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Nakhon Phanom During The Secret War 1962-1975

Reports From The Trail

By A Pathet Lao lieutenant

Maintaining the Flow

For the most part, enemy truck operations on the Trail were almost incomprehensible when evaluated by American standards. When compared to the US approach to combat logistics, exemplified by the famed Red Ball Express of the final drive on Germany in World War II, the North Vietnamese effort was amazing. The North Vietnamese example illustrates how effective a large labor pool can be in countering problems posed by unfriendly air cover.

A captured Pathet Lao lieutenant provided the following insights into operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Lieutenant Manivan, who traveled on the Trail in the summer of 1966, remained in the Tchepone area for the remainder of the year. His information is typical of many of the reports by people who had firsthand experience on the Trail.

Lieutenant Manivan said that the North Vietnamese built parking areas along the Trail at intervals of 10, 15, and 30 kilometers. The separation depended upon the terrain and the conditions of the road between the two parking areas. His description of the truck park area gives some understanding of why truck parks and storage areas were so difficult to find and to destroy.

A vehicle shelter area was composed of between 30 and 50 hillside excavations with earth roof, and each excavation was large enough for one truck. An equal number of individual supply shelter areas were about 500 to 1,000 meters from the individual truck parks. The vehicle shelter areas and the supply storage areas were 500 to 1,000 meters away from the main road.

Convoys of trucks arrived at shelter areas prior to sunrise each morning. Each truck's cargo was first unloaded in one of the supply shelter areas, then the truck was parked for the day in the vehicle shelter area. After sunset, the cargo was reloaded on the trucks which continued on the journey. Every third to fifth shelter area had a refueling capability. Truck drivers slept in the jungle in hammocks about 500 to 1,000 meters away from the road. Each shelter area was commanded by the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] officer who had the responsibility of determining if a convoy could safely pass his area without being caught between shelter areas after sunrise. These commanders also controlled arrival and departure of convoys and gave assistance to disabled trucks. Shelter area commanders notified the next area of a convoy's approach.

. . .Each shelter area had from 30 to 60 NVA soldiers, depending on the size of the area of responsibility and the frequency with which that stretch of road or shelter area was bombed. These NVA soldiers were responsible for road repairs in their area and were equipped with hoes, shovels, machetes and demolition kits. Trucks with mechanical difficulties were never left on the road. Repairable trucks were towed to truck repair stations at shelter areas.

Lieutenant Manivan also discussed the command and control communications network he had seen.

Each shelter area had telephone communications with all other shelter areas.... The line was strung along the route sometimes on branches and sometimes just along the ground. Each shelter area had one or more NVA telephone operators equipped with Chinese-made field telephones. At dusk each day, the NVA operators emerged from their hiding places in the jungle, connected their telephones to the main line, and made contact with the nearest NVA operators at truck parking areas. At dawn each day, the operators disconnected their telephones and returned to their resting places in the jungle.

Manivan never observed trucks with radios and did not speak of radio communications in describing the shelter areas....

Other intelligence reports indicated that some of the trucks were radio equipped. A friendly guerrilla unit leader believed he heard radio transmissions while observing a passing convoy. When aircraft appeared overhead, the guerrillas heard a driver yelling "Jets!" and the convoy stopped.

The FACs' observations indicated that the Communist forces used other methods of communications, such as gunshots and light signals, to warn drivers when American aircraft entered the area.

Since North Vietnamese plans called for increased infiltration through Laos, they also had to increase their support forces in Laos. The North Vietnamese sent more workers, including women, to construct more roads. While repairing the roads and clearing new trails was done primarily by manual labor, the effort to build additional roads carried "... a high priority tag. Despite a crying need at home, the DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam] has sent mechanical earth moving equipment to the panhandle road program--a first in this remote part of Laos."

The increased pressure to move troops, equipment, and supplies south brought trucks into the Laotian panhandle 30 to 45 days earlier than after previous wet seasons. The appearance of of 1,000-gallon capacity fuel tankers into the panhandle indicated that more trucks were to follow. American fliers spotted 12 of these ATSM-4-150 tankers on December 8, 1965 on Route 23. Thus, the early indicators suggested that the North Vietnamese were planning to do more than ever before in the Steel Tiger.

