"Why don’t we concentrate on bombing their bicycles instead of the bridges?" Sen. Fulbright wanted to know.
In Vietnam’s long war for independence, first against longtime colonial power France and later against the United States and its allies, many factors contributed to the ultimate victory for Communist forces. At its core was the iron will and tenacity of millions of Vietnamese who had to rely on relatively primitive means to combat adversaries wielding state-of-the-art war-making technology. Among the low-tech means—often derisively dismissed by their foes—that proved critical to the outcome of their war with the French and, to a lesser extent, the United States, was the simple bicycle.
This point may be best illustrated by a London newspaper report of October 3, 1967, that described a hearing before the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas responded to a New York Times reporter’s testimony regarding the extensive use of bicycles by the Communist forces in Vietnam. The reporter, Harrison Salisbury, who had recently been in Hanoi, detailed for the committee how bicycles enabled the Viet Cong (VC) and regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to continually resupply their forces even under the most adverse conditions. Salisbury concluded his testimony with a strong assertion: “I literally believe that without bikes they’d have to get out of the war.”
The astonished Fulbright, almost springing up from his seat, replied to Salisbury: “Why don’t we concentrate on bombing their bicycles instead of the bridges? Does the Pentagon know about this?” Most of the committee members and those in the audience thought the senator was being sarcastic. Laughter erupted at the idea of vast numbers of sophisticated American aircraft hunting down bicycles in the thick jungles of Vietnam.
In contrast to the smirks and snickering, the stone-faced silence of the uniformed members of the U.S. military in attendance was revealing. They, along with their bosses in the Pentagon and in Vietnam, knew that the enemy’s employment of bicycles in the war in Southeast Asia was hugely significant to sustaining their war effort against the United States. It was no laughing matter. The bicycle had survived the most modern weapons in the American military arsenal.
After the Japanese were defeated at the end of World War II, the French once again took control of their Indochinese colonies. But the Communist Viet Minh, led by the diminutive Ho Chi Minh, were determined to drive the French imperialists from their homeland. The architect of their military strategy was General Vo Nguyen Giap, whose tactical model called for relentless small-scale actions against the French, designed to wear them down by cumulatively increasing their anxiety, inflicting constant losses and destroying their self-confidence. In order to do this, Giap had to be able to move men and war materiel speedily and stealthily around the battlefield.
By 1953, after seven years of savage fighting, the French had suffered 74,000 casualties, with another 190,000 troops bogged down in fruitless occupation. Hoping to negotiate a way out of the conflict, General Henri Navarre, the French supreme military commander in Indochina, devised a plan to draw Giap in to a decisive set-piece battle. If he could notch one clear victory, then France would be in a strong position to obtain an honorable political settlement that would allow Paris to quit the country without losing face.
The place Navarre chose for his climactic battle was Dien Bien Phu, a vital transport junction in a valley in the extreme west of the country, 220 miles from Hanoi. It sat astride the main route to Laos, where a crucial Viet Minh supply line from China linked up. Navarre was confident that his opponent did not have sufficient transport to bring in the food and weapons needed to win a major confrontation in this isolated area.
In late November 1953, 15,000 French troops occupied Dien Bien Phu. The Viet Minh accepted the challenge and quickly surrounded the French outpost with 50,000 fighters, supported by tens of thousands of workers and porters who cut new jungle paths to carry supplies to the battlefront.
The contest for the base became a battle of logistics. The French grievously erred by underestimating the Viet Minh’s ability to bring up heavy artillery and supplies for their troops. They expected to face only mortars, not heavy long-range guns. But Giap was able to place 144 heavy artillery pieces—plus dozens of lesser caliber—around the doomed French post.
The key to the Viet Minh’s supply effort in this epic battle was a combination of transport modes—built around the largest military bicycle-transport feat in history. Although the Vietnamese used 600 Russian-made Molotova 2.5-ton trucks as well as sampans, ponies and some 200,000 porters carrying spine-breaking loads, the mainstay of their logistical network was composed of 60,000 tough bicycle-pushing men and women.
On May 7, 1954, after 3 1/2 months of preparation, including the stockpiling of massive amounts of food and ammunition, followed by more than two months of vicious fighting, the beleaguered French bastion at Dien Bien Phu fell to the Viet Minh. The French lost more than 3,000 men killed and 8,000 taken prisoner. The Vietnamese lost 8,000 soldiers. Throughout the siege, the Viet Minh supply lines, maintained by the transport cyclists and other transport means, were never seriously interdicted by aircraft, even though the French knew of the supply routes and storage areas along the way. They simply did not have enough planes to disrupt the day and night flow of Viet Minh supplies reaching the battle zone. Further, the thick jungle canopy made accurate targeting of these supply lines very difficult.
