PeaceTrees Vietnam's UXO Clearance Training Mission to Quang
By Roger Hess
Photos by John Boyden
Contributions by UXB International
Issue 3.1 | February 1999
Information in this issue may be out of date. Click here to link to the most recent issue.
Itís funny how some things just seem to fall together.
About a month and a half ago, John Boyden approached me at UXBs Maui technical
office and said "I want to talk with you about the work youíve done in
John informed me that the president of UXB International, Dr. Richmond Dugger,
had offered to help out an NGO called PeaceTrees Vietnam with their efforts
to clear land mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the former demilitarized
zone between what was North & South Vietnam. We would conduct a training
course for the Vietnamese with UXB International covering the wages and airfare
of two senior Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) employees, and donate five
Shonstedt ferrous ordnance detectors.
In my previous career as a Master Sergeant in the US Armyís EOD field, I
had spoken to and exchanged various emails with Dr. Dugger on humanitarian
demining issues and knew that he was very committed to helping. This verified
that it was not just idle talk; the trip wasnít going to be cheap, and it
was not the first one that he had agreed to support. John had been to Quang
Tri with PTVN twice before.
I learned that PeaceTrees is very active with the Vietnamese Government and
the James Madison University humanitarian demining information center (HDIC)
on the Mine and UXO awareness program. They had also received private funding
to assist with a clearance project in the Quang Tri province. What they wanted
was someone who knew mine clearance by international standards, and who also
knew deep search UXO clearance that could combine both the standards and the
techniques, and teach it.
John had heard that Iíd been heavily involved with the humanitarian demining
community for some time and was wondering if I was interested in joining him
as part of this mission.
"Sounds like a nice bit of work, when do we leave?"
We left soon enough, and were very warmly greeted at Hanoi airport by PeaceTrees
Director, Martha Hathaway. The detectors however, were confiscated, pending
official approval from the authorities!
Fortunately, we had some time to get things straightened out in Hanoi before
we left for Quang Tri. That was the plan, anyway.
Hanoi is best described as a huge mass of activity, with a
gazillion moped defying anything that could pass for a traffic law thrown
in for good measure. Even though I had spent over 20 years training for combat
with the US Army, have been sent on various missions or full fledged deployments
to five different war zones, and served as team leader on more EOD incidents
then I can count, I was still not prepared for the ultimate test of ones constitution:
Team Cyclo of Hanoi
R.Hess in Cyclo
Itís sort of like a rick-shaw, except its propelled from the
rear by a bicycle-like assembly. This means two things
- The driver is not out in front and is not worried about being the first
one to get crushed, so he is not motivated to veer towards safety or common
- The passenger gets a spectacular view of things he has never seen before,
like the bumpers of on-coming traffic at eye level.
What on-coming traffic looks like when
you are part of the front bumper
John seemed very calm and totally at home, snapping pictures during the entire
ride while my eyes became the size of dinner plates. Knowing John was a retired
Lieutenant Commander in the Navy EOD field, I was beginning to wonder if maybe
heíd had a tank full of the wrong air mixture during one of his past diving
After a few days of meetings with government officials and on-going discussions
with Vietnamese customs concerning the donated detectors, we finally made
our way down to Dong Ha deciding to fight the detector issue from that area.
Quang Tri province is a very scenic rural area with Dong Ha serving as the
county seat. Itís a fairly quiet and extremely friendly town, which is still
recovering from the war. Its population is about 500,000 and seems to mainly
exist on farming or merchandising. Donít worry about learning to say "hello"
in Vietnamese, just walk around the block when the school children are being
let out and youíll find that itís one word of English they learn at a very
young age. Just be prepared to say it about every third step.
This region was also the recipient of many major battles during the US/Vietnamese
war. The US Forces often used cluster bombs during those battles, plus a wide
range of shoulder fired weapons and artillery. Though land mines were deployed
around some of the US bases as defensive perimeters, these are not the major
The biggest threat is the left over cluster bomblets (bombies as the locals
call them) and the 40mm rifle grenades that failed to function (referred to
as M79s, which is actually a weapon that fires the grenade).
Cluster bombing is a very devastating technique developed by the Germans
during WWII, who used it extensively in their battles. Even during itís first
use, the remaining bomblets created a severe UXO hazard that still can be
found in some of the former battlefields of Europe.
They are deployed by a few different means. Aircraft can use a wing mounted
dispenser which spray the munitions out the back, or they can drop amiable
dispensers which look similar to a standard bombs, except they split open
at a pre-determined height to spread its payload. Additionally, certain types
of rockets and artillery are also design to carry sub-munitions. The end result
is the same: some type of carrier spreads a large amount of small munitions
over a wide area, which detonate either on impact, shortly after impact, or
when they are disturbed. Due to their design and weight, sub-munitions can
sometimes penetrate to a depth of one to two feet, if dropped in muddy or
freshly tilled soil.
BLU 36(Bomb, Live, Unit), or "Bombies"
as they are called by the locals
This puts the smaller ones beyond the reach of many older mine detectors,
but within reach of the buffalo plows commonly used here.
