A look at the the Ban Laboy Ford, Laos, and Hwy 912, why did we spend so much on them?
July 4, 2011
The Ho Chi Minh Trail
Let’s move on now to the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, arguably the best known road network in Laos. I like this graphic more than others I have seen because the trail, in its many network segments, traveled through much of southern Laos and eastern Cambodia. While we are here, please take note of the four passes crossing the Annamite Cordillera, especially the Ban Karai Pass, the location of the DMZ, and the location of Tchepone, Laos. These are all related closely to the Ban Laboy Ford.
The Americans were the ones to dub this the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The NVN called it the Truong Son Strategic Supply Route. The phrase Dãy Trường Sơn is the name the Vietnamese gave the Annamite Mountains. In other words, even though most of the trail was in Laos, the NVN gave it a Vietnamese name. Most sources describe it this way:
“The trail was not a single route, but rather a complex maze of truck routes, paths for foot and bicycle traffic, and river transportation systems.”
One of its confounding attributes was that its configuration changed constantly, and no matter how hard you pounded it, the Vietnamese had the manpower on scene to repair it or build alternatives to its segments.
During the colonial period, the French held most of the Mandarin Road along the coast. So the NVN needed to find an alternative north-south route to support their long logistics tail to the southern reaches of Cambodia and the RVN. During these times, the route of what would become the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Trail, was essentially only jungle paths connected by secondary roads and good only for foot, bicycle and animals. In reality, much of it had existed for centuries in one primitive form or another.
Following independence from France in 1954, the Trail was largely abandoned as a means of conveyance. But the NVN saw the RVN develop and stabilize, and saw that as threatening to its desire to unify. As a result, the NVA established Transportation Group 559 in 1959 under direct control of the Rear Service (Logistics) Department. Its job was to improve the trail aggressively and move what was needed from north to south.
Perhaps sensing the US was about to enter war in Indochina, the assessment was Route 1 would be held by the Americans and the Truong Son Strategic Supply route, hereinafter referred to as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or just the Trail, was a necessity. This was confirmed as soon as US bombing of North Vietnam began, and reconfirmed when US bombing of the NVN stopped.
Group 559 took advantage of the historic trails, improved them, linked them, built a series of offshoots in the RVN, built basecamps, better known to the US as base areas (BA), and storage areas along the way, and used this intricate system to move men and supplies to their fighting forces in the RVN. I’ll address the BAs a little more in a bit. They were important.
My thesis is the NVN saw this as a most natural endeavor, seeing Laos as effectively theirs by, as a minimum, colonial tradition.
By way of background, the enemy received most of its supplies from the Soviets and Chinese. They entered from China by train, or by ship at Haiphong Harbor, converged in Hanoi, and then moved either across the Annamite Mountains to the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and then down the trail to the RVN through Laos or Cambodia, or by ship clandestinely along the South Vietnamese coastline, a most dangerous operation. The enemy also shipped supplies to Sihanoukville, Cambodia to trucks on the trail and conducted waterborne infiltration operations into the Mekong Delta, also dangerous operations.
As an aside, the USN’s 7th Fleet operated under the operational control of the commander-in-chief, Pacific Fleet in Hawaii, not under the commander, Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). However, naval forces were assigned to MACV to interdict coastline shipping and shipping in the Mekong delta and other rivers throughout the RVN, and they were quite effective. These naval forces were known as the “brown water navy.”
Of all the options available, the Trail was the best. So let’s address the route the NVA chose. They could have gone along the eastern slopes of the Annamites, but that would put their backs to the wall of the mountain chain inside the RVN. And it would expose them to massive American and ARVN forces. So they chose to go on the western slopes, inside Laos. They bet the Americans would not insert ground forces there, and resort to only air power, so ahead they went. To do that, they had to identify, use and defend mountain passes to get to the western side.
I’m unsure of the estimated dates applicable to these numbers, but intelligence assessments placed close to 100,000 NVA in Laos and Cambodia to maintain and protect the Trail, and from 14,000-15,000 Chinese in Laos, some 3,000-5,000 of whom were dedicated to anti-aircraft (AAA) weaponry operations and maintenance of the road. In the fall of 1969, the Cambodians estimated that there were about 40,000 NVA and indigenous Viet Cong (VC) soldiers located in eastern Cambodia bordering the RVN. The point here is that operations and maintenance of the Trail, not including the forces moved down the trail, employed a vast number of enemy soldiers and, as time went by, defensive weapons.
