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March/April 2003
 
 
 

A Window On The Enemy
Keeping An Eye On The Ho Chi Minh Trail

BY JOHN PRADOS

The story of the Ho Chi Minh Trail is among the least known of the Vietnam War. Even less known is the effort by Laotian tribesmen--trained, organized, and led by Americans--to keep a watch on the Trail and discover what was happening under the triple-canopy jungle and behind the hills that shielded North Vietnam's strategic transportation route to the South.

All of this took place amid the backdrop of a growing guerrilla war in South Vietnam which soon consumed the uneasy peace after the French war, which ended in 1954. The story involves Hanoi and its efforts to create the Trail, the tribes of southern Laos, the American military, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its ubiquitous proprietaries such as Air America.

Faced with increasingly desperate appeals for help from revolutionary cadres in South Vietnam, who were being wiped out by Saigon government security forces, in May 1959 North Vietnam decided to create a special unit, Group 559, to set up a new mechanism for moving men and supplies to help comrades in South Vietnam. At first, this involved the infiltration of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) established by the 1954 Geneva agreements to separate Vietnam into North and South. Hanoi authorities created a special North Vietnamese military unit, the Vietnam People's Army 301st Battalion, and put it in charge of the infiltration under Group 559. The battalion sent hiking parties over the paths through the DMZ, past Khe Sanh, and into the South.

The entire activity was conducted as a covert operation, with the People's Army soldiers wearing civilian-style clothing, carrying French or other weapons rather than those of their own military, and moving by stealth. Crossing a road meant eliminating traces of the troops' passage. Following a road was almost out of the question. These methods prevented Saigon authorities from amassing hard evidence that the North Vietnamese were active in this way.

South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem was long committed to crushing the remnants of the Viet Minh in the South. Diem had nearly attained that goal when the resistance, fortified by supplies beginning to arrive from the North, became unassailable. The flow of supplies was substantial: According to Vietnamese sources, between July and December 1959 the Battalion 301 parties delivered 1,667 firearms, 788 knives, and 188 kilograms of explosives of all kinds, plus food and medical supplies. In addition, 542 of the cadres who had gone north after the
Geneva agreements of 1954 returned to South Vietnam to furnish leadership and much-needed specialists for the rapidly growing forces of the rebellion.

Armed strength of the rebellion went from an estimated 2,500 to 5,000 in 1959 to 12,000 by the end of the following year, to as many as 16,000-19,000 in the early months of the Kennedy administration. In December 1960, prominent anti-Diem political figures constituted themselves as a National Liberation Front (NLF) and swore to overthrow the South Vietnamese government. In Hanoi, a party congress met and determined to pursue the war in the South in full support of the Liberation Front.

The great increases in strength of the forces fighting the Saigon government had direct implications for the Trail. Paths across the DMZ and hiking parties skulking their way through culverts to pass beneath roads would not suffice for the intensified guerrilla war. Total shipments by the end of 1960 stood at over 21,000 firearms of all kinds. Reinforcements numbered more than 2,000 cadres.

Hanoi also was moving a substantial amount of supplies south by sea, but North Vietnam needed a more reliable overland connection. These motives led Hanoi's leaders to reconfigure the Ho Chi Minh Trail through southern Laos rather than across the DMZ. Hanoi decided to send troops into the Panhandle of southern Laos to clear a swath of territory along the Vietnamese border that could be used for the supply route.

Laotian politics made the job easier. Gen. Phoumi Nosavan, the commander of this region of Laos, was involved in civil war to the north, where he had gone to overthrow the country's neutralist government. The Royal Laotian Army battalion stationed at Tchepone, in the center of the area Hanoi wished to clear, was needed in Phoumi's northern expedition and he called it away.

With the departure of the Laotian 12th Infantry Battalion, the only fighting formation in this sector of the Panhandle was the recently formed volunteer unit, the 33rd Battalion. This unit was garrisoned in Tchepone only briefly. Hanoi's forces crossed the border to the northeast, over the mountain passes of Mu Gia and Nape, brushing aside another Laotian volunteer battalion there and making for Tchepone.

