“An Almost Natural Part of the Terrain”: Booby Traps and the Vietcong’s Weaponized Countryside

Upon arrival in South Vietnam, American troops often remarked on the country’s natural beauty.  For many, South Vietnam looked like a tropical paradise with its shimmering rice paddies, white sand beaches, and blue coastal waters.  But once deep in the Vietnamese bush, American G.I.’s quickly discarded their first impressions.  They realized that South Vietnam was anything but a paradise – it was a horrifying place, rife with unseen peril.

Although South Vietnam possessed all sorts of natural dangers, including malarial mosquitoes, man-eating tigers, and fast-flowing rivers, nature itself did not pose the gravest threat to the safety of American troops.  Rather, it was what the Vietcong did with nature that made South Vietnam so dangerous.

In the 1960s, the Vietcong remade rural South Vietnam into a weapon of war.  The guerrillas achieved the weaponization of the countryside through the widespread use of booby traps.

The Vietcong hid booby traps from trees, along roadways, under foot paths, next to water wells, inside rice caches, alongside doors and gates, and even beneath the bodies of fallen comrades.  Anywhere that an unsuspecting G.I. might step, sit, stand, or lie became a potential site for a booby trap.

Booby traps served a variety of military purposes. In June 1965, when U.S. troops went into War Zone D, they discovered that the guerrillas, rather than defend their base areas with stationary troops, who stood a good chance of being mowed down by U.S. helicopter gunships, chose instead to protect their military assets with booby traps.

While patrolling with a U.S. unit in War Zone D, New York Times reporter Jack Raymond described a booby-trapped trail leading to a Vietcong rice cache. “The booby traps were made of ordinary hand grenades linked to vines and bent twigs. They could be set off by a soldier clearing the underbrush with the butt of his rifle, pushing a twig aside with his hand or stepping on a vine.”[1] Raymond observed that the guerrillas not only booby-trapped the route to the rice cache, they rigged explosives to the cache itself.

As standoff weapons, booby traps limited Vietcong exposure to American counter-fire.  They killed and wounded Allied troops without the Vietcong risking any casualties of their own. Command-detonated booby traps did not offer the same level of protection as stay-behind booby traps, but they still provided some defense against American firepower. A guerrilla tasked with triggering a command-detonated mine could secret him- or herself away in brush or hide in a spider hole, set-off the explosive, and then flee the scene.[2]

Booby traps also acted as a force multiplier, meaning they magnified the killing power of the frequently-outgunned Vietcong. A lone guerrilla could kill or maim several Allied soldiers with one well-placed, powerful booby trap.[3]

Since Vietcong bomb smiths manufactured the explosive devices cheaply and easily in primitive factories, booby traps were an ideal weapon for a low-tech, financially-strapped guerrilla army. The simple gadgets cost little but paid big dividends.

The Vietcong often assembled booby traps from locally-sourced materials, including dud bombs and captured munitions.  Consequently, booby traps placed few logistical or material requirements on North Vietnam and the troops and trucks streaming south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Southern-made booby traps contributed to the Communist war effort without impinging on the North’s limited resources.

The Vietcong did not have the same number or variety of terror weapons as the United States, because they did not have America’s financial reserves or its system of research universities and private laboratories, where well-paid professors and scientists created America’s instruments of death. Nevertheless, the Vietcong invented horrific booby traps, which struck terror into the hearts of U.S. soldiers. Understandably, American G.I.’s feared most those booby traps that inflicted grievous wounds or instantaneous death. Two booby traps in particular gained notoriety among U.S. infantrymen tasked with patrolling the South Vietnamese countryside.

Between 1965 and 1973, the U.S. dropped approximately 15 million aerial bombs on South Vietnam. During those same years, U.S. artillery batteries fired an estimated 229 million artillery shells against targets in South Vietnam. U.S. troops expended additional ordnance as mortar rounds, M-79 grenades, and Light Anti-Tank Weapons (LAWs). By 1973, South Vietnam achieved the sordid distinction of being the most bombed and blighted country in the world.[4]

Not all U.S. bombs, artillery shells, mortar rounds, and rockets detonated. By 1967, about 800 tons of dud munitions a month vanished across rural South Vietnam.  That figure is the equivalent of 6,400 250-lb. bombs or 3,200 500-lb. bombs (the two most widely used aerial bombs in the U.S. arsenal). Unexploded ordnance littered the South Vietnamese countryside.[5] The insurgents had little difficulty in finding and converting dud bombs and artillery shells into booby traps. America’s awesome firepower, touted as the key to victory in South Vietnam, became a Vietcong weapon against U.S. ground forces.

