Wayne C. Chalker wrote this in the 585th Transportation Company history for July 1967 to January 1968. "The Road to Pleiku was not one of the best in Vietnam, and this showed on the toll it took with trucks and drivers. We were constantly patching up our tractors just to keep them running. Fuel tanks and right fenders which the air filter sat on, were always coming loose. It was not uncommon to see chains bolted from fuel tank to tractor frame, and from one fender, across the hood to the other side, just to keep things together. It was a rare day when you came back from the run to Pleiku and you didn’t have to change at least one or two flats.
"There was, of course, your occasional sniper to contend with, land mines, and once an ambush by NVA soldiers between An Khe and Plieku which took out the lead 2 ½-ton trucks of a convoy destroying several and killing a number of drivers. It was at this time that number of drivers began putting ¼-inch steel over each door of the tractor for protection against snipers. This idea was not too popular with most of us because of the additional weight factor and subsequent lose of speed.
"Each company provided its own convoy protection, usually with a machine gun jeep front and rear of the convoy and a 2 ½-ton fitted with armor plating and two personnel armed with M-60 machine guns. It was also at this time that I asked for and received permission to issue each driver two fragmentation grenades. This was mainly because during one of the ambushes, the NVA soldiers were able to jump upon the running boards of some of the trucks and fire inside the cab. Even though we each had our weapons with us at all times, they proved useless at times like this.
"Road and bridge protection was essential to us for getting through the cargo we carried. Some of this protection, especially between our staging area and An Khe, was provided by members of the Korean Tiger Division which was stationed just over the mountain from our compound in Phu Tai. The Koreans were very friendly toward us and their wasn’t enough they could do to prove their friendship. I remember on one afternoon in the company area we started receiving incoming 155mm rounds which, needless to say, had everyone running for the nearest bunker. It was very quickly determined that our friends over the mountain had miscalculated a slight bit. A couple of fast calls and this was taken care of. The next rain we showed close some of us came, when water poured through a hole in my tent and I picked out a 5" piece of shrapnel.
"Most of us developed a good rapport with the villagers in Phu Tai. So good, to the point we’d sneak out of the compound at night and into the village for a beer or whatever. I know myself and many others left some good friends back in Phu Tai."
A small ambush took place on 11 November. CPT Phillip T. Hall, Jr, 585th Medium Truck Company, led a convoy of 15 vehicles back to Qui Nhon. Evidently, the enemy preferred to conduct its ambushes closer to the evening so there soldiers could escape under the cover of approaching darkness. As the convoy approached the 1st Cavalry Check Point 89, about 10 to 15 enemy soldiers fired on the last vehicles of the convoy with small arms. The drivers did as they had been instructed and drove through the kill zone to regroup at Check Point 89. Only one truck was damaged, but the armor plating on the driver’s door protected the driver. The enemy had fired on the first vehicles armored with the steel plating. No one was injured. The vehicle made it to the check point under its own power.
On 20 May 1967, the 585th Transportation Company left Cam Ranh Bay for a permanent change of station to Qui Nhon. The 180 personnel and 70 vehicles spent the night at Tuy Hoa and finished their trip to Qui Nhon the next day. There it was attached to the 27th Transportation Battalion, commanded by Major Philip Smiley. The company settled into a camp near the village of Phu Tai. The men slept in tents and pulled their own perimeter guard.
In the summer of 1967, more brigades moved into II CTZ. The 173rd Airborne Brigade served as US Army Vietnam’s mobile reserve, which Westmoreland shifted to hot spots throughout the country. He moved it to Camp Holloway near Pleiku and the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division north up the coast to Duc Pho. This increased the need for even more truck companies. The 124th Transportation Battalion arrived on 24 July 1967 and set up operations at Camp Holloway. It assumed control of the 64th and 88th Truck Companies. The battalion made empty runs heading eastbound the same time the 27th and 54th convoys headed westbound.
2nd Platoon, Headquarters and Maintenance of the 585th Transportation Company were alerted to move to Da Nang on 6 January 1968. On 14 January 1968, half of the company loaded on LST 551.
The US Army had entered an advisory role in the war in South Vietnam in 1961. The communist North Vietnamese government sponsored a Communist insurgency in the hopes of toppling the South Vietnamese government. Because the advisory effort did not seem to stem the tide of insurgency, the US Army assumed a greater role in the ground war in Vietnam during the summer of 1965. This resulted in a large buildup of forces, which was met by a great incursion by the North Vietnamese Army. The next year, General William Westmoreland asked President Lyndon B. Johnson for an additional increment of troops. Like the earlier deployment, this one required an additional truck battalion to each support base. The 39th Battalion left Fort Benning, Georgia, and arrived in Vietnam on 31 July 1966. It was initially stationed at Cam Ranh Bay in southern II Corps where it picked up truck companies from the 10th Terminal Battalion (Terminal).
The Vietnam War was a fought as a guerrilla war, without any front lines. The enemy struck at will then withdrew to safety in the jungle or into one of its sanctuaries across the border. For the first year that the 585th was in Vietnam, the guerrillas only harassed convoys with sniping and planting mines. The lines of communication usually stretched from a military port such as Cam Ranh Bay to the customer. The direct haul mission from Cam Ranh Bay ran through the Central Highlands of II Tactical Corps Area. The short haul ran one-day round trips from Cam Ranh Bay along Highway 1, coastal highway, north to Nha Trang and Ninh Hoa or south to Phan Rang. Long hauls went north and turned west on Highway 21 to Ban Me Thout, or straight west from Cam Ranh Bay along Highway 11 to Da Lat and Bao Loc. On a long haul, the convoy would drive up one day and return the next.