In their fight against the French—and later the Americans—the Vietnamese favored the French-made Peugeot bicycle, with the Czech-built Favorit their next bike of choice. One of the Favorits set a record, hauling a total of 100 tons in 1961-62.With their large carrying capacity, bicycles were particularly effective on Vietnam’s narrow roads and tracks in the dry season, and easily modified for service. “First our bicycles had to be turned into xe tho [pack bikes], with the crossbar capable of carrying 200 kilograms [440 pounds] or more,” said Ding Van Ty, a bicycle brigade leader and repairman, in The Bicycle in Wartime, by Jean Fitzpatrick. “We had to strengthen all the parts….We camouflaged everything with leaves and moved at night.” Ty described how the seat was removed and a rack fashioned of metal, wood or bamboo lashed in place over the back wheel. This provided an extended line from which bags or boxes were hung and other goods tied on by ropes or strips of inner tubes. The bicycle frame was often strengthened by adding metal, wood, or bamboo struts, reinforcing the front forks and increasing the suspension. Even with two tenders walking each bike, the tonnage of supplies getting to the fighters proved to be a great deal more than that consumed by the bike tenders.
Once loaded, it was not possible to walk close enough alongside the bike to use the normal handlebars for steering. Hence, a wooden stick or bamboo pole was lashed to the handlebars that extended far enough to allow the tender to hold and steer the bicycle. Typically, another stick was inserted into the vertical seat tube that was used to push the bike along or hold it back on downward slopes. The carrying capacity for these modified two-wheelers ranged up to 600 pounds, with the average load being around 440 pounds, versus the 80- to 100-pound load that could be carried by a single porter. A record was set at Dien Bien Phu with a single bicycle carrying a load of 724 pounds. This achievement would be surpassed a decade later when one bicycle, or as the North Vietnamese called them, “steel horses,” carried 924 pounds along the entire Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1964.
In addition to transporting men and supplies, the bicycle served the needs of the wounded on the battlefield. In 1968 a Peugeot subsidiary produced a model especially for the North Vietnamese Army that contained surgical and medical kits and two headlights, with detachable extension cables for lighting a small field hospital. And a rudimentary form of medevac was devised using two bikes lashed together with long bamboo poles from which one or two stretchers could be suspended.
By 1963 the United States had 12,000 military advisers in South Vietnam and had taken the place of the French in Southeast Asia, with the new of aim of preventing the spread of communism across the region. Within six years, more than half a million U.S. troops and some 100,000 allied soldiers were fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Dismissing the French experience and defeat as partly the result of a lack of sophisticated technology, the American military employed its advanced war-making capability, its helicopters and overwhelming airpower in a massive way. Ignoring French advice, the U.S. military reckoned that simple things such as the bicycle were obsolete and that their effects on logistics were to be discounted.
To militarily deal with the Americans, Giap turned again to the strategy employed against the French—wage a protracted war and use Laos and Cambodia as sanctuaries. As part of his war-winning scheme, his men would counter U.S. mobility and firepower by moving and fighting at night. And to sustain his forces in the field, he would continue to rely on bicycle transport to deliver food and weapons to his forces. Giap used the bicycles, as one American colonel said, as “pickup trucks.” Hundreds of thousands of them were on the move daily.
Averaging 25 miles a day, Vietnamese cyclists traversed across narrow trails that were seldom straight for more than four yards and were studded by stumps, roots and snags. The riders’ heads and bodies were constantly striking overhanging bamboo and creepers. As bad as the pathways were, the many tiny, swaying bridges, suspended only by jungle vines over the hundreds of waterways, were worse. Sturdy, maneuverable and reliable in all these conditions, the bicycle also offered the advantage of silence. Tenders could hear American aircraft in time to pull into the undergrowth and avoid detection.
Although most of the U.S. military dismissed the importance of bicycles in the war, the Pentagon did commission a 1965 report on their use during wartime. Colonel B.F. Hardaway, chief of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Research and Development Field Unit-Vietnam, had requested the study to help the Pentagon assess the enemy’s use of bicycles and determine how best to counter it. The introduction noted, “Interest in the employment of bicycle troops is emerging once again, this time in Southeast Asia, where the road network is inadequate for motorized transportation, but where paths and dikes may provide an acceptable avenue for bicycle movement.” But the report gave little guidance; it was based mostly on American sources, with only a few references to Japanese use of bikes in Malaya and the impact bicycle transport had on the outcome at Dien Bien Phu. Soon after the report was issued, Hardaway’s superiors instructed him to drop the subject—and get on to more pertinent matters.