A booby-trapped 500-lb. bomb packed enough explosives to kill an entire U.S. platoon, shatter an American M-113, and melt the hulking M-48 tank into an inert piece of junk. If a G.I. triggered a 500-lb. bomb under foot, he literally disintegrated into a fine mist of blood, bone, and flesh.[6] Dud 105-mm, 155-mm, and 175-mm U.S. artillery shells were more common as booby traps because Vietcong explosives experts had less trouble transporting and concealing the lighter and smaller artillery shells than they did the heavier and larger dud bombs.

The destructive power of dud bombs and artillery rounds explains why G.I.’s feared them so much. A soldier had no hope of survival if he set off a 155-mm shell or 500-lb bomb underfoot.  Marine Lieutenant Philip Caputo remembered what happened to a fellow officer when he detonated a dud U.S. artillery round.  “…Lieutenant Colonel Meyers, one of the regiment’s battalion commanders, stepped on a booby-trapped 155-mm shell. They did not find enough of him to fill a willy-peter bag, a waterproof sack a little larger than a shopping bag.”[7]

Another frightening booby trap, on a par with dud bombs and artillery shells, was the Chinese manufactured “Bouncing Betty.” The Germans first deployed the Bouncing Betty against U.S. troops on the Western Front in World War II.[8] Roughly the same size and shape as a twelve-ounce can of soda, the Vietcong buried these anti-personnel mines along trails, atop paddy dikes, in hedgerow openings, and on the outside edge of roads –  places where an Allied soldier might walk. Loose dirt covered the canister, hiding it from view. Three wire spikes or barbs, which acted as triggers, protruded outward a few inches from the buried cylinder. When a soldier bumped one of or all of the barbs with his foot, the little mine did not immediately explode. Instead, a small explosive charge propelled the Bouncing Betty out of the dirt and into the air. After the mine “bounced” three feet, it exploded, hurling shrapnel into the midsections of the soldiers to the front and rear.  The Bouncing Betty almost always shattered the men caught within its blast radius.  And since it detonated at an elevation of three feet, it could cut a man in half at the waist. If it did not kill a soldier outright, it tore wounds into the abdomen, groin, liver, kidneys, and spine.

Young soldiers, in the prime of their physical lives, feared losing their legs, arms, and especially their sexual organs to the Bouncing Betty.  For many, death seemed a better outcome than a future without legs or the ability to have sexual relations. Caputo remembered a conversation he had with a fellow Marine. “Coffell was whispering to me about his dread of Bouncing Betties…His last company [commander] had been hit by one. [Coffell observed that], “It tore one of his legs off at the thigh, sir. His femur artery was cut and the blood was pouring out of it like out of a hose. We couldn’t stop it…those Bouncing Betties, goddamn, I hate those things.”[9]

A key reason booby traps were so effective as terror weapons had to do with the fact that they could be hidden almost anywhere. The Vietcong became ingenious at planting them in inconspicuous places. An American soldier recalled, “…in the inhabited valleys and in the rural villages that had remained Viet Cong strongholds since the days of the French occupation, booby traps seemed an almost natural part of the terrain.”[10]

Caputo saw how the weaponized landscape affected his men, “…mines and booby traps transform that friendly, familiar earth into a thing of menace, a thing to be feared as much as machine guns or mortar shells. The infantryman knows that at any moment the ground he is walking on can erupt and kill him….”[11]

