A soldier carefully walks through the dense jungles of Vietnam. Suddenly, he stumbles across a hidden tripwire, and with a sudden swoosh a massive mace made out of bamboo and fitted with spikes comes swinging down out of the tree cover, smashing into his chest. Next to him, his buddy makes one false step and after a slight click, an explosion rips his foot and most of lower leg off.
This is the hell that was the most terrifying booby traps of the Vietnam War.
A booby trap simply known as the mace was not only terrifying but deadly upon impact.
As U.S. soldiers walked along jungle paths making their way to their next objective, they could be ambushed from above. The mace was a large ball made of wood or metal covered in spikes, secured in the jungle’s trees. The spikes were made out of bamboo, branches, or even metal.
The mace would be secured in a tree and tied to a tripwire. When an unsuspecting soldier snagged his boot on the wire, it would trigger the release of the spiked ball, which would swing down from the trees and impale itself into the soldier’s skull.
This would most likely cause immediate death, but if it did not, the soldier would wish he were dead. There would be no way for the spikes to be pulled out without killing the wounded soldier, so the mace either caused death on impact or soon after.
A simpler version of the mace could be constructed using materials only found in the jungle. This made the mace a versatile booby trap. Viet Cong soldiers could sharpen bamboo into pointed stakes and then stick them through a large ball of mud. When left in the sun, the mud would harden and secure the bamboo spikes in place. Then the Viet Cong could tie the mace to a tree using vines or chords. All of this could be done by a single soldier and then left alone until an unsuspecting victim triggered it.
The ability to construct booby traps out of the jungle itself became a common theme with the Viet Cong. And each booby trap they created was more terrifying than the next.
One of the most well-known booby traps used by the Viet Cong were Punji Sticks.
These sharpened bamboo stakes were placed in a camouflaged hole. If a soldier fell into the pit they would be impaled on the stakes. It was a truly horrible trap but was super effective. The thick jungles of Vietnam allowed this booby trap to be set almost anywhere and easily disguised.
The way it worked was Viet Cong soldiers would dig a deep hole and place the sharpened Punji Sticks facing up. Then they would weave a bunch of branches and leaves together to make a false ground.
This would be placed over the hole to disguise it as debris that had fallen onto a path. The hole would be almost impossible to see, but if a soldier stepped on the disguised canopy, they would instantly fall into the pit and impale themselves on the sharpened bamboo.
However, this booby trap could be made even worse by a few gross additions.
Some Punji Sticks were lined with regular sharpened bamboo, while others had spikes covered in human feces or animal waste. This would increase the chances of infection if a soldier was cut open by one of the sticks but did not die.
In the jungle, an open wound would not stay clean for long. And since it was rare that a platoon would carry antibiotics, it would most likely get infected, causing the soldier to become very ill. This is because the humidity and temperature are the perfect environment for bacteria to breed and cause mayhem in the body.
If you add a biological component such as fecal matter or waste to the wound, it is almost guaranteed an infection will develop. This would slow down entire squads as they tried to carry their wounded back to base, making them easier targets for ambush. So it would seem the Viet Cong were not only using the Punji Sticks as booby traps but as a form of biological warfare as well.
If that wasn’t terrifying enough, there was another awful way in which the Panji Sticks were being used.
The Punji Sticks could be cut and placed in a way that made them more like barbs than spears. Sometimes they would be positioned upside down so the soldier who fell in wouldn’t necessarily get hurt too bad when they fell into the pit, but as they tried to climb out, the Punji Sticks would tear through their flesh, opening multiple wounds.
As the unlucky soldier either tried to claw their way out of the pit or were pulled up by their squad-mates, it would be almost inevitable that one of the Punji Sticks would pierce their skin. This is when covering the points in bacteria-laden waste would cause the most damage.
It would almost be worse to be wounded rather than to die by being impaled. By slowly succumbing to infection, the screams of a wounded soldier would not only give the squad’s location away, but the slower pace would make the grueling trek through the jungle even more perilous.
But there is a worse pit to fall into than one filled with Punji Sticks. An unlucky soldier that stepped in the wrong place might find them in the bottom of a pit filled with venomous snakes.
In the words of Indiana Jones: “snakes, why did it have to be snakes?” This would be on the mind of any soldier who fell into a hidden viper pit. The hole itself would be camouflaged in a similar way to the Punji Sticks booby trap, but instead of sharpened bamboo in the bottom of the hole, there would be hundreds of snakes.
When the soldier fell in he would disturb the already hungry and disgruntled snakes causing them to attack immediately. As he writhed around covered in the vipers the soldier would receive bite after bite filled with venom.
And these weren’t just any ordinary snakes; they were Bamboo pit vipers. These snakes may not have been very big, but their venom is deadly. A single bite from one of these snakes could kill a healthy, full-grown adult within minutes.
