Military Review

Ho Chi Minh trail. On the eve of turning points

The period between the fall of 1969 and the end of the summer of 1970 is a turning point for the war for Vietnamese communications. Prior to this, the issue with them was resolved within the framework of the civil war in Laos according to an extremely simple logic - to capture central Laos, from there to carry out expansion in all directions, including to the south, directly to the "Path" itself.

Vietnamese army in attack

After that, the situation became radically different, and the methods that the Americans began to use became radically different.

Incompetent command

I must say that they could be so right away, but the heavy oncoming battles of thousands of groups reduced all other possibilities to zero. The second problem of the CIA was partly the forced separation of forces: when the Americans managed to prepare more or less significant contingents, they introduced them into battle in parts.

This became, in a way, a “visiting card” of how the CIA, which had the ability to deploy troops through the air and had no problems with the provision of maneuver by troops, controlled this war. The defeat of the troops of Wang Pao, which preceded Kou Kiet, was accompanied by a simultaneous attack on a completely different site. The CIA, of course, could think that the Vietnamese would be constrained by attacks on different sectors of the front and would not be able to react, but the fact was that they had a numerical superiority, but they were inferior in mobility. For the CIA, it would be more accurate to always concentrate forces in one particular area. But the CIA decided otherwise.

Of course, they had some excuses. The units they prepared were often “ethnic,” consisting of representatives of the same nationality, ready to fight in their places of historical residence. For the Hmongs, for example, it was central Laos. When these parts were transferred to other areas, they fought much worse. The second problem was communications: off-road Laos was a difficult terrain for maneuver, and without American helicopters it was impossible to surpass the Vietnamese in mobility.

But all the same, subsequent battles in the Valley of Pitchers showed that troops from some regions can fight in others, albeit badly. The CIA did not take full advantage of these opportunities.

Even before the Kou Kiet operation, the CIA had planned an attack in southern Laos, on the Vietnamese communications themselves. At the time when Wang Pao was forced to personally shoot from the mortar due to a lack of people, several newly trained royalist battalions were ordered to cut off the communications of the Vietnamese in the town of Maun Fain, not far from the city of Chepone - one of the key points on the “trail” itself, significantly south of the Valley of Pitchers.

To help the royalist battalions, “air guidance operators” were deployed on their light aircraft, and the US Air Force allocated a force of forces from fighter-bombers to support the advancing royalists. Intelligence estimated the strength of the Vietnamese in the war zone at about six battalions with air defense systems, mainly machine guns and small-caliber anti-aircraft artillery. The Vietnamese kept the areas around Chepone, while all other territories were to be controlled by the forces of Patet Lao.

The operation was codenamed Junction city Jr. ("Junior nodal city"), which would symbolize both the role of Chepone as a logistics hub, and the secondary role of this offensive in comparison with the battles in the Valley of Pitchers. Also in this title was a reference to the Junction city airborne operation, which was carried out by the US Army and its South Vietnamese allies in the 1967 year in Vietnam. Instead of numbers, the battalions were called “Red”, “White” and “Green”.

Prior to this, in March, the newly trained battalions carried out a disastrous raid on one of the Vietnamese bases (Operation Duck), and achieved nothing, but now one of the companies could be considered "shelled."

The operation began immediately after the defeat of Wang Pao and around the time he conceived future operation Kou Kiet28 July 1969 year. The royalists were initially successful.

The Vietnamese did not have enough troops to cover everything, and the royalists were lucky to attack where there was no one. On the first day, they seized an airfield for helicopters, an important intersection on the roads of the “trail” that was not defended by anyone, and soon took Maun Fine, and also seized a rather serious amount of supplies. At the same time, resistance was mainly provided by the Patet Lao forces.

Maun Fine was taken on 7 of September 1969 of the year with the simultaneous capture of almost 2000 tons of various supplies, a mass of documents important for reconnaissance and several thousand units weapons.

By then, most of the supporting offensive aviation was recalled: there was an offensive in the Valley of Pitchers, and there were not enough planes. After capturing Maun Fine, the number of available sorties dropped to 12 sorties of Skydrader attack aircraft and two sorties of guidance aircraft. In addition, days with bad weather became more frequent.