The Vietcong hid booby traps in obvious locations. Dan Krehbiel, with the 25th Infantry Division recalled, “They just planted ‘em in likely spots where GIs walked; on the road instead of off the road, on the rice paddy dike instead of in the swampy, messy paddy. The GI typically will take the easy route every time. Why bust your way through a hedgerow when there is a little opening? So they’d plant one there. And that is how it went.”[12] U.S. military headquarters in Saigon learned that in the Mekong Delta, “Roughly 34 percent of all booby traps were located along trails and rice paddy dikes, with another 36 percent in the jungle growth.”[13]

As the war dragged on, and G.I.’s became more knowledgeable of the dangers lurking along roads and trails, the Vietcong began putting booby traps in less obvious places. A rickety gate, opening on a rather peaceful looking hamlet, might be the trigger mechanism for a hidden 155-mm artillery shell; or the ground surrounding a village well, where G.I.’s were known to gather, might be hiding a dud bomb.[14]

The Vietcong buried booby traps under shade trees because hot, exhausted G.I.’s were apt to seek refuge there from the searing sun.[15] Guerrillas hung grenades from fruit trees and planted mines along the edges of coconut groves, knowing the fruit would tempt American troops. North Vietnamese booby trap expert Vu Hy Thieu recalled, “One time we inserted dynamite into a flagpole, tied it to the top of a tree, and flew the Liberation Army’s flag. Not long after that an American chopper spotted the flag. It came in, hovered next to the tree, and a guy leaned out to pull down the flag. The flagpole exploded and he was killed instantly.”[16]

The insurgents stowed away booby traps in the narrow openings in hedgerows. In December 1967, in Quang Ngai Province, Army lieutenant Frederick Downs had a close call with death when a fellow soldier stepped through the opening in a hedgerow and set-off a booby trap. Downs described the incident in a letter to his wife, “I lost two of my men today to a booby trap…We were crossing a corn field with a thick hedgerow around it. There was one place that looked like we could get through, so I told my point man to go through there. I turned and headed for it. Just as my point man went through [the opening], he heard a click and jumped…There was a tremendous explosion, and I was knocked down by the force of the blast.” The point man and a man to the front of Downs suffered wounds in the blast.[17]

It was customary for the Vietcong to suspend trip wires beneath the muddy water at stream and canal crossings. Wading G.I.’s, with their arms high in the air to keep their rifles dry, struck the trip wires with their legs or torsos and triggered a submerged charge.

Because the Americans regularly searched dead guerrillas for weapons, documents, and souvenirs, the Vietcong sometimes tucked grenades under the bodies of their dead comrades. As soon as a G.I. moved the body or turned it over to rummage through the front pockets of the uniform, the grenade’s loose pin fell off, and the grenade exploded.

Guerrillas booby-trapped their abandoned bunkers, trench lines, and tunnel complexes. U.S. troops learned to carefully search those places. Philip Caputo came upon a unique booby trap on a jungle trail southwest of Danang. The insurgents had erected a log and brush barricade across a trail to slow the American foot patrol. They also draped a series of grenades, like a string of Christmas ornaments, along the length of the barricade. The grenades had been set to go off as soon as the Americans attempted to dismantle the obstacle. Caputo had the good fortune to spot the partially hidden booby trap before he and his men detonated it.[18]

Certain booby traps countered specific U.S. technologies. The insurgents deployed these weapons to blunt the effects of American firepower or to slow down U.S. mechanized units. Before widespread employment of the B-40 rocket propelled grenade (RPG), land mines offered the guerrillas the best chance of knocking out of action the U.S.’s tracked vehicles – including the M-41 and M-48 tanks and the M-113 armoured personnel carrier. Blowing the track off a M-113 sometimes forced U.S. troops to halt and establish a defensive perimeter around the disabled APC. If the damage to the vehicle was extensive enough, the soldiers had to wait for the arrival of a M-100 recovery vehicle. Disabling a tracked vehicle postponed or completely stopped American tactical operations, which in-turn hampered the U.S.’s ability to find and attrite the Vietcong.