I Corps Tactical Zone
MACV anticipated that the NVA had planned an offensive early the next year. What they did not anticipate was when. The offensive, which began on 31 January 1968 during the agreed cease fire in celebration of the Lunar New Year or Tet, caught the Americans completely by surprise. General William Westmoreland, in anticipation of trouble, ordered the creation of the Americal Division at Chu Lai in September 1967 and brought the 101st Airborne Division north to Bien Hoa/Phu Bai in November 1967. He also sent the 1st Cavalry Division furthest north into I Corps Tactical Zone in January 1968. I Corps belonged to the US Navy and Marines since there were no deep draft ports to sustain military operations. The area required cargo discharged over beach ramps by landing craft which was a traditional Navy/Marine relationship. The build up of Army combat forces in the zone required a reciprocal buildup of Army support units. The 39th and 57th Transportation Battalions moved north.
The 585th Medium Truck Company was one of the truck companies tasked to move north. It belonged to the 27th Transportation Battalion based at Phu Tan in northern II Corps. The company moved in two trips. On January 14, 1968, the advance party consisting of the headquarters, maintenance, and 2nd platoon of the 585th loaded onto LST 551 at Qui Nhon and sailed to Da Nang for ultimate relocation to Camp Eagle, 101st Airborne Division base camp, Phu Bai. The remainder of the 585th joined them in March 1968 following the same procedure.
In mid April 1968, the 1st Platoon Sergeant of the 585th asked for volunteers for a convoy. He would not tell them where they were going, but said to be ready the next morning. Steve Plummer remembered, "Never before had we ever been asked to volunteer." Eight tractors and trailers drove to Phu Bai ammunition dump where six were loaded artillery projectiles and black powder. At least two trailers were loaded with 175mm howitzer barrels.
Their mission was to deliver their cargo to Fire Base Bastogne at the mouth of the A Shau Valley, west of Phu Bai in Thua Thien Province. The drivers would have the privilege of driving the first convoy to attempt a resupply of FB Bastogne. A jeep led the convoy past Camp Eagle deeper into the jungle. The convoy soon met up with its armored escort. Tanks and M113 Armored Personnel Carriers (APC) fell in behind each tractor and trailer. The commander of the tank escort, a major, warned the drives that the left side of the road belonged to the 101st and the right side did not. They should not stop under any circumstances or the tank behind them would push them off the side of the road.
As the convoy snaked up a winding jungle hill, the enemy opened fire with RPGs and small arms. The tanks and PACs returned fire with everything they had. The drivers stayed in their trucks as instructed and continued up the hill and down the other side to the safety of FB Bastogne. The convoy was informed that the road behind them was closed and they spread their trucks out around the camp to minimize the risk of losing all of them to one blast. The major reminded the drivers to be ready to move out in 15 minutes at any time. They remained in camp for six days waiting for the road to reopen.
Around 24 April they left Bastogne with the same escort as before. Again they came under fire from the left side of the road on the down hill side of the mountain. The drivers returned fire out the drivers' side windows with their M14s. When they cleared the kill zone and reached the base of the mountain, the armor pulled off and the trucks pulled off the road to regroup. The rough road and heavy load took its toll on the trucks. Four of them came in under their own power pushing or pulling the rest as the snail pace of 5 mph.
On 2 May 1968, the 39th Battalion moved to Gia Le in the I Corps Tactical Zone and fell under the 26th General Support Group which operated under US Army Support Command, Da Nang. The Battalion conducted port and beach clearance from the Naval Support Activity Tan My Ramp and Cornfield Ramp as well as long haul. The 39th Battalion would support all Army units north of Da Nang while the 57th Battalion supported the units south.
By 2 May 1968, the 39th Transportation Battalion, commanded by LTC Leland Tigh, had the following companies attached:
515th Transportation Company (Light Truck) "Road Runners"
585th Transportation Company (Medium Truck)
863rd Transportation Company (Light Truck)
During the period 3 to 19 August 1968, the 585th Medium Truck Company supported Operation Summerset Plain. The 585th primarily supported the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) fire bases in the A Shau Valley. They picked up their supplies from Hue for 101st Airborne Division. The convoys hauled supplies to the 101st Airborne Division at Fire Support Bases Birmingham and Bastogne as the division cleared the enemy out its long held position in the A Shau Valley. A Shau Valley was considered an enemy stronghold. The convoys ran on a 24-hour basis. This was the only area outside any safe area in Vietnam where convoys ran at night. For their support the Commanding General of the 101st Airborne Division sent a letter of appreciation of the 39th Transportation Battalion.
On 27 October 1968, the units of the 39th Transportation Battalion were called upon to move the 1st Air Cavalry Division from I Corps Zone. The trucks had to pick up the 1st Cavalry from Camp Evans and other scattered bases on short notice. The drivers again ran convoys 24-hours a day. This was the first time that night convoys were driven north of the city of Hue. Because of the shortage of drivers, many drivers spend four to five days on the road without returning to their company area. The move named Operation Liberty Canyon lasted until 11 November 1968. MG George I. Forsythe, Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, sent a letter of appreciation for the battalion's performance to the Commander of 1st Logistics Command, MG Joseph M. Heiser.
