This article originally appeared at thenewyorktimes.com.
Photo and article By Merrill A. McPeak.
I spent 1967 flying air shows with the Thunderbirds, the Air Force aerobatic team, and worrying the war in Vietnam would be over before I got there. All my fighter pilot buddies were in the thick of it, and here I was in front of friendly crowds instead of enemy troops — recruiting duty instead of combat — and in an assignment I couldn’t leave before completing a two-year tour.
I needn’t have worried; the war would wait for me. When my turn came, I logged 269 sorties, many of them highly classified because we weren’t supposed to be flying over Laos. But we were, and my outfit’s job was to stop traffic down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Interestingly, the North Vietnamese didn’t call it the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It twisted through the Truong Son Mountains of the Central Highlands, which run nearly the length of Vietnam along its border with Laos and Cambodia. For the North, the trail was either the Truong Son Strategic Supply Route, or Highway 559, numerals that memorialized the month (May) and year (1959) the government of North Vietnam reached a formal decision to provide active support to the insurrection in the South.
Hanoi could never have sustained military operations in the South without a way to send men and supplies into the region. Of course, neither could we. We built an impressive, modern infrastructure — air bases, port facilities, pipelines, the huge supply depot at Long Binh.
Meanwhile, starting in the late 1950s, North Vietnam appropriated a piece of Laotian real estate the size of Massachusetts and constructed an infrastructure that in many ways mirrored ours: hundreds of miles of road, communications centers, ammo dumps, stockpiles of food and fuel, truck parks, troop bivouacs. The North Vietnamese did this in a much more difficult environment: a sparsely populated region of rugged mountains, triple-canopy jungle and dense primeval rain forest. It was one of history’s great achievements in military engineering, and all of it hidden from sight except for the trace of the road itself.
I was assigned to a small unit manned by volunteers from all four of the bases in South Vietnam that housed F-100 fighter-bombers, the plane of choice for the mission. Technically, we were the “detachment” of a regular fighter squadron, our identity cloaked because of the secrecy of the work. Others knew us by our call sign, Misty. The job: find and direct attacks on all elements of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
We wanted to blow it all up, the trucks and supplies and infrastructure, but what we could see was the road itself. So we attacked choke points, thinking we’d do the next best thing and block the way. But the next day, bypasses appeared. We rolled avalanches into the roadbed, and the trail somehow slithered around them. We made mud and soon found corduroy. We cratered fords that somehow filled up and widened.
More a maze than a road, the trail disappeared, returned to view, dissolved, emerged, contracted, expanded, split, reunited, vanished, materialized. We blasted a big chunk of Laos, the 600-year-old monarchy, the Land of a Million Elephants, to bony, lunar dust. Yet somehow the Ho Chi Minh Trail, itself the enemy, was always there. Killing it was like trying to put socks on an octopus.
The truckers themselves were much admired by Misty. Their side called them “pilots of the ground,” the metaphor causing no offense. We invented a teasing song about them — about how lonely it was on the trail; how bad the food was when they got any; how they jacked it up to change tires, slippin’ and slidin’ in the mud; how they picked bugs out of their teeth when Misty shot holes in their windshields.
But they did deadly serious work in the most dreadful conditions imaginable. They left their homes in the North and lived on the trail for months, even years, enduring monsoon weather, malaria, animal bites and constant hunger. Their mail was collected once a month; an exchange of letters could take a whole season.
Then, they got to navigate through desolate countryside, in the dark, without headlights — a drive that would be no fun on an open, modern highway, nobody shooting at you.
We dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos — something like our total tonnage during all of World War II in both the European and Pacific theaters. We seeded clouds to induce flooding, sprayed Agent Orange, mined the road, installed sensors along the electronic-monitoring McNamara Line. No doubt about it, we extracted a heavy price. In time, the North filled 72 military cemeteries with the remains of those who built, manned and moved over the trail.
But move they did, putting through the cargo — the 122-milimeter rockets that pounded our Marines around Danang, the mines that killed our soldiers near the Parrot’s Beak, the heavy equipment that in the end would surround and capture the Saigon of memory. Pumping hard, the truckers provided the oxygen sustaining the North’s ability to make war in the South.
We never stopped traffic, never got the job done, a fact that bothers me to this day. Our technical deficiencies — inability to operate at night, inaccuracy of unguided munitions — have since been corrected. But when Saigon fell, it was not a swarm of ragtag Vietcong guerrillas who overran the city, but columns of Russian-made T-54 tanks, leading a modern field army complete with artillery and surface-to-air missiles, all delivered by those tough-guy truck drivers down that seemingly indestructible Ho Chi Minh Trail.