One Vietcong booby trap targeted the G.I.’s riding atop the M-113.  Troops rode on top of the M-113 because they considered the interior of the personnel carrier to be a death trap in the event of an RPG hit or the detonation of a land mine. On top of the M-113, an RPG or mine explosion would throw the troopers clear of the vehicle, giving them, or so they thought, better odds of survival. But the Vietcong made the top of the M-113 a dangerous place too. As one American said, “The gooks string wires along the trees and hand grenades on them with the pin almost out. The track’s antennas catch the wires, pulling the grenades out of the trees, and bang! Most of the time they get everybody riding on top.”[19]

Other booby traps targeted U.S. helicopters. In late 1966, the New York Times reported that “A new type of booby trap, detonated by the propeller drafts of a hovering helicopter, is bedevilling United States troops operating west of Saigon.” The Vietcong deployed this “bedevilling” booby trap inside likely landing zones. To construct it, they stuck a number of thin wooden sticks upright into the earth throughout the clearing. Because the sticks blended into the surrounding vegetation, U.S. helicopter crews had a hard time spotting the booby trap before it was too late. The rotor wash of a descending U.S. chopper bowled over the sticks, sparking a series of explosions that sent hundreds of BB pellets into the air and against the hovering helicopter. In a single day in December 1966, this rudimentary anti-aircraft weapon knocked out of action two U.S. helicopters in the Bo Loi Woods and a third helicopter in Tay Ninh Province.[20]

A U.S. helicopter pilot remembered approaching a booby trap similar to the one described above, “As we come into visual range of the intended LZ, I can see 10- or 15-foot-high bamboo poles protruding from the LZ floor. From this distance, I cannot see the wires between the poles, but I can be certain that Beyer has. Charlie has been known to set such traps – they are called “rotor bumpers.” Between the pole[s] is a wire attached to a grenade. Any helicopter descending into the trap will certainly be blown to bits before it reaches the ground safely.”[21]

Another anti-helicopter booby trap consisted of stout wooden poles. Guerrillas placed the poles in jungle clearings or anyplace that looked like a possible landing zone. One end of each pole lay buried firmly in the ground. The other sharpened end pointed toward the sky. The Vietcong set up the poles in tall, thick patches of elephant grass to screen them from the eyes of American helicopter crews. The poles served two military objectives. First, they were implanted in potential LZs to damage or destroy descending U.S. helicopters. If an incoming chopper struck one of the poles, it risked being knocked ajar, tipped on its side, and then hurled into the ground. Barring that, the Vietcong hoped U.S. troops, who occasionally disembarked from descending choppers by jumping out of the doorways and falling several feet to the ground, would impale themselves on the stakes. Caputo recalled entering the village of Hoi Vuc, Quang Tin Province, in mid-1965 and seeing, to his absolute surprise, an elderly woman non-chalantly hardening the tips of wooden anti-helicopter stakes in a small fire. Even after the Americans temporarily took possession of her hamlet, she continued doing her work for The Resistance.[22]

Booby traps killed or wounded several notable American journalists. In mid-September 1965, “New York Times” reporter Charles Mohr went out on a foot patrol with the Marines in a Vietcong area three miles south of the Danang airbase near Marble Mountain. While traipsing through the countryside, a Marine grazed some trailside vegetation. In an instant, a Vietcong grenade, stashed away in the understory, fell to the ground and exploded. White-hot shrapnel hit Mohr in the back and in one of his legs. Two Marines also sustained wounds in the explosion.[23]

Two months later, a Vietcong mine killed Dickey Chapelle. She had been a war correspondent in a profession dominated by men. Over the years, she had reported on the conflicts in Korea, Algeria, Cuba, Lebanon, Kashmir, and the Dominican Republic. She knew war. She also knew the dangers lurking everywhere in rural South Vietnam. And yet, her years of experience and a high-tuned sense of cautiousness did not protect her from a Vietcong booby trap. On November 4, 1965, while on patrol with the Marines outside of Chu Lai, a Marine in front of Chapelle stepped on a large land mine. The resulting blast and shrapnel cut down six Marines.  At the same time, a big chunk of shrapnel tore into Dickey Chapelle’s neck, opening a gaping hole and severing her jugular vein. Dickey Chapelle bled out within seconds.[24]

On February 21, 1967, a Vietcong mine took the life of Bernard Fall. Fall had been writing and reporting on Vietnam since the early 1950s. In the intervening years, he had written seven books on Indochinese history, the First Indochina War, and the Vietminh regime. One of his most critically acclaimed books, Hell in a Very Small Place, detailed the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu. Every top U.S. military and political figure involved with Vietnam in the 1960s knew of Bernard Fall and his work. Even General William C. Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces in South Vietnam between 1964 and 1968 and who was not known for his love of literature, supposedly read Hell in a Very Small Place.

