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Gun Trucks: A Vietnam Innovation Returns

Before 1967, there was no relevant doctrine for using gun trucks to support convoys. Today, our military forces in Iraq face an enemy that has chosen to attack soft targets, just as the enemy did in Vietnam. In Vietnam, soft targets often were supply convoys traveling with little protection. Our Soldiers quickly began using gun trucks to protect themselves and deter attacks. That is the situation our forces are facing today, and they are repeating many of the lessons of Vietnam.

The Enemy Targets Convoys

In the fall of 1967, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) decided to sever the lines of communication along Route 19 to the combat units at An Khe and Pleiku. Route 19—unknown to many U.S. drivers—had a fateful past. Thirteen years earlier, during the French Indochina War, the Viet Minh completely destroyed an entire brigade-size French element along the same route. The U.S. forces were overly dependent on trucks for fuel and supplies, and the enemy commanders knew that.

On 2 September 1967, a convoy of almost 40 vehicles from the 8th Transportation Group was returning from Pleiku. By the time it reached An Khe Pass, the convoy was split because of mechanical problems with a fuel tanker. It was almost dark when the lead gun jeep was ambushed. Simultaneously, the rear half of the convoy was attacked and the rumbling fuel tanker began to burn. Many of the Soldiers were unprepared and were caught by surprise. Before this ambush, enemy attacks on U.S. convoys had been minimal and limited to sniper-like attacks. This was the first major ambush of an American convoy, and it changed the nature of logistics operations for the rest of the war.

The kill zone was almost 1/2-mile long. Many of the Soldiers were not trained to react to ambushes, and they depleted what little ammunition they had. In less than 10 minutes, the enemy company had damaged or destroyed all but seven vehicles and killed seven Americans. The ambush was merely a rehearsal for future attacks that would be launched to shut down supply lines of communication before the Tet Offensive of 1968, which was only 5 months away.

U.S. Transporters Develop a Response

Before this ambush, many Soldiers regarded convoy security primarily as a function of the military police or combat arms. Protection was provided by jeeps or task vehicles with single machineguns, much as in past wars. The Soldiers of the 8th Transportation Group realized how important dedicated fire-power was to protecting convoys, so they began to develop the concept of gun trucks and hardened convoys.

Initially, the Soldiers mounted machineguns on 2 1/2-ton cargo trucks. Some of the companies, under the direction of the group’s executive officer, constructed sandbag-filled boxes in the back of cargo trucks to protect an M60 machinegun and gunner. However, the rain-soaked sandbags proved too cumbersome for the vehicles. So drivers began using steel plates to reinforce the vehicles. Precut steel-plate armor kits designed in the United States also were fielded for the vehicles. To avoid depleting the tasking fleet, the companies began using administrative 2 1/2-ton cargo vehicles as gun trucks. The group commander also decided to increase the number of gun trucks from 1 to 3 per 30 trucks in a convoy. The improved gun trucks began to incorporate a second machinegun for added firepower.

The next significant step in the evolution of the gun trucks resulted from the leadership of Colonel Joe Bellino. He assumed command of the 8th Transportation Group less than a month after the 2 September ambush. Bellino understood the importance of what the companies were doing to protect the convoys, and he encouraged his subordinates to experiment with gun trucks and convoy doctrine. He did not want to rely on military police escorts and increased the number of gun jeeps for convoy escort. Although trucks with ring-mounted machineguns were used in World War II and the Korean War, Bellino fostered the idea of the gun truck as a dedicated fighting platform. By this time, ring mounts finally arrived in Vietnam and the number of machineguns could be increased to three on each gun truck.

One 8th Group change was to divide convoys into march units that were spaced at least 5 minutes apart, creating smaller elements that were easier to command and control. This change is now part of convoy doctrine. Another development involved communication with the gun trucks. Up to this point, gun trucks did not have the means to communicate with convoy commanders. Bellino ensured that all convoys had a radio-equipped gun jeep in the lead, followed by a 2 1/2-ton gun truck, with a gun truck in the middle and a third gun truck in the rear with a wrecker.

The doctrine for gun truck employment developed as well. Gun truck crews were trained not to drive into a kill zone to attack the enemy. Instead, they initially would provide suppressive fire to the enemy flank until a security team could sweep the enemy from the area. The trucks were well equipped to survive in a kill zone, but their crews were trained to attack the enemy flanks. Once the enemy was suppressed, the trucks then would move up to provide covering fire so the convoy could consolidate and reorganize.

The Enemy Tries Again

It had been less than 90 days since the first large-scale ambush against U.S. convoys when the enemy made a second coordinated attempt. But in that short time, the 8th Group’s leaders and drivers had put many of the new gun trucks and associated doctrine into play. On 24 November 1967, a convoy of six march units departed with a gun truck leading each one. The total number of vehicles was almost 70, including 6 gun trucks and 3 gun jeeps. The NVA opened up with a coordinated attack on the convoy along a 1,000-meter kill zone. Following the updated doctrine resulted in a severe blow to the enemy forces. The drivers fought back and held the enemy until mechanized infantry from the nearby checkpoint moved in to mop up. When it was all over, the 8th Group had lost 14 trucks with 2 drivers killed. On the other hand, the enemy lost 41 killed and 4 captured. The new doctrine of the gun truck had begun to pay big dividends.

Only a week later, a convoy of almost 80 vehicles was ambushed by the Viet Cong. In less than 15 minutes of battle, the gun trucks broke up the ambush and killed 13 enemy soldiers. The Americans lost one killed in action and six wounded. This action clearly demonstrated that the updated tactics of the gun truck could reduce losses significantly while resulting in in-creased damage to the enemy. Lieutenant General William B. Rosson, the commander of I Field Force, Vietnam, said in a review of the ambushes, “These 8th Group truckers are the unsung heroes of this war.” The gun truck, though not authorized on paper, was unofficially accepted and encouraged at all levels of the U.S. command in Vietnam.

During the Army’s remaining time in Vietnam, gun trucks continued to develop into dedicated fighting platforms. Soldiers were proud to be part of the gun truck crew. They trained hard, and they showed their extreme pride in the trucks by personalizing them with names and flamboyant designs. According to Rich Killblane, the Transportation Corps historian—

There were lots of changes to convoy doctrine in Vietnam. Bellino experimented with dividing convoy serials into ten trucks with a gun truck.- That was the organization during the 24 November 1967 ambush.- By the next year, they settled upon 30 as the optimum number for a serial. There was lots of experimentation with gun truck designs: quad 50s, APC gun trucks and V–100 armored cars. The 5-ton with gun box proved the best. As late as 1969, senior leaders thought the V–100 would replace the gun truck. The drivers did not like the idea of being buttoned up. The armored car had limited visibility and fire power. If a round penetrated the armor, then it would ricochet around inside. As the gun truck design improved, the crews gained greater confidence in them. They then began to drive into the kill zone to protect disabled vehicles and rescue drivers.

Unfortunately, the lessons learned in Vietnam were forgotten during the Cold War. It was not until 1993 in Somalia that the Army once again began to armor support vehicles. After Somalia, however, the Army focused on building a fleet and not on protecting it. The initial wake-up call in Iraq came at An Nasariyah in March 2003 with the heavily reported ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company. In the following months, the Iraqi insurgency stepped up attacks against the relatively unprotected logistics convoys leaving Kuwait. The result was that many students of Vietnam gun trucks and doctrine began to turn to the lessons of the past. Because of those lessons learned on battlefields almost 40 years ago, the military was able to quickly adapt Vietnam-era doctrine and int-grate new techniques to combat the Iraqi insurgency. The result is that logistics convoys are no longer an easy target and that, if they are engaged, convoy escort platforms (as they are now known) can inflict heavy damage on an enemy force.

Many Soldiers’ lives have been saved, both in Vietnam and in Iraq, because of the gun truck doctrine developed in Vietnam. Convoys cannot be expected to travel as freely as they once did through the linear battlefields of World War II, Korea, or even Desert Storm. The enemy knows that it cannot defeat America’s strength, so it will continue to attack soft targets wherever it can find them. Thanks to the gun truck, the targets will no longer be our convoys.

Major Dean J. Dominique is the Executive Officer of the 24th Transportation Battalion, 7th Transportation Group, at Fort Eustis, Virginia. He received a B.S degree from Regis University in Colorado and an M.L.A. degree in military history from Louisiana State University.

The author would like to thank Rich Killblane, the Transportation Corps historian, for his assistance in writing this article.