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Remnants of the Secret War in Laos

Dealing with unexploded ordinance (UXO) left over from the fighting in Laos during the Vietnam War.

By Peter Alan Lloyd for
The Sepon office of UXO Lao
The Sepon office of UXO Lao

The Ho Chi Minh Trail wasn’t just one route. It consisted of thousands of kilometers of well-concealed vehicle tracks, bicycle routes, foot trails and rivers that wound through the mountains and sparsely-populated jungles of North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and ended in South Vietnam. Many of the main arteries of the Ho Chi Minh Trail converged around the town to Tchepone in Laos.

Credit: Peter Alan Lloyd
Artillery shells discovered along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, near Sepon, Laos
Artillery shells discovered along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, near Sepon, Laos

Tchepone lay on Route 9, a road which bisects Laos from the Vietnamese border in the east to the Mekong river in the west. Unable to materially interdict the Trail, in 1971, the U.S., prevented by Congressional restrictions from having their own combat troops or advisors inside Laos, decided to use its ally, the South Vietnamese Army, to invade Laos along Route 9, to cut the Trail and to seize the strategic town of Tchepone.

Credit: UXO Lao
Old jet fuel tank converted into a boat at Tchepone, Laos
Old jet fuel tank converted into a boat at Tchepone, Laos

Called “Lam Son 719,” this offensive relied on South Vietnamese Army units to do the fighting on the ground, backed by the full weight of U.S. fighter, bombing and helicopter assets, supported by U.S. artillery bases inside Vietnam,ranged along the border with Laos. Unfortunately for the U.S., the North Vietnamese troops fought back tenaciously, eventually routing the South Vietnamese Army who retreated back across the border in disarray and ignominious defeat.

Credit: Peter Alan Lloyd
Tchepone’s bank vault
Tchepone’s bank vault

For Tchepone, victory was Pyrrhic, as the old town was obliterated by bombing, and all that remains of the old town today are a bank vault, handfuls of rubble, bomb craters and a bullet-scarred temple wall.

Credit: Peter Alan Lloyd
Tchepone’s old temple, bearing scars of the Lam Son 719 invasion
Tchepone’s old temple, bearing scars of the Lam Son 719 invasion

The town built to replace Tchepone is now called Sepon, and I recently travelled up Route 9 to visit the town. I could still see bomb craters from the invasion, most of which are now duck ponds, although a more potent reminder of the conflict appeared nearer town, where a UXO Lao team was combing an area of recently-cleared jungle, checking for deadly unexploded ordnance (UXO).

Credit: Peter Alan Lloyd
UXO Lao operatives prepare to detonate airplane bombs
UXO Lao operatives prepare to detonate airplane bombs

That felt appropriate, because I was visiting to talk to the head of UXO Lao’s office, Soubin Phasou, about how the problems of Sepon’s violent past were being dealt with by UXO clearance teams in this war-torn corner of Savannaket Province. As I walked into the UXO Lao compound, I noticed a number of deep bomb craters. Soubin told me the UXO headquarters had been built on a former North Vietnamese Army camp, which had been flattened during the war. There were originally thirty-five bomb craters pock-marking the small UXO site, most of which had been filled in when the office set up operations in 1997.

Credit: USO Lao
More of Sepon’s deadly harvest
More of Sepon’s deadly harvest

Soubin said that 25 percent of villages in Laos are contaminated with UXO, from the two million tons of ordnance dropped on the country during the Vietnam War, a figure which includes an estimated 270 million cluster bomblets. UXO Lao believe 30 percent of all plane-dropped munitions failed to explode, leaving over eighty million cluster bomblets strewn around the jungles, rivers and farmland of Laos. Around 40 people are killed or injured by UXO in Savannakhet Province alone each year. UXO Lao have a total staff of 190 in Savannakhet province, and thirteen UXO clearance teams operating full time in the rice fields, jungles and villages . Soubin believed Savannakhet was the most heavily bombed province in Laos and certainly the area around Sepon had taken more than its unfair share of the bombing, on account of its proximity to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the presence of Route 9, and,of course, during the Lam Son 719 Offensive itself.

Credit: UXO Lao
Cluster bomblets discovered in a recently-cleared field
Cluster bomblets discovered in a recently-cleared field

Children and farmers bear the brunt of UXO-related injuries and deaths in Laos, usually caused by cluster bomblets which are discovered by children, attracted to their shiny yellow casings, or they’re struck by farmers working over fields with hoes and digging implements. According to Soubin, “As the province becomes more populated, the demand for farmland becomes greater, the jungle is cut back. Every day new items of UXO are being discovered and have to be dealt with.”

Credit: UXO Lao
Gunpowder being burned from a Vietnam War bomb in the Laotian jungle
Gunpowder being burned from a Vietnam War bomb in the Laotian jungle

His teams have recently defused 3,000 lb bombs dropped by U.S. aircraft, as well as destroying rifles, grenades, RPG rocket caches and artillery shells left over from the war, which are regularly unearthed along the old routes of the Ho Chi Minh Trail which still wind through the nearby jungle and mountains. Each year his UXO teams check and clear millions of square meters of farmland, and they have destroyed over 50,000 cluster bomblets since 1997. In 2013 alone, they have dealt with over 3,000 of them.

Credit: UXO Lao
Rocket-propelled grenades and mortar bombs discovered on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos
Rocket-propelled grenades and mortar bombs discovered on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos

“Just in Savannakhet province, over 1,100 aeroplane bombs have been located and destroyed since 1997, as well as thousands of land mines”, he said. “Regrettably there are many more out there.” “How long will it take to entirely clear UXOs from Laos?” I asked. Soubin looked wistful, shook his head and said, “I fear we’ll never be free of the curse of UXO from our country, but we just have to keep working to do the best we can for our children and their children. What else can we do?”

Credit: UXO Lao

One of the main reasons the U.S. lost the Second Indochina War (better known as the Vietnam War) was because of the North Vietnamese Army’s logistical supply lines, collectively known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, along which the North Vietnamese moved troops, weapons and supplies in ever-greater quantities during the war. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was described in The National Security Agency’s official history of the Vietnam War as one of the great achievements of military engineering in the 20th century.

In spite of extensive bombing, shelling, surveillance and interdiction by top secret Special Forces missions and CIA-run operations in Laos, the U.S. never succeeded in cutting this vital supply line into South Vietnam, except for a few hours at a time.

Peter Alan Lloyd is a British author and writer with a special interest in the Secret War in Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Trail (http://www.peteralanlloyd.com).