Pleiku Road # 3. First Convoy
I was introduced to Vietnam by a guy named Carruthers, who I mentioned before. He was called “Hoss”. No fooling!
He was a private of about 40 years; he’d been busted numerous times. He was what was called a “scrounger”. This is an honorable position in military circles, even while it is probably illegal, unauthorized and non-existent. He was assigned to my platoon but I never met him until I’d been in country and up in the small valley west of QuiNhon for about a week. By then it was time for my first convoy. I was to lead over 300 convoys in the year I was there but for the first one I was riding in the truck – not in my private gun jeep. Carruthers was going to drive the 5 ton and I was shotgun.
He talked the trip away, pointing out land marks and strong points, pausing to talk to guys he knew all along the long road from QuiNhon to AnKhe to Pleiku. He knew the Koreans and some of the First Cav that manned the defensive, sandbagged fire-pits at the fords and blown bridges. The trip was about 100 miles each way and took 12-14 hours round trip. Lots of time for his stories, and he had a lot of them.
He also was beginning my lessons in how to drive these massive 10 gear 10 wheeler tractor-trailers, showing me shifting techniques, how to brake with no brakes, hooking up trailers, backing a 65 foot rig, stuff like that. Most of our rigs were “tractor trailers”. We’d pull 40 foot long trailers loaded with ammunition, napalm, food, beer or tankers with jet propellant, av-gas, diesel. Sometimes we’d unhook the trailers and just drive the tractor. Then it was called a “bob-tail” – it was fast, but rough and bumpy over the blown out road and rotting pavement.
As we came down off the MangYang pass Hoss pulled into the First Cav’s home base at AnKhe. The rains had started. Tough to see 10 feet in the torrent. We had abandoned the convoy so Hoss could do some trading with his supply sergeant buddy. He got me a nice poncho liner, the preferred sleep cover in the steaming hot nights, some extra jungle shirts, and other stuff. He was doing what a scrounger did best – scrounge stuff. We dropped the trailer at the TTP and drove “bob-tail” – easier to get around
Finally we started out again for the remaining 30 miles to our camp in QuiNhon. Down the AnKhe Pass and out into the costal plain with endless rice paddies invisible in the dark.
As we approached the intersection of the east-west road, Highway 19, and the north-south road, Highway #1, the truck stalled, out of gas after the long day. It was dark with no moon. We stood outside the truck, considering our options. Suddenly tracers were bouncing off the road, ricocheting past us. The road was between a hill to the south and paddies to the north. We dove down the shoulder slope, scrambling for cover from the fire, spinning over onto our bellies, lying with our feet in the paddy.
I lay in the ditch, wet gravel dust coating lips, slipping into the mouth and tongue; an instant thought and clear – but there – 12 weeks ago I sat in the Mission Garden in Santa Clara listening to pontificating bureaucrats give graduation speeches – jeez. Sweat and rain from the forehead mixing – another burst of tracers spraying dust from the edge of the road. Lying here now for twenty minutes, lucky that the initial rounds from the hill south of the road had hit the gravel sparking and kicking up spray – shocking me aware nanoseconds before the rifle pops hit my consciousness. “What to do now?” Pinned down in the roadside just 6 days after the descent through the parachute flares into Ton Son Nhut…
“Carruthers!, What the fuck..?” (me)
“Shit if I know…” (him)
This scene spread out along a length of road maybe 100 yards by the BinhDinh province stream. Hill, road, stream, paddy – and the ditch less than 3 feet deep. Rock and a hard place. They, or he, clearly had the advantage on me – sitting up on a brush and light wooded covered hill. Hell, I couldn’t even tell how high up they were. Could be 50 or 100 feet up there for all I knew. I couldn’t look up to track the muzzle flash. Maybe I could low crawl down the gravel shoulder – head towards the road block bunker where twelve hours before in the morning mists we had staged the convoy before heading out west. But that was at least a half mile away. Maybe the VC was moving up for a blitz – 2, 3,or 4 of them, swarming down against Hoss and me, that would be no contest, not when I had to start with my face buried in the gravel. Lucky the VC were shitty shots – any NVA snipers would have split our skulls as we had leaned over the stalled truck engine trying to find out why the hell it had stopped.
Then lights and sounds as we saw an American 5 ton high-balling it round the bend, through the tracer fire, roars coming out through the vertical stacks of the multifuel engine. Then another right behind, lights changing the rules a bit – then bursts of 7.62 mm M14 rounds coming from the two 27th Trans trucks spraying the hill. Hoss and I scrambled out of the ditch as the 5 tons slowed up and we jumped on the running board, clinging to each other and the big side mirror as the double clutching bad boy floored the bob-tail and took off west – down the road to the strongpoint convoy staging area.
We all ran into the sand bagged op center, got a load of guys, jumped into the back of a truck and went back to the sticken, Carruthers bob-tail, laying down a massive protective fire onto the hillside while we hitched up the 5 ton bob-tail, got our hats, and didi’d.
Over the years I have begun to wonder, with a certain amount of wry humor, whether this small and inconsequential ambush might have in fact been a staged bit of hazing of the brand new, shave tail, lieutenant. One might wonder if american GI’s would have risked firing live ammo at their colleagues just to have a good laugh. Well I’m sure that anyone whose been in combat knows the answer is “well hell yes”. Who knows?
My fellow platoon leader and convoy commander, Charlie Trompler, who is now a FB friend and lives in Tulsa, told me he had a number of “Carruthers stories”..we’ll try and put them together sometime in the future.
Margo and I, and my sister Kaywood (also a Vietnam Vet), went back to this spot in 2005. An old cemetery which had been in a draw along side the hill has now grown up into the place from whence we took the fire. Here’s a picture of the spot: