By James D. McLeroy
The first step in the North Vietnamese Politburo’s grand strategy for the conquest of South Vietnam was its May, 1959 order to the Ministry of Defense to begin construction of the Truong Son Strategic Supply Route, later known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Ministry of Defense gave the task to its Rear Services Directorate, which assigned it to the 559th Transportation Group. The Group was designated 559 for the date of its creation in the fifth month of 1959.
The complex transportation network built with enormous difficulty through the jungles and mountains of eastern Laos and Cambodia was one of the greatest feats of military engineering of the 20th Century. Aided by Russian and Chinese advisors, NVA engineers began to improve, expand, and lengthen animal trails, Montagnard paths, and stream beds through the Truong Son range.
River fords were hidden by underwater bridges. Roads and paths were wound around trees to enhance their concealment from the air. Open areas in the jungle canopy were camouflaged by interlacing tree tops or connecting them with trellises interwoven with living plants and vines. The result was an interconnected, 12,000-mile network of roads, paths, bridges, bypasses, tunnels, caves, and pipelines.
Its widest east-west axis was about thirty miles, and its north-south axis from North Vietnam to the South Vietnamese delta was approximately 3,500 miles. It was vital for the supply of war material and replacement troops to the Communist Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces in South Vietnam. Because of its strategic importance the NVA eventually made eastern Laos and Cambodia virtual extensions of North Vietnam.
After traversing three mountain passes from North Vietnam into Laos, the Trail was divided into eleven regions, five large base areas, five main roads, twenty-nine branch roads, and numerous, frequently changed shortcuts and bypasses. In addition to sanctuary bases for VC and NVA troop units recovering from or preparing for combat in South Vietnam, fifteen large logistics headquarters called binh trams were spaced along the Trail.
They were commanded by NVA colonels with up to 2,000 troops in transportation, antiaircraft, engineer, logistics, and infantry battalions. Both men and women served as route guides, cooks, nurses, porters, mechanics, maintenance, and construction workers. Antiaircraft and infantry battalions guarded their sector of the trail and the roads from it into South Vietnam.
Crude bivouac facilities called “communication liaison stations” were spaced about one day’s march between the binh trams to provide basic food, shelter, medical aid, and route guides for transient NVA troops. The route guides only knew the sections of the Trail half way to the next bivouac stations north and south of their own.
They met the route guide escorting NVA troops from the station north of theirs at a point half way to that station and took them to their own station for the night. The next day they took the transient troops halfway to the next station south of theirs, where they were met by a route guide from that station. U.S. intelligence analysts identified base areas as places where large numbers of NVA troops could always be found. The first headquarters of the 559th Transportation Division was in Vinh, North Vietnam, and its main logistics center was at Base Area (BA) 604 near Tchepone, Laos.
Troops and supplies from North Vietnam were unloaded at BA 604 and divided for distribution to base areas farther south. BA 604 sent most of its troops and supplies to BA 611, where they were further distributed among the base stations south of it. BA 614 east of Chevane, Laos sent its allocations into South Vietnam on an extension of Road 165 from Chevane to QL 14.
In October, 1968, a second Trail headquarters was established in southern Laos near the junction of Roads 92 and 922 (see map). It controlled an entire infantry division, three antiaircraft regiments, two engineering regiments, twenty-three antiaircraft battalions, thirty-five engineering battalions, eighteen transportation battalions, and two pipeline battalions.
Some 50,000 NVA troops guarded, maintained, and extended the Trail network. An estimated 10,000 NVA antiaircraft guns were hidden along the Trail, most of them around BA 604 near the junction of roads 9 and 92 east of Tchepone and BA 611 near the second Trail headquarters. The U.S. Air Force lost more planes at those two places than anywhere else in Laos.
An estimated 8,000 trucks traveled the Trail in relays from one truck to another. On heavily overcast and rainy days and nights, when there was less chance of air attacks, up to 100 trucks traveled in convoys with their lights on. Each truck traveled at an average speed of five to eight miles an hour, depending on road conditions.
First priority was given to trucks carrying artillery, tanks, and anti-aircraft missiles. Second priority was given to trucks carrying fuel, ammunition, and food. Third priority was given to trucks carrying troops urgently needed in South Vietnam. The drivers only traveled fifteen to twenty miles back and forth on one stretch of road. Like the trail guides, they only knew the routes half-way to the next way stations north and south of their own.
Driving back and forth on the same length of road every night and most overcast days, they learned every detail of that section of road and the terrain on each side of it. Eventually, they could drive some sections of the Trail fairly quickly even in the dark. Many trucks had radios to warn them of incoming air attacks and current road conditions.
Fuel and lubricants for up to twenty-five trucks were stored in camouflaged truck parks hidden about three miles off the main roads. At each station the cargo of each truck was unloaded and transferred to another truck. Damaged or destroyed trucks were quickly replaced by others from the nearest station to the north. That station replaced those trucks with trucks from the next station to its north, and so all the way to Haiphong harbor in North Vietnam, where new trucks and new repair parts constantly arrived from the USSR.
NVA monitoring stations at intervals along the roads collected current data on road conditions in their area and the number of trucks passing through in each time period. The data was sent to traffic controllers on each section of the Trail, so that emergency route changes and repairs could be made as quickly as possible.
Most road repair work was done at night, and each binh tram had two or three bulldozers for that purpose. From 1959 to 1975, an estimated 300,000 Laotian men, women, and children were used as forced laborers to repair sections of the Trail and augment NVA food supplies with their small farms.
During daylight hours most transient NVA troops walked from one way station to another on trails at safe distances from the roads. The average infiltrating unit was a battalion moving at between one and three miles per hour, depending on the terrain. Preceded by route guides, they walked in platoon or company groups spaced about 100 yards apart. They did not fire at passing aircraft, but quickly moved off the trail and stood still or lay down. Several times a day they changed the foliage on their camouflage to match the foliage they were passing through.
In 1964, the first regular NVA regiment entered South Vietnam via the Trail, and in 1966 the first regular NVA division arrived the same way. The CIA estimated that between 1966 and 1971 the NVA sent more than 630,000 troops, 400,000 weapons, 50,000 tons of ammunition, and 100,000 tons of food into South Vietnam on the Trail. In 1968 the NVA needed to send 8,000 troops and 100 tons of ammunition and weapons to South Vietnam every month to replace their huge losses in the nationwide battles that year.
Every year more and younger draftees from North Vietnam and more and newer military supplies from the USSR and China were sent down the Trail to South Vietnam. Regardless of how often and heavily the Trail was bombed, and regardless of the human cost of constantly repairing it, the NVA continued relentlessly to do so year after year.
An estimated twenty percent of the infiltrating NVA troops died on the Trail, but only about two percent of those deaths were caused by U.S. air attacks. Ninety-eight percent of NVA deaths on the Trail were from illness, accidents, malnutrition, exhaustion, or exposure.
Seventy-nine large military cemeteries, including one covering forty acres with more than 10,000 sets of remains, were located along the Trail. They are grim evidence of the enormous human cost to the NVA of building, maintaining, extending, and defending the Trail network from its beginning in 1959 to the NVA’s conquest of the Republic of Vietnam in 1975.