A look at the the Ban Laboy Ford, Laos, and Hwy 912, why did we spend so much on them?
July 4, 2011
Ban Laboy Ford, how it fit
A reminder of where we are. Note Tchepone highlighted with a light yellow to the south.
This is a blow-up of BA 604 in the Tchepone region. For our purposes, BA 604 was the big daddy logistics storage distribution center for the NVA in Laos. This was the hub and was the first major base in the route from the NVN to the south. Binh Tram 32 was located at Tchepone, with Binh Tram 33 close by at Ban Dong. The Americans labeled this area BA 604, the “Tchepone-Ban Dong Complex.”
Major Gregory T. Banner, USA, in his paper entitled, “The war for the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” wrote:
(By 1972) there was an eight-meter-wide all weather road extending from Tchepone down the western border of South Vietnam, almost to Saigon.”
Incredibly, Banner added that the NVA built 13 airfields inside the RVN. He said, “The Tchepone Corridor (was) all the more important because after 1970 almost all of the external support going into South Vietnam had to be routed through this area.”
Broadly speaking, to get there much of that stuff had to cross the Ban Laboy.
A little background on Tchepone.
Google Earth satellite view of Xepon (Tchepone) today. It is in a fairly flat area.
The NVA 325th Division and Group 559 launched a southern Laos offensive on April 11, 1961. The 101st Regiment of the 325th captured Tchepone almost immediately, and held it. A ceasefire was declared in May, and Group 559 moved in to begin its job of assembling the Ho Chi Minh Trail in a very aggressive way. For starters, they moved their operations from the eastern side of the Annamites to the western side. Soviet-made aircraft with Soviet pilots began bringing in supplies. The rest is history. Historians have recorded that this decision of 1961 was arguably the most important decision to the NVA’s success in this war. Had they not established this foothold at Tchepone, they probably could not have supported the logistics tail needed to supply the required number of forces in the RVN.
I want to underscore this point. There is no question, the NVA considered Tchepone to be their number one priority area for the logistics flow on the Trail. Their commitment was massive and steadfast.
The American leadership knew this from the beginning. There was persistent debate starting in the JFK administration about what to do with Tchepone. Some vigorously argued more than once to block the trail with ground forces. JFK himself leaned in that direction. Others did not want to commit ground forces to Laos. The end result, except for US special operations excursions into the area, was Lam Son 719, an ARVN only invasion of Laos targeted at Tchepone which ultimately failed.
I have read excerpts from the book, The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972, edited by Lewis Sorley and published by the Texas Tech University Press. It contains some real eye opening stuff on the matter of Tchepone.
“It’s the most frustrating experience I’ve ever had chasing these trucks.”
Brown also complained that the embassy in Vientiane was inhibiting him from throwing more B-52s at BA 604. He commented that the chairman, JCS asked him why he hadn’t put more B-52s against it, and Brown prepared a folder showing all the requests made to the embassy to do just that, most of which were denied. Brown said:
“(Embassy) Vientiane’s got the idea that the 604-Tchepone area is populated by a bunch of good, stout Lao, that’s right, and we shouldn’t be bombing up there. Our problem here is Vientiane.”
That must have gotten old Abrams’ dandruff up. He responded, “Let’s move on this thing. And let’s get all the old skeletons right out of the closet. And I want to get after that Base Area 604 in a big way. It’s the biggest damn complex ... And it should be without any restrictions.”
Given what you’ve read about the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it’s worth pointing out that the US overtly said it was abiding by the Geneva Accords which stipulated both Laos and Cambodia be neutral. The US, of course, did not treat Laos as neutral, but the US chose not to insert significant numbers of American ground forces to fight on the ground in Laos. That meant that US airpower was the only way to stop or hinder the flow of men and supplies down the Trail.
NVA trucks on Ho Chi Minh Trail
In military terms, then, US airpower was employed in what is known as an air interdiction campaign, attacking trucks, closing roads, and bombing supplies stockpiled in the BAs, BTs and elsewhere.
