Battle, Lam Son 719: Tchepone, Laos and the Hoh Chi Minh Trail

Route 9 in Vietnam and Lam Son 719

We were more than a little nervous, as we rode our tandem up to the first security station at the border between Laos and Vietnam. Claire, a Western woman with a passport saying she was born in Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the war, was bound to attract attention. But the attention was brief, not at all negative, and we passed through without delay, something of a miracle for our checkered past at Asian borders.

North Vietnamese Tank on Route 9

The countryside changed little from Laos at first, until we topped the border mountains and looked out over a sea of jungle toward Khe Sanh, Dong Ha and the Gulf of Tonkin.  We stopped for a break at a pedestal featuring a war era North Vietnamese tank. A driver and guide translated for an American and his wife, who were visiting to see the places where his brother had fought. He wanted to understand the war that had defined his brother’s life.

Lam Son 719, The Battle to Cut the Hoh Chi Minh Trail

For years, the American military had been trying to cut, disrupt, interdict movement of troops and material from North Vietnam through the web of jungle trails in Laos nicknamed the Ho Chi Minh Trail. For us, managing two days of the worst of it, much of it pushing our tandem bicycle (see photo above), it was a mini-hell of mud, mosquitoes and fear of unexploded ordnance, with the added uncertainty of being lost. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the troops walking with heavy loads for weeks or months, and the truck drivers fighting the horrific mud path, in constant fear for the B52s dropping huge loads, and platform gunships circling above laying down a hail of large-caliber fire. We had it easy.

Ho Chi Minh Trail Stream Crossing

Hoh Chi Min Trail Troop and Material Movements

From supposedly reliable intelligence, Abrams was able to follow the progress of troops and supplies south, and judge where and when the North planned to attack over the border into Vietnam. To paraphrase from A Better War, Lewis Sorley: Troops advanced south in waves 500 to 600, moving at 12.2 kilometers per day, mostly by foot, the trucks saved for supplies and ammunition. We were able to move perhaps 60 Kilometers on the unimproved section, partly because our load was not on our feet, but on our bicycle, and partly because we had no backup supplies; we had to get out of that jungle in short order.

Losses to North Vietnamese Troops on the Hoh Chi Minh Trail

To further paraphrase Sorley: The trail was so fraught with danger that 22 to 50% of the troops were lost to illness (probably malaria, parasites and injuries) B52 strikes with heavy bombs and cluster bombs (bombies), later the feared gunships/gun platforms. To get material (food, ammunition) down the trail to staging areas near Vietnam, they had to put 10 tons into the northern end of the trail to get one ton to destination.

Along Vietnam Route 9 looking back toward Laos and Sepon

We entered Vietnam via Route 9, the main line of communication and supply for Operation Lam Son 719, the offensive against Tchepone and the Trail, that might have been pivotal, had not the political battle back in the States already had been lost. From our perch with the tank, overlooking the dense jungle and steep, if not high, mountains, I could only wonder that any conceivable battle plan could have results in such a brutal and foreign environment. And yet, this battle, conceived, and timed by General Abrams, could have turned the tide. However, South Vietnamese President Thieu made a political decision, and their troops stalled short of Tchepone. Adding to ARVN (The South Vietnam Army) confusion, U.S. Intelligence had failed to tell Abrams just how poor was the condition of Route 9. Also he North Vietnamese resistance was much stronger than anticipated; they were far more willing to take casualties than ARVN. The North was always more willing to sacrifice troops than ARVN and the U. S. Army, and this was no more evident than the battle for Tchepone (Sepon) and Route 9 in an attempt to cut the Hoh Chi Minh Trail, the supply and troop route we slogged through in Laos.

Cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail: Fail

B52s had been taking a heavy toll on the battlefield, and on troop and supply movements on the Trail, but the North kept moving to the front via the Hoh Chi Minh Trail. It must have been very frustrating for General Abrams; so close to closing the Trail that he thought it was one of the two most important tactics for, if not winning the war, at least achieving a reasonable  peace with the Demilitarized Zone in tact.

Our Route 9 was nothing like it was for ARVN and American support troops: “Route 9 was at best a narrow twisting, nearly unimproved surface or so it was from the air. The reality was much worse.” Our Route 9 was smooth, mostly downhill and blessedly free of heavy traffic.

Bicycling the Song Quan Tri River to Batong

Batong Villagers Giving Silly Westerners the Bad News

Naturally we could not let such easy conditions last! We decided to take another “short cut”  down the Song Quang Tri river to Quang Tri along the coast. However a typhoon had recently caused epic flooding. After a half-day of pedaling ruined roads and mud, we only made it as far as Batong. There the whole village turned out to laugh at the Western couple on the funny double bicycle who didn’t know that the bridge had been washed away. Sometimes not knowing the language can create issues. However, we saw some beautiful country we would not have seen otherwise. The Song Quang Tri river must have been a constant trap for U.S. gunboats with rice paddy dams and jungle lining both banks, giving cover. Another reminder of just how difficult it is to fight a war on the other guy’s turf. We retraced our route to arrive back at Route 9 just before dark. We easily found accommodation, but it took an hour to find food, all venues booked for a special holiday.

Sobering Reminder in Hue

Our next stops were Dong Ha, Hue and across Hai Van Pass to Danang where we planned a couple of rest days at China Beach, a noted if not notorious, R&R spot for U.S. troops. South on Route 1A, the coast road we encountered many ruins of anti-aircraft installations, particularly along the paralleling railroad tracks leading to the Demilitarized Zone. Hue was the site of brutal fighting and at least one North Vietnamese mass killing of civilians according to Sorley. We spent several days there waiting in vain for the rain to ease, but enjoyed our walks around the walled city, and the good food available everywhere. The feared Hai Van Pass was a non event, in cycling terms; our legs were so strong from Tibet and Laos and the sea level air filled with oxygen.

From Hai Van Pass looking north

Topping Hai Van Pass

For some these posts will seem without passion, neither patriotic flag waving, or screaming anti-war. I was never was either of those camps. Conflicted about the Vietnam War from the time the military rejected me as physically unfit to serve, which seems amazing now. Had the medical community known to give antibiotics for bleeding ulcers, I would have served. I would not have run to Canada, nor gone to jail. It’s not what West Virginia country boys did.

Cycling through Laos and Vietnam gave me a perspective on the war-that-never-was, for me. It also helped me understand the decisions made, and the truly horrific conditions both sides faced. My passion is for understanding people, all kinds of people, the things that are important in their lives, and ways we can better communicate to avoid conflicts of culture, religion and ideology that lead to no win wars.

That’s what, with Lewis Sorley‘s help, we’ll discuss in the final post of this series.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *