Choking dust, clouds of stinging insects, biting monkeys, trees and enemy rockets crashing from above, tunnels collapsing under foot— in temperatures reaching 130 degrees—were all in a day’s work for the 60th Land Clearing Company, which carried out its missions undaunted, guided by the unit motto, “Guts, Skill and Spirit.” Largely unheralded and forgotten, land clearing units, in Vietnam nicknamed “Jungle Eaters,” were often ahead of the frontlines, destroying the enemy’s most valued weapon—heavy cover—and blazing the way for infantry and armor.
The nearly impenetrable triple-canopy jungle that covered much of Vietnam presented a great challenge to the U.S. military. The enemy used the jungle to conceal large complexes and staging areas for assaults and ambushes, especially along convoy routes. The United States needed to find a way to neutralize that advantage.
One option was to use defoli ants, including Agent Orange. The dioxin-based chemicals were sprayed over large swaths of Vietnam by C-123 Provider aircraft. That method made it possible to reach areas of the country inaccessible by ground, but it took time for the chemicals to kill the vegetation.
Another option was the Rome Plow, known as “hogjaws.” This was the military version of a Caterpillar bulldozer outfitted with a 121⁄2-foot-wide, 6-foot-high, 21⁄2-ton blade manufactured by the Rome Plow Company of Rome, Ga. A reinforced steel protective cage was mounted on top of each vehicle, with a “headache bar” over the operator’s head to protect him from falling debris. The 36,000-pound monster plow, originally used to cut fire breaks in American forests, made its Vietnam debut in 1966. By the summer of 1967, there were three teams of 30 plows each working in Vietnam. The teams were later reorganized as companies, and by January 1969 six companies were busy clearing jungle and forests in Vietnam.
In January 1967, the Army launched Operation Cedar Falls, an effort to destroy a Viet Cong jungle fortress called the “Iron Triangle.” For 20 years the VC, and the Viet Minh before them, used the 40-squaremile area just 20 miles northwest of Saigon as a staging ground for attacks on the city.
The war’s largest operation to date, Cedar Falls was supported by 600 men and 54 bulldozers, including four Rome Plows from the 1st Engineering Battalion. In this operation the plows formed up with two M48 tank dozers at the point, followed by four bulldozers abreast, with two more trailing as a cleanup team. They cleared resupply landing zones, stripped vegetation from along roadways, cut swaths in the jungle to facilitate rapid deployment of armor, and destroyed bunkers and tunnel complexes.
Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Kiernan, commander of the 1st Engineering Battalion, called Cedar Falls the “most significant combat engineering operation of the war to date.” During the 19-day operation, as some 2,700 acres of land were cleared, maintenance problems emerged as the weak link of mechanical land clearing.
Three years later, Rome Plows played a big role in the April 1970 incursion into the Fish Hook area of Cambodia, about 50 miles north of Saigon. On the first day of the operation, the 60th Land Clearing Company ate up nearly 77 acres of jungle and in the process exposed 50 bunkers and a 20-ton cache of rice. Just before noon on the third day, having cleared another 70 acres, the 60th received an order to stop. Ahead of them was a huge, one-square-kilometer bunker complex.
When Staff Sgt. Richard Koutch got off his tractor and looked around, he saw laundry drying on the lines and kettles of rice cooking. He found medical supplies in one bunker. When he turned from another bunker and saw 20 North Vietnamese Army soldiers about 30 feet away, the unit’s engineers scattered. The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment then attacked the complex with F-4s and helicopter gunships providing close air support, securing the area after a five-hour pitched battle. The plows were back in action the next day, destroying 75 bunkers and 50 hooches of what turned out to be the largest NVA hospital complex in Cambodia.
The commander of the 1st Engineering Battalion at that time, Lt. Col. Robert Montfore, called the men of the 60th very heroic. “We took absolute control and put the run to the enemy,” Montfore recalled.
Typically, a land clearing company was sent into the field for 45 days, followed by a standard 15-day maintenance stand-down period at its base of operations. The Jungle Eaters worked 12-hour days when they were in the field— clearing as much as 150 to 200 acres. At the end of the day, they turned up a defensive berm and laagered in for the night. After evening chow, they spent another four to six hours each night pulling maintenance on their rigs.
The tough terrain, enemy mines and near-nightly mortar attacks put a heavy toll on the equipment: between one-half and two-thirds of the plows were out of action at any given time. Since most of the areas they worked in were often isolated and inaccessible by road, spare parts, water and food had to be flown in by CH-47 Chinooks.
When entering virgin territory, it was often impossible to identify readily concealed terrain features or an enemy presence. Initially, a single plow equipped with a radio would score the perimeter of the planned cut, with a chopper hovering above, radioing directions to the plow operator and ready to respond to any emergencies. Once the perimeter was traced, the other plows joined up in an echelon formation with the lead dozer and cut in a concentric manner until the clearing was completed. Other plows pushed the debris to the side.
While their human enemies were the most deadly, the jungle was replete with hazards of all sorts and species. One of the most persistent animal foes the Jungle Eaters enountered was the Vietnamese bee. Once disturbed, swarms of bees descended upon the dozers. All of the armor and reinforced protective cages did nothing to stop the stinging insects; the only defense that seemed to work was popping a can of green smoke.
Eighteen-year-old Allen Boehm from Amelia, Ohio, joined the 60th near Trang Bang in Hau Nghia Province in November 1970. The mischievous Boehm was a natural fit with the Jungle Eaters, a “good old boy,” according to Sergeant Bill Kimbrell. “He worked hard, did what he was asked, and got a beer or two.”
In late April 1971, the 60th was again near Trang Bang and the men were uneasy. Their traditional operating cover, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, had been redeployed Stateside and was replaced by an untested ARVN unit. During the night of April 23, the engineers’ position came under heavy recoilless rifle and machine gun fire. The ARVN unit ran. Despite the lack of protection, the plows started up again the next morning. They were working to clear a bamboo patch when they were attacked on three sides and a B-40 rocket slammed into one tractor.
As Boehm rushed to the aid of the driver of the disabled vehicle, his own dozer was hit by a rocket and erupted in flames. Seriously injured with multiple fragmentation wounds to his head, neck and extremities, Boehm was dusted-off by chopper to the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh, where he died shortly thereafter.
The company was ordered back to the battle site to recover Boehm’s burned-out dozer. As the men approached the derelict vehicle, the VC attacked them again. During the fight Captain Edwin Heisse, Lieutenant Kevin Richard and medic James Harris were also killed, making April 24, 1971, the deadliest day in the history of the 60th Land Clearing Company. Boehm was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Oak Leaf Custer and V Device.
As with other U.S. units, the Rome Plow companies were gradually replaced by South Vietnamese units. The 60th was ordered home in December 1971, the last U.S. plow company to redeploy.
Colonel Montfore has estimated that during its service in Vietnam the 60th Land Clearing Company succeeded in clearing between 150,000 and 200,000 acres of jungle—suffering 27 combat deaths in the process. What can never be calculated, however, is the number of American infantry casualties that were prevented by the work of the 60th.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.