For all the American might during the Vietnam War, Uncle Sam’s men were unable to break the resilient North Vietnamese. Despite their superior technological advantage, their foes matched them with simplicity, guerilla tactics and plenty of back-breaking work. The Vietnam War wasn’t won or lost in the cities, nor the skies above, but rather because of a series of trails. What began as simple dirt paths blossomed into one of the most famous and successful supply routes in modern warfare.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail is probably best seen as a life-giving artery. A vast collection of roads and trails that wound down from North Vietnam, through Laos and Cambodia before entering South Vietnam and spreading out from there. Soldiers, weapons, food, medical supplies, ammunition and just about everything you can imagine poured down this trail and the outcome of the entire war may well have been very different had it not existed.
The First Indochina War
For just shy of twenty years, two opposing ideologies slogged it out in South-East Asia. South Vietnam was supported by the United States, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and Thailand, while North Vietnam could count on the backing of the Soviet Union and China, as well as other communist allies, in a conflict that eventually claimed between 1.5 million and 3.5 million lives depending on sources and their estimates. The fact that there is such a huge chasm between the upper and lower estimates, underscores the savagery of the fighting that took place.
It’s difficult to know where to start with the Vietnam War – or as they call it in Vietnam, the American War. Fighting began in the area during the First Indochina War in 1946 during which the Vietnamese attempted to drive out their French colonial overloads. The situation swung back and forth in an eerily similar manner to what would come next for the Americans, but things culminated with the catastrophic French defeat at Dien Bien Phu between March and May 1954. By the summer, an agreement had been reached that saw the French depart and effectively split the country in two, with the Viet Minh, led by the revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, controlling the North, and the south remaining under the control of Emperor Bảo Đại. This was very much along ideological lines, with the north firmly marching in the direction of communism, while the south clung on to some form of democracy.
But this almost immediately broke down and an insurgency was soon swinging into action against the South. And it is here that the United States first appears on the scene. From 1955 to 1964, the U.S played a mostly supportive and advisory role with non-combat personnel and equipment pouring into the country. But things changed on 2nd August 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident
The exact details of what happened that day have changed over time. On 2nd August 1964, the U.S claimed that three North Vietnamese gunboats opened fire on the USS Maddox while it was on a routine patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam. The U.S ship fought off the gunboats and the incident was soon relayed back to Washington D.C and around the world. Two days later, on 4th August, another incident apparently took place but again the USS Maddox was able to fight off its aggressors.
This was clearly taken as an act of war. Within a few days, Congress had passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which gave US President Lyndon B. Johnson extensive powers to assist the South Vietnamese government. There was no official mention of war, but make no mistake about it, war was coming.
However, both incidents have since been called into question, in particular, the second which some have suggested may not have even happened. The details of the attack on 4th August are almost preposterously vague and might have been down to false radar signals. It seems absurd that we still don’t know whether one of the triggers of the entire war happened or not, but that’s where we are.
In 1995, twenty years after the end of the war, former U.S Defense Secretary Robert McNamara met Retired General. Nguyen Giap, who had been instrumental in the success of the north. The meeting was a symbolic act of friendship but McNamara couldn’t help but ask the old general over what had really happened on 4th August 1964. His response, ‘On the fourth of August, there was absolutely nothing.’. What is clear, and now widely believed among many involved at the time, was that USS Maddox was there looking to provoke an incident – and an incident is exactly what happened.
The War Drums Roll
The veracity of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident is still up for debate, but what came next was fairly clear cut. In 1964 the U.S had roughly 23,000 soldiers in South Vietnam, most of which in a purely advisory role. The following year, after the incident, that number rose eightfold to just over 184,000 – and they were definitely not there to simply hand out advice. It reached its peak in 1968 when over half a million American soldiers found themselves in Vietnam.
While the U.S public was largely supportive of the initial troop deployment, things quickly unravelled and as early as 1968 military leaders were voicing concerns over whether the war in Vietnam was winnable. On 30th January 1968, the massive Tet offensive got underway as over 85,000 Viet Cong and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) troops attacked over 100 cities across South Vietnam, including the capital Saigon. The assault lasted nearly 8 months and caused carnage in many areas as South Vietnamese and American soldiers battled to push out the North Vietnamese.
