I have been holding hope that we could make our November date for the HCMTrail Ride. But it appears that the Cootie Bugs have foiled us again.
Even though Asia is opening up for travel, it appears as of today that Laos is still not issuing tourist visas. While I suspect that may change soon, I don’t think it will change soon enough to make the advanced reservations, airline, overnight stays, etc, that we would all need for this adventure.
So… I think it will be best to further postpone the HCMTrail Ride. For now I am looking at the last part of February or through March, 2021 as the potential time frame. Before I pick specific dates, I would like to hear from anyone still interested in this trip. You can post here in the comments or contact me directly at:
In the meantime, I will begin posting more about places to go, things to see, and information about Laos in general. I will be writing more about places and events of the HCMT as well as the Laotian people.
My first new posts will be a series about the Hmong… the best allies the United States ever had. Since there are many books written on the subject, I can’t possibly tell a lot in a few 2000 words or less posts. But I will at least tell you something about these brave people and post some places where you can find out more.
Again, please contact me if you are interested in making this trip.
This is the second part of what to wear on the Ho Chi Minh Trail Ride. The first part was about riding gear. I wrote about the gear first, because that gear will fill up a lot of your suitcase. Now you need to figure out what will still fit in there and stay under the weight limit. Keep in mind that the smaller airlines you are going to fly on have a 20kg (44lb) weight limit for checked baggage.
Although Part 2 does have stuff about what to wear, it’s more about what to take with you… being prepared, a little about clothes, but also about gadgets like cameras and things like that. And although I’m usually the most guilty, this is about not over-packing.
Before I get started, I need to tell you that I didn’t just run out and buy all this stuff for this trip. Like my riding gear, I have accumulated most of it over time. In my last post, I said you could ride the Ho Chi Minh Trail in jeans, combat boots, gloves, and a helmet. The same goes here. You need little more than that backpack you already have, some socks & undies, and a couple pairs of shorts. Take your cell-phone so you have a camera and you’re good to go.
This adventure is about the experience of a lifetime for most of us. It’s the experience that counts. Most of the rest of the stuff I’m going on about is just fluff. Perhaps the one thing that isn’t fluff is hydration and I’ll get to that in a minute. So read through this keeping in mind that very little of this stuff is required to have an amazing experience. Pick up on the bits and pieces you want and disregard the rest.
So… let’s get started.
The weight limit is more than worrying about your suitcase(s). You need to consider what you want to carry with you on the dirt-bike as you ride down the trail.
If you in the special forces and accustomed to making 18-mile forced marches with a 50-pound rucksack, then you can ignore most of what follows. But for the rest of us, the key here is to go as light as possible.
We may or may not have a support vehicle depending on how many people end up going. With a support vehicle, you can take a little (but not a lot) more than I’m going to talk about. The support vehicle will meet up with you at days end. By the way, support vehicle or not, suitcases will be brought from Vientiane to our end destination at Pakse.
I will go through all this as if we don’t have a support vehicle. If you plan that way, and we do get the support vehicle, you can take a few more “undies.”
First and foremost, most of what you are going to carry will be on your back or in saddlebags on the bike. Don’t figure you can bungee-cord a bag on the back and head down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It makes the bike top-heavy. It will move around some and make the bike a bit unstable… or it may even fly off into the jungle.
At the other end of things, you could head down the HCMT with virtually nothing on your back or on the bike. I suppose the absolute minimum would be a pair of flip-flops, a t-shirt, shorts, and a toothbrush. You could wash out your socks and undies at night and be on your way the next morning. I don’t think that’s very practical, so I’m telling you what I think is essential. Then you be the judge.
I can’t imagine life without a backpack. But I don’t want one of those 50-pound rucksacks. I suspect most folks already have a backpack of some kind, and that’s probably just fine. But, if you need to look for one, here’s a little info.
A backpack’s volume is specified by how many liters it can contain. I don’t know about you, but I only know a liter is about a quart and I know how big a quart is… a quart of oil, right? But I have no idea how many pairs of undies can be stuffed into a 20 Liter bag.
So, I checked. I have a shoebox from my sized 10.5 Nikes. It measured about 400 cubic inches, which is about 6.5 liters. Let’s call this 6 liters for simplicity. Stay with me here because I want you to keep the image of a 6-liter volume in your mind as I go on.
I stuffed the shoebox with three pairs of moisture-wicking undies, three moisture-wicking- tee-shirts, and two pairs of cotton athletic socks. It was full. I tried to get three of everything with the third pair of socks, but they are bulky and wouldn’t fit.
So… with the idea of how much you can stuff into 6 liters, let’s return to the backpack. Even if you already have your backpack, don’t skip this next part because it’s about carry-on restrictions.
First, it must be able to fit as an aircraft carry-on. Some of the big backpacks don’t. Sure, you see some people with monster-sized carry-on stuff, but you don’t want to get to Hong Kong and find out they won’t let you carry on your backpack. I would never risk checking a bag when changing planes in some airport. (There are no nonstops to Thailand or Laos from the US.) If you go all the way to Laos there will be at least three stops and multiple carriers. The smaller carriers to/from Laos have the most restrictive dimensions. The dimensions are not as restrictive as the weight because you can scrunch your backpack a bit if you haven’t overstuffed it. The table below shows the airlines and their restrictions. American Airlines is shown for comparison.
Table of airline carry-on allowances.
As you can see… weight can become a problem. So my advice of “travel light” carries even more meaning. The other advice is to wear cargo pants when you’re traveling. All those extra pockets may come in handy for stuff you have to take out of your backpack.
Second – The bag itself needs to be light. An extra two or three pounds may not seem like much, but some days you may have it on your back all day. Also, as you can see from the carry-on weight restrictions, an empty backpack that weighs ten pounds isn’t going to serve you well.
