First Convoys

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May 26, 1968 --

I rode shotgun on my first convoy, taking a load of food (C-rations) in huge bundles to Vung Tau, on the coast about 150 km from here. We got up at three in the morning (I had only gotten to bed at midnight), were herded bleary-eyed into the mess hall and fed two runny eggs aid a glass of OJ, then trooped over to the operations shack to stand around motionless in the dark until five of us were singled out to ride with the 86th TC and told to get in the back of a deuce-and-a-half. Still in the dark, we drove out the main gate of the 543rd and slipped into one of the night convoys heading north to Long Binh.

When we got to the 86th motor pool it was just starting to get light, and when I got out of the truck I discovered that I was covered with axle grease that had been all over the floor of the truck we had just ridden in. I stayed soaked all day, since grease doesn't evaporate in the heat like water does. After a John Wayne briefing talk, the lieutenant assigned shotguns to trucks and it was my luck to draw an old rattletrap without a canvas top and only an oil-soaked pillow for a seat back.

The convoy finally got under way at 0800, five hours after we were gotten out of bed. And so we set off, through verdant jungle, threading our way through vast rubber plantations and across banked up dikes amid fields of rice. Everywhere are the distinctive gravesites, score of them very old-looking, most of them ornately ornamented with sculpted crosses, multicolored mosaics, carved tablets listing vital statistics. There doesn't seem to be any order to most of their locations, and we see them dotting the corners of rice paddies or sideyards of tacky-looking houses.

Out in the middle of nowhere I saw some kind of religious-looking building with a statue in front of it that looked like a skinny Buddha with a bunch of arms. Religious center on the road to Vung Tau I asked my driver, a guy from the 96th, about it, but he says he doesn't know anything about it, he's just a driver, not a tour guide.

The villages are a wonder. Their main streets look more like back alleys in America. They are very narrow and the houses and shops (sometimes both are found together in one room) are right up on the edge of the street, all with open fronts and metal grates that are closed over them at night. When the convoy rolls through the village the little kids run out and wave at the trucks. Village on the road to Vung Tau I waved back at all of them, smiling and sometimes I'd pick out one very tiny child and smile widely until they smiled back, usually a little self-consciously.

The driver of my truck told me about how things used to be when they'd drive along and take bets on how many peasant water buffalo they killed on each convoy. When the convoy was over in the evening, all the drivers would gather at the EM club and compare numbers; the one with the highest kill count for the day won the kitty, which varied with the number of drivers playing.

We passed out of the jungle-and-rice-paddy area into a forest of rubber trees, laid out in perfectly symmetrical rows, row upon row as far back from each side of the road as I could see. Each tree had a series of diagonal slashes that had dried, and some had a fresh slash with shallow pans somehow suspended under the lower end of it to catch the raw rubber that oozed from it. I expected something lush and exotic, but what it reminded me of more than anything was some vast American fruit orchard.

When we finally got to Vung Tau we had to sit around for hours to wait for the trucks, 26 of them, plus trailers, to be unloaded, one at a time, by a bored GI on a broken-down forklift truck. The sun was blazing hot and I got a sunburn on my nose and arms. Finally I got out of the open cab, cursing because I had enjoyed the convertible effect on the way down, and crawled under the bed of the truck in the shade and stretched out to take a nap.

There was a whorehouse right next to the lead truck, surrounded by a corrugated fiberglass fence (for some reason, although I could never figure out why), Whorehouse at Vung Tau and there was a stampede that made the Los Angeles rush hour look like midnight on the Gobi desert. Only a few of the guys got short-timed, though, since it was too close to payday and the price ($15) was too high. It was a nice-looking house, though, and the girls I saw go in there were good-looking and seemed clean. Most of the guys just sat around talking to the girls and pinching their boob and butts until it was time to unload.

We ate our cold C-rations and drank our warm water and then started back to Long Binh, 'Hey GI, you like numbah one short time?' trying to keep ahead of the threatening rain, and the convoy commander was really balling the jack to get home. It hadn't been too bad bouncing and jolting over the rough roads on the way down because we had had a full load on both truck and trailer, but coming back empty and doing about 50 mph I ricocheted all over the cab of the truck. I met my stomach and shook hands with it twice and my kidneys played leapfrog with my tonsils.

