The Ho-Chi Minh Trail: A Vietnamese Invention – History Essay
Criss-crossing between North/South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the Ho-Chi Minh Trail embodied the dreams and aspirations of the entire North Vietnam Army plans and goals in their offensive drive against the south, and the American military, while at the same time aiming to achieve their goal of re-unification with the south. There isn’t a single war time supply line in the history of the history of warfare that has endured such assaults and bombings.
The Trail and its continual survival during the conflict is a testament to how determined the North Vietnamese were in achieving their goal and also how the NVA (North Vietnam Army) was adaptive to new tactics. The Trail embodied the dynamics of the entire struggle.
The word “Ho-Chi Minh” was a nickname given to the Trail by the Americans, since they did not have an official name for it. The North Vietnamese called it “Truong Son Strategic Supply Route” after the Vietnamese name for the mountain ranges that bisect the Indochina peninsula or more simply, the old man’s Trail for a guide who helped surveyors lay out its early course.
The idea of a Trail first surfaced after the Geneva accords, whereby a DMZ (De-Militarized Zone) was created and no NVA troops or supplies could cross to the south, and the Vietcong too could not cross to get re-supplied in the north. The North Vietnam Communist Party Central Military Committee entrusted the task of organizing a special supply line to the south to colonel Vo Ban (prados 10). The task was to be accomplished outside the normal chain of command in order to maintain secrecy (prados 11). Vo Ban was provided with military units and some equipment necessary to accomplish this task. From the beginning Ban had envisioned this could be more than your normal supply line. He had plans to move people, medical supplies, equipment and arms to and from the north. In his initial plans, the Trail was to be contained within Vietnam and would be kept a secret since it will be crossing the DMZ and that will definitely be against the Geneva accord that North Vietnam is a signatory. Ban formed a unit called the 301st battalion as his manpower in building this Trail. The unit settled in Vinh Linh right near the Ben Hai River, just above the DMZ. Ban resorted to starting building “relay stations” along the route south, every relay station would serve as a staging ground for the next section or resting area where troops could eat and change uniforms once in the south. The relay stations changed so as to avoid detection by the South Vietnam army. Not all the soldiers marching down the Trail were NVA, some southern Vietcong would also go down the Trail for training in the north or going back to fight in the south. In the beginning each soldier would carry 4 rifles or 4 pound boxes of ammunition. This changed as the Trail expanded and use of heavy machinery increased. The first infiltrations began on June 10, 1959. The Trail crossed route 9 which was a major road going south and the soldiers had to cover their tracks whenever they crossed route 9 (a South Vietnam highway), and the first supplies were delivered in august 20 of 1959 (prados 12).
The Artery comes alive
The Central Military Committee was impressed by the Trail after receiving a message from the south stating “All Goods Delivered” (prados 13). The central committee adopted a lot of the elements of Colonel Ban’s plans for the Trail. When Ban visited the 301st Battalion Bases (the 301st was also a unit assigned to the management of the Trail) just above the DMZ, he quickly noticed that they needed more men. Trail activities had the use of trucks and horses to carry the heaviest equipment before entering the south, but relied on men the rest of the way. The bases along the Trail in the north were disguised as cattle farms or engineering battalions. His recommendations to send more men to help were received and implemented by Hanoi. The North Vietnamese parties that moved in the Trail had to cover their tracks whenever they crossed route 9 even though the South Vietnamese army rarely patrolled the route. Disaster struck when one company forgot a bundle of French made rifles in a farm along the route. The South Vietnam army responding to these infiltrations launched a clearing operation and all movement along the Trail had to be stopped. For Hanoi this was a major disaster since the Vietcong was regaining ground and increasing its frequency of attacks in the south, all of these achievements were due to the availability of supplies and men brought by the Trail. When Colonel Ban reported on the obstacles, a new route had to be found, the Laotian communist party was asked permission to use Laos since the new route will avoid the DMZ altogether and pass through Laos.
In early 1961 with permission from Laos, the Trail was extended to pass through Laotian territory. The VPA went into Laos to neutralize any threats posed by the Laotian Royal Army. Garrisons were left intact and the 301st battalion reconfigured to use the route through Laos, which will cross over to Cambodia and then back to Vietnam. There were immense difficulties with this new route, especially during the monsoon months. Once the Trail left North Vietnam, there were no houses, tents or roofs in stations outside North Vietnam. The troops suffered from malaria, hunger and fever. Yet morale remained high.