They were actually nicknamed the two-step snake by the soldiers.
This was because the venom of a bite from a bamboo pit viper would cause a soldier to collapse after only taking two more steps.
And if there were any baby snakes in the hole, the pit became even more deadly. Young snakes still produce venom, but they can’t control how much is released with a single bite. This means when bit by a baby viper they release their entire venom payload into the victim, making them even more deadly than the adults.
Regardless of the age of the snakes in the pit, there would always be a lot of them. Any soldier who fell in would be bit repeatedly and had zero chance of making it back to base alive.
The vipers were not only used by the Viet Cong in camouflaged pits but in many other types of booby traps as well. In fact, the vipers were a natural booby trap that was plentiful in the jungle.
The Viet Cong soldiers would often carry a pit viper in their packs.
This was a way to booby trap their own supplies if they were killed or captured by the enemy. It also served as a deterrent from anyone going through their supplies without their permission.
If a United States soldier came across a Viet Cong pack, they would open it to see if anything of use was inside. However, if it was booby-trapped with a bamboo pit viper, the soldier might be bitten as they reached into the pack to see what it contained.
This was a deterrent, but if the Viet Cong soldier got lucky, the snake could kill anyone trying to steal their supplies as well. The pit viper was also used to booby trap the tunnels that the Viet Cong used as a means to get around and stay hidden. As U.S. soldiers crawled through the tunnels looking for any enemy soldiers, they might come across these deadly snakes tied to sticks or placed in holes in the wall.
Crawling through the dark tunnel complexes was scary enough, but not knowing if there were venomous snakes set as booby traps throughout them must have been terrifying. A soldier that was focused on what was ahead of him might miss a pit viper on the ground or hanging from the tunnel ceiling. One wrong step by the U.S. soldier could mean a fatal bite causing him to collapse and die in the blackness of the Viet Cong tunnels.
Snakes were used to booby trap pretty much anything that could have been valuable to the enemy. They were hidden in weapons caches, food stores, and supply crates. Basically, if a U.S. soldier found a Viet Cong supply stash, they needed to proceed with caution and assume it was booby-trapped in some way.
Snakes were not the only terrifying booby trap used to deter U.S. soldiers from going through Viet Cong supplies, though. Others included sharp blades, rigged explosives, and live ammunition.
These types of booby traps came to be known as “keepsake, lose hand” traps. If a soldier was going to go rummaging through a stash of Viet Cong supplies or personal items, there was a good chance they would encounter a booby trap of some kind.
So, if a soldier stuck their hand into something to try and remove a keepsake, they might lose their hand to one of these next crazy booby traps.
A seemingly innocent supply stash was oftentimes rigged with explosives.
This was done to deter U.S. soldiers from taking military supplies, food, and anything that would help them defeat the Viet Cong in the war. It was better for supplies to be blown up than to fall into enemy hands. Viet Cong supply caches would have grenades wedged in them so that if a soldier started moving things around, the pin would be pulled out, and the grenade would detonate.
These traps were often lethal, but like the Punji Sticks, if the grenade maimed or seriously injured a soldier, it could actually be worse. Pieces of shrapnel could be shot in every direction wounding multiple targets at once and making the entire platoon vulnerable to counterattack. The chances of surviving a grenade at close proximity were not good, but surviving a serious injury without putting the rest of your squad mates in danger was even worse.
A favorite type of Viet Cong booby trap actually had nothing to do with useful supplies at all, but with flags.
The Viet Cong figured out early on that when United States soldiers secured a base or outpost they would take down the VC flag that was currently flying there. Sometimes this was just to replace the flag with an American one so that allies knew the outpost was under their control; other times soldiers would keep the flag as memorabilia. This led to the Viet Cong booby-trapping their flags with bombs.
Flag bombs worked something like this. The Viet Cong would realize they could no longer hold a base, so they quickly grabbed everything they could and made a run for it. But while others were gathering supplies, some soldiers were tasked with booby trapping parts of the base. They would hide grenades and pit vipers in supply caches. Sometimes they would rig entire ammunition stores to explode.
The final thing to be done before abandoning the base would be to plant the flag bomb. A Viet Cong soldier would connect a nearly invisible wire to the pulley system on the flag pole and bury an explosive at its base. Then they would retreat into the jungle and head to their next objective.
Eventually, the U.S. soldiers would enter the abandoned base and search for anything of use. Someone would be in charge of bringing down the enemy flag so that it was clear the base was captured. Unfortunately for that unlucky soldier, when they pulled the drawstring to lower the flag the explosive would be triggered and detonate right under their feet.
A modified version of this booby trap was also used in the jungle itself making walking down paths or following a Viet Cong party extremely dangerous. The U.S. soldiers needed to watch every step they took, or it could be their last.
