Viet Cong Booby Traps During The Vietnam War.
Above Photo: Young North Vietnamese Militiawomen learn how to set booby traps. (© unknown)
By SSG Arnold Krause C 2/12th Infantry and Peter Alan Lloyd.
It came as no surprise that the utilization of IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) in the Middle East theatre of war, in Iraq and Afghanistan, threw up similar problems faced by the foot soldier in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
The only difference was that one fighting force was primarily using boots for transportation and the other was using vehicles. The end result is the same: injure or kill using an explosive device without directly engaging the enemy.
Every foot soldier in Vietnam can relive stories of some experience with a booby trap, whether it was witnessed or from personal experience. For U.S. forces, it was not a deployed tactic we used outside of using cluster bombs, and they too, could be turned into fratricide, a term used to define unexploded submunitions.
For this article I will simply refer to the northern forces as VC or NVA.
The VC became masters at creating traps using the surroundings they lived in. Bamboo was a product of choice for them. It was easy to handle, readily available, strong and durable in the climate of Southeast Asia.
The VC would harvest bamboo and make sharp spears that could be attached to a makeshift frame that would be attached to a tree branch then tied off to another tree. The branch would be drawn back and tied back to a trip mechanism strung across a trail. When the trip string or piece of vine was tugged on, this would release this frame with its bamboo spears and send it sweeping across the trail with the hopes of hitting a target in the midsection.
Another use of sharpened bamboo was for punji traps, where the VC would dig a hole and put sticks in the bottom and sticks on two sides pointing upward and toward the center, then the hole would be covered with a small stick frame and leaves. Stepping on the thin top would collapse and the victim’s foot would or leg would be hit by the punji sticks. We wore boots that had plates in the soles to help prevent injury to our feet, and the VC knew this, so they really wanted to injure the leg.
The tip of the punji stick was frequently smeared with faeces, urine or other contaminants to infect the wound which was created when the stick penetrated the soldier’s skin.
Sometimes the sticks in the side of the trap were set at an angle downward, so the damage was done when you attempted to pull your foot back out of the trap, thus catching the side sticks in your calf or ankle area. These traps were fairly common and found on trails and in areas the VC though we might travel. They would also safeguard their fortifications at times using sharpened sticks stuck in the ground but uncovered. These were to hamper soldiers moving through areas around their bunkers.
Various “tells’ to warn VC soldiers of booby traps.
The VC set up indicators or “tells” to alert their own forces of the existing of traps. These could be sticks, rocks, or grasses tied together to indicated the direction or location of booby traps.
Whenever replacement troops arrived for assignment to the 25th Division, they were sent to the Cu Chi base camp where they spent three days going through in-country orientation, which included learning where booby traps might be set and how to spot these indicators.
Unexploded Ordnance Booby Traps
Most common of all booby traps was the use of unexploded ordnance. They were everywhere and someone tripping a device was nearly a daily occurrence. Reading back through the daily journals for the Battalion you would find some company reporting that someone tripped or set off a booby trap resulting in either first aid care or the requirement to call in a MEDEVAC dust off to the aid station.
Grenades set on trails with a trip wire across a path or trip wires attached to grenades set or taped to mortar, artillery and sometimes bombs were also used. A grenade exploding generally caused injury to 1-3 people while using a larger device such as a mortar or artillery shell really did severe damage. What happened to our company on December 6th, 1968 was proof when a booby trap attached to a 155MM round was set off by first platoon. In that explosion, 5 men died and another dozen were hit by shrapnel.
Moving in any direction while on patrol, the point man and flankers had to be aware of trip wires as well as pay attention to any movement to their front. It was better to detonate a trap if it was ordnance rather than try and disarm it if you could not see how it was hooked up.
While out on patrol along TL 6A, or Six Alpha as we call the road between Trang Bang and FSB Pershing, the VC began to set booby traps for us. They quickly figured out that we were creating a pattern with our daily patrols designed to prevent the VC from placing mines in the road to disable our resupply convoys. One day, as my squad was taking a break from one of these security patrols, I sat down. Running right between my legs was a trip wire running to a grenade. How I did not see or set it off, I don’t know, but I certainly believe my guardian angel was looking out for me.
I traced the wire and disarmed the device.
Ammonia Nitrate and Diesel
The VC liked to use ammonia nitrate (fertilizer) and diesel fuel to create makeshift mines. They’d dig a hole in the road or ground and place the mixture into the hole and cover it.
Sometime a trigger mechanism was used such as a blasting cap and pressure plate, or maybe a cartridge round set in a piece of bamboo using a nail centered over the primer cap, and when it was stepped on or driven over, it ignited the round into the mine mixture and detonated it.
The mine could also be command detonated using a blasting cap, wire and an electrical charge, but this meant the NVA would have to remain in the area to achieve their objective. They were used primarily on vehicles and it was up to the 65th Engineers to find these every day, using minesweepers.
The roads in our area of operation (Binh Long, Tay Ninh and Hau Nghia provinces) especially between our major bases, Tay Ninh, Dau Tieng, Trang Bang, Cu Chi and other locations had to be cleared and swept every day. It was a major task to keep the civilian population, as well as our vehicles, safe from destruction. I saw a M48 tank hit one of these mines and the crater from the explosion was almost big enough to put the tank into. It set off a hell of a blast, sending one of the road wheels close to a hundred feet into the air.
Booby Traps in Villages and VC Camps
Aside from traps placed along traveled routes, the NVA would booby trap items you would find laying around in villages, bunkers, tunnels and camps.
They would place a grenade with the pin removed under an object and when you moved it that would set off the grenade. They did the same thing using mortar and artillery rounds (unexploded munitions) to create more of a destructive force. It was not uncommon for these to be used on dead bodies, maybe under a weapon, under rice sacks in their encampments, a trap door or gate and sometimes in the local villages which we might frequent often checking for enemy activity.
Snakes and Animals
Deadly and aggressive snakes like the Bamboo Pit Viper were sometimes nailed above the door, inside village huts, ready to strike the unlucky door-opener, or in the tunnels, but I never saw or heard of the enemy using that type of mechanism in the area we operated in.
VC Surveillance and Booby-Trap Setting
Psychologically speaking, most of us were aware of the booby traps and we kept our eyes peeled to try and detect them. But, our primary focus was for movement and spotting situations that raised our awareness of eminent threat with the enemy.
We were not fearful of moving around for the most part. However, as we patrolled the roads between Trang Bang and FSB Pershing, as I said above, we started setting patterns with our patrols and that is when the VC started to use booby traps more.
So in this instance, we knew they were there and it did work on our nerves after a while. We were also overly cautious as we moved through breaks in hedgerows or were forced to use paths to get through some areas of vegetation. We had enough problems just dealing with the VC, so the dimension of booby traps was another stress layer in itself, which we had to take in our stride when performing our mission.
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© Peter Alan Lloyd
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