The Ho Chi Minh trail
was a logistical system that ran from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) through the neighboring kingdoms of Laos
The Kingdom of Laos was a sovereign state from 1953 until December 1975, when Pathet Lao overthrew the government and created the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Given self-rule in 1949 as part of a federation with the rest of French Indochina, the 1953 Franco-Lao Treaty finally established a...
Cambodia , officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia, is a country located in the southern portion of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia...
. The system provided support, in the form of manpower and materiel
Materiel is a term used in English to refer to the equipment and supplies in military and commercial supply chain management....
, to the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam
The Vietcong , or National Liberation Front , was a political organization and army in South Vietnam and Cambodia that fought the United States and South Vietnamese governments during the Vietnam War . It had both guerrilla and regular army units, as well as a network of cadres who organized...
, or derogatively, Vietcong, and the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), or North Vietnamese Army, during the Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...
The trail was not a single route, but rather a complex maze of truck routes, paths for foot and bicycle traffic, and river transportation systems. The name, taken from North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh
Hồ Chí Minh , born Nguyễn Sinh Cung and also known as Nguyễn Ái Quốc, was a Vietnamese Marxist-Leninist revolutionary leader who was prime minister and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam...
, is of American origin. Although the trail was mostly in Laos, the communists called it the Truong Son
Trường Sơn is a commune and village in Lục Nam District, Bac Giang Province, in northeastern Vietnam.-References:...
Strategic Supply Route, after a mountain range in central Vietnam. According to the U.S. National Security Agency
The National Security Agency/Central Security Service is a cryptologic intelligence agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the collection and analysis of foreign communications and foreign signals intelligence, as well as protecting U.S...
's official history of the war, the Trail system was "one of the great achievements of military engineering of the 20th century."
Parts of what became the Ho Chi Minh trail had existed for centuries as primitive footpaths that facilitated trade in the region. The area through which the system meandered was among the most challenging in Southeast Asia: a sparsely-populated region of rugged mountains (1,500–8,000 feet), triple-canopy jungle and dense primeval rainforests. During the First Indochina War
The First Indochina War was fought in French Indochina from December 19, 1946, until August 1, 1954, between the French Union's French Far East...
the Viet Minh
Việt Minh was a national independence coalition formed at Pac Bo on May 19, 1941. The Việt Minh initially formed to seek independence for Vietnam from the French Empire. When the Japanese occupation began, the Việt Minh opposed Japan with support from the United States and the Republic of China...
maintained north/south communication utilizing this system of trails and paths.
In 1959, Hanoi
Hanoi , is the capital of Vietnam and the country's second largest city. Its population in 2009 was estimated at 2.6 million for urban districts, 6.5 million for the metropolitan jurisdiction. From 1010 until 1802, it was the most important political centre of Vietnam...
established the 559th Transportation Group
Group 559 was a transportation and logistical unit of the People's Army of Vietnam that was subordinate to the Rear Services General Directorate....
under the command of Colonel (later General) Vo Bam to improve and maintain a transportation system to supply the NLF uprising against the South Vietnamese government. Originally, the North Vietnamese effort concentrated on infiltration across and immediately below the Demilitarized Zone
The Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone was established as a dividing line between North and South Vietnam as a result of the First Indochina War.During the Second Indochina War , it became important as the battleground demarcation separating North Vietnamese territory from South Vietnamese territory.-...
that separated the two Vietnams.
As early as May 1958 PAVN and Pathet Lao
The Pathet Lao was a communist political movement and organization in Laos, formed in the mid-20th century. The group was ultimately successful in assuming political power after the Laotian Civil War. The Pathet Lao were always closely associated with Vietnamese communists...
forces had seized the transportation hub at Tchepone, on Laotian Route 9. This had been accomplished due to the results of elections in May that had brought a right-wing government to power in Laos, its increasing dependence on U.S. military and economic aid, and an increasingly antagonistic attitude toward North Vietnam. The 559th Group then "flipped" its line of communications to the western side of the Truong Son Mountains. By the following year the 559th had a complement of 6,000 personnel in two regiments, the 70th and 71st.
This figure does not include combat troops in security roles or North Vietnamese and Laotian civilian laborers. In the early days of the conflict the trail was used strictly for the infiltration of manpower. This was due to the fact that Hanoi could supply its southern allies much more efficiently by sea. After the initiation of U.S. naval interdiction
Interdiction is a military term that refers to the act of delaying, disrupting, or destroying enemy forces or supplies en route to the battle area. A distinction is often made between strategic and tactical interdiction...
efforts in coastal waters, known as Operation Market Time
Operation Market Time was the United States Navy’s effort to stop troops and supplies from flowing by sea from North Vietnam to South Vietnam during the Vietnam War...
, the trail had to do double duty. Materiel sent down from the north was stored in caches in the border regions that were soon retitled Base Areas, which, in turn, became sanctuaries for NLF and PAVN forces seeking respite and resupply after conducting operations within South Vietnam.
There were five large Base Areas (BAs) in the panhandle of Laos (see map). BA 604 was the main logistical center during the Vietnam War; from there, the coordination and distribution of men and supplies into South Vietnam's Military Region I and BAs further south was accomplished. BA 611 facilitated transport from BA 604 to BA 609 and the supply convoys moving in either direction. It also fed fuel and ammunition to BA 607 and on into South Vietnam's A Shau Valley
The A Shau Valley is a valley in Vietnam's, Thừa Thiên province, west of the city of Huế along the border with Laos. The valley was one of the key entry points into South Vietnam for men and matériel brought along the Ho Chi Minh Trail by the communist forces and was the scene of heavy fighting...
. BA 612 was used for support of the B-3 Front in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. BA 614, between Chavane, Laos and Kham Duc, South Vietnam was used primarily for the transport of men and materiel into MR 2 and to the B-3 Front. BA 609 was important due to a fine road network that made it possible to transport supplies during the rainy season.
The popular conception of the logistical arrangements on the trail sometimes bordered on the romantic. The image of barefoot hordes pushing heavily-loaded bicycles, driving oxcarts, or acting as human pack animals, moving hundreds of tons of supplies in this manner was quickly supplanted by trucks (especially Soviet, Chinese, or Eastern Bloc models), which quickly replaced the human as the main method of supply transportation. As early as December 1961, the 3rd Truck Transportation Group of PAVN's General Rear Services Department had become the first motor transport unit fielded by the North Vietnamese to work the trail and the use of motor transport quickly escalated.
Two types of units served under the 559th Group, Binh Trams
and commo-liaison units. A Binh Tram
was the equivalent of a regimental logistical headquarters and was responsible for securing a particular section of the network. While separate units were tasked with security, engineer, and signal functions, a Binh Tram
provided the logistical necessities. Usually located one days march from one another, commo-liaison units were responsible for providing food, housing, medical care, and guides to the next way-station. By April 1965, command of the 559th Group devolved upon General Phan Trong Tue. He assumed command of 24,000 men in six truck transportation battalions, two bicycle transportation battalions, a boat transportation battalion, eight engineer battalions, and 45 commo-liaison stations. The motto of the 559th became "Build roads to advance, fight the enemy to travel."
The system developed into an intricate maze of 18 feet (5.5 m) wide dirt roads (paved with gravel and corduroyed in some areas), foot and bicycle paths, and truck parks. There were numerous supply bunkers, storage areas, barracks, hospitals, and command and control facilities. All of this was concealed from aerial observation by an intricate system of natural and man-made camouflage that was constantly expanded and replaced. By 1973, trucks could drive the entire length of the trail without emerging from the canopy except to ford streams or cross them on crude bridges built beneath the surface of the water.
The weather in southeastern Laos came to play a large role both in the supply effort and in eventual U.S./South Vietnamese efforts to interdict it. The southwest monsoon
Monsoon is traditionally defined as a seasonal reversing wind accompanied by corresponding changes in precipitation, but is now used to describe seasonal changes in atmospheric circulation and precipitation associated with the asymmetric heating of land and sea...
, (commonly called the rainy season) from mid-May to mid-September, brought heavy precipitation (70 percent of 150 inches (3.8 m) per year). The sky was usually overcast and the temperatures were high. The northwest monsoon, (the dry season), from mid-October to mid-March was relatively drier and with lower temperatures. Since the road network within the trail system was generally dirt, the bulk of supply transportation (and the military efforts that they supported) were
conducted during the dry season. Eventually, the road and path network was supplemented by intense river transportation, which allowed large quantities of supplies to be moved even during the rainy season.
Interdiction and expansion (1965–1968)
During 1961 U.S. intelligence analysts estimated that 5,843 enemy infiltrators (actually 4,000) had moved south on the trail; in 1962 12,675 (actually 5,300); in 1963 7,693 (actually 4,700); and in 1964 12,424. The supply capacity of the trail reached 20 to 30 tons per day in 1964 and it was estimated by the U.S. that 12,000 (actually 9,000) North Vietnamese regulars had reached South Vietnam that year.