This is as opposed to the air war in the RVN, which was predominantly close air support to troops on the ground. The air war in the NVN was mainly to obtain air superiority, suppress and destroy enemy air defense systems, prevent NVN airpower from being employed in the RVN, and conduct strategic bombing against elements of the enemy’s war machine.
With regard to this latter point, the US did not destroy the most important strategic storage and supply facilities in Hanoi or Haiphong, actions which would have impacted the enemy very negatively. Destroying the target shown in this photo would have done a lot more damage to the NVA than chasing after one or two trucks at a time hidden on the Trail under the triple canopy of foliage. But the suits would not allow it.
For our purposes, then, we will be talking mostly about air interdiction of the Trail and all that went with it. Please remember, however, that US air power was also employed to provide close air support to the RLA, to indigenous forces fighting with that army, such as the Hmong, and to US special operations forces conducting reconnaissance of the Trail on the ground.
Let’s first define “air interdiction.” The DoD says it means this:
“Air operations conducted to destroy, neutralize, or delay the enemy's military potential before it can be brought to bear effectively against friendly forces at such distance from friendly forces that detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of friendly forces is not required.”
In short, hit logistics targets that involve the movement of supplies and troops.
For example, this is Interdiction Point Alpha on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in central Laos. As you can see, there were plenty of attacks trying to close the trail and destroy anything around it.
Here’s another kind of air interdiction. This photo shows a Navy A-7E bombing the Hai Duong Bridge in North Vietnam in 1972. Countless sorties were conducted against bridges in North Vietnam. These attacks were not as effective as was desired until the advent of the precision guided munition. My guess is this Navy A-7E had just that.
“No responsible airman has ever claimed that more than 15 to 25 percent of an enemy’s logistics flow could be impeded successfully by air action employing conventional weapons.”
General Keegan added, “The natural geography of Laos does not lend itself to the effective impedance of flow which was possible in Route Pack I (just north of the DMZ in NVN). There are a few good non-bypassable road segments in Laos. Only the availability of a large commitment of fighters, B-52s and improved munitions, such as land mines, can possibly compensate for the disadvantages of the Laotian terrain.”
The US faced some obstacles in conducting air interdiction in Laos similar to what they experienced in Korea.
Air view of bombs dropped by U.S. Air Force, exploding on three parallel railroad bridges across Han River, southwest of Seoul, former capitol of Republic of Korea. Bridges were bombed early in war to delay advance of invading North Korean troops.
In his paper, “The effectiveness of air interdiction during the Korean War,” Mr B.C. Mosman of the Army’s History Division said air interdiction in the Korean War did considerable damage to the enemy, especially early on. But it was seen only as a harassment technique. He went on to write:
“It was not a decisive factor in shaping the course of the war because it could not inflict enough damage on enemy lines of communication and means of transportation to block the flow of enemy personnel and materiel to the front or even to reduce the flow below minimum requirements.”
Not much doctrinal advance had been made since Korea. The US intended to cut lines of communication to prevent traffic movement on roads, rivers and railways, destroy transportation vehicles, and destroy supplies and storage ares. Enemy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and surface-to-air-missiles (SAM) were formidable, and grew more intense over the years.
The US had few area denial weapons to prevent rapid enemy repair of targets attacked. New denial weapons became operational but were still inadequate. Fundamentally, an aerial denial weapon is one that targets territory, making it unsafe or unsuitable for enemy use or travel. They are usually not able to completely stop movement, but they do slow movement down and restrict it. Land mines were among the major weapons in this class.
In addition, the bombs employed, ranging from 750 to 3,000 lbs. were not precise and the enemy was able to fill the craters and build alternate routes as you see here. Night attack accuracy was inadequate, even with employment of flares dropped from transport aircraft.
There was also a disconnect between what the USAF said it could do with interdiction and what the suits in Washington thought the USAF said it could do. The suits thought the USAF could stop the flow on the Trail with air interdiction alone; the 7th AF felt it could only harass, disrupt, and impede movement without using whole new kinds of munitions.
