Booby traps have been used in most wars since World War I but none as much as in the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese relied heavily on Vietnam booby traps during the war and they were something every American service member dreaded.
Vietnam War Booby Traps
Vietnam War booby traps were one of the main weapons the Viet Cong used during the war. In fact, they relied so heavily on them that they used the booby traps both offensively and defensively.
The Viet Cong would booby trap the small amount of weapons caches they had, any routes of communications they used, and the areas surrounding some of their hidden base camps.
The Viet Cong also learned to booby traps items that the allied troops might be interested in, then they would leave them lying in plain sight. For example, a flag lying on the ground after a retreat or a map might be booby-trapped.
It’s not that surprising that the Viet Cong relied on booby traps to such a large extent. Weaker military forces frequently used booby traps to try to get the upper hand. Take a look at some of the reasons:
- Vietnam booby traps were cheap compared to more conventional weapons
- They’re fairly simple to make and to use
- Booby traps were much more psychologically terrifying than conventional weapons
- Booby traps could be set and left, no one had to operate them
- Booby traps were undetectable by mine detectors because they were generally made from bamboo
Vietnam War booby traps were a very real threat to troops. 11% of all deaths and 15% of all wounds in Vietnam for allied troops were from booby traps according to the Australian Ministry of Defence.
It wasn’t just the injuries and deaths from booby traps that slowed allied troops down, it was having to work slowly enough to try to discover and avoid the booby traps. Since booby traps are concealed, they were difficult to find. Troops would have to be diverted to search for traps, guard important areas, and help when someone was injured.
Types of Booby Traps
The Viet Cong used a number of different Vietnam booby traps to deter allied troops. Interestingly, some of the materials had U.S. and Australian origins; things like dud bombs and abandoned ammunition. Besides those materials, the Viet Cong relied heavily on resources they could find readily available in the jungle; bamboo, coconuts, and venomous snakes were all popular options.
As far as the types of booby traps, there were explosive booby traps and non-explosive booby traps. There were also booby traps used on vehicles and ones used on routes traveled frequently by the troops.
Although the Viet Cong used a number of different Vietnam booby traps, there are some that stick out in soldiers’ minds more than others. Take a look at a few of the more common booby traps:
- Punji sticks
- Punji pit
- Snake traps
- Tripwire booby traps
- Toe popper
Let’s take a look at what each of these booby traps entailed and why each of these Vietnam booby traps was such a terrifying thought for allied troops.
Punji sticks fall into the non-explosive type of booby trap. They’re also known as punji stakes and were probably the most common type of booby trap during the Vietnam War.
Punji sticks were made from bamboo or metal and had sharpened, needle-like tips hardened by fire. The tips were sharp enough to easily pierce a soldier’s boots or uniform.
The punji sticks were then planted in holes and camouflaged by rice paddies or some other small covering and soldiers were pierced by it when they stepped through the covering.
The Viet Cong turned the punji sticks into a rudimentary biological weapon by coating the ends with urine, feces, or some other substance that would cause infection when a soldier was stabbed by it. Punji sticks did not necessarily kill a soldier immediately but the infection caused by the excrement frequently would.
A punji pit was a collection of punji sticks placed into the bottom of a hole. The hole was usually only about 20 to 30 centimeters deep. The point of the pit was to increase how heavily the soldier fell on the point of a punji stick.
Popular spots for punji pits were areas where soldiers would most likely throw themselves to escape enemy fire. These might be ditches, by logs, tall grass, stream banks, or helicopter landing zones.
Not all punji pits were exactly the same. One variation included punji sticks that had the tip pointed downward so soldiers who fell into the pits were actually injured when rescuers tried to pull them out of the pit.
Another frightening booby trap the Viet Cong used was snake traps. These traps were just as they sound. The Viet Cong would leave snakes in old weapons caches, in the corners or hanging from the ceilings of tunnel complexes they dug.
In addition to these spots, the Viet Cong would also carry the snakes in their packs in the hopes that they would strike anyone who searched them. Another booby trap was when the Viet Cong would tie the snakes into a bundle of bamboo and when troops opened the bamboo to search, the snake would strike.
These weren’t just some harmless garden snakes either but deadly bamboo garden snakes. The snakes were frequently nicknamed “Two-Step Charlie” or “Three-step snakes” because once a soldier was bit; they wouldn’t take more than a couple of steps before they died.
Tripwire Booby Traps
Another favorite of the Viet Cong were various booby traps that were triggered by a tripwire. Two common tripwire booby traps were the bamboo whip and the spiked ball.
The bamboo whip was a long bamboo pole with spikes placed up and down it. The pole was pulled back into an arc and held there by a catch, which was attached to a tripwire. When a soldier tripped the wire, the catch would release and the spike-covered bamboo pole would slam forcefully into a soldier’s chest, causing severe if not fatal injury.
The spiked ball was another painful booby trap triggered by a tripwire. A heavy clay ball was covered with sharp spikes. The ball would be pulled back into a tree and held with a catch attached to a tripwire. When the tripwire was tripped, the spiked ball would swing down from the tree, almost always causing fatal wounds to the head and shoulder area.
A toe popper booby trap was different than the above booby traps because they were explosive and required man-made materials as opposed to natural resources the Viet Cong could find in the jungle. Toe popper booby traps were also called cartridge traps and were very hard to uncover.
A toe popper was a bullet planted in the ground in a tube and over a nail. The tip of the bullet would be just above the ground so that when a soldier stepped on it, it would strike the nail and explode. If it was a larger shell, it could be fatal but either way, toe poppers almost always left a soldier permanently disabled.
Psychological Effects of Vietnam Booby Traps
Although Vietnam booby traps caused plenty of injuries and even deaths and greatly slowed troops down, that wasn’t the only effect. The booby traps greatly impacted allied troops psychologically. Soldiers were constantly on edge not knowing when they might trigger one of the booby traps.
Because of the mental fatigue and stress the booby traps caused, morale for American troops was frequently low simply because they were exhausted. They were being injured or killed without making any actual contact with the enemy and sometimes the booby traps were made with their own abandoned equipment.
Soldiers who experienced Vietnam booby traps faced years of psychological effects from their time there.