Third – No metal frames. These might be nice for hiking through the woods or camping, but they might beat you to a pulp bouncing along on unimproved roads.
Last – You should be able to put a hydration bladder in your backpack. This isn’t an absolute must, but it sure is nice to get a drink of water without having to stop and unpack stuff just to get a sip. For me, easy hydration is a must. (I’ll say a little more about the bladders in a minute.)
If you do all the math on the various airline restrictions, you’ll come up with a maximum size of about 40 liters. That will hold a lot of undies and socks, but you’ll probably need it for more than that. I like lots of pockets and zipper compartments so I don’t have to dig through everything just to figure out where I put my GoPro batteries. If you just dump such things in the bag, then you know they will end up in the bottom below everything else. Here’s my backpack:
(From here on, clicking on the pictures will open up another window to the items on Amazon where you can get more details. Since commissions are earned with these links, please check the “#WeaselWords” at the bottom of this page.)
There is another option other than a “full tilt” backpack. I sometimes ride with a “CamelBak” and a fanny pack. We’ll have saddlebags available to put stuff in, and I’ll talk about that in a minute. This option would be a lot easier on the body than a backpack full of stuff.
A camelback is sort of a baby backpack mainly intended to carry water. Most of them have little pouches or zippered compartments to carry little stuff you want easy access to. Some people get carried away with this and end up with an expensive, elaborate backpack. Keep in mind, the object of a CamelBak is to go lightweight yet carry water. If the empty CamelBak itself weighs more than a pound, then you’ve defeated the purpose.
If you go with a CamelBak or equivalent, don’t get anything with water capacity above 3.0L or smaller than 2.0L. (One liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds.) One more thing if you consider a CamelBak… go with the CamelBak brand. There are lots of cheaper knock-offs out there, but none are as lightweight or well-constructed as a CamelBak. They are worth the extra bucks.
I chose the one I have because it also has 3L of cargo capacity and 3L water capacity. I never fill the water all the way up. The empty pack weighs only 10oz. Here’s the link to my CamelBak:
No one wants to call them a “fanny pack” anymore. I think that’s because it conjures up images of Barney Fife in a pastel blue leisure suit wearing a fanny pack. That’s not what I’m talking about. Today they call them “waist belts,” “hip belts,” or “tool pack”… anything but “fanny pack.”
For the Ho Chi Minh Trail Ride, I’m not talking about the foo-foo kind of fanny pack Barney Fife would wear. What I use is designed for motorcycle riding. It has the advantage of keeping all the weight down low… on your hips. I wear mine quite low so that when I’m sitting down all the weight is on the seat. When I did my Thailand ride, I carried about 15 pounds on tools plus other stuff in it. The one I had then is no longer available, but here’s a link to one that’s almost the same:
I should talk about the saddlebags we’ll have available before I go on. Don Duval has “Giant Loop Coyote” saddlebags. I think they aren’t exactly like the ones in the pic, but this will give you an idea of how much stuff you can take. The pic really is better than a thousand words.
These saddlebags have a 39L capacity. That’s a bit more than my backpack, so I could just use the saddlebags. But stuffing the saddlebags full of stuff isn’t a good idea. You don’t want the bike to get top-heavy. I think it would be better to limit it to 20L or 25L at the most. Remember that shoebox full of undies I talked about in the beginning… well, this would be good for the contents of three or four… of those shoe boxes. That’s a lot of undies.
One last thing to mention is a bladder for your backpack. There’s not much to say here. This only applies if you aren’t going with a CamelBak. The bladder needs to be sturdy enough so it won’t spring a leak. It doesn’t need to be fancy. I didn’t have one when I planned for the trip last March (always used my Camelbak instead), so here’s the one I bought. It’s only about eleven bucks.
Now… what the well dressed person (me) is to wear. For this trip I plan three of each of the following:
synthetic moisture-wicking t-shirts
pairs of socks
I should note that I also will take three pairs of riding boot socks. These are very bulky, but I want to be able to change if they get wet. There’s nothing worse than riding all day with wet socks.
Other stuff will be one pair of jeans, flip-flops, and sneakers. I going to take a swimsuit too… I’m not sure why except… who knows when we might go for a swim. I figure a swimsuit might double as another pair of shorts. There are a couple of places I can think of that would be interesting for a swim: the Nam Ngo River where Boxer22B spent two nights, or at the Ban Laboy Ford.
Now I know what you may be thinking… with 14 days on the HCMT and only three of everything, I’m probably going to stink by the fourth day. Well… I was worried about the same thing, but I would rather have that than be over-loaded. Keep in mind that we aren’t going to be staying in five-star hotels. It will be mostly a combination of guesthouses and homestays. That should give us some chance to wash stuff out at night. If worst-comes-to worst, I figure I can wash stuff out in the klong.
A big reason for not bringing a large wardrobe is I need room for all my cameras, gadgets, and toys. I would rather go naked than without my toys. And you certainly don’t want to go with me if I’m naked, so toys it is.
I wanted to keep this post from getting too long… but didn’t succeed. At this point, I’ve given you what I think is the necessary info for the trip. If you want, you can quit here and you won’t miss any essential stuff.
But if you want to see all the toys I’m taking and what I think are a couple of good ideas, go on to the next page.
A few days back I was asked a question about what to take on the HCMTrail ride. In particular, the essence of the questions were, “What riding gear do we need” and “What should we take on the trail. At first, I was going to give a short answer. But as I was writing the email, I realized that if one person was asking, anyone interested would probably want to know. Besides, there is no short answer.
When you look at a lot of the videos of riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail Don Duval has posted, you will see the riders dressed from head to toe with every piece of riding gear you can imagine. But I always think it amusing when in the video you see a family of five going the other way on a scooter wearing little more than shorts and flip flops.