Skyrader Attack

But the CIA, inspired by success, set the task to continue the offensive. Now the battalions had to clear out the vicinity of Chepone, without trying to storm the city itself, and capture another important intersection, which would lead to the cutting of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. By that time, the 203th Commandos battalion had been deployed to help the three “color” irregular battalions, which for the time being guarded the helipad captured on the first day of the offensive. Now he had to move to Maun Fine and take control of the city, releasing other battalions to continue the offensive. In addition, the CIA transferred another “fresh” battalion, code-named "Yellow" to the operation area. A little later, after successfully participating in Kou Kiet, another battalion, “Blue,” was transferred to the area. The “White” and “Green” battalions were withdrawn from battle and withdrawn to other sectors of the front.

It all ended up offensively simple. In early October, the Red Battalion was attacked by the Vietnamese. Unable to withstand an open battle with the cadre army, the royalists fled, their neighbors fled along with them.

On October 6, the Vietnamese returned Maun Fine without a fight. On the same day, the Vietnamese went to the helipad captured by the royalists at the beginning of the offensive and shot down a couple of transport helicopters. The royalists and the Americans, surrounded by Vietnamese, fought them off all day, using M-60 machine guns taken from damaged helicopters, and by the end of the day were left almost without ammunition. To cope with the attacking VNA units, the Americans had to literally flood the surrounding forests with tear gas, and while it was operating, raise the surrounded troops by helicopter. By 19.00 of the same day, the site was captured by the Vietnamese, which reduced all the achievements of the operation to zero.

By that time, the CIA could no longer take any resources from the Kuvshin Valley to continue the offensive, and as a result, all parts of the royalists rolled back to their original positions, and the Vietnamese, not really straining and not receiving reinforcements, restored the status quo.

Such failures in military planning have become the CIA's calling card.

The Americans later insisted that the operation was some success. So, according to their statements, VNA and Patet Lao lost about 500 people killed and the supply of supplies sufficient to maintain an entire infantry division for several days. The royalists removed about 6000 civilians from the operation area, depriving VNA of porters. According to the Americans, all these actions thwarted the next stage of expansion of the VNA and Patet Lao and forced them to go on the defensive.

But the Americans themselves loomed a military catastrophe a little to the north, and these battalions would have been much more needed in a completely different place.

Deferred guerilla

Initially, the Wang Pao army - l'Armee Clandestine ("Secret Army"), like many other detachments in Laos, was prepared by the CIA as partisan units that were supposed to destabilize the rear of the Vietnamese and Patet Lao, while the royalists and the detachments that joined them " neutralists ”put pressure on the enemy from the front with air support from royalist air units and American mercenaries. But things were slowly going wrong. As a result, by the fall of 1969, all these partisan formations were fighting as light infantry, air support was provided by the US Air Force, and on an absolutely unprecedented scale, with massive use of strategic bombers over the battlefield.

One of the results of such a CIA strategy in Laos was the depletion of forces opposing the Vietnamese: they simply ran out of manpower reserves more quickly. Where the Vietnamese could put thousands of new fighters under the 15-16 rifle during the year, their opponents could not master even a third of that number. A little later, this will lead to disaster, but so far has led to the inability to fight without extensive air support.

However, even before the Kou Kiet offensive, the CIA tested something in practice. One of the units that, during the successful offensive, Wang Pao operated in the north of the Kuvshin Valley, namely the 2 special guerrilla unit, 2nd special guerillia unit (2nd SGU), was used by the Americans for their intended purpose.

Having received all the necessary training, the detachment was used by the CIA during a raid on a section of the "trail" that passed through the territory of Cambodia, and was part of the fact that the Americans separated the "Sihanouk trail", named after the Socialist prince in Cambodia, into a separate communication of the Viet Cong. The second task of the detachment was reconnaissance of targets for a larger-scale CIA operation against Vietnamese communications, which the CIA then only intended.

The operation in Cambodia was named Left Jab - “Direct Left Jab.”

21 June 1969 year 2-th STR concentrated near the city of Pakse in southern Laos, near the points where he could pick up helicopters. On the same day, all personnel were landed on helicopters of the 21th squadron of special operations of the US Air Force, as well as on helicopters of Air America and, under the guise of piston attack aircraft Skyrader of the 21th squadron, were landed in Cambodia, on Vietnamese traffic lines trucks and porters.