In 1969, the 39th Battalion was commanded by LTC Vincent M. Russo and had the following units:
HHD at Gia Le.
515th Transportation Company (Medium Cargo) (5-ton Cargo) at Gia Le
was commanded by CPT Ronald L. Ash, Sr. CPT Robert L. Poley assumed command on 27 April 1969.
585th Transportation Company (Medium Cargo) (12-ton S&P) at Gia Le
was commanded by 1LT Thomas L. Tish.
630th Transportation Company (Medium Cargo) (12-ton S&P) at Camp Hochmuth
was commanded by CPT David B. Ehlo then CPT David C. Wiggins assumed command on 9 March 1969.
Gia Le Combat Base received a rocket attacks on the nights of 1, 2 and 25 February 1969 with negative damage or casualties. On 10 February, 3rd Platoon, 515th Transportation Company, which was TDY to Cam Ranh Bay, was transferred to the US Army Support Command, Da Nang, less personnel and equipment. The 235th Transportation Platoon less personnel and equipment was transferred from the US Army Support Command, Da Nang to US Army Support Command, Cam Ranh Bay. At that time, the 515th had three hardened gun trucks. The 3rd Platoon, 57th Transportation Company was attached to the 515th on 11 February 1969.
On 27 February 1969, the 39th Battalion began supporting the 101st Airborne Division's Operation Kentucky Jumper in the A Shau Valley. The operation began with the movement of a forklift from LZ Sally to Fire Base Birmingham on 27 February. The convoys of the 39th Battalion delivered cargo from Phu Bai, Camp Eagle, Tan My, LST Ramp and Cornfield LCU Ramp to Fire Bases Birmingham and Bastogne. Birmingham was the primary logistical base linked to the forward tactical areas. The convoys primarily hauled to Bastogne artillery ammunition and engineer material for the construction of the road to Fire Base Blaze. On 15 April, a convoy of 12 5-ton cargo trucks carrying 8-inch projectiles was the first trucks to move over the newly constructed road to Fire Base Blaze. Never had 39th Battalion trucks operated that far southwest, just five miles northeast of the A Shau Valley.
On 15 March 1969, a 585th convoy heading to Camp Blaze in the A Shau Valley was ambushed at a bend in the road after passing Fire Base Birmingham about 11:00 in the morning. The convoy was stopped and had to turn around and return to Phu Bai. It had around 40 wounded. Upon their return to Phu Bai, it was again attacked that night. It was too foggy that night to call in gun ships. Fortunately, the wind shifted and the helicopters were able to fly and provided fire support.
Gia Le Combat Base underwent a rocket attacks on 16 and 24 March, 15 and 26 April 1969 with negative damage or casualties. However, ambushes on the way to Fire Basses Bastogne and Birmingham were pretty much harassment intended to damage individual vehicles rather than stop the entire convoy. On 17 April 1969, 2nd Platoon, 363rd Transportation Company was returned to its parent unit.
In the summer of 1970, LTC Alvin C. "Big Al" Ellis replaced LTC Duset. The battalion consisted of the following units:
515th Transportation Company (Light/Medium Cargo) at Phu Bai
585th Transportation Company (Medium Cargo) at Gia Le
666th Transportation Company (Light Cargo) at Camp Evans
805th Transportation Company (Light Truck) at Phu Bai
The 666th Light Truck, commanded by CPT Grady Layton, was totally dedicated to supplying the 101st Airborne Division in the A Shau Valley. The 515th Medium Truck primarily ran a local haul mission from the Tan My Ramp at Phu Bai. The 585th Medium Truck primarily hauled Sealand containers from Da Nang to the 805th Trailer Transfer Point at Phu Bai then to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Around July and August 1970, LTC Ellis came up with an idea to increase the tonnage cleared from Tan My Ramp. He sent WO Rodney Getschman, the Maintenance Officer for the 515th, down to the Navy to pick up some fifth-wheel dollies. The Navy towed 12-ton trailers around the depot yards with 5-ton cargo trucks. Ellis had the idea to test them on the open road. The problem was that the fifth-wheel was fixed, not floating. It had no brakes and bearings were not heavy enough for long hauls over the open road. Ellis liked the results and had Getschman pick up a few more a month later. He had trouble maintaining them and getting new bearings and had to cannibalize three to keep the others on the road.
In December 1970, LTC Ellis picked his S-1, CPT Michael Lavin to command the 515th Light/Medium Truck Company. The fact that Lavin was an Ordinance officer made this unusual. The 515th had failed both its Command Maintenance Inspection (CMI) and Inspector General (IG) Inspection. Ellis felt that Lavin had what it took to instill discipline in the command. Lavin made a couple changes immediately. First he made whore houses off limits in the camp. Second, he made punishment immediate. He would issue Article 15s within 24 hours of the infraction or not at all. In his first month of command, he issued 15 AR 15s then never had to issue another after that. He received an anonymous phone call warning him that he would be "fragged." This did not deter him.
Lavin had the help of a truly professional first sergeant named Akasaki, from Hawaii. The two turned the company around and passed both their next CMI and IG in January and February. After the first month, the men learned that Lavin actually had a great sense of humor and was a down to earth kind of leader. All he wanted them to do was perform their duties. When a soldier celebrated his promotion with a party at the EM Club, one would go to the first sergeant and ask if SP4 Smith would attend the party. "SP4 Smith" was CPT Lavin's nom de guerre. He would don a shirt with SP4 rank on it and have one drink with his men.
The 515th picked up Bob Hope at Phu Bai and drove him to Camp Eagle for his USO Christmas Show. The 515th received front row seats.
Lam Son 719
Gathered intelligence indicated that the North Vietnamese Army was building up their logistic bases across the Laotian border in preparation for an offensive. General Creighton Abrams, Commander of MACV, anticipated that the NVA were planning a large offensive to coincide with the US national elections scheduled in 1972. To do so the enemy had to build up its supply bases early in 1971 before the rainy season slowed down traffic down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Abrams wanted to strike first and disrupt the buildup. Since US Congress had passed a law after the US Cambodian incursion that prevented US ground troops from crossing the border again, the Army of the Republic of Vietnamese (ARVN) would have to conduct the cross-border operations. Three ARVN divisions would attack into Laos just south of the DMZ to sever the enemy supply line south. The 101st Airborne Division would reopen Route 9 to the border called Operation Dewey Canyon II. On 3 January 1971, the paratroopers reoccupied Khe Sanh. On 8 February the ARVN troops crossed the Laotian border and began Operation Lam Son 719/Dewey Canyon II. US helicopters and artillery from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) would support the operation. The artillery set up their fire base at the abandoned Marine camp, Khe Sanh (Forward Support Area 2). The 39th Transportation Battalion had the responsibility to supply the forward deployed troops. The east-west, QL or Route 9 was the supply route and the battalion posted two 5-ton cargo truck companies at Camp Vandergrift (Forward Support Activity 1). In support of Lam Son 719, only three American units participated, aviation, artillery and the 39th Truck Battalion. The operation would begin on 30 January 1971.
The 515th moved to Vandergrift on 31 January. The 515th would pick up the cargo from Camp Eagle and deliver it to Vandergrift. Because it had only one gun truck, the company was loaned one M113. CPT Lavin liked to drive it to Khe Sanh. On 1 February, the battalion began line haul operations between Quang Tri Combat Support Base (CSB) and FSA 1 at CSB Vandergrift. On the next day, the battalion extended the line haul mission to FSA 2 at Khe Sanh and the 506th Transportation Detachment established a Trailer Transfer Point at Vandergirft.
For this operation the 39th Transportation Battalion was attached to the 8th Transportation Group which moved its headquarters from Qui Nhon to Quang Tri. The 585th Medium Truck Company moved to Tan My Ramp and the battalion headquarters moved to Vandergrift on 16 February. The 585th Medium Truck Company would pick up cargo at Tan My Ramp and deliver it to Camp Eagle near Quang Tri.
The road to Vandergrift was a two-lane paved road through a valley of tall elephant grass. From there, a narrow, single lane, unimproved dirt road snaked along the ridge with a river 50 to 100 feet below. Because the road past Vandergrift could only support 2 ½ and 5-ton cargo trucks, the 39th Battalion would need another light truck company to operate out of Vandergrift.
In January 1971, CPT Donald Voightritter's 523rd Light Truck Company received orders to move from its home in Cha Rang Valley north to Camp Vandergrift along the coastal Highway (QL) 1 in the I Corps Tactical Zone in preparation for Operation Lam Son 719.
By 1971, the gun truck design and doctrine had reached fruition. Experimentation had ended. The 515th had Baby Sitters, the 585th had Hardcore and the 805th had Lil' Sure Shot. The 523rd Transportation Company (Medium Truck), which had run line haul up the most ambushed road in Vietnam, Route 19 in the Central Highlands, brought six gun trucks; Satan's Lil' Angel, Ace of Spades, Black Widow, Uncle Meat, King Kong and Eve of Destruction. Each of the three platoons had two gun trucks. By then, new crew members were volunteers selected by consensus of the other crew members. The gun truck crews felt elite but the 523rd believed that by assigning two gun trucks to each platoon, rather than to their own platoon, they felt more like members of the company. They lived with the drivers who they had to protect. Since they were the best, much was expected of them and if they failed to defend the trucks then they would have to face their brothers when they returned to the barracks at night.
This late in the war, there was a shortage of Transportation Corps officers. Second lieutenants made first lieutenant in one year then captain in the next. The rapid promotion and other duties caused a shortage of lieutenants in the truck companies. The burden of leading convoys fell heavily on the NCOs. However, during 1970, the Army assigned three infantry officers to the 523rd. 1LT Ralph Fuller, an airborne Ranger qualified infantry officer, had recently served in the 25th Infantry Division but when it was inactivated, he still had part of his one-year tour to complete, so he, like many of its officers who had not completed their one-year tours, was assigned to the 523rd. Fuller also had 15 years prior service as an enlisted man. 2LTs Jim Baird and Tom Callahan had both graduated from OCS 2-70 and were assigned directly to the 523rd. The only logical reason they could conclude why the Army assigned infantry officers to truck companies were the gun trucks. This hinted that the Army felt that gun trucks were a combat arms mission. For whatever reason they were assigned there, the officers identified with the gun trucks and loved the men who crewed them. As combat arms officers they felt their place was on the road. Many preferred to ride in the gun trucks, endearing them with the crews.
CPT Donald Voightritter commanded the company. He was a fair and respected officer. His brother Ronald, another TC officer, had already earned the Silver Star Medal for valor. The personality of commanders defines the character of their commands. Voightritter created an atmosphere of mutual respect and camaraderie. This was the strongest asset of the company. The officers would discuss informally with the gun truck crews what they had done during ambushes. No two ambushes were the same and the gun truck crews reacted differently to each one. These discussions inspired confidence with the lieutenants in their crews.
