Blowing up bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

“WE’RE dealing with two 500lb bombs tomorrow and you can come if you like,” said Mr B. I was hardly likely to say no, was I?

Inspired by a review of this fascinating-sounding book, A Great Place to Have A War, by Joshua Kurlantzick in the UK Daily Telegraph, I thought I would dig up (excuse the pun) an account of my day blowing up bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.

It happened like this…

I was in the town of Attapeu, in the very south-east of Laos and I was thinking of volunteering as an English teacher (I have a recognised TEFL qualification). However, I was worried that the school that was appealing for volunteers wasn’t for ordinary kids – in what is, after all, one of the poorest countries on the planet – but for the offspring of the elite, and an elite that’s practically a junta at that. Call me uncharitable, but if I’m going to work for free (and pay for my accommodation, by the looks of things), I want to be helping the poorest of the poor, not kids who are already extremely privileged.

As I didn’t know what to do I decided to consultant the oracle. Or rather an oracle, in the shape of an expat working for the bomb disposal organisation UXO Lao, who was staying in the same hotel as me.

I found out from the receptionist which was his room and pushed a note under the door, then went out for my tea. When I returned, Mr B was in reception. We chatted for about three hours, about life as an expat in Laos, NGOs, poverty, backpackers, my volunteering in Cambodia, mines, bombs, all sorts. And then he asked: “Have you got plans for tomorrow?” “Nope,” I replied. “We’re dealing with two 500lb bombs and you can come if you like,” said Mr B. “That would be very interesting,” I said calmly, while inside I was squealing: “Yippeee! Yippee!”

So 7am the following day saw me, picnic in hand, clambering into a UXO Lao 4WD with Mr B, his translator, a couple of EODs (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) officers and a couple of other staff. We took a ferry (originally a Russian pontoon, but now fitted with a motor big enough to enable the ferry to carry all manner of large vehicles) across the Se Kong river, and headed to the village of Phu Vong.

The parts of Laos around the Ho Chi Minh Trail are some of the most heavily-bombed places in the world; the US dropped something like two million tons of bombs on the country during the Vietnam War. However, only around one third of those bombs went off when they were dropped, so the place is littered with unexploded ones. That’s the bad news.

The good, if that’s the correct word, is that, unlike Cambodia’s mines, which are just waiting for some unwitting person to step on or drive over them, you really have to try hard to detonate Laos’s bombs (unless, as shown on a UXO Lao awareness t-shirt, you hit one with your shovel while digging for frogs). However, that doesn’t stop the locals from trying…

It isn’t unknown, for example, for them to take apart any bombs they find, so they can take out the explosive and use it for dynamite fishing. Officially, dynamite fishing is banned in Laos, because, as you can imagine, causing an explosion in a river then scooping out the fish (and other creatures) killed as a result is playing havoc with local ecosystems, but, of course, it’s still going on.

UXO Lao, which is part NGO but also works directly with the government, has been trying to educate the villagers about why – even for former soldiers – it’s not smart to tinker with 30-year-old metal containers stuffed with explosive, and to persuade them instead to report any bombs they find. And indeed, it was residents of Phu Vong and an adjoining village who had told UXO Lao about the two 500lb-ers I was to see blown up.

The first, in Phu Vong, was a few inches below the surface, on some rough land at the side of the road. When we arrived the site had already been prepared by other UXO Lao staff. They had cleared most of the earth around the bomb and packed it with sandbags, and they had started evacuating the locals. Mr B is a former soldier. Having trained in bomb disposal, he spent a couple of years in the UK, defusing WWII bombs in Kent. In the UK, he said, dealing with 500lbs of explosive would take at least two days, the evacuation of miles around, and a really delicate operation by a highly-skilled bomb disposal officer to dismantle the thing and remove or disable the fuse.

In Laos, though, a place where there are no built-up areas and not much money floating around, the simplest and cheapest option is blow the thing up. In a controlled way, of course. The situation is made simpler because the American bombs dropped on Laos are far less sophisticated than the ones dropped on Britain by the Germans, which had booby traps and similar devices.

It works like this: the EODs fill a small pipe with plastic explosive, just enough to blow a small hole in the bomb casing, but hopefully not enough to disturb the fuse and detonate it.

UXO Lao EODs crouched round a 500lb bomb they are about to dispose of.

UXO Lao EODs put a small amount of plastic explosive into a pipe.

There’s little in the way of high-tech equipment – some of the items they use have been designed by Mr B and made by a bloke in Attapeu market! Put it this way: the pipe isn’t placed directly on the bomb but is suspended a few inches over it, taped into a cradle made from sticks broken off surrounding shrubs and then taped together. A couple of sandbags are placed on the bomb and the cradle is balanced between those. It’s that sophisticated.