The detachment successfully conducted mining of roads and paths, timely discovered a Vietnamese stronghold occupied by approximately 180 VNA soldiers, and launched attack aircraft on it. By that time, they had a few hours left until they would encounter Vietnamese reinforcements. This, however, did not happen: the detachment, which would obviously have been defeated, was evacuated by air, and soon fought in the offensive of Wang Pao in the Kuvshin Valley - the very operation "Kou Kiet". The partisan career ended with the transformation of the detachment into a poor light infantry. The CIA, however, planned to develop this tactic into something more, and immediately after the victory of Wang Pao and his people in the Kuvshin Valley, began to prepare a new operation, this time in another part of Laos - on the Boloven Plateau, in the southern part of the country.

This, again, looked strange - because to the north, in the Valley of Pitchers, a major problem was brewing among US allies and the Americans themselves. The troops were needed in a completely different place. But they were not there in the end.

VNA counterattack

The loss of the Kuvshin Valley could not but provoke a Vietnamese reaction. Firstly, due to the fact that this was the first step towards the loss of Laos as a whole, and secondly, because the enemy was now able to block the northern part of the "path" simply by moving troops south. And clog up quickly. The density of communications in the “bottleneck” of Laos south of the Valley would not allow the Vietnamese to transfer large forces there quickly enough. I would have had to, in fact, reconquer almost the whole country, attacking from the vicinity of the Nam Bak Valley, north of the Kuvshin Valley. Given the ongoing war in Vietnam itself and emerging political problems in neighboring Cambodia, through which important Vietnamese communications also went, it was not worth pulling.

By that time, General Wo Nguyen Ziap, the most experienced and competent Vietnamese commander, was able to restore his political position, which had been shaken when he opposed the “Tet offensive” in 1968. Ziap was then subjected to some moderate obstruction, but in the end everything turned into a rout of the VNA and the Viet Cong, as he had warned. Now his authority was once again on top, and it was he who was responsible for preparing a counterattack in the Valley of Pitchers.

Ziap chose General Wu Lap as the commander of the operation, and the VNA began preparations for the counterattack, which entered history like the 139 Campaign.

Ho Chi Minh trail. On the eve of turning points

1970 year. VNA soldiers in battle

The Vietnamese decided to "raise rates" in the battles for central Laos. Wu Lap received under his command such forces that at one time in the battle in Laos have never been introduced. In terms of the standard infantry battalion, he had about 26 of them with a total of 16000. In order to support the infantry, Wu Lap received 60 tanks PT-76. The structure of the Vietnamese group included the battalions of Dak Kong - the Vietnamese army special forces, as usual, equipped with various weapons, for which the enemy was not ready. At the same time, ten Patet Lao battalions took command of Wu Lap. True, firstly, they were battalions only in words - not one of them even reached 170 people in numbers.

The Lao people from Patet Lao themselves Wu Lap were not considered a serious force. Nevertheless, their presence meant that at least for secondary tasks the forces of the VNA would not be distracted. The nucleus of the advancing grouping became units from the elite 312 division, the even more elite 316 division and the 866 separate regiment, which were supposed to advance from east to west along route 7, passing through the entire Valley of Pitchers through and through road network in the Valley. Subsequently, it was assumed that the Vietnamese units would be able to expand the front of the offensive, and clear the entire central Laos of the opponents of Patet Lao.

On 13 of September 1969 of the year, Zip ordered Wu Lap to begin the operation. On the same day, soldiers from the 141 regiment of the 312 division quickly appeared in the village of Nong Het, the border village of Vietnam (the homeland of Wang Pao, by the way), quickly occupying the area, which was soon to become their starting area for the offensive. The CIA could no longer notice this.

The blue indicates the main strongholds of the royalists, the red indicates the areas of concentration of the VNA units before the offensive

Wang Pao was in a not very good situation. The euphoria from the capture of the Kuvshinov Valley disappeared, now he understood that he would have to confront a much stronger opponent than ever before. Against about 16000 Vietnamese and about 1500 Lao from Pathet Lao, Wang Pao had no more than 6000 fighters, and it was obvious that the VNA would use heavy weapons in huge quantities for Laos. Wang Pao himself wasn’t so close to him. 6 November 1969, Wang Pao raised the question of further action at a strategic meeting with the Americans. With all his confidence in his ability to command and knowledge of local realities, Wang Pao turned to the CIA for help: he simply did not know what to do now.

