Ho Chi Minh Trail

Featured

From around 1963 to 1973 the US waged a secret war in Laos. A large portion of that war was against the Ho Chi Minh Trail… or the “Trail”… or just the HCMT.

Even though I’ve been writing about the “Secret War” in Northern Laos, the biggest goal of this “Trail ride” is to see the Trail  up close and personal. So, I thought I should start writing a little about that.

Since my time there, I’ve had a growing desire to see The Trail for myself. Now I’m going to do it on a “trail bike”… on an on/off-road motorcycle. Check out the following video for a glimpse of what I’m talking about:

Ho CHi Minh Trail Ride.

Starting in the early 1960s and for over ten years, Americans waged war on the HCMT. It was mostly Continue reading

Sidebar 2: Down The Rabbit Hole

This morning I got an email from Don Duval, AKA The Midnight Mapper. He attached a link to a newspaper article about a SOG guy who spent time in Southern Laos. The guy, Sgt. “Rap” Peavy, was at a place called “Leghorn.”

I thought Leghorn might be interesting to write about. But… I try to be as factual as possible. The article about Sgt. Peavy had a few niggly errors. I always worry about the attempts at “stolen valor” we see all too often these days. So… I started to check it out.

Before continuing, I need to tell you the “niggly errors” were probably poor reporting, not problems with Sgt. Peavy. He and the place known as “Leghorn” are for real.

US Army communication site Leghorn (Golf-5) on top of a mountain in southern Laos.

After reading the article, I started my search to validate the story. When writing about the Second Indochina War, I try to get at least two sources that confirm the story. I prefer three or more.

One of the best sources are the CHECO reports written to document and chronicle the war. Over the years, I have collected hundreds of these in PDF format. There are also thousands of other government documents I’ve collected. (Again in PDF format.)

Unfortunately, at least half of these documents can’t be scanned with a word search. So I have to read or at least scan through them. While going through the documents, other things catch my attention. I get side-tracked and go off down another rabbit hole.

Then there are the internet searches. Wikipedia usually has something on the topic. Once again, that’s often “flakey” at best and a fairy tale at worst. Yeah, you got it… that sends me off down another rabbit hole to get the facts. (Just the FACs ma’am… just the FACs. Yes… that’s a blatant “plug” for a chapter in More Memories of Naked Fanny )

A problem I have is injecting my own bias into stuff I write. I try not to, but I can’t help it. While writing about LS-36 (soon to be finished), I was including a section about the “heroes” of the battles there. Then it dawned on me… the other side probably has their own heroes and view our guys as villains to their story.

I do wish I had some sources from the “other” side’s point of view… but I’m not sure it would make a lot of difference. We all see the world through our own corrective lenses.

That brings me back to this morning. I spent 4 ½ hours checking out Sgt. Peavy and Leghorn. That barely scratched the surface. It will take at least twice that much more time doing research before I can write about Leghorn… it could take days.

And… during all this, I have a “day job” I should be working. It’s a good thing I’m my own boss. Well… sorta my own boss. My real boss is the woman I’m married to.

So for now, rather than writing about Leghorn, I’m just going to give you the link Don Duval sent me. You may want to check it out for yourself. If so… welcome to my rabbit hole.

Here’s the link:     Sgt. Peavy Story (Opens in a new tab.)

Sidebar 1: The Pathet Lao

Who were these Pathet Lao guys?

The answer to “who were these guys” has filled many CHECO papers, war college graduate thesis’ of many military officers, and several books written on the subject. I’m not sure anyone of those works has completely answered the questions. So… it make perfect sense that I’m going to try to give at least a little understanding in a 1,000 words or less. (I hated those 1,000 word essays back in school, didn’t you. Now I’m writing them.)

It starts out like some kind of fairy tale;

Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Laos there were three young princes. Each prince wanted to take control of his domain, known as The Land of a Million Elephants. Each prince had his own plan for the country.

Really… there were three princes that wanted to run the country. Here’s where the confusion begins… there was a King. Actually there were two kings. The first king sorta ruled from 1904 to 1959… and the second from 1959 till the Pathet Lao took over in 1975. I say, “sorta ruled” because as you will see, he really didn’t have much power.

