The whole trip is hairy'
Night convoys face constant ambush threat
by CPT George Smith
Asst. Information Officer
TAN AN —"Nice night for a ride," I said.
"Roger that," replied the convoy commander.
A full moon darted in and out behind high scattered clouds. "Nice night for whom?" I asked myself. The air was crisp and a bit chilly.
Captain Richard S. Siegfried, 29, of Columbus, Ohio, commands a company of the 9th Division's 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry. It is a mechanized unit and tonight 12 of his armored personnel carriers (APC's) were ready for convoy escort duty.
"Mind if I go along with you tonight?" I asked.
"Not at all, be my guest," Siegfried replied.
He explained that last night one of his tracks was blown off the road. One man was killed and seven wounded. His men, he felt, were a little jumpy tonight.
Highway 4 is the main road from Saigon to the Delta. It's a good, fast, hardtop road with five bridges between Saigon and Tan An in Long An Province. During the day the highway is jammed with commercial traffic but at night it becomes a deserted no man's land.
"We use the road at night," replied Seigfried, "first of all because there is no traffic to slow us down and secondly we want to let Charlie know we intend to use the highway 24 hours a day."
At 8:30 p.m. we met with the two gunship pilots who would be circling over our convoy the entire 30 kilometers from Tan An to the outskirts of Saigon and then during the return trip. Siegfried explained the radio frequency and immediate reaction procedures if we were hit. The choppers would be under the control of the convoy commander.
The tracks were already lined up in the order of march and we went out to where they were positioned.
"I want the convoy kept close enough so that you can see the vehicle in front and in back of you," Siegfried said, "I want one man looking in the rear at all times."
He turned to me and said, "I've been running Thunder Road here for two months and have been fired at six times. Last night was the first time I had anyone hurt. The man that was killed went down inside the track to get a pack of cigarettes and that was when Charlie struck. He never knew what hit him."
We all climbed on top of the tracks, flak vests on and weapons ready. The gun ships scrambled and Siegfried commanded, "All right let's slide." It was 10 p.m.
We had a series of checkpoints to call in on the way to Saigon. At each one, the artillery covering our route adjusted to bring in immediate fire if we were hit. In addition, the two mortar tracks in the convoy were ready to poop out illumination rounds immediately. Retaliation would be swift and violent.
I sat behind the driver's hatch and put on a communications helmet so I could listen to the conversations. A triangular pennant of the state of Ohio fluttered from one of the aerials. Siegfried was in the commander's hatch next to me.
Three tracks churned out in front of us. Behinds was a searchlight jeep that, if needed, could light up a rice paddy or wood line like Times Square. In addition in the tracks, we had two "dusters", armored track vehicles mounted with twin 40 mm cannons, in the column.
Soon we reached our cruising speed of 30 miles an hour. Siegrfied switched on the intercom and said to me; "You can bet that Charlie will be watching us all the way. He knows we'll be coming back with the convoy. That's when he's likely to hit us."
Siegfried explained that Charlie sometimes waits in a rice paddy 50 meters off the road and when a vehicle nears, he stands up, fires his rocket and then beats a fast retreat. Before you can react he is gone.
The gun ships could spot the flash and be on him in seconds. I thought to myself.
All you can do is wait for him to strike. There is little chance of spotting the enemy first. There is a series of critical areas between Tan An and Saigon, each about two kilometers long. "The whole trip is hairy." said Siegfried, "but those areas are where we have been hit the most."
About halfway to Saigon, a track overheated and had to stop. Seigfried halted the convoy and the tracks alternately faced right and left off the road, .50 caliber machine guns poised for action. Meanwhile those angelic gun ships kept circling and circling.
Finally, we reached Saigon at 11:10 p.m. The supply convoy from Bearcat, consisting of eleven 3 1/2 ton trucks with trailers and a wheeled wrecker, arrived a bit later.
"Mount up." cried Siegfried. Switching on the intercom he said to me, "The easy part is over. I expect Charlie is waiting for us right now."
That didn't make me feel very good and I told him so. "If we get hit, just pass your communications helmet to my driver and jump back down into the track. We're going into the rice paddies after him and I need plenty of room to wing my .50," he said.
"Roger that," I replied.
We left Saigon at midnight, once again in blackout, and it was cold. I didn't have goggles and bugs kept slapping on my face. My thoughts turned to the men of Company B. They had to do this three or four times a week. I knew they were scared, too. Strangely, that made me feel better.
On the way back, a track ran into a pile of barbed wire. The column stopped and deployed while the track was freed.
Siegfried showed me where the VC hit the night before. There was a black ditch to the right where a track was blown off the road and burned. Deep ruts were cut through rice paddies where armored vehicles had reacted to the ambush.
As tracers flew through the sky from a nearby outpost, Siegfried noted that the night was really bright. "I'd rather have no moon at all," he said. "A full moon silhouettes tracks like ducks in a shooting gallery."
A while later the lights on the Tan An bridge came into view. Siegfried had told me it would look like the Golden Gate bridge, it did.
"We've got it made now," he said at that point.
With the mission accomplished, Siegfried and I relaxed at 3rd Brigade Headquarters here. "Well, how did you enjoy it?" he asked.
"I wouldn't trade my experience for a thousand bucks," I replied, "but I wouldn't give a nickel to do it ten more times." We both laughed, more from relief than from the attempted humor.
He started talking about his men and how great they are, "You know the rest of the company back at Binh Phuoc stays up until they hear that the convoy is all right."
"I suppose you are going out again tomorrow night," I asked.
"Roger that," he affirmed.