However, the recommendations that American advisers gave him completely disappointed him.

The Americans offered him the following option. Since the VNA units outnumbered the royalist forces under the command of Wang Pao in numbers, it was necessary to occupy the heights prevailing in the area, dig in them properly and create from the chain of such defensive positions in fire contact with each other a reliable defense line about which the Vietnamese offensive would break. It was assumed that when the "Communists" attacked these positions, American and Royalist aircraft would fall upon them from the air, and their attacks would choke over and over again.

It looked like a template example from a textbook for a cadet of a military university, but Wang Pao spent most of his life in the war, and knew what was happening.

Firstly, no chain of strongholds could hold back the VNA: the Vietnamese would simply go around them, hiding among the vegetation and in the folds of the area, using night, rain or fog. They always did, and there was no reason to believe that this time would be different. Thus, the plan of the advisers immediately contained a failed decision.

In addition, there were other considerations. Wang Pao remembered how the Americans suddenly removed part of the aircraft from tasks to support his actions and sent them somewhere to Vietnam, he also perfectly understood that the weather could just make aviation actions impossible, and for an unpredictable period of time. Thus, his defending forces could well have been left without air support at a critical moment in the battle.

He knew that, no matter how defeated the Vietnamese suffered during Kou Kiet, his mobilization reserve was at zero, and if there had been no massive infusion of parts ethnically alien to the Hmongs into his troops, no aircraft would have helped him take the Valley. At the same time, he perfectly remembered how poorly stable all these royalist troops were in defense against the VNA personnel units and had no illusions about how long they would last in their trenches even against the Vietnamese infantry, even against the units of Dak Kong, which terrified everyone, to whom they reached.

As a result, Wang Pao himself had to come up with a defense plan that gave the royalists at least some chances.

The plan was as follows.

Royalists will hold only a few critical points. An airfield in Phonsavan, to which, if anything, the Americans will be able to transfer reinforcements, supplies, or from where defenders can be evacuated by air. Field runway near Phonsavan. In this place, called the CIA "Lima 22", it was necessary to equip a strong point with artillery, which would be held as long as possible. Airfield in Muang Sui, with a runway from which attack aircraft of the Air Force can launch if necessary. The Lon Thieng base is the most important logistics and military center, the actual capital of the Hmongs and the important base of the CIA. Crossroads of roads near Phonsavan, bypassing which VNA units will not be able to move heavy weapons.

And that’s it. If any of these objects is lost, then the existing parts of the royalists will have to go into a counterattack with the support of the aircraft and knock out the Vietnamese, returning the lost position. Kou Kiet showed that royalists could, in principle, advance with air support, especially if the Vietnamese were not given the opportunity to dig in and tighten reserves for poor local communications. And they cannot defend against VNA. So, we need to work on counterattacks.

The Wang Pao plan provided that, minus the designated strong points, a departure would be acceptable from the remaining positions. Maintaining maximum troops was more important than holding out at some stronghold for an extra couple of hours. It was assumed that the royalists would react flexibly to the attacks of the Vietnamese, retreating and leaving the blows, and then counterattacking.

VNA will not be able to advance forever. They also have other areas where troops are needed, they will have problems with the delivery of ammunition and products along the only road from Vietnam, they will suffer losses in people and equipment, and sooner or later they will stop, at least for regrouping. It was necessary, retreating and counterattacking, to prevent the collapse of the royalist defense until this moment.

Wang Pao also requested the Americans maximum weapons, both small arms - M-16 rifles, and artillery - howitzers of 105 and 155 millimeters. Everything needed was promptly delivered within a few days. Non-Hmong battalions from other parts of Laos, including units with captured Vietnamese armored vehicles, were again handed over to Wang Pao.

Hmong fighter with M-16

Out of touch with Wang Pao's requests, the CIA knew that the next battalion of Thai mercenaries was coming, the formation of which was soon to end, and this battalion was also preparing to enter the battle.

