Vietnam War Tactics

The Vietnam War was a war between the Communist North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese who wanted to have a Democratic government. Ho Chi Minh was the leader of the Communist side and the Southern Vietnamese were backed by the United States and other anti-communist countries. The American and anti-communist forces had a superior army, so the Vietnamese developed new tactics that allowed them to combat the search and destroy tactics of the enemy. The Vietnamese style of warfare, also known as guerrilla warfare, their use of mines,  the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the elaborate tunnel system made it so that American soldiers in Vietnam were almost never safe, and the American people did not like the war at all.
Guerrilla Warfare
Around December of the year 1965 Ho Chi Minh decided that the way the war was being fought in the south wasn't working. The Americans had a superior army so the Vietnamese had to find a way to compensate and even the playing field. He decided that instead of traditional fights there needed to be more hit and run attacks and ambushes. Not only did the Vietnamese use the hit and run tactics but they also built elaborate tunnel systems under many villages. These tunnels not only allowed Vietnamese to move underground without being seen, but the tunnels were also made so that Vietnamese soldiers could actually stay underground for extended periods of time. If enemies took control of a city, they could stay undetected underground and still plan and execute ambushes. (2)

Cu Chi Tunnel System
(below): The Chu Chi Tunnel System was a system of underground tunnels located just outside Saigon that allowed the Viet Cong to pop up and ambush enemy soldiers as well as provided them with a quick
escape route. This was the largest tunnel system, it was accessible from almost any Viet Cong base or training facility in the area, and came back up at regular intervals. In total there were over 250 kilometers (155.343 miles) of tunnel, up to 10 meters below ground, and the tunnels were only two feet wide by two feet tall. (1)(5)

Ho Chi Minh Trail (right): The Ho Chi Minh trail was designed to get supplies and troops into Southern Vietnam. It was made up of many different
roads and foot paths that went from North Vietnam, through Cambodia and Loas, and into Southern Vietnam, stretching a total of 9,940 miles. There were checkpoints along the way that had underground medical centers and places to stay so that the soldiers wouldn't be sleeping out in the open. The name "Ho Chi Minh Trail" was made up by Americans, it was called the Truong Song Road or "The Blood Road." The trail carried led over one million soldiers to South Vietnam. It would take a soldier about six months to travel the trail, if he                survived the Americans heavy bombing of the trail. (15)

Traps: The Viet Cong and Vietnamese used many different types of traps to kill or in some cases severely injure American soldiers. The main traps used by the Vietnamese were the Punji Stake Pit, Punji Bear Trap, and the Side Closing Trap. Although these traps do not seem as lethal as a land mine, they can be almost as dangerous because they are virtually undetectable and could cause infections. Punji sticks were either bamboo or metal, sharpened to a point and fire-hardened, they were very sharp and could penetrate most boots. 

Punji Stake Pit (illustrated on right): The Punji stake pit was a hole, with punji sticks protruding out of the sides and the bottom. The hole was covered by leaves so it wasn't visible, and when someone stepped into the hole the punji sticks impaled his or her foot, penetrating any shoe that the person was wearing. Frequently the sticks would be covered in feces or poison to cause the wound to become infected. (11) 

Punji Bear Trap (illustrated below): The Punji bear trap was a trap similar to the Punji Stake Pit. It was two holes, a large hole and a smaller hole in the middle of it. A bear trap was
placed over the small hole and when the bear trap was stepped on, the weight put on the person's foot pushed down on the middle of the trap, causing the sides to fold up onto the person's lower-leg. This trap too was often covered in feces or poison and concealed beneath the cover of leaves. (14)

Side Closing Trap (illustrated bottom right): The Side Closing Trap was a much larger, slightly more complicated trap. There was a large hole, covered by a large piece of wood. In the center of the piece of wood there was another piece of wood that acted as a pivoting point. When weight was put on one end of the plank of
wood, it rotated quickly, dropping the person into the hole. This hole, like the Punji Stake Pit, was filled with Punji Sticks. The large plank of wood was camouflaged so that it was not visible.

Landmines and Trip Wires: The Vietnamese frequently used landmines and trip wires, placed in locations that enemy soldiers were likely to walk. Some of these traps were designed to kill enemies, others were simply designed to injure enemies or warn the Vietnamese that there were soldiers coming. 