And then the rain came, that typically monsoon rainstorm that dumps buckets and buckets of water onto each and every square inch in sight, and there we were, in the only open truck. We were drenched and the floor of the truck filled up with water past my ankles because the rain was coming in faster than the holes in the floor could drain it out. I had to keep opening my door to let the water run out.

When I finally got back to the 543rd, about five-thirty that night, hot, tired, wet, and greasy, I had dirt caked in my eyebrows and mustache, water oozing from the vents in my jungle boots at every step, and I was starved to death. I only took enough time to stuff my rusting M16 under my blanket on my bunk and make it for the mess hall.

May 27, 1968 --

I hopped a ride into the big PX at Long Binh post and bought a few things I needed. I was gone for about two hours or so, and when I got back Sgt H--- griped because I had been gone so long and had some promotion orders to be typed up that, he said, I should have done yesterday. So I stayed late to type up the promotion orders, and then he had something else for me to do, but I told him he shouldn't have sent me out on convoy if he needed all this work done and then I left.

May 28, 1968 --

In retaliation, I think, H--- ordered me out on another convoy, with the 86th again, and there was the same rude awakening in the dark, the same runny eggs and juice, the same rigamarole of hurry up and wait until the convoy finally got started, this time making a run to Lai Khe, the HQ of the 1st Inf Div., the "Big Red One".

At the staging area just out of Long Binh little kids about eleven or twelve came down the long line of trucks --- there were 75 to 100 trucks, and each truck was carrying a trailer -- selling warm cokes, cut fresh pineapple on a stick, and dirty pictures. E---, riding shotgun in the truck ahead of mine, bought some and passed them around.

After the convoy got started, where was some more jockeying around through various staging areas along the way, until I ended up at the very end of the convoy, almost 100 trucks back, over a red dust road that the slightest breeze churned into a major dust storm. I ate dust for ten miles until it started to rain and that turned the treacherous dust into equally treacherous mud.

After that we skidded our way through the ruts of the trucks in front of us, hoping we wouldn't go off the road. A wrecker usually goes out with a convoy of this size, but sometimes it's hard to get one to you, especially if you are the last truck and no one notices that you aren't at the end of the line any more.

All along the route the kids ran out to the roadside to wave, and again I waved back at them. Some yelled out "Gimme chopchop" as we went by, which my driver told me meant "gimme food." I saw several kids who were half-caucasian, with lighter skin and a couple with bright red hair. I also saw two kids on crutches, each of whom had lost a leg at the knee, and one kid whose upper lip had completely rotted away to a point a little above the nostrils on each side I guessed the result of congenital VD.

The unloading area of Lai Khe were efficient operations, and we were all unloaded and ready for the return trip within an hour. The actual base at Lai Khe was the most peaceful-looking of any I'd seen in Vietnam. The buildings were nestled among the remains of a rubber plantation and the whole thing had more the air of a park than an infantry base camp.

June 1, 1968 --

This morning came early, at about two thirty in the morning, as a matter of fact, when I was rudely awakened by a cretinish dispatch sergeant and told that I was riding shotgun on a convoy and to go eat and check out from the armorer an M60 machine gun. Muttering under my breath I got dressed and wandered out through the dark to the mess hall where, to no great surprise, K---, the night cook, was nowhere to be found, so I got no runny eggs and orange juice that morning.

After I got my machine gun and a heavy metal box of belted ammunition from a surly armorer, I got into the bed of a deuce-and a-half with several other unlucky victims of the system and we drove up to Long Binh and Third Ord., That's me in the open truck -- Sunburn City where we spent two hours bouncing and jolting around looking for the trucks we were supposed to be shotguns on.

Finally we found them and the convoy staged up just outside 3rd Ord and headed back south, past Long Binh, past TC Hill, past Thu Duc and the OK Corral and into Saigon, where we roared up a main street, empty of all but our convoy and a few MP jeeps on patrol. Occasionally we would see a small fire on a street corner with two or three civilians standing around it. It was still too dark to make out anything clearly.

By daylight we were outside Saigon on the road to Tan An, an infantry support base in the Mekong Delta about 50 km from Saigon. We got there about eight o'clock that morning and then spent an absolutely boring day waiting around for the one forklift to unload our trucks. If Vung Tau was long, this was longer, and we were until 4:30 getting our last truck unloaded and reforming for the trip home.

The only diversion during the long hours of boredom were the kids, who turned out in swarms to greet the trucks as we pulled into the support base, which is just another Line of trucks waiting to offload at Tan An part of the hamlet of Tan An, really. C---, one of our drivers, had a sack of oranges he'd stolen off a load the day before and when the kids found out about them they attacked his truck like a swarm of locusts. He finally chased them away and then threw the oranges, one by one, into a shallow canal next to where the trucks were parked, watching the kids race after them.

I was sitting on an unloaded pallet near the line of trucks as dozens of kids went by, selling cokes, pineapple-on-a-stick, or little paper cones fill filled with peanuts, Future capitalists taking a picture now and then, when a cute little girl of about five or so came by, smiled at me, and then, when I whipped up my camera, scampered off between some older girls. I saw her about a dozen tines after that, but whenever I held up my camera she would run away.

Later, after we had pulled the trucks around a corner and were parked on a dike road next to a rice paddy and I had waded out in the sucking mud a little ways to take a picture of a water buffalo, I saw her standing in the water not far away, knee deep in the mud. I held up my camera, pointed it at her, and yelled, "Dong Lai" (which is Stop in Vietnamese). When she looked up I snapped the picture. Then I yelled "Lai day" (which means Come Here) and waved my hand up and down bye-bye fashion, which is the Vietnamese equivalent of crooking your finger at someone, and she shyly came out of the water and stood by the truck while I took a closeup of her.

Which turned out to be a mistake, since I couldn't shake her off all afternoon after that. She stayed right with me, jabbering away in Vietnamese and looking up at me for an answer. The little Vietnamese girl She even talked one of the kids who was selling the peanuts into giving her a bag and shared it with me, and I bought a coke and shared it with her. It was really funny; even though she spoke no English at all, and I only knew a few words of Vietnamese, we could have a kind of "communication" between us. I took off both my shirts and laid down on the top of the load and watched the kids go by, talked with my little friend, jabbering with some of the older kids who knew a few sentences in GI slang, and lost track of the time.

At least it wasn't boring to wait that long, like at Vung Tau when there was nothing to do but sit around. Unfortunately, I forgot that I didn't have a shirt on and that it had been over a year and a half since I'd had even the semblance of a tan, and I got a rich sunburn that I didn't even notice until we were on the way home.

When our section of the convoy finally got the order to swing around to the unloading site, the little Vietnamese girl left me, waving bye-bye (and meaning bye-bye., not come here) and waded across the rice paddy. When she got to the other side, a man in white shorts and a light shirt yelled at her, hit her several times in the head and she fell down on the narrow dike. When she got up he slapped her several times and she started off along the dike toward a grove of trees and a group of houses. She hadn't gotten more than ten feet when he took a little run and kicked her in the head. She fell down and he pulled her up by the hair and they moved on, she in front and he following. His harsh voice carried over to us with unintelligible words but clear meaning. He stopped at a bush at the end of the dike and picked off a switch and was still flailing her with it when they disappeared into the trees. And throughout the whole thing she didn't utter one cry.

When we got back to the company my sunburn was causing me untold agony. K---, the cook, took me over to the messhall and put vinegar on my back, which seemed to help, thereby getting back into my graces after having been out of sight at breakfast. But it still hurt like hell and I spent a terrible night, especially after they came by the hooch about nine and told me that I would have to go on another convoy the next day, this time to Vung Tau again.

I went through operations all the way through the first shirt to the CO to try to get out of it, but to no avail, or so I thought. I woke up about three in the morning and T---, one of my roomies, was already dressed and ready to go and I thought I'd overslept. 1 leaped out of bed and the skin on my back and shoulders cracked and screamed in protest I fell back into bed and told him to tell them I couldn't go and they d have to tort-martial me. He told me that I'd lucked out and that some guys from the 86th were riding out on our convoy and they didn't need me.


© 1968, 2002 Dennis Mansker