorbike bike up there.

Not their father’s war, but a guerrilla war being fought from a long road in Cambodia. In the midst of all the carnage, Linden B. Johnson would have another war he would be fighting back home.

The LBJ Hearings

In early February of 1966 president Johnson found himself at the helm of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Johnson and his generals would have to explain the war to the nation. This shook Johnson to his core.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) General Giap visits troops stationed at the infamous Phu La Nic pass, which was a natural choke point and hit extremely hard by bombing. (Right) This photo is taken just up the hill from where the photo to the (Left) was taken.

To distract from the hearings, Johnson decided to hold a military conference in Honolulu with allied forces. What the Senate did not know though are the covert operations that would begin on the day of the Senate hearings.

Westmorland’s Targets

Just before the beginning of the hearings on the war began, the president decided to resume the bombing of the targets in North Vietnam.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) A Phantom F4 in action. Notice the wing tips which are at a different angle to the main wings. (Right) A wing tip from a downed Phantom F4 jet in the Mu Gia pass areas, one of the 40-odd planes shot down in this region.

Thus, ending a 36-day ceasefire between the North and the south. Despite North Vietnamese Gorillas controlling one-third of the land in the south, Westmorland set his sights on targeting the Vietcong assets in the North.

A Blockade of the Vietnamize Coastline

The biggest challenge for the Vietcong at the time was being able to supply their gorillas in the south. For decades Hanoi had been smuggling supplies south via the ocean with an improvised fleet of junks, trawlers, and freighters.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) At any given time there were anything from three to six thousand trucks operating on the Trail. (Right) They were a prime target.

That is until the U.S. Navy blockaded the Southern coastline of Vietnam. The Vietcong would now have only one rout to provide logistical support.

Route 559

The North Vietnamese were now forced to move all their equipment through Laos, and Cambodia. Both were neutral countries that Hanoi considered “part of the greater battlefield.” The route dubbed by the North as route 559, was known to the allies as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Trucks were heavily camouflaged and typically traveled only at night, back and forth between way stations. (Right) Notice the bullet holes in the roof.

The North turned the trail from a braided web of footpaths into 12,000 miles of tangled jungle roadways. All from which fighters and war supplies streamed south.

In the Fight Against the French

Route 559’s history began during the Viet Minh’s fight against the French. At the time the route was being operated by tens of thousands of porters who traveled in convoys of bicycles.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Each driver would ply a specific route, night by night. (Right) Near Kaelum.

However, during their war against democracy, the North Vietnamese used more mechanized transport using old Russian trucks traveling under cover of darkness.

Attempt to Destroy the Trail

The Americans had a big challenge in subduing the Ho Chi Minh trail. The U.S. could not send ground troops to neutralize it because there was no support both at home and abroad to spill the war into Laos and Cambodia.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) The war ends as North Vietnamese tanks take control of the Presidential Palace in Saigon (Right) This tank, north of Attepeu, did not make it though.

American generals knew that unless they could close route 559 for good, the Vietcong could keep sustaining the conflict. The U.S. Airforce would be the only choice of action, and in the Laos portion of the trail alone fell three million tons of explosives. This is one million more tons than what fell on Germany and Japan in the whole of WW2.

Agent Orange

Many key choke points that were hit the hardest were given ominous nicknames such as “The Gate of Death,” “Fried Flesh Hill,” and “The Gorge of the Lost Souls.” Meanwhile, another air force operation would be flown with planes releasing chemicals onto the land to expose enemy forces, including a chemical dubbed “agent orange.”

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) North Vietnamese tanks driving through Saigon at the end of the war. (Right) In 2016 the area around the tank was swept for UXO. No less than 38 cluster bombs were found the area seen in this photo.

Agent orange would destroy thousands of acres of jungle and make the land around the trail resemble the surface of the moon.

Heavy Traffic All Night

According to many American pilots, even when a hole would be punched smack dab in the middle of the road, the next day you would come, and see a brand new one built on top of it.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) A captured US tank used by South Vietnamese forces during operation Lam Son, an unsuccessful attempt at blocking the Trail. (Right) A similar tank, from the same operation in 1971, that incurred 50% casualties, (Left) abandoned in the village of Ban Dong in central Laos.

How were the Vietcong able to keep pushing despite the onslaught of bombs? The answer will shock you!

Volunteers

The North was being ruled by a communist party, and when you look at how communist-run wars, all over the world, it was evident that it is not just an army fighting the war effort, but the whole nation is forced to take part.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Thud F105 jets in formation. (Right) Interesting approximation in a house east of Saravane.

As many as 230,000 teenagers were forced or brainwashed to work to keep the roads open, and the traffic is moving. More than half of these “Volunteers” were women.

My 17th Birthday on the Trail

In the film The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, a story is told by a woman named Leigh Minh Que, a young woman who had “celebrated” her 17th Birthday on the trail.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) The HQ of the 559 Engineering Corps was some 200m long and hidden in the hills to the west of Sepon. (Right) That is until a collapse caused it to be moved at the end of 1968.

“We all had to endure. The jungle was humid and wet. Bombs fell day and night. We, women, had to find a way to survive.”

Deaths on the Trail

Of all the battlefields being fought in the war, the battle of survival in route 559 seemed to be the hardest off all.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) It housed over 8 offices, and some 100 staff, including a switchboard. (Right) Its western entrance is all but lost in the jungle now.

Thousands of communist troops had perished on the trail from starvation, accidents, fevers, snakebites, or just sheer exhaustion. This not considering the constant bombing by the allied forces.

Desertion to the North

Group of Vietcong were tasked with measuring and counting craters created by the American bombing runs. Other “volunteers” would fill them in.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Nguyen Dong Sy instructs the high command once the 559’s headquarters was relocated back to Vietnam. (Right) I found out its exact location by tracking down a former Vietnamese colonel who worked there as the anti-aircraft commander.

In many cases, right after craters were filled, the planes would come back and bomb them again. Many North Vietnamese soldiers became very frightened by the bombings and attempted to flee the battlefield only to be rounded up and brought back to the trail or face execution.

Re-education

North Vietnamese deserters were given no choice other than resistance, or compliance if they were captured.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) RPGs were a cheap, simple and formidable weapon. (Right) And on certain parts of the Trail, they litter the jungle, like here in Ban Bak.

Any deserter that was captured by the North would go through a “re-education” process and then be sent back to the front line to face the enemy in the south. If they did not comply, then they would face execution, imprisonment, or torture.

Deception for Construction

The local villagers of Laos and Cambodia who resided along the Ho Chi Minh trail supported the Vietcong very much. They provided food and cigarettes to the soldiers and even equipped them with doors, or pieces of furniture from their homes to rebuild the roads going south.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) As were mortars. (Right) Seen here as a pretty flash indicator light on a truck.

The Vietcong also set up fake trucks alongside mountains so that allied bombs can create more gravel to build with.

Interviewing the Vietcong

Daughter of South Vietnamese official Duong Van Mai was married to an American named David Elliot. After their marriage, she had gone to work for the RAND Corporation in Saigon.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Setting up a mortar. (Right) Local farmers make good use of old mortars as cowbells.

RAND had been commissioned by Robert McNamara to conduct a think tank study of enemy prisoners. The goal of the study was to find out “who are the Viet Cong, and what makes them tick?”

Hearts and Minds

The RAND report was then sent forward to McNamara and his top Pentagon aids describing the Viet Cong as a “dedicated enemy that could only be defeated at enormous costs.”

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) All told some 2 million tons of ordinance was dropped on Laos, making it the highest per capita country bombed on the planet. (Right) South of Muong Nong.

The RAND report concluded that in order to have a chance at winning the war, American troops needed to win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese. The military and many American aid organizations would set out to improve the lives of locals and build alliances with elders. But the plan ended up backfiring as well.

Losing Faith

In attempts to win hearts and minds, the Americans dug wells, built windmills, started schools, proved medical care, improved agriculture, and even electrified the whole countryside. Despite the great efforts to rebuild the south, the American forces were not able to protect their new Allies in the farmlands.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Many of the bombs remain unexploded. (Right) Heading out to Ban Laboy Ford.

For every town built up, another one would be burnt down by northern gorillas. This chain of reaction only exacerbated the mistrust of the Saigon government, as locals felt they were not being protected.

War in the West War in the East

On May 15th, 1966 as the war was waging in the North, the riots led by South Vietnamese students had been carried out across Saigon.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) A B-52 getting loaded. (Right) A live 500-pound bomb, just off the track, north of La Hap.

Demonstrators demanded an end to the war and protested the firing of a highly influential Buddhist commander. American advisors on the outskirts of the city were stunned as they watched their own fighting the Vietcong from the west, and the ARVN fighters are fighting their own in the East.

Meanwhile on the Trail

All while the South ARVN army is in a fight against itself, and American troops are fighting fiercely in the jungles. The Vietcong continued to move tens of thousands of soldiers on the treacherous journey down route 559.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Phantom F4. (Right) Sepon.

The civil unrest in Saigon would later prove a strategic asset to the North, whether they were involved in or not. The Vietcong would now have enough distraction to move more troops towards victory against the Americans.