While CPT Voightritter closed down the company at Qui Nhon, he sent the trucks north under the responsibility of LT Fuller. When he received instructions to lead the convoy north, he had no idea what was going on. He confessed that to his men and asked them what he had to do. They liked him even more after that and would not let him fail.
The convoy consisted of over a hundred trucks and all six gun trucks in the company. The convoy spent the night at Da Nang. Fuller told everyone to write home. The next day they convoyed to Quang Tri. Once at Quang Tri, the company became attached to LTC Alvin Ellis' 39th Battalion. The battalion became known as "Big Al and his Money Makers."
There CPT Voightritter joined up with his 523rd. They received instructions to paint over the yellow noses on their trucks. At about 10:00 in the morning, the convoy left for Camp Vandergrift.
The convoy turned left at Dong Ha and paralleled the DMZ along Route 9. They arrived at Vandergrift about one week after the 515th. Vandergrift was located in a valley surrounded on three sides by higher ground. They spent the night at Vandergrift. Meanwhile the engineers had reopened the road between Vandergrift and Khe Sanh. Khe Sanh had not been occupied since the Marines evacuated it in 1968. The road to Khe Sanh was a winding road with hairpin turns.
The demand for supplies required the two light truck companies to deliver cargo around the clock, day and night. To prevent driving off the road at night, the trucks rolled with their lights on giving the enemy ample warning of their arrival. The steep slopes with thick jungle vegetation growing right up to the road made this ideal ambush terrain. During Lam Son, the guerrillas stepped up the frequency and ferocity of their attacks ambushes hoping to starve off the American support.
The advance party of the 572nd Medium Truck left Newport by LST in December 1970. It had belonged to the 6th Battalion at Long Binh. The rest of the company arrived a few weeks later and set up operations at Quang Tri. It was attached to the 39th Battalion from 29 January to 15 February. It acquired the name "Gypsy Bandits" because the company was relocated all over Vietnam. After 15 February, it was then attached to the 57th Battalion. From Quang Tri the 572nd delivered cargo to FSA I and FSA II. Although not a part of the battalion, the 528th Quartermaster Petroleum Supply Company delivered fuel to the forward base camps under the escort of 39th Battalion gun turcks.
From 16 February, the 39th Battalion had control of the following companies:
C/23rd S&T Company (5-ton cargo)
57th Transportation Company (Medium Truck)
515th Transportation Company (Medium Truck) at Vandergrift
523rd Transportation Company (Light Truck) at Vandergrift
666th Transportation Company (Light Truck) at Gia Le
XXIV Corps Company (Provisional)
FLC LT Truck (USMC)
506th Transportation Detachment (Terminal Transfer Point)
On 16 February, the 57th Transportation Battalion assumed the line haul mission to Vandergrift as well as other missions of the 39th Battalion. The 666th Light Truck, however, continued its direct and general support mission to the 101st Airborne Division. The 57th Medium Truck Company had three gun trucks: The Justifier, The Assassins, and The Protector.
The 523rd Light Truck convoyed to Khe Sanh. It was an eerie place. There were no remnants of any structures left as the engineers had bulldozed the entire camp down when the marines evacuated. Only tall grass and thick dust covered the area. The drivers did see lots of little parachutes for flares hanging in trees without foliage. The trucks off loaded their cargo on the PSP. C-130 aircraft began to land on the once again operational air strip. Khe Sanh became the forward logistic base for operations. From there, the convoys delivered fuel and ammunition.
The living conditions were very austere at the camps. At Khe Sanh, the men simply dug holes and lived like moles when they remained over night. At Vandergrift, they could at least erect tents and sleep above ground. The 515th Company set up GP Large for its headquarters and most of the men slept in the Bedrock Hotel, a bunker with a solid aircraft landing sheet as a deck and protected vents to see the outside. Other than that, there were few amenities that they had become accustomed to at their original base camps.
Route 9 was the life line for the ARVN offensive and American support. As soon as line haul operations began, the NVA made a concerted effort to shut down the supply line with ambushes. The thick jungle that grew right up to the road made it ideal for ambushes and the fact that convoys had to run both day and night made ambushes easier. The 1st Brigade, 5th Mechanized Infantry Division had responsibility for the security of that section of the road.
During the big push, the 523rd received a priority call for a night convoy to the border. An artillery unit was nearly out of ammunition. If they did not reach the artillery fire base by 6:00 in the morning then the unit would be out of ammunition. Fuller briefed his drivers. It was a critical convoy and they only had to take two right turns. They had to be real quiet.
The Eve of Destruction and Uncle Meat were in Fuller's platoon. Fuller was especially fond of the gun truck crews. He liked to ride with them instead of in his 3/4-ton gun beep, Daughter of Darkness. He felt better when he could stand up and look out. At night he would string his hammock between the two gun trucks to sleep.
The convoy started out at around 10:00 that night with nearly a hundred vehicles. Fuller rode in the Eve in the back of the convoy. After a couple of hours on the road, they reached the intersection where they were supposed to turn right and cross the bridge. The trucks behind the Eve took the wrong turn in the dark. Fuller called ahead to the convoy commander, "Six, be advise that the cargo truck behind me took a left." The Eve raced back down the road and caught up with the lead truck. Fuller told them to turn around. The trucks turned around and Fuller called ahead to Uncle Meat to be watching for them. They reached the fire base just before first light. Sure enough the artillery unit had exhausted all its ammunition. The convoy had their replacement ammunition.