The first king was quite a lover. He had a harem of wives… maybe 15. They bore him over 50 children. Yes indeed, quite a lover. After his death, his first son by his first wife became the second king. With me so far?

Then there were the three princes. I’m not sure where these princes came from… probably other sons by other wives. Much of the confusion for us Westerners comes from the phonetic spelling of their names. There are differing spellings, they end up long, often look quite similar, and are hard to pronounce. The main princes involved were named: Prince Souphanouvong, Prince Souvanna Phouma, and Prince Boun Oum Na Champasak. To make it just a little more complicated, there was a fourth prince involved early on; Prince Chao Maha Oupahat Petsarath Ratanavongsa.

I have a headache from trying to read all that. And I’ll never get the spelling right as I go along. So… meaning no disrespect, I’m going to use a little short hand.

  • Prince Souphanouvong  = Soup
  • Prince Souvanna Phouma = Savana
  • Prince Boun Oum Na Champasak = Champ
  • Prince Chao Maha Oupahat Petsarath Ratanavongsa = Ravioli
  • King 1904 – 1959, Sisavang Vong = Vong
  • King Oct ’59 – Dec ’75 Sisavang Vatthana  = Hana

A couple of notes here. Laotian names are family name first and given name second. If that holds for all the princes, they all had different family names. Second, King Vong was only the King of Laos from Oct 1949 on. Before that he was King of Luang Phrabang, one of the three Kingdoms that made up the country of Laos. There were several other princes that came in and out, but they were minor players so I’m leaving them out at least for now.

It’s already muddy, and I’ve barely begun.

The problems started long before World War II, but that’s where I’m going to start for brevity. Before the war, the French, allowed the figurehead King to remain, but they really ran the place until the Japanese invaded. (Remember the Bridge over the River Kwai).

The Japanese allowed the king to remain, but they then ruled by brutality and intimidation until the end of WWII. They publicly tortured and killed the existing leaders or anyone who opposed them. They even imprisoned King Vong for a while. Although King Vong was a strong supporter of the French (after all, they installed him on the throne), the Japanese forced the him to denounce French rule.

I’m pretty sure Soup was taking notes on the Japanese brutality… notes and lessons he would take with him in the Civil War to come.

Following the end of WWII, the French came back to reclaim their “protectorate”… all of Indochina. King Vong welcomed the French back. However, the princes (Soup, Savana, Champ and Ravioli) formed the “Lao Issara” (Free Laos). The group was made up of mostly princes and educated elite of the country. Their goal of was freedom from France. Free Laos proclaimed itself to be the “official” government of Laos in late 1945.

Getting rid of France was about the only thing members of Free Laos agreed on. They soon fell apart, the French came back to assume control, and most Free Laos members went back to the existing government. Depending on who is telling the story, before the Free Laos dissolved, Prince Soup was either expelled, or left on his own over disagreements. Soup wanted to collaborate with the Vietnamese Communist Vietminh and was a strong supporter of Uncle Ho.

Soup & Uncle Ho
Soup and Uncle Ho.

Soup went to Vietnam along with a few dozen followers who were all dissatisfied with the developments in Laos. They were given training and support by the Vietminh. By 1950 Soup and his followers formed as the “Pathet Lao.” They were dedicated to fighting against French Imperialism. At the time, Soup along with others who formed the Pathet Lao, wanted to get rid of the monarchy.

Later, when the Pathet Lao fully was established, Soup announced it was his goal for Laos to become a Communist country. Based on his collaboration with Uncle Ho, I suspect it had always been his goal. 

I should note here that a few sources (including places on Wikipedia) indicate the “Laos Issara” group was the basis of the formation of the Pathet Lao. I’m reasonably sure this is not correct. It was Soup and his small band of followers that formed the Pathet Lao.

Early on, the Pathet Lao weren’t much of a force. They fought minor skirmishes against the French along the border between Vietnam and Laos.But that was about it. It wasn’t until 1953 when the Vietnamese army (Vietminh) and the Pathet Lao attacked into Laos. They took over the town of Sam Neua and the surrounding province of Houaphen.  Sam Neua and the province became the headquarters of the Pathet Lao and remained so until they took over the country on 2 Dec 1975.