A common booby trap that every soldier needed to be wary of was the Grenade-In-A-Can. This was a simple but deadly trap that could be deployed anywhere and at any time. The way a Grenade-In-A-Can worked was that two empty metal cans would be wedged into the ground or mounted in the trees along a path.
The safety pins of both grenades would be removed, and then the live grenades would be stuffed into the cans making sure the striker levers remained in place until the grenades were pulled out. After each can and grenade was secured, a tripwire would be tied to the end of each grenade.
When an enemy soldier stepped on or pulled the wire with their boot, the grenades would be torn out of the cans and instantly explode. Even if only one grenade was pulled out, the detonation would most likely cause the second one to explode. Having two grenades go off along a path with multiple soldiers walking down it would be devastating. The soldier that tripped the booby trap would not be the only one in the kill zone; instead, the entire squad could be in jeopardy.
Sharp pieces of metal from the can and grenade would mix with razor-sharp splinters of wood from the surrounding vegetation. If a soldier tripped a Grenade-In-A-Can before being able to alert the rest of their squad, it could be deadly for almost everyone in the area. The traps were super simple yet extremely effective, making their proliferation across the Vietnam jungle widespread.
The saddest part of it all is that there was no way to know where all of the Grenade-In-A-Can booby traps were set after the war ended. This meant that innocent Vietnamese people, including women and children, who traveled the jungle paths to get back to their homes could inadvertently trip one of the booby traps. This could cause a massive amount of pain and suffering even after the war was long over.
Another dangerous booby trap was not quite as deadly as the Grenade-In-A-Can. However, it could still cause a lot of pain and even the loss of a foot.
These traps were known as cartridge traps or “toe-poppers.” The way it worked was truly diabolical. A small hole would be dug by a Viet Cong soldier. A round of ammunition would be placed in a piece of bamboo and then carefully lowered into the hole. At the base of the bamboo would be a piece of wood with a nail sticking out of it. The hole would then be concealed with a very thin covering and left for someone to step on.
When a soldier put their boot down on the booby trap, their weight would push the cartridge down and the nail would pierce the bottom of the bullet. This would cause the round to fire straight up, blowing a hole through the soldier’s foot. The soldier would be incapacitated and their squad mates would need to rush to help them. The cartridge trap was usually not lethal but would definitely stop a squad in its tracks until the wounded soldier could be bandaged up.
However, sometimes larger cartridges were used. They could be so powerful that an unlucky soldier with his entire body over the cartridge trap could have the bullet exit through his foot and tear into other parts of his body. And heaven forbid the soldier was looking down at the time and got the bullet straight to the face. This would obviously be a lethal scenario.
What made the cartridge trap so effective was that it was almost impossible to detect. The hole the bamboo and ammunition were placed in was not very big. And since there were no wires involved, there was nothing on the surface to indicate that a booby trap was present there.
Unless a squad had someone with a metal detector, a cartridge trap would most likely go unnoticed until it went off. And even if a soldier did have a metal detector, due to the size of the trap, they would need to be relatively close to it before it would be detectable—and by then it may have been too late.
A booby trap which was truly terrible could not be prevented by using a metal detector or any other method other than springing the trap itself or getting really lucky.
The booby trap known as a bamboo whip could be made anywhere in the jungles of Vietnam using only things found in nature. This trap was constructed by finding a long, thin piece of bamboo and cutting it down. Then smaller pieces of bamboo would be chopped up and sharpened. If there was no rope available, the sharpened bamboo stakes could be secured to the long piece of bamboo using cordage or vines.
The spiked bamboo whip would be secured to a tree on the side of a path or an area with heavy U.S. traffic. It would be pulled back into the jungle, which would create tension that, when released, would cause the bamboo whip to swing forward at lightning speed and strike whatever was in its path with enormous force.
Bamboo is not only versatile but incredibly strong. It can withstand large amounts of pressure before snapping, which means a ton of stored energy can be maintained for a long period of time before being released.
The pulled-back bamboo whip would then be secured using a tripwire. Again, if the Viet Cong only had materials of the jungle available to them, the tripwire could also be made out of vines. When U.S. soldiers walked down the path, and someone tripped the whip, the long piece of bamboo would swing forward, and the sharpened spikes would impale themselves into the body of the unlucky soldier who was in the front.
The bamboo whip could be positioned at different heights as well.
The Viet Cong could rig it so that when the spikes came around, they slammed into someone’s shins or upper thighs.
This would not be deadly, but the amount of time and effort it would take to remove each stake from the soldier’s legs without having him bleed to death would be tedious. Also, the tips of the stakes could be covered in biological waste like the Punji Sticks, causing almost immediate infection and eventual death.
But the bamboo whip could also be elevated, meaning that when it swung around, it could impale itself into a soldier’s stomach or chest. This would cause almost immediate death if it struck a vital organ. Or if it just pierced an organ, the soldier could be in excruciating pain until he eventually succumbed to internal bleeding.
