The Not So Routine Convoy

Don Rast

Helms beeped his jeep's horn for the convoy to Tay Ninh. I ran with my gear in a sleepy dream to the jeep, and we hopped on down to the staging area in the pre-dawn darkness. I gave the men a quick briefing. "We're gonna go to Tay Ninh today, on QL-1. wear your helmets and flak jackets at all times. Once past Cu Chi, be on the lookout for mines. At Go Dau Ha, watch your ass. Just realize, we got escorts the whole way on QL-22 to Rocket City. The road's been cleared by our escorts. Look out, and fire low if you receive fire." "Convoy duty feels good compared to the patrols in the swamp," Iwas thinking, as we munched on hot coffee and donuts provided by the donut dollies in their peppermint red and white striped uniforms, waiting for the go signal from the MPs in V'100's who would escort us to Cu Chi, about twenty-five miles northwest of Long Binh. The heavy escorts would pick us up from a laager outside Cu Chi. It would be routine, compared to the reconnaissance patrols, I felt, as I walked around the staging area talking with the men. Ken was going to Cu Chi with seventy-five vehicles. Lieutenant Benson, armed with a .50 caliber MG on his jeep and toting a Colt Commando (M-16-XM177) rifle, was the Dau Tieng convoy commander with three march units of thirty vehicles each. I had four march units totaling about 150 vehicles, most of them fully-loaded 18-wheelers for Tay Ninh. I always marveled at the tremendous logistic efforts that pushed our supplies forward to the troops in the field. It was a clear sun-filled day as we pulled past Cu Chi at about 1000 hours, and our armor escorts mixed between us. We were in the lead march unit, behind a twin 40 mm duster and Quad .50 gun truck with a LOH flying slightly ahead of the duster. I was reading Playboy, while watching Nui Ba Den loom to the right of me, surrounded by a morning mist. The magazine was boring, except for the centerfold, which I showed to Helms and Petty eliciting appropriate "honkie" and "blood" racial comments. Ken had dropped off in Cu Chi with his march units. Benson was peeling off to Dau Tieng when all hell broke loose. Suddenly we were in a major ambush, as several commanded-detonated mines exploded. The gun-truck armed with the Quad .50 in front of me was hit by one of them. The explosions signaled the NVA concealed in spider holes very near the roadside to open up with AK-47s, B-40 rockets, and machine guns. Because of its heavy armor and sandbags, the gun-truck, though disabled, was able to immediately sweep the roadside to the right, with all four barrels of the .50s blazing away. The twin 40 mm Duster, in front of it, was also firing. I yelled "ambush" into my radio to alert the march units behind me that we were in contact. In those first few seconds an awful thing happened to one of my own men of the 379th. Helms had pulled the jeep to the side of the road, and PFC Petty dismounted with the M-60, firing at the brush in a crouch. We were totally caught up in the actions, firing from the ditch, when Specialist Fourth Class Schuettpelz driving the lead tractor drove past us. There was a loud whoosing sound as an RPG (B-40 rocket) streaked past us and hit Schuettpelz's right cab door, exploding in a loud orange roar. It had been aimed at the big white star on the door and was dead on target. The tractor rolled to a stop along the road edge. Undaunted, the next truck gunned his engine and passed through the kill zone. The third truck was not so lucky, and crawled to a stop after losing its front wheels to a mine. The driver jumped out and ran through the firing to see what he could do for Schuettpelz. By then, the NVAs were exposing themselves to throw explosive charges and grenades. Looking far down the road behind me, I could see black funnels of smoke rising into the sky. The radio was insane with chatter, as I crouched behind the jeep yelling into it. I couldn't even hear my own voice because of the noise, but I knew I was talking. Two APC's raced around us to take positions next to the Quad .50 and Duster, adding to the punch that was beginning to hurt the NVAs. Petty was doing a good job on the M-60, as the trucks filtered past us in rapid succession. The shot-gun riders on them were all firing while fully exposed to the enemy. A cluster of NVA rose up suddenly about thirty feet in front of us. You could see the expressions on their faces as Petty mowed them down. Cobras and APCs from the 25th Infantry Division began to arrive from Cu Chi about thirty minutes into the fight. They tore up the roadside with their ordinance. Charlie eased away in the brush, taking most of his wounded and dead with him. he was a tough little SOB, no doubt about it. We later learned there had been about 100 of them involved in the ambush. The carnage was ghastly, as I stood up to survey the scene of burning brush and rubber trees. The air was stuffed with the smell of diesel fuel, cordite smoke and death. There were plenty of blood trails and scattered bits of enemy equipment to be found as grunts formed up to conduct a sweep of the area. A couple of NVA bodies, not even fifteen feet from the road where we stood getting ourselves organized again, got my attention. They looked like teenage "Ken" dolls dressed for battle, grinning at me in their death stares through glazed-over eyes. It was a grisly scene of human butchery. Poor Howard Schuettpelz was lying on the roadside with "the shakes" of the mortally wounded. A 25th Infantry Division medic was working him over, waiting on the medi-vac chopper. He was crying out for morphine, twisting in pain, as the medic desperately pounded on his chest to keep him alive. His face was ashen gray. "God," I thought, looking at his mangled body with the whole right side covered in bloody mush. The medi-vac chopper came in low over us, but received a direct RPG hit in its open door by a die-hard NVA in a spider hole to the left of us, left behind as a spoiling action to delay our reaction force in pursusing the main enemy force. he was quickly killed. The second helicopter came in and we rushed to put Schuettpelz on board, now hooked up with a blood filler, morphine, and a transfusion of dextrose. The noise was just incredible as F-4 Phantom Jets came over us and dropped napalm. "War is so much noise," I thought, while trying to monitor my radio. Helms rose up and shot a young NVA dead with his M-16, who had already been shot in the gut and was howling for relief. Relief, in battle, often was nothing more than death with honor. There was no glory to it, just the horror of surviving, if you were lucky enough to survive death, and let it dwell on your soul for every mortal night of dreams that cussed you with guilt. The worst wounded always choose death by the enemy, to the other option---a living hell. Always amazed, I watched a medic from the 25th Infantry give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a dying NVA boy with his legs blown off. I was not gung-ho, but that scene always struck me as being weird. "Why save the life of a fuckinf dude who was trying to kill you?" I thought. It was pure scary. The convoys were the soft targets of Charlie no matter how you looked at it in June of '69. They were easy targets. I found myself in a medical factory of the dying on the roadside as we loaded up the wounded in the medi-vac helicopter. We all felt old, worried, tired, and beat. Petty and Helms just did their job getting our jeep back on the road, and collected Howard's personal effects from the cab of his tractor. "Oh-damn," I thought to myself, looking at the cab of his truck, "Why didn't I see the ambush soon enough?" I had failed him, the best soldier in my platoon, because of reading a Playboy magazine instead of watching the road's edge. I felt a rush of hate for the enemy of an intensity beyond description, as my mind was trying to justify my own stupidity.

-From the book "Don's Nam"---Peacocks and Hawks

Copyright Don Rast 1998 All Rights Reserved

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Added 9/6/98