The McNamara Line

The Americans still struggling to find a solution to the trail drew up what they called the McNamara Line. A barrier of barbed wire, and land mines that would run across the individual parts of route 559 and hopefully stop the Northern influx of 20,000 troops a month to the south.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) One load from a B-52. (Right) Two live 500 pound bombs in Ban Phanop village.

However, the plan was canceled after many contractors trying to construct the barriers were killed on the job by enemy fire.

Thousands of Underground Tunnels

North Vietnamese PAVIN divisions also used the souths turmoil as a perfect time to begin building an extensive system of intricate tunnels throughout the whole of Vietnam.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) F-100F Super Sabre escorts a B-52. (Right) A unexploded 500 pound bomb in the hills above La Hap.

These tunnels could move thousands of troops into enemy lines at once and even ran right under the noses of the allied forces. The tunnels were so vast in some cases that they held within them hospitals, sleeping quarters, and even had room for trucks to drive within them.

Impossible to Block

One of the biggest reasons the Vietnam war was not ultimately won by the U.S. forces was because no matter how hard an effort they put forth; they could not stop the Ho Chi Minh trail from operating.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) B-52. (Right) 2000 pound bombs in Saravan.

The only way was to have troops on the ground in the neighboring countries, which both LBJ and Nixon refused to do.

Operation Commando Hunt

On November 11th, 1968, the U.S. ran yet another last-ditch bombing campaign over Cambodia and Laos dubbed Operation Commando Hunt. The goal of the mission was to disrupt manpower and supplies from reaching the south through route 559.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Phantom F4s. (Right) 750-pound bombs at the Mu Gia pass.

By the end of the operation, three million tons of bombs had been dropped throughout the trail. But even that did not stop the trail from moving.

B.A.’s

The Vietcong had many operation bases that ran throughout the trail called “B.A.’s” or Base Areas. Each B.A. handled a different task in the effort. BA 611 facilitated transport, and B.A.’s 604, and 609 handled supply moving on conveys.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) A-6 Intruders. (Right) Sepon.

The Vietcong, despite their appearance, was very organized and well managed and could get thousands of forced laborers to any given point at any given time.

Man Made Camouflage

The numerous supply bunkers, storage areas, barracks, hospitals, and command and control facilities were all well hidden within an intricate system of man-made camouflage that was continuously scaled and replaced.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Nguyen Dong Si, the chief of staff for the 559 Engineering Corps that managed the Trail, meets with an AA gun crew. (Right) Similar helmets in a village near the Mu Gia pass.

By 1973 Northern trucks could drive freely throughout the whole trail without ever exiting the canopy.

Moving in the Seasons

There was one thing that gave the Vietcong a significant challenge in defeating the U.S., and that was the weather.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) AA gun crew (Right) Their helmet now used to grow onions.

During the rainy season, all the trucks were basically stranded and not able to move, meaning the only time the trail could run was the dry season. In hindsight maybe the rainy season would have been an excellent time to get some tanks to the trail.

CIA Ops

During the U.S. struggle against route 559, the CIA had conducted its own operations both in Laos and Cambodia by running top secret air and land spy missions deep within enemy territory.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) The Mu Gia pass was notorious with pilots and almost 50 planes were shot down there. It was called the Dog House. It was one of two main routes where Vietnamese trucks passed into Laos. (Right) One such unfortunate Phantom pilot was shot down just south of the Mu Gia pass.

But all the central intelligence effort could still not convince American leaders to put troops on the ground in Laos

Tens of Thousands of Infiltrations

By the late 60s, the PAVN forces had succeeded in transferring more than 90,000 soldiers to fight in the south.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Ban Karai pass. The other main route into Laos, which also had to negotiate the notorious Ban Laboy ford and the Phu La Nik pass. (Right) Many sections of the original cobblestones remain to this day.

This number alone would prove a sheer loss for allied forces, and the struggle to push them back would ultimately prove fruitless. As large-scale attacks began to grow, and edge closer to Saigon.

Supplies for the Tet Holiday

In 1968 the North Vietnamese forces held a long-planned attack that was meant to take place on the lunar new year dubbed the Tet Holiday.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Mu Gia Pass. (Right) Though many are being covered by new roads.

200,000 PAVN troops, including seven infantry regiments and twenty independent battalions, made their way to the south for a fight. 81,000 tons of equipment had been sent on barrels that float down river throughout the year before the attack.

The Secret War Over Laos

In a desperate attempt to neutralize future large-scale attacks by the PAVN, the allies tried sending individual ground units into Laos and Cambodia to try and bring the fight to the North.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Ban Laboy crossing was the most heavily hit river crossing. (Right) Two US pilots return with us to the exact same crossing in a vintage US army jeep in 2013.