By April 1961, the South Vietnam government was beginning to feel the pinch caused by the re-supplied and re-armed insurgents. Intelligence channels started talking about major NVA infiltrations to the south, and troop movements just above the DMZ preparing to support the new Trail.
Infiltrators from the North panned out all across South Vietnam to train and help the Vietcong. They setup camps outside villages and got intelligence information from local villagers on ARVN troop movements, patrols and sympathizers. These infiltration units went about pacifying villages by killing land lords and beheading ARVN sympathizers. They created local organizations that would distribute propaganda, support and train local Vietcong and encouraging villagers to provide food and help to the Vietcong. They also arrested South Vietnamese government officials and setup their own local governments while also relaying situational information to the North.
These “agitation-propaganda” teams as they were called (prados 80) did not all hail from the north. The Vietcong had strong indigenous roots.
By 1962 Colonel Ban had began moving streams of NVA regulars down the Trail to the south. He also realized the need to expand the Trail so that it can carry more men and heavier equipment. Hanoi had calculated that by using existing techniques that Trail would only be able to carry 30 tons (prados 85) a day, which is only enough to sustain guerilla warfare. Hanoi had also begun to import equipment and making preparations necessary to expand the Trail to include truck traffic. The Trail in Laos was parallel to route 15, which was built by the French. Hanoi wanted to use it for truck movement. During this time the CIA had also monitored supply traffic crossing the border from Cambodia and recommended to both the US government and South Vietnam that troops should be sent to seal the border and end all trail activities. Both the US Government and President Diem in South Vietnam failed to commit South Vietnamese troops for this task.
Special Operations Groups and the Trail
The failure of South Vietnam rangers to secure the border in the mountainous areas brought about an American response. President Kennedy tasked the NSC to deal with the problem bypassing the Military command using the CIA. The CIA with the help of Special Forces, equipped and armed mountain tribes who were sympathetic to the American help but not to South Vietnam government (conboy 02). These tribes pose a huge threat to the Vietcong. The Vietcong saw this as an opportunity to strike some of the us supported tribes, but their plan backfired and rallied more tribes to seek American help and training.
By 1963 there were 300 scouts (Civilian Irregular Defense Groups) operating near the Trail. These groups were comprised mainly of mountain tribes which helped Special Forces patrol and launch attacks against NVA logistics and operatives on the Trail. It is also wise to note that the US state department was working diligently to solve the Laos issue, thus making Laos a neutral ground and not part of the war. The aim of such an undertaking was to deny the NVA access to Laos and subsequently the Laotian part of the Trail. Operation shining brass was a counter Trail activity carried out by the SOG (Special Operations Group). These operations were spearheaded by helicopter Bourne “spike” teams made up of US army special forces and South Vietnam commandos (conboy 04). By the summer of 1966, shining brass operations were having an effect on the Trail. Some teams were able to direct accurate air strikes against the NVA storage sites deep in the jungle and also collect very good intelligence on NVA activities on the Trail. The NVA were incapable of countering SOG activities.
Expanding the Highway
Despite the increasing special operations infiltrations, Hanoi revamped its 559th transportation groups and increased traffic along the Trail. Eventually the Trail became North Vietnam’s biggest public works project (prados 112), and specialized engineers and architects were sent to expand and make the Trail more accessible. By doing this, Hanoi was able to transport heavier equipment and decrease reliance on porters (prados 123), who so far have been the major mode of transportation along the Trail. The total capacity of the Trail had been 20 to 30 tones a day (prados 84). The increase in traffic was one of the main reasons the US started noticing the Trail more since NVA regulars were increasing in numbers in the south and also the increased engagements the US military had with them. The increased traffic also had other consequences, in October 1964 (prados 85), an important NVA military official, General Nguyen Chi Thanh, made a trip down the Trail to inspect it and also pay a visit to NVA regulars in the south. The NVA command was so confident on its security and logistical ability to allow such a high level visit to the Trail.