So yes… if you really wanted to, you could ride the Ho Chi Minh Trail in shorts and flip-flops. But I don’t think it would be a very good idea.
A few years ago I rode all over Thailand wearing a helmet, combat boots, over-pants (I’ll explain over-pants in a minute), a jacket, and gloves. I consider this to be the minimum. As I go through the stuff, I’ll show you a recommendation or two. I’ll also include some of the recommendations Don Duval has made.
On the trip from Chiang Mai to Nakhon Phanom (NKP) I went via the towns of Phitsanulok, Khon Kaen, and Udon Thani (Udorn)… about 1000km. The pic shows the gear I wore all the way… “combat boots,” over-pants and the blue vinyl jacket hanging from the handlebars. The helmet is hanging on the handlebr underneath the jacket. The bike is a Honda CRF-250L. More gear is in the red bag, but I wasn’t wearing the extra stuff for the easy (tarmac) parts of the ride.
I should mention that I’m one of those that wears every possible piece of gear you can imagine. I often ride motocross tracks. I rarely race these days, but just the same, I prepare for the worst. I’ll tell you about my gear as I go along, but for now, I think this video will tell you the story best. I made the video because I was testing out a new GoPro mount. I was also wearing the new helmet and riding pants I intended to take on the HCMTrail Ride. (I didn’t think my Red-White-and-Blue themed gear would go over well riding in Laos. Here… watch the video.
Throughout the rest of this post, I’ll be putting in little pics of the stuff I’m talking about. Each pic is a link to Amazon so you can check out the items. All the links open up in a new tab. (Since commissions are earned with these links, please check the “#WeaselWords” at the bottom of this page.)
This first item if for the GoPro “chin” mount… not the helmet.
Must Have Gear:
Before I go on I need to tell you that I go off-road riding two or maybe three times a month. That was the first “crash-n-burn” I’ve had in over six years. In the last two years, I haven’t even had a little “boo-boo” get-off. So all of this stuff is not likely to be “used,” but it’s needed just in case. Our trip down the Ho Chi Minh Trail won’t have a lot of risks. Still… shorts & flip-flops just aren’t a good idea.
Helmet – I don’t need to say much here. You need your own properly fitting helmet. Some old, worn a million times brain-bucket isn’t good enough for my head. This doesn’t have to be expensive. Don Duval recommends a “dual-sport full face” helmet… not the kind you wear with goggles. He says the dual-sport give you better peripheral vision to look out for ” that dog, Cow, Goat, or Water buffalo approaching from the limit of your peripheral vision!”
Like most gear, you can spend a zillion dollars, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. The dual-sport helmet below on the left is one Don recommended. It is like the one he wears, is a DOT approved helmet, and is only about $60. The other one is the one I wear and bought to take instead of my Red-White-and-Blue helmet. As to its cost, to mimic the words of the great Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker) in the movie, Major League… it costs juuuuussst a bit more.
(A reader told me that I should mention that if you are looking at this on some devices (like a cell phone), the items are not shown side-by-side. Instead, the “left” one is the first one shown, and the “right” one is the second one.)
Boots – As minimum, military combat-type boots. Today these are called “tactical boots.” The Bates boots shown below are the ones I wore all over Thailand. These are great because they are almost as light as sneakers. I still wear them all the time for riding my street bike (Honda) or for just out in the woods. The problem with these specific boots is with any water crossings… even little streams, your feet will get wet. Even though we are going in the dry season, a little rain in the morning could have you soggy all day. Bates does offer waterproof boots, but they cost juuuuussst a bit more.
Proper off-road boots will do a better job of keeping you dry. They’re also like armor for your feet and lower shin. Unfortunately, they aren’t much good for anything but dirt bike riding. Like all the gear, you can spend a small fortune if you are independently wealthy. As for me, the boots shown below are what I ride with.
I should mention, I’ll be wearing my combat boots as I travel to Laos. That will be my back-up if something happens to the motocross boots along the way. The Bates “Tactical Boots” on the left and my motocross boots on the right.
Gloves – These are essential. Don’t try and go with some $3 cheapie you can get from Harbor Freight. Good ones aren’t expensive and working up a blister your first day out won’t be fun. You can get proper off-road gloves for about twenty bucks. For years I have worn both Oneal brand gloves (left – about seventeen-bucks) and my current Fox gloves (right – about twenty-eight bucks).
That does it for the absolutely, positively must-have stuff. There’s more that’s highly recommended, but first, I want to talk about pants.
Obviously cargo shorts won’t do. Getting a bad case of road rash would ruin your day. Once again, you don’t have to spend a lot of money, or you can indenture your firstborn for riding pants. At the bottom end, you could go with just jeans. When I was poor, I did a lot of desert riding just wearing denim jeans. They will prevent a lot of road rash and keep dirt from getting ground into bare skin. But they are the least effective. I’m going to let you be the judge, but I’ll suggest something more effective.
“Over-pants” may be the most cost-effective. When I rode through Thailand, I just pulled these on over my Wrangler jeans. At the end of the day, I just pulled off the over-pants and was ready for a night on the town. Ok… the jeans were probably juuuuussst a bit stinky, but at least I could check-in someplace to wash up. Besides… these days stinky jeans might help with that “social-distancing” thing. Of course, you could wear cargo-pants or some such underneath but then you wouldn’t be as protected as well to road-rash.
Proper off-road pants, in my case motocross pants, are the best way to go. They will give you the most protection to road-rash. They will also be cooler than the other options… even jeans… because the ones I’m suggesting have venting to let in a little bit of air. They will also be the most comfortable because they have flex & expansion panels in all the right places. The ones I’m showing also have a little bit of padding in the hips and knees. (I’ll say a bit more about padding when I get down to “Overkill”.) While not waterproof because of the venting, they will keep a lot of water away. Since it’s a vinyl/polyester fabric, splashed water runs right off.
