Remembering the Ho Chi Minh Trail
I only spent twelve months in Vietnam during that war, and most of it was spent watching for traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail. There are a host of myths about this particular road network, beginning with the "trail" part of the name. At the time I was in Saigon, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was a series of gravel roads, often two lanes or more wide, that ran from three entry points in North Vietnam, and ended up somewhere in central Cambodia - a distance of about 300 miles.
Supplies coursed down the Trail from Vinh and Dong Hoi, and crossed the border into Laos over three passes: Mu Gia, Ban Nape, and a third I can't remember now. The US military divided these up into "Route Packs", numbering all the segments of the road for easier reporting and targeting. The entry into Laos joined just north of the former Laotian village of Tchepone, where it intersected the old French-built Route 9 from Da Nang to Savannaket, on the Mekong River separating Laos from Thailand.
There were dozens of karst caves at several places along the upper Trail which were all but impervious to attack. These were used as transshipment points and protection by troops and vehicles moving south along the Trail. It was also the first of many staging areas along the Trail as it followed the Vietnamese border, more or less. From the area of Tchepone weapons, ammunition, and personnel were sent east toward Khe Sahn and Da Nang.
There was one major route and at least two alternate routes south from Tchepone. Some of these routes were painstakingly hacked out of the red earth of central Laos, others wound back and forth along valleys draining toward Vietnam.
The next major staging area was a network of camouflaged trails, truck parks, weapons storage areas, and bivouacs along the central spine of the southern Laotian mountains near Saravan. The Trail split, going west and east of a large (but not very high) group of mountains. We discovered one of their camouflaged truck park/storage areas near the mountain in April, 1971, and hit it with everything available - fighter-bombers, B-52 strikes, and even carrier aircraft from the South China Sea. The military destroyed over 150 trucks and several tens of thousands of pounds of supplies and equipment. Unfortunately, there were probably a dozen other places we never discovered. The Saravan area was the staging point for attacks on Chu Lai and infiltration into the A Shau valley and points south.
From the Saravan area, the trail rejoined and continued south to Attopeu. Here the Trail became indistinguishable from the old French Indochina road network. The only differences were the unbelievable increase in traffic south and east. The area around Attopeu was a major staging point for attacks against Kontum and Pleiku.
The North Vietnamese were extremely clever at building road networks almost impossible to find. One of the ways we did discover these roads were where they crossed small streams which were plentiful in the area. One of the key recognition factors was usually a line of poles planted in a stream, showing where a ford had been built and maintained, allowing trucks to traverse the streams without damage. Sometimes we spotted dead vegetation, or an area that appeared to have changed overnight. Discovering such areas took hundreds of hours of searching the same area.
The North Vietnamese were also cleaver in other ways. They built dozens of raft-like ferries to cross some of the larger rivers in Laos. It was a favorite pastime to find and attack these ferries, which were heavily camouflaged and frequently located several miles away from the point where they were used. Unfortunately, it took little time to rebuild a damaged ferry, and quite a bit of time to find them again.
I was in Vietnam for Dewey Canyon II, when the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) attempted to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail at Tchepone. We watched the North Vietnamese build hundreds of miles of additional roads to transport troops and supplies to counter this threat. The North could literally build a mile of road a day through the heavy jungle, and along precipitous mountainsides.
I've never read or heard of any statistics on casualties along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but they must have been in the tens of thousands. Fighter aircraft, "Spooky" and "Spectre", and Vietnamese A-1E's destroyed over ten thousand trucks, about a half-million tons of supplies, and broke at least three pipelines running close to, but not exactly parallel to the trail, dozens of times. A figure of 10,000 would probably be the base estimate, with numbers going higher from there toward 50,000 or more.
I spent so much time working the Ho Chi Minh Trail that I can close my eyes almost 40 years later and 'see' sections of it in my mind. I know I'm not alone. There are hundreds of us who spent our Vietnam war tour searching the Trail, and who remember it vividly.