I should mention here, that there were very few Pathet Lao in the force that took over Sam Neua and Houaphen. It was primarily the Vietminh that provided the fighting army. The Vietminh, subsequently the NVA, would provide the majority of the fighting force for the Pathet Lao all they way to 2 Dec 1975.

From the early beginnings, the Pathet Lao (always with large NVA support), waged the Civil War for the next two decades… first against the Royal Laotian forces and then against the forces backed by the CIA and US Military. They showed a dedication and ruthlessness like the Japanese had demonstrated during World War II.

Ultimately, when the US withdrew their CIA, Air America and Military support of the Royal Laotians, the Pathet Lao achieved all of their goals

Meet Mr. Mapper

Our guide for the trek on the Ho Chi Minh Trail is known as the “Midnight Mapper.” I don’t where the “Midnight” part of his “handle” came from, but he has been mapping the Ho Chi Minh Trail (and the rest of Laos) for many years. He probably knows more about The Trail than any human alive… probably more than the NVA and Pathet Lao who ran the place from the late 1950s till the mid-1970s.

Bombs now inert
Duds made inert. UXOs are found all over Laos.

A few years ago, I made the trip back to Southeast Asia. My planning then included riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail. At the time, I thought to myself, “Why do I need a guide?… I’m a big boy… I’ve ridden a motorcycle all over Western Europe by myself…. and I’ve got all the right toys (Garmin GPS & SPOT Satellite device.)” I bought a Laos map from the Midnight Mapper for my Garmin, and it showed the Trail with all the places to go.

I figured if I planned carefully, I could go on my own, go where I wanted to, and do it at my own pace. I could rent a CRF250L in Vientiane for much less than doing it with a guide. I gathered up everything I could possibly need and headed out. The plan was for three weeks riding all over Thailand and another three weeks in Laos.

I was even prepared to even walk out of the jungle if necessary. There was no one to call to bring in a Jolly Green if I had a problem. I had to carry a ton of extra stuff for that contingency… tools, spare tire tubes, water purifier, hammock & mosquito net, MREs for several days, and much more. More than half of the stuff with me was for the HCMT contingency.

Well… the first half went pretty well. After all, I spoke enough Thai to get by. You know… “sawadee,” “cow pot,” “kop kun mak.” And let’s not forget bi-leo (go fast) and Singha.

Then… somewhere in the middle of nowhere Thailand, I came upon a police roadblock. I have no idea why it was there, nor understood anything the policeman said. I just handed the policeman every bit of paperwork I had. My butt puckered up. I prayed I wouldn’t end up in a Thai jail for something I couldn’t understand. Then it hit me… this is Thailand. What would happen in Laos?!!! Alone!!! Camping in the jungle… ALONE!

It turned out something else caused me to cut my trip short at the end of the Thailand loop. Even though I badly wanted to go to Laos, I was relieved I would not be taking such a risk. By the way… I’m sure the CRF250L I rented in Thailand still has a big cone poking up in the middle of the seat cover.

So, that brings us to Mr. Mapper.

Don Duval
The Midnight Mapper – Don Duval

Mr. Mapper’s real name is Don Duval. Don lives in Vientiane, Laos and has lived there for quite some time. Amongst his many talents, you can list “movie star,” “movie producer,” and “tough guy.” No, he’s not a “tough guy” as in a syndicate crime boss. Rather, he’s more like a Timex watch… he takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

OK… you’ll have to watch the movie, “Blood Road,” to see what I’m talking about. Click to see the “Blood Road trailer.” (Opens in a new window) The movie is available on Amazon (included in Prime), iTunes and others.

Don knows all the ins-n-outs of Lao custom and language. Imagine if you broke down by yourself in the middle of nowhere, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. However, when Don takes a group, he brings along a support vehicle with spare stuff and sometimes a spare bike. The support vehicle means we only need to carry minimal stuff with us on the bikes. Bags, etc…. in the truck.

Support Truck and Bikes
Support truck and bikes.

There’s lots more to going with Don. He knows where to eat, where to sleep and probably most important, where not to go. You can’t just go to some places I hope to go to like LS-20A (Alternate). I think Don knows all the tricks to get into and out of places like that… or at least when not to go.

