Convoying On Thunder Road

The date is late March 1969.  The 8 inch Howitzer Platoon of Alpha Battery 6/27th Artillery has been at FSB Thunder III for about two weeks supporting the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and some units of the 1st Infantry Division during Operation Atlas Wedge.  Our job is finished and the time has come to return to Quan Loi, the location of the 175mm Gun Platoon of the Battery. When compared to FSB Thunder III; LZ Andy (Quan Loi) does not seem to be too bad a place, so we are ready to depart. The other units at FSB Thunder III don’t “shed a tear” either as we are leaving. We have been told that that our Howitzers make a lot of noise when they fire, and they have been firing most the time since we arrived.

As the Platoon is getting loaded and ready to convoy; elements of the 2/2 Mechanized Infantry of the 1st Infantry Division arrive at the Fire Support Base. They have the job of security for the convoy. Moreover, the “word” is that the convoy will get ambushed on the way back to Quan Loi.  All of the persons in the “caravan” hope the “word” isn’t correct.

On the return trip, I am riding in the back of the Motor Pool Maintenance van. I rode on top of the M-577 Fire Direction “track” on the way to Thunder III and was almost thrown off of it several times. I think the van will probably be a better “ride” and so I have me a nice “soft” seat on a stack of duffle bags. Two other soldiers are riding in the van with me.

The route of the convoy is Highway 13 (“Thunder Road”) to An Loc; then a short trip to Quan Loi on Highway 303. I refer to the segment of the route between FSB Thunder III and An Loc as “ambush alley”. I give it this name, because even during my short tenure in FDC, the Battery has “shot” several “counter ambush” missions along this particular section of “Thunder Road” when convoys were on it.

As we pull onto the road and head north, I notice infantry ACAV’s; an Armored Car equipped with a “mini” gun and a “Duster” in the convoy. Moreover, the 8 inch howitzers carry some ammo and could be used in a direct fire capacity if needed. I know that we have a lot of firepower in the convoy. Perhaps the “bad guys” will not want to pick a fight today. Nevertheless, all of us are apprehensive as to what lies ahead.

The convoy doesn’t really have to wait very long for things to start happening.  About ten minutes North of FSB Thunder III, I hear the “Mini” gun on the armored car in the middle of the convoy begin firing. Then “All Hell” begins to break loose. The “Duster” begins to fire; the 50 Caliber machine guns mounted on the Howitzers begin firing also. The “Grunts” on the ACAV’s start firing small arms and grenade launchers. Someone in the vehicle that I am riding screams, “AMBUSH”. All of us in the back of the van and the other vehicles in the convoy “open up” with our rifles.

The convoy slows down to a crawl, but it doesn’t stop. I fire several magazines of ammo; aiming about 10 meters from the edge of the road to lay-down a “good base of fire” as I have been instructed to do in such a situation.  I hear several distinct “thuds” during the action. I find several “bullet” hits on my side of the vehicle. Some are very close to where I am sitting.

The firing ends as suddenly as it begins. The convoy continues on at a much faster pace. As we round a curve with rubber trees on both sides of the road; the “lead” 8 Inch howitzer falls-out of the convoy with mechanical problems. The convoy continues toward An Loc and makes no pretense to stop. The Motor Pool Maintenance Van in which I am riding along with a “radio” jeep also falls-out of the convoy. As we pull to a stop; all of us in the van including the driver and co-driver, as well as the people riding on the Howitzer and “radio” jeep “unass” our rides. We hastily form a defensive perimeter around the vehicles.

The problem is the engine in the gun carriage of the howitzer is overheating.  In order to “fix” the situation, the engine has to “cool down” then coolant added to the radiator. The process will take over an hour. During this time, we are “sitting ducks” and we know it. We are in a tough spot and I am scared beyond belief. I check my personal ammunition.  I find that I have three full magazines and part of a fourth remaining along with four hand grenades. Not much, but I will use it all if necessary.  I also keep saying to myself over and over again, “Hurry-up and fix the bastard and let’s get the FUCK outta here”.  Time really drags to the extent that minutes seem like hours. Fortunately for us, no further hostile action occurs.

After about an hour, the radiator has cooled enough for fluid to be added. This is accomplished in rapid order; the gun’s engine is quickly started and we are back on “Thunder Road” heading north---without our security.

The Howitzer carriage does not overheat for the remainder of the trip, or at least it does not stop. The little group of vehicles rolls through An Loc and then on toward Quan Loi without further incident. One of the better sights that I have ever seen is the Alpha Battery Area coming into sight.

As we arrive, I know that a cold beer awaits me along with a shower and a “clean” uniform. As I climb out of the van, one of the FDC crewmembers takes my picture.  He later gives me the print and I send it to my family.  My mother carries it with her the remainder of the time I am in Viet Nam. She says that particular picture is the happiest that she has ever seen me.  The truth of the statement is that she is correct.


Gary Graham    Now and Then

Norman, Oklahoma   




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