Long-haul trucking on Vietnam’s treacherous Highway 19
The 64th Transportation Company departed for Vietnam in July 1966. We moved out with our 60 5-ton tractors, 120 12-ton trailers, 20 headquarters vehicles and 186 officers and men. The advance party went by air. Vehicles were shipped via the port of Charleston, South Carolina. Our main body flew by air charter from Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina to McCord Air Force Base near Seattle. We were then taken by bus to Tacoma, Washington, where we boarded the troopship USNS General John Pope for 19 days at sea.
Soon after we learned we were going to Vietnam, we were told that our truck tractors weren’t going with us, so we put their best tires on our deploying trailers. Just as we finished trading the tires, Tank-Automotive Command told us that we were going to take our tractors with us. You guessed it: We returned the best tires to those tractors.
The General John Pope docked at Qui Nhon, about 300 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam, in August, the beginning of our 12 months in-country. We were greeted by members of our advance party, and buses took us to our company area, about 10 miles inland on Highway 1, near the village of Phu Tai. We were assigned to the 27th Transportation Battalion, where we joined two other tractor-
trailer companies, a 2½-ton cargo truck company and a fuel tanker company.
Our primary convoy route ran west from Qui Nhon on Highway 19 for 110 miles to Pleiku. In the Pleiku area, we dropped off loads at the 4th Infantry Division base camp, at an Air Force base and at many depots. We hauled flatbed trailers loaded with practically anything that could be held down by steel bands, including ammunition, construction material, combat rations and pallets of other items needed for U.S. forces operating in the middle of Vietnam. We made the 220-mile round trip to Pleiku and back every day.
I shared the daily convoy commander duties with the company’s original three platoon leaders—later two and then one. My commander’s vehicle on the convoy was an M151 jeep with mounted gun and a radio set. In the fall of 1966, as a precaution in case we were hit by small-arms fire, I arranged for the installation of factory-issued armor plating on my radio gun jeep, making it the first armored escort jeep in the area.
We were allowed to name our vehicles on the armor plate. My jeep became the Patmobile, in honor of my wife, Patricia, who, with our young daughter, was staying at her parents’ home in Cleveland. Tractors were named by their drivers. Beautiful Dreamer and The Tennessean are two names that stick in my mind.
A typical day on convoy duty started in the middle of the night. I woke up at 0200 and went to the company operations tent to learn how many tractors would be in the convoy and which platoon sergeant, or assistant platoon sergeant, would be in another armed jeep as my assistant convoy commander. A typical convoy had about 50 18-wheelers from my company and about 25 from each of the two other truck companies in our battalion.
I reported at 0230 to the battalion operations tent, where the sergeant gave me our trailer pickup locations. The drivers woke up at 0330 and ate breakfast at 0400 in our company mess hall. (Drivers were issued C rations for the noon meal.) At 0430 I announced which drivers had to pick up trailers at various supply depots, the Qui Nhon port or the local trailer-transfer point. We weren’t able to put assistant drivers on the trucks because men were needed for guard work and other duties.
At 0630 our truck tractor drivers with loaded trailers assembled along the right side of Highway 19, about 15 miles west of Qui Nhon, in the Cha Rang Valley. I gave our outbound briefing at 0645, and we departed at 0700.
The convoy’s lead driver was someone who would keep a reasonable pace. At the tail of the convoy was a mechanic driving a truck tractor without a trailer but carrying supplies for breakdowns. He was accompanied by a second tractor running without a trailer for use in pulling downed vehicles.
The assistant convoy commander and I were in our jeeps as our jeep drivers maneuvered us up and down the convoy, with one of us always at the trailing end. Our convoy procedures also called for 100 yards of space between vehicles.
By 0915 we would arrive at An Khe, home of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). With the slow, first-gear grind up the steep, winding An Khe pass and later another grind up Mang Yang pass, it usually took an hour for a convoy to reach the top of each pass.
We would line up the trucks just beyond An Khe to filter out stray traffic, such as civilian or South Vietnamese army vehicles that had gotten mixed in with us over the 55 travel miles from Qui Nhon. The Military Police held the convoys there to create 15-minute intervals between each convoy—enough distance to prevent two convoys from being caught in the same ambush.
There were 35 temporary one-way steel bridges on the route. The loaded outbound convoys had priority at each bridge. At about 0945 we were released from the An Khe checkpoint.
At about 1200 we had driven beyond the Mang Yang pass and onto the Central Highlands plateau and arrived at the Pleiku marshaling area. Our drivers would disperse to their designated trailer-drop locations. Each would release his loaded trailer, pick up an empty trailer and return to the marshaling area.
By 1400 we departed from Pleiku on our return run. If we delayed beyond that time, the Military Police held the convoy overnight because the bridges closed just before dusk and trucks on the road at night were particularly susceptible to ambushes.