During the early 1960s, the North Vietnamese government started to expand and modernize the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which at that time was so narrow that it was only passable on foot or by bicycle. By 1975 the Trail would comprise 12,000 miles of roads and paths carved in the face of increasingly violent American efforts to close it down. Used during the First Indochina War as a line of communication to the north by the Viet Minh, the sparsely populated area paralleling the borders of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was actually a maze of paths, roads, streams and rivers running down the spine of the Annamite Mountain range of eastern Laos, through some of the most inhospitable terrain and impenetrable jungle in the world. The web of paths took months to traverse on foot at a rate of six miles a day. Bikes and ponies were used on portions of the Trail to carry supplies south, but even their use was impractical on much of it.
In 1964 the growing American presence in South Vietnam caused Hanoi to begin to enlarge the Trail into a truck route to ferry more supplies to sustain VC and NVA troops. The Trail was necessary to make up the shortfall in sea-transported supplies, which had been severely interdicted by the Americans.
By 1966 the Trail had become the logistical backbone of North Vietnam’s military effort. Supplies and troops primarily exited at three major points: the A Shau Valley, the Ia Drang Valley and War Zone C. Using the modernized Trail, the number of troops and the quantity of supplies moving south grew dramatically, from a total of 30,000 men and 20 to 30 tons of supplies a year in the period 1959-64, to 10,000 to 20,000 troops a month and 120 tons of war material a day by 1968.
As impressive as the numbers were, the success of the North Vietnamese resupply was also aided by the meager supply requirements of the Communist fighting forces in South Vietnam. A 10,000-man NVA or VC division needed only three tons of supplies per day. Further, much of the food consumed by the Communists was taken from South Vietnamese villagers as a form of tax and therefore was usually within moving distance of its recipients. The result of all these factors allowed the bicycle, plentiful in all regions of Vietnam, to be utilized to its fullest extent and to provide a cheap and ready mode of transportation to a military logistical requirement that was modest at best.
American attempts to stop traffic on the Trail were persistent yet uniformly unsuccessful. Clandestine CIA operations, ground incursions and B-52 carpet bombings all came up short. The most effective tactic to disrupt Trail movement was the use of low-level helicopter attacks against truck traffic. Although the helicopters flew only a small percentage of missions against the truck convoys on the Trail, they accounted for half of the destruction inflicted on them. Helicopters, however, were vulnerable to the thousands of enemy antiaircraft guns that studded the Trail by the late 1960s, and these missions were soon replaced by high-level—but highly inaccurate—B-52 bombing sorties. When U.S. strikes did stall a truck column, bicycle and human porters would be brought in to transport the goods. Overall, U.S. aerial interdiction against the route’s logistical effort inflicted only 2 percent of the losses the North Vietnamese suffered while using the Trail.
Although French and U.S. airpower could not stanch the flow of supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the terrain nevertheless took its toll on the Viet Minh and later North Vietnamese porters and bicycle tenders. Seventy-two military cemeteries that line its route attest to the dangers nature posed in addition to human intervention. More cyclists and porters—estimates range from 10 to 20 percent—perished from disease, exhaustion, and attacks by tigers, elephants and bears than by
bombs or bullets. They rested at the many relay stations on the Trail, which were really nothing more than clearings in the forest, and they were moved every few days to prevent the enemy from discovering them.
As the Vietnam War intensified, so did the size and scope of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which more than anything showed that the conflict between the United States and North Vietnam was a war of supply, a war the North Vietnamese were not losing no matter what the United States did. Starting in 1965, the number of North Vietnamese trucks traversing south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail rose to about 2,300, with 2,500 moving in the opposite direction. This number would dramatically increase during the remainder of the war as the truck became the mainstay of the resupply effort of the North Vietnamese.
The bicycle, however, was never entirely replaced as a means of transportation of war materiel. In fact, the organization responsible for the movement of all supplies to the south along the Trail, the 559th Transport Group, throughout the war retained among its 50,000 troops and 100,000 laborers two battalions of some 2,000 cyclists engaged in moving supplies to inaccessible areas along the Trail and supplementing the efforts of the truck convoys.
Indeed, in the jungles of Vietnam, the bicycle continued to be a competitor against the best 20th-century war technology the West had.
Arnold Blumberg, who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, is a frequent contributor to military history publications and is the author of the forthcoming book from Casemate Publications, When Washington Burned: An Illustrated History of the War of 1812.