The over-pants I wore through Thailand are no longer available. Although the ones I’m showing here (on the left) are similar, I can’t personally vouch for them. They are about $40. The motocross pants (on the right) are the ones I bought and will be wearing on the HCMTrail Ride. They cost about $70.
Highly Recommended Stuff
Most trail-riding “get-offs” are not like the massive tumbling down the highway, getting smoothed out by a car sort of crashes you get riding down the interstate. Don’t get me wrong… some off-road crash-h-burns can hurt a lot. I was hurtin’ after the one in the video I showed you at the top. But most trail-ride get-offs are more the boo-boos and rash type. Helmet, boots, pants and gloves take care of a lot of that. But there’s more stuff that will lessen your aches and pains if you get some boo-boos.
Arms, Elbows & Knees
I suppose you could call an old sweatshirt arm protection if you are brave. In fact, I used to wear little more than that when I was on a motocross track. But now-days I want more. As a minimum, a modern motocross type long sleeve shirt should be worn. These shirts are vented and moisture-wicking to help keep you cool. They also have a little padding on the elbows. The one shown here is what I sometimes wear on a motocross track now-days if I’m not wearing more. (I wear a “chest-protector”/”roost-guard” / “flack-jacket underneath when I’m just wearing the shirt but I won’t go into that here. I also have a red-white-&-blue shirt not appropriate for this trip.)
Don Duval (and I) recommend you wear knee and elbow guards of some kind as a minimum. These are inexpensive and will save you a lot of grief even if you have just a little tip-over. That little bit of padding those motocross jerseys have won’t protect you nearly as much as some plastic “armor.” The set below will do the job, and are only about twenty bucks. But… before you order up any of these for the HCMTrail Ride, Don has some of this stuff you may be able to borrow from him. So check first.
One option to go with instead of some kind of long sleeve shirt and elbow armor (you still need something for knees) is to go with “Body Armor.” Both Don and I will be riding with this. Besides armor for your elbows, this provides you with a lot more… chest, shoulder, and back.
Remember I mentioned I wear “flack-jacket” worn under my motocross jersey just a minute ago? On a motocross track, the bike in front of you can spray you with little pebbles and rocks from his back tire. Except those pebbles and rocks are coming at you like “flack.” Sometimes the competition in front of you “roosts” you on purpose. The chest protection Body Arnor has does the same thing as a “flack jacket.” Of course I would never roost you on purpose… unless you roosted me going through a water crossing.
One other advantage of body armor is that you can wear a t-shirt underneath. The “jacket” part is made of a mesh and is far cooler than anything else.
I was wearing body armor in the crash-n-burn in the video at the beginning. Believe it or not, I didn’t have a scratch on my elbows, shoulders, or back. When you see me, I’ll show you all the scratches my body armor has from that. Is it a bit of “over-kill” for most trail riding? Yeah… probably so… especially for the HCMTrail Ride. We’ll be taking it easy. Just the same… I won’t leave home without it.
The body armor shown on the left below will do the job and then some. It’s only about sixty bucks. The one on the right is what I will be wearing on the HCMTrail Ride.
There are a few more things that I wear any time I get on a dirt-bike. Most of this stems from my racing days and is far more than you will need for the HCMTrail Ride. When you are racing, you are always riding at your limits… sometimes over your limits. For the HCMTrail Ride, we are just going along at a pace for “sight-seeing.” Just the same, I’ve worn this stuff for so long, I feel naked without it. So, if you don’t mind spending some of your kid’s inheritance, here’s some more stuff.
“Base-Layer” – This is what you wear under all of the other stuff. There are a variety of different types and price points. The main idea of these are to provide some extra padding to protect you from boo-boos. I always wear shorts like these. They’re kinda like regular outerwear shorts, but with padding. After a day’s ride, I’ll wander around the house with these on until I take a shower… even if my daughters are around. And they don’t even say ewwwwwww. If you are going to ride with only jeans, this becomes sort of a recommended item. The one shown on the left is a low-cost version… about twenty-five bucks. What I wear is on the right… about sixty-five bucks.
Kidney Belt – I’m only going to show one here… the one I wear… because it really is in the beyond overkill category. My Body Armor (and the other one I showed) has a built-in kidney belt and I still wear a second one. Part of the reason is because I’ve always worn a kidney belt… long before I started wearing body armor. It’s one of those things I feel naked without.
The biggest reason for a kidney belt now-days is because it keeps my shirt tucked in. I wear the kidney belt down low… partly under the belt-line of my pants. (The pants don’t actually have a belt, but you know what I mean.) Now that might not seem like a big deal, with all that other stuff on. But without the kidney belt, my shirt always comes un-tucked just above the beltline. And no matter what… any time I’ve ever gone sliding, the dirt seems to always find any exposed skin. Here’s the one I wear… about thirty bucks.
Knee Braces – Ok… now I’ve gone off the deep end. This purely stems from my racing, but it’s still that naked thing. I’ve worn these for so long now, I just can’t get on a dirt bike without them. There are no worthwhile knee braces under about $350 a pair… and they go up to over $750. But just think… I get to save twenty bucks on knee pads.
Socks – Yes, you’ve got to have some kind of socks under whatever you are wearing for boots. Sure… the best thing to do is to run down to Walmart and buy a pack of six athletic socks for less than the price of these overkill kind. But these overkill kind are oooooh so nice. Both of the ones below are O’Neal socks. The socks shown on the left ($17.50) are over-the-calf with moisture-wicking material for most of it, but thick knit heel and sole. The ones on the right ($28) are what I wear because they go almost up to my Yaa-Haa. The Yaa-Haa socks go under my knee braces to prevent chaffing.
All of the pics and links I’ve posted take you to Amazon. I can also recommend getting the same stuff from one of three places: rockymountainatvmc.com, btosports.com, and Chaparral Motorsports (chapmoto.com). I have received good service from all three, and have been doing business with Chaparral since they were a little ma-n-pa store in San Bernadino, Ca. in the early 80s.
I use mostly Amazon these days mostly because I have “Prime.” In normal times I (all Prime subscribers) get free shipping… 2 day on almost everything. I think it likely most of you have Prime by now. If not, they have a free 30 day deal. Even if you don’t want Prime, it would be worth their free deal if you are going to order a bunch of this stuff. You also get free Prime Movies, which during the Covid-19 thing might be a good idea for the next 30 days. Just click on the pic below.
I want to say again that the Ho Chi Minh Trail ride is in no way about pushing the limits. We won’t be doing anything any member of the group is uncomfortable with. I’m bringing all my stuff just because I have it… not because I intend to “test it out.”
When I started to answer the email about this stuff, I started out with, “I’ll make this a quick answer and let you ask questions.” Then I started writing the email. The email was growing into the monster you see now. So you see why I never sent that “quick” email.
I still invite you to ask questions or make comments. There are a million possibilities for this stuff, and I’ve only given you a few options.
Now… about what to bring. I’m working on a “quick” email for that and you’ve probably already figured out how that’s going. So that will be my next post. Stay tuned.
I wanted to add a little about Chaparral Motorsports. Their retail store may be one of my favorite places in the world to spend a day… yeah, a day. They are by no means a little store anymore. For me, I’m like a kid in a candy store. Except it’s a candy store that seems as big as an aircraft carrier… and that’s just their showroom. I won’t go into it all here, but they have about every brand of motorcycle you can think. And… they carry so much in the way of accessories & clothing that I can’t begin to name it all..
Although my flight itinerary to Laos has changed now, when I planned for last March, I arranged it so I could visit Chaparral during my 24-hour stay-over in the Los Angeles area. I don’t miss living in California, but I do miss being able to go to Chapparal.
#WeaselWords about the links to products on Amazon. All of the costs and labor associated with this web site are paid for out of my pocket. As such, to help defray the costs I have begun to include pics/links to products I use. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases when you click on the product links. In all cases, the links are to items I have purchased with my own money or have been recommended by a trusted source. I have never been supplied any of these items for free or at a discount. I have never been paid to endorse any product.
As soon as President John F Kennedy took office in January, 1961, he recognized the need for a counterinsurgency military force. In particular, he knew the U.S. Air Force would need to train and equip for such an operation. Kennedy directed U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis Lemay to form such an organization.
A call went out for Airmen, officer and enlisted, to volunteer for a secret operation and they weren’t told what the operation would be… just that it would be unconventional, dangerous and that the U.S. government might disavow knowledge of their actions. The Air Force received more volunteers than it could use. In April, the “4400 Combat Crew Training Squadron (CCTS)” was formed at Eglin Auxiliary Field #9… Hurlburt Field. Calling the 4200nd a “Combat Crew Training Squadron” was a euphemism to keep secret what would soon become the 1st Air Commando Wing. Thus, the Air Commandos were reborn. (I say reborn here because the Air Commandos have a history back to WWII. I can’t possibly do the Air Commandos proper justice here, so I’ll recommend two books: “From a Dark Sky” and “Any Time Any Place” (Click on the pics to check them out on Amazon.)
Initially, the 4400 CCTS was equipped with C-47s, T-28s, and B-26 Invaders*. The operation was called, “Jungle Jim.” In December 1961, the 4400 CCTS was the first USAF unit to deploy to Southeast Asia (SEA) under the code name, “Farm Gate.” They were initially tasked with the job of training the South Vietnamese Air Force. Almost immediately, the “training” became full-on combat missions.
The B-26 Invaders of the 4400 CCTS were very effective in their counter-insurgency role. They flew both close air support and supply interdiction missions. I should note here that B-26s were deployed to Takhli, Thailand as early as December 1960 and in April 1961 as part of operation Mill Pond. Mill Pond was designed as a counter-insurgency mission in Laos.
The B-26s continued to operate in Vietnam until they were grounded in April 1964 as a result of “wing spar fatigue.” During an airpower demonstration at Eglin Field #52, a B-26 on a strafing run in front of Senators and Congressmen lost a wing and crashed. Both crew members were killed. About the same time, a B-26 on a combat mission in Vietnam lost a wing, again killing all crew members.
To fix the problem, On Mark Engineering was selected to upgrade the B-26s. Besides fixing the wing spars, changes included better engines, propellers, brakes, wing-tip tanks, increased ordnance capacity, and revisions to the tail section for better controllability in the counter-insurgency role. The upgraded aircraft were re-designated as the B-26K Counter-Invader.
(Note: Originally there had only been B-26A/B/C models, so this was a skip all the way to K. A little later, you’ll see why “K” now carries on.)
A total of 40 B-26Ks were built at a cost of about 12 million dollars. I want to note here that there were 300 serviceable B-26A/B/C aircraft from the boneyard that were available to On Mark Engineering. These and more could have been converted to the B-26K configuration. While in production, On Mark delivered 4 conversions a month. But, in their great wizdom, the Air Force leadership (especially General “Spike” Momyer) wanted an all-jet Air Force. After all, why buy 40 B-26Ks when you could buy about seven F-4s for the same money. I’ll bring this up again later.
In June of 1966, the B-26Ks were set to deploy to Southeast Asia… Nakhon Phanom (NKP), Thailand specifically. But, the government of Thailand did not allow bombers to be based there at that time. So, the B-26K reverted to their original 1945 designation; A-26A.* (Later B-52s would be stationed at U-Tapao after the Thai government changed their policy.)