The 101st Regiment of the 325th Division of the Vietnam People's Army hit the 33rd Volunteers at Tchepone on the last night of April 1961 and easily drove them away. The Lao volunteers, whose families were centered around the border village of Ban Houei Sane, retreated toward their homes. The South Vietnamese Army airdropped a company of 150 commandos to furnish a rearguard for the Laotians. The North Vietnamese also used its 927th Battalion, the local force unit for Ha Tinh Province, and the 19th Border Defense Battalion, a formation of Hanoi's Ministry of Security. The latter troops then screened the border while Hanoi's regulars pulled back into North Vietnam. The Laotian volunteers at Ban Houei Sane took over what became an
enclave, with South Vietnam behind them and North Vietnamese forces between them and the rest of Laos. The unit at Ban Houei Sane existed for almost eight years in an uneasy truce with the People's Army.

The reorientation of the Trail was instantaneous because Hanoi had carefully prepared for the move. The former 301st Battalion, reinforced, became the 70th Regiment and extended its way stations from the passes into North Vietnam to and beyond Tchepone and back towards the Vietnamese border further south. The Ha Tinh provincials, two engineer battalions of the local military region, and a high command engineer regiment refurbished the roads near the passes and refurbished Route 9 from Tchepone toward the Vietnamese border. Engineers of the 325th Division repaired the airfield at Tchepone itself, enabling the 919th Military Air Transport Squadron of the North Vietnamese Air Force to begin parachute drops and, later, landings. By December, when the 3rd Truck Transportation Group of the People's
Army Rear Services Department was assigned to permanent supply transport duties on the newly completed roads, Hanoi's strategic supply route entered a new dimension with greatly increased capacity.

Hanoi started large-scale infiltration down the Trail by establishing a standard regimen for preparation. The 338th Division was converted into a training organization that ran a camp to harden soldiers for the trek and ready them for the conditions they would find in the South. Group 338 was centered at Xuan Mai, outside Hanoi. The groups for infiltration at first selected names but were later given numbers. Several years later, Hanoi began sending regular combat units to the South. The first major party left Xuan Mai on May 5, 1961, and called itself "Group Orient," for the name of the space capsule which that day sent Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the earth. The second party left about a month later. Another group, "Phong Nam,"went south in December. These groups typically numbered 400 to 600 cadres and were
composed of specialists, non-coms, and officers.

The Phong Nam group comprised three companies of about 200 cadres, each one sufficient to staff a regiment of the Liberation Armed Forces once they arrived in the South. Leaving Xuan Mai by truck, the Phong Nam group went through Ha Tinh to the Mu Gia Pass. From there it was by foot. The pass at about 1,400-foot altitude was still better than the towering heights of 6,000 feet. Then there was the rain forest and triple-canopy jungle, broken only occasionally by swaths of savannah, such as around Tchepone itself. In some places the cadres had to cut new paths with machetes. The trek took the Orient group just short of three months, for some men in
Phong Nam, almost a year.

For all the secrecy with which Hanoi began its project to create a strategic transportation route to the South, the enterprise did not remain covert for long. Early in 1960, a patrol of South Vietnamese Rangers surprised and captured a man scouting for the organizers of the Trail. By August 1960, the CIA knew enough to observe in one of its special national intelligence estimates that senior cadres and military supplies were believed to be moving south through Laos and Cambodia. That November military planners in Saigon similarly reported to Washington that people were coming south "by use of overland trails through Laos and Cambodia."

These reports actually were mistaken--at that time Hanoi had not yet extended the Trail into Laos--but the anticipation was logical and reflected the decision North Vietnam made at the end of that year. A few months later, a South Vietnamese Army regiment on a sweep through the Khe Sanh area overran one of the way stations set up by Col. Vo Bam, the chief of Hanoi's Group. The South Vietnamese captured records that tabulated the cadres and supplies that had passed through and established that about 2,500 infiltrators had entered the South this way. Getting a
handle on this infiltration required strenuous efforts at intelligence gathering in the Laotian Panhandle and in the northernmost part of South Vietnam.

