The Vietnam War, like most modern wars, is often thought of as a male-dominated conflict. But many women, numbering in the millions, in fact, joined the North Vietnamese fight against the United States and helped to push them out of the country. While their contributions have largely gone unnoticed by the west, they are celebrated in Vietnam.
When the Vietnam War began WWII had only ended in the previous decade, but this new conflict in Asia would reach a scale few could have predicted so soon after a world-changing war. The US hammered Vietnam and its neighbors, spending almost one trillion dollars in today’s money over the long-lasting war.
The Navy and US Air Force dropped over 7 million tons of bombs over Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam; double the amount the US dropped on all of Asia and Europe during WWII.
Much of this was dropped on the Ho Chi Minh trail, a supply route that ran down Vietnam’s western border and enabled the transportation of supplies, equipment, and men from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. As much of the trail ran through Laos and Cambodia the US was unable to wage an actual ground war to deny its use, so they relentlessly bombed it instead.
Many of the people defending the trail from the air attacks were women, some of whom enlisted while others were conscripted. In addition to this, another 1.7 million women were a part of Women’s Union militias, which were tasked with defending villages, transporting supplies, repairing the damage caused by war, and laying explosives and traps.
Nguyễn Thị Kim Huế
Nguyễn Thị Kim Huế was one of the defenders stationed on the Ho Chi Minh trail. She was one of many Youth Volunteers and operated on the Mu Gia Pass, a particularly deadly stretch of the trail. Nguyễn Thị Kim Huế signed up in 1965 and was a crack shot. Just a month after her enlistment the US began Operation Rolling Thunder, a three-year-long bombing campaign that was intended to wipe out any logistical networks being used by North Vietnam and to boost morale in the south.
Youth Volunteers were responsible for keeping the trail open by repairing the damage caused by the operation and decommissioning the vast amounts of unexploded bombs littering the area.
Between anti-aircraft duties, the Youth Volunteers were filling in craters with wheelbarrows and using primitive methods to detonate the ordnance.
In April 1966 Nguyễn Thị Kim Huế lost over half of her team in a massive bombing raid.
“We had to rebuild the road every day because there were so many bombs… The worst B-52 attacks were in 1966. In my platoon, out of sixteen, ten were killed,” she said.
The conditions for these women were horrendous – caves were usually their homes, and the only food was a small provided amount of military rations. Nguyễn Thị Kim Huế worked to source more food by bartering with local villages, from which she managed to secure a number of chickens and even a cow. Period pains were soothed with medicinal plants gathered from the jungle.
One of the toughest parts of the job was attempting to save people who had been buried by recent bombings. This job would often descend into a search for body parts.
“Many died because rocks fell on them. We used shovels because I was afraid a digger would cut [my teammates’] bodies into pieces. After a few days, we sniffed the soil. There was no smell so we knew there were no more body parts to find. I didn’t want to let them die naked.”
Naturally, the sights and sounds of this period severely impacted all involved, and many relived the horrors over and over for years after the war ended.
Vietnamese women’s contributions to the US defeat in the Vietnam War have mostly been brushed aside by the western world, likely because they usually served in less glamourous and heroic supporting roles.
However, these roles were massively important, not to mention the women who literally went toe-to-toe on the battlefield against the most formidable military on the planet to defend their homes.
Victory was not achieved alone by the Viet Cong on the frontlines, guerrilla warfare, or by the support of the Soviet Union, but with the collective effort of everyone involved, including Vietnam’s brave women.