History Through Metadata: Operation Popeye

Chance Discovery

Last year, while poking around with the excellent metScanR R package, I ended up finding sites in Vietnam that apparently collected snow data.

Digging into the station metadata showed that the stations were only active from 1960-1972, durring the Vietnam War, and were only stationed in the South of the country. Clearly these were US military met stations.

US Military

On the surface, this all seems unremarkable. Afterall, planning any military action requires at least some consideration of the weather conditions. The US military during the Vietnam War was notably reliant on aircraft, which further explains the US’s need for met stations durring the war. But there was more to the US military’s interest in weather than landing aircraft.

‘Make Mud, Not War’

Durring the Vietnam war, the North kept up steady pressure on the South, even in the face of overwhelming American firepower. This was accomplished partially by the North’s use of the Ho Chi Minh Trial, which let the North regurlarly supply and reenforce fighters in the South of the country.

Bombing the supply route by American forces did not prove effective at disrupting the flow of manpower and supplies, so in 1967 the Airforce turned to weather control. Operation Popeye was an attempt to use the one thing that did effectively halt traffic on the Ho Chi Minh: the monsoon season. By seeding clouds, the American military hoped to keep the trails too muddy for vehicles to pass.

Apparently the program did not work as expected, and in 1972 the program was ended. The connection between these weather stations and the operation is clear in the the above animation. The number of stations explodes after 1967, and dramatically falls off by 1972.

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