By September, it was clear that the offensive had failed and while the Americans and their southern allies had been dealt a bloody nose, they had just about survived. But what most shocking was how so many soldiers had managed to breach defensive and find their way into the heart of enemy territory.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail
And that brings us in a roundabout way back to the focus of our video, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The North Vietnamese Tet Offensive eventually failed, but the audacity and planning behind it was nothing short of extraordinary – and there is no way it could have been done without the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was not a single road and much of it wasn’t even in Vietnam. These were a complex set of roads, paths, trails and at times boggy quagmires filled with unexploded bombs that wound their way down through Laos into Cambodia and on into South Vietnam. Essentially, it was a route that simply bypassed the heavily defended demilitarised zone that cut Vietnam in half.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail enabled the Viet Cong and PAVN to strike at numerous points in Southern Vietnam simultaneously because soldiers travelling south through Laos could exit into Vietnam at several points. This was why the Tet Offensive was so successful in its early stages.
This proved to be a nightmare for the Americans. The traditional notions of combat went out of the window as they struggled to fight an unseen enemy. Instead, they carpet-bombed the area into oblivion – some of it known, but much of it covert to not provoke an international outcry. The number of bombs dropped on the Ho Chi Minh Trail was simply staggering – so much so that to this day Laos remains the most heavily bombed country ever – and remember this was an independent country that wasn’t at war. On average, bombs dropped every seven minutes on or around the Ho Chi Minh Trail and it was also where the Americans became so desperate they resorted to a radical plan to try and affect the weather – more on that later a little later in the video.
Many of the routes that formed the larger Ho Chi Minh Trail had been used for centuries by local people to travel through some of the most hostile terrain in South-East Asia. If you were to choose the very worst place on the planet to travel through it might well look a little like this area. The mountains aren’t particularly high, but they are murderously frequent. This is compounded by dense jungle and rainforest that no doubt looks wonderful in the latest David Attenborough nature documentary, but is absolutely hellish to travel through – and that’s without the prospect of transporting heavy weaponry and supplies through hundreds of miles of it.
As the First Indochina War got underway, the Viet Cong began utilizing these routes more and more. Roughly speaking they were divided into two; the ‘Trans-West Supply Line’ (running in south Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand) and the ‘Trans-Indochina Link’ (running through north Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand).
In 1959, Group 559 was established as a transportation and logistical unit of the PAVN. By 1962 the unit had grown to 6,000 soldiers and the quantities of supplies moving along the trails steadily grew. As you can imagine, after the Gulf of Tonkin incident things really got going and in 1965 alone, Group 559 moved supplies equal to all that had been shipped over the previous 5 years.
And they were just getting going. By the end of the war, Group 559 had moved an estimated 1 million tons worth of supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Now, that might not sound like a huge amount, especially when we compare it to the massive build-up for D-Day for example, but remember this was often done using nothing by manpower, donkeys and horses in the early years. Eventually, Soviet and Chinese trucks began arriving on the trail along with mechanical diggers, improving both the quality of the trail and the amount of goods moving southward.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail included 5 main logistical bases; BA604 (the main logistical hub throughout the war), BA611, BA612, BA614, BA609. These acted not only as build up points for equipment and soldiers but also vital first aid stations. Trudging through the jungle for weeks on end was enough to kill many, with an estimated 10% of the porters travelling down the trail dying of disease in the early years of the war.
Group 559 was divided into two types of units; Binh Trams, which supplied all of the logistical support and were responsible for securing certain sections of the trail and Commo-Liaison units which looked after food, housing, medical care, and were the guides along the trails. At its peak, it’s estimated that 20,000 soldiers a month were moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
As I just mentioned, what began as little more than scruffy tracks quickly grew into a logistical superhighway. By the end of the war, a truck could pass along almost the entire route without being seen from above. This was done with natural and man-made camouflage that was constantly updated and improved upon. Below this camouflage were supply bunkers, storage areas, barracks, hospitals, and command and control facilities that received almost relentless bombardment but managed to thrive.
At the start of the war, a journey down the Ho Chi Minh Trail could have taken as long as six months to complete, but by the end, it could be done in just one week.
Attacking the Trail
By 1965, the Americans estimated that 30 trucks and 90 tons worth of goods were moving along the trail every day and this began to be a real headache. The U.S had begun its covert Operation Barrel Roll at the end of 1964, originally with only two bombing raids per week but this eventually morphed into the quite unbelievable 200 sorties per day. But here’s the real kicker – they often didn’t know exactly where the Ho Chi Minh Trail was. It was an almost invisible path moving quietly through the jungle.
The weather played a major factor for both sides. The annual monsoon rains made life more difficult for the Viet Cong and PAVN on the ground, but also for the planes above. This was compounded by thick morning fog and smoke coming from the slash and methods used by the local population in their fields.
