Thursday, October 30, 2014


Prince Norodem Sihanouk ruled Cambodia since he wrestled independence away from the French in 1953 by politically maneuvering between right and left wing factions. For ten years the Prince managed to remain neutral during the ever increasing civil wars in neighboring countries while continuing political ties with the United States. Wedged between two allied forces, Thailand on the west and South Vietnam on east, he dealt with a civil war in Laos to the north. He performed this balancing act while remaining neutral with all the super powers of the world which was no easy task.

Sihanouk believed the Communist would eventually triumph in Southeast Asia and Cambodia was incapable of defeating a Vietnamese takeover. To survive Prince Sihanouk had to make a deal with the devil and on April 10, 1965 he broke off relations with the U.S.. To gain foreign support both economically and politically he turned to China. One of the terms of the agreement with China was that Cambodia would allow the use of its eastern border by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. North Vietnam and the Vietcong capitalized on this agreement and it became one of the most fought over area's in all Southeast Asia.

The North Vietnamese used this area to supply the Vietcong guerrilla force by land and by sea. The Ho Chi Minh trail was extended down thru Laos and into Cambodia by a labyrinth of trails, roads, and bridges then into South Vietnam. The second supply route was sailing ships into the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville then transferring the military supplies onto trucks and transporting them to the fighting zones. To circumvent the U.S. naval presence in the South China Sea ships would fly flags of other Communist countries, mostly from Europe's eastern block. War materials intended for use against U.S. forces sailed right past American war ships and again a labyrinth of routes was used to transport the goods by land. Eventually these routes would be known as the Sihanouk Trail. The Sihanouk Trail and the Ho Chi Minh Trail converged in our area of operations along the highly fought over jungles of the  Vietnam Cambodian border.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail in red meets the Sihanouk Trail in black in the southern portion of South Vietnam.

As tensions escalated and warring factions increased militarily more supplies were needed in the south. In 1965 the Ho Chi Minh Trail underwent a massive overhaul to try to handle the traffic needed to fight the Allied Forces. Engineers from North Korea, Russia, and China aided North Vietnam to widen the footpaths into roads, strengthen bridges, and piled rocks in streams and rivers to create fords. Creating fords, a shallow area beneath the water level, allowed supplies to cross bodies of water by foot or vehicle and was not seen from bombing missions in the air. Increasing amounts of material and men moved as much as 100 miles during the night and were hidden in depots during the day. Foot traffic also increased from 12,000 in 1964 to 33,000 in 1965 and vehicle traffic quadrupled. 

The fighting increased along these border routes despite heavy bombing and units were called in to deal with the buildup firsthand. The roads weren't the only problem, by 1968 a network of caves and tunnels littered the jungle and burrowed deep into the earth. There was now 820 miles of well hidden roads to contend with and Delta was brought in to handle the job.

Aidded by Noeth Korea, Russia, and China North Vietnam built fords to cross rivers and Streams. Fords were rock or cement dropped just under the water level to create a bridge. Because the bridge was under the water level they were hard to detect by Allied bombing missions.

Without ever seeing the sun we humped, chopped, and climbed the jungle slopes of the border region for a month coming dangerously close to Cambodian sovereignty. Some days I could swear I pasted the same tree several times. Unless we transversed a Bamboo forest or an Agent Orange Range everything looked the same, hot steamy and green. 

It seemed as though I spent a lot of time walking point and today was no exception. Intelligence had the whole area crawling with Vietcong base camps and tunnel complexes as supply lines from the Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk Trails filtered into this bottleneck. We were tredding in their back yard and so we had to tred carefully taking our time to watch for signs. A slightly worn trail meant activity was close so I mirrored the parh off to one side and scrutinized the area. Smelling their presence I gave the sign to halt and lay low. 

Peter and Dave joined me up front and we came in low and quiet. There were bunkers on either side of the worn path like traps on a golf course. These bunkers were entrance's to tunnels and had to be checked out carefully. I took the first and jumped into the pit with my team looking over my shoulder for backup and immediately they pulled me out. The entrance to the bunker was booby trapped with poisonous snakes and I was their dinner or at least the appetizer. Blowing up the bunkers and caves would have to wait until we swept through the base camp and cleared it of any Vietcong. It was not in their nature to stay and fight unless they had the upper hand and today this was not the case. 