Bouncing Betty (illustrated below): The Bouncing Betty was an explosive that was detonated with the release of pressure or a trip wire. The most common was the release of pressure; a soldier could step the device and it would arm, but it wouldn't be set off until pressure was released. Once pressure was released, a small amount of gunpowder went off, sending the main explosive into the air. The main explosive detonated at about chest height, sending fragments in all different directions. (3)

Bouncing Betty

Mud Ball Mine (no photo available): The Mud Ball Mine was a grenade that had the pin removed and replaced with a wire. Mud was then molded so that the safety lever of the grenade could be held in place; once the mud hardened the wire was removed and the mine was ready. It could be placed basically anywhere enemies might walk, and when it was stepped on the mud broke, releasing the safety pin and setting the grenade off. (9)

Trip Wire: The most common trip wire technique used by the Vietnamese was removing the safety pin from
grenades and placing them in tin containers so that the safety lever didn't release and then set them on a tree or some other solid object just off the ground. Usually they were set across from another grenade on a path and then connected by a wire. When a soldier tripped the wire the grenades were pulled from there containers and detonated. (8)

Toe Popper: The Toe Popper was a shell, usually a 105 millimeter artillery shell, that was buried in the ground 
with the tip just protruding from the ground. It sat on either a nail or a firing pin. When stepped on, the shell was shot directly into the persons foot. The injury could be increasingly bad if the soldier was wearing a steel plated boot, because the steel plate was blasted into fragments and it made the injury much worse. These were also 
used as a sort of indication that enemy troops were coming or they were placed in a 
location that troops were likely to retreat, and it would slow them down. (13)

Casualties: The Vietnam war had a total of 58,151 deaths, which turns out to be around 26 deaths per day. The total deaths that are directly from combat are listed at 47,355, which is the fourth most of any war. 11 percent of the total deaths in the war were caused by some sort of trap or mine. Traps and mines also accounted for 15% of the total injuries. That's a total of 4,813 total deaths and a total of 7,103 injuries in the war. All deaths that were inflicted other than from booby traps and mines were a result of guerrilla warfare because that was how the Vietnamese fought, they knew that if they were inferior and needed to seize every opportunity they could to maximize American deaths. (16)

Vietnam War in the Media: The media turned America against the war. It was actually called the "Uncensored War"  often the nightly news contained gruesome footage of fighting. One of the most influential incidents of the war was the My Lai Massacre. American soldiers went on a killing rampage, killing between 347 and 504 innocent Vietnamese. The newspaper the Plain Dealer, from Cleveland had a reporter that witnessed the massacre and got photographs from it. Ronald L. Haeberle gave the newspaper his photos and the United States Army tried to stop the newspaper from publishing the photographs and an accompanying article. A quote from the article was "There was no reaction on the guy doing the shooting. That’s the part that really got me—this little girl pleading and they were just cut down" (By Joseph Eszterhas © 1969, The Plain Dealer). News in the United States also covered many other Battles, such as the Tet Offensive, which was actually an American victory but was percieved by the media as a horrible loss due to the many American deaths, which numbered 3,895. The media in the United States played a huge role in turning the public against the war. (17)

Interview with Dr. Andrew N. Buchanan, Lecturer of Global Military History, University of Vermont

1. What was the Ho Chi Minh Trail and how did it serve the Vietnamese?

Went through Laos and Cambodia and brought supplies and troops to South Vietnam. It was a whole network of trails, not just one single one, so it was very difficult for the Americans to shut down with bombing because it was under the cover of trees, and it was many, many trails not just one.

2. What were some of the deadliest traps that the Vietnamese used?

Trip mines and the Bouncing Betty were used quite a bit and probably claimed the most lives because they were so deadly. 

3. Briefly talk about the tunnel system that the Vietnamese had and what effects it had on the war.

Basically it enables the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong to maintain a high concentration of forces in areas that they wouldn't be able to survive above ground because of American troops and they were particularly important in the area just North of Saigon (Chu Chi Tunnels). 

4. Approximately how many Vietnamese soldiers were there compared to American?

Depends on how you count them. NVA regulars or national liberation front forces. The Americans had a maximum of 500,000 troops around 1967-68. But the Vietnamese are almost impossible to put a number of due to the fact that the Viet Cong were not exactly registered soldiers.

5. Besides traps and the tunnel system, what are some other tactics that the Vietnamese soldiers used to try to defeat the Americans?

Well, the NVA battle of Hydrangea was to draw out the United States forces, especially helicopters, and destroy their mobility. They also used ambushes very effectively throughout the war.