Bettman/Corbis
A CH-46 Sea Knight of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron HMM-262 prepares to relay supplies from Khe Sanh to one of the base’s outlying posts on Feb. 22, 1968. Those supplies were the lifeblood of the base in northern South Vietnam that had been under siege since Jan. 21.
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However much combat troops dominated the news during the Vietnam War, the grunts knew they owed much to the vast armada of support troops who backed them up. The battlefield heroism performed in the rainforests and the highlands would have been impossible without the weapons and ammunition to fight, or the food to sustain those who fought.

All of those supplies had to be shipped or flown over thousands of miles to the main bases, then distributed by truck or aircraft to the scattered posts where they were most needed. Before that work could be done, the main base facilities had to be established, built up by Army engineers or the legendary Navy construction battalions, abbreviated CBs, or more colloquially, the Seabees. Those facilities had to be periodically maintained and repaired.

Trucks were universally fair game in Vietnam, whether they were communist-run vehicles dodging a variety of U.S. air-dropped ordnance on the Ho Chi Minh Trail or American haulers who were subjected to frequent ambush and often defended their own vehicles with makeshift armor and gun positions.

Airplanes and helicopters also often came under fire while transporting “beans and bullets” from a firebase to some platoon in the boonies.

Even the clerk typists were appreciated when payday arrived…or the tour of duty ended and the service member was signing up for a ride on the Freedom Bird.

Despite the disparaging names that combat troops had for the rear echelon soldiers, Vietnam was distinguished by not having much of a rear echelon. Whether you were a clerk, a cook or a supply sergeant, there was no place from Khe Sanh to Saigon where mortar fire or some Viet Cong with a bag of explosives couldn’t find you.

This article appeared in the April 2022 issue of Vietnam magazine.