By 1965 the U.S. command in Saigon estimated that communist supply requirements for their southern forces amounted to 234 tons of all supplies per day and that 195 tons were moving through Laos. U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analysts concluded that during the 1965 Laotian dry season the enemy was moving 30 trucks per day (90 tons) over the Trail, far above the Saigon estimate. This demonstrates one of the key problems that arose when discussing the North Vietnamese supply effort and U.S. attempts to halt it.
At best, the Americans had only estimates of what its enemy was capable of doing and its various intelligence collection agencies often conflicted with one another. Thanks to improvements to the trail system (including opening new routes that would connect to the Sihanouk Trail
The Sihanouk Trail was a logistical supply system in Cambodia used by the People's Army of Vietnam and its National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam allies during the Vietnam War...
in Cambodia), the amount of supplies transported during 1965 almost equalled the combined total for the previous five years.
During the year interdiction
Interdiction is a military term that refers to the act of delaying, disrupting, or destroying enemy forces or supplies en route to the battle area. A distinction is often made between strategic and tactical interdiction...
of the system had become one of the top American priorities, but operations against it were complicated by the limited forces available at the time and by the ostensible neutrality of Laos. The endless intricacies of Laotian affairs and American and North Vietnamese interference in them led to a mutual policy of each ignoring the other, at least in the public eye. This did not, however, prevent both sides from violating the neutrality of Laos; the North Vietnamese by protecting and expanding their supply conduit and by supporting their Pathet Lao allies; the Americans by building and supporting a CIA-backed clandestine army to fight the communists and by bombing the trail incessantly.
On 14 December 1964 U.S. Air Force Operation Barrel Roll
Operation Barrel Roll was a covert U.S. Air Force 2nd Air Division and U.S. Navy Task Force 77, interdiction and close air support campaign conducted in the Kingdom of Laos between 14 December 1964 and 29 March 1973 concurrent with the Vietnam War.The original purpose of the operation was to serve...
had carried out the first systematic bombardment of the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. On 20 March 1965, after the initiation of Operation Rolling Thunder
Operation Rolling Thunder was the title of a gradual and sustained US 2nd Air Division , US Navy, and Republic of Vietnam Air Force aerial bombardment campaign conducted against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from 2 March 1965 until 1 November 1968, during the Vietnam War.The four objectives...
against North Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon Baines Johnson , often referred to as LBJ, was the 36th President of the United States after his service as the 37th Vice President of the United States...
gave approval for a corresponding escalation against the trail system. Barrel Roll
would continue in northeastern Laos while the southern panhandle was bombed in Operation Steel Tiger
Operation Steel Tiger was a covert U.S. 2nd Air Division, later Seventh Air Force and U.S. Navy Task Force 77 aerial interdiction effort targeted against the infiltration of People's Army of Vietnam men and material moving south from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam through southeastern Laos to...
. By mid-year the number of sorties being flown had grown from 20 to 1,000 per month. In January 1965, the U.S. command in Saigon requested control over bombing operations in the areas of Laos adjacent to South Vietnam's five northernmost provinces, claiming that the area was part of the "extended battlefield."
This request was granted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff
The Joint Chiefs of Staff is a body of senior uniformed leaders in the United States Department of Defense who advise the Secretary of Defense, the Homeland Security Council, the National Security Council and the President on military matters...
and the area came under the auspices of Operation Tiger Hound
Operation Tiger Hound was a covert U.S. 2nd Air Division, later Seventh Air Force and U.S. Navy Task Force 77 aerial interdiction campaign conducted in southeastern Laos from 5 December 1965 till 11 November 1968, during the Vietnam War...
. Political complications were not all that hampered aerial operations. The seasonal monsoons that hindered communist supply operations in Laos also hampered the interdiction effort. These efforts were also complicated by morning fog and overcast and by the smoke and haze produced by the slash and burn
Slash-and-burn is an agricultural technique which involves cutting and burning of forests or woodlands to create fields. It is subsistence agriculture that typically uses little technology or other tools. It is typically part of shifting cultivation agriculture, and of transhumance livestock...
agriculture practiced by the indigenous population.
During 1968 the U.S. Air Force undertook two experimental operations that it hoped would exacerbate the worst parts of the weather patterns mentioned above. Project Popeye
was an attempt to indefinitely extend the rainy monsoon weather over southeastern Laos by cloud seeding. Testing on the project began in September above the Kong River
watershed that ran through the Steel Tiger
and Tiger Hound
areas. Clouds were seeded by air with silver iodide smoke and then activated by launching a fuse fired from a flare pistol. 56 tests were conducted by October and 85 percent were judged to be successful. President Johnson then gave authorization for the program, which lasted until July 1972.