Peter was next and entered the first hut while we quietly stood guard ready to attack. We learned the hard way that anything was possible in a world with no boundaries and certainly this fit that category. Growing up on Long Island in New York couldn't be further from my present location both physically and emotionally. It was suburbia meeting a grass hut culture without an explaination and so I tried not to think to much about it and just did my job. 

The huts were small and it didn't take Peter long to emerge unscathed carrying a second weapon slung over his shoulder. This was a war trophy if he chose to carry it throughout his tour. It was an old Russian SKS Sniper Rifle and it was in good condition. Many soldiers carried souvenirs with them to take home and this was Peter's second, he already carried a human skull and I myself had two femur bones we found in the jungle. The bones were from a small framed body so we assumed they were Vietcong.

Dave was in the lead now and following the path through a patch of heavey growth he came face to face with a Vietcong. They both were startled, they both screamed, and they both began to run. Surprised by the intrusion the Vietcong had no weapon and took off with Dave right on his heels. Capturing a Vietcong in this area could be a valuable tool for information with locations and supply delivery times and could possibly save lives. 

Without a visual sight we heard yelling from the jungle outside the camp and still there were no shots fired. We assumed they were both still alive. The rest of the unit caught up to us and were locked on the yelling in full attack mode. As the rustling of the brush got closer we stood ready to fire when Peter called a stand down reminding us that Dave was out there alone. 

Out of the brush Dave appeared yelling as he bounced from tree to tree writhing in pain and covered with wasps. We tackled him and began a soaking of bug juice picking off wasps one at a time. His face had already begun to swell. It was a relief to see him and better yet it was a relief to see him not being shot by his own unit. The Vietcong had escaped and our chances of a prisoner were gone and so we went back to work destroying the base camp. There was cooked rice and weapons scattered throughout and bunkers to attend to and fast. Our position had already been compromised and we were dangerously close to the Cambodian border. We were in a bad position and finding this base camp empty was probably the worse scenario possible. Having no recourse but to continue our work the Vietcong knew we were there and they were not about to let us out without a fight. 

Staying off the paths we worked our way deeper into triple canopy jungle until we were well hidden and bedded down for the night without as much as a match being lit. In silence we opened our last cans of C-rations, drank our last potable water and sat in total darkness knowing we were in trouble. Exhausted from the trek I still managed to stay up all night waiting for the inevitable.

The 60 caliber machine was a two man job, a gunner and a man to feed the chain of rounds and carry a second barrel if the first one melted. It was a must have weapon in the jungle and could shoot through almost anything. If the gunner went down the second man took over.  

Peter on the left and Dave pose before leaving on an operation.

The less inhabited back area of the central highlands was a perfect venue for the Vietcong to hide and stage their attacks. Virtually impossible to find, no less negotiate, it was an arduous and massive challenge for the Allied Forces to deal with. Criss crossed with trails and caves the region was a guerrilla army's paradise and a sanctuary for resupply and rest.

I travelled by mini van through the confluence of trails and roads through the less kept roads of the back bush jungles and mountains of this rugged terrain. The scenery was breathtaking but the roads left something to be desired. More exciting than a roller coaster ride and a bit more dangerous I tried to photograph the essence of a hard life in the uninhabited makeshift villages of the mountainyard people. These elevation living villages helped the Vietcong on their journey to and from the war zones. 

Travelling the high country was a beautiful but dangerous journey.

Mountain peaks are broken by the occasional valley rich with soil producing crops.

From the air worn paths such as these are cancelled from arial view by dense jungle growth.

Natural land formations provide both storage and housing for an army on the move.

Natural camouflage helps to blend man, machine, and nature.

Some paths were later paved for small vehicles.

Selfie in the central highlands.

Housing on a mountain cliff.

Storage bins for rice.



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