The deployment was called operation “Big Eagle.” A detachment of eight aircraft from the 603rd Air Commando Squadron arrived at NKP. At the time AC-47s had been used with success against the Ho Chi Minh trail. But, the NVA brought in 37mm AAA guns and several of the Spooky gunships were shot down. The A-26s were being tested as a replacement.
The Detachment Commander at NKP was Colonel Domenico Curto. When he was asked what they wanted for their call-sign Col. Curto chose from the Book of Genisis in the bible. He chose, “Nimrod”… a great hunter. Some accounts say some guys in the detachment were “less than enthusiastic” about the call-sign. But since he was a “Full Bull,” the name stuck. Almost immediately, the Nimrods proved they were great hunters.
Their primary job was interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Strategists thought that if we could stop the flow of men, munitions, and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to South Vietnam, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army would not be able to wage war there.
Forty-five days after their arrival, Col. Curto flew to Saigon to brief “Spike.”… Ummmm General Momyer on the Nimrods progress. Col. Curto pointed out that while the A-26s flew only 8% of the missions, they had accounted for 50% of the vehicles destroyed on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The facts were there to back that up. But in typical “Spike” fashion, Momyer poo-pooed anything to do with propeller aircraft.
Upon his departure from NKP, Col. Curto sent a memo pointing out that the 4 hour loiter capability of the A-26 should be taken advantage of. He said that it would take six jet aircraft with a loiter capability of only 40 minutes to do the same thing. Pointing out that the Nimrods would be better suited to the task, the memo stated, “Assuming that 18 A-26 sorties were available per night, 118 jet aircraft sorties could be diverted to other areas.”
Well, you can imagine how that went over with Spike.
Just the same, the Nimrods were so successful that by October, ’66, the Ambassador to Laos, William Sullivan, requested eight more A-26s to support operations in Laos. The request was initially rejected by 7th AF. (I read into that rejected by Spike.) But, Ambassador Sulivan went over Spike’s head to CINC PACAF, Admiral Ulysses G. Sharp with his proposal. Admiral Sharp (and the Joint Chiefs of Staff) agreed with the evaluation of the A-26s success so far but only authorized an additional four aircraft.
By November the Nimrods were also tasked to support operations in the Barrel Roll area of Laos. Every year, there was a see-saw battle over the Plain of Jars in the northern part of Laos. The North Vietnamese would build up their forces, and supplies to attack at the beginning of the dry season. The Nimrods were used to attack those North Vietnamese forces.
Beginning on 1 Nov, the Nimrods were tasked for four sorties per night into Barrel Roll. In the seven days from 2 Nov to 9 Nov, those four per night sorties damaged or destroyed 67 trucks, one bulldozer (destroyed), four antiaircraft guns destroyed, and 384 enemy troops killed with many more wounded. By 10 Nov, Hmong commanders reported, “little [North Vietnamese] traffic was moving along Routes 6 & 65 as a result of successful A-26 bombings.” The same report suggested that the NVA had fewer than 20 trucks remaining in the region by 12 Nov.
In December, the USAF flew 447 sorties in the Barrel Roll area resulting in 31 truck kills. The A26s flew only 20 of the sorties and were credited with 27 trucks “killed. For December in the Steel Tiger area (Ho Chi Minh Trail) the USAF flew 2,546 sorties with 163 trucks damaged or destroyed. The A-26s flew 175 of the sorties with 99 of the kills.
You do the math. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Nimrods had proven themselves to be the best truck killers of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Still, Momyer was against anything with a propeller that wasn’t a transport.
I should mention that the numbers I used for sorties and kills are taken from a project CHECO report, “Lucky Tiger Combat Operations, 15 Jun 1967, HQ PACAF. This CHECO was prepared by the well-respected Mr. Warren A Trest.
The Nimrods continued to operate under the 606th Air Commando Squadron until the 56th Air Commando Wing was established in April 1967 under the command of Col. Harry “Henie” Aderholt. Don’t ask me where the nickname Heinie came from… no one seems to know. In September 1967 the Nimrods were formed into their own squadron… the 609th Air Commando Squadron. (Like all Air Commando Units, they were later changed to Special Operations designations.)
Versatile and when necessary the Nimrods could be used for close air support. In May of 67, they were diverted to Barrel Roll and stopped an attack by the NVA attack on a Lima Site. In Feb 68 the 609th ACS flew sorties supporting the Marine Corps firebase at Khe Sanh.
In the second quarter of 1968, the Nimrods established the record for truck kills. In April they took out 459 truck kills which set and still is the single month record by one Squadron. For the quarter, they had 831 truck kills… also still the record for one squadron for the April – June quarter during the war. I should note that April to June is typically the beginning of the rainy season and the trucks quit moving down the HCMT. So the 831 kills during a time with fewer trucks is an even more amazing achievement.
Operation Commando Hunt I began in November 1968. Commando Hunt I was an all-out attempt to stop the flow of men, munitions, and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Since President Lyndon B, Johnson had ordered a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, the Air Force had at its disposal the full force of every aircraft in the theatre to attack the Ho Chi Minh Trail. F-105s at Korat and Takhli and F-4s at Ubon and Udorn were sent against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. US Navy and Marine aircraft also participated in Commando Hunt I.
The numbers become a little hard to pin down because different reports use different metrics. So, take the following as an estimate of the scope of the operation. The U.S. (Navy, Airforce, Marines) flew 72,258 sorties in the 151 days of Commando Hunt I. There were 6108 trucks destroyed or damaged. Seventy aircraft were lost. The Nimrods flew 2,718 of the sorties and damaged or destroyed 1,718 trucks. The Nimrods would have had even more kills, but they were often “called off” to allow flights of F-4s or F-105s to make their pass because the jets were low on fuel. The Nimrods would go into holding orbits while the jets made their “runs.”
