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Laos: The Panhandle and the Ho Chi Minh Trail


The confused situation caused by the civil war in Laos permitted North Vietnam to use southern Laos -- known as the "Panhandle" -- to move troops and supplies to South Vietnam. In 1959 the communists began traveling along the same network of paths through the Panhandle's mountains and jungles used against the Japanese in World War II and the French afterward. In 1961 the communists started improving the route, nicknamed the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" for the leader of North Vietnam.

By 1964, USAF reconnaissance missions over southern Laos indicated that the Ho Chi Minh Trail had grown into a major infiltration route. Foot trails had been improved into truck roads, with smaller paths for bicycles and walking. In December 1964 the USAF started attacking targets along the Trail to interdict the reinforcement and supply of communist insurgents in South Vietnam.

In April 1965 OPERATION STEEL TIGER located and destroyed enemy forces and materiel moving southward at night through the Laotian panhandle into South Vietnam. Laos' "neutral" status made it a highly complex matter, and target approval had to come from Washington. U.S. ambassadors in South Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand were also involved in controlling these U.S. air operations.

In December 1965 as communist infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail increased, the U.S. concentrated airpower upon a small segment of the Trail that the enemy used the most. Named TIGER HOUND, the operation utilized aircraft from the USAF, Army, Navy, Marines, the VNAF and the Royal Laotian Air Force. Strategic B-52s participated in this tactical operation, their first use over Laos.

STEEL TIGER operations continued down the length of the Panhandle through 1967 with special emphasis upon the TIGER HOUND area. Most of the communist traffic moved at night, and the USAF developed special equipment to locate their primary targets -- trucks.

Hitting individual trucks frustrated many of the Americans flying these combat missions -- the trucks could have been destroyed in large numbers while on ships or docks had the bombing of Haiphong, the main North Vietnamese port, been permitted. The ships, however, belonged to the Soviet Union and other nations, and were therefore off limits.

In November 1968 the U.S. began a series of interdiction campaigns, each named COMMANDO HUNT, against the Trail.

In February 1971, to head off a North Vietnamese offensive, South Vietnamese forces moved into Laos with massive US aerial support to destroy stockpiled material. North Vietnam counterattacked, forcing the South Vietnamese Army to withdraw from Laos. Suffering heavy losses in the process, North Vietnam postponed its scheduled offensive into South Vietnam.

Later in the year, the USAF began COMMANDO HUNT VII with new technology such as laser-guided bombs, infrared sensors and night-vision equipment. Attacks could now be made day and night, in almost any weather conditions. The operation began in November with strikes at several entry points from North Vietnam into Laos.

COMMANDO HUNT VII operations ended in March 1972, when North Vietnam launched the Easter Offensive into South Vietnam. The need for U.S. air support inside South Vietnam decreased the number of air strikes in Laos to their lowest point since 1965.

Click on the following links to learn more about the Southeast Asia War.

Misty FACs
Igloo White
Secret War: Green Hornets, Dust Devils and Blackbirds

Click here to return to the Southeast Asia War Gallery.