On that first eerie night at Vandegrift, in the ominous shadow of the infamous Rockpile, the Battalion forces were anxious and inwardly apprehensive about the final and most ambitious leg of the move toward Khe Sanh. It was onto Laos for the ARVN and our sturdy troops were ready to do the necessary in support of our allies planned encroachment into the land of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Our mission was touted by the brass as critical, and there was no doubt that the importance of our role was understood if not overestimated by each and every member of the battalion. We had been this far before, and maybe even a little farther, but never had the big "uglies" planned a brazen movement that deep nor one that rapid into Indian Country to provide the thunder and firepower that only a 175mm/8inch group of "bad medicine" heavy artillery pieces can provide.
Tales of the ambushes and enemy harassment along QL 9 coursed through the unit like wildfire and all through the night, although comforted by the presence of the dusters of the 1/44th that ringed the elephant grass- covered staging area, the murmured whispers of "what will happen tomorrow" were persistent and only mildly subdued. Each man wondered to himself if he would do his part and the natural fear that accompanies the movement into the unknown was everywhere. Will I be a hero or a coward? The question camped on each man's lips like the bad after-taste from cheap warm beer. Who would have ever guessed the scope of the heroic deeds that this the most unlikely group of troops would have performed the following day enroute KHz Sanh, the enemy , and the unknown.
My purpose here today is to focus on one such deed, or perhaps I should say succession of deeds that no doubt will be forever recorded in the annals of the unit as one of the most heroic and epic series of events ever to take place during the battalions long and honorable stay on the DMZ.
It seems that our equipment was in bad shape, not because the maintenance folks were not doing their job, but more because our issued stuff was old, worn out, shot up, broken down and just plain unfit. We were angry when we saw the spiffy ARVN battalions move past in rapid succession with all new trucks, cosmolened weapons, and even rookie green new uniforms. They looked good, but in the words of that famous ersatz movie general, Don Sutherland, could they fight? Enough foolishness.
At first light the order was given and the battalion mounted up. The snakelike formation slowly uncoiled and the convoy was underway. One of the more mundane pieces of equipment in this living sinuous beast was a ¾ ton truck bearing the battalion' s AM SSB (Single side band) long distance radio unit. As everyone knew, the common FM radios had limited capabilities due to the mountainous terrain that would separate Khe Sanh and the home base of Dong Ha. FM bounces off ridges were not uncommon but they were unreliable, particularly with the distances involved, so the AM capability was critical for the unit's coordination and control.
As the driver of this essential piece of equipment followed nose to tail click after click
He noticed that the gas gauge was slipping to the left much faster than it should. Concerned, he pulled off to the side as far as he could and the problem was soon diagnosed. The gas tank had been punctured and vital fuel was pouring from the tank on to the narrow rocky road. At that point in the portage, the road was too narrow to permit the simultaneous passage of all but the smallest of vehicles and it was obvious that either the truck keep up, or be doomed to a unceremonious shove over the side of the road into the ravine below.
They may not have had great rolling stock but they did have plenty of fuel, and more importantly, plenty of C rations and Red Cross care packages. The foundering truck's occupants and all of the men in the deuce and half behind were quickly galvanized into action. Packages of chewing and bubble gum were distributed and soap collected. In the finest Army tradition each man did his part above and beyond the call of duty. Cheeks bulged like chipmunks as pack after pack of gum was masticated and then passed up. The gum, properly moistened and softened was used along with carved slivers of soap to plug the spurting hole in the gas tank and 5 gallon fuel cans were used to replenish the lost petrol every click or so all the way to Khe Sanh.
Perhaps these men did not garner the medals and accolades they deserved, but in my mind they were heroes one and all and when the radio was used to relay critical info to and fro we all smiled that inner smile and finally understood the meaning of a "Job Well Done."