UXO Lao EOD inspects the small charge used to disable a bigger bomb

The explosive-packed pipe resting above the bomb.

A fuse wire is attached to the explosive, a last check is done to ensure that the mile or so around the bomb has been evacuated, then the bomb disposal team retreats about a mile, and someone detonates the charge.

"Pipebomb" balanced between two sandbags resting on the 'proper' bomb.

The “pipebomb” resting on the bigger bomb. The EOD attaches a fuse then heads about a mile away, uncoiling the length of fuse as he goes. When he reaches (what he hopes is) a safe distance he ignites the fuse, then waits for the bang.

Once the bomb casing is broken open the EODs get rid of the explosive, usually by setting fire to it. The bomb shouldn’t explode because it’s already been opened, although there is a chance that the fuse (fuses if more than one has been fitted) will be set off by the fire, but, again, the explosion will be smaller than if the whole bomb had gone off. Even so, the controlled explosions are not an exact science, and sometimes the bomb gets set off for real in the process.

Even though we were a mile from the bomb Mr B said we should hide behind a tree, which would catch the shrapnel if the bomb did go off. However, we ended up sheltering behind an abandoned house. Like most of the local homes, it was a one-room grass-and-thatch affair on stilts, but Mr B pointed out that it had something extra: a “daughter’s annexe”. Mr B told me that among the local people, the Phu Thai, if a daughter reaches marriageable age (mid-teens) and her parents don’t want to risk her being left on the shelf, they add an “extension” to their home, where she can “entertain” “friends” – ie potential husbands – without disturbing the rest of the family! And in such a modest country, where women who show even their ankles are seen as sluts!

The explosion was bloody loud but Mr B said he could tell that the whole bomb hadn’t gone off. When we went back to it, the casing had been ripped open and the explosive was scattered round about. We gathered up as much as we could and put it in the bomb casing, then retreated while the EODs lit a fire. Two small booms later and we knew the fuses had been destroyed so it was safe to go back to the bomb.

Remains of the 500lb bomb, with the casing ripped open and explosive spilling out.

The result of the small controlled explosion. Ideally the ‘pipebomb’ would have blown just a small hole in the bomb casing rather than ripped it open, but at least the bomb is now ‘safe’. The next step is to cover the bomb with dry grass and start a fire, to burn off the remaining explosive, so the locals aren’t tempted to reclaim it.

The second bomb was also a 500lb-er, in the forest close to a village a little further along the road. We walked half-a-mile or so to the bomb, past massive bomb craters, legacies of the war years. This bomb was also just a couple of inches from the surface and the area had already been cleared for us. Again the EODs made and placed the charge then we walked back to the other side of the village, trailing the electric wire for the charge behind us. The EODs detonated the charge and there was a boom, followed by a whistling sound, which I assumed had to be a bird, as we were too far away from the bomb to hear anything moved by it.

However, when we returned to the bomb, it was five yards from its original position, the casing was ripped open and the endplate, which contained the fuse, was missing. Someone found it about 20 yards away, so that was probably what had made the whistling sound! Again we gathered up the explosive and burned it, destroying the fuse in the process.

Then we had lunch, on the banks of the river, directly opposite a Ho Chi Minh Trail track. The track on our side had been upgraded into a logging road (many of the trees are sent directly to Viet Nam or Thailand, apparently) but the bit across the river is pretty much as it was 30 years ago. That’ll change soon, though, as the river is due to be bridged or forded soon, and no doubt that track will become a road too.

On the way back Mr B told me that his job was supposed to be to train local staff to take over his job. The EODs with us were recruited from local villages, mainly because they speak the same language as the locals and can, hopefully, make them understand why it’s so stupid to go playing about with big bits of metal packed with TNT. At first it was difficult to find recruits, understandable when you think about it: UXO Lao spends weeks warning people about how dangerous these bombs are, then asks them to let their sons and daughters work with them! However, once people realised the job of an EOD is actually to not get blown up, and that the pay is pretty good, the problems disappeared.

The training doesn’t cover just setting up controlled explosions but also things like calculating evacuation areas, radio communication, surveying for bombs, stuff like that.

Unbelievably there are some bombs even nastier than the ones I had encountered. The formal name is cluster bombs, but round here they’re known as “bombies”. They are basically bombs within bombs: scores of tennis ball-sized bombs packed into a single 1,000lb-or-so bomb casing.

The idea was that the bomb casings would explode on impact, scattering bombies over a wide area, where they would lie just waiting for some movement to set them off. A couple of months or so before my outing, the team had shifted 20 or so bombies from a school playground….

And if clearing up the mess left by the American bombing campaign isn’t time-consuming enough, UXO Lao sometimes finds itself dealing with bombs from the French colonial conflict, and even some from World War II.

Laos, 2002.