By 1967, Bernard Fall was seriously questioning the effectiveness of American tactics in South Vietnam, particularly the reckless application of airpower and harassment and interdiction artillery fire. Fall, like Chapelle, knew that rural South Vietnam had been weaponized by the Vietcong. If anyone could have avoided a Vietcong booby trap, it would have been Bernard Fall. On the day of his death, he apparently asked a U.S. military officer to point him to “…where the action was.” The “action” was taking place north of Hue, along the “Street Without Joy,” an area long familiar to Fall. Unfortunately, Fall found the action that day and it killed him.[25]

The weaponized countryside, and its vast array of booby traps, fostered a sense of helplessness amongst U.S. troops. They could do little to counter the Vietcong’s land mines, dud bombs, and punji pits. And the Americans rarely captured or killed the Vietcong who buried the land mines or dug the pits.

After a few months in the Vietnamese bush, American infantrymen came to hate the Vietcong for weaponizing the countryside. They considered the use of booby traps not befitting of honourable soldiers. Caputo believed booby traps were not legitimate weapons of war – they were instruments of murder.[26]

The frustration of being subjected to booby traps day after day, week after week, without being able to do anything about it, produced a strong desire in American troops for revenge. They wanted to discover the invisible enemy and inflict the same pain and suffering on the guerrillas that they themselves had to endure.  This is why, when American troops did find the Vietcong, they showed so little mercy.

Endnotes

[1] New York Times, “In Zone D, Terrain is Sniper’s Ally,” Jack Raymond, June 30, 1965.

[2] New York Times, “Village Burnings Disturb Marines,” Charles Mohr, August 9, 1965.

[3] Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War, (New York: Owl Books, 1996), 281.

[4] Arthur H. Westing, Ecological Consequences of the Second Indochina War, (Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 1976), 21.

[5] James William Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam, 1986, Reprint, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000), 137.

[6] Caputo, Rumor of War, 117.

[7] Ibid., 167.

[8] Antony Beevor, The Second World War, (London: Orion Books, 2013), 598.

[9] Caputo, Rumor of War, 241.

[10] James R. Ebert, A Life in a Year: The American Infantryman in Vietnam, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 239-240.

[11] Caputo, Rumor of War, 288.

[12] Ebert, A Life in a Year, 244.

[13] Hackworth, Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts: The Hopeless to Hardcore Transformation of U.S. Army, 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, Vietnam, (New York: Rugged Land, LLC, 2002), 19.

[14] Caputo, Rumor of War, 254.

[15] Ebert, A Life in a Year, 240.

[16] Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, (New York: Viking, 2003), 193.

[17] Bernard Edelman, ed., Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985), 93.

[18] Caputo, Rumor of War, 274.

[19] Ronald J. Glasser, 365 Days, (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1971), 137.

[20] New York Times, “Booby Traps Maul U.S. Copters,” December 12, 1966.

[21] Tom A. Johnson, To the Limit: An Air Cav Huey Pilot in Vietnam, 2006, Reprint, (New York: NAL Caliber, 2007), 109; Eric M. Bergerud, Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning: The World of a Combat Division in Vietnam, 1993, Reprint, (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 155.

[22] Caputo, Rumor of War, 90.

[23] New York Times, “Times Man and 2 Marines Wounded in Vietnam Patrol, September 15, 1965.

[24] New York Times, “Dickey Chapelle Killed in Vietnam,” Associated Press, November 4, 1965; W.E. Garrett, National Geographic Magazine, “What Was A Woman Doing There?” Volume 129, No. 2, February 1966, 270-271.

[25] New York Times, “Bernard Fall Killed in Vietnam by a Mine While with Marines,” R.W. Apple, February 22, 1967.

[26] New York Times, “GIs Found Rising to Vietnam Test,” Hanson W. Baldwin, December 26, 1965.

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