Testing on Project Commando Lava
began on 17 May. Scientists from Dow Chemical had created a concoction that, when mixed with rainwater, destabilized the materials that made up soil and created mud. There was a great deal of enthusiasm from the military and civilian participants in the program, who claimed they were there to "make mud, not war." The results were disheartening, in some areas it worked and in others it did not, depending on the makeup of the soil. The first mission was flown from Udorn Royal Thai Air Base by three C-130 A Model aircraft from the 41st Tactical Airlift Squadron, Naha AB, Okinawa, Japan. The lead aircraft was commanded by Capt James P. (J.P) Morgan, Maj. John Schofield, Co-Pilot, and Capt Richard Paprowitz, Navigator. On the previous day, the three airmen had scouted the target area south of Tchepone in a two engine CIA aircraft piloted by a civilian employee. Unfortunately, the pilot had failed to load enough fuel on the reconnaissance aircraft and had to refuel at a Laotian base on the return trip to Udorn. Since United States armed forces personnel were never officially acknowledged as being in Laos, all hell broke loose upon landing at Udorn. The United States Ambassador to Laos was in a rage that U.S. personnel, in uniform, had been spotted at the remote refueling field in Laos. It is assumed that the heat fell upon the hapless CIA pilot, since the C-130 crewmembers only heard about the problem through the grapevine. The next day, the three ship departed from Udorn filled with tons of a white material that resembled soap. The concoction was actually a mixture of Trisodium Nitrilo-triacedic acid and Sodium Tripolyphosphate stuffed into cloth bags designed to break apart at impact. The three-ship flew above 5000 feet until near the target area, then let down to tree top level for the run-in to the target, flying an in-trail formation with a 1000 feet between aircraft. Two A-1E Skyraider
The Douglas A-1 Skyraider was an American single-seat attack aircraft that saw service between the late 1940s and early 1980s. It became a piston-powered, propeller-driven anachronism in the jet age, and was nicknamed "Spad", after a French World War I fighter...
aircraft were in the area to provide air cover to the mission. The target itself was a road cut sharply into a hillside on a long traverse. A lone North Vietnamese gunner manning a 12mm anti aircraft gun engaged the formation from the ridge line up from the road. However, since the C-130's were actually below the level of the gun, the gunner was unable to depress the piece low enough and the bullets passed harmlessly over the C-130s. The A-1s engaged the gun position and silenced it completely with a salvo of rocket fire. The drop itself went as planned, with good coverage over the road for about a half mile. Later on in the day, the forecast rain activated the "soap" and the initial reports were that the entire road had washed into the valley. That night at a party at one of the local CIA watering holes, the C-130 crews and the people they called the "spooks" celebrated a successful mission. Two more missions were flown by the same aircrews, operating out of Cam Rahn Bay in South Vietnam. The targets on those two missions were at the northern end of the Ah Shau Valley in Vietnam and were unsuccessful as to the results. The crews were told that the North Vietnamese would rush hundreds of personnel to the drop site and remove the "soap" prior to the rainfall that was necessary to activate the chemicals. On the last mission, the third aircraft, commanded by Capt John Butterfield, was seriously damaged by ground fire, and although he managed to land the aircraft at Chu Lai, the aircraft was a total loss due to a warped wing spar. For his actions on that day, Capt Butterfield received the Silver Star medal. It was then decided that the experiment did not justify the dangers involved, so the mission was officially cancelled.
On the ground, the CIA and the Royal Laotian Army had initially been given the responsibility of stopping, slowing, or, at the very least, observing the enemy's infiltration effort. Within Laos the agency had initiated Project Pincushion
during 1962 for those very purposes. This operation later evolved into Project Hardnose
, in which CIA-backed Laotian irregular reconnaissance team operations took place. In October 1965, General William Westmoreland, the American commander in South Vietnam, received authorization to launch a U.S. military cross-border recon effort. On 18 November the first mission was launched "across the fence" and into Laos by the highly secret Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group
Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group was a highly classified, multi-service United States special operations unit which conducted covert unconventional warfare operations prior to and during the Vietnam War....
(SOG). This was the beginning of an ever-expanding reconnaissance effort by SOG that would continue until disbandment of the organization in 1972. Another weapon in the American arsenal was unleashed upon the trail on 10 December, when the first B-52 Stratofortress
The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress is a long-range, subsonic, jet-powered strategic bomber operated by the United States Air Force since the 1950s. The B-52 was designed and built by Boeing, who have continued to provide maintainence and upgrades to the aircraft in service...
bomber strike was conducted in Laos.
