Pleiku Road #4 – Night Convoy, June 1967
It was mid-morning when a runner came into the ops bunker and asked me to report to the CO. When I got to his tent he asked me if I’d be willing to take a convoy that night to Pleiku.
It was the summer monsoon and the Central Highlands were socked in with the low rainstorms that soaked every hill, tree, tent, and sandbag. The NVA had Pleiku under siege and for days no planes had been able to bring in hospital supplies. We’d been ferrying ammo and fuel in our trucks – from the coast up to AnKhe, and then running it in, from time to time, as the attacks ebbed during mid-day. But the weather was not going to clear and they were low on oxygen, plasma, and other emergency things. They couldn’t wait till the next day because a major attack was expected and the roads might be shut. He asked me to take 6 trucks loaded with the medical supplies and make the 90 mile run up Highway 19, from our bivouac at QuiNhon near the South China Sea, thru AnKhe, and up to the Central Highlands command center at Pleiku.
As I though about it I realized that, in the days and weeks and months that I been running convoys, I had never heard of anyone moving on this road at night. In fact there’d been no American troop night convoys there since we’d come here in 1965, and in all likelihood, none since the French in the very early ’50’s. As the old saying went “ the night belonged to Charlie”. This would be the first night convoy on Highway 19 in over a decade.
By this time I had been in country 9 months or so. I was the senior convoy commander running the 100+ miles of the Pleiku road. I had probably done 200 convoys on Hwy.19. I’d been stationed TDY for 6 weeks in AnKhe with the First Cavalry Division and had to clear the road between AnKhe and MangYang every evening – rescuing downed trucks and crew. I’d run convoys for many outfits – 5th Special Forces, 101st Airborne, 4th Division. I knew every curve, ford, blown out bridge – I knew this Qui Nhon to Pleiku Road like the back of my hand. I realized I was the right choice for this job so naturally agreed.
5 ton tractor/trailer on the Pleiku Road
Highway 19 is broken into 3 parts: one coastal lowlands and the others the two levels of the Central Highlands. The 60 mile stretch from AnKhe to Pleiku is the wild portion. Google Map today shows several roads headed north and south along this Highway 19 stretch. When I was there in 1967 perhaps a mud trail for a horse, or possibly even a bullock cart, was buried deep within the dripping cloud forests – but even though I ran that road hundreds of times I never saw them. A topographical profile of Vietnam’s elevation where Highway 19 runs – from the South China Sea to the Cambodian border – looks like this, with PleiKu elevation at 2400 feet:
Vietnam’s Elevation along Highway 19There is a book that talks about this road that gives some perspective to this mission:
In a sense all I ever needed to know about the Vietnam War I found in the seven wonderful books of Bernard B. Fall. Even after almost 50 years and over a dozen trips back to both North and South Vietnam, there is no better source for me to understanding the stakes, will, strategies, and tactics which led to the deaths of 2 million, mainly non-combatant, Vietnamese. Bernard Fall was probably the most knowledgable European/American on the history of the two “Indochina Wars” – the French one and then the American one.
I read his classic analysis of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, called Hell in a Very Small Place
in 1965 when a student at SCU. It convinced me that we were in an unjust war. After fighting in the French resistance in WWII Fall first went to Vietnam to cover the French phase in 1953. He was a PhD and “…a political scientist, but one who had been a soldier and who spoke the soldier’s language and lived the soldier’s life at the front line. He obtained his data on the war while slogging through the mud of Vietnam with French colonial troops, with American infantry, and with South Vietnamese soldiers. He combined the usual academic analysis of Indochina with a perspective of the war from the soldier’s point of view.”
In February of 1967, while I was running convoys, he stepped on a “bouncing betty” landmine and died. He was operating in an area after which he had named a book written 6 years earlier. The book was called Street Without Joy
…and it talked about my road – Highway 19.
In the chapters called “End of a Task Force”
he writes of a French convoy of three thousand men and hundreds of vehicles which was slaughtered over a week of running battles on this Highway 19 back in June 1952. They were retreating after lost battles at AnKhe – trying to make their way to Pleiku from which they might be air-evac’d. They first got caught half way between AnKhe and the MangYang Pass and, as the days went by, Fall describes them crawling and running and dragging their wounded between firefights on that jungle road no-man’s-land between AnKhe, MangYang, and Pleiku. But most never made it – fifteen hundred men were killed in that 60 mile stretch in just five days and the remnants that struggled finally into Pleiku would surrender with the armistice just 6 weeks later.
But…back in 1967, I was in my PhuTai valley base camp with a lot to do: pick out drivers and shotgun riders; get my gun jeep gunners and drivers up and moving; clean and oil grenade launcher, M-14 automatic, and .45 sidearm; make sure the machine guns were clean and had plenty of clean belts of ammo; check out which trucks would be available and make sure that none of them would be at risk from the incessant breakdowns that non-stop convoy’s in dirt, dust, and mud laid on us; line up the fire mission radio frequencies and codes for artillery and air support; and finally get the trailers loaded with the medical supplies.
We were nervous, excited, and exhilarated as we headed out in the early evening with three gun jeeps, 6 tractor trailers, and a 5 ton wrecker. The costal plain road was in pretty good shape and our run was fast with head lights on – this area was secured by the Korean Tiger Division and action here was usually light. As we began to climb the AnKhe pass we doused our running lights even though we knew there would be little danger in this stretch, even with the slow uphill grind, since the Koreans swept the road continually on foot and were well feared by the Viet Cong.