I should also add… Don’s organization is a licensed tour company. He organizes hotels, guest houses and anything else we might need along the way.

To me, it’s a “no brainer” to go with Don as the guide. If you want to do a Laos “Trail” ride but can’t make this one, Don can probably help you out. For more information, he has two websites you can go to: www.laosgpsmap.com and www.hochiminhtrail.org. (There’s a ton of useful information and killer pics on the laosgpsmap web.).

Places to go – Lima Sites

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be making on the places I hope to go during the Ho Chi Minh Trail ride. I sorta didn’t know which place to start with. There are so many interesting and now historic places. I know we won’t get to all of them in a reasonable number of days. So I decided to start with places that aren’t even on the HCMT… Lima Sites. I know… that doesn’t make sense. But I chose this because the Lima Sites were an integral part of the “Secret War” in Laos.

But before I can talk about the most interesting individual sites, I need to give a little background on how the Lima Sites came about. There are a zillion books, CHECO reports, and articles written about this. And… the history of Laos in the ‘50s, ‘60s is so complex and convoluted that to really understand it takes all those books, etc. Not to worry… I’ll try to do it in around 500 words or so.

Laos has been in turmoil since almost forever. The colonial French added the “s” on the end of Lao (to make Lao plural) when they combined three “kingdoms” in 1893. It never worked out. Fast forward to 1954 when Vietnam defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. The Geneva Accords that followed set the stage separating Vietnam into two different countries.

The accords also called for all foreign forces to withdraw. Following the accords, the French essentially pulled out, leaving the US to begin dealing with the region. I should note that there was a separate agreement establishing the Kingdom of Laos. I should also note that the withdrawal of foreign forces allowed the Pathet Lao to gain a foothold in the North of Laos. I should also note that North Vietnam never abided by the agreement to remove forces. Lastly, I need to note that the US was not a signatory to the accords, but made a gentleman’s agreement to go along.

For the next few years, turmoil bubbled in Laos. All the events are too convoluted to describe here. Suffice to say that by 1959 civil war broke out between the Pathet Lao (supported by North Vietnam) and the Royal Laotian Government (RLG). At the time there was only minor sporadic fighting and skirmishes, but it established sides for the coming years of war.

(As a personal side note, the “conflict” in Laos made enough of the “nightly news” in 1959 that I did a report on it for my 7th grade Government class.)

(Pewwww… I’ve already used half of my 500 words. Maybe I should make it 750)

As he was leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower told the new President, John F. Kennedy, that Laos would be the key to Indochina. Between ’59 and ’62, the civil war bubbled up and down. The US sided with the RLG and financed a series of “public works” and “civic actions” to help prop up the government in the eyes of the people. During this time, the US also supported and financed 100% of the RLG military.

About this time, the US began supporting and arming General Vang Pao’s Hmong guerrilla army. I’ll have more to say about Vang Pao (often referred to as “VP”) in future posts. For now, I just want to say that VP and his Hmong warriors were the most fierce fighters and best allies the US had during the war.

All over Laos, the US created what became known as “Lima Sites.” These were little landing strips… some not more than a wide spot on a mountainside dirt road. Some were bigger, and some were bare spots of dirt where only a helicopter could land. These were used by the CIA, Air America, and the US Military.

Initially, they were to support USAID to Laos helping support the “Neutral Royal Laotian Government (RLG) with public works projects… flying chickens and rice to the local regions. By the early 60s, the support became military support for the Royal Laotian Army (RLA) and Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF). Depending on who is counting, there were over 200 Lima Sites.

As the US involvement grew, these sites gained increasing importance to the overall effort in Indochina. Besides flying chickens and rice, the Lima Sites were used as bases for the RLA, VP’s forces, and to fly military support (troops, arms & ammunition) where needed. Throughout the war, battles raged between RLG forces and the NVA/Pathet Lao for control of the Lima Sites and the regions all around the Plain of Jars.

Pewwww… I barely exceeded my self-imposed word count. In the next posts, I’ll tell you about three of the Lima Sites we might visit as well as the Plane of Jars.

If you want to follow along with my upcoming posts, the “Home” page has a “Subscribe” button where you can enter your email to get notifications of new posts.

Next up… LS-36 – The Alamo