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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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