Ho Chi Minh Trail

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 an air war, but every service combined in an attempt to stop the flow of war-making capability from North Vietnam to South Vietnam.

The "Dogs Head"
This is the “Dogs Head.” So called because of the shape of the river easily seen by air. Bomb strikes stripped the jungle in the area.

All of the color pics on this page, except for the HCMT map, are courtesy of Don Duval, aka the Midnight Mapper. You can find out more about him in the post; “Meet Mr. Mapper” or you can go to his web site, www.laosgpsmap.com for more information and his magnificent pics.

It was not just the aircrews flying over The Trail… it wasn’t just the bomb loaders and aircraft crew chiefs supporting the war effort. It was every cook, every admin clerk, every medic… every truck driver, every supply person… every service member contributed to interdicting the HCMT.

I don’t have an exact number of how many served… probably nobody does. By my count at least 150,000 service members served at the seven US Air Force Bases in Thailand alone. (Officially they were Thai military installations, but the USAF was really their main user.) There were probably again that many service members based in South Vietnam or the Navy supporting missions against The Trail.

It was the Americans, not the North Vietnamese, who coined the name, “Ho Chi Minh Trail.” They did a great disservice to themselves, calling it a “trail.” That conjured up some kind of cow path that the North Vietnamese used with peasants carrying rice down to South Vietnam. Generals in Saigon or other rear echelon areas never saw the place. They never understood it was far more than a “trail.”.

The North Vietnamese it used to move everything from rice to weapons and soldiers from the North to South Vietnam. Without “The Trail,” there would have been no war in South Vietnam. The soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) would not have gotten there, and the munitions to fight a war would never have made it south from North Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese recognized the importance of the supply route before the US became tangled up in South Vietnam. In May 1959 (On Uncle Ho’s Birthday) they organized Group 559 to begin building the HCMT… except to them it was the Trường Sơn Strategic Supply Route. This beginning was over two years before the first significant deployment of US forces, the Air Commandos, to South Vietnam.

The North knew the HCMT was key to success in South Vietnam. They created far more than just a “road.” It was a cobweb of roads, trails, and yes, even “cow paths.” Some sources report as many as 9,400 miles of “Trail” were built to cover just a few hundred miles to South Vietnam.

North Vietnamese map showing web of trails from Mu Gia Pass (top, just left of center) and Ban Karai Pass (just right of center) going to Route 9 at Tchepone and to Khe Sanh (bottom right). This is a very detailed map. Click on it to open up in a larger window.

Over time, the Group 559 grew to over 24,000 NVA soldiers along with another 20,000 Laotians supporting operations along “The Trail.” (Some sources report 100,000 North Vietnamese and Laotians.) Support included anti-aircraft units, SAM (surface-to-air missile) units, storage depots, vehicle repair stations, and of course… road crews. When the US bombed, within hours, sometimes even minutes, the road repair crews were out filling in the craters with the gravel the bombs created.

There were caves and tunnels housing everything from hospitals to command centers. There were “motels” and “chow halls” for travelers down the trail. Later there was over 3,000 total miles of fuel pipeline… more than enough to keep the trucks running and an ample supply to operations in South Vietnam.

Calling it a “Trail” and early pictures of bicycles used to transport materials caused the “Armchair Generals and President Johnson” to brush off The Trail.

Bicycles were used to carry the weight. With a large enough dedicated force, millions of tons were moved to South Vietnam this way.

To give you just a glimpse of what the Trường Sơn Road meant, over 1,000,000 NVA soldiers made their way to South Vietnam using The Trail. (The North Vietnamese claim 2,000,000.) During the 1968 TET offensive (Jan-Aug ’68) over 100,000 NVA soldiers infiltrated South Vietnam via the Trail.

Those early pics of the trail caused US leadership to think of the North Vietnamese as backward peasants. With those images in their mind, they underestimated the determination and willingness of the North Vietnamese to endure any hardships along “The Trail.”

As The Trail grew, so did the amount of soldiers and supplies that could move from the North to the South. When there was heavy overcast and airpower couldn’t be used, it was like the running of the bulls. 

The US tried to stop the flow of soldiers and materials with aerial bombing dropping 3,000,000 tons of bombs*. It didn’t work. The North Vietnamese moved enough of everything into South Vietnam to launch the massive TET offensive in 1968 and again the ’72 “Easter Offensive.” During the Easter Offensive, the NVA attacked with between 200,000 and 300,000 soldiers and over 300 tanks & armored personnel carriers.

*For comparison, less than half the amount dropped on the HCMT was dropped on Nazi Germany during WWII. About 1.25 million tons were dropped on Germany.

Only massive airpower stopped the Easter Offensive with strikes on the NVA forces in South Vietnam and resumed bombing of North Vietnam (Linebacker 1). However, since the NVA attacked with such a large force, it was obvious interdiction of the HCMT had not worked… and was likely never to work.

Within months of the Easter Offensive, operations against the HCMT dwindled. In less than a year… the US was gone.

This is the Ban Laboy ford today. It is one of the most bombed places on earth. You can still see the bomb craters on the right.

Today, 45+ years later, the HCMT is strewn with remnants of the raging air-to-ground war that took place. Everything from parts of US aircraft to unexploded bombs are seen in villages all along the trail. Destroyed Soviet tanks and trucks are still there in some areas. There are even remnants of Soviet SAM missiles.

After the bombing ended, the villagers came out of the caves they lived in for nearly 10 years and started a cottage industry. They used destroyed equipment, bombs, and aircraft parts, making something new out of old war materials. I think one of the most interesting is the boats made from external fuel tanks jettisoned by B-52 and other aircraft.

Boats made from drop tanks now in wide use on the rivers of Laos. You can still see the fins on a few. Photo courtesy of Don Duval, laosgpsmap.com

Although lots of war scrap and evidence of the war remains, the HCMT itself is disappearing. Little by little, The Trail is being upgraded with bulldozers and graders. Many portions of the original stone roads (sorta like cobblestone, but made from bombing rubble) are being plowed and paved over. Some small sections are preserved as testimonials to the original HCMT.

A section of the old Ho Chi Minh Trail preserved next to the new graded road.

As time marches on, war scrap will be used up… made into spoons, knives, and boats. The Trail itself will disappear under the blade of progress… or retaken by the jungle. Places where airmen and soldiers died… Harley’s valley, Ban Loboy Ford, or Ban Phanop valley will be gone and forgotten.

Why a “Trail Ride”… why on/off-road motorcycles. Well… as you can see from the slide show below, it’s the best way to see The Trail. To be sure, our support vehicle will go over many of the same roads that used to be The Trail. It will go most places we go on “dirt bikes,” and meet up with us everywhere we go. But as you can see in the slideshow, to get to the few remaining untouched places, we’ll need the dirt bikes.

For those of us who were there… those of us who were in some way part of the war on the trail… cooks… admin… bomb loaders or aircrew… time is running out on a chance to see the place before it is gone… and so are we.

How about you? Did you ever want to see it for yourself?… to see what it is like today? If so, I’m putting together a “Trail ride” for those of us wanting to see it before modernization… or the ever-growing jungle makes it disappear.

If you are interested in joining in on this adventure >> Contact Me (opens in a new tab)

1 thought on “Ho Chi Minh Trail

  1. Thank you. Very interesting and well-done. Maj Ken Smith (USAF retired); 1st SOS A1 Spad crew chief (then SSGT Smith) NKP/DaNang, March 1971 – March 19721972.

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