These Modified Bicylces were utilized to
transport supplies down the Ho Chi Minh.
Such 'stealth' transportation techniques were
protected from enemy observation, which
greatly increased the Trail's effectiveness.
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, the North Vietnamese ran continuous insurgencies into South Vietnam in the hopes of returning it to the ‘motherland.’ The conflict, known as the Vietnam War, was a symbol for which ideology will triumph, Communism or Western ideals. With the aid of the United States Armed Forces, the South Vietnamese were able to repel the North’s (communist) attacks and maintain control of their capital city, Saigon, into the early 1970’s. However, such success didn’t last for long. The persistent forces of the North continued to stage effective strikes throughout South Vietnam.
Eventually, the North was victorious, and South Vietnam
lost its sovereignty as the U.S. withdrew its forces. The ‘invincible’
U.S. Armed Forces had lost a war. Unable to destroy the guerilla
fighting of the North Vietnamese Army and the National Front for the Liberation
of South Vietnam (NFLSV or the Viet Cong), the U.S. began to turn their
heads wondering why they couldn’t defeat the NVA with their superior firepower,
technology, and equipment. Their heads turned to the Ho Chi Minh
Trail . . .
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a network of roads developed by the North Vietnamese that clandestinely connected North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Since the trail was aligned on the western portion of Vietnam, portions of the trail extended into neighboring Laos. This trail was the main supply route used by the North Vietnamese to supply troops in the South who were preparing for the intense military conflict Hanoi was staging against the hated South Vietnamese government.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1964
In May of 1955, Major General Nguyen Can Vinh of the Hanoi’s Central Military Committee began to act on the North’s need for a supply route to aid in the foreseen conflict with the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). This sparked the planning for the trail that would become. The General wanted the route to include personnel staging areas, supply depots, and command posts at strategic areas. More importantly, the General wanted the trail’s existence to be clandestine. The Major’s vision of the trail was for it to be protected from enemy observation, both by land and air. He disseminated the task for construction to Major Vo Ban. (Tucker 175)
By 1959, now Colonel Vo Bam and his unit, Military Transportation Group 559, began to build this envisioned supply route into South Vietnam. The unit consisted of 500 officers and men selected from the PAVN 305th Brigade, soldiers equivalent to the U.S. Special Forces. The unit moved toward Vinh Linh, a border town near the 17th parallel, where the unit made final preparations to infiltrate clandestinely into South Vietnam to construct the supply route. In Vinh Linh, the unit posed as woodcutters from the 301st Division whose headquarters, and at nightfall in late may, they dispersed into the jungle to create the awaited Trail. (Pribbenow 34-5)
As the unit moved into South Vietnam, they were undercover as Southern guerillas, as they wore black pajamas and floppy brimmed Viet Cong hats. They even got rid of their Northern cigarettes. Furthermore, they took further actions for mission secrecy as they “Cover[ed] the jungle floor with leaves for sitting down or sleeping, then restore the area completely before we left so that no trace would be left for the Saigon special forces to track us [NVA]” (Chanoff 149). In other words, the unit took extra precautions to ensure that their mission was not compromised by them being discovered. It was thought that if the enemy knew where the supply route was, the Trail would lose its potential effectiveness. (Chanoff 146-9)
By the end of December 1959, the Trail’s designed capabilities were being put into action. 1,667 infantry weapons, 788 machetes and swords, 188 kilograms of explosive and other military supplies had been dispensed to guerilla units throughout South Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh Trail’s potential started to become recognized and further construction took place. By 1960, the trail extended into Laos to enhance the clandestine security of the supply route. More importantly, the Trail’s segments gradually began to widen, allowing bikes to be introduced in the transport network. (Pribbenow 35-6)
Throughout the war, bicyclists under the command of military divisions cycled up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail delivering supplies to awaiting guerrillas. Bikes, generally old French Peugeot’s, were reconfigured to allow riders to carry up to 500 lbs worth of equipment. Simple modifications, such as extending the handlebars and the brake handles enabled riders to walk the bike with heavy loads with relative ease. These modified bicycles provided the NVA with a valuable means of transporting supplies into South Vietnam. (Scheck 14-17)
For many reasons, bicycles were very effective in transporting supplies. First, they were an inexpensive alternate to horses or gasoline for trucks. Also, unlike the Trucks, bicycles required little maintenance and repair. Furthermore, a bicycles’ small size and nearly silent operation allowed transports to move great distances without ever being detected. The only significant limitation of bicycles as transports is that they are man-powered and, therefore, their effectiveness was dependent on the riders’ strength and endurance. However, this problem was worth the cost for the opportunity and advantages that stealth bicycles offered.
In transition, from 1960 to 1965, Hanoi dispersed many resources to expand the Trail and the roads. Infiltration training centers were established in Tay and Xuan Mai where students where taught the art of camouflage and how to remain undetected on the field from enemy observation. Also, by 1962, trucks were able to navigate through portions of the trail, allowing for even more supplies to be delivered to the Southern guerillas. In all, by the end of 1962, 5 thousand troops were assigned to the Trail, which had stretched over six hundred miles. (Tucker 175-7)
In 1964, the first infantry units from the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) successfully navigated the trail and infiltrated into the South to escalate the fighting that was currently taking place. The Trail now had a secondary purpose, to get troops, not just supplies into the guerilla campaigns in the South. Also, by 1965, Engineers from North Vietnam, Russia, China, and North Korea began to expand the paths into roads to allow for trucks to navigate the Trail. Such improvements enabled truck convoys to travel nearly 75 miles of the Trail each night undetected from enemy aerial observation, as they were under the cover of darkness. (Tucker 175-7)
In essence, from 1960-1965, the Ho Chi Minh Trail developed into the essential means for infiltration of supplies and personnel into the South Vietnam landscape. The Trail dispensed into “a massive labyrinth of paths, roads, rivers, streams, passes, cages, and underground tunnels burrowing through mountains, forests, and into the earth” (Tucker 176), allowing for supplies and personnel to disseminate to forces throughout the South. The tunnels provided additional advantages. By the effective usage of the tunnels by both the PAVN and the Viet Cong, the United States, who was superiorly armed and equipped, were unable to dictate the War’s fighting character. The United States’ Armed Forces had to learn to fight a new type of war, guerrilla.