A commonly occurring historical perspective concerning the interdiction effort tends to support the campaigns (regardless of their failure to halt or slow infiltration) due to the enemy materiel and manpower that it tied down in Laos and Cambodia. This viewpoint even pervades some official U.S. government histories of the conflict. For example (and there are several more) John Schlight, in his A War Too Long
, has this to say about the PAVN's logistical apparatus:
"This sustained effort, requiring the full-time activities of tens of thousands of soldiers, who might otherwise have been fighting in South Vietnam, seems proof positive that the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail had disrupted the North Vietnamese war effort."
Yet, the same historians would not consider the immense logistical effort fielded by the U.S. to sustain its military in Southeast Asia as a waste of manpower and resources, even if only one American soldier in four assigned to South Vietnam served in the combat arms.
Despite the best anti-infiltration efforts of the U.S. the estimated total of PAVN infiltrators for 1966 was between 58,000 and 90,000 men, including at least five full enemy regiments. A June Defense Intelligence Agency
The Defense Intelligence Agency is a member of the Intelligence Community of the United States, and is the central producer and manager of military intelligence for the United States Department of Defense, employing over 16,500 U.S. military and civilian employees worldwide...
(DIA) estimate credited the North Vietnamese with 600 miles (965.6 km) of truckable roads within the corridor, at least 200 miles (321.9 km) of which were good enough for year-round use. 1967 saw a change in command of the 559th Group as Senior Colonel Dong Sy Nguyen assumed command. In comparison to the above DIA estimate, by the end of the year the North Vietnamese had completed 2,959 kilometers of vehicle capable roads, including 275 kilometers of main roads, 576 kilometers of bypasses, and 450 entry roads and storage areas.
It was also discovered by U.S. intelligence that the enemy was utilizing the Kong and Bang Fai Rivers to facilitate food, fuel, and munitions shipments by loading the materiel into half-filled steel drums and then launching them into the rivers. They were later collected downstream by systems of nets and booms. Unknown to the Americans the enemy had also begun to transport and store more than 81,000 tons of supplies "to be utilized in a future offensive." That future offensive was launched during the lunar new year Tết
Tet can mean:*Tết or Tết Nguyên Đán, the Vietnamese new year**Tet Offensive, a military campaign that began in 1968*Têt in Roussillon, France*Equal temperament, abbreviated as 12-TET, 19-TET and so on...
holiday of 1968, and to prepare for it, 200,000 North Vietnamese troops, including seven infantry regiments and twenty independent battalions made the trip south.
Commando Hunt (1968–1970)
In the wake of the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese showed signs of expanding and modernizing their logistical effort. The number of supply and maintenance personnel had fallen, mainly due to increased utilization of motor/river transportation and use of mechanized construction equipment. The CIA estimated during the year that the 559th Group was using 20 bulldozers, 11 road graders, three rock crushers, and two steamrollers for maintenance and new road construction. As many as 43,000 North Vietnamese or Laotians (most of whom were pressed into service) were also engaged in operating, improving, or extending the system.
The rain of ordnance that fell upon the trail peaked during 1969, when 433,000 tons fell on Laos. This was made possible by the close-out of Operation Rolling Thunder
and the commencement of Operation Commando Hunt
in November 1968. U.S. aircraft were freed for interdiction missions and as many as 500 per day were flying the crowded skies over Laos. By the end of the year, bombing missions over southern Laos had climbed 300 percent, from 4,700 sorties in October to 12,800 in November.
This round-the-clock aerial effort was directed by Operation Igloo White
, run out of Nakhon Phanom
Nakhon Phanom is a town in northeastern Thailand, capital of the Nakhon Phanom Province. The town covers the whole tambon Nai Mueang and Nong Saeng and parts of tambon At Samat and Nong Yat, all of Mueang Nakhon Phanom district...
, Thailand. It was composed of three parts: strings of air-dropped acoustic and seismic sensors collected intelligence on the trail; computers at the Intelligence Collection Center (ICS) in Thailand collated the information and predicted convoy paths and speeds; and an airborne relay and control aircraft which received the signals from the sensors and routed aircraft to targets as directed by the ISC. This effort was supported by SOG recon teams, who besides carrying out recon, wiretap, and bomb damage assessment
Bomb, or battle damage assessment, often referred to as BDA, is the practice of assessing damage inflicted on a target by an air campaign. It is part of the larger discipline of combat assessment...
missions for Commando Hunt
also hand-emplaced sensors for Igloo White.
One interesting aspect of the U.S. effort was that the task of personnel interdiction was abandoned by early 1969. The sensor system was not sophisticated enough to detect enemy personnel, so the effort was given up until the advent of Operation Island Tree
in late 1971.