Most air attacks in Operation Cricket were against truck traffic and the road network, but there was another flow of men and supplies that did not use trucks. Much of this traffic moved down a network of jungle-covered trails through the eastern part of Steel Tiger and around the DMZ. The trails that that bypassed the western edge of the DMZ were much closer to air bases in South Vietnam than to NKP. Therefore, the boundary between Cricket and Tiger Hound assigned that portion of the Trail to the FACs based in South Vietnam.

The flow through this unmechanized portion of the logistics pipeline should not be underestimated. Laborers walked and guided "pack bicycles," which carried as much as 500 pounds of supplies. According to the 1966 observations by an American Marine, the North Vietnamese use of large numbers of laborers produced a formidable logistics capability.

It is still more difficult to comprehend the number of personnel involved in logistic transportation. Of primary impact is the Vietnamese people. Eighty-pound women can carry 100-pound loads for long distances; children easily carry their own weight. Viewed as a military application, 100-pounds is four 75mm recoilless rifle rounds or 33 60mm mortar rounds. If each supply column is composed of at least 100 persons, and over 100 columns are in motion in different areas at the same time, the potential "pipeline" is shown in realistic perspective.... Though this method requires more time and personnel than Western organizations, it is not dependent on any specified or vulnerable routes, or is there any threat of mechanical failure. People are the only required item of equipment. Even if five columns are interdicted, others are simultaneously rerouted and the ant-like procession continues.

The system sometimes provided a source of humor for the American fliers. For instance, there was an oft-repeated joke about the coolie who spent 4 months dragging a 105mm howitzer shell all the way from Hanoi. With great pride he presented the shell to the Viet Cong cadre leader. In response, the leader praised the laborer for his perseverance in overcoming the problems of airstrikes, monsoon rains, disease, and difficult terrain while existing on extremely meager rations. Then, they put the shell into a cannon and in one thundering flash, it was gone. The gunner turned and said, "Okay Nhuyen, would you go get us another one?"

The joke was much closer to the truth than the fliers understood.

Better to Die of Hunger Than to Die of Bombing

The view from the ground was also one of successes and failures combined with a mixture of luck, danger, and hardship. Road-watch team reports offered insights into the North Vietnamese operations. Most information came from interrogation reports of defectors or captured personnel who had journeyed down the Trail. Some reports were undoubtedly biased by prisoners' saying what they thought their interrogators wanted to hear. Their reports and descriptions, however, provide reasonable insight into life on the Trail.

The discussion of prisoner reports focuses initially on efforts to maintain and support the overall road system and then shifts to reports of travels over the Trail.

Estimates varied on the numbers of road construction and maintenance personnel involved in keeping the Trail operational. FACs assumed the numbers were in the thousands. Whatever the actual figures were, they represented an enormous investment of manpower in a system based extensively on manual labor.

In May 1966, there were an estimated 27,300 personnel assigned to forty-three engineer battalions in Laos. Approximately 5,000 were armed. These figures show why it was critical for a FAC, or other downed aircrewman, to get as far as possible away from the main road areas before bailout. Construction battalions had 500 to 1,000 workers while the maintenance battalions were dispersed as previously discussed. While shovels, hoes and axes were the typical tools, there were limited numbers of mechanized road repair and construction vehicles available even during the early stages of Cricket. The May 1966 estimate put the figures in Laos at seven graders, six bulldozers, two to five rock crushers and one steamroller. "Rock crushers and truck movement of gravel have been reported particularly late in the period covered and may indicate an attempt to keep certain roads open during the rainy season.

The escalation of the North Vietnamese efforts undoubtedly produced, among other personnel problems, a shortage of truck drivers. Their economy had never been highly mechanized, and the infiltration effort put a big strain on the transportation sector. The Army established a Military Truck Drivers' Training School, which provided a six-month training course. One prisoner reported on the training he received between October 1965 and April 1966. The course included preventive maintenance as well as truck driving from its basic rudiments up through "big city" driving skills. An interesting sidelight was his comments on the fierce dislike that existed between military and civilian truck drivers. During the latter phases of training, extra privileges were granted to any student who could successfully force a civilian trucker off of the road. The overall investment made in training these drivers undoubtedly contributed to the successes of the primitive transportation network which depended so heavily on the skills and courage of -the truck drivers.