We didn’t face much danger from ambushes during my deployment. But later a convoy ambush on Sept. 2, 1967, killed nine soldiers, wounded 19, destroyed 12 vehicles and damaged 18. Other ambushes followed.
Pleiku, a provincial capital, was of serious interest to the enemy. Not too many miles away is the Ia Drang Valley, scene of the November 1965 1st Air Cavalry Division’s battle that was the first major confrontation between the U.S. Army and the North Vietnamese Army.
Street Without Joy, journalist Bernard Fall’s famous book on France’s failed war in Indochina during the 1950s, was about Highway 1, the coastal road, but Fall included a chapter about Highway 19 between the Mang Yang Pass and Pleiku. One day, after my gun jeep driver and I stopped to provide security for a tractor with a flat tire, I came across a small monument that memorialized the June 1954 ambush of French Mobile Group 100, which suffered hundreds of deaths in the last major battle of the First Indochina War.
During our entire year in Vietnam, there was only one day when we did not make a run to Pleiku. That was the day a tracked vehicle retriever, with its towed tank, tried to cross one of the bridges. The two tracked vehicles wound up as a huge V shape in the middle of the broken bridge. That night the engineers put in a bypass—a temporary gravel ramp down to the gulley and another back up to the roadway—and we were on our way the next morning.
We generally rolled back into Phu Tai by 1830 and dropped the trailers off at the Cha Rang Valley transfer point. Because I had arranged for my mess hall to operate 24 hours every day, our drivers could eat before or after their daily vehicle maintenance. By 2200 drivers could enjoy a beer or a soft drink at our company club, watch an outdoor movie from a wooden bench, shower and get ready for the next day on the road. At 0230 every day the whole operation began again.
To handle the daily maintenance work efficiently, we organized what I called a “three-ring circuit” maintenance program. Members of 1st Platoon checked and replaced tires for each driver. The 2nd Platoon cleaned the trucks with a power washer filled from a well that we had dug. And 3rd Platoon helped each driver with maintenance work and repairs. If problems could not be resolved by 2130, the tractor was driven to the company maintenance shop. A maintenance crew of night owls then worked to return as many tractors as possible to the platoons for the next day’s convoy. Our maintenance section worked in 12-hour shifts, a night crew and a day crew. Tractors that our crews could not repair were turned over to the Ordnance Battalion in Qui Nhon for repairs.
The unbelievably potholed roads, wild civilian traffic, high mileage, oppressive heat, engine noise, choking dust, miserable rain, treacherous mud and creeping fatigue caused frequent accidents. Both the An Khe and the Mang Yang passes were a series of zigzagging steep climbing turns. A severe switchback in the An Khe pass became known as the “Devil’s Hairpin.”
During one slow, hot and dusty climb up An Khe Pass, I spotted one of my men driving while “frozen”—sound asleep behind the wheel of his truck. His transmission was in the lowest of the 10 manual gears, and he had the dashboard engine-throttle handle pulled wide open. His hands, wrist and arms were stiffly locked into place. I loosened my canteen from my belt, told my jeep driver what I was about to do and got out of the jeep. I ran between the jeep and the tractor and then jumped onto the running board. I grabbed the steering wheel and splashed water into the face of the driver, astonished but now wide-awake.
Thanksgiving Day 1966 became known as “Black Thursday” after three tractors were wrecked in accidents. In response, I contacted the Ohio State Highway Patrol by mail and purchased an excellent color movie of its big-truck safety program. I also asked our maintenance section to mount a smashed jeep (not one of ours!) onto the top of a steel Conex container at the company front gate as a reminder of the potential consequences of unsafe driving.
The biggest cause of trouble, however, was the road itself. Every day the potholes sent the tractors bouncing high over the road, punishing vehicles and drivers. Many of the holes were so wide and so deep that the trucks had to leave the road, make a bumpy dirt bypass and then get back on the road. We began our tour in August 1966 with 60 tractors, but by December 1967 the company was down to 36. Most of the losses resulted from cracked frames caused by road conditions.
Fuel filters were another problem. The diesel fuel came from tanker ships in Qui Nhon harbor and was pumped into storage tanks in the quartermaster fuel depot near the beach. When needed, we picked up fuel at the depot with our own 5,000-gallon tanker trailer. The fuel in our tractors eventually acquired a serious amount of sand through some flaw in the quartermaster fuel supply operation. I remember the sad sight of a used filter sitting on a large piece of cardboard, with a mixture of raw sand and diesel fuel oozing out of the bottom of it. Replacement filters were not available this early in the war. The only fix was to flush the used filters thoroughly in our parts-cleaning machine, which had been filled with clean fuel, and then put them back in each tractor.