America's most intense efforts to seal the border took place in the Panhandle. At that time there were U.S. military advisers in Laos under what was known as Project White Star. The advisers were from Army Special Forces. They provided mobile training teams that worked with Laotian army units and local militias. The most ambitious of these programs, the CIA's Project Momentum, involved creating a secret army of Hmong tribesmen in northern Laos. The CIA worked out of bases in Thailand and for liaison and training used teams of CIA-advised and -funded Thai commandos from the Police Aerial Resupply Unit (PARU).

The Army wanted its piece of the action, too. White Star commander LTC John Little advocated assigning mobile training teams of his Green Berets to train and advise the tribesmen. LTC Little was supported by Gen. Andrew J. Boyle, chief of the Program Evaluation Office, the misleadingly titled U.S. military advisory group in Laos. Eventually Little got his way and several mobile training teams worked with the Hmong.

Extending the effort in northern Laos to the Panhandle seemed natural and offered a way to observe Vo Bam's Trail. The Kennedy administration, entering office in January 1961, almost immediately initiated a policy review of actions in Southeast Asia under a panel headed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric. The Gilpatric Committee's recommendations were tabled at the end of April, when North Vietnam captured Tchepone and expanded the Trail into Laos.

The Gilpatric Committee recommended to "infiltrate teams under light civilian cover to
Southeast Laos to locate and attack Vietnamese Communist bases and lines of communication." The concept envisioned joint CIA-U.S. Army training for the teams, which would be backed by larger strike forces of South Vietnamese airborne rangers or special forces, in the same way Saigon troops had intervened in the battle for Tchepone. The recommendation was approved and became known as Project Pincushion.

A key terrain feature in the Panhandle is the Bolovens Plateau, southwest of the Annamite Mountains which dominate the borderlands. Tribes here were of similar ethnicity to those along the border, their languages variants of Mon or Khmer, and they were not under North Vietnamese control. Capt. Robert Mountel of White Star arrived in the late spring to survey the possibilities and found them promising. Little was replaced by Green Beret LTC Arthur D. ("Bull") Simons, who strongly supported the Pincushion initiative.

The Americans moved in after a Laotian mobile group had conducted a sweep of the area. The Army provided training and leadership, using its field training teams of Green Berets from White Star, while the CIA funded Pincushion. The agency also assigned two men to supervise and assist. Roy Moffitt was sent from the PEO to CIA because he was fluent in local dialects. Jean Cadeaux, a French-Canadian plantation owner, became quite important to the project.

Pincushion got underway toward the end of 1961 with a half dozen Special Forces men and a hundred Hune tribesmen. The tribesmen formed a company; a second was created in early 1962. Though half the Hune deserted, the project moved ahead rapidly, expanding to several training sites, eleven companies of indigenous troops and thirty Americans. Capt. Elliott Sydnor, who had opened the initial camp, and Bull Simons extended their tours in Laos to help perfect the tribal force. Beyond its creation, however, the Pincushion force did not achieve much operationally before the Geneva agreements of June 1962 led to the United States pulling White Star out of
Laos. The Green Berets left behind arms caches for the tribesmen, but could do nothing more.

The Bolovens program marked the start of unconventional warfare in the Laotian Panhandle, but the road ahead was rocky. The tribes of southern Laos were collectively known as the Lao Theung. Colloquially they were known as "Kha." But these were not names for a tribe, rather for a class of people. A loose translation for the name was "slave." It had been coined by the lowland Lao. The Lao Theung had little sense of nationality or ethnicity and a reputation for timidity. Until French times, their villages did not have headmen. The tribesmen had frequently worked as itinerant laborers. They were also physically small, which had certain military implications. They could not handle the heavier M-1 Garand rifles so popular among the Hmong
of the CIA's secret army and had trouble transporting heavy weapons such as the 57mm recoilless rifle.

Green Berets Joe Garner, who worked out of Paksane, and William T. Craig, near Savannakhet, have described some of the difficulties working with the tribes. These were further complicated by the corruption of Laotian government authorities and their antipathy for the Lao Theung. Col. William Rosson, who had been involved with Southeast Asia since the mid-1950s, visited the Bolovens during this period and came away convinced that the unconventional warfare initiative was worthless.

