Places to go – Mu Gia Pass Part 1

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.

Party suit patch. Not really any snow there, but the “100 Exciting Trails” part is true.

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.

This map shows all of the trails, alternates and bypasses in the area of Tchepone. Note there are numerous alternates through the region, each with it’s bypasses to use as needed.

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-62 O-11 F-1001 A-4
1 A-71 F-81 O-2 
Aircrew Lost41 KIA3 POWs 

Today you can still see craters from all the bombings. Don Duval’s pics give you an idea of what it looks like.

The Phanop Valley area where bomb craters clearly still visible. The NVA had anti-aircraft artillery on top of the karst in the right foreground. If you click on the image, the high resolution pic will open up in a new window… then you will be able to see the Ban Phanop village where the trail meets the river (on the other side of the river).  

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.

This is a wartime pic of the HCMT area as it enters the Phanop Valley. The angle of this pic is a little misleading. North is in the bottom left corner and the center right is south-west. Flowing through the middle is the Nam Ngo River. If you look closely at the middle left, you can tell there are hundreds of bomb craters. Again, click the image to open pic in another window. (USAF Photo) .
Google Earth view of the same pic as above. I’ll have more to say about Boxer 22 in the next post.

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.” 

War scrap is still being used in many ways. Here casings from CBU24B/B cluster bombs are used for as rice house.

Next up – Mu Gia Pass Part 2.

9 thoughts on “Places to go – Mu Gia Pass Part 1

  1. You are living an amazing adventure. There are many envious brothers, but there are some who could care less if they ever saw those trails again and they have earned that choice. I can’t make that trip but it excites me to know there are some who represent all of us. Bob bond NKP 71-72

    • Thanks Bob. For many years I didn’t want to go back. Then about 15 years ago a little voice in the back of my head started talking to me. I made the trip back to NKP in 2014 but had to cut the trip short and missed out on the Laos part.

      I thought the trip to NKP was enough and made that little voice shut up. It didn’t work and now the trip to Laos has become a quest.

  2. And yet another great research, this area very interesting indeed, We can explore the caves were the Vietnamese, Pathet Lao, and local villagers hid during the bombing runs, there remains some important Wreckage from an F 4 Phantom and the villagers are happy to reveal stories of the past. Sam missile was found here and the karst mountains had Anti Aircraft guns placed on the mountaintops here. There are stories from the American flyers of a cave which houses an antiaircraft gun with a large metal door that closed and hid it from view. Maybe we can find this on our trip? Thanks Bob for such interesting article about a fascinating subject.

  3. Is there much in the way of UXO’s still in the area? It would seem that there would be, but who knows?

    • Yes there is still a massive amount of UXOs today. It is estimated that 30% of all munitions delivered did not explode. There are wild counts all over the place, but no matter how you count 30% is A LOT!!!!!
      The “clam shells” of the CBU24B/B cluster bombs shown in the last pic here contained 635 fragmentation bomblets about the size of a baseball. When these were dropped they spread over a wide area. We dropped these by the tons… literally tons. Forgetting the 500 & 750 pound bombs… just imagine how many of these UXO bomblets there are.

      Every year some UXO is cleared… and every year some people get still get blown up. “Some people” includes kids that find the UXO. One current estimate is that it will take another 100 years to clear the UXO.

      I plan a sidebar on UXO somewhere along the way. Stay tuned.

      • Mag has several teams stationed just outside Ban Langkang, we donate money with each trip we take down the trail, Mag will usually set up a demonstration on their proceedures for detecting and then blowing up the days find, if its a BLU Bombie they will be detonated in place, Many of the larger bombs that cannot be defused are taken to a special are “Canyon Like” to contain the explostion, when the larger bombs are detonated the area has to be cleared for 1 km radius!

  4. Great read mate. I did UXO clearance and taught UXO safety around ‘The Hub’ and Choke Points Alpha down to Foxtrot for a few years with an Australian company. A metric truckload of BLU 26/36’s and the 30% for clusters is pretty close to the make. Iron bombs are in the range of 10% and found plenty of them, some still with there serial numbers and lot numbers still visible after sitting on the jungle floor for near on 50 years. Would love to head back that way someday.

  5. My name is Steve Umland. I was a photo interpreter at Task Force Alpha. NKP working on Igloo White. Secret Air war in Laos from Nov 1969-Oct 1970. Then at the 67th RTS in Yakota AFB Japan working missions all over SE Asia. I have many photographs from my work at Task Force Alpha working the HCM Trail.
    I have donated a original binder of over eighty photographs to the Vietnam Archive center at Texas Tech. You can find it by searching my name at their web site. I would love to find and corrolate my originals from 1969-1970 comparing them to the same areas you go to now.

    • When I make the trip, I’m going to take a zillion pics, videos, and will try to get as much drone stuff as I can. Operating a drone to Laos is tricky, but fortunately, Don Duval has Mavic drones.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *