Ho Chi Minh Trail unvanquished by 4 million tons of US bombs

By Hoang Phuong   May 24, 2024 | 03:32 pm PT
To sever north-to-south supply lines during the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped over four million tons of bombs and 80 million liters of chemical weapons on the central Vietnam mountains.
Ho Chi Minh Trail unvanquished by 4 million tons of US bombs

Open until the end of May, the exhibition 'Truong Son Road - the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail' at the Thang Long Imperial Citadel heritage site in Hanoi marks the 65th anniversary of the road’s opening, which is also the traditional Truong Son Troop Memorial Day, which honors the brave men and women who traversed the trail from 1959-2024, at first to defeat the colonial empire, and now to patrol and maintain peace and security.

The Truong Son Road, also known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, was created when the French and U.S. imperial powers divided into north and south at the Geneva Accords of 1954.

The road ran along what the French had called the Annamite Range (Truong Son), a major mountain range of eastern Indochina, extending approximately 1,100 km through Laos, Vietnam, and a small area in northeast Cambodia.

Ho Chi Minh Trail unvanquished by 4 million tons of US bombs

The "special military task force," also known as Group 559, was established in May 1959, marking the creation of the support route on Truong Son Road.

Lieutenant Colonel Vo Bam was tasked with opening the Voi Mep Mountain section of the road in Quang Tri Province along the DMZ (demilitarized zone), which demarcated the line temporarily and artificially separating North Vietnam and South Vietnam.

Trails were transformed into support routes and those that walked them in support of the resistance and revolution used the motto: "penetrate the mountains and explore the peaks, never following the old trails."

Khe Ho – a locality situated in the western valley of Quang Tri’s Vinh Linh District – was chosen as Km0 to start moving southward. Three months later, the first shipments crossed rivers, streams, and a dense system of military posts to reach the south from the north.

Ho Chi Minh Trail unvanquished by 4 million tons of US bombs

After one year, transport activities on the road temporarily halted when the U.S. discovered and swept the area.

Vietnam's northern troops switched to the western flank, opening routes through Lao territory to avoid detection. In 1961, the support route was extended nearly 100 km from Quang Tri to Laos' Muong Phalan. It was made usable by horses, elephants, carts, and some motor vehicles, all of which carried supplies, weapons and other equipment through the mountainous jungle in support of the anti-colonial struggle.

The Truong Son Road transportation network consisted of three parallel systems by 1964, including liaison roads, porterage routes, and motorized transport routes.

In the picture, from left to right, are troops navigating the precarious paths of Truong Son at the end of 1966, liaisons crossing a 1,500 m high peak at La Hap, and sappers on another peak.

Ho Chi Minh Trail unvanquished by 4 million tons of US bombs

Maps of the Truong Son Road network over four phases: 1959-1963, 1964-1968, 1969-1973, and 1973-1975.

From the trails along the Truong Son range, the support lifeline gradually covered vast forests with a total length of nearly 20,000 km, crossing three Indochina countries. Local Vietnamese in the know called it a "magical battleground through the forests."

Ho Chi Minh Trail unvanquished by 4 million tons of US bombs

The road is associated with Lieutenant General Dong Sy Nguyen (R), Commander of the Truong Son Corps 1967-1975. He left a significant mark by organizing a continuous and rapid logistics system to move forces from the north to the south.

When he took on this responsibility in early 1967, General Nguyen had only 5 battalions with 750 vehicles divided among four of those battalions. Eight years later, he confidently told commanders of the campaign to free the south that "whatever amount of rice, ammunition, fuel, and transport vehicles you need, we have enough."

It was he who proposed the construction of the Truong Son Martyrs' Cemetery in 1974, while the war was still raging.

Ho Chi Minh Trail unvanquished by 4 million tons of US bombs

The U.S. and U.S.-backed South Vietnamese armies launched a series of large-scale campaigns, dropping bombs and chemical agents along the Truong Son road to cut off the supply route.

Nearly four million tons of bombs – twice the total amount of bombs dropped in World War II – were dropped on Truong Son to destroy bridges, transport vehicles, and human personnel.