The 40mm grenade is best described as the Infantries hand-held artillery
and is fired either from a shotgun type weapon (the M-79), or by an attachment
that rides underneath the M-16 rifle (the M-203). Due to its low velocity,
the round tends to tumble after traveling beyond 300 meters. To counter this,
it incorporates a fuze that, in theory, will detonate the round regardless
of how it lands. This is alled an "all-way acting" fuze, itís extremely
sensitive, and makes the 40mm grenade one of the most hazardous UXO known.
A live 40mm grenade surrounded by a
group of Bombies.
The worst of both situations.
On the first meeting with the group I was to train, I was very impressed
with their excellent attitude and eagerness to learn. These men wanted to
be here and wanted to know more about how to do this job safer. In all: a
very good group of students, which always makes for a good training session.
What was less then impressive was the equipment that the men had to work
Budgets and economies being what they are in Vietnam, there is no money
to properly outfit their forces with up to date detectors or protective equipment.
The type of UXO techniques I would be teaching involve working the area after
it has been cleared of mines, so protective equipment is not generally used.
The reason being is that armored vests and helmets offer virtually no protection
against the types of munitions that are normally found at sub-surface levels.
However, I now firmly believe that this area of Vietnam falls into a different
category. The threat of sub-munitions at 1 to 2 feet below the surface is
not a normal situation, and the men are going to need some decent frontal
protection once they start digging.
The detection equipment was a goulash of hand-me-downs that had been collected
over who knows how long. It consisted of
- Two old Foerster mine detectors, which still function very well (good
points for Foersters durability)
- One US model MD-M (Mine Detector-Metal, which was phased out even before
I joined the Army) that was in extremely poor shape.
- A talking Garrett metal detector designed for beach combing (Pleeeeease
make that thing shut-up!).
- Two Russian Ferrous ordnance locators that had not worked for probably
Vietnamese mine clearance team with
Getting this equipment to serve our purpose will definitely be interesting.
The Shonstedts will work fine for the UXO portion, but before these men start
doing full fledged mine clearance theyíll need some decent, and up to date
one-piece mine detectors.
Part of a good mine and UXO clearance program is having a consistent detection
capability to work with. You must know what depth your equipment is able to
reach compared to what you are trying to find, so you can make an honest statement
about how deep the search was when it comes time to submit a hand over document.
This normally means using one type of detection equipment across the board,
or conducting the clearance in two separate, organized phases if youíre trying
to "look" down past 20 cm.
Day one of the classroom training
with Mr. Hue translating a site organization plan
The men actually learned very quickly and, as initially expected,
were eager to use the new techniques. The main focus was on site organization
& search patterns, reporting, marking systems, digging techniques, safety
distances when working and digging, protective works, and disposal procedures.
With only four actual days of training, this was going to be tight, especially
without the deep search detectors on hand and using a translator to get everything
across to the men.
We were extremely fortunate to get Mr. Hue as our assigned translator. His
past experience translating for another NGO conducting mine clearance in the
area gave him an edge on the technical terms. Thereís no doubt in my mind,
I would have been up the creek without him.
On day two of the training John notified me that the detectors were going
to be released, however one of us had to drive up to Hanoi with the government
reps to pick them up (12 hour drive each way). He volunteered himself to do
the trip, was leaving in the next 30 minutes, and would hopefully return prior
to day four.
It occurred to me as they left; if the detectors were not released the last
thing I would want to be was one of the government reps spending the next
12 hours with Big John driving back to Dong Ha!
On the afternoon of day three, John called to say that they have the detectors
in their possession, were on their way down, and would arrive at about 3:00
in the morning. True to his word, on the morning of day four, I had all five
detectors waiting outside my room.
J. Boyden with the Government representatives
liberating the donated detectors
The design of these detectors makes them extremely easy to teach and work
with. The increased search capability was immediately noticeable to the men:
The Shonstedts found metal in the "metal-free" test pad that had
been established with the mine detectors. The shrapnel was simply beyond the
reach of the equipment they were using.
R. Hess conducting training and testing
with Shonstedt Detectors
We spent the rest of the day getting accustomed to the new detectors and
adjusting our search patterns to ensure complete area coverage using this
system. The students quickly became very fond of these detectors, as did their
administration when they stopped in for a spur of the moment inspection.
The training was now a success. Funny how some things just seem to fall together.
A final group picture in front of
the new Danaan Perry Mine Awareness Center
With our mission finally accomplished, we said our good byes and made our
way back to Hanoi. Fortunately, we had time to enjoy lunch at Quoc Trieus
restaurant, which specializes in preparing and serving large venomous snakes
right before your eyes (uuuhhh!), and John was even nice enough to treat me
to a 2 Ĺ hour ride around Hanoi with our cyclo buddies (AAAAHHHH!!!).
If you are wondering: "is all the time and effort that PeaceTrees and
UXB went through to make this happen really worth the trouble?"
Children with a Safer Future
We like to think it is.
Now Iím just waiting to see if Iíll get a chance to go back.