There were several passes the NVA could use to cross the Annamites into Laos. I introduced them to you earlier. Let’s take a another look.
By the time the American Indochina War began, the route system in the NVN and Laos had expanded considerably, though it remained rudimentary and barely passable in many locations.
Note Route 8 passed through the Nape Pass, met Route 12 and then went to Thakek, Laos. Route 15 in North Vietnam changed to Route 12 in Laos and passed through the Mu Gia Pass also to Thakek. As an aside, Thakek was across the Mekong River from a US special operations air base that would be built in the later years at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. Mu Gia arguably was the best of the passes for logistics movement. NVN Route 137 passed through the Ban Karai pass to meet Route 912 in Laos which in turn met Route 911 to Tchepone. We’ll mention Tchepone more than once. Also note that the subject of our article, the Ban Laboy Ford, was on Route 912 close to the Ban Karai. Finally Route 1039 went through the Ban Raving Pass also to Tchepone. The dotted lines in Vietnam indicate the DMZ. Please note that the Ban Karai and Ban Raving Passes are far closer to Tchepone than the other two more northern passes, and far closer to the DMZ. Over time, this latter advantage made them more important.
This is a GoogleEarth view of the Nape Pass, coming through modern day Nam Pho International Checkpoint on modern day Route 8, but in French days RC-8. The Nape Pass was used early in the war. The solid yellow line is the NVN-Laos border on all these GoogleEarth views. American bombing was so intense, however, that the NVA moved south to the Mu Ghia and Ban Karai passes, and later to the Ban Raving Pass. This allowed them to keep their convoys in the NVN longer, a huge plus when the suits in Washington stopped the US bombing of NVN in 1968. You’ll now recall how much closer the Ban Karai and Ban Raving were to Tchepone. The Ban Raving crosses just north of the DMZ. All of the passes and their subsequent entry into Laos were hands-off to US ground forces.
This is a GoogleEarth view of the Mu Gia Pass. I am told American pilots called it “The Doghouse.” This was the main route for the Ho Chi Minh Trail. North of the border with Laos, Vietnam Route 15 wove a path through the upper levels of the Annamite Mountains. Then near the border, it dropped into a narrow canyon leading down to a lower valley in Laos. On the Laotian side, it connected to Route 12 toward Thakek described earlier. The yellow line is the Vietnam-Laos border, Vietnam on top, Laos on the bottom. The line you see in Vietnam is Route 15, in Laos Route 12.
This is the Ban Karai Pass, south of Mu Gia, and the one in which we are most interested while addressing the Ban Laboy Ford. Whatever crossed the Ban Laboy Ford came through the Ban Karai Pass. The yellow road shown on the lower left quadrant is Laotian Highway 912, named Route 137 on the NVN side at the time. The NVA opened the Ban Karai during the 1966-67 dry season to truck traffic.
Finally, the Ban Raving Pass, just miles north of the DMZ. The NVA could not use this pass early on because of heavy US bombing. But as soon as LBJ called off Rolling Thunder bombing of North Vietnam in 1968, work began to improve the roads and paths through this pass. US bombing of Laos continued, but not North Vietnam so the Ban Karai and Ban Raving passes gained in NVN popularity as travel to them in the NVN was off limits to bombing. The Ban Raving was almost a straight shot into Tchepone after crossing the border.
Eventually, the Ho Chi Minh Trail with all its subnetworks extended through Cambodia all the way to areas outside Saigon. Estimates are all together it was 12,000 miles. The NVA established an elaborate defense and security system to protect this corridor of infiltration. The NVA instructed the Pathet Lao to occupy the RLA by fighting them in the cities and towns while the NVA moved their logistics down the trail. Pause a moment --- I wish to again point out Tchepone in southeastern Laos. Note that the trail through all four passes converged on Tchepone. Please keep that in mind.
In his monograph, “RLG Military Operations and Activities in the Laotian Panhandle,” Brigadier General Soutchy Vongsavanh, RLA, presented this generalized map of what the major elements of the Trail (dotted lines) looked like in 1970.
General Vongsavanh also made it a point to highlight what came to be known as the Sihanouk Trail (dots) in southern Laos, penetrating into eastern Cambodia. It was opened in 1966.