The Eve led out on the return trip. Uncle Meat closed up the rear of the convoy. Fuller heard an explosion. Uncle Meat had run over a mine and blew out its left rear duals and air tank. David Rose, the driver, climbed out of the cab to assess the damage. David was a draftee from California. No one was seriously injured but the axle was resting on the ground. They could not drive with it in that condition. The Eve came back. Fuller got out and checked the area. He saw the sandal tracks of a lone VC who had planted the mine. He did not expect more but knew they could not stay in the area long. He told the crew of Uncle Meat to blow up the truck so they enemy could not use it and abandon it. The crew felt too loyal to their gun truck to abandon it to the enemy. David Rose told his lieutenant, "Give us a minute, sir." He had an idea. He had seen an old Western where a wheel on a wagon had broken and the axle was also resting on the ground. They used ropes and tied up the axle so it would not drag. They tried the same with Uncle Meat. They chained up the axle to the frame and hooked up the gun truck to a tow truck. They towed Uncle Meat all the way back to Vendergrift after the convoy stopped at Khe Sanh. The crew disconnected the gun box and placed it on the frame of a new truck. Uncle Meat was operational again.
Around 19 February, 2LT Baird had been sent back to Phu Bai to pick up 17 brand new 5-ton trucks. They returned after dark. The convoy doctrine at the time was to limit convoys to no more than 30 trucks with a gun truck ratio of 1:10. Uncle Meat led the convoy with King Kong in the middle and Satan's Lil' Angel in the rear. All gun trucks had three M2 .50 caliber machineguns. The M2 .50 was the most successful design in American weapons and had seen very little change in its design since its original issue in 1919. This time Baird rode close to the rear in a 3/4-ton gun truck with twin M60 machineguns. He noticed that some Transportation Corps officers preferred to ride up front. He knew that if there was trouble it would invariably occur in the rear and that is where the key decisions would have to be made. If an ambush split the convoy, by doctrine the trucks out of the kill zone would continue to roll on to the next security check point or camp. If the convoy commander was in the lead then the commander in charge would be unable to make the key decisions for the rest of the convoy either trapped in the kill zone or behind. 1LT David R. Wilson was killed trying to re-enter the kill zone in an unprotected jeep.
It was dark on 20 February as the convoy neared Camp Vandergrift. The mountain ridge to the south came within yards of Highway 9 and a valley of tall elephant grass covered the valley to the ridge line to the north. Around midnight a mile and a half from their destination, Baird heard an explosion followed by an intense volume of small arms fire from the jungle on the ridge to his left. An RPG had struck Satan's Lil' Angel's gun box from the north side of the road, killing right rear gunner, SP4 Richard B. Frazier, and wounded left rear gunner and NCOIC, SGT Chester Israel. Small arms fire shot out the tires of the gun truck. The NVA had learned to take out the gun trucks first before they went after the rest of the trucks. Without a crew to fire back, the driver of Satan's Lil' Angel drove his truck on rims out of the kill zone.
Baird raced ahead and passed a disabled 5-ton cargo truck in the ditch. He ordered his driver to stop so they could check on the driver. They came to a halt a hundred feet ahead of the truck. He did not want to leave the disabled truck until he was sure that its driver was safe. To do so required him to wait in the middle of the kill zone. As soon as his gunner tried to return fire, both M60s failed to fire. Evidently, he had put the gas plugs in backwards when he reassembled them. The three men only had one M79 grenade launcher and their M16s to defend against an NVA company. Baird immediately radioed the two lead gun trucks and told them to come back. The one thing that Baird could depend on was the loyalty of his gun truck to rescue him or any other truck in trouble.
Neither the crew of Uncle Meat nor King Kong had heard the gun fire behind them. The majority of the convoy had continued to Vandergrift as nothing had happened. Uncle Meat had already entered the compound and King Kong had just made the right hand turn into Vandergrift when they heard Baird's call for help. Immediately backed up, turned around and raced as fast as their trucks would let them back to the kill zone.
Baird knew his gun truck crews and had confidence in their judgment. He also knew that too much jabber on the radio would cause confusion and tie up the radio net. He quickly and precisely informed the gun trucks of the situation. Satan's Lil' Angel had been hit, his gun beep and one 5-ton were still in the kill zone. The crews asked which side of the road the enemy was on and Baird informed them that he was taking small arms fire from the ridge to his south and the field of elephant grass to his north. The enemy was close enough to throw hand grenades at his vehicle. He then quit talking. He would count on their judgment as what to do.
Ten minutes of steady small arms fire had elapsed since the beginning of the ambush. By then Baird was taking fire from both sides of the road. Enemy was closing in from the elephant grass while others fired down on them from the ridge to the south. His gunner, Downer, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "I see one. What do I do?" Baird turned, looked back down the road and saw an enemy soldier about 15 meters away on a berm alongside the road loading an RPG. He told his gunner to shoot him. The gunner fired his M79 grenade launcher at him. The enemy soldier was too close for the 40mm grenade to arm in flight. It struck him with enough velocity to either kill or incapacitate him, because he did not fire his rocket.
