This is the fourth post of our 6 part series, Bicycles at War.
In the wake of World War II, the militaries of the West left bicycles behind for the automobile and the armored personnel carrier. Bicycle infantry units in the German army were disbanded alongside the rest of the defeated forces. The Allied armies demobilized, disbanding the vast majority of their troops, including all of the relatively few bicycle units. The sole European holdout was Switzerland, where the Bicycle Grenadiers still played a vital role. But more on them later.
In Eastern Asia, it was a different story. The bicycle continued to be used by the Red Chinese army for guerrilla attacks on the Nationalist forces. Truck convoys would be attacked by small groups of partisans. The ubiquity of the bicycle in China made it easy for partisans to blend in, before and after their attacks on Chiang Kai Sheks fleets of American trucks. And the bicycle was to become the key to the Vietnamese defeat of their French overlords at Dien Bien Phu.
During the opening stages of World War II, the Japanese had overrun the Western colonies in East Asia, often on bicycles. But after the Japanese defeat and surrender, Dutch Sumatra, British Malaya, French Vietnam, and the American Philippines were all returned to their respective European masters. Needless to say, the natives were restless and demanded freedom. The Allied armies that had fought for freedom from German tyranny in Europe now fought to deny the independence of the colonies that they could not protect from the Japanese. The irony was palpable.
As in their newly reinstated colony of Algeria, the French were brutally fighting a native insurrection in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh had initially appealed to President Truman for recognition and support after the Japanese defeat. And even though a Vietnamese Declaration of Independence had been proclaimed that was almost a word-for-word copy of the American Declaration, he had been rebuffed. It was only then that Ho turned red, and sought the support of the Soviet Union, setting the stage for a conflict that would define the Cold War.
Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap chose to fight asymmetrically, using ambushes and roadside bombs to demoralize and deplete the French army. By 1953 the French had suffered 74,000 casualties amongst an army of 190,000, and French General Henri Navarre realized that he could not defeat the Vietnamese in a war of occupation. Navarre chose instead to occupy the crossroads of Northern Vietnam with 19,000 troops at Dien Bien Phu. He hoped to simultaneously block the flow of Chinese supplies into Vietnam and lure Giap into a battle that the French could win, and thereby open the way for a negotiated settlement: a peace with honor, to use Kissinger’s phrase.
Giap took the bait, but not in the way that Navarre expected, and it would prove to be the shining moment for the bicycle as a tool of logistics, if not warfare. The French had unchallenged air superiority over the Vietnamese and could bomb any road or convoy at will. Giap chose to bypass easily targeted roads in favor of inconspicuous trails. He moved hundreds of thousands of tons of materiel into the hills ringing the valley of Dien Bien Phu using Peugeot bicycles sold to the Vietnamese by their French colonial overlords and thereby turned Mercantilism on its head.
Giap patiently assembled hundreds of artillery pieces, millions of rounds of ammunition, and tons of food around Dien Bien Phu before laying siege to the French, who dismissed the capability of the Vietnamese to move anything of consequence by bicycle through the jungle on piddling trails. After a seven-week siege, the French surrendered and Vietnamese independence was won.
While a bicycle by itself can carry little more than half its rider’s weight in cargo safely, it can become a true beast of burden when pushed. The Vietnamese transformed pedestrian Peugeots into xe tho, or pack bikes. The wheels were reinforced, the frame buttressed, the handlebars extended, and cargo racks added everywhere. A Vietnamese pack bike could transport 200 kilograms (400+ pounds) of cargo, or more. After a decade of refinement, the steel horse pack bikes on the Ho Chi Minh Trail could carry twice as much, nearly 1,000 pounds. The heaviest pack bikes required two porters to push them. In total, there were over 200,000 bike porters.
While the Soviets supplied the North Vietnamese with over 600 heavy trucks, the bulk of the cargo traveled on over 64,000 pack bikes. The trucks were easy targets for American bombers. Bicycles, on the other hand, were much harder to hit. Whereas a two-and-a-half-ton truck would be stuck at a crater in the middle of a road, a porter could simply push his bike around the edge. Or, if worse came to worse, unload his bike and carry it and the cargo across the crater. Porters would camouflage their bikes during the day, and move at night to avoid detection.
On October 13, 1967, Jack Salisbury, a New York Times reporter, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying, I believe that without bikes they have to get out of the war. He had seen firsthand in North Vietnam how both the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army relied upon the bicycle to supply their troops. Senator Fulbright responded, Why don’t we concentrate on bombing their bicycles instead of the bridges? Does the Pentagon know about this? According to reports, the room erupted in laughter at the idea of American bombers hunting bicycles.
The Pentagon did know about the Vietnamese pack bikes and had commissioned a study in 1965. The study’s author, Colonel B.F. Hardaway concluded that Interest in the employment of bicycle troops is emerging once again, this time in Southeast Asia, where the road network is inadequate for motorized transportation, but where paths and dikes may provide an acceptable avenue for bicycle movement. Hardaway’s
the study was dismissed by his superiors, who were confident that hi-tech bombs and planes could overcome something so simple as a bicycle.
In a final, ironic twist, the Vietnamese people have embraced the Ho Chi Minh Trail for purposes of tourism. While there was no single trail, but rather a network, and while the trail was never known to the Vietnamese as the Ho Chi Minh Trail (that was an American moniker), there are now dozens of companies that will lead Western tourists down the trail by bus, car, motorcycle, and yes, bicycle.
Like the bike wheel itself, all things come ’round again.
Wesley Cheney bikes for family, fun, profit, and necessity in Norfolk, Virginia. He writes about bikes and kilts at Foto by Wes and (re)builds bamboo bikes and bamboo kayaks at 757 Makerspace. When he is not delivering sandwiches for Jimmy Johns on his bicycle, he aspires to earn (another) Bachelors in Music Education at his alma mater, Old Dominion University. Wesley loves leather saddles, full fenders, helmet-mounted lights and mirrors, platform pedals, front racks, double kickstands, and vintage friction Suntour Command shifters. He warbles on a flugelhorn, sings bass in the choir of Christ and Saint Lukes’s Church, and studies ukulele under the amazing Skye Zentz.