After receiving its orders for deployment, the unit trained hard; by mid-September its members were ready for war. On September 24, 1966, the 8th Transportation Group boarded USNS Leroy Eltinge at Oakland, Calif., and set sail for Southeast Asia, arriving on October 19. The unit was assigned to the 5th Transportation Command and Qui Nhon. The headquarters camp was set up in the rolling Thanh Valley.
The 8th operated as far north as Bong Son and as far west as Pleiku and Dak To, near the Laos-Cambodian border. The road near Qui Nhon was smooth macadam. However, the 8th had to support American and allied units in the Central Highlands, and the first stop to the west was An Khe. Between An Khe and Qui Nhon lay 40 miles of some of the worst terrain on earth. Route 19 was the single road that led from Qui Nhon to An Khe and farther west. As the road climbed west into the Central Highlands, it crossed through An Khe Pass in a series of hairpin turns. Trucks carrying heavy loads often had difficulty negotiating the long climb. Once through the pass, the road descended to An Khe and the 1st Air Cav's base, then continued on another 59 miles to Pleiku. Outside An Khe, the road began to climb again into the Mang Yang Pass -- another two miles of winding, tortuous, climbing roadway. Continuing through Mang Yang Pass, the road dropped down into Pleiku, where most of the trucks were unloaded. A few trucks with supplies for Dak To continued north after a brief rest in Pleiku. From October 1966 through August 1967 the group had a fairly quiet time. The 8th's support of subordinate units grew as more of its companies became operational. Soon the truck units were setting resupply records of unheard-of proportions. In order to supply the troops in the area, the 8th Group moved 3,000 tons of supplies per day and covered more than 1 million miles per month. More than 600 transporters operated some 450 vehicles a day in convoy operations to move this massive mountain of supplies. The unit carried food, fuel, ammunition, lumber, clothes and any other commodities or supplies needed by the infantry to carry on the war. Most of the supplies went to the 1st Air Cav.
An Achilles Heel
The 1st Air Cav had been in battle since the end of 1965. The unit's revolutionary application of helicopter tactics had made it a feared enemy of the NVA and VC units fighting in the Central Highlands. American helicopters placed air cavalry units in the most inaccessible spots at the most inopportune times for the enemy. Accompanied by aerial rocket artillery units, these heliborne forces could decimate an unsuspecting enemy unit. Attempts at attacking the 1st Cavalry Division's base at An Khe had been unsuccessful, and it was evident to enemy commanders that the division had to be neutralized if the North Vietnamese were going to win the war.
The enemy quickly found the division's Achilles' heel: The 1st Air Cav was being supplied by lowly trucks. In fact, most of its ammunition was being hauled from the port of Qhi Nhon to An Khe on Route 19. The trucks were easy targets, and they were traveling across some of the roughest terrain in Vietnam. The September 2, 1967, ambush on a convoy returning from Pleiku marked the beginning of the NVA campaign to strangle the 1st Air Cav. The enemy attacked just before dark, and in a matter of minutes had shot up more than 30 vehicles of the 54th Transportation Battalion. Although the convoy had two jeeps mounting M-60 machine guns, and it was supported by a reaction force from the 1st Air Cav, the enemy was easily able to ambush the trucks and destroy a substantial number of vehicles.
It was obvious to the American commanders that the war was heating up. If these convoys were going to continue, they would need a different form of protection. The jeeps were too lightly armed to be effective against a serious ambush, and even the quickest reaction forces took several minutes to arrive. By that time the enemy could destroy a convoy and be gone. The truckers needed vehicles that could travel with the convoy, that offered protection from automatic-weapons fire in an ambush, and that mounted enough machine guns of their own to defend the convoy if it was attacked. The obvious solution was to use tanks or armored personnel carriers. However, very few such armored vehicles were in-country, and those that were available were engaged in other operations. If the men of the 8th Group wanted protection for their convoys, they would have to build it themselves. Within days, armor plate scrounged from various sources began to appear on the doors and floors of convoy vehicles. Those makeshift modifications protected drivers and truck crews during the first few seconds of an ambush and allowed them to bring their individual weapons to bear on the enemy positions.
On November 13, 1967, 15 enemy soldiers attacked a convoy belonging to the 585th Transportation Company, which had armored one of the trucks in its convoy. As luck would have it, the armor-plated truck was in the ambush's "kill zone," the focal point of the ambush, when the enemy attacked. The NVA fired more than 100 rounds at the truck but failed to do much damage. Meanwhile, the rest of the truck drivers had a few precious seconds to get to their rifles and take aim at the ambushers. Frustrated, the enemy retreated, leaving the rest of the convoy unharmed.
It was obvious to all of the American soldiers in the convoy that they were on the right track. The November 13 attack proved that armored trucks could survive the devastating fire of an ambush, but the Americans also learned that their rifles were not enough to drive the enemy out of an ambush. If the trucks were going to survive, they needed machine guns and lots of them. It did not take long for the truckers to merge the ideas of armor plating and firepower.