A much rarer situation—due to accuracy limitations—would be that the bamboo whip was placed at neck and head height. If placed at the correct position when the bamboo whip was released, the spikes could enter the neck, causing the soldier to choke on his own blood. It could also enter the face or eye sockets leading to immediate death as the spike enters the brain.
The Viet Cong were also good at using the United States’ own weapons against them when improvising some booby traps.
If the Viet Cong came across a U.S. mine, they would not destroy it but repurpose it into a booby trap. They would dig it up and place the mine somewhere else, hoping that an enemy soldier would step on it or a vehicle would drive over it. However, these were not the only source of mines at their disposal.
The region had been at war for several decades in one way or another. The Viet Cong had gathered up explosives from the South Vietnamese army and older French mines that were left lying around after the first Indo-China War.
And if those sources of mines weren’t enough, the Viet Cong were also supplied with ordinances from the Soviet Union and China. This meant there was almost an endless supply of these deadly booby traps that the Viet Cong could place around the country.
Unfortunately, all of these mines came with future consequences.
Like with many other types of booby traps, many were leftover or forgotten after the end of the Vietnam War. There are places even today where people need to be careful where they step in case there is a hidden landmine lurking just under the soil. Approximately 40,000 Vietnamese people have died from land mine explosions since the war’s end.
Another somewhat ingenious booby trap is reminiscent of something out of medieval times. Except the Viet Cong version had a slight twist.
Traps came in all shapes and sizes in the Vietnam War.
The bow trap
The bow trap looked like a wooden crossbow. This was another one of the booby traps that could be constructed using only materials found in the jungle. This particular device was mostly used at the beginning of the war as it took a while to build and was not as effective as other booby traps. However, the bow trap could cause all sorts of problems for a United States platoon if they were not careful.
The bow was created out of a straightened branch and some rope. A stick would be whittled down to a fine point, and the whole setup would be placed on a stand. The string would then be drawn back and tied to a tripwire. The entire bow would then be covered in brush, and since the bow was made out of materials from the jungle, it would blend right in.
When a U.S. soldier tripped the wire, the arrow would be released and sink itself into their body. This was obviously excruciating, and if there were multiple bows set up in the same area, they could lead to several casualties.
However, the Viet Cong took things a step further with these booby traps by adding poison to the tips of the arrows. Most of the bow traps were set up to be aimed at the midsection of the body. This allowed for the greatest chance of hitting the target and delivering a fatal dose of pit viper venom or other deadly toxins.
The Viet Cong seemed to favor some booby traps over others. This was especially true due to the variety in these next types of traps.
Sometimes the Viet Cong would use a metal bear trap that would snap its jaws shut on the ankle of a U.S. soldier who wasn’t paying attention. However, the bear traps were in limited supply and could be found easily using metal detectors. Therefore, the Viet Cong began to design their own foot traps.
Some of the foot traps were as simple as digging a hole in the ground and lining the sides with sharpened sticks or nails. When a U.S. soldier’s foot fell in, the entire leg would be shredded to pieces. Other foot traps used a series of wooden blocks that were embedded with spikes. These worked similarly to the bear traps, except they were created using wood and any pointy objects the Viet Cong had available.
The jungle wasn’t the only place that contained hazards set up by the Viet Cong. Even when entering huts and buildings, U.S. soldiers needed to be careful.
The door trap
The door trap was easy to make and incredibly deadly. A decent-sized stick with spikes would be suspended above a doorway and tied in place using a tripwire. When a soldier walked through the opening, they would pull the wire, causing the wooden stakes to swing down and slam into their chest.
The force at which the door trap was able to send the sharpened wooden spikes into a soldier’s body made it incredibly deadly. The downside for the Viet Cong was that this trap could only be sprung once, and there would only be one casualty, but it definitely made U.S. soldiers think twice before entering a building.
Booby traps were highly effective at slowing down, killing, or deterring United States soldiers.
Which is one of the main reasons they were used so often by the Viet Cong. They knew they would never win the war using traditional tactics. The United States military had more advanced ships, aircraft, and vehicles.
This meant that the Viet Cong would lose almost every battle they fought if they went head to head with a heavily armed U.S. force. They discovered this quickly and almost immediately switched tactics.
Women and young children were also used to deploy different kinds of booby traps. This allowed for large areas to be covered in booby traps while soldiers were deployed in different regions. Every able-bodied person could help in the war effort. It didn’t matter who you were; if you could carve a stick and tie some string, you could make a booby trap that would hurt the enemy.
According to the Australian Ministry of Defense, around 11% of all deaths and 15% of injuries in the Vietnam War were due to booby traps. The number of U.S. soldiers wounded during the war was around 300,000 men, which means about 45,000 Americans were injured by the terrifying booby traps of the Viet Cong.
Featured image: Tunnels with booby traps, by National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons