The Vietnam War lasted for some 20 years. With the involvement of the United States, they brought with them jet-powered strategic bombers, chemical defoliants, and precision-guided munitions. On the other hand, Viet Cong had makeshift and crude weapons alongside their rusty weapons captured from the French and even bamboo spears. It sounded like an unfair match, but there was one skill the Vietnamese excelled at, their inventive use and creation of booby traps.

Ah, booby traps. Relatively simple, cheap yet effective in hurting (or killing) the poor victims. According to this report, 11 percent of Army deaths and 17 percent of wounds resulted from booby traps. Apart from physical damages, booby traps also had psychological effects, taking a toll on the army’s minds. They would alter their routes to try to avoid these traps— existent or not. Most operations and encounters took place in the jungles. The Viet Cong would place them in possible helicopter landing zones, mountain trails, in the rice paddy, tree lines; anywhere the enemies would possibly pass by, with markers only they could immediately notice. They’re not always aimed to kill but to delay and slow down the American forces and their sophisticated weaponry.

Punji Stakes

A punji stake pit in the Cu Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Jorge Láscar/Wikimedia Commons

Do you hate it when you get splinters? Then you wouldn’t like this booby trap. Also called punji sticks, these spikes are pretty simple and straightforward: long bamboo spikes were placed upward in a pit and covered with a thin frame camouflaged in grass, mud, or leaves. They would smear these sticks with urine or feces or anything that could spread infection on the anticipated wounds. Just this year, there were reports that the Indian government used an improvised version of these punji sticks against the protesting farmers in Delhi.

Mace Trap

Mace trap. Photo credit: Funker530 / History Collection

Once triggered, the mace trap would swing down from above and take everyone out on its way. They could be made from various forms— spiked mud balls or metal or wooden balls that could be 24 inches big and 18 kilograms heavy.

Tiger Trap

The cousin of mace trap, the tripwire would release a large spike-studded board weighted with bricks and stones that would kill anyone below it.

Bamboo Whip

Whip trap. Photo: Museum of Military History

The long bamboo pole was bent at an arch and held by a catch connected to a tripwire. Once the wire was tripped, it would release the catch, making the bamboo whip back on its original position. Sometimes, the ends of these bamboo whips were covered in spikes that would strike and impale the enemy on the torso.

Snake Pits

Bamboo Pit Viper (Trimeresurus gramineus). Dr. Raju Kasambe / Wikimedia Commo

As the name suggests, the Viet Cong would carry Bamboo Pit Vipers on their backpacks so when Americans try to search inside them, they would be bitten. They would also place these slithery friends inside bamboos and hide them along their tunnels so when American “tunnel rats” crawl down, they would accidentally release these snakes and bite them. Bamboo Pit Vipers were nicknamed “two-step snakes” because you could only take two steps before you dropped dead once bitten by these venomous snakes.

This 1997 report in the New York Times states that 90% of the booby-traps that were made from land mines were mines that had been previously laid and then dug up and recovered by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces.

Another method involved the use of a single bullet buried just below the ground on top of an improved firing pin.  A soldier stepping on the tip of the round would drive the pin into the primer and the round would fire into his foot and perhaps into his body as well.

Since booby-traps tend to be indiscriminate weapons that would also kill innocent civilians that came across them, they are forbidden under the Laws of Armed Conflict in most circumstances unless they are used in such a way as to assure that only an opponent’s military forces would come in contact with them. The Japanese Army was well known for rigging the bodies of dead Americans and even their own soldiers with booby traps(usually hand grenades) that would go off when the body was moved.

In the Vietnam conflict, the use of booby traps was generally prohibited by U.S. forces.  This doesn’t mean that it was strictly enforced.  Special Operations units operating behind enemy lines employed the methods of the enemy in creating booby traps for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces operating in the area.  Most often used was the M18A1 Claymore Mine which could be rigged with non-electrical tripwires.  Several years ago we wrote about how the Claymore could be set up for rapid employment by troops meeting an overwhelming enemy force and trying to break contact called the “Drop-kick” method.  This weapon and method of employment are still in use today.

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