There was one more thing. Frightened by the inevitable retaliation of the Hmongs for their many years of allied relations with the French and Americans, Wang Pao planned that, along with defensive battles against the VNA, he would begin secret negotiations with Patet Lao on how he could get his people out of the war, making it easier " Pathet Lao ”and the Vietnamese further conquest of Laos. Wang Pao was happy with ideas on this subject, and he was about to “sell” them to his enemy in exchange for guarantees for the Hmong. Naturally, the Americans did not know anything about this.

One cannot but admit that Wang Pao's plans were much more realistic than the advice of the Americans. The Vietnamese, by that time, had already attacked the royalists both along the route number 7 and to the north, where they held Mount Fo Nok. By November 6, they were already putting quite a bit of pressure on the defending royalists on the entire front of the offensive, but so far they had not broken through their defenses anywhere.

But on November 9 VNA made a sharp breakthrough - with a decisive attack, it took over the Phonsavan airport. This was already a major breakthrough, and created an extensive breach in the defense of the royalists.

It became completely clear that this fight for the Valley would be long, hard and bloody.

Planning time is over. The battle began on such a scale that Laos had not yet seen.

To be continued ...
Photos used:,, pinterest, google Earth
Articles from this series:
Unmarked. Involving the US in the Vietnam War and the role of old bombers
Ho Chi Minh trail. Vietnamese road of life. Part of 1.
Ho Chi Minh trail. Vietnamese road of life. Part of 2.
Ho Chi Minh trail. The first battles in Laos.
At the entrance to the Ho Chi Minh trail. Continuation of battles in the Valley of Pitchers.
Thai mercenaries in the American war. Vietnam and Laos.
Ho Chi Minh trail. Counterattack by Wang Pao and Capture of the Valley of Pitchers.
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  1. polpot
    polpot 3 September 2019 05: 38
    Thank you, a very fascinating article, we look forward to continuing.
  2. Ros 56
    Ros 56 3 September 2019 06: 38
    -16 qualifying.
    Alexander, continuation is not required, except in terms of studying the history of Vietnam forty-fifty years ago. Today, you can discuss almost kissing the gums of striped and Vietnamese. Everything flows, everything changes.
    1. Pedrodepackes
      Pedrodepackes 3 September 2019 07: 14
      Quote: Ros 56
      Alexander, continuation is not required, except in terms of studying the history of Vietnam forty-fifty years ago.

      a strange thought, it is clear that we are studying history here, since the article is in the "History" section. Everything is described in an interesting way, and, from the "other side", I look forward to continuing. Thanks to the author!
    2. timokhin-aa
      3 September 2019 09: 53
      Those who think so will end up with a very unpleasant surprise. Just not now, but in twenty to thirty years. The Vietnamese have not changed much. This is still the same tyrannosaurus cub, they have been terrifying Indochina for many centuries, and before the Chinese attack of the year 1979 they were on the verge of the beginning of a new wave of expansion, soon there will be a new wave. Several decades of active consumption softened them quite a bit.

      And they forgot nothing to anyone.
      1. Doliva63
        Doliva63 3 September 2019 20: 17
        Tyrannosaurus is written with two letters "n", if that. How can you believe your forecasts after that? laughing
        The Vietnamese of that time I admire. How they will behave further, time will tell.
  3. Wolga
    Wolga 3 September 2019 09: 53
    The article is very interesting, Respect to the author! We look forward to continuing!
  4. Edward Vashchenko
    Edward Vashchenko 3 September 2019 09: 58
    Thank you very much!
    A very interesting layer of history, we look forward to continuing!
    1. DWG1905
      DWG1905 3 September 2019 14: 25
      Thanks, very interesting! And where should the Vietnamese go, except for the United States there is no other ally against China.
  5. Storekeeper
    Storekeeper 5 September 2019 14: 16
    Thanks! Interesting cycle! What a game of minds, the best generals of their peoples have come together! No wonder it is said "War is not who will shoot whom, but who will change their minds!" How can the militia hold the defense when the enemy forces superior in numbers and equipment attack! Not the Battle of Moscow, of course, not the Zhukovs and Guderians, but still interesting! Thanks to the author and you can continue as soon as possible while I'm on vacation.
  6. Aviator_
    Aviator_ 8 September 2019 21: 35
    A good series of articles. Respect to the author!