One shocking revelation for American intelligence analysts during late 1968 was the discovery of a petroleum pipeline running southwest from the North Vietnamese port of Vinh. By early the following year, the pipeline had crossed the Laotian frontier through the Mu Gia Pass
The Mu Gia Pass is a mountain pass in the Annamite Range between northern Vietnam and Laos, located 90 km northwest of Đồng Hới, Vietnam. The pass is 418 m above sea level and connects Route 15 from Tân Ấp in Vietnam to Route 12 in Khammouane Province in Laos....
and, by 1970, it reached the approaches to the A Shau Valley in South Vietnam. The plastic pipeline, assisted by numerous small pumping stations, managed to transfer diesel fuel, gasoline, and kerosene all through the same pipe. Thanks to the efforts of the PAVN 592nd Pipelaying Regiment, the number of pipelines entering Laos would increase to six during that year.
The 559th Group was made the equivalent of a Military Region during 1970 and was once again placed under the command of General Dong Sy Nguyen. Under his leadership the unit was reorganized into five divisional headquarters, the 470th, 471st, 472nd, 473rd, and the 571st. The group consisted of four truck transportation regiments, two petroleum pipeline regiments, three anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) regiments, eight engineer regiments, and the 968th Infantry Division. By the close of the year, the 559th was running 27 Binh Trams
that transported 40,000 tons of supplies with a 3.4 percent loss rate during the year.
These supplies traveled in convoys from North Vietnam in relays, with trucks shuttling from only one way-station to the next. The vehicles were then unloaded and reloaded onto "fresh" trucks at each station. If a truck was disabled or destroyed, it was replaced from the assets of the next northern station and so on until it was replaced by a new one in North Vietnam. Eventually, the last commo-liaison station in Laos or Cambodia was reached and the vehicles were unloaded. The supplies were then either cached, loaded onto watercraft, or man-portered into South Vietnam.
Due to the increased effectiveness of Commando Hunt
, North Vietnamese transportation units usually took to the roads only at dusk with the peak in traffic coming in the early hours of the morning. As American aircraft came on station, traffic would subside until just before dawn, when fixed-wing gunships and night bombers returned to their bases. The trucks then began rolling again, reaching another peak in traffic around 06:00 as drivers hurried to get into truck parks before sunrise and the arrival of the morning waves of U.S. fighter bombers. By the last phase of Commando Hunt
(October 1970 – April 1972), the average daily number of U.S. aircraft flying interdiction missions included 182 attack fighters, 13 fixed-wing gunships, and 21 B-52s.
The North Vietnamese also responded to the American aerial threat by the increased utilization of heavy concentrations of anti-aircraft artillery. By 1968 this was mainly composed of 37 mm and 57 mm radar-controlled weapons. The next year, 85 and 100 mm guns appeared, and by the end of Commando Hunt
, over 1,500 guns defended the system.
Of all the weapons systems utilized against the trail, according to the official North Vietnamese history of the conflict, the AC-130 Spectre fixed-wing gunship was the most formidable adversary. The Spectres "established control over and successfully suppressed, to a certain extent at least, our nighttime supply operations." The history claimed that allied aircraft destroyed 4,000 trucks during the 1970–1971 dry season, of which the C-130s alone destroyed 2,432. A countermeasure to the Spectre was not long in coming, however. On 29 March 1972 a Spectre was shot down on a night mission by a surface-to-air SAM-7 missile near Tchepone. This was the first American aircraft shot down by a SAM that far south during the conflict. PAVN also responded to U.S. nighttime bombing by building the 1,000 kilometer-long Road K or the "Green Road" from north of Lum Bum to lower Laos.
During Commando Hunt
IV (30 April through 9 October 1971), U.S., South Vietnamese, and Laotian forces began to feel the North Vietnamese reaction to the coup of General Lon Nol in Cambodia and the closure of the port of Sihanoukville to its supply shipments. As early as 1969 PAVN, perhaps anticipating the loss of its southern supply line, began its largest logistical effort of the entire conflict. The Laotian towns of Attopeu and Saravane, at the foot of the Bolovens Plateau were seized by the North Vietnamese during 1970, opening the length of the Kong River system into Cambodia. Hanoi also created the 470th Transportation Group to manage the flow of men and supplies to the new battlefields in Cambodia. This new "Liberation Route" turned west from the trail at Muong May, at the southern end of Laos, and paralleled the Kong River into Cambodia.
