Xepon was another of those places where you might think saturation bombing would close it all down. It didn’t. As everywhere on the HCMT… all the war for that matter… the NVA used grit, determination, and resourcefulness to overcome airpower.
Even before 1970, it became clear the interdiction effort was not working. In the early years, the goal had been to inflict enough damage to cause the North Vietnamese to give up. The thinkers in Washington, DC (I use the term “thinkers” loosely) believed that if enough of the supplies and forces going to South Vietnam could be stopped, the North would give up. It would force the North to negotiate a settlement. After all, the thinkers believed North Vietnam was a tiny, backward country that wouldn’t keep at it if we blew up enough of their stuff.
But… the North Vietnamese Tet offensive, 31 Jan 68, made it obvious the NVA was able to move enough soldiers and supplies down the HCMT to mount a massive campaign. By then, it was clear… or should have been clear… the North wouldn’t give up so easily.
At that point, many military strategists concluded airpower alone could not stop the flow of arms, materials, supplies, and soldiers down the HCMT. They made suggestions to block the HCMT at Xepon with ground forces.
But… the US had backed itself into a corner. It could not send ground forces into Laos because it didn’t want to appear to violate the Geneva accords of 1962. The accords prohibited any foreign intervention in Laos. Of course, the secret of the US’s already massive bombing and other involvement in Laos was not yet known to the rest of the world. It was still a “secret war.”
North Vietnam had been violating the 1962 accords even before the ink was dry. They made a token show of removing a few troops while keeping thousands in Laos to further their objectives.
I want to point out that besides air power, the US had been violating the 1962 Geneva accords for a long time too. The US had forces of one kind or another in Laos since 1964. This included ground troops in small numbers.
In 1968, when the US military strength was at its peak, an invasion into Laos should have been made. The world would have been made aware of the 40,000 NVA in Laos. The US would have been justified in sending in ground forces. The HCMT could have been blocked, therefore denying North Vietnam its supply route.
However… that didn’t happen. Once again, I can’t re-write that part of history. The “thinkers” believed airpower available following the bombing halt of North Vietnam in Nov 68, could be used against the HCMT and give the desired effect. They thought destroying enough of the supplies moving down the HCMT would make the North give up.
It didn’t work. By 1971, planners (mostly in Washington, DC) finally recognized the only way to stop enough of the flow down the HCMT was to introduce ground troops. But by then, much the US forces had been withdrawn from South Vietnam. US tTroop strength was down from the peak of about 540,000 to about 324,000 in January 1971.
The “thinkers” finally decided it was time for the South Vietnamese army to stand up and do the job. Getting the South Vietnamese to stand up and do the job should have been a much larger part of the scheme since Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Anyway… they developed a plan for the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) to seize the trans-shipment center at Xepon and surrounding areas. They would be supported by US Airpower. If successful, and with continuing Air Power elsewhere, the “thinkers” believed that would surely shut down the HCMT. The plan was named Lam Som 719.
I won’t go into all the details here. There are plenty of other sources. One of the best can be found at: South Vietnam Invades Laos – 1971 (opens in a new tab)
Suffice to say, without US “boots on the ground,” Lam Som 719 failed. The initial phases went reasonably well. US helicopters gave the ARVN mobility to move in quickly and surprise the NVA. Unfortunately, the secret was leaked, and the NVA wasn’t surprised. The ARVN made it to Xepon, about 25 miles from the Laos/South Vietnam border, but couldn’t hold it.
In the end, the North Vietnamese counteroffensive gave them the ultimate victory. Some units of the ARVN performed well. But the NVA attacked the ARVN with a 2-to-1 force, including tanks and withering artillery. The ARVN retreated with heavy losses.
Even though North Vietnam’s losses were heavy too, just as their losses were throughout the war, the North was willing to sustain any loss to achieve their goals. In the case of Lam Son 719, victory was North Vietnam’s.
We’ll spend the night in the area so we can explore and see what is still left. As you might imagine, the original village of Xepon was bombed almost out of existence. Lam Som 719 damaged or destroyed much of what was left. What remains is now called “old Xepon.”
Old Xepon is mostly abandoned. The new town is a few kilometers up the road. Some remains of the original village and signs of the war still exist. In addition, the area around Xepon is still littered with war scrap and evidence of the battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We’ll explore to see what we can find.
This UH-1 (huey) along with US marked tanks, and much more is on display at the War Museum. It’s likely that this “Huey” was from the 20th SOS; the Pony Express. (I can’t read the tail number, but when I get there, I’ll check it out.
There is much to see in the surrounding area including th “Generals Cave” area where it is believed that the counterattacks against Xepon were conducted. The area of Phou Thamok Along the Ho Chi Minh trail at the western end of the escarpment has a fantastic overlook of the area.
Here’s one of the views Don is talking about:
Don also has pics of that cave area (and other magnificent pics) on his web site: