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Convoys - The First One

My first experience with convoys is one that will forever be etched in my brain. I had been in country for about one month, just long enough for my first pay day, when I had to go to Long Binh to get my pay straitened out. You could always count on the Army to have something screwed up, and this time it was my pay. To think I had been at Quan Loi for all this time and they werenít going to pay me for it. The Battery Commander told me that I was going to have to go back to pay roll to get it fixed. I remembered how miserable it was there down south when I first got to Vietnam, and I wasnít looking forward to waiting in line in the heat again. However, I would be getting a little break from this dusty hole for a couple of days and that made it worth the trouble. Besides, I was starting to get acclimatized to this place and no longer thought it would be as bad as it was when I arrived in country.

I was told that I would be going by convoy, and that worried me just a little. I had heard stories about the convoys getting ambushed quite a bit, and wasnít sure I wanted any part of that. It didnít matter whether I wanted to go by convoy or not, that was the means of transportation I would be taking, and besides, I was sort of looking forward to seeing what the countryside between Quan Loi and Long Binh looked like. I was about to be amazed at what the country was really like. After living with the red dust of Quan Loi, I didnít think it could be any worse. Guess what, I was wrong, and it was.

The next day we got the deuce and a half ready to go. We would be leaving with the out-going convoy. Each day there was a convoy that came from Long Binh to Quan Loi. It arrived just about noon, and headed back about an hour or so later. At least with a convoy, there was the protection of both M P security, and air support from the helicopters. That eased my apprehension a little.

We pulled into line with the vehicles heading south to Long Binh. Most were the ones that had come earlier and were now empty after dropping off their loads. There were a few, like us, that were heading that way for other reasons. There were almost as many reasons as there were vehicles. Each truck or jeep had its own mission or purpose. Mine was simple, I wanted to get paid. We had waited for about twenty minutes, when the convoy started to move out. I donít recall who was with me in the truck, but it was two guys that were arguing constantly. If I didnít know any better, I would have sworn they were married the way they were arguing. They were in the cab, and I was riding in the back by myself, which was fine with me.

As we moved out the gate and down the road towards An Loc, I locked and loaded my M-14, preparing myself for whatever lay ahead. The road we were on was lined with rubber trees, as were most roads leading out of Quan Loi Base Camp. This was the first time I had gotten to see them up close, and the way they were laid out was most interesting. No matter where you stood and looked, you would see strait line of trees. I could see how that could be very confusing, and how you could loose your bearings quite easily. The trees gave good shade, and there were some A.R.V.N.ís that had put up some hammocks and were taking advantage of that fact and were laying in them taking it easy. I also noticed the trees had a spiral cut that ran about eight or ten feet up the trunk, and a bucket near the base on a peg secured to the tree to catch the sap (latex) as it drained. It was similar to the way we would get sap from a maple tree, without the spiral cut. There were workers out collecting the latex so it could be refined and used for rubber. This was the start of the rubber used in Michelin tires.

As we drove down the road towards An Loc, I got the feeling like someone was watching me. I think it was more the fact that I was doing this for the first time than anyone actually being there. I would have sworn there were bad guys behind every tree. You might say I was just a little paranoid about being in this position, not knowing what to expect. The road was dirt, and in the shady areas looked to be somewhat muddy. I could feel the ruts from previous rains which made for a bumpy ride in a vehicle that had little suspension to begin with.

We bounced along for a short period and then came to the Village of Quan Loi. When I saw it, I knew I was in another country. The buildings, if you could call them that, were nothing more than shacks put together with plywood and metal signs or whatever else they could find to make a shelter. As we drove along, the children of the town came out to wave and hold their hands out for something to take home and eat. I was not accustomed to seeing anyone, let alone children, beg for food. That went right to my heart, but I told myself I wasnít responsible for the conditions they were living in. Even telling myself that, didnít make it any easer to watch, and at that moment, I felt so lucky to have been born in the U.S.

As we left the village, I was feeling a little sad at what I had just witnessed, and was wondering if all the little hamlets would be the same. I was soon to find out, they were. We drove on another few miles, and entered the town of An Loc. This was the provincial capital of Binh Long Province, which made it a thriving metropolis. At least there were a lot of people that lived there. I couldnít help but notice a large metal building that had what looked like a large Swastika painted on the roof. I couldnít believe my eyes, why would these people have that symbol on the roof of a building. It was later explained to me that it was actually a reverse Swastika, and was a Buddhist symbol. That explained all the bald guys in Orange robes that were walking around the building.

We drove on through the town following the main road, which was again lined with children with their hands out. Only this time, because we were moving so slowly, they were right up against the vehicles. I watched the other trucks that had people in the back, and they were throwing c-ration cans at them. I donít mean just tossing them to be caught; they were throwing them hard trying to get the kids to move away from the trucks. At that time I didnít fully understand why they would be doing such, what seemed to be, a cruel thing. Again it was explained to me that those children could possibly have explosives on them, and were a hazard. I was learning a lot on this trip, most of which, I hoped, would come in handy at some future point.