From 1968 to 1972, there were 22-30 B-52 bombings per day over the Truong Son range. In the photo, the ground is littered with bomb craters after a carpet bombing by the U.S. Air Force.

Over 10 years (1961-1971), about 80 million liters of chemical agents, 61% of which were Agent Orange, containing vast amounts of dioxin, were spread over Vietnam.

U.S. forces also erected the McNamara electronic fence between the north and south in 1967. This was a system to detect the infiltration of northern forces along the Truong Son road.

Ho Chi Minh Trail unvanquished by 4 million tons of US bombs

South Vietnamese troops advanced into Laos in February 1971. Eventually, 40,000 South Vietnamese troops, 6,000 U.S. soldiers, nearly 2,000 tanks, armored vehicles, heavy artillery, and aircraft still could not cut off the supply lifeline from the north to the south.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara once said "a large volume of people and goods still flowed from the north to the south, yet we could do nothing to stop it."

Ho Chi Minh Trail unvanquished by 4 million tons of US bombs

Anti-aircraft artillery units of the People's Army of Vietnam and the Lao People's Army get ready to counter the U.S. and South Vietnamese army incursion into Laos in 1971.

Ho Chi Minh Trail unvanquished by 4 million tons of US bombs

Under the bare forest canopy – which had been destroyed by the U.S. – convoys are seen on Road 20 Quyet Thang, which runs 120 km from Quang Binh Province bordering Quang Tri to Laos. The road endured one of the highest densities of bombs on Truong Son range.

Statistics from the last 15 days and nights of November 1969 show the U.S. dropped more than 17,400 tons of bombs on this area, with means each meter of the road endured 2.2 tons of bombs.

In the photo is the A-curve, as it shapes like the letter A, Ta Le tunnel, and Phu La Nhich pass. This focal point once endured nearly 50,000 bombs in one week.

Ho Chi Minh Trail unvanquished by 4 million tons of US bombs

A soldier drives a vehicle without windows because bombs had shattered the glass.

On average, for every 1,000 tons of goods transported via the Truong Son road, 57 people were injured, 21 died, and 25 vehicles as well as 143 tons of goods were destroyed.

Ho Chi Minh Trail unvanquished by 4 million tons of US bombs

Once the bombers left, sappers, youth volunteers, and civilian forces rushed to clear bomb craters and keep the road open.

The Truong Son troops filled in 78,000 bomb craters, and they destroyed more than 20,000 delayed-action bombs and magnetic bombs. They cleared more than 85,000 mines, and moved over 29 million m3 of earth and rock.

More than 22,000 soldiers, youth volunteers, and engineers lost their lives along the Truong Son trail. Tens of thousands of young people returned from Truong Son without knowing they had been exposed to Agent Orange.

In all, 4.8 million people were exposed, and over three million people are currently still victims of dioxin. Some mothers still feed their babies dioxin-laden breastmilk. Many belong to the third and fourth generations of Agent Orange victims but have yet been recognized.

Ho Chi Minh Trail unvanquished by 4 million tons of US bombs

Female youth volunteers on the Truong Son road.

Thai Binh Province near Hanoi sent the most youth volunteers to the front during the resistance against the U.S.

Many later chose to stay in central Vietnam and got married. Some returned to seek refuge in Buddhist temples. Many are still carrying bomb fragments or chemical agents in their bodies.

Ho Chi Minh Trail unvanquished by 4 million tons of US bombs

After the open road was destroyed, engineers shifted to opening thousands of kilometers of 'K roads' - concealed roads for daytime transport vehicle traffic, accelerating the transport of manpower and materials to the battlefield.

Over 16 years (1959-1975), the Truong Son road transported more than two million soldiers from the north to the south, and over one million tons of materials and weapons to the battlefield.

After Reunification Day on April 30, 1975, the road became a driving force for economic development and national border defense.

In 1997, the Ministry of Transport studied the planning of the second trans-Vietnamese road axis in the west of the country – after National Highway 1 – naming it the "North-South Expressway," which comprises the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

A year later, the Politburo renamed it the Ho Chi Minh Road, with a total length of over 3,000 km crossing 30 provinces from Cao Bang to Ca Mau.

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