“The intent of the interdiction campaigns from 1965-1972 was not to ‘strangle’ the flow of traffic. This misconception led some to believe that the interdiction campaign was not succeeding because the flow of traffic wasn’t stopped.
“Traffic wasn’t stopped in the European or Korean campaigns, either, but it was reduced to such an extent that the enemy couldn’t get enough supplies for sustained operations. This, too, was the objective in Vietnam; by slowing the traffic with a series of calculated choke points in the rail and road system, we could destroy trucks and supplies piled up by the blockage.”
The Thailand Laos Cambodia (TLC) Brotherhood’s Mekong Express edition of March 2007 has an article, “Fighters and B-52 pulverized Ban Loboy,” by Gerry Frazier. I will refer to this article several times. In it, Frazier supports General Keegan’s assessment of the effectiveness of air interdiction against the Trail. He is most insightful and informative:
“Since World War One, military aviators had envisioned air attacks that could stop enemy logistics by cutting the roads and railroads used to move enemy supplies. Theory said the craters caused by bombings would simply be too hard to repair, and too extensive to go around, and that while they were stopped in the open, you could bomb the trucks and railcars themselves. Enemy advances on the battlefield would simply have to stop due to a lack of supplies. The strategy for cutting these lines of communication was referred to as ‘interdiction.’ It was not a bad theory. However, interdicting the HCMT (Ho Chi Minh Trail) posed some special problems. The first of these was that, unlike the well-defined paved roads of western Europe, the HCMT was a cats-cradle of interconnected roads and bypasses. The second was that much of this road network was invisible from the air, concealed by the dense tree cover in the area. If it could not be seen, interdicting it would require luck, or a very large effort. Third, the road was not paved in the conventional sense. It was packed dirt, or in some muddy sections, ‘corduroy’ road, made by laying small trees or branches parallel to each other across the road. Lastly, if there was a source of gravel nearby, gravel could be used both to improve the road surface, and to fill craters.
Ho Chi MInh Trail traffic jam
“For interdiction to work in Laos, we had to attack areas that were not as well hidden, and these should also be hard to repair
or bypass. Ban Laboy looked like a spot that met these requirements. Furthermore, there were multiple ways to cut the
road. We could bomb the road descending the hill to the north, and we could attack the water-crossing point. Either method
should, and did cause southbound trucks to be delayed reaching the cover of the main trail system. Traffic jams made good targets, and often, hitting one truck carrying explosives or fuel would cause fires and explosions in other trucks nearby. But, even in the most determined of our bombing campaigns in this area, the NVA engineers repaired the road within hours, and sometimes, within minutes. It was the huge and determined effort of the crews who maintained the roads that kept the HCMT open.”
“I spent a number of years in Washington, both on the Joint Staff and on the Air Staff, during the formative years of our strategy for Southeast Asia. I think it can best be described as a policy of piecemeal commitment: doing what you had to do to stay in the game, hopefully to get slightly ahead, but never to decide the issue. All the way back to the days of Dien Bien Phu, you could see that our involvement was limited. The amount of involvement was determined almost daily. The discussions over in the White House, at the National Security Council, based on the latest intelligence reports, was: ‘What do we have to do now to offset what these guys have just done?’ ... The answer always was, “Just a little something more than we are doing right now.’ There was no real strategy to decide the war.”
General Vogt would comment specifically on air interdiction:
“The operations over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I think, were complex and most difficult for airmen to work with. That trail had multiple paths under very heavy foliage. As quickly as you blew the foliage away, it regrew. if you interdicted one area-one known element of the trail, the enemy would be a mile away bypassing and coming down again. You really couldn't look under the foliage and see what the devil was going on.”
O-1 Bird Dog (FAC) honing in on his prey, low, slow, around and around, spinning on a dime!
