The Vietnam War (1955-1975) effectively became a proxy Cold War battle over communism, with North Vietnam supported by the Soviet Union, China and other communist allies, and the South supported by America and anti-communist allies.
The Viet Cong were the guerrilla force that, with the support of the North Vietnamese Army, fought against South Vietnam and its allies. Despite the superior firepower of the American military, the determination of the Viet Cong was exceptional, and they were experts in utilising their surroundings to create booby traps to hamper America’s ability to pursue them in a retreat.
Booby traps were cheap and relatively simple to make, and the Viet Cong used them to devastating effect. Unlike mines, many of the booby traps laid were made from bamboo which could be hidden from mine detectors, and often worked on their own, meaning traps could be set ahead of time without the need for monitoring.
Many were designed to maim instead of kill – not only did this mean other soldiers were required to remove their wounded colleagues which hampered operations, but it also meant the traps were a psychological weapon as word about them spread. It’s estimated that approximately 11% of deaths and 15% of wounds to American soldiers were caused by booby traps and mines in the Vietnam War.
Here are eight of the most dangerous traps:
1. Punji sticks
Punji sticks were the most infamous of the booby traps used, said to account for 2% of wounds to American soldiers. They were mostly made out of bamboo (though sometimes metal) in varying lengths and width, and had a simple sharpened spike on one end to impale its victim. Sometimes the sticks were smeared with urine, feces or plant poison to also cause infection.
The sticks were often jammed into camouflaged pits dug in areas likely to be passed through by American troops, which soldiers would then fall in to and become impaled. The point of penetration was usually in the lower leg area, with the sticks not necessarily meant to kill but rather designed to would or slow down a unit whilst victims were evacuated.
Sometimes the sticks pointed downwards at an angle, with soldiers stepping into a pit unable to remove their leg without causing further damage. Occasionally the Viet Cong would dig pits beside each other, so when a soldier fell in and needed help, his colleague would then get trapped in the pit next door.
Punji sticks were also used in conjunction with barbed wire, in tunnels and sometimes deployed in preparation for an ambush in areas where soldiers might be expected to take cover, thus impaling themselves in the process.
2. Grenade Traps
These were usually placed along tunnel bases or in a stream. One side of a string was attached to a stake rising up from the floor, with the other side attached to the safety pin in the grenade. When a soldier tripped the wire, the grenade would detonate.
Alternatively, grenades were used inside cans – these were fastened low to the ground or tied to trees either side of a path and connected by a wire. The grenade’s pins had already been pulled before being inserted into a can, with the safety lever held down. When the tripwire was triggered by a soldier’s foot, the grenades were pulled from the cans, releasing the safety levers and igniting the grenade.
3. Cartridge Traps
Sometimes known as ‘Toe-poppers’ these were small arms cartridges such as bullets that were placed within a bamboo tube and over a nail, and then camouflaged in the ground with the tip protruding. When stepped on, the pressure placed on the bullet would force it down onto the nail, igniting the primer and exploding.
This created an opportunity for the Viet Cong to ambush whilst the wounded solider was treated. The traps usually wounded, but could be fatal depending on the shell’s size.
4. Snake Pits
Snakes were commonly used in traps inside tunnels. Tripwires would trigger the release of snakes hidden inside bamboo sticks. Often poisonous snakes were used, and were known as ‘three-step snakes’ as that’s how far a soldier could make it after being bitten by one, due to the snakes’ venom. American “tunnel rats” had to be specially trained to navigate and disarm these traps.
Snakes were also hidden by the Viet Cong in soldier’s packs, and sometimes tied into the branches of trees by their tails at face height.
5. The Mace
Possibly one of the worst booby traps US soldiers faced was the mace. Based on a tripwire, once the wire was triggered, a large metal or wooden ball with spikes would swing down from a tree.
6. Tiger Traps
Similar to the mace, the tiger trap consisted of a weighted, spike-studded board. A tripwire would undo the catch on a rope, releasing a plank weighted with barbed metal spikes.
7. Pressure Release Traps
The Viet Cong quickly learned to booby trap not only items that were of military importance but also items such as flags and other war trophies. The NVA and Viet Cong loved to fly flags and knew US troops liked to capture them – when forced to leave a location, they often rigged the flags with an explosive, so when US troops started to take down the flag, the booby trap would go off.
The Viet Cong also frequently used secondary booby traps, so as soldiers rushed in to help injured colleagues, a delayed secondary charge would go off.
8. Bamboo Whip
Spikes were placed over a long bamboo pole, which was pulled back into an arc using a catch attached to a tripwire. When the wire was tripped, the bamboo pole whipped back into the straight position, impaling the soldier who had triggered the tripwire.