None of this prevented the CIA from trying its hand with parallel projects. Working through the Thai PARU teams, who had also helped White Star Americans, the CIA recruited Lao Theung for its own projects such as Hotfoot. Agency officer Arthur Elmore, soon transferred further north and then to Thailand, was among the first on this mission. He was replaced by a paramilitary officer, Marine Corps reservist Mike Deuel. The latter had worked the Laos desk at agency headquarters but longed to be in the field.

The Geneva agreements temporarily held up the CIA programs, but the neutrality mandated by the agreements ended by early 1963. Deuel and other officers soon were working hard on an effort for which they had made quiet preparations during the period of coalition government. Within a few months, Deuel's southern Laos project, based at Pakse, had recruited 1,205 tribal fighters. There were nine companies of tribesmen supervised by PARU Team C. By 1965 Duell's force had expanded to more than 2,400.

Another CIA officer on the scene was Richard Holm, who arrived with Deuel and two others in July 1962. Holm familiarized himself with the Laotian theater by taking brief trips to Vientiane, the administrative capital, and spending some time with the Hmong in the north, the CIA's flagship project in country. He was then assigned to replace Tom Ahearn at Nakhon Phanom, the Thai town across the Mekong from Thakhek, seat of Laotian Military Region 3. This region included the prime real estate Hanoi had appropriated for its Ho Chi Minh Trail, including the key mountain passes of Nape, Mu Gia, and Ban Karai. The first two were already prime points of entry for the North Vietnamese; the last was pressed into service as well.

The idea of putting out teams to watch the Trail had occurred to Ahearn, who had recruited and trained some Lao and set up a few teams, but did not have a real program. In January 1963, he launched a scheme to watch over the Trail. Teams would move to monitoring sites and simply report what they saw. The limitations of the Lao Theung as combat troops would be minimized because the teams were not intended for battle and would be under orders to evade if the North Vietnamese went after them.

Holm put the details in a cable he sent to CIA headquarters through the agency's Laotian paramilitary command under Bill Lair and Pat Landry. Soon he got a reply. "What's this about a program," Landry essentially said. "Better get up here and brief me." Holm did so. The agency's supervisors decided this roadwatch idea was a good one, as did the Vientiane station, then under Charles S. Whitehouse, and the project proposal went up to Langley.

CIA headquarters approved and supplied the cryptonym "Hardnose'"for the endeavor. Under the arrangements that prevailed in Laos, U.S. Ambassador Leonard Unger approached Laotian Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma and secured permission to go ahead. Thus was born an initiative that would have a crucial impact upon what the Americans knew about the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The Hardnose concept was for the CIA, working through the Thais, to organize small units of the Lao Theung and put them in the field. There was simple combat training but, again, this was not the objective. The tribesmen were trained to recognize various kinds of vehicles. Holm had some plastic cards made up with silhouettes the teams could look at. They would report numbers of each through PARU communications specialists who maintained the Hardnose radio net. The Lao Theung also received photography instruction so they could bring back pictures.

Thai commandos led the patrols. Holm had a single PARU unit, Team W, to jump start his project. Eight teams were created, ranging from very small ones to a hundred tribesmen. Typically, a roadwatch team assumed its position, hunkered down, and came in once its supplies ran down. The CIA assumed that aerial resupply of the roadwatch units would alert the North Vietnamese to their presence, thus triggering countermeasures, so this was not part of the operational concept. The large teams set up a temporary camp from which smaller patrols radiated. The teams remained in the field for several weeks. As they returned, others went out.

Hardnose's main base was Savannakhet. Its teams ranged east towards Tchepone and northeast to the Mu Gia and later Ban Karai. Teams also observed the Nape Pass, but this was considered less crucial since Hanoi used that route primarily for supplies to north Laos, fueling the war within the country itself. As the project developed, some of its best fighters were selected to become team leaders or communications specialists, freeing up the limited number of Thai specialists.
Team W was split between PARU and Thai special forces, with one of the special forces as its leader, Maj. Siri Tiwaphan, and a PARU deputy, Capt. Prasert Kwangkaew. The training base, named "Siberia," was in the Lao foothills some dozen miles east of Thakhek. Team W trainers commuted there daily aboard choppers from Nakhon Phanom. Holm sought to gather intelligence on the Trail and to train tribesmen.

Hardnose was soon up and running. The Royal Laotian government approved an expansion and the concept was copied in Military Region 4 by Holm's good friend Mike Deuel. Toward the end of 1963, when the U.S. military suggested undertaking small-scale operations across the Lao border from South Vietnam, Secretary of Defense McNamara felt so confident about the CIA project that he relied upon Hardnose and rejected the military recommendation. Interagency committees in Washington and government conferences in Honolulu and Bangkok periodically reviewed results and expressed confidence in the CIA project. Hardnose produced some of the first photographs of North Vietnamese vehicles on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, both large trucks and pick-ups, as well as pictures of elephants bearing supplies for the South.

The reporting by the roadwatch teams was mostly realistic. In Dick Holm's time there was only one case of a phoney mission. That occurred with a team sent up east of Thakhek near the Vietnamese border. Their messages did not seem to correspond to other intelligence. Holm decided to walk into the jungle to meet the team at the roadwatch site, a highly dangerous thing for a CIA officer to do. When he got there, Holm found no one. The team had been making up its reports.

The CIA refined its operational methods over time. Operators found that some aerial resupply was possible, primarily when roadwatch teams were en route to or from their missions. Air drops could be used as an incentive because the tribesmen always wanted rice and money. Holm found that teams that usually reported regularly went off the air when being harassed by the North Vietnamese, but almost always came on again when they wanted rice and cash. Drops were made by Air America, the CIA-run airline. Only very clearly marked drop zones were serviced to minimize North Vietnamese deception measures.

Of course, air activity in a North Vietnamese-held area alerted the adversary. Roadwatch teams also had to avoid civilian contact since most of the villages in the area of the Trail sympathized with the Pathet Lao. Word of the presence of a roadwatch team inevitably reached the North Vietnamese following contact with villagers.

Col. Vo Bam's radiomen also listened for roadwatch transmissions. Though the People's Army usually lacked direction-finding gear, the radio traffic itself alerted them to the roadwatchers and they sent out search parties. The CIA developed a special high-speed radio transmitter specifically for Southeast Asia called the RS-48, which minimized the opportunity for detection. Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese patrols began using tracking dogs in their efforts to locate the roadwatchers. Other countermeasures included regular patrols in places the roadwatch teams had been encountered previously.

Hanoi had much to hide on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As early as the summer of 1963,
roadwatchers reported truck movements near Muong Phine, southwest of Tchepone. Hanoi had made a decision to improve the Trail sufficiently to convey large artillery pieces and to extend serviceable roads all the way to the South Vietnamese border. The People's Army high command committed two of its general reserve engineer regiments, the 83rd and 98th, to extend the roads beyond Tchepone. The 325th Division's own engineer battalion remained involved in the road construction.

As the roads extended the system, the Trail also changed. Way stations were relocated and new ones built at intervals that represented a two-day truck trip. The stations were augmented with automotive mechanics and workshops.

In early 1964, the National Security Council was briefed for the first time on the presence of heavy construction equipment spotted on the Trail by aerial reconnaissance. Later that year, using as justification the firing upon of photo planes monitoring the Trail under a program known as Yankee Team, the U.S. began regular bombing missions over Laos. This initiative combined targeted missions with what was called "armed reconnaissance," the dispatch of aircraft to fly over the Trail and shoot at anything that moved. This effort made intelligence, especially real-time information on convoys and troop movements, even more vital. Project Hardnose was there to provide that data.