As we passed through the bunkered check point at AnKhe headed for the MangYang Pass, we went into the wild and VC controlled highlands – we were all on high alert, twitchy and wired tight. I checked in with the 1st Cav artillery on radio – they were ready and passed the word to the 4 or 5 blown bridge strong points we would cover in the first 25 miles.
This area from AnKhe to Pleiku was thick tropical rainforest alternating with occasional areas of razor sharp elephant grasses. The French called it the “les grands vides” – vast, empty spaces. There were no towns in the stretch of 50 miles between AnKhe and Pleiku – just 2 Montagnard villages with no defenses. The Montagnard tribesman had been locked in century old fights for self determination from Vietnamese but traveled on foot with only light weapons – no help to us.
Montagnards near the Pleiku Road
This was exactly where the French massacre had begun, 15 km west of AnKhe. Now each blown bridge was manned by a partial squad of 6-7 1st Cav men with pre-targeted arty fire zones. They spent each night alone out here – sweaty duty. They gave us info as we passed – all quiet – so far so good. By now the night was thick, rain had started, and it was approaching midnight
We neared the first really dangerous section as we climbed the Mang Yang pass. There were always firefights at the top and the trucks could barely hit 10 mph as they pulled up to 20 tons over the crest. I had instructed the point jeep to station himself on the top of the pass and let the trucks move forward about 1000 yards and to regroup as they straggled in off the two mile long climb. We had a gun jeep bringing up the rear while my job as convoy commander was to move up and down the steep slope alongside the tractor-trailers with the machine guns ready to sweep the bush.
I was about halfway back in the pack as I topped the pass and was shocked to see in the dim night the first two or three trucks stopped just over the crest. I ran up and found a half dozen GI’s gathered around the lead truck which was stopped in the middle of the road, its axles bound up in razor sharp concertina wire. A 4th Division Captain was livid and so angry he vibrated. The “Ivy Dragoons” were in charge of the territory at the top of the pass and, as was their S.O.P., had secured their armored strong point, and the road, with row after row of the concertina.
Well he was, as they say, rip-shit and it was all directed at me. He was having nothing to do with allowing me to proceed…the conversation went like this:
(Capt) What the frig are you doing running this pass at this time of night. Are you frig crazy?
(me) I’m going to Pleiku. This is a special mission. You were supposed to have been radio’d by the 1st Cav. Didn’t you get their briefing?
(Capt) I’ve heard SHIT you frig idiot!
(me) Well I’m sorry but it’s not my fault. My mission is to get these trucks into Pleiku. You know it’s under siege I’m sure.
(Capt) frig yes I know – this whole area is under attack…and you are going NOWHERE Lieutenant.
(me) Well I’m sorry you weren’t told I was coming. Hmmm. Well, I’m going to Peiku. Sarge. Can you get that truck untangled?
(my sergeant) No sir – the wire is all bound up – we’ll need daylight to cut it out.
(me) look Captain, my orders are clear and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t critical, so, if you’d pull back the road block concertina, my guys and I will be out of here and on our way.
(Capt) Well frig IT ALL! I’m not letting you go alone there if you’re dead set on going…look, I’ll send some tanks with you!
That is pretty much exactly how the conversation went…He gave us two tanks and we took off for the last 25 miles into Pleiku. Since this part of the road, in addition to being overrun with VC and some NVA, was particularly winding – twisting and turning, up and down, through the “inaccessible virgin jungle” – the tanks didn’t slow us down. We were running with all lights out, and in the black rain could only go about 10 mph; that only because we ran the road almost every day and knew it so well. That was a good clip for the tanks.
As we approached the outskirts of Pleiku from the east, the forests had been cleared for a couple of miles around the camps and villages, with clear fields of fire and staked mortar range points. The road at this point runs out of the jungle in a long curve to the southwest. To the northeast was an ARVN fort, then in front the entrance to our goal – the fortified helicopter base called Camp Holloway. We stopped in the last mile of jungle to tighten up the convoy and make sure all guns were ready. A tank was set to lead the way with his .50 calibers. Finally, by this time about 2 am, we pushed the big 5 tons up as fast as they could go, turning lights on, and with our gun jeeps laying out sprays of tracers right and left, we roared across the no-mans land where the NVA was attacking Holloway. I had radioed the Holloway convoy operations and they cleared the defensive perimeter for us. We hauled butt through the surprised siege force, which had not been focused on the road, up the hill, and into Holloway and safety.
So that was the end of the big night. We immediately had to go out onto the perimeter to help with the defense but things had quieted down. As morning came a couple of hours later, we took the medical supplies to the hospital pool. A day later the siege was lifted enough that we began the move back towards AnKhe, having to bivouac overnight in an arty firebase, (not the place to sleep since the 105’s go off round the clock) and making it back to Qui Nhon 4 days after we’d taken off.
When I got back to our base camp in PhuTai, our recently arrived battalion ops officer, a major fresh from home, was full of congratulations. He said he was going to put me in for a Bronze Star. But I didn’t care (at the time) and nothing ever came of it. I suspect that, as he proposed the idea, the other senior officers told him that I was a dope smoking, peace-nik, who would rather hang out at night with the black grunts, than sit with the officers in their sandbagged little bar hooch drinking scotch. He was right of course – anyway, we have my Dad’s Bronze Star and Legion of Merit from the WWII Pacific Campaign so there is something for the grandkids.