Eventually this new route extended past Siem Prang and reached the Mekong River near Stung Treng. During 1971 PAVN took Paksong and advanced to Pakse, at the heart of the Bolovens Plateau region of Laos. The following year, Khong Sedone fell to the North Vietnamese. PAVN also continued a campaign to clear the eastern flank of the trail that it had begun in 1968. In that year, U.S. Special Forces camps at Khe Sanh and Kham Duc, both of which were utilized by SOG as forward operations bases for its reconnaissance effort, had either been abandoned or overrun. In 1970, the same fate befell another camp at Dak Seang. What had once been a 20 miles (32.2 km) wide supply corridor now stretched for 90 miles (144.8 km) from east to west.
Road to victory (1971–1975)
In early February 1971, 16,000 (later 20,000) South Vietnamese troops rolled across the Laotian border along Route 9
National Route 9 runs across Vietnam roughly in line with the 17th Parallel. The route includes two segments. The segment called National Route 9A begins at Dong Ha and ends at Lao Bảo on the Vietnam-Laos border and is entirely within Quang Tri Province...
and headed for the PAVN logistical center at Tchepone. Operation Lam Son 719
Operation Lam Son 719 was a limited-objective offensive campaign conducted in southeastern portion of the Kingdom of Laos by the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam between 8 February and 25 March 1971, during the Vietnam War...
, the long-sought assault on the Ho Chi Minh trail itself and the ultimate test of the American policy of Vietnamization
Vietnamization was a policy of the Richard M. Nixon administration during the Vietnam War, as a result of the Viet Cong's Tet Offensive, to "expand, equip, and train South Vietnam's forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S....
, had begun. Unfortunately for the South Vietnamese, U.S. forces (with the exception of air support, artillery fire, and helicopter aviation units) were prohibited by law from participation in the invasion. At first the operation went well, with little resistance from the North Vietnamese. By the beginning of March, however, the situation had begun to change. Hanoi had made the decision to stand and fight and it began to muster forces that would eventually number 60,000 men, outnumbering its adversary by almost three to one.
The fighting that erupted in southeastern Laos was unlike any yet seen in the Vietnam War, since the PAVN abandoned its old tactics and launched a conventional counterattack. The North Vietnamese first launched massed infantry attacks supported by armor and heavy artillery to crush South Vietnamese positions on the flanks of the main advance. Coordinated anti-aircraft fire made tactical air support and resupply difficult and costly, as the loss of 108 helicopters shot down and 618 others damaged could attest. North Vietnamese forces then began to squeeze in on the main line of the advance.
Although a heliborne assault managed to seize Tchepone, it was a useless victory, since the South Vietnamese could only hold the town for a short period before being withdrawn due to attacks on the main column. The only way the invasion force managed to extricate itself from Laos was through the massive application of American airpower. By 25 March it was all over. The last South Vietnamese troops recrossed the border, closely followed by their enemy. As a test of Vietnamization, Lam Son 719
had been an abject failure. Approximately one half of the invasion force was lost during the operation. Although the South Vietnamese troops had fought well, they were poorly led. Even worse, their elite Ranger and Airborne elements had been decimated.
Although Lam Son 719
had been a bloody debacle for the allied cause, it had managed to postpone a planned PAVN offensive against the northern provinces of South Vietnam for one year. By the spring of 1972 it was again obvious to the Americans and South Vietnamese that their enemy was planning a major offensive, but they did not know where or when it would take place. The answer came on 30 March when 30,000 PAVN troops, supported by more than 300 tanks crossed the border and invaded Quang Tri Province. The Nguyen Hue Offensive
(known to the Americans as the Easter Offensive) was under way. As South Vietnamese forces were on the verge of collapse, President Richard M. Nixon responded by increasing the magnitude of the American aerial assault (due to the withdrawal of U.S. aviation units from Southeast Asia, squadrons were flown into South Vietnam from Japan and the U.S. itself). Regardless, the effort failed to halt the fall of Quang Tri City on 2 May, seemingly sealing the fate of the four northernmost provinces. Due to the adoption of a conventional offensive (and the logistical effort needed to support it), PAVN placed itself squarely in the sights of American air power and its casualties were staggering.
The situation was complicated for the Americans by the launching of two smaller attacks by the North Vietnamese: the first aimed to seize Kontum, in the Central Highlands, and threatened to cut South Vietnam in two; the second prompted a series of savage battles in and around An Loc, the capital of Binh Long Province. A total of 14 North Vietnamese divisions were now committed to the offensive. On 13 May the South Vietnamese launched a counteroffensive with four divisions backed by massive U.S. air support. By the 17th, Quang Tri City was retaken, but the South Vietnamese military then quickly ran out of steam. After fierce combat, the PAVN thrusts against Kontum and An Loc were also contained. During these operations North Vietnamese suffered approximately 100,000 casualties while the South Vietnamese lost 30,000 men killed during the fighting. The seizure of territory within South Vietnam itself, however, allowed Hanoi to extend the trail across the Laotian border and into that country.