Another prisoner described his travels by truck from Thanh Hoa in North Vietnam to Kontum province in the central highlands of South Vietnam. His unit began on a ten-truck convoy in mid-January and reached its destination in early April. Nine days were required to cover the distance of approximately 200 miles to the Laotian border. Another two-and-a-half weeks were required to transit the Cricket area and reach Tchepone about seventy miles south of Mu Gia. As a result of destruction credited to B-52 strikes along Route 9, the unit remained in the Tchepone area for a month before continuing the journey. Because of the shuttle system employed in Laos, he estimated that his unit transferred to different sets of trucks about ten times during the Laotian portion of the movement.

The motto along the Trail was "Better to die of hunger than to die of bombing." He described the extensive efforts that were made in an attempt to avoid the bombings. When the night traffic had completed its requirements for certain road segments, the engineers would blast rocks and debris onto the road to fool the aerial observers. The debris would be quickly cleared in the early evening hours. Roads leading to truck parks were camouflaged in the morning by sticking freshly cut tree branches into vertical bamboo tubes, which were buried in the road surface. All truck tracks, which could betray active truck parks, were blotted out. The trucks were camouflaged so that they could not be seen from a distance of fifty meters away.

When the convoy stopped, the men had to remove all ammunition and gasoline cans at least 100 meters from the trucks, and the travelers were expected to bed down at least 1,000 meters away. Bomb shelters were dug at each stop if they were not already available. Though there had been a considerable amount of training, planning, and indoctrination on how to cope with bombings, when the convoy was bombed in February, the soldiers and the cadre generally ran in all directions. There was a marked drop in the morale of the soldiers and of the cadre following the air attack.

The author agrees that the North Vietnamese laborers could conceal any truck so that nothing metallic could be seen. Combine that effort with an extensive jungle canopy and the trucks were not going to be seen from the air.

The North Vietnamese, however, were not perfect, totally conscientious, or invincible. Some never recognized that a big, long, rectangular "bush" sitting along the roadside would raise a FAC's suspicions that more was there than jungle.

The defection in March 1966 of a platoon leader from the Nape Pass area provided some insights into the North Vietnamese tactics and operations in northern Steel Tiger and on the truck shuttles back and forth to Vinh in North Vietnam. This period had seen an increase of North Vietnamese strength in the area around Nape. He reported that there had been eighteen additional antiaircraft guns recently moved in around the pass.

The tactics of the truck drivers are interesting in comparison to procedures used later when the volume of infiltration was stepped up. Convoys, he had been associated with, drove only at night and used shielded lights. The trucks were always heavily camouflaged and were parked carefully away from the main roads in the daytime. Each truck of a convoy had a look out on the roof* If the look out heard jets or if a plane dropped flares, the convoy would be stopped. If the flares were far away, they would continue on using parking lights. If the flares were near, the trucks were quickly hidden and the personnel fled to the woods.

Later reports documented considerably more aggressiveness and fewer instances of trucks being halted and abandoned.

Air attacks against the Steel Tiger concentrated primarily on the roads and support for the vehicular traffic. Yet part of the infiltration story continued to unfold on the steep, narrow trails in the jungle-covered mountains along the border. In 1966, the United States Mission in Vietnam compiled what they called a "Diary of an Infiltrator."

The diary was a composite of quotes from diaries taken from North Vietnamese soldiers in the central highlands of South Vietnam. The following excerpts illustrate the hardships encountered by men who walked south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail:

Marched 17 kilometers today through torrential rainstorm. Bridges had been washed out. Fallen trees were across the trail.

Moved 22 kilometers today. Many of the slopes we must climb are 35 degrees. Rain continues. I am carrying 33 kilos.

Southern Laos. This place is miserable. The green jungle is full of birds twittering. Flies sting and sting, and the holes don't stop bleeding.

Had nothing to eat for a whole day. Found a wild vegetable, which I ate, but was inedible. I thought I would die.

Lower Laos. Terrible hardships. Paths again steep. Heavy rains again every day. Loads we carry very heavy. Five men have died of malaria. I didn't think people died of malaria.

Physically exhausted. Some slopes today were 40 degrees. We can only move for half-hour and then must rest.

Stopped at Station Nineteen. It has antiaircraft defenses but no underground fortifications. This is said to be the safest place on the (Ho Chi Minh) Trail. The station easily took care of 2,000 people.

Here we found a new portion of the trail under the trees, which runs parallel to the old one about two kilometers away. The old trail is kept up, in the hope the Americans will bomb it and it will be safe to travel the new trail. However, a man at the station said the Americans have been bombing both trails.

23rd TASS Cricket Lament