UXOs

Every time I think about riding down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, all those bombing pics make me wonder… “How many of those bombs did I load and send-off.” More important… how many of those bombs I loaded didn’t blow up.” Then I think, “It would be the ultimate irony if… while exploring the HCMT, I got blown up by one of the bombs I loaded.”

I don’t think that’s really a big fear if we’re smart about stuff. Stay on the roads and trails that have been in use for the last 45+ years. Remote parts of the HCMT are okay too because the NVA cleared those the minute the last bombs dropped. With common sense, getting blown up by some of my own stuff is unlikely.

A puppy-dog, a child’s bike, and two 500 pounders. UXOs are a way of life in Laos. (Photo by Don Duval)

UXOs are still a big problem in Laos. The number of bombs and cluster bombs we dropped along the trail is beyond what I can wrap my mind around. I mean… the numbers are too big. When I did the math on the Boxer 22 SAR, I realized we dropped over 100,000 bomblets (called bombies in Laos) in less than three days. I can’t get my head around the how many we must have dropped in over 3000 days.

The actual number of bombs dropped depends on who is telling the story. It varies from, one plane of bombs every eight minutes, to one B-52 load of bombs every eight minutes. The reality is, no one really knows how many bombs were dropped. And I don’t think it matters. One look at the pics of the bombings makes everything clear. There were so many bombs that actual counts are meaningless.

The big question here is, how many bombs and bombies didn’t explode? Estimates vary. Claims of 30% are often given, but I think this is probably an exaggeration. I’ve seen it as low as 10%. I’m sure 10% is low.

Early in the war, duds were a problem. This was especially true of “Iron Bombs” and Napalm. Pilots hated duds, and I don’t blame them. So the technique they began to use was to drop at least two bombs simultaneously. The idea was, if only one exploded, it would cause the other to go off. Pilots used some combination of this technique the whole year I was there. (This doesn’t apply to B-52s. They dropped their bomb bay loads in the ripple mode. The ripple mode separated the bombs by time and distance at impact.)

These are CBU-3 bomblets hanging in a village. These are often called, “pineapple bomblets.” If you look closely, the dots around the bombies are little steel balls. (Photo by Don Duval)

The CBUs (bombies) were a different matter. By design, these were an area coverage weapon intended to scatter all over creation. The CBU-14 dispensed the little bomblets as the aircraft flew along. As the aircraft flew by, 100+ bombies streamed out of the back. A-1 aircraft would carry at least two CBU-14s every mission… often six or eight.

Here’s an A-1 from the 602nd Fighter Squadron (Commando) (or later the 602nd SOS) from NKP. It is carrying three CBU-14s on the outboard stations of the left wing and likely three more on the right wing stations.  Each of the three CBU-14s contained 100+ bombies. This is likely a “Sandy” configuration with a 100 pound white phosphorus bomb, a rocket pod with nineteen 2.75″ rockets, and a mini-gun. Look closely… just behind the tail of A/C 778 is another A-1 with a similar ordnance load. This pic was likely taken soon after take-off on a SAR mission. (USAF Photo)

Let’s do a little math. First, I’ll talk about “Iron Bombs.” We know that during the dry seasons of the Commando Hunt campaigns, there were 27 B-52 missions per day and about 125 tactical missions per day. Each B-52 carried sixty-six, and tactical aircraft carried at least six “Iron Bombs.”

  • 27 B-52 sorties x 66 bombs = 1782 per day
  • 125 tactical sorties x 6 bombs = 750 bombs per day
  • Total = ~2500 bombs per day. (rounded down)
  • 30 days x 2500 = 75,000 bombs per month
  • 5 month dry season x  75,000 = 375,000 bombs per season.
  • 5 years x 375,000 = 18,750,000 bombs dropped on the HCMT.

I know this estimate is way low. It doesn’t count all the other aircraft such as A-1s that flew another 75-100 strike missions a day throughout the war. There were way more than 2500 bombs per day. And… I’ve only counted just five months of the year and only five years. We bombed year-round for ten years. So you can see, the numbers are in fact much, much more staggering.