The signing of the Paris Peace Accord seemed to bring the conflict in Southeast Asia to an end. The last American forces (and all their aircraft) departed; both the North and South Vietnamese were to maintain control in the areas under their influence; and negotiations between the two nations, possibly leading to a coalition government and unification, were to take place. It was not to be. Jockying for control of more territory, both sides flagrantly violated the cease-fire and open hostilities began anew.
By 1973 the PAVN logistical system was a trail in name only. It generally consisted of a two-lane paved (with crushed limestone and gravel) highway that ran from the mountain passes of North Vietnam to the Chu Pong Massif in South Vietnam. By the next year it was possible to travel a completely paved four-lane route from the Central Highlands all the way to Tay Ninh Province, northwest of Saigon. The single oil pipeline that had once terminated near the Ashau Valley now consisted of four lines (the largest eight inches in diameter) and extended south all the way to Loc Ninh. In July 1973 the 259th Group was redesignated the Truong Son Command, the regimental sectors were converted to divisions, and the binh trams
were designated as regiments. By late 1974 forces under the new command included AAA Division 377, Transportation Division 571, Engineering Division 473, the 968th Infantry Division, and sectoral divisions 470, 471, and 472. Command then devolved upon Major General Hoang The Thien.
In December 1974 the first phase of a limited PAVN offensive in South Vietnam began. Its success inspired Hanoi to try for an expanded, yet still limited, offensive to improve its bargaining position with Saigon. In March, General Van Tien Dung launched Campaign 275
, the immediate success of which prompted the general to push Hanoi for a final all-out offensive to take all of South Vietnam. After a bloody but ineffective attempt to halt the offensive, Saigon fell
The Fall of Saigon was the capture of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, by the People's Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front on April 30, 1975...
to North Vietnamese forces on 30 April 1975. The war was over.
Unpublished government documents
- U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group, Annex N, Command History 1965. Saigon, 1966.
Published government documents
- Gilster, Herman L. The Air War in Southeast Asia: Case Studies of Selected Campaigns. Maxwell Air Force Base: AL, Air University Press, 1993.
- Military History Institute of Vietnam. Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People's Army of Vietnam, 1954–1975. Trans Merle L. Pribbenow. Lawerence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2002.
- Nalty, Bernard C. The War Against Trucks, Aerial Interdiction in Southern Laos, 1968–1972. Washington DC: US Air Force History and Museums Program, 2005.
- Ngo, Lt. Gen. Quang Truong, The Easter Offensive of 1972. Washington DC:United States Army Center of Military History, 1984.
- Nguyen, Maj. Gen. Duy Hinh, Lam Son 719. Washington DC:United States Army Center of Military History, 1979.
- Tranh, Brig. Gen. Dinh Tho, The Cambodian Incursion. Washington DC:United States Army Center of Military History, 1979.
- Tilford, Earl H., Setup: What the Air Force did in Vietnam and Why. Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1991.
- Van Staaveren, Jacob. Interdiction in Southern Laos, 1960–1968. Washington DC: Center for Air Force History, 1993.
- Vongsavanh, Brig. Gen. Soutchay RLG Military Operations and Activities in the Laotian Panhandle. Washington DC:United States Army Center of Military History, 1980.
- Andrade, Dale. Trial by Fire: The 1972 Easter Offensive, America's Last Vietnam Battle, New York: Hippocrene Books, 1995.
- Brown, McAlister, Gordon Hardy, and Arnold Isaacs. Pawns of War. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1987.
- Conboy, Kenneth with James Morrison. Shadow War. Boulder CO: Paladin Press, 1995.
- Dougan, Carl, David Fulghum, et al. The Fall of the South. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985.
- Fulghum, David, Terrence Maitland, et al. South Vietnam on Trial. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1984.
- Lipsman, Samuel, Steven Weiss, et al. The False Peace. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985.
- Littauer, Raphael and Norman Uphoff, eds, The Air War in Indochina. Boston: Beacon Press, 1972.
- Morocco John. Rain of Fire, Air War, 1969–1973, Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985.
- Nolan, Keith W. Into Laos: The Story of Dewey Canyon II/Lam Son 719, Vietnam 1971. Novato CA: Presidio Press, 1986.
- Prados, John. The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War, New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998.
- Shawcross, William. Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. New York: Washington Square Books, 1979.
- Snepp, Frank. Decent Interval. New York: Random House, 1977.