Employment of the airborne Forward Air Controller (FAC) into the Laotian Panhandle in 1965 was arguably the most important improvement made in support of the air interdiction campaign (and close air support for that matter). I’ve done a story about the O-1 Bird Dog FAC, “The O-1 ‘Bird Dog,’ the toughest dog in the fight, ‘our little flivver’ ” and commend it to you.
FACs were enormously effective against targets on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. A PACAF interdiction report of June 30, 1969 noted that during June and July 1968, “only 20 percent of the total trucks sighted were seen during daylight hours, but 60 percent of the total trucks destroyed or damaged came from that 20 percent. Conversely, only 40 percent of the total truck kills occurred at night despite 8 percent of the total trucks being spotted then. FACs accounted for a portion of this disparity since FACs were credited with improving daylight strike effectiveness about 30 percent.”
General Vogt commented that up through 1972, the war was essentially a counterinsurgency. Air interdiction in that kind of environment, as he said, was very difficult. But then in 1972, the enemy turned the war into a more conventional one where he intended a full-scale invasion to take the RVN by force. Vogt said this made the interdiction campaign much easier, because of the size of forces and amount of supplies that had to move.
He commented specifically in the interview I mentioned above about the FAC. This is what he said:
“We then brought the FACs, the forward air controllers, in and stood them around the map. We assigned each of them a certain
number of places and said, ‘You’re responsible for seeing that the enemy is kept out at all times; first destroy him if you see him and then keep him out by destroying vital points. The FACs went back, positioned themselves over these targets, and we earmarked for their use a certain number of F-4s on a daily basis, with laser-guided bombs. We began the destruction of these points.
“It was done virtuaIly overnight, such is the accuracy of a laser bomb (photo shows F-4 dropping a laser bomb, in this instance over the NVN). We were getting 6-foot CEPs (circular error probability) with 2,000-pound bombs. Every bridge went out. Every culvert went out. The enemy troops just stopped right there. We saw them in desperate frustration one day. In broad daylight, trying to construct a bridge over a river. We had destroyed the regular bridge. They were doing this, in daylight. I said. ‘Don’t hit it yet. Wait until they get everything committed and the bridge almost done.’ The North Vietnamese brought in some more trucks and cranes. They had two giant cranes placing these spans in. About the time they had the bridge ready, in came a laser bomb and blew it all to hell.
“Our airpower stopped the forward progress of the enemy offensive dead. The North Vietnamese never moved; they never challenged the line in the south.”
21st Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS) C-130A Blind Bat "Flarebird," 1965
Another very valuable tool turned out to be use of flareships to light up the skies for night attacks. I’ve done a story about the C-130A Blind Bat flareships that might interest you. C-123s “Candlesticks” were also used.
And finally, the AC-130 gunship. General Vogt bragged about them as well, especially during the insurgency phase prior to 1972:
“We never did fully solve the problem of detecting enemy movement. At the very end of the war, we made big inroads. We began to employ new sensors that were useful in finding the trucks under the cover. The infrared systems came in. We could see through the foliage. We began to have better ways of getting a handle on it. The gunships that we put up there, the AC-130s, did a remarkable job with the sensors we had onboard in finding enemy materiel and destroying it. We even had 105-millimeter guns mounted on the AC-130s banging away, with quite dramatic results. But we never stopped the flow of troops and materiel. There was never total interdiction. We were trying to get complete results from an operation that was not susceptible to that kind of interdiction.”
There are two dates to keep in the forefront of your minds that affected the air interdiction campaign against the Trail.
The second is October 31, 1968 when LBJ ordered a halt to all bombing of North Vietnam effective November 1, 1968. The B-52 bombing halt was maintained until April 15, 1972.
The net impact was that US bombing sorties in Indochina shifted to Laos from November 1, 1968 through 1972. But the major effect was that the NVA had free rein to march their men and supplies southward through the NVN to the passes unimpeded. The onus on US air power now was to attack the logistics line inside Laos only, on the Trail. In retrospect, LBJ’s decisions were singularly irresponsible.
The Ban Laboy Ford was one of two major interdiction points south of the Mu Gia and Ban Karai passes, the other being Ban Sanat. Traffic moved southward from these two points to an expanded road network into Base Area (BA) 604.
Ban Laboy Ford is only about 8 kms south of the Ban Karai. It was a major air interdiction point because enemy traffic had to come out of the triple canopy foliage cover into the open to cross the Ford, and the truck traffic had to employ an underwater rock causeway to hold their weight. Attacking aircraft could either attack the trucks and/or attempt to destroy the causeway, all with the objective of blocking the Ford and causing traffic to back up.
The Ban Laboy was a major interdiction point where Route 912 crossed a canyon of the Nam Ta Le River. The Ford itself consisted of a prepared Ford, a cable bridge and a cable ferry-pontoon bridge across the river in Laos. Some pilots referred to it as “The Canyon of Death.” This photo of the Ban Laboy was taken by Bill Tilton in July 1966. In the day Bill was a Cricket 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) O-1 FAC. He was kind enough to send this to me along with some maps he had notated. Bill wrote me the following in an e-mail:
"The view is looking south down the back of the neck of the 'Dog's Head.' This feature is the peculiar shape of the river that the fighter pilots could notice from 10,000 feet. We FACs of 1966 never called it that--we were too low to notice that distinctive shape that does look like a dog's head. In this photo the underwater bridge is just before the river turns right at the top of the photo. The road crossed there and on the far bank it made a sharp right turn and went up the hill to the right--you can see that on the map and the photo. In mid-1966 we were just beginning to strike this target and there were only a few craters and flare parachutes lying around. Later it looked worse than the surface of the moon.
"The main reason I took these photos was the cable bridge, near the foreground. These two cables really puzzled us, and I was hoping I could study the photo and figure them out. In more recent times I have learned that it was indeed a bridge--that they laid planks across the cables at night and hid them in the daytime. All the manpower it took to operate things like the Ban Loboy Ford system were that many soldiers we did not have to face in Vietnam, so that may have been the major contribution of our frustrating interdiction efforts!
Note on the photo you can just make out the two cables running across the river to some sort of housing mechanism to run it located to the right.
General Keegan wrote this about the Ban Laboy Ford in 1968:
“The Ban Laboy Ford in Laos links Route 137 with Route 912. During the Southwest Monsoon, from May to November, Route 912 is the enemy’s main road into southern Laos from North Vietnam. For nearly three years, the enemy trucks have utilized an underwater rock causeway to transit the Ban Laboy Ford. Until recently this causeway had never been successfully damaged or fully interdicted.
“Ban Laboy was protected by bad weather ... During July and August, daily radar bombing attacks by fighter bombers were conducted against this Ford without visually observed results. Sensors implanted to the north and south of this Ford confirmed in mid-August that the enemy was having great difficulty moving his trucks across the Ford.”
A modern-day photo of Ban Laboy Ford. Courtesy of Laos GPS Map, a treasure trove of photos of the trail taken by a man who has a passion for Laos and the trail. The photo was taken from laosgpsmap.com, a fabulous web site that presents detailed city coverage for all major cities in Laos, over 5,000 points of interest, remote tracks, roads and villages, newly surveyed data, and much else including lots of modern photography of what is left of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Note you can still see the underwater bridge is still operational.
Concerning the weather, Lt. Col. Rufus Dye, Jr., USAF, an F-105 driver was flying over the Ford in 1967 for the 34th TFS. The weather over the Ford was so bad he had to drop his ordnance using the Sky Spot radar.
The Sky Spot was a ground-directed bombing system. It employed a 1CEVG mobile ground radar control unit and the ground operator would direct the flier along a designated route to a bomb drop point, providing corrections in headings and speed as needed along the way. Then, at the proper moment, the pilot received a signal to release his bombs, and he did. It became very accurate and 1CEVG units were deployed nearly to all combat areas in Southeast Asia.