Let’s round up to 20,000,000 to make the math easy. I’m sure that number is still a way low. So… if only 10% were duds, that means there were 200,000 UXO iron bombs scattered on the HCMT. Since the land area of the HCMT is less than 40,000 square miles, that equates to about 5 UXO iron bombs per square mile from just this small sample.

Don Duval straddling what looks to be a 500 pound Mk-82 bomb. It was discovered during road construction a little while back. It looks like the tail fuse may have been removed… but what about the nose fuse?

I’ll save you the math on the bombies. Organizations evaluating such things estimate the US dropped 260,000,000 cluster bombs. I don’t know if this means the number of CBUs or for the number of bombies. I suspect it is CBUs, so the number of bombies would be hundreds of times more. Remember, we dropped 100,000 bombies in two-and-a-half days at Ban Phanop. This means as many as a billion bombies were dropped on Laos.

Assuming the low number of 260 million bombies, and using 10% UXO, this means there were 26 million… 26 MILLION!!! unexploded bombies in Laos. The total area of Laos is about 90,000 square miles, so you do the math. If you use the 30% for the number of UXOs… or the higher number of bombies, it’s even worse. WATCH YOUR STEP.

This is a BLU-26… one of the bombies inside the CBUs. They are about the size of a baseball. There would have been 665 of these in a CBU-24.
Another BLU-26 marked by MAG.
This is a CBU-24 with all the bomblets. This one was likely dropped from an altitude too low to open in the air.

What’s being done?

Well first, they teach children growing up in Laos to look out for UXOs. From the earliest age, they are shown that the BLU-26 is not some kind of ball… that it will kill. Still, UXOs blow up around 100 kids and adults every year.

Organizations are out there clearing UXO. There are more than one, but the best known is MAG; Mines Advisory Group. MAG is a global humanitarian organization that finds, removes, and destroys landmines, cluster munitions, and unexploded bombs. They have over 900 staff in Laos working to educate and clear the UXO.

In 2018 MAG destroyed 18,547 UXOs. I’m sad to say they are still finding UXOs in farms, gardens, and playgrounds. Current estimates are that it will be another 100 years to clear all the UXOs in Laos. So far, between January and June of 2019 they have destroyed another 9000 UXO.

The following pics are from MAG. Although there may not be time on everybody’s schedule, I intend to make time to visit the MAG UXO Visitor Centre while I’m in Vientiane.

This is a M-117 750 pounder. It looks like the M-904 nose fuse is still in the bomb. I can’t believe they completely un-earthed the bomb. I would just have blown it up without messing with it. Of course, if this is near some farmers house, then I don’t know what I would do.
This is part of an all women group of workers from MAG.

The pics I’ve gathered here and words can’t do it justice. MAG-Laos has a Facebook page with far more pics than I can post here. Click the pic below to go to their page.

Click to go to MAG Laos’ Facebook page for an amazing collection of pics and videos.

4 thoughts on “UXOs

  1. I was an EOD/Bomb Disposal tech at NKP Thailand. Looks like I need to join this Trail Ride just in case UXO’s are encountered. The again I’m getting kinda old for this stuff.

    • Harold… it’s me, you, and Peter Pan. I might be getting o** but I’m not going gently. O** is a dirty word and I try to avoid it as much as I can.

      If you are really interested, contact me (rdennard@memoriesofnakedfanny.com) and give me your input on schedule and stuff like that.

  2. Hello fellow historians and aficionados of the Ho Chi Minh trail, There are a couple rather touristy Mag displays in country, Vientiane and Xieng Kouang, Phonsavon – Secret War) However we have good relations with Mag and donate to the cause of clearing the areas of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Their Regional office is near the trail , and they usually put on clearance demonstrations along with demolition, for our groups.

    As far as I know 99% of the UXO incidents are Bombies, and with the area of the HCMT opening up with road infrastructure, witch results in more contact with the hidden UXO problem. While the slow deterioration of the ordaniance slowly renders them harmless the increase in human activity is making this more of a pressing issue. Please keep in mind, as you watch the clearance teams survey an area, the term used is Battlefield Clearance not land mine clearance. There are no incidents of Clearance personnel getting injured due the nature of the UXO and the strict EOD procedures.

    The possibility of a UXO incident while on our tours is ZERO.

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