These attacks proved ineffective and too small scale to make a dent in the Viet Cong war effort.

Fuel Pipelines

The Ho Chi Minh trail became so well protected, and so well hidden that the PAVN forces were even able to build a fuel pipeline that ran all the way to the south.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) One crossing point, called Ban Laboy, is reckoned to be the most heavily bombed place on the planet. (Right) The rocks in the center still show the scars of the bombing. This photo was taken from the middle of the (Left) hand side of the photo opposite looking to the right.

This fuel pipeline may not sound so impressive on its surface, but it is an achievement such as this that pivoted the scale once and for all against Saigon.

Convoys Through the Pitch Black

Towards the end of the war, the Vietcong had a well-oiled machine running supplies all across the battlefield.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Nicknamed the ‘Dogs Head’ by US pilots, it was a natural ‘choke point’ which involved a river crossing and a steep pass that the trucks had no choice but to traverse. (Right) This photo was taken looking down on the same set of rocks, but from a different angle.

Truck convoys would drive in the dead of night without even a thread of light Infront of them. Tunnels brought communist troops to the doorstep of Saigon, and the Viet Cong began to gear up for their final assault.

The C-130 Spectre

According to North Vietnamese archives, the only worthy adversary that the North ended up fearing were C-130 Spectre gunships that would circle the trail and pick off the convoys one by one.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) The intersection at Lum Bum, where route 20 (the road over Ban Laboy) met route 128 (the route which crossed over at Mu Gia. (Right) The same intersection today.

Out of the 4,000 trucks destroyed by allied forces, more than half were killed just by these gunships.

Route 9 to “Victory”

The beginning of the end of the Vietnam war began in early February 1971. When 20,000 ARVN troops rolled across the Laotian border along the infamous route 9 where the Ho Chi Minh trail ended with the mission of destroying the trail once and for all.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Of all the ordinance dropped on Laos, it was the cluster bombs that have had the most lasting lethal effect. (Right) Each canister contained up to 600 bombs.

Unfortunately for the South, the U.S. was prohibited by Law to enter Laos with the ARVN forces, and the operation quickly turned sour.

Conventional Counter Attack

Instead of retreating the PAVN forces decided to mount a vicious counter attacked and amassed and powerful force that outnumbered the ARVN troops 3 to 1!

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War (210 million more bombs that were dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2006 combined). (Right) The casings at least can be put to good use. You can grow onions in them.

The ARVN troops were quickly overwhelmed and virtually destroyed. By now the PAVN forces had added another 60 thousand troops to their march on Saigon.

The Easter Offensive

The battle on for route 9 bought another year of freedom for the south, but the quiet would prove bittersweet, as army intelligence began to realize that a much bigger attack was imminent, however, they did not know when it would take place.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Up to 80 million bombs did not detonate. (Right) You can support your house with them.

Their answer came in March 1972, in a devastating attacked dubbed “The Easter Offensive.”

14 PAVN Divisions

By 1972 the ARVN army was devastated by the North, morale was low, and troop level was even lower. It was a perfect time for the Viet Cong to launch their final assault on the allied forces in the south.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Nearly 40 years on, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed. More than half of all confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world have occurred in Laos. (Right) Or even your rice storage shed.

On that March, more than 30,000 PAVN troops accompanied by 300 tanks crossed the border and quickly invaded the Quang Tri Province. From there, the rest of the hundreds of thousands of PAVN troops would make their way all the way to Saigon.

Allied Defeat

As the invasion of the Vietcong drew closer and closer by the minute, American troops were scrambling to evacuate Vietnam as soon as possible.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) Between 1995 and 2013, the U.S. contributed on average $3.2M per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the U.S. spent $13.3M per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos. (Right) The U.S. spent as much in three days bombing Laos ($51M, in 2010 dollars) than it spent for clean up over 16 years ($51M).

Thousands of South Vietnamese citizens stormed U.S. airfields in a desperate attempt to flee, and very few succeeded in doing so. The U.S. armed forces, had for the first time in history, tasted the bitter taste of defeat, and the war was over.

Conclusion

Many make the argument that the Vietnam war was for nothing, and there was no reason to be there, and yes, there are a lot of supporting points to that argument. But regardless of the politics behind it all. There was an enemy to fight, and the religiously diverse south was at risk of losing all their rights to the communist agenda.

Source: exploreindochina.com (Left) The guns were transported by armored tractors. (Right) Like this one seen in Muong Nong.

The Ho Chi Minh trail was the most critical asset the Viet Cong had to defeat the allies. In my opinion, had there been more support for the war on the mainland, maybe ground troops would have been sent to route 559, and things may well have ended differently.