On another mission, Dye was scheduled to go up to northern NVN RP-6A was diverted for bad weather, dropped where he thought the Ford was, and reported no bomb damage assessment (BDA) available because of bad weather. I have seen many comments that prior to the bombing halt, many missions over NVN attacked the Ford on their way back after weather prevented them from striking their targets in NVN.
In addition to the weather, the supply route crossing the Ford passed between mountainous karst ridges.
This map was published in the March 2007 edition of the Mekong Express. In the article, Gerry Frazier described the road crossing the Ford:
“On the map, we see an ‘improved’ road near the two Ban Loboy sites. The road, which enters Laos from North Vietnam a few kilometers to the north, descends a hillside, then turns west along the north bank of a stream, crosses to the south bank, and runs east again before continuing south. On the map, the road takes a ‘switchback’ turn. The main ford was at the west end of the switchback. As you go north, (up hill) you can see that the road is designated 912, and it crosses the border between
North Vietnam and Laos. Although this map does not show it, the place the road crosses the border was called Ban Karai Pass.
“Route 912 entered the Nam Ta Le River (or Xe Bang Fai, in Lao) at a spot where the water was fairly shallow, and the bottom
was hard enough to drive on. Trucks could cross the river in a matter of a minute or two, and continue on their way. But
the Ford was more complicated than that. The NVA engineers who maintained the road system expected attacks, and learned to deal with them in ways those WWII (and later) airmen could barely understand.”
Marcus Rhinelander, also reporting for the March 2007 edition of the Mekong Express, visited the Ford, I believe in 2006. What caught my eye in his article was that there was a narrow karst valley south of the Ford, a place he thought would be very hard to fly through. He also mentioned an NVA headquarters cave along 912 near the Ford, along with many other caves.
I wanted to point out another fact.
You will recall this map. Geographically, our pilots dealt with a fairly confined area when dealing with the Mu Gia, Ban Karai, Ban Raving passes, the Ban Laboy Ford, and Tchepone. This region really was the centerpiece of the Ho Chi Minh Trail’s start for its long trek southward, and the region was densely populated by enemy troops and AAA weapons. One Navy OP2E Neptune pilot said, “I remember being so low you could see the bad guys.”
The distance between the Mu Gia and the Ban Karai was about 37 miles; about 25 miles separated the Ban Karai and the Ban Raving; perhaps 6-7 miles from the Ban Karai to the Ban Laboy; Mu Gia was only about 70 miles from Tchepone, and Ban Laboy was about 40 miles. Jet fighters running through this sector were vulnerable to all manner of enemy defenses. Hwys 23 out of the Mu Gia, 912 out of the Ban Karai, and 911 to Tchepone were all areas of frequent attack and were highly defended.
As one studies our pilots’ stories and the accounts of their flights through here, it is common that they were fired on and hit somewhere in this region. In addition, our pilots frequently flew through the passes to get to their targets in the NVN, so they faced a double whammy on the way in and on the way out.
Other pilots and command and control people have said that it was not unusual for them to lose contact with aircraft flying in this area, especially if they were flying low, because the rugged mountains frequently blocked radar and radio signals. The terrain was very rugged. Mountains, ridges, karsts, the whole nine yards.
Before going on, I have been privileged to befriend a fellow named Chris Corbett, AKA Steve C. Canyon. I guess he noticed my articles on Laos, specifically on the Ban Laboy, and contacted me to tell me of his motorcycle travels on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and promised he would get some modern-day shots of the trail, the ford, and the area around the ford, His e-mails list him as Steve Canyon, so that’s the name I will use. He has a web site called motorcycle-tours-laos.org which I commend to you, “Riding the wonderland of Laos for good causes.” He also displays his photography on stevecanyon.smugmug.com. He has been kind enough to allow me to show you some of his photography of the Ban Laboy here. I think those of you who flew over the ford will find these interesting.
Ban Laboy March 2013, with the Ban Karai Pass in the distance
Crossing the ford
Leftovers from Ban Laboy