Operation Barrel Roll, which mainly targeted northeastern Laos, was joined by Operation Rolling Thunder which hit targets across North Vietnam and Operation Steel Tiger which targeted southern Laos. Across the entire war, a staggering 270 million bombs dropped on this small Asian country over roughly 580,000 bombing missions. It’s estimated that 80 million of those dropped bombs didn’t detonate meaning around 35% of Laos is still contaminated by unexploded ordnance. Currently, around 300 Laotians are either badly maimed or killed every year by bombs dropped 50 years ago – 40% of those are children.
And yet, for all their firepower, the Americans seemed incapable of destroying the Ho Chi Minh Trail. If anything it was growing stronger by the day with an estimated 43,000 workers building or improving different sections of the trail. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary feats was the vast pipelines that were eventually installed. As the war began, petrol canisters were moved along the trail by porters or pack animals, but by 1970 six separate simple plastic pipes ran from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. By the end of the war, 5,000 km (3,106 miles) worth of pipeline had been installed on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and had shipped over 270,000 tonnes of petrol.
Nothing the Americans tried was working, so they turned to the experimental. Operation Popeye remains one of the most curious missions across the entire war and paints an excellent image of just how desperate the Americans were getting.
The goal was to effectively extend the monsoon season by attempting to cloud seed (create artificial rain). If that sounds on the verge of reality to you, well it’s all entirely true. By seeding clouds with silver iodide smoke dropped from the air then activated by launching a fuse fired from a flare pistol, the Americans actually had some success, though not nearly enough from their point of view.
The project ran between 1967 and 1972 and was used in conjunction with other devious plots such as dropping bags filled with a mixture of nitrilotriacetic acid and sodium tripolyphosphate designed to spread out over a surface. When the rain (from the cloud seeding) came, the water reacted with the chemicals to basically create a muddy mess that the Americans hoped could severely hamper or even damage stretches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. While all of this has since been declassified, it remains a murky operation that we still don’t know a whole lot about.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The war in Vietnam saw the Americans use a weapon that has left a horrific mark not only on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia but also on those American soldiers who were exposed to it. Agent Orange was a defoliant chemical weapon, designed primarily to destroy crops and so cut off food sources for the North Vietnamese, but it came with awful health side effects. From various forms of cancer to birth defects in children born long after the end of the war, the legacy of Agent Orange is dark, to say the least. It’s thought that around 2.1 million litres (475,500 gallons) of Agent Orange was dropped in Laos targeting the Ho Chi Minh Trail throughout the war.
The Fall of Saigon
In early 1971, South Vietnamese troops, supported by massive American air support, crossed the border and began to make their way up the Ho Chi Minh Trail – it was the first major ground offensive against the vital supply line.
To begin with they met little resistance but eventually, the Viet Cong hit back with a sustained ferocity and by the end of March 1971 what was left of the southern army crossed back into South Vietnam, hounded by the Viet Cong. It had been nothing short of disastrous and though the fall of Saigon was still three years away, many in Washington already knew they were now fighting a lost cause.
The Paris Peace Accords were signed by all sides in January 1973. It outlined the U.S withdrawal from the country and established a clear division between the north and south – though few were under any illusions of what would happen once the Americans left.
Throughout 1973, the North Vietnamese forces gathered and prepared for what would be the final assault. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, now an astonishing complex arrangement with paved roads virtually the entire way, saw a huge amount of activity as troops and equipment poured south. In late December 1974, the Battle of Phước Long began and by early January the north had emerged victorious. It was now clear that without the support of their American Allies, the South Vietnamese forces stood little chance.
What little fight was left evaporated in the early months of 1975 as southern resistance crumbled. Terror spread through the South as North Vietnamese troops stormed towards Saigon. Despite an admirable and massive evacuation plan by the United States, only around 22,000 South Vietnamese who had worked for the Americans, along with their families, were evacuated. On 30th April 1975, Saigon finally fell, bringing an end to one of the longest-running major wars of the 20th Century.
The effect the Ho Chi Minh Trail had on the conflict is difficult to emphasise. Take it out of the war and we have an entirely different war. The Viet Cong and PAVN were able to succeed because of their hit and run guerrilla tactics but also because of the astonishing success of the various roads and trails that made up this now iconic route.
Simply in terms of logistics, it’s mind-boggling what was done in the jungles of Laos and Cambodia under hellish conditions, both natural and American made. The United States threw absolutely everything they had at the Ho Chi Minh Trail and still it kept on coming. This was the trail that won the war.