Finally, we hooked up with Highway 13 and turned south heading for Long Binh. Now I could sit back and enjoy the ride, so I thought. We hadnít gone to far, when we spotted several guys from the 1st Infantry Division walking with their thumbs out. We pulled over and had them hop in the back with me. Good, now I had someone to talk to. As they got in, one noticed my helmet had ďAlton Illinois" written on the band. He asked who it belonged to, and I answered ďmeĒ. He said he was from Granite City. I knew where that was - only a few miles from where I lived in Alton. It was almost like talking with an old friend. We didnít mention people, only places that we were both familiar with. They rode with us for several miles before they asked to be let off. That was the last time I saw any of them, and I hope they all made it home safely.

The road was still lined with rubber trees; sometimes they would be on the right side, other times they would be on the left, or on both sides. It had gone from straight dirt to a narrow gravel road. This was Highway 13. It ran from just north of Saigon, where it split off from Highway 1, all the way to the Cambodian border. You would think a highway would be more than just a wide cow path. At times there would be a rise in the road, sort of a small hill, and where those were; there would be a high bank. This kind of area made me a little nervous. It looked like a good place for an ambush. I was glad the helicopters were flying above us. They made me feel a little more secure.

Finally we broke through the rubber trees on a down hill slope. The first thing I saw after breaking through the trees was a village at the bottom of the grade. Beyond that was open ground. The village itself, always comes to mind every time I get the hint of a tree that is smoldering, for thatís what this village smelled like. Itís strange how just a simple smell can take you back to a place in time, but that is what it does to me. I think it was the first hut as you enter the village that I remember most. I can still see the outside oven they had in the back of the hut, and I think that was where the smell was coming from. They used charcoal to cook with in the ovens, and because of the heat, it was better to have them outside than in the hut. I donít remember much more about the village other than it seemed to be fairly clean, and the uphill side was in the shade while the other side was in the sun.

As we came out the of the village, everything seemed to open up. Instead of shade and trees, there were no trees and the sun was beating down hard. We had gone from green undergrowth in the trees, to sun-scorched dry high grass. It was like going from cool green to extremely warm beige, or going from color to black and white. That was just how much difference there was.

Leaving the village we crossed over a bridge that spanned a small creek and just the other side was a lane that went back to where the First Infantry Division had a battery of 155 howitzers. This was called ďThunder ThreeĒ. There was a huge difference between this area and Quan Loi, as here the ground was flat and the dirt was a powdery gray, while Quan Loi was on a hill and the dirt was red. Quan Loi was also a much bigger place, with an airstrip and this was only a small fire base.

I looked at the countryside as we drove along. Off the road about one eighth of a mile was the remnants of railroad tracks. The rails were connected to each other by what looked to be flat iron ties. It looked strange to see them sticking up and all twisted from what I guessed was an explosion. Time had rusted them, and they were now just a reminder of what once had been. Occasionally I would see an A.P.C. off the road about 75 yards. This was the road security. Each track had a .50cal. mounted on it with a crew of about five people. I thought how lucky I was to have a bunk and a real place to eat as opposed to the way they had to live.

At times it was hard to see the vehicle directly in front of us because of all the dust. It would have been hard enough to see if there were only two vehicles on the road, but then you add in the six-wheeled M.P. vehicle as well as all the fifth wheel and other big trucks, and you had quite a dust storm going. I could feel the dust caking to my face, and my mouth was starting to feel gritty with all the dirt settling in it. My clothes were turning from green to gray, and my rifle was going to need a serious cleaning when this was all over. By this time I couldnít wait to get to Service Battery so I could get a shower and change into some clean cloths.

Ahead, in the distance, I could make out smoke rising up over the horizon. As we got closer, I could see it was coming from an area close to some buildings. They were on a hill, and the road seemed to be heading strait towards them. I began to make out different objects, like tanks, A.P.C.s and other assorted vehicles. As we approached I could also see the road was changing from gravel to asphalt. This was Lai Kai, the half way point to Long Binh. From here on out, it would be smooth sailing all the way there.

There was a big difference between the villages we had gone through earlier and those we were going now. In fact, those we were about to go through, were actually towns. Some of the buildings were made of brick, and were more than one story tall. The pace of life was much faster along the road now, and the road itself was faster and two lane, (Without the stripe), so we were able to run wide open. Since the trucks were governed at 45 mph, that was wide open.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, and I was taking all the sites in as we passed them. I did notice a shrine along the road, and there was nothing else around. It was sitting there all by itself. I thought that was a little strange. We passed Phu Loi where the 82nd Airborne was, and little did I know, I would eventually end my tour in Vietnam there. Soon we got to where Highway 13 and Highway 1 met. We turned left on Highway 1 and before to long we were crossing the Saigon River, and only about fifteen minutes away from Long Binh.

When we finally pulled into Service Battery it was going on five o-clock. It had taken about four hours to make a 70 mile trip. I didnít know whether to shower first or eat - the shower won out. After that, I felt more like a human and could eat without worrying that a chunk of dirt would fall into my food. All in all, it was quite a day of learning, and I was ready to put it behind me and get some sleep, for tomorrow I would be tackling payroll.

The next day went better than I had anticipated; I went to payroll and was done before noon. I had the rest of the day to just sit around and do nothing. I located the guys I had come here with to see if they needed any help with loading the truck. It was almost loaded when I found them, so I helped finish with the loading and listened to them argue some more. I couldnít believe they were still going at the way they were. I knew they were just screwing with each other, but it still seemed odd to me they would put that much energy into it. They told me we would be leaving early the next morning to head back to Quan Loi, so if there was anything I wanted to do, I should do it today. There wasnít anything in particular that I had in mind, so I just kicked back and enjoyed the freedom of not doing anything for the rest of the day.

Morning came and we headed to where the convoy staging area was located. Those in charge were getting everyone lined out as to where they should be in the convoy. They had a certain order in which you were to be placed, depending on your cargo. That way if there was an ambush, not all the explosive stuff would be together and cause a really big boom. I think we were somewhere near the end for some reason, but I really canít remember now. Then about 8:00 a.m. we started to move out. Now I was really getting nervous. I knew it was more likely for them to hit a convoy that was loaded with supplies, than one that wasnít.

The first part of the trip was uneventful; it was just a back track of what I had already seen. Then we got to Lai Kai and for some reason the convoy stopped, and I was straining my neck to see what the hold up was. Then I saw it, the mine sweep team was walking towards us checking out the highway. This is where it goes from asphalt to gravel, and it would be easy to put a mine in the road waiting for the lead vehicle to set it off. It was encouraging to see them out there, and I watched closely as they swept the road for mines. Soon we were on our way again, with one less thing for me to worry about. Back to eating the dust of those in front, and watching as we went along the same route we traveled the other day, only now heading northwest.

The road conditions hadnít gotten any better since two days before, and now that we were loaded, I found it hard to get a comfortable seat. As we bounced along the road following the lead vehicles I watched for any signs of trouble. I didnít really know what I was looking for, but I was very alert as to what was going on around us. Again we passed the A.P.C.s that were there for road security, and the twisted rails that had once been a means of transportation for these people. We passed Thunder Three and through the village leading to the rubber trees. Everything was going along just the way you would want it to.

Somewhere along the rubber tree-lined road and about ten miles from nowhere, we got a flat tire. I felt it go, and yelled at the driver to stop. Pulling off the road during a convoy isnít an easy thing to do, especially when the road is as narrow as this was, and there is a high bank on the right side. He managed to get us over as far as possible so the rest of the vehicles would be able to get around us. After they had all passed, the M.P. jeep bringing up the rear pulled up and talked to the driver. I donít know what was said, but after a bit the jeep drove off and we were suddenly out there by ourselves. Now I started to become really concerned with the situation we were in.

I climbed down from my perch in the back of the truck, and watched as they surveyed the situation. Soon they started getting the tools they would need to change the tire and I stood lookout. To our right was the high bank with trees about twenty feet above, and to the left was a slight slope of thick high grass and shrubs - All making for a very uneasy, and spooky ,feeling.

The rest of the convoy was well on their way to Quan Loi, and we were just getting started changing the tire. First they had to dig the spare out from where it was hidden, and then they could start preparing for where the jack would go. Because we were on a slight slope both forward and sideways, and weíre loaded to the hilt, they needed to be extremely careful on how the jack was placed. Naturally they were arguing about every little aspect of what they were doing. I think this time they were doing it to keep their minds off the fact we might be in deep trouble. This was all taking a lot of time, and I was becoming more and more anxious with the prospect of what might happen to us out there.

After a considerable amount of time, they were finally getting started breaking the lug nuts free on the tire. It was about that time the convoy started going by heading back to Long Binh. They had to stop working until the vehicles had all passed to keep from getting run over, thatís how tight the road was. About thirty or forty minutes later we were finished and ready to take off.

As I climbed back onto the truck, I was feeling relieved that nothing had happened, and was more than ready to get moving. The rest of the way to Quan Loi I increased my alertness to the point I was starting to give myself a headache. The driver was going as fast as the truck would go and still be safe. Finally we made it back, and they were just getting ready to close the gate when we pulled in. Wow, what a trip, I was glad it was over. I took the magazine out of my M-14, cleared the breech, and gave a long sigh of relief. Now I could relax.

When we pulled into the battery area, I saw they were having guard mount, so I raised my rifle high at them. Not paying attention to my surroundings, the flash suppressor caught on a phone line and the rifle was jerked out of my hand, it made a couple flips in the air and landed muzzle first on the ground where it stuck. This brought a loud chorus of laughter from those in formation. Needless to say, I was embarrassed over the whole thing, but it seemed fitting the trip should end that way.

Roger Mallory    Then  and  Now
HHB, 6/27th Artillery


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