Around ten minutes after the initiation of the ambush, King Kong raced up to their convoy commander's 3/4-ton, parking right in front of it at an angle facing to the north. Uncle Meat similarly parked near Satan's Lil' Angel. Baird was never as glad as when he saw the tracers of those .50s. There was a reassurance that everything would turn out alright. He knew his gun truck crews knew what to do. Baird called on the radio, "They're in the ditches. They're in the ditches." The gunners on the Kong swung their .50s around and sprayed the ditches.
The success of an ambush depended upon surprise and extreme violence. The gun truck crews had learned to turn the fight back on the enemy as fast as they could with even more violence. This would take the psychological advantage away from the enemy forcing them to break contact. The .50s blazed away in four to six round bursts at the muzzle flashes to their left and right. The gunners poured 30-weight oil from plastic canteens to help cool the barrels and ensure the smooth function of their breaches after firing off about three to four boxes of ammunition.
An RPG hit the rear duals right and exploded in all the colors of the rainbow under left rear gunner, James Cochran, knocking him backwards on Larson manning the right .50. Cochran then jumped back up, grabbed his .50 and went back to work. King Kong was an APC gun truck. Large chunks of hot shrapnel had come up through the aluminum floor of the hull and lodged in the top of the box right under his machinegun. One piece of shrapnel had burnt a hole in the charging handle and others had left five or six holes in the barrel, but it still fired.
The one advantage to fighting at night, the gunners fired in the direction of the enemy muzzle flashes, which betrayed their positions. There was no concealment in the dark once one fired his weapon.
The tactic worked. After about ten minutes of firing, Uncle Meat and King Kong had turned the fight back on the enemy and they broke contact. During the fight, the driver of the disabled 5-ton had run to his convoy commander's vehicle. That close to Vandergrift, Uncle Meat loaded the wounded from Satan's Lil' Angel into their gun truck then drove off the road and backed up to Baird's vehicle. The drive shaft had broken and the vehicle could not drive. The crew of Uncle Meat hooked up the 3/4-ton to Uncle Meat, which towed it into Vandergrift. The two gun trucks that came to the rescue also received damage but could roll under their own power. After the initial volley of fire, no other casualties were taken. King Kong limped back to Vandergrift on its rims.
The sweep of the area the next day discovered four enemy dead and one wounded NVA soldier 25 meters from the road. The enemy usually made great effort to recover their dead and conceal their losses, so no one could accurately determine the total enemy losses. These were the only confirmed enemy kills by the 39th Transportation Battalion Soldiers during Lam Son 719.
On 12 March, Lieutenant Baird led a convoy from Vandergrift to Khe Sanh. Just in case the enemy tried to ambush a convoy, the detail left behind kept a reaction force. Fuller had all the gun trucks lined up ready to go.
A B-40 rocket hit the gun truck, Proud America, between the cab and the gun box on the driver's side mortally wounding the driver, SP4 Robert W. Thorne. Thorne steered the truck into the hillside instead of down the steep cliff into the creek. This saved the rest of the crew. Unfortunately, LT Baird had been kneeling by the radio mounted in the left front corner of the box when the rocket hit. He received multiple fragmentary wounds and lost his left arm.
Fuller heard the call, "contact, contact, contact," on the radio and led his convoy of gun trucks. He rode in the Daughter of Darkness. An engineer stopped him saying that there was an ambush up the road. They drove past. Lieutenant Callahan laid Baird on a stretcher and drove him to a better location near the bridge for the medevac helicopter to land. The helicopter arrived but was afraid to land, instead, the men lifted the stretcher up to the bird. Fuller told the medevac crew, "Take care of him. He was a good one." They placed Thorne's body in the Black Widow and took it back to Vandergrift.
Route 9 followed a stream with a steep back. A few weeks after Thorne was killed, the ground along the side of the road gave way enroute to Khe Sanh and the Ace of Spade went over the side and rolled to the bottom. The driver was killed. Others recovered the weapons but abandoned the truck and gun box.
An average of 80 sorties ran from Vandergrift to Khe Sanh a day and some days the number reached as high as 265. The gun trucks made the daily runs several times. The 5th Mech had a difficult time keeping the enemy away from the convoys. The convoys of the 39th Battalion were ambushed 23 times along Route 9. On one occasion the battalion commander of the security force personally assured Ellis that the road between Quang Tri and Vandergrift was so secure that one could walk along it with his wife. Two hours later the enemy ambushed a convoy two kilometers east of Vandergirft. The gun trucks ensured the convoys got through. The 39th Battalion had also received four M113 armored personnel carriers (APC) for escort. The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) assumed responsibility for the security of Route 9 on 28 March. The division provided constant aerial support to locate the enemy and strategically located armored vehicles to provide instant reaction. This minimized the attacks on convoys.
Lam Son 719 ended on 4 April 1971 as a failure. The ARVN attacks became bogged down claiming the lack of American helicopter support as the reason. CPT Lavin drove his APC to Khe Sanh to monitor vehicle spacing as they abandoned the camp. The Americans abandoned everything and 600 trucks left with empty loads. Lavin's M113 was the last vehicle to leave Khe Sanh. The 515th remained at Vandergrift for three to five days waiting for clearance to leave. Lavin was instructed to clean out he CONEX bunker, burn the latrine and get rid of any 155m projectiles. He rolled the projectiles in puddles, made a deal with a local Vietnamese to trade the metal in the bunker for soda then set the latrine on fire.
Although the ARVN offensive failed to disrupt the NVA buildup, the 39th Battalion over came tremendous odds to deliver the cargo to the forward camps. The drivers lived in austere conditions, drove around the clock and encountered 23 ambushes. As a testament to their heroism, the battalion awarded 4 Silver Star Medals, 20 Bronze Star Medals with V, 37 Bronze Star Medals, 10 ARCOMs with V, 108 ARCOMs and 36 Purple Heart Medals during this two and a half month operation. The gun trucks took a beating. King King was damaged by an RPG. The Protector was destroyed early in the operation and Satan's Lil' Angel and the Ace of Spades were destroyed several times. Hardcore took an RPG in the driver's compartment. It and the Ace were rebuilt.
Upon return, the men found time to relax and celebrate. The 523rd returned to the engineer compound at Phu Bai. There the soldiers took delight simple things like hearing a toilet flush. They had stage shows with Korean dancers. CPT Lavin had created a company slush fund selling beer and sodas. With the $1,000 profit, the 515th hired a band with women, bought a pig to roast, had the engineers build picnic tables and had a big party. CPT Lavin's tour was due to end on 20 April 1971. He turned the company over to 1LT Maloney and returned home.
The battalion moved its headquarters back to Phu Bai by the end of May. It was left with the following units:
515th Transportation Company (Light/Medium Cargo) at Phu Bai
523rd Transportation Company (Light Truck) at Phu Bai
585th Transportation Company (Medium Cargo) at Phu Bai
666th Transportation Company (Light Cargo) at Camp Eagle and one platoon at Camp Evans
805th Transportation Company (Light Truck) at Phu Bai
The officers and enlisted men of the 523rd thought highly of CPT Voightritter. It was so hot in the cab of the truck that David Rose did not wear a shirt. With the canvas hood on, it was often twenty degrees hotter inside the cab. He just wore the flak vest. A general officer opened Rose's truck one day and saw that the driver was out of uniform. Voightritter defended Rose by asking the general to get up in the truck and ride with him. Rose considered his company commander was "rock solid." They developed a similar respect for their courageous infantry platoon leaders. These officers never avoided convoys and always placed themselves where they could best respond to danger. These officers and men developed a bond that lasted a life time.
CPT Voightritter knew the end of an era was had come. He had the forethought to put in the appropriate paperwork to send one gun truck back to the Transportation Center at Fort Eustis. He chose the Eve of Destruction because he felt that it represented the best proven design of a gun truck. It had the double steel walls with air gap, four .50 caliber machineguns and steel windshield with bullet proof glass. He wanted future generations to have an example of a Vietnam gun truck. The Eve was loaded up in June 1971 and arrived at Fort Eustis in July.
At the close of the operation, the battalion began an extensive trailer repair program. They maintenance personnel had to repair 200 trailers at Phu Bai. The maintenance crews worked 24-hour operation with completion by 1 June.
Fuller claimed that the 523rd also had the highest operational readiness rate in Vietnam. He placed a lot of emphasis on maintenance. His maintenance warrant officer ran superb maintenance out of the "523rd Speed Shop." He had as many as 14 soldiers to keep up with changing tires. Voightritter also had another trick. The operational readiness rate was based upon how many tucks staged every morning. It did not matter if they broke down afterwards. So Voightritter had his warrant officer line all the vehicles up at night. After Fuller inspected the vehicles with the MPs, the warrant officer towed the broken vehicles back to the motor pool.
That year the gun trucks, Ace of Spades and Uncle Meat, and a V-100, Catch 22, provided security for the 1971 Bob Hope Christmas Show.
The Tet Offensive of 1968 although a military victory, had soured the American public support for the war in Vietnam. President Richard M. Nixon was elected in the election that year to get Americans out of the war. Troop withdrawals began in 1969, however a peace agreement would be signed until 1972. As combat units began to draw down and leave Vietnam, so did the need for support troops. The 39th Battalion was pulled out of Veitnam and inactivated at Fort Lewis, Washington, on 10 March 1972. That month the NVA invaded I Corps Tactical Zone as planned and reached Quang Tri by March.
The 585th was the last truck company to leave Qui Nhon area. It left in June 1972. While in Vietnam, the battalion was involved in 16 campaigns, earning 16 Campaign Steamers, four Meritorious Unit Commendations and Streamers, and the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Gold Star Streamer.
0115Z 390th, 545th and 585th Transportation Detachments depart Fort Campbell, Kentucky. [101st Airborne Division SITREP 28 (1700Z, 6 Sep 90)] 12/06/04:
Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel
Thursday, April 3, 2003
Army Staff Sgt. Jamie Brown, a 1995 graduate of Gardiner Area High School, has been stationed in Uzbekistan for the past 10 weeks with the 585th Transportation Detachment, 142 Corps Support Battalion, Warrior Brigade, out of Fort Polk, La.
Brown, married with two young sons, enlisted his senior year in high school, said his mother, Wanda Wyman.
"He writes to say he loves us all but he has a job to do and (must) do it well so we will have as little casualties as possible," Wyman wrote.
FORT POLK -- Fort Polk's Warrior Brigade will hold a deployment ceremony for over 200 Soldiers of the 603rd Transportation Company, 488th Quartermaster Company and the 585th Movement Control Team at 11 a.m., Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2004 at the Warrior Brigade Gym.
These Soldiers, all a part of the 142nd Corps Support Battalion, Warrior Brigade, will depart in the next few weeks
The 585th Transportation Detachment is the second smallest unit at Fort Polk and the only unit lead by
a non-commissioned officer.
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