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Convoy Escort Service Extraordinaire

By David Swisher
6/8/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

Aboard its V-100s named for comic book heroes, the 66th Military Police Company battled the enemy evildoers for control of South Vietnam’s roads.

No matter where you are, there should be some law and order, and this is especially true in a war zone, where virtually everyone is armed and on edge. The Military Police in Vietnam had a job to do, and we did it to the best of our ability. But MPs in Vietnam did much more than patrol the towns and, as is so often depicted in movies, harass their fellow GIs. While other jobs of an MP popped up occasionally, my job was to escort convoys. This was part of the giant logistical challenge of supplying hundreds of thousands of troops with materiel, food and supplies in the midst of a hostile guerrilla enemy. As in Iraq today, convoys are prime targets, and those protecting them are involved in one of the war’s most dangerous and deadly activities.

When I got to Vietnam in late 1969, I joined the 66th Military Police Company at Phu Tai and was assigned to the V-100 Platoon, where I spent most of my tour on escort duty. It was estimated that in 1970, our company covered more than 100,000 vehicle miles per month.

The V-100 was a wheeled armored vehicle used for security missions, mostly for running convoys. Its three-man crew consisted of the driver, the gunner and the radiotelephone operator (RTO). Built by Cadillac, the V-100 had an intercom system integrated into the radio, and each person in the vehicle could talk to the others without transmitting over the net. The crew chief, a job that rotated based on seniority, was in charge of what the V-100 did, but after a crew was together for a while everyone pretty well knew what to do and what was expected.

The 66th MP Company had one of the largest patrol areas in Vietnam. In addition to the V-100 Platoon, the company operated town patrols, security duty and whatever other mission came up. We ran convoys west on Route QL- 19, south on QL-1 to Tuy Hoa, and north on QL-1 to Bong Son or LZ English.

To designate who went where and when, the V-100s went by numbers and rotated or advanced each day. The vehicles were numbered from Eight-Zero to Eight-Eight. The road supervisor was Eight-Eight, which usually stayed on QL-19. The V-100 designated Eight-Zero for a particular day went to LZ English. When a vehicle’s number was Eight-Three, it opened the road along with Eight-Four. Vehicle Eight-Three would then escort the first eastbound convoy, after which it would return to the company to pull maintenance on the vehicle for the rest of the day. Opening the road required two V-100s to make sure all the bridges were open and everything was secure for the first convoy to start. The westbound convoys were designated “Friscos” and the eastbounds “New Yorks.” Number Eight-Five picked up the first convoy headed west and brought up the rear of that particular convoy. After they passed a certain checkpoint, Eight-Six would pick up the next convoy that formed. One of the V-100s was designated to run a convoy to Tuy Hoa, which was a two-day run.

Our road coordinator operated from one of the Korean firebases on QL-19 with the call sign Zero. When we got to a bridge, we called Zero and reported the bridge number we were crossing; Zero then knew when to start the first convoy. We always radioed Zero when we reached the bot – tom of the An Khe Pass, and again when we topped the pass.

When a convoy started, its commander, who was usually in the lead vehicle, called Zero and gave him a list of what the convoy consisted of. Zero then assigned the convoy, always referred to as a Charlie Victor, a number. The first convoy of the day was Charlie Victor 1, and so on. The convoy commander also called in all the checkpoints passed by the front of the convoy. Each bridge was numbered, and the bottom and the top of each pass were called in when the front and the rear passed the checkpoints. Using these numbers, Zero in turn maintained communications with the Air Force, dustoff or any other support that might be required.

Most of our trouble came on QL-19, but I always felt more comfortable on that road than on QL-1, simply because there were more convoys on QL-19 and therefore greater probability of backup. My personal baptism of fire came on April 1, 1970, in an ambush at the hairpin curve in the An Khe Pass. Our V-100 had already come through the hairpin and was headed down the pass, when the westbound convoy was hit. The words “Contact! Contact! Contact!” came over the radio net while I was driving, so I turned the V-100 around and headed back up the pass. When we got to the hairpin, I saw some Korean soldiers pinned down. One of them had his arm stuck up in the air pointing to the south side of the hairpin turn. I pulled the V-100 between the Koreans and the position he was pointing to, so we could give them a little more cover and also engage with our firepower.

When things quieted down and the firing stopped, the Koreans swept the area and pulled out two dead NVA only yards from our vehicle. There was a gun truck a short distance around the curve from us, and the two of us had put out a lot of fire. After the fight, a spotter plane came in and we got to watch a pretty good show as he shot some marker rockets. Following that, a couple of F-4 phantoms bombed and strafed the area.

When the United States invaded Cambodia in May 1970, things really picked up along QL-19. On May 6 or 7 there was a daylong ambush in the An Khe Pass and several guys from the 66th were involved, along with artillery, jets and helicopters. The convoy got hit early that day, and when we left the pass that evening we were still drawing fire. One thing was certain: The looks of the pass changed that day after fires started by our napalm, tracers and artillery burned through most of the tall grass.

June 20 turned out to be a terrible day for the 66th, even though it had started just like any other. My V-100 was Eight-Three and Ken Hunsucker had Eight-Four, so we opened the road together. I picked up the first eastbound convoy, took it back to Cha Rang Valley and dropped it off. Then we headed back to the compound to pull maintenance. I had been having trouble with my intercom, so I got permission to go out to the Cha Rang Valley and get it worked on by someone who knew more about radios than we did.

While we were getting our radio fixed, about four or five miles down the road Sergeant Robert Smith’s and Hunsucker’s V-100s were in a fight for their lives in an ambush just past Bridge Number 5. Without our radio we didn’t know what was happening until the gun truck from our company went by us, and all the guys in the back were waving for us to come with them. We were pretty well done with the intercom by then, so I switched over to our frequency and heard Hunsucker’s voice calling in airstrikes, talking to Zero and taking charge of the situation. We fired up our V-100 and headed out to Bridge Number 5. During a lull in the radio traffic, I called Ken and asked if there was anything that he needed me to do. He said that he thought everything was pretty well over—but thanks anyway.

As we found out later, Smith’s V-100 took a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) right through the back window. While Smith was down inside the vehicle trying to clear a jammed M-60, the RPG came in the rear window and out the other side of the vehicle.

An RPG round produces a forward burning effect and causes a lot of fragmentation. Smith had already been dusted-off by the time I got there, but by the looks of the V-100, I was sure he was in very bad shape. The two other MPs in the vehicle had received only minor fragmentation wounds.

When Smith’s V-100 was brought back to our compound, I helped clean it out. From all the blood and holes in the vehicle, I didn’t see how Smith could possibly have lived. I didn’t know it then, but Smith’s V-100 had picked up a couple of hitchhikers that afternoon and taken them down to the Cha Rang Valley. That’s why there was so much blood in the bottom of Smith’s vehicle. It wasn’t until 36 years later that I found out Smith had survived the injuries. I always felt bad about not being there when I was needed. Sometimes life just doesn’t make sense.

One thing about running the roads every day was that you never knew what strange thing was going to happen next. My V-100 was escorting a convoy from Tuy Hoa one day when there was a lot of construction work on the road, causing quite an accordion effect. When the front of the convoy stopped, the rear tightened up. Then the front would start again, and the convoy spread out before the rear could start. Because of that, I told our V-100 driver Reno Catalano to get in the middle of the road so we could keep other vehicles out of our convoy until we got out of the construction area. Whereas we usually let faster vehicles go ahead and pass the convoy trucks, since there was so much construction I wanted to keep the convoy clear of the other traffic.

I then turned around in the RTO hatch and motioned to the vehicles behind to stay back. I noticed one jeep right behind us with four or five ARVN soldiers. The one riding in the shotgun seat had some sort of officer’s insignia on his collar, and he appeared agitated about being held up. The next time I turned around, the officer was pulling out his .45-caliber pistol, which he aimed at me. In response I grabbed the M-60 machine gun and traversed it around to aim at the jeep. The officer holstered his pistol real fast.

I traversed the M-60 back to its original position, but I kept a close eye on that jeep until we could finally let it pass. Catalano and gunner Ron Conners didn’t have any idea what had been going on. After a few more miles I spotted the ARVN officer alongside a MACV major, both standing in the middle of the road waiting to flag us down. Over the intercom I told Catalano and Conners to stay on the alert because I had no idea what was going to happen next. When we pulled up and stopped, surrounded by 30 or 40 ARVNs, I felt a bit like John Wayne going out to parlay with Red Cloud.

I got out of the V-100 and walked up to the MACV officer, explaining what had happened and why I did what I did. He then talked to the ARVN officer, but I couldn’t tell what they were saying. The ARVN officer gave me a dressing down in Vietnamese anyway. I told the MACV officer I had to catch my convoy; then I jumped into the V-100 and we were on our way. I figured that was the end of that, but when we returned to our compound, I was told to report to the orderly room.

When I got there, the captain, the lieutenant and the first sergeant all gave me a good chewing out. That ARVN officer apparently was the commander of a major section of the southern end of Vietnam. I listened to them patiently for a little while, and then finally I told them I was an E-4 pulling an E-5 slot, and that I was doing the best job I could do. If that wasn’t good enough, they could replace me. I turned around and walked back to my billets, expecting that someone would probably come and get me for an Article 15, but I never heard another word about it.

Night convoys were the riskiest of all missions. I only experienced one, and that was one too many. The roads were unbelievably dark at night—and everybody knew the night belonged to Charlie. My V-100 made the run to Qui Nhon without any problem, but when we arrived at our destination base with the convoy, two B-40 rockets crashed into the perimeter. I was driving, and I headed right down by the wire where the firing was coming from. Catalano and Conners both opened up with the machine guns, while I called in for permission to return fire. I got the reply, “No, there are friendlies in the area.” Well, I thought, they don’t act very friendly—they’re shooting at us. After things quieted down I drove up to the command post. The captain and first sergeant walked out carrying a six pack of beer and thanked us for the extra support.

On occasion we got the grim job of cleaning up after a road accident. One day we came upon a bus that had collided head on with a 10-ton truck. The front bumper on the truck was hardly even scratched, but the front end of the bus was pushed all the way back to the front seat. The driver was crushed beyond recognition and there were people lying all around. We called in dustoff, bandaged the ones we could and then sent them on their way to the hospital.

On one convoy to Da Nang, one of our trucks hit a Lambretta full of Vietnamese. It was quite a mess. The Lambretta went off the road and down an embankment. By the time we got a dustoff there and got things cleaned up a bit, there were all kinds of black pajama-clad people with guns standing around talking and yelling. Because of the language barrier, a misunderstanding could easily have arisen, but before that happened we got out of there and back to our convoy.

Occasionally we had our moments, like the day when we were escorting a convoy up the An Khe Pass and one of the trucks lost a whole pallet of beer. There wasn’t any way we could load that pallet back on the lighthearted truck, so being the good Samaritans we were, we loaded as many cases as we could into our V-100—so much that we could hardly turn the turret. Once back at the compound, we unloaded the beer, put it into a cut-off 55-gallon drum and iced it down. Needless to say, there were some sorry MPs that night and a number of terrible head aches the next day.

To the men who served on a V-100 for a year, the vehicle became more than just a machine. It became your life, your friend and your protector. All but two of our V-100s were named after comic book heroes. These included “Captain America,” “Thor,” “Big Ben,” “Flash,” “Spider – man,” “Barbarian,” “Atom,” “Daredevil” and “Iron Man.” The other two were named “Road Hog” and “The Lemon.” Each of the V-100s had a painting of the character or the name across the front, life-sized and in color. Comic book superheroes painted on the front of the V-100s made for an interesting article in The Roundup, our local GI newspaper. The April 1970 article was headlined, “66th MP Co. Super Heroes to Combat VC Wrong Doers.”

We all knew that we were not superheroes, though—just MPs trying to do our duty and get home safely.

 

David A. Swisher lives in Marshall, Ill. He received the Army Commendation Medal with V Device for his actions during the ambush at the An Khe Pass in April 1970. For additional reading, see: Cadillac Gage V-100 Commando 1960-71, by Richard Lathrop and Jim Laurier; and Combat Police: U.S. Army Military Police in Vietnam, by Rick Young.

Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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