Targeting the Ho Chi Minh Trail – Rolling Thunder and the Nuclear Option

Despite the hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs that were dropped on Mu Gia and other strategic sections of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the Rolling Thunder campaign begun in March 1965 failed in its interdiction objectives for reasons that are still debated by military historians. As early as the summer of 1966, internal review and mounting congressional and public pressure to find coercive leverage over North Vietnam led to a reevaluation of the bombing strategy.

It was against this backdrop of frustration over the inability to interdict the Trail that the possibility of employing nuclear weapons was discussed in Pentagon circles. The JASON study was a response to this loose talk and, although it did not specifically focus on Mu Gia pass, it did analyze interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh trail, including nuclear attacks on bottlenecks such as Mu Gia pass. Continue reading

Targeting The Ho Chi Minh Trail – US Bombing of the Mu Gia Pass

The Mu Gia pass, a gap in the Truong Son (Annamite) Mountains that formed North Vietnam’s border with Laos, is one of two northern entry points to the Ho Chi Minh trail. To the east, the pass is flanked by a peak of 6,600 feet and on the Laotian side to the west, with a series of mountains in the 4000-4500 foot range. Mu Gia crosses the cordillera at slightly under 1400 feet, making it one of the few passable spots along the rugged Truong Son range. Mu Gia was strategically located some 75 miles as the crow flies from the border of South Vietnam; 80 miles from Tchepone, the site of an airfield with a 4000-foot-by-65-foot runway; 100 miles from the Ban Houei Sane border area, and some 250 miles from vital supply points in the Central Highlands.

Because of its geographic and strategic importance, Mu Gia became a focus of numerous intelligence-gathering missions by “tiger teams” of agents or commandos whose mission it was to penetrate North Vietnam and come up with new data on the trail. By the spring of 1964, the Pentagon was carrying out active target studies, including specific lists of Trail targets and notations of how many sorties would be required to neutralize them. For the Mu Gia pass, the JCS estimated in 1964 that 14 aircraft sorties would be sufficient to neutralize the area. This estimate proved to be highly optimistic.

Navy planes from the USS Coral Sea made the first interdiction strike on the Mu Gia Pass on February 28, 1965. There were 10 Navy A-1H Skyraiders and 14 A-4c Skyhawks, accompanied by two photo planes. The planes dropped bombs that ranged from 500 to 2000 pounds, some set to detonate as long as six days later. The following week, US interdiction targets again included Mu Gia and on March 21, planes from the carrier Hancock struck the Laotian side of the pass. In the summer of 1965, the pass once more appeared on the list of bombing targets. On July 16 and 17, F-105 fighter-bombers dropped 18,000 pounds of munitions on Mu Gia.

Mu Gia and other strategic spots along the Ho Chi Minh trail became a struggle between American attempts to shut down the supply route and Vietnamese ones to keep them going. Defending the route was a core of committed laborers, who protected the trail by making it physically hard to bomb. Over the short term, this meant that the trail was maintained by guerrilla warfare standards, composed of narrow passageways — ranging from a mere six to eight feet wide. Although this limited the transfer of supplies to pack animals and bicycles, it made the area a more difficult target for bombing. Over the long term, Hanoi made preparations for widening parts of the trail to accommodate guns and trucks, which eventually increased the systems supply capacity and allowed the North Vietnamese to respond militarily to US aircraft.

The bombing of Mu Gia continued through the winter, spring, and summer of 1966. According to a May 6, 1966 Time magazine article, during one week-long series of sorties, Guam-based B-52s unloaded 300 tons of high explosives on the pass. The attacks continued through December 1966, maximum-effort strikes using thirty or more huge bombers. It became a very bloody business, and a very considerable number of US aircraft went down along the Trail. According to several POW-MIA sites, between 1965 and 1971, 43 American airmen were shot down over the Mu Gia pass alone.

Targeting The Ho Chi Minh Trail – The Air Power Debate

At the earliest stages of major US involvement in Vietnam, military strategists recognized that North Vietnam’s ability to use the Ho Chi Minh Trail to re-supply their forces in the south had to be curtailed. In reviewing their options, their thoughts turned to air power as a means of disrupting the North Vietnamese communications network and forcing Hanoi to enter into serious negotiations for peace with minimal risk to American personnel. Another objective, advocated by officials such as McGeorge Bundy, Johnson’s national security advisor, was to “bolster South Vietnamese morale and reaffirm the credibility of the American commitment to resist revolutionary activity in the Third World.”

Although the aims of the bombing campaign were widely shared, there was much debate over the timing, method, and intensity of the bombing. Robert A. Pape, a military historian who has written extensively on the theory and practice of airpower, identified three competing strategies that were current in 1966: the Civilian strategy, the Air Force strategy, and the Army strategy. Continue reading

4th Infantry Afghan

Targeting The Ho Chi Minh Trail

800px-hocmtThe Ho Chi Minh trail, known within Vietnam as the “Truong Son Strategic Supply Route,” was an elaborate system of mountain and jungle trails linking North Vietnam to its allies in the South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. During the Vietnam War, it served as the primary artery for moving troops, vehicles, and supplies. Comprising more than twelve thousand miles of roads and paths through some of the world’s harshest geography, it was a vital gateway linking a divided nation.

The road network extended from Mu Gia Pass in the north, southward along the heavily forested western slopes of Laos, before entering South Vietnam at the northwestern end of the Plei Trap Valley — the “Valley of Tears” — and points south. It was kept in good condition by 300,000 full-time workers and almost as many part-time farmers, many of whose bodies fill the 72 Vietnamese military cemeteries that testify to the trail’s devastating human toll.

The trail’s history as a line of communication dates back to World War II, when Viet Minh bands trekked the same paths. During the war against the United States, the existing footpaths developed into a highly organized infiltration route for men and supplies. Although the North Vietnamese made limited use of waterways and pipelines, this labyrinth of roads and trails remained throughout the war the heart of their logistic system. As military historian John Prados has pointed out, whereas supplies, ammunition, and weapons could be sent South by boat, “only overland was it possible for men and women to head South and join in combat.”

Despite Hanoi’s attempts to keep the details of its overland infiltration network a secret, by 1960, US knowledge of the route was widespread enough that it became a subject of intelligence predictions. An August 23, 1960 CIA report noted increases in support from the North of the Southern insurgency, citing heightened movement of senior cadres and military supplies such as communications equipment heading south through Laos and Cambodia. Before the year’s end, American military planners were advising the Diem government that it had to gain “firmer control of its frontiers,” to prevent further infiltration by the Viet Cong into South Vietnam.

A September 1966 intelligence study estimated that during the October-November 1965 period, the Ho Chi Minh trail had been disgorging 4500 enemy troops per month and 300 tons of supplies per day. Roadwatch reports and photo reconnaissance verified increased North Vietnamese buildup along the lines of communication from the North into Laos and South Vietnam, revealing new unnumbered roads under construction in the Laotian Panhandle, heading southward.

C Company, 1st /22nd, 4th Infantry Division, Vietnam, June – Nov, 1967

This video was filmed with 8mm home movie camera in the Central Highlands Vietnam. The exact dates and places unknown, film clips are in chronological order between approx Sept thru first of November 1967. For anyone in Charlie Company who was there I’m sure it will bring back memories. For anyone who has an interest, this is a first hand view of some of the stuff we did.

Filmed by Craig Nelson,
RTO (battalion freq) Hd Qtrs Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, US Army June-Nov 1967