Escalation 9

Besides attacking Communist forces and convoys as they deployed to move from staging areas in the southern provinces of North Viet¬nam, the American air strikes were directed against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Hundreds of American aircraft bombed the Laotian routes every day, their missions facilitated by electronic detection devices and other sophisticated gadgets. Covert teams of South Vi¬etnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, many led by American officers, were also insinuated into the region to provide the American bombers with information on enemy activities. Even so, the raids barely dented the southward movement of either Communist troops or supplies.
The needs of the Communist fighting forces were minimal. Unlike the American or South Vietnamese armies, they had no aircraft, tanks or artillery, and they could do without fuel, spare parts and shells— much less the beer, shaving cream, talcum powder and other luxuries that were necessities for American soldiers. The North Vietnamese and Vietcong needed no more than a total of fifteen tons of supplies a day from the north in order to sustain their effort in the south. And since the Soviet Union and China were then furnishing North Viet¬nam with nearly six thousand tons of aid daily, only a tiny fraction had to trickle down the Ho Chi Minh Trail for the Communists to wage the war.
Nor were the U.S. air strikes effective against the infiltration of North Vietnamese combat divisions into the south. Though the bomb¬ing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail grew in intensity, American intelligence experts estimated that the annual infiltration rate soared from thirty- five thousand in 1965 to one hundred and fifty thousand by late 1967. And most of the North Vietnamese who died while making the march were victims of dysentery, malaria and other diseases rather than U.S. bombs.
The trek was still a ghastly ordeal, as one Communist veteran, Tran Thi Truyen, vividly recalled to me during an interview in her native village outside Hanoi in 1981. She went south at the age of sixteen to serve as a nurse in a field hospital in southern Laos, near the South Vietnamese frontier. Like her comrades, she had carried a rifle, a shovel and a sixty-pound knapsack containing clothes, food and a few per¬sonal items. Her unit was driven by truck to the head of the trail, and proceeded from there by foot on its month-long journey.
The rainy season had just started, and the route was muddy. Oc¬casional flash floods forced us to cling to trees and shrubs to keep from being washed away. The jungles were infested with leeches and other insects that swarmed all over us. We crossed deep rivers and streams, and there were the mountains, some so high that it was as if we were walking above the clouds. We sometimes needed ladders to scale their steep slopes, or we removed our sandals and climbed in our bare feet. Despite our hardships, the local tribesmen acting as guides tried to scare us with tales of bandits in the area. I was young, and I frightened easily.
Worse still, Truyen and her unit were constantly harassed by U.S. aircraft as they marched down the trail.
The Americans had denuded thejungles with their bombs, and there was no place to hide. They would light up the area with flares, then drop bombs everywhere. Each time they flew overhead, our com¬mander ordered us to disperse and dig foxholes, but the bombs fell close, and I shook with fear. My heart would throb, and my whole body trembled inside as the bombs exploded. Even after the bomb¬ing had stopped, I couldn’t focus my eyes, and my head ached for hours.
Truyen eventually reached her destination, a jungle clearing where the field hospital was to be set up. She and her comrades began by constructing an underground surgery eight feet deep, fortifying its ceiling with thick logs and a layer of dirt, on top of which they built a thatched hut as their dormitory. They also built a subterranean ward for patients and another as a storage room for medicine. The wounded started to arrive even before the construction was completed, carried in on bamboo stretchers over miles of rugged terrain, and surgeons operated by the light of oil lamps amid gory scenes that curdled Tru- yen’s stomach.
I was inexperienced, and my first sight and smell of blood and pus so nauseated me that I vomited and couldn’t work. Some of the wounded had lost arms or legs. Or their bellies had been ripped open by bomb fragments, and their intestines were spilling out. Others were horribly burned by napalm. Many, who had been lying injured in the jungle for days, were brought in with maggots crawl¬ing out of their infected wounds. And there were the malaria cases, who became delirious with fever and rampaged like madmen. I soon recovered from my shock and revulsion, and I did my best— until I also caught malaria and was sent home.
In North Vietnam, meanwhile, the regime managed the war effort by mobilizing the country’s principal resource—people. The traffic destined for the south was never seriously interrupted as thousands of work teams, many composed of young women, repaired roads and rail communications; the rail lines to China, a vital link, were kept open by Chinese labor battalions; engineers rebuilt demolished bridges three or four times, replacing them during reconstruction with tem¬porary spans of planks laid across boats or pontoons. If trucks were stalled by the bombing, peasants pushing bicycles outfitted with bam¬boo frames transported hundreds of pounds of cargo for miles, and porters gingerly balancing shoulder poles carried supplies over re¬markably long distances. When American airplanes attacked North Vietnam’s ports, longshoremen unloaded oil drums from Soviet and East European freighters onto barges and sampans that dispersed the barrels through an intricate web of canals and rivers into the coun¬tryside for safety. Statistics again tell the story. Even though the U.S. bombing campaign escalated drastically during the period, imports reaching North Vietnam by sea more than doubled to about 1.4 million tons between 1965 and 1967.

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