The Ho Chi Minh trail is one of the great legends of the second Indo China war, or Vietnam war or American war ( depending where you are and who you are talking to). There are few people outside Vietnam or Laos who have a comprehensive knowledge of these road and path systems which wind their way south through the Truong Son Range of Mountains.
|The Mountains the trail was cut through.|
From the late 1950s to 1975, the HCM Trail was the secret route of soldiers, weapons and supplies moving from North Vietnam to the battlefields of the South. The terrain through which the pathways and roads were constructed was one of the most challenging in S E Asia, cut through jungle and across mountains and crossing wide rivers.
The Trail played a crucial role in the Communist Victory over South Vietnam and its allies. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was not just one route but a network of interlinking pathways and roads. It is also important to realise that the Trail also ran along and across the Laos/Cambodia and Vietnamese borders. In total it is estimated that the Trail was about 1000 kilometres in length but that 4700km of road and pathways had been constructed to service it.
In the beginning…..
The North Vietnamese idea of a secret build –up of soldiers and supplies to support the war for the unification of Vietnam and spread communism more widely started in the early 50s. For example, in 1951 four Vietminh battalions (pre VNPA) were stationed in Laos to train the Pathet Laos – these were the communist forces that refused to accept the return of government of Laos by the French . Over the next few years, Vietminh guerrillas continued to infiltrate Laos. This was part of a longer term strategic plan to establish a communist government in Laos.
On the 7th May 1954 - following the final collapse of the French government of Indo China, the Peace talks in Geneva set up a temporary partition of Vietnam at the 17th parallel along the Ben Hai River. This divided the county into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam DRV (North) and the Republic of Vietnam RVN (South). These talks also guaranteed the neutrality of Laos and Cambodia. Temporary partition was supported by China and the USSR which feared for their own national security. The DMZ (de-militarised zone) extended 5km either side of the river.
In 1956 proposed elections for a united Vietnam were called off by the contender in the South ( Ngo Dinh Dien) because it was thought Ho Chi Minh and the communists would win. This decision was backed by the USA. This caused the political situation to revert to a military one. The North Reinstated Resolution 15 – revolutionary war.
The first Trail or track was initiated in June 1959 by orders from Ho Chi Minh to establish a secret route for the Vietnamese Peoples’ Army (VNPA,) linking North and South Vietnam within Vietnam “to walk without a mark, cook without smoke and speak without a sound”. . To do this the 559Th Transportation Group was formed to supply the North Vietnamese uprising against the South Vietnamese government, under the command of Colonel (later General) Võ Bẩm . Initially, the North Vietnamese effort concentrated on infiltration across and immediately below the 17th parallel or Demilitarized Zone that separated the two Vietnams.
Unfortunately for the North Vietnamese, in early 1960, evidence of a disguised military transport network from N to S was discovered south of the DMZ and the army of the Republic of Vietnam ARVN moved into the area to cut the Trail. This forced the VNPA to search for alternative routes south. The natural choice was to move south through neutral Laos and the Truong Son Mountains. As a result, in early 1961 the VNPA moved into Laos to eliminate any resistance from the Royal Laos Army leaving the Pathet Laos in place but passing control of the countryside to the VNPA. This allowed the VNPA to move south on trails made through the Laos mountains and valleys.
On 9th Sept 1964 the people of Nge An Province, Vietnam, troops, army engineers and Youth Volunteers started to build a new strategic route called the Ho Chi Minh Highway ( also referred to as the Truong Son Trail) –or Route 15. The first section was built 40 Km NW of Kim Lien village where Ho Chi Minh was born. This appears to be the first attempt to construct a roadway for trucks. US intelligence was aware of how important this route was to the North Vietnamese war effort and bombing of roads commenced when and where it could be identified.