Within a matter of weeks the 8th Group had begun converting some of its cargo trucks to gun trucks. At first the trucks from each company were built by the units. One or two cargo trucks from each company were pulled off the line and armor-plated. Maintenance men and drivers located armor plate and cut it to fit their trucks. Long sheets of 1/4- to 1/2-inch armor plate were cut to cover the sides of the trucks. These were braced against another sheet of armor of the same length that was positioned behind the first along the inside of the bed. There was a small gap in between the sheets, and this was filled with sandbags for added protection. Armor plate was also put on the rear of the bed, doors and windshield. Sandbags were placed on the floor of the cab and on other vital parts of the truck.
Next the weapons were added. The truck units were equipped with heavy .50-caliber M-2 machine guns and lighter 7.62mm M-60 machine guns. These guns were meant to be used at a ratio of one per truck, but since the vast majority of cargo trucks were loaded to the hilt with supplies, there was no room for the guns. Consequently, there were many guns available for use by the gun trucks. A variety of armament would eventually be used by the truckers, but initially two M-60 machine guns were mounted in the bed of each truck. One gun was mounted on each side, about midway down the bed. This gave the machine guns good fields of fire and allowed the gunners to engage the enemy along the side of the road as soon as the ambush was initiated.
Precaustion Pays Off
The next big convoy was scheduled for November 24, 1967, and both sides prepared for battle. Early in the morning, 65 trucks and three jeeps of the 54th Transportation Battalion left Qhi Nhon bound for Pleiku. The convoy was led by Lieutenant James P. Purvis, and he had taken the precaution of adding six gun trucks to his convoy. As it turned out, the lieutenant's forethought paid off.
At 1005, an NVA company ambushed the convoy. The lead gun truck was stopped by small-arms fire, and the enemy opened fire along the entire 300-meter ambush. Within seconds several trucks were hit, and the gun trucks swung into action, the drivers training their 7.62mm M-60 machine guns on the enemy positions. One NVA machine gun was obliterated less than 3 meters from one of the gun trucks by a long and accurate burst of machine-gun fire. A truck carrying ammunition was hit and exploded, destroying one of the gun trucks as it blew up. Other gun trucks were damaged but continued to deliver a withering fire on the stunned enemy. Lieutenant Purvis reported the contact to headquarters and called for reinforcements. A few minutes later security elements from the 1st Air Cav arrived, and the battle ended.
The results translated to a major American victory. The NVA company should have been able to wipe out the entire convoy. Instead, they had destroyed nine trucks (four of which were gun trucks) and damaged seven others. During the fight the Americans suffered two soldiers killed and 17 wounded. The enemy had lost 41 killed and four captured. In addition, many trails of blood led back into the jungle, attesting to the accuracy of the gun trucks' fire.
Another American Victory
The ambushes continued, and the Americans continued to develop and refine their gun-truck philosophy. Heavier guns were added. Fifty-caliber M-2 machine guns replaced the M-60 machine guns on the sides of the trucks, and twin .50-caliber machine guns were added to the rear of each gun truck. U.S. forces also experimented with mounting four .50-caliber M-2 machine guns in an electrically driven anti-aircraft mount. This was the famous quad-50 version of the truck. Thicker armor was added, and the number of gun trucks per convoy was standardized at one per 10 cargo trucks.
On December 4, 1967, the enemy attempted to destroy another convoy. A company of VC prepared a 3,000-meter ambush along Route 19. Their plan was to stop the convoy, kill all the Americans, and then systematically destroy each vehicle in the convoy with satchel charges. The trap was set, and in the early morning hours a 78-vehicle convoy left Qhi Nhon for Pleiku. Strategically placed in the convoy were six gun trucks and four gun jeeps. At 0815, the VC sprang their ambush. The lead gun truck was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade that killed the driver. At about the same moment, four or five other vehicles received hits from enemy weapons. As American vehicles were disabled, the gun trucks that were spread throughout the convoy moved forward to provide covering fire and zero in on the heart of the kill zone. The pitched battle continued for 18 minutes. What should have been an easy victory for the enemy turned into a desperate fight. The heavy volume of automatic-weapons fire delivered by the gun trucks finally drove off the VC.
Gun Trucks Vital
An American reaction force arrived 25 minutes later, but by then the battle was over. The Americans had lost one man killed and six wounded. The enemy had 13 dead and one wounded. One gun truck was destroyed and several other trucks and jeeps had sustained minor damage. The 8th Transportation Group had again proved the value of its gun trucks.
Although the ambushes continued, the Americans had shown
that they could not be stopped. Between September 2, 1967,
and September 2, 1968, convoys of the 8th Transportation
Group were ambushed 36 times. The unit had 38 soldiers killed
and 204 wounded. During the same period, the unit delivered
597,572 tons of cargo and more than 4 million gallons of fuel. In
the course of accomplishing their mission the truckers drove
7,331,924 miles. Without the gun trucks, the Transportation
Command would not have been able to carry out its vital