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Dusterman: Vietnam, Story of the Last Great Gunfighters

by Joseph M. Belardo Sr., SamPat Press, 2010

Soldiers have kept diaries for millennia. Many of these historical reminiscences became memorable and timeless books that linked single events into battles and campaigns, wars won and lost and lifetime memories—good and bad.

Joe Belardo’s account is no different—a young man off the urban streets of New Jersey morphs into a seasoned Vietnam combat veteran. The protagonist of his journal is the Duster twin-barreled 40mm system itself and the weapons employed with it. The tracked M42A1 was the centerpiece of a trio of air defense systems that included truck-mounted Quad-50 machine guns and searchlights—a formidable asset but lucrative target for North Vietnamese Army (NVA) gunners.

Belardo writes that a “Marine general officer had seen the Dusters at Ft. Bliss” and recommended them for Vietnam. Actually, it was General William Westmoreland, recalling the Duster’s M19 predecessor in Korea, who ordered three battalions of the supposedly obsolescent Dusters and Quad-50s to Vietnam to support ground operations.

Belardo’s gaffe is understandable as the initial battalion deployed—Belardo’s unit, the 1st Battalion, 44th Artillery (Automatic Weapons Self-Propelled)—supported the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force in northern I Corps. In 1967-68, Belardo’s time in 1/44, I Corps above Quang Tri City to the DMZ was primarily a Marine operational area. Until the 101st Airborne, 1st Cavalry and 5th Mechanized divisions began operating there, Army units were primarily artillery and engineers supporting 3rd MAF and 3rd Marine Division units that were thinly manning the muddy hills along the DMZ.

These Marine firebases were strung like malevolent jewels along the east-west Route 9 corridor from the South China Sea to Laos—Ca Lu, the Rockpile, Camp JJ Carrol, Vandergrift, Khe Sanh, and along north-south Route 1—Alpha 2Alpha, Charlie Four, Gio Linh, Con Thien and others. Pitched battles between NVA and Marines, complete with artillery employed by both, occurred in operational areas such as Mutter’s Ridge and Leatherneck Square. The Dusters and Quad-50s of 1/44 Artillery were parceled out to firebases, led mine sweeps and convoys, reinforced Marines attacking and being attacked, while providing direct support to other USMC actions.

Belardo’s writing style is concise and focused. A segment about a convoy along Route 9, dated January 13, 1968, vividly details events as the Tet Offensive, whose scope and intensity would only be understood retrospectively, unfolded: “It happened in seconds. The NVA soldiers were less than five meters off the road and raked the stalled convoy with automatic weapons, mortars, and RPGs. Our Duster started shooting, but was unable to clear the area close to the convoy because of the mix of NVA and Marines. The Marines…were forced to push into the heavy brush and try to regroup. I could see individual and small groups of NVA soldiers moving into the convoy and onto the trucks trying to finish off the survivors and wounded along the road….”

Belardo was eminently involved with the relief and re-occupation of Khe Sanh Combat Base during the spring and summer of 1968 before his tour—and military career—ended. The book’s black-and-white photos of soldiers, equipment and dusty firebases are emblematic of the Vietnam conflict, and the photos of Duster and Quad crewmen who didn’t survive their tour is a poignant indication that 1/44 Artillery suffered a significantly high casualty rate—testimony to the lethality of northern I Corps for both Marines and Army soldiers. Dusterman is a compelling account and an unsettling literary journey back to the red clay, ominous foggy dawns and beautiful hills in the war-torn, deadly landscape of Vietnam’s DMZ.


Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.