Certainly, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was tailored to the fighting style of the Viet Cong. The Trail’s tunnels and underground bases provided the Viet Cong and infiltrated NVA soldiers hidden logistics’ centers, command posts, and sanctuaries from enemy units of superior firepower or position. Furthermore, these tunnels would act as battle centers that would allow reinforcements to be disseminated quickly and to all parts of the battlefield. By utilizing all attributes of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and its network of tunnels, the Viet Cong was able to choose its battles against enemy forces to maximize their battle effectiveness. (Battlefield: Vietnam)
The most evident advantage of the Ho Chi Minh Trail was that it was well protected from U.S. forces, as the jungle provided natural concealment from bombers and Infantry scouts who sought to find the Trail’s exact location to stage a massive offensive to disrupt and destroy the Trail’s supply routes. The jungle provided a natural canopy, and by restricting most movements to nighttime, the NVA protected its supply lines. For example, bicycle convoys were nearly invisible to bombers and ‘air to ground’ fighter planes, and therefore, the bicyclists were able to deliver their supplies safely to the guerillas in South Vietnam.
Ultimately, United States’ war strategists recognized that the key to victory was in the destruction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Therefore, the Pentagon and the CIA continually attempted to disrupt these supply lines through covert action. Many failed covert operations designed to destroy these supply lines were planned, but not successfully executed. For example, Operation Commando Hunt was the U.S.’s strategic plan that was primarily directed towards the Trail. Beginning on 15 November 1968, this Operation created landslides designed to block the Trail by bombing adjacent hillsides and defoliate the surrounding jungle to uncover the natural camouflage that the jungle provided. Also, trucks and other supply transports were targeted by the air campaign. However, although the NVA experienced significant losses in these operations, the U.S. Armed Forces were unable to disrupt the enemy’s supply line. These missions simply were not effective and the NVA was able to continue to infiltrate into the South via the Trail. (CIA Website, Tucker)
In the end, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was a major
factor in North Vietnam's triumph in the Vietnam War. The United
States, unable to amount disabilitating losses on the enemy and its supply
lines, withdrew all troops by 29 March 1973 in accordance with the Treaty
of Paris. As a result, the North Vietnamese victory reunited Vietnam
under a common banner of communism.
After examining the different aspects of the
Ho Chi Minh Trail, it is evident that it was an essential part of the NVA’s
triumph over the powerful United States in the Vietnam War. Without
the Trail, the NVA may have lost the war, as it provided them the means
to successfully distribute supplies and troops to the southern battlefields.
In essence, their guerilla tactics would have been handicapped, allowing
U.S. forces to dictate the character of the war and effectively utilize
their technological advantage. Fortunately for the NVA, the supplies
and personnel that were continually delivered into South Vietnam by means
of the Trail gave the NVA, the Viet Cong, and others the necessary equipment
and personnel to successfully compete with the U.S. Armed Forces.
The NVA leaders correctly assessed the importance for the Trail's existence
and location to remain clandestine, developed efficient stealth transport
methods for the Trail, and effectively utilized the natural camouflage
and advantages offered by the jungle. By successfully implementing
the plan for the Trail that originated in 1955, the NVA demonstrated that
even the United States was vulnerable opponent. In the end,
the NVA's triumph in the Vietnam War, with the aid of the Trail, was
major victory for the Communists in the Cold War. The U.S.'s policy
of Containment had failed to protect South Korea from communism, and the
Marxist ideology had expanded to another nation.
Brigham, Robert. Guerilla Diplomacy: The NLF’s Foreign Relations and the Vietnam War. Cornell University, Ithaca, 1998.
Chanoff, David; Doan, Van Toai. Vietnam: A Portrait of its People at War. I.B. Tauris Publishers, New York, 1996:146-52.
Pike, Douglas. Viet Cong: The Organization and Techniques of
the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam.
MIT Press, 1967.
Prados, John. The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1999.
Pribbenow, Merle. “The Ho Chi Minh Trail’s Early Years.” Vietnam. Harrisburg, Aug 1999:34-8.
Scheck, William. “During the Struggle between $6 million aircraft
and $15 bicycles along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Bicycles
Won.” Vietnam. Harrisburg, Feb 2001:14,60.
Tucker, Spencer. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political,
Social and Military History. Oxford University Press,
“Battlefield: Vietnam.” http://www.pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam/index.html.
CIA Study in Intelligence. “IA and the Vietnam Policy Makers: Three Episodes 1962-1968.” http://www.odci.gov/csi/books/vietnam/.
Craig,D.W., CPT. “Asymmetrical Warfare and the Transnational Threat: Relearning the lessons from Vietnam.” http://www.cfcsc.dnd.ca/irc/amsc/amsc1/006.html
“The Wars for Vietnam: 1945-1975.” http://vassun.vassar.edu/~vietnam/
“Military History: Vietnam War (1961-1975).” http://www.cfcsc.dnd.ca/links/milhist/viet.html
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