On February 1966, Hanoi increased its number of regulars being sent down the Trail by sending in the 18B regiment which was followed by the 24th regiment (prados 181). Fifteen more regiments plus vast amounts of artillery, engineers, anti-aircraft units and other smaller regiments flowed down south that year. The overall estimate for all NVA infiltrations that year was 55,300 (prados 182). The Trail was also adding nearly 60 miles of roads a month or a total of 415 miles (prados 190).
In late 1967 through 1968, the 559th group changed its mission from maintaining existing roads on the Trail to expanding the Trail further south, most additions were bypasses around normal highways and American bases. The existence of American bases in some areas did not stop the NVA from building roads and bypasses around them. The US intelligence was widely aware of the increasing NVA presence and the ever expanding NVA logistical activities and incursions. There was no immediate need to send the US Army to the Trail for search and destroy missions. Instead increased Trail bombings and SOG insertion missions were used to disrupt and learn about Trail activities. For the NVA, work on the Trail was never ending from bombed bridges to storage facilities; the NVA was constantly involved in Trail up keeping activities while infiltrations to the south were taking place at the same time.
Despite the continuing attacks, the Trail with the help of the 559th regiment, endured and continued to supply the south with much needed war materials and NVA regulars. The US air force continued its heavy bombing of the Trail especially in Laos and Cambodia, but they did not stop the flow of materials and units to the south. The American military was scrambling to bring things under control fearing that a massive movement south through the Trail might stabilize the whole country. These fears were not unfounded since there was evidence that the NVA was gathering troops for a much bigger offensive operations against the South. After Tet, the US military was not ready to take any chances. The Tet offensive was very successful and showed how the NVA had properly utilized the Trail. In Hanoi, the military council was more concerned in finding ways to launch a bigger and heavier assault on the south since they believed that the American troops might be re-enforced soon. So it was wise to attack and rough up the enemy thus demoralizing and changing public opinion in America. This theory worked to Hanoi’s advantage. US troops were never re-enforced and large scale ground operations on the Trail were a distant dream. Instead the US military continued to use SOG to collect intelligence and launch low level attacks on the Trail. Hanoi was determined to win and clearly saw a chance to use the Trail to its capacity for the final push towards Saigon. The ARVN and US military offensive in Laos did not help matters either. The Laos operations were supposed to attack the enemy on the Laotian side of the Trail and cut them off. This did not happen. The inexperience of ARVN troops and their lack of morale did not help either. After the ARVN withdrawal from Laos, it was only a matter of time the Trail became alive again on the Laotian side.
Light at the end
By 1975 Hanoi had managed to keep the Trail running and increase pressure on the US troops and ARVN. It is also during this time that Hanoi started facing challenges faced by a modern military, thus fuel supply, logistics etc. Throughout the years the constant struggle to maintain the Trail had forced Hanoi to evolve into a well equipped modern military, and not the guerilla force it once was. This change enabled the NVA to increase frequency of attacks and also more towards the final push towards Saigon. The ensuing push towards Saigon was a follow up on a series of phases the NVA command had put through as a precursor to the last major offensive. The last push also came at a time when US troops were being withdrawn for the country following the Signing of the Paris Peace Accords with the North. Clearly the NVA saw a chance to take it all despite the strong numbers of Saigon troops. The NVA understood that the southern army without American logistical support and air cover will crumble. This strategy worked well and led to the fall of Saigon and South Vietnam as a whole.
A lot of very important lessons have been learned from the Trail and the entire conflict in general. The fact that the American military did not consider destroying the Ho-Chi Minh Trail as the single most important objective enabled the NVA to maintain its war waging capacity and logistical ability. Like Napoleon once said “An Army Marches on its stomach.” This was probably the single most costly mistake the Americans made in the Vietnam conflict. Military commanders and Planners simply failed to identify this threat early on. If initiatives were taken from the beginning to infiltrate and launch major operations against activities on the Trail, the NVA would have not had the capacity to launch large scale attacks. The NVA also took a major gamble and risk by using the Trail as its main logistics gateway. But the gamble paid off and effective use of the Trail resulted in a victory. Resilience showed by the NVA soldiers on the Trail and Colonel Ban, also played a major part on the success of the Trail.
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< http://www.ndu.edu/inss/books/books%20-%201998/Military%20Geography%20March%2098/milgeocontents.html >