As the war escalated through 1965, the USA started night bombing the HCM trail where it was thought to be. The USA used Udorn in Thailand as their base. This was the beginning of operation Steel Tiger. By mid year 1000 sorties per month were carried out. Special forces troops were dropped around the Trail to disable it but the VNPA sent Special Group 565 to secure it from ground attack. On Dec 11 the USA used B52s for the first time to strike the Mu Gia Pass, an important border crossing into Laos.
In 1966 the USA began a massive aerial and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam concentrating on Hanoi and the area just north of the DMZ. The villages in this area were encouraged to stay put by the Viet Cong (VC) and to dig tunnels. After 19 month of tunnelling an enormous base was established underground. Whole families lived here. These Vinh Moc tunnels on three levels 15m to 26 m below ground served as an important storage base for the Trail.
To counteract what they saw as a strategic threat, the USA built large bases near to where they believed the Trail ran. Khe Sanh was one of these. From these large bases, patrols were sent out in an effort to intercept anyone using the Trails. The task was too great for the USA. Whereas the Trails and the Viet Cong and VNPA support groups were based on deception and fluidity, the US military bases were static. Once US patrols left these bases they were by themselves. While they could be supported from the air, there was always a time delay between combat on the ground and the arrival of air support in the form of gunships and bombers. The use of guerrilla warfare allowed the Viet Cong to disappear quickly once they had struck a blow.
In 1967 The MacNamara Line was built by the US at enormous cost. This was an electronic anti-filtration barrier below the DMZ from the coastline to the Mekong valley in Laos. Its purpose was to sound an alarm if the VNPA or VC crossed to the south. It was monitored from a control base in Nakhon Phanon in Thailand. It was patrolled by rangers and monitored through sensors. Many Vietnamese and Laos villages had to be relocated. Its cost was estimated to be US $3 .5 billion. The VNPA was able to blow up parts of the line and large sections soon fell into disuse .
The development of the Trail
As the war rolled onwards, the Trail developed into a complex pattern of parallel truck routes and foot paths. Most routes were dirt roads with important portions paved with rock and pebbles. A large mileage was built in Laos after the first 50 km in N Vietnam. In the early stages there were two main N-S routes – Route 1 coastal ( abandoned in 1968) and Route 15, 12 and 20 through the mountains including in Laos.
Most convoys departed from three loading areas inside N. Vietnam making their way to the Laos border following three paved highways build by the French before 1945. Each of the three roads connected the Vietnamese provinces of Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Quang Binh with the border and the Laos road network. After a short distance into Laos the trucks headed south along the border. Eventually truck routes extended as far as Sihanoukville, or Konpong Som in Cambodia on the gulf of Thailand. From there supplies could be transported by sea and river to infiltrate the South.
Other routes being developed were 16, 24 and 18. Inevitably, once spotted, the USA targeted all the river crossings with bombing raids. Many dummy routes were built to confuse the US and South Vietnamese. It has been estimated that up to 40,000 people were used to keep the Trail open. The natural environment especially the jungle provided excellent cover with as many as three canopies of trees disguising what was going on at ground level. The NV planted trees and plants to give extra cover and to provide food for troops and personnel in transit.
The US response was to use defoliants such as Agent Orange to kill off greenery that gave cover to the Trail. This killed off large areas of jungle that are still trying to recover. Footpaths made up another part of the system. These inter-twinned with truck routes. NV combat units moved on foot from areas just north of the DMZ. Civilian labourers (dan cong) also used these pathways carrying backpacks or on bicycles. These footpaths were an integral part of the logistical lines and with truck routes. Supplies were often unloaded from trucks along the Trail and carried by porters on backpacks across the border into S Vietnam. Like truck routes, footpaths ran mostly in Laos territory parallel with the border. The network branched off east in many places leading supplies and troops to logistical bases set up inside S. Vietnam often located in deep underground in tunnels.
The strategic use of the Trail was largely the responsibility of Corps 559 under General Dong Si Nguyen responsible to General Giap. Corps 559 had several Binh Trams ( army stations) each BT was responsible for a part of the trail. For example BT1 (later BT31) was responsible for the Mu Gia Pass to Lum Bum in Laos. It was well organised with two engineers’ battalions, two truck battalions, an AAA battalion, two infantry companies, three stores companies, a medical care unit, three teams of surgeons, a quarantine unit, and a truck repair workshop. This was typical of the structure of BTs.
By 1967 every 3- 5 kms of the Trail had an area for storage of crushed stones to fill craters or muddy areas. There were workshops at regular intervals to mend trucks; decoy roads; AAA positions; medical help and air raid shelters ( usually caves). A tally of US bombs dropped was also recorded.
More than 40,000 people were involved and the Trail became an open battlefield in the war. As the war progressed, on the VNPA side, developments included use of more sophisticated and effective communication systems (24/7); regular rations for soldiers, strategic use of youth volunteers and carefully planned BT bases. Corps 559, important for its role in protecting the Trail throughout the war, moved to Lun Bum in Laos. Other measures included one way systems in storage depots, loading bays equal to the height of lorries, increased manpower for loading and single lane tracks hidden by trees, some planted and interwoven to screen lorries from aircraft. Porters loads were reduced to 20Kg from 30Kg. Where trucks had to cross rivers underwater bridges were constructed to avoid detection by US aircraft.
In 1968, the VNPA was experiencing a desperate shortage of fuel supplies in the mountain areas. Amazingly porters had maintained the petrol supply by carrying bags of fuel from N Vietnam to stores in the Mu Gia Pass where it was taken south through Laos by BT31. This unit put the fuel in barrels and floated them down the rivers: first down the River Nam Heu and eventually carried by porters to Nam Se Bangti. Portering was dangerous heavy work and very inefficient. A pipeline seemed to be the answer.
The first section was built in 1970 around Ban Bac and then from Ban Co to Muang Nong with three storage depots north of Route 9 at Ra Khum and Muang Nong. The second section was constructed from Muang Nong to Ban Bac. Ban Bac was heavily bombed by the US in 1970 after another electronic barrier across Laos ( code name Tropical Trees) showed that truck movements stopped in this area. This suggested to the US that there was a storage depot here. The VNPA claimed that despite this, no pumping stations or fuel storage depots were hit and that fires reported by the US were decoys to confuse bombers. No one will ever know the truth.
Each section of the pipeline had to be carried to its position piece by piece. Much of it hung from trees or was buried in shallow trenches. The USSR refused to back the project claiming it was not feasible. Undaunted the North Vietnamese army carried on by using home-made pipes and pumps. Pumps were buried to protect them from heat seeking AC 130 planes of the US. The pipeline project took the Trail into a new era. It minimised loss of fuel and lives and there was no longer a need for bulk transport of fuel by road.
The Chinese supplied the fuel into N. Vietnam initially by train then by pipeline in 1972. The Soviets sent tankers of fuel to Huang Tu in China. Eventually the pipeline stretched from Mong Cai and Langson ( 09.08.72)on the border with China to Bu Gai Map in S Vietnam. (01.02.75)
Hot Spots .
In November 1968 US bombing of N Vietnam stopped at the time of the abortive Paris Peace talks. This good will gesture did not extend to Laos and bombing of the Trail continued unknown largely to the outside world. B52s concentrated their bombing on two hot spots: route 20 and Xieng Phan respectively known as the Desert of Fire and the Bowels of Hell for fairly obvious reasons. The effect was to force the VNPA to construct even more by-passes.
Because of continuous and unrelenting US Bombing, Dong Loc – ‘a place of death’, became another hot spot. In 1968 the US dropped 46,300 bombs on this area. The US attacked virtually every day – day and night. Traffic was kept moving by the Youth Volunteers teams mending roads clearing unexploded bombs, maintaining bridges etc.
