The Vietnam War was infamous for the guerrilla warfare American forces were largely unprepared for. The Viet Cong were on their home turf and used this to their advantage when it came to creating and laying booby traps. Not only were these traps cost effective, but the bamboo used to construct many of them didn’t register on the mine detectors used by the US.
The goal of the traps was to maim – not kill – as this required soldiers to deal with their wounded comrades, slowing them down. This was made worse by the use of secondary traps, which targeted those attempting to help the injured. It’s alleged 11 percent of deaths and 17 percent of US troops wounded between 1969-70 were the result of traps and mines. In 1965 alone, this number was at 70 percent.
These booby traps also had a devastating psychological effect on soldiers, greatly reducing morale. They were already fighting in difficult jungle terrain, but also had to be on guard for well-disguised Viet Cong traps.
The bow trap was a simple, yet effective booby trap employed by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. A bow, pulled back and ready to launch, was attached to a tripwire. When a US soldier set it off, the bow released where they were standing, resulting in a hit to the middle of the body.
Punji sticks, also known as punji stakes, were an extremely common booby trap deployed by the Viet Cong. The sharpened bamboo or wooden stakes were often coated in feces or urine, with the goal of causing an infection in the victim. They could also be coated with poisonous substances from animals and plants.
Punji sticks were placed pointing upright at the bottom of a hole, before being covered with material that would camouflage them. When a US soldier broke through the flimsy cover over the hole, they would land on the spikes at the bottom and suffer injuries to their feet and legs.
This particular booby trap could be made worse by not only placing sticks pointing up from the bottom, but by installing them at a downward angle, along the sides of the hole. When these extra stakes were added, it was difficult for the victim to get themselves out without causing further damage. This often resulted in the slowing down of their unit while efforts were made to free them.
Bamboo whips were another brutal booby trap employed by the Viet Cong. A bamboo pole was attached to a tripwire and pulled back with a lot of tension. The pole had spikes on it, so when the tripwire was triggered, whoever tripped it would be impaled by the spikes on the pole as it whipped forward. According to reports, the pole and its spikes could travel up to 100 MPH.
As with punji sticks, the spikes could be covered in poisonous material to further impact the victim’s ability to heal.
The swinging mace operated in a very similar way to the bamboo whip, but rather than be attached to a stick, the spikes were on a heavy clay ball, which was triggered by another tripwire. This was one of the more brutal tactics utilized by the Viet Cong, as when the hidden ball was triggered, it would use the force of gravity to swing down and inflict terrible wounds to a soldier’s upper body.
The tiger trap was another booby trap that, like the swinging mace, caused significant injury to a soldier’s upper body. The trap was sprung when the intended victim triggered a tripwire, causing a plank imbued with metal spikes to fall on them. This was made all the more brutal by the addition of weighted bricks or other objects on the board.
Snake pits were a trap primarily used within the Viet Cong’s tunnel systems. A poisonous snake would be attached to a piece of bamboo and when released on the victim would place the snake in a prime location to attack. Snake pits were encountered by US “tunnel rats,” but the Viet Cong would put snakes in other locations, too, such as in their bags or in old weapons caches.
Bamboo Pit Vipers were a common snake used by the Viet Cong. Within a few minutes of being bitten, the flesh surrounding the bite turned necrotic, swollen and extremely painful. However, the Malayan Krait was the most infamous, earning the nickname the “two-step snake,” sometimes mischaracterized as the “three-step snake.” This is rooted in a myth that a soldier bitten by one was killed in the short time it took him to move two steps.
The cartridge trap operated in a similar way to punji sticks, in that it was placed within a hole in the ground. A round of ammunition would be set with a nail underneath, to act as a mock firing pin, and a board placed overtop the hole to prevent enemy soldiers from detecting it in advance.
When they stepped on the board, the soldier’s weight would activate the ammunition and fire it through their foot. As such, these traps were sometimes called “toe-poppers.” The extent of the injury was largely based on the size of the shell. Smaller shells often left men permanently disabled, while larger ones were fatal.
As the name indicates, the grenade-in-a-can was constructed by placing a grenade, with the safety pin removed, into a can. The can held down the striker lever. A tripwire was then attached and, when tripped, would pull the grenade out of the can and cause it to detonate.
This type of trap could either be constructed with a single can and a stake, or with two cans. If two were used, they were mounted on trees on either side of a path with the tripwire running between them.
Rigging war trophies
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These booby traps were created based on the fact that US troops enjoyed capturing the flags of their enemies. When the Viet Cong were forced from their bases, they would rig their flags with explosives, which detonated when the US troops took them down.
The Viet Cong knew the Americans also enjoyed taking other items as war trophies. As such, they rigged them with similar explosives, so that if the US troops wanted to take anything from abandoned camps, the explosives would detonate, causing additional casualties.