Never underestimate how complicated the Ho Chi Minh Trail was. It was not only a network of trails and roads. The website US History described it this way:
“Excavated by hand, intricate interconnecting tunnels with concealed entrances hid trail trekkers, often directly under the feet of American troops searching for them. Radio and telecommunications facilities, food and weapons caches, medical aid stations and barracks, all underground, hid thousands of the North Vietnamese at any given time during the war. The trail system was vastly improved. Even as more people used the trail, the trek was reduced to six weeks for a fit soldier.
“The North Vietnamese also used the Ho Chi Minh Trail to send soldiers to the south. At times, as many as 20,000 soldiers a month came from Hanoi by this way.”
Various segments of the trail were paved 18 ft. wide roads all the way down to foot and bicycle paths, and there were truck parks along the way. The NVA preferred to move truck traffic at night.
Because of the dense foliage, much of the trail was covered and camouflaged. The photo shows the triple canopy as seen from the air at low altitude along the Trail. In the case of our subject, the Ban Laboy Ford, they had to come out in the open to cross the ford.
The NVA employed all manner of transportation means to move supplies down the trail, from elephants to bicycles to canoe-like boats to walking to trucks. The endeavor was manpower intensive, incredibly successful, able to rejuvenate quickly after being attacked from the air, but expensive in terms of lives and equipment-supplies lost to those attacks.
Recall that group 559 was responsible for the Ho Chi Minh Trail. By 1972 it had five logistical groups subordinate to it:
- 470 had the tri-border area of Laos, Cambodia and the RVN.
- 471 controlled the area north of that roughly to the A Shau Valley of the RVN.
- 473 had north of that to just south of Khe Sanh, RVN.
- 472 operated in southern Laos.
- 571 operated in southern NVN including the Ban Karai and Mu Gia passes.
Each group had a subordinate number of Binh Trams. Translated literally, a Binh Tram meant “common liaison site,” or our guys called them “troop stations.” These were dedicated to administrative, tactical, and logistics functions along with air defense, responsible for all activities within their areas of operations. Each was self sufficient. This is a photo of Binh Tram (BT) 22. Each BT controlled a segment about 30-50 miles long. Each was roughly equivalent to a regimental logistics headquarters. There were about 45 of them by 1972, from Vinh, NVN to Cambodia, and all together they employed about 75,000 troops, a huge investment. The more critical BAs had from 2-4,000 troops each. Estimates are that more than 1.2 million tons of supplies moved through the trail between 1969-1971 alone.
I want to touch on the enemy’s base areas (BA). In his book, Wiring Vietnam, the electronic wall, Anthony J. Tambini described the BAs in Laos well. Here is what he said:
“Base Area 604 was near the Laotian village of Tchepone, at the junction of the North Vietnamese, Laos, and South Vietnamese borders. This was the main NVA logistics base for the vast Ho Chi Minh Trail network. As such, it was the focal point for distribution of men and materiel throughout Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam.
“Base Area 611 was located east of the Laotian village of Muong Nong. This base area supported the Pathet Lao in eastern Laos and supplied NVA and Viet Cong units in the central portions of South Vietnam. From North Vietnam, petroleum (POL) pipelines brought fuel and oil that was stored at the base. The POL was then transferred from the storage site to various base areas along the way as needed. Base Area 611 was also the main fueling point for trucks traveling along the trail.
“Base Area 612 was between the Laotian villages of Saravane and Ban Bac. The base supported operations in South Vietnam’s central highlands.
“Base Area 614 was located between the Laotian village of Chavane and the South Vietnamese town of Kam Duc. This base supported operations in the South Vietnamese lowlands.
“Base Area 609 was in eastern Laos near the South Vietnamese central highlands town of Dak To. This was the second most important base along the trail. In 1974, workers finished a POL pipeline connecting Base Area 609 with the main pipeline at Base Area 604. The base supported military operations well into central and southern South Vietnam.
“Base Area 613 supported NVA activity in southern Laos and Cambodia and was near the Laotian town of Attopeu. The base area was in south central Laos some distance from the main section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and was just south of the Laotian area known as the Bolovens Plateau.”
I will add that BA 607 was on the border with the Ashau Valley in the RVN. This entire region became a vast logistical center for the enemy.
Just so you know, the enemy also had major BAs in Cambodia, a few of which extended into the RVN.
Please recall that the US chose not to send major combat forces into “neutral” Laos, and all hell broke loose in the US when President Nixon sent major Army units into Cambodia; he felt compelled to allow them to go in only so far and for a limited period of time.
Books, studies, papers and reports by the boatload have been written about the Trail. I’m going to stop here and focus on Ban Laboy Ford.
Ban Laboy Ford, how it fit