The Ho Chi Minh Trail
Air Force Magazine
November 2005, Vol. 88, No. 11
By John T. Correll
The outcome of the war depended on the infiltration of troops, weapons, and supplies through Laos into South Vietnam. In 1962, the United States and North Vietnam were among the nations signing the Geneva Accord agreeing to the neutrality of Laos. The United States duly removed all of its troops, but the North Vietnamese withdrew only a token number, leaving 6,000 in place.
North Vietnam also continued using the Ho Chi Minh Trail to send troops and supplies into South Vietnam. They denied doing this. In 1966, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong told journalist Stanley Karnow that allegations of North Vietnamese troops in the South were “a myth fabricated by the US imperialists to justify their war of aggression.” After the war, he told Karnow that combat forces had been sent down the trail by the tens of thousands.
The White House announced in August 1964 that US aircraft were flying reconnaissance missions over Laos at the request of the Laotian government and that the pilots had instructions to “fire when fired upon.”
At US urging, Laotian aircraft flew interdiction strikes against the trail. The first mission was Oct. 14, 1964. Laotian T-28s escorted by US Air Force F-100s and RF-101s struck storage facilities near the Mu Gia Pass.
In December, following attacks on US bases in South Vietnam, US aircraft struck targets in the central Laotian panhandle, but these were more on the order of reprisal and warning rather than interdiction. In April 1965, the United States began flying regular air strikes against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The American public was not informed of this.
Congressional committees, however, had full details on the “secret war.” News reporters filed occasional articles about it, although they were not allowed to witness it for themselves.
When airmen were killed or captured in Laos, their families were told they had been lost in “Southeast Asia.” President Johnson, whose 1964 election campaign had included a pledge of “no wider war,” did not want to acknowledge that hundreds of combat sorties were being sent against the trail every day.
Less widely known, “unconventional warfare” ground teams of South Vietnamese mercenaries, led by NCOs from the US Army Special Forces, went into Laos in February 1965. These teams, designated with deliberate vagueness as “Studies and Observation Groups,” conducted hundreds of classified missions in Laos over the next six years.
SOG patrols scouted the Ho Chi Minh Trail, identified targets, called in air strikes, captured prisoners, planted mines, and performed such “direct action” missions as attacking North Vietnamese facilities on the trail. These “over the fence” operations eventually employed 2,500 US Army volunteers and 7,000 Vietnamese irregulars.
The "Secret War" would not be officially disclosed to the American public until March 1970, when pressure from the news media and opposition politicians forced President Nixon to confirm that the United States had been, for several years, flying night interdiction missions against the trail in Laos.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail [left]stretched hundreds of miles through Laos and Cambodia before terminating in South Vietnam. Mountain passes allowed access to that beleaguered country.
(Staff map by Zaur Eylanbekov).
The map [right] shows air operations in Laos. Barrel Roll in northern Laos and Steel Tiger in the south referred both to operations and geographic designations. Steel Tiger East, also called Tiger Hound, was considered an extension of the fight in South Vietnam. Air operations, in both southern and northern Laos, were conducted by the56th SOS employing A-26/B-26K aircraft based in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand.
(Staff map by Zaur Eylanbekov).
The “Trail” Today
In Vietnam today, the trail is a legend. Those who built it, ran the way stations, and transported the arms and supplies south are revered as heroes of the war.
In April 2000, Vietnam began building the Ho Chi Minh Highway from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. It is a needed addition to the nation’s road system, but it also is billed as running “along the historic Ho Chi Minh Trail” and commemorating the famous route. It will eventually be 1,050 miles long. So far, about 750 miles are open to traffic.
In modern Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh Trail is legendary. A highway from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) goes under the name “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” but it is entirely in Vietnam. Shown are bicyclists traveling the highway earlier this year. (AP Photo by David Longstreath)
Western news media—notably the Associated Press, Time Magazine, and National Geographic—have reported that the highway will follow the course of the wartime Ho Chi Minh Trail and have made much of the symbolism.
In fact, the Ho Chi Minh Highway will be entirely in Vietnam. It will go through Vinh, cross what was the DMZ, pass close to Khe Sanh, and run down the eastern side of the mountains through the Central Highlands to the former capital of South Vietnam. The actual Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through Laos, of course.
The historical significance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail is certainly real, however. In recent years, Vietnamese leaders have confirmed that their strategy for winning the war depended on infiltrating troops and supplies into South Vietnam.
They have said they were pressed at times but that they were able to move what they truly had to move. Their strategy worked because US policy ruled out stopping the flow at its source by striking the ports and logistics centers in the North.
That left Air Force and Navy airmen to chase down the trucks, one by one, on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and that was never a realistic or reasonable objective.
John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributing editor. His most recent article, “The Ups and Downs of Counter Force,” appeared in the October issue.