The F-4s were notorious for missing by a large margin. They simply weren’t designed for those kinds of missions. When the Nimrods were called back to resume their attack, the trucks had gone into hiding. The Nimrods did lose one aircraft and crew to enemy AAA during Commando Hunt I.
One other factor I want to point out. A later study showed that the cost for an F-4 to kill one truck was about $700,000. The cost for an A-26 to kill a truck was about $50,000. Again, the exact numbers can be disputed depending on which report you want to cite. Just the same, the orders of magnitude are not out of the question. For about the cost of one truck kill by an F-4, the USAF could have bought two more A-26s.
It’s clear that the Air Force should have bought hundreds of A-26s as well as other Air Commando type aircraft like A-1s when they had the chance to. If there had been several squadrons of A-26s, then maybe there would have been a much more significant impact on the flow of men, munitions, and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But there I go again… trying to rewrite history. It didn’t happen.
In November 1969 the Nimrods were withdrawn from service and most of them sent back to the boneyard. The reason stated was supply problems supporting the aircraft and their vulnerability to the increasing AAA covering the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Supply problems was a bogus excuse. There were supply problems for every aircraft in the theatre and were not any worse for the A-26s. It probably was better than others for the A-26… there were still 260 in the boneyard to pick parts from.
It is true that AAA was becoming a problem. With the bombing halt, the NVA moved AAA from North Vietnam to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It had been suggested to 7th Air Force… General Momyer… that the F-4s could be used for “flack suppression” so the A-26s (and by then A-1s) could work the trail. Well… you know how Spike took to that.
It would have been unthinkable for Spike to have F-4s fly AAA suppression for prop-driven attack aircraft. Spike simply couldn’t grasp the concepts necessary for limited war operations such as the interdiction of the HCMT. As early as Nov ’66 he said the mission in Laos could be performed more effectively by F-4s. It was only because of the shortage of F-4s that he allowed the A-26s to continue until more F-4s were available. Spike just didn’t get it.
In a post-war writing, General Momyer stated the Air Force, “should not waste scarce time and money developing specialized aircraft for counterinsurgency.”
As we entered into the Second Indochina War, widely held Air Force policy was that we should prepare for general war. Momyer and others believed that spending money on less than general war would hamper the general war capability.
I do have to concur with General Momyer in one sense. He did not want to pick off trucks one by one out on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He once said, “Nothing on the Ho Chi Minh Trail is worth the loss of one pilot.” Instead, Spike wanted to knock them out at their source in North Vietnam; Hanoi, Hai Phong, and Vinh with unrestricted attacks… for which F-105s, F-4s, and B-52s were well suited.
I can’t close this without mentioning the aircraft that took over truck killin’ duties after the A-26s were withdrawn. The AC-119 and AC-130 gunships became the most dominant aircraft on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Of the total USAF sorties flown against the HCMT during their time, only about 10% were flown by the gunships. But… of the 40,000 trucks claimed as damaged or destroyed, the gunships accounted for about 66% of them.
One more set of numbers to throw at you; During the following two dry season Commando Hunt operations (III & V). F-4s flew over 13,000 truck attack sorties and killed 3,712 trucks. In the same time frame, gunships flew about 3000 sorties and killed a whopping 19, 512 trucks. (Taken from CHECO “USAF Operations in Laos, 1 January 1970 – 30 June 1971”)
It’s interesting to note that after General Momyer left the 7th Air Force, F-4s were used for flack suppression for the gunships. The F-4s did a great job at it allowing the gunships to concentrate on killing trucks.
Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying, “There are lies, there are damned lies, and there are statistics.” Some critics have said the reported “kills” were over-inflated. And I suspect that is true. But I don’t think anyone one group was better at over-inflating than any other. So no matter what percent you might want to discount the numbers, it’s clear that the gunships were the best truck killers of their era.
When I was in 11th grade I took a shop class and the teacher told us, “always use the proper tool for the job.” It’s a shame General Momyer wasn’t in that shop class with me.
Earlier I mentioned the letter designation “K” for the B-26K now has extra meaning. You see… there is only one B-26K still flying; A/C tail #679. It was the last aircraft to be modified by On Mark Engineering and delivered to the Air Force. In a tradition older than the Air Force, many of her older “sisters” were nick-named by the pilots who flew them. A-26 Nimrod aircraft had names such as: “Nother Trucker,” “Sweet Therese,” “Mighty Mouse,” and “Batplane.” (Batplane was flown by All “Batman” Short and Larry “Robin” Counts. I wish I knew how Batman and Robin got their nicknames.)
The last flying B-26K, A/C 679, has been given the nick-name, “Special Kay.” She has been restored to all her glory and is now operated by a group of dedicated volunteers at the Vintage Flying Museum in Dallas Texas.
Their mission is to keep Special Kay flying as, “a ‘flying’ memorial to the valiant secretive service of the men of the United States Air Force who flew and maintained her during the Vietnam War. Their famous aircraft will be shared with air-show visitors nationwide in a tailored aerial display; designed to captivate public interest and attention … and … to raise younger Americans’ educational awareness of the now “declassified” military service provided by these heroic Air Commandos in Southeast Asia.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I guess I should mention that I am not a totally objective observer. I spent eleven months of my time at NKP as a member of the 609th Special Operations Squadron. I’m very proud to have been a member of the Nimrods.
*There is confusion about the B-26 because two different aircraft have been designated as a B-26. First, the Martin Marauder B-26 was used in WWII. Near the end of the war another aircraft, built by Douglas, was introduced as the A-26 Invader. Then when the Martin Marauder was retired, the A-26 Invader continued in service and was re-designated as a B-26. All variants of the Douglas Invader then carried the “B-26” designation including the “K” model until the “K” was introduced into the war and stationed at NKP. When stationed at NKP the designation was changed to A-26A.
This post is to announce new dates for the “Great Ho Chi Minh Trail Ride.” I’ll also answer some questions I have been receiving.
