The Mu Gia pass will probably be our first area to explore on our trip down the Ho Chi Minh Trail (HCMT). There’s so much to talk about that I decided to break this into three parts rather than one very long posting.
The Mu Gia Pass enters Laos through a gap in the Annamite Mountains. In this area, this mountain range forms the border between North Vietnam and Laos. The pass sits in the bottom of a canyon with 3,000-foot ridges on either side. As it enters Laos, elevation at the bottom of the canyon is about 1275 feet and is only about 1/3 mile wide.
The HCMT (Route 12) winds its way through the canyon as it drops down out of the mountains until it enters the Phanop Valley. Here the altitude is a few hundred feet. Just as Route 12 bends to due west, it meets with Route 23, and the HCMT (Route 23) continues through Phanop Valley. Actually, HCMT traffic went both directions, some stayed on Route 12, but most went Route 23.
I need to note here that the HCMT wasn’t just these two routes. As in all sections of HCMT, the NVA constructed bypasses and alternate sections whenever one part was bombed. Sometimes maps of all the sections of the Trail looks like spaghetti spilled on a plate.
On 18 Nov 64, an F-100D escorting an RF-101 on a “Yankee Team” reconnaissance mission near the Mu Gia Pass was shot down. A huge Search and Rescue (SAR) effort followed that became the model for SAR efforts for the rest of the war: orbiting airborne controllers, FACs, Fighter-Bombers, A-1s for close air support, and forward based (Laos) helicopters for the pick-up. This model continues today. Unfortunately, F-100D pilot, Capt. William Martin did not survive.
Three days later an RF-101 was shot down over Mu Gia Pass. Fortunately this time, the pilot survived. Following this, a request was sent to Washington to put in a “major strike” on the pass to eliminate the anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and force the North Vietnamese to stop from using the pass. Washington denied the request because it did not wish to escalate the war. We all know how that worked out.
Washington’s, most likely President Johnson’s, denial gave the North Vietnamese time to move in air defenses that would become among the most deadly in all in Laos. Some of “Washington’s” response was understandable. It had only been a little over two years since the US agreed to the “neutrality” of Laos. There was still an effort to win the “hearts and minds” of the people. Dropping bombs on them wouldn’t help much.
The desire to avoid bombing anyone loyal to the Royal Laotian Government (RLG) was paramount thought the war. Airstrikes were only authorized by the US Ambassador to Laos in Vientiane in coordination with the RLG. The Ambassador established and controlled the rules of engagement.
The delay in attempting to “close down” the Mu Gia pass allowed to NVA to bring in massive AAA to protect their vital supply route into Laos. By June 66, 302 known AAA sites defended the pass and surrounding area.
It became so dangers that in mid-April 66, “slow mover” FAC aircraft (O-1s) were restricted from flying in the area. The little O-1s flying along at about 80 knots were easy prey for the NVA gunners. Unfortunately, the O-1 FACs weren’t restricted soon enough. On 19 Apr 66, an O-1F from the 23TASS out of NKP was shot down and both occupants KIA. During the SAR attempting to find any survivors from the O-1 shoot-down, an A-1E was shot down… and another KIA.
For some reason, another O-1 FAC from the 23rd TASS was again over Mu Gia on 6 Feb 67. This time the FAC was just inside North Vietnam when it was shot down. The Jolly Green Giant that came to rescue the downed FAC pilot was also shot down. Out of this disaster came the most decorated airman in USAF history: A2C Duane D Hackney. See the Sidebar A Bad Day at Mu Gia for more on Hackney and this mission.
Between Apr 65 and Mar 70, the following sixty-one American aircraft were shot down at or around the Mu Gia Pass:
|22 F-4||14 F-105||14 A-1||2 A-26|
|2 A-6||2 O-1||1 F-100||1 A-4|
|1 A-7||1 F-8||1 O-2|
|Aircrew Lost||41 KIA||3 POWs|
Today you can still see craters from all the bombings. Don Duval’s pics give you an idea of what it looks like.
Our ride will take us up near the Vietnam border… possibly right up to it. From there, you can view the HCMT wind its way back into Laos. I hope to get an idea of what the Trail was like when the bombs and bullets were flying.
There’s a lot to explore in the area. In addition to the main route, there are many interesting alternate and bypass routs we can ride. There are villages still making use of war scrap of all kinds. If we have enough time, we can explore the caves where Laotians lived during the bombing. I expect we could spend weeks checking out the area, but we will probably only be able to explore a small portion of the area before heading on down the “Trail.”