In our daily runs we passed through two types of terrain that essentially put us in two climates during one trip. Qui Nhon, near the beach, was hotter and more humid. Pleiku, on the highlands plateau, was cooler and less humid. Qui Nhon seemed to have the monsoon rains for two months when Pleiku was not getting rain. During another part of the year, Pleiku had monsoon rains for two months, and Qui Nhon was dry. When one of those areas was hot, with choking dust, the other area was cooler with drenching monsoon rain.
In the dry periods, many drivers used disposable surgical masks from clinics to filter out the thick dust. We applied sandbags to the driver-side cab floors for protection from land mines and put armor plating on the tractor doors to protect them from small-arms fire; however, the new armored plating covered much of the door’s window opening, except for a small cutout window, and trapped even more heat in the cab. Add in the heavy steel helmets and the heavy, hot flak jackets that convoy crews wore, and you get a long, miserable, exhausting day.
In the monsoon period, the huge raindrops would fall hard and fast. The rain produced a red mud that left a deep stain on everything. Before our truck company left Fort Bragg, we had been issued rubber galoshes, which were an item of wonder for us, but in Vietnam we found that they were invaluable in the thick monsoon mud. We were also grateful for the arctic sleeping bags we’d been given, putting them to good use during some cold nights in the highlands.
Coming in from long road hauls and pulling maintenance duty each night, the drivers did not get much time to sleep. They napped in their truck cabs while waiting in the lineup area near Qui Nhon or in the marshaling area in Pleiku. If the depot crew could not unload a trailer on time, the driver had to remain overnight in Pleiku and return with another convoy the following day. The stranded driver had to sleep in his cab, and eat C-ration meals.
At one Pleiku depot, the crew frequently delayed the unloading of our trailers full of 55-gallon drums of tar. I tried to reason with them, but they didn’t respond, forcing our drivers to stay overnight. I decided to try something more dramatic to change the depot crew’s behavior. I cut the tie-down bands that secured the barrels to the trailers and told the drivers to make quick tight circles, which scattered the loose barrels across the storage yard. After that, the depot crew sped up its unloading procedures, and our drivers were able to join their own convoy returning to Qui Nhon.
When my truck company went to Vietnam, we were able to take along our mascot, a German shepherd mix named Huntz. We had given him dog tags, shots, company orders and a wooden kennel for the Pacific voyage. Huntz was a friendly fellow, a part of home, beloved by all in our base camp near Qui Nhon. In April 1967, as our Vietnam tour was ending, we took up a collection to pay for Huntz’s airfare on a commercial flight from Saigon to the North Carolina home of Sam Hovey, our maintenance-wrecker driver. Huntz lived happily with Sam and his family in Fayetteville for many years before dying in 1975.
In May, the 64th Transportation Company began to gradually send drivers to other companies for the rest of their tours and bring in other companies’ soldiers who had later departure dates so that the 64th would not have a complete change in personnel all at one time in July.
We had a whole lingo dedicated to returning home. When a soldier had fewer than 100 days remaining on his one-year tour, he was a “double digit midget.” When he had fewer than 10 days, he was a “single digit midget.” With less than a week remaining, he was into the “no-mores,” as in no more Sundays, no more Mondays. Our favorite song was “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” by The Animals.
Near the end of my tour in May, I noticed that my M151 radio gun jeep had logged 20,000 convoy escort miles. In the first nine months of truck operations, our company reports showed a cumulative 2 million long-haul task miles. We immediately named this total mileage our “Two Million Miles of Bad Road.”
A 64th Transportation Company platoon leader received a posthumous Silver Star Medal for actions on Jan. 31, 1968. David R. Wilson, a first lieutenant of the Transportation Corps, was riding in a radio gun jeep as a convoy commander on a Pleiku–to–Qui Nhon run, when the 30-vehicle group was ambushed. Parts of the convoy traveled safely through the ambush zone, but Wilson realized that the rear section had become trapped in the kill zone. The lieutenant and his driver turned around and sped back into intense gunfire to do whatever they could to rescue the stranded truck drivers. An enemy mortar round landed near the jeep, and Wilson was killed.
In another fatal incident, on Oct. 28, 1969, the four-man crew of the 64th Transportation gun truck Mighty Minnie died in a helicopter crash near Kontum in Pleiku province. Gun truck crews and helicopter crews developed a strong bond since both were charged with endless hours of security duty in protecting the convoys. This helicopter crew was giving the gun-truck crew a familiarization ride when the helicopter failed to gain airspeed during takeoff and didn’t rise high enough to clear the barbed-wire fence at the perimeter of a camp. All aboard were killed.
Our 64th Transportation Company lost seven soldiers from contact with the enemy and suffered five noncombat deaths during the five years in Vietnam before the company was inactivated in April 1975. V
John M. Horvath served in the U.S. Army for 25 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He served two tours in Vietnam, 1966-67 as a Transportation Corps company commander and 1969-70 as a Transportation Corps battalion executive officer. A Super 8 film of his truck company tour can be found online by searching “two million miles of bad road.”
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s October 2016 issue.