surfing the stardust

Pleiku Road: An Khe Pass, 1966

We passed out at about 11 pm, laid out across the seats of the gun jeep, halfway up the AnKhe pass – just short of the Korean strong point.  We had been smoking dope pretty steady for one or two hours.  On a rescue mission to retrieve the driver of a convoy truck which had broken down on its run to Pleiku.

The pass is a twisting, steep, dirt mess that runs between the lush rice paddies of the costal plain and the first plateau of the Central Highlands.  Technically it was in the Tiger Division secure area but the First Cav was close by and they provided the fire mission support for this part of the road.

Not a good place to be after dark – the strong point is only a squad or so – maybe 12 guys.

We always drew fire down the hill about 1-2 miles down from where we slept – that’s at night when we’d be late on the fast run down from Pleiku – trucks pretty much empty would haul ass past that spot.  Maybe my gun jeep would lay down protective fire from our M-60, not able to aim but just shooting ‘em up to make them go back to the village.

But the weed was too good to overcome, besides we really didn’t give a shit.

We woke up from our little nap about 0200 and decided we were pretty fucking stupid…the cold night had woken us.

I remember seeing a couple of the Koreans dragging a big long lizard down the hill a few weeks before – the big guy was six feet long at least – that’s with his thick tail – good chow for the boys with that lonely scary duty sitting on the pass night after night…

The pass was a swamp when it rained.  I’d stand in mud up to my knees as the monsoon downpour turned the deeply cut curves into swimming pools where the local buses and trucks would bog down.  My job was to clear the pass when that happened.

For 6 weeks I lived with the First Cav. in the village about 10 miles up, west of the top.  I’d head out soon after light with a big old 5 ton wrecker and winch the buses and trucks through the deep sludge.

The pass got dusty and stinking hot when the rains stopped.  Sometimes 3 or 5 trucks would link up bumper to bumper with the faster trucks pushing hard to help the slower ones and heavily loaded ones to make it.  The heat and the dust and the exhaust made it a nasty and sweaty deal…

The trick was to shift without breaking contact with the truck you were pushing…of course I mean double shifting the transfer case and the gear shift at the same time.  You’d grab the long gear shift with your left hand and then bend down to the transfer case lever on the floor with the right hand and double clutch the mother and drop down or push up depending on what the guy in front was doing.  And your head was down below the dash and you weren’t looking at the road or the truck in front or any  other damned thing.  But there was hardly ever any problem because you were only going maybe 5 miles an hour loaded down with pallets of beer or napalm.

A few times it was really, really hot and my driver and gunner and I stopped and loaded a jeep trailer with big 3 foot long blocks of ice in sawdust and cans of Korean beer – I drove by each truck crawling up in the diesel fumes and passed a cold can or 2 to the driver and shotgun.

One spring morning with clear blue skies and fresh 70 degree mountain air I came over the top of the pass and pulled up behind a 40’ tractor-trailer loaded with cigarettes.  The driver and shotgun were up under the canvas tarp throwing cartons of smokes down to a dozen girls who were loading up buffalo carts and 3 wheelers.  I kicked their butts and shut it down.  There was no reason to do more since the guys were selling everything up and down the road.  If you got a load of beer, lumber or Marlboro’s you could make a months pay.  They’d also trade it to other outfits like the 101st Airborne who would come in to the road ever once in a while for a tough operation.

We had a professional scrounger named Hoss Caruthers who excelled in trading beer and smokes hijacked from our trucks for lumber and pancho liners…that’s how our 2nd Trans. Co. got the wood and sheetmetal to make a beer hall for the enlisted men.  When the club was finished we had a big party; I played guitar but we only knew 3 songs and played them over and over all night.  I’d been to some great frat parties in school but never ever saw guys get drunk like that night.

In the ‘50s the French got massacred here on Highway 19.  They were running for the coast from north of Kontum and the NVA was dealing with them via death by a thousand cuts.  They finally got trapped between the top of the AnKhe pass and the next pass 15 miles west.  It is scrubby jungle, nothing majestic; no double canopy.  The big convoy was cut to pieces and over 1000 french soldiers and allies were killed or captured.  You can read about it in the episode called “Death of a Convoy” in Bernard Fall’s great book Street Without Joy.

So I never liked to stop on the road – fire could always come from anywhere, anytime.  With a truck or a jeep you could always “get your hat” and “didi”…if you were hauling ass you were “hatting”.  So we were idiots for passing out and sleeping on the pass but like I said the dope was too good.


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