Sound the trumpets – We will head out for the trail on 9 Nov. 2020. It will be 14 days, and the itinerary will be as before. We are going to LS20A (AKA “Alternate” or Long Chieng + others), the Plain of Jars (PDJ), and riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail from the Mu Gia & Ban Karai passes to almost the Cambodian border. We will end with a day riding through the Bolaven Plateau. (CLICK HERE FOR THE ITINERARY.)
I don’t think November is too optimistic. All indications are that things will get back to some kind of “normal” in the next couple of months. Businesses will be opening up again soon, and people will get into their new routines. Yes, COVID-19 will still be with us, but most aspects of life will resume. With appropriate care, we will be out & about… resuming our lives.
Over time, I have received some questions but never answered them here. So, I’ll try to answer the most often asked:
Question: What dirt-bike/riding skill level do I need? Answer: Keep in mind that this is not going to be a race. You will be riding at your own pace. If you owned a trail bike any time in your life, then that’s probably fine… even 50 years ago. Time on a street bike is probably okay too. Lots of the riding will be on dirt and “country” roads. We will build-up to the off-road stuff anyway. Don Duval is a pro at this. He will select roads and trails according to ability. We are not going to ride long distances nor spend too many hours in the saddle. Our goal is to see stuff along the way. As it stands, the longest distance on any day will be about 150 miles (4th day out). Keep in mind; we won’t be going at interstate speeds, so you can expect five or six hours in the saddle on that day. Again, the ride will be tailored to skill level, and we will build up as we go.
I should also note that if at least 5 people are going, we will have a support vehicle – crew-cab going with us. The support vehicle can take at least two non-riders.
Question: What will it cost? Answer: There are two parts to this answer; 1) the HCMTrail Ride itself and 2) Getting there:
1. The HCMTrail Ride is all-inclusive (almost). Don Duval will pick us up at the Wattay airport when we get there. Throughout our time with him, he will provide all the food, water, and places to stay. The motorcycles (Honda CRF250L, most likely), gas, oil, etc. are 100% included. The cost will be $200 per day… or $2800 for the 14 days.
The reason I said “almost” is it doesn’t include alcohol, souvenirs, or other stuff you might buy along the way. Beer Lao is really cheap. Also, you will likely discover some stuff made from war scrap… old bombs, CBUs, and such. Somehow, having a set of spoons possibly made from CBUs I helped deliver seems like the right thing to do. Other than that, I’m not much for Beer Lao or souvenirs, so I probably won’t spend a hundred bucks. However, I suspect most folks should figure $200.
2. Getting there is the biggest variable for everyone. There are almost endless possibilities… extra days in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos or even Vietnam, for example. The other thing, of course, is the airline cost, and that depends on where you are flying from. The tables below show the round-trip costs from various places to either Bangkok or Vientiane. I used Expedia for this. You can figure this for yourselves, depending on where you will depart.
If you fly to Bangkok, it will cost up to about $170 to fly to/from Laos. Flights to VTE (one way) are about $80. There are three logical ways to get back to Bangkok. The first (which is what I am doing) is to fly from Pakse to Bangkok ($90). For those that want to go back to their old stomping grounds; Ubon, Udorn, or NKP, you can cross over the Mekong and fly back to Bangkok from one of those airports. In all three cases, the flights back to Bangkok Don Mueang cost about $40. (I’m not sure of the cost for a mini-van, bus, or boat to cross into Thailand. For Udorn, you would need to return to Vientiane and then cross over.)
I’m flying to Bangkok and spending an extra two days there at the beginning and one day in the end. How many days you spend will be up to you. Thailand is still really cheap. A hotel with air conditioning is ~$35 per day; “Western” breakfast (eggs, toast, hash browns) ~$3.50; A big plate of chicken “Cow Pot” and soda ~$6.00; Singha Beer ~$3.75 – Thai Massage Parlors – priceless.
For my 3 days, I’m allowing for $200 total and that’s probably high. With a little hocus-pocus on the math, here’s the bottom line for me: HCMTRide = $2800 Souvenirs & Beer Lao = $100 Flights To/From Laos = $170 3 Days in Thailand = $200 —————————————– Grand total ~ $3300 + airfare.
So there you have it. The tables below show the airfare prices to Bangkok and straight into Vientiane. Keep in mind that these prices are changing almost daily. As of right now, most airlines allow will allow you to make changes without change fees as long as you book by 31 May.
Round-trip cost of Flights to Bangkok (BKK)
AIRLINES @ PRICE POINT
Los Angeles (LAX)
American, Delta, Korean Air
$950 – $1150
Delta, Korean Air, Cathay Pacific + others
Delta, Korean Air
New York (JFK)
Delta, Korean Air, Asiana Airlines (?)
Delta, Korean Air, Cathay Pacific + others
Delta, United, Korean Air + others
San Francisco (SFO)
$572 – $612
Eva Airways (?), Delta, + others slightly more $
$625 – $650
Qatar Airways, Delta, American, United, Korean Air
Fort Walton Bch (VPS)
$921 – $973
Puddle Jumpers R Us + American or Delta
Round-trip Cost of Flights to Vientiane (VTE)
AIRLINES @ PRICE POINT
American, Delta, Korean Air
$950 – $1150
Delta, Korean Air, Cathay Pacific + others
Delta, Korean Air
Delta, Korean Air, Asiana Airlines (?)
Delta, Korean Air, Cathay Pacific + others
Delta, United, Korean Air + others
$572 – $612
Eva Airways (?), Delta, + others slightly more $
$625 – $650
Qatar Airways, Delta, American, United, Korean Air
$921 – $973
Puddle Jumpers R Us + American or Delta
As always… questions or comments are welcome. Keep in mind that this is moderated, and your postings may not appear for up to 24 hours.