Hardnose teams at roadwatch sites below the Mu Gia pass reported 185 trucks driving south in December 1964. In February 1965, when Washington began the sustained bombing of North Vietnam, much of which was aimed at reducing supplies moving down the Trail, Hardnose counted 311 trucks headed south and 172 going home. In March, when the U.S. landed its first two battalions of Marines in South Vietnam, the numbers were 481 and 658. In April, the figures were 640 trucks driving south and 775 headed north. The Mu Gia was bombed in February and March, but the strikes clearly had little impact upon North Vietnamese supply movements. Hardnose teams were in place at roadwatch sites below the Mu Gia for 27 days during February, and almost the entire month of April 1965. That year Hardnose teams typically staked out four roadwatch sites at various points along the Trail.

Meanwhile, Col. Vo Bam began mixing trucks with more primitive means in supply shipments within Laos. The quantity of supplies shipped to the South during 1964 quadrupled over that transported the previous year. More than 9,000 troops infiltrated in 1964. After the Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964, Hanoi began sending combat units to South Vietnam, starting with three regiments of the 325th Division.

In many ways the war was spiraling to greater intensity every day. The year 1965 brought supply shipments with tonnage greater than the figure for everything shipped down the Trail since its creation. Hanoi escalated on its side with 50,000 regular troops, giving the Vietnam War the shape perceived by many of the Americans who fought there.

The CIA surveillance projects suffered a considerable setback late in 1965. By this time Richard Holm had been reassigned to the Congo. Mike Deuel remained. Deuel was familiarizing a fresh CIA paramilitary officer, Michael Maloney, with the features of the southern roadwatch operation he ran out of Pakse. On October 10, 1965, the day after Maloney's arrival, the two took an Air America H-34 helicopter to look at the land and introduce the new paramilitary expert to village chiefs in the area. The ship crashed in dense jungle in the Saravane region. It required a fairly ambitious operation by the paramilitary forces Deuel had set up just to reach the crash site, where they discovered both CIA men and the Air America crew dead.

The CIA replaced its losses and carried on. By 1966-67, the Project Hardnose strikers were reporting regularly from seven roadwatch sites. Tribesmen from the project at Pakse were ensconced at eight more layups, some of them south of Attopeu, almost at the Laotian-Thai border. North Vietnamese road security had become much more sophisticated.

By this time, the Americans added a program of cross-border commando missions and small raids, carried out from Vietnam and Thailand by the Studies and Advisory Group of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACVSOG). The missions in Laos were known by the codename "Shining Brass."

The People's Army responded to the Shining Brass missions and the CIA projects by beefing up its security along the Trail, which now included garrisons at its way stations that made frequent patrols and even standard road-clearing operations that would have been familiar to GIs in South Vietnam.

As the Vietnam War progressed, the CIA roadwatch projects began more and more to resemble other programs. Agency station chiefs in Vientiane, anxious to show greater numbers of fighters, took their cue from the Hmong secret army, with its "special guerrilla units," and particularly from Shining Brass. In the latter program, the mission teams were backed up by platoon-size and even company-size strike or intervention forces. Hardnose was directed to create units like those.

In time, its standing orders were modified to provide for engagement with the enemy rather than evasion. Later in the war, when the Laotian command wished to use major irregular forces in the Panhandle, they brought in Hmong from northern Laos.

Throughout the conflict, the essence of Hardnose and related projects remained the roadwatch. From October 1966 through February 1967, roadwatch teams were active along the Trail on 116 of 150 days. North Vietnamese security forces eventually cleared the Tchepone area of the Hardnose teams, but observation continued in most other locations, including the Mu Gia Pass.

The reporting was such that in Washington, American authorities frequently compared roadwatch sightings with aerial reconnaissance products to get a feel for the statistics. For example, in September 1967 aircraft spotted 256 trucks, compared to 201 seen by the watchers. The teams reported 992 trucks that October. In November 1967, as Hanoi built up for its massive Tet Offensive, planes reported 4,235 trucks headed south. The roadwatchers that month saw only 695 vehicles.

Discrepancies between aerial and ground sightings were never resolved, but each method had its advantages and each offered another window on the enemy. And that was what Hardnose was really about--seeing the other side of the hill. Perhaps if the vision had been clearer, Hanoi's Trail could have been engaged more effectively.

   

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