The Mu Gia Pass to Laos by route 9, know as the Secret Garden was controlled by Army Group 1 ( BT1) was a particular hot spot for bombing. Famous for its secret roads, this fed into a large network of routes in southern Laos It became a battle ground between the Pathet Laos, Neutralists, Royalists, the US and S.Vietnamese.
Eventually the Royalists and the Neutralists in Laos lost their grip in this area, but the US continued by dropping napalm on forest areas to uncover the trail. This caused massive casualties and whole Lao communities had to move to caves e.g. Tam (cave) Phanang. This cave was home to more than 2000 people 1971-75. Several old French roads e.g. Route 12 through the Mu Gia Pass were well known to the US so new roads were constructed using alternative mountain passes. The US carried out massive bombing raids on all these routes (e.g Steel Tiger and Barrel Roll), often 5000 or more sorties a month.
The battle of Lam Son 719 was one of the final pushes by South Vietnam, backed by the US to cut the Trail. It failed despite inflicting heavy losses on the VNPA. Anticipating the attack into the southern Laos area, Corps 559 established a very sophisticated and elaborate tunnel system in the mountains to protect supplies and troops from continuous bombing by the US.
In July 1970 a few months before Lam Son the US managed to close the sea supply route of the VNPA to Sihanoukville Port in southern Cambodia. This was a vital route into S Vietnam for the VNPA. The VNPA realised that the southern Trail through Laos was crucial to maintaining supplies to its troops fighting in S Vietnam. The US also recognised that the Trail had to be its next major target.
The VNPA strengthened its command of the Trail and worked with the PLA to secure all ground in S Laos, preparing for an imminent invasion by the ARVN. Many diversions were created together with a build up of troops. The VNPA was very well prepared. The US operation in Jan 1971 ( called Dewey Canyon II ) was limited to air support while the ARVN fought on the ground.
The US committed 2000 fixed wing aircraft and 600 helicopters to support 17,000 ARVN. Meanwhile an unknown number of VNPA waited undercover in Laos without engaging in any major battles.
By the 8th Feb the ARVN had crossed into Laos near Lao Bao and moved onto Ban Dong. The only action they encountered was sporadic m/c gun fire. The VNPA effectively drew the ARVN with the US into a trap. The VNPA had more than 600 AAA cannons and m/c gun positions located in the hills and on day 4, large numbers of US helicopters were caught in cross fire from these well placed guns.
On Feb 11th the previously hidden VNPA divisions advanced on Sepon taking out established ARVN firebases and retaking command of much of route 9. By March Phase 3 of the ARVN attack was bogged down.
By the end of March the battle of Lam Son 719 was over. There were high casualty rates on both sides but particularly on the North Vietnamese side. Both sides claimed a victory but the Trail was not cut and this was the last major assault on the Trail by the ARVN before the final defeat of South Vietnam.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a great military success for N Vietnam. The massive firepower of the US and South Vietnamese armed forces failed to stem the flow of materials, supplies and troops from the North. Not surprisingly many military strategists at the time believed that bombing and the McNamara Line would fail to defeat the enemy and that only a defence line of several infantry divisions across the border in Laos reaching to the Mekong River would be effective. They were probably right.
However, success for North Vietnam had a very high price. The cost of the Trail can be estimated in the lives of 10s of thousands of young men and women civilian porters who were killed by bombing, sickness and exhaustion. They were undoubtedly motivated by their ambition for a united Vietnam, the philospohy of Ho Chi Minh and incredible loyalty to their country, as well as fear from being shot for dereliction of duty. (They could also live on less than 400 grams of rice a day.)
You may hear that a new Ho Chi Minh Trail is being built. This is a new N-S highway entirely inside Vietnam costing US$ 5 billion. It is entirely within Vietnam running almost parallel with the Lao border. It has no connection with the original trail.
A short history of the Ho Chi Minh Trail
U3AC Military History Society Presentation - 16.05.14
Pictures. Chris Corbett
Pictures. Chris Corbett