Garrett and I drew the short straw, so we prepared ourselves for the 30 km drive back to our base camp near Cu Chi from our small camp near Loc Giang. Mark was busy working on our deuce-and-a-half truck, so we had to take the well-worn 3/4 ton truck. It was pretty ugly: shrapnel holes in the tail gate; spare tire mount was missing in action (although the spare was in the truck bed); plus various drive-shafts that were so worn that the resulting vibration was like one of those coin-operated beds in a cheap motel. Oh yeah, the horn button was missing, but there was a little wire poking out of the steering column shaft. If you pushed it to one side so it touched the steering shaft, the horn would sound off. My childhood coaster had better options.
We loaded up two empty 55-gallon gas barrels, then mounted up. We grudgingly wore our flak-vests and steel pots (helmets). I say grudgingly because the flak-vests were uncomfortable and hot, not to mention that flak vests only stop schrapnel. They do not stop bullets. After mounting up, we hooked our M-16’s on the adjustable windshield wing-nuts and off we went in a cloud of dust.
As usual, we soon encountered the seemingly perpetual traffic jam at the single-lane bridge that crossed the Song Vam Co Dong River. This was always a major pain. We had to learn patience every time we crossed the bridge. Once past the bridge, our speed picked up to perhaps 25 MPH or so. The truck didn’t seem all that happy going much faster.
Eventually, we came to the end of the dirt road and turned onto a more-or-less 2-lane paved highway. There were just about every kind of vehicle imaginable on the highway including crapped out civilian buses, overloaded Honda motorbikes and long lines of military resupply convoys. Our route took us through the village of Trang Bang, a place that would become infamous 2 years later when a small girl was burned by an errant napalm strike by a South Vietnamese pilot.
Finally, the village of Cu Chi came into view and we turned off the highway for the base camp. The road leading to the base camp was liberally lined with dozens of street vendors, all trying to hustle their ill-gotten booty to passing GI’s. Some of the stuff was actually US government issue and appeared to be brand-spanking new. I even spotted PX type goods such as small fans and refrigerators. The black market was alive and well.
As we approached the main gate, we cleared our weapons and showed the gate guard the empty chambers. He waved us on through. There was a holding pen just inside the gate where enemy prisoners awaited transportation to some unknown destination. Sometimes the prisoners would glare at us. I tried to ignore them.
We drove straight to the POL (Petroleum, Oils & Lubricants) and refueled the truck and filled the two 55-gallon barrels. The POL was massive with huge sand-bagged bunkers containing fuel tanks or fuel bladders. About every 50 feet was a 10 foot high post with a fuel nozzle dangling on a hose. Self serve, of course.
After tanking up, we headed to the PX to pick up some personal goodies and perhaps a burger and soda. Our last stop was the orderly room in our battery area where we dropped off mail and hoped to pick up incoming mail. Letters from home were vital to our morale. We even got lucky every now and then and received a “care package” full of goodies from home. Of course, we were expected to share these goodies with the team. We also checked-in with the 1st shirt (1st Sergeant) for any updates on the situation in our AO (Area of Operation). After that, we usually stuck our head in the door of the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) bunker, just to put a face with the voice on the radio, if nothing else. Also, it was interesting to look at the horizontal situation map in the center of the bunker, replete with various “game” pieces that represented various units in our AO. I always made it a point to look at ours, cozying up to the border line on the map. It probably seemed a bit innocuous to those who pushed them around with sticks resembling pool cue’s. Sometimes I invited a bunker-bunny to join us at our little Shangri La out by the border for a few nights of fun, but they always declined.
During our routine we hoped to not bump into our radar officer. He was a career WO (Warrant Officer) who somehow wrangled a way to not join us in the field. Officially, he was supposed to be with us, but we were delighted that he played hooky. On the other hand, it irritated us that this fellow was living relatively well in the base camp battery area. I have no idea what his duties were. You might now understand why I didn’t think too highly of our leaders.
With the truck heavily loaded, it was now time to head out. It was my turn at the wheel. Once outside the main gate, we slapped a magazine into our M-16’s, chambered a round and hit the safety, then hooked the M-16’s handle on the convenient wingnuts on the adjustable windshield.
The trip back was going along in a fairly routine manner when all of a sudden the engine started surging and then slowing down. We were several miles down the narrow dirt road when it started flooding again (we had previously taken the truck to the motor pool shop several times for this very problem). Instinctively, I pushed the throttle to the floor in hopes that the increased air flow would balance the over-rich fuel mixture. Too late. We gradually rolled to a stop in a cloud of raw fuel fumes. Garrett silently looked over at me as he drew his weapon off the wingnut. We didn’t have to say much. The situation was clear and it was not good. Garrett only had a few weeks left in country, so I’m sure he’s regretting going on this trip at the moment. To his credit, he stayed cool.
While Garrett stood guard, I lifted the hood and rapped on the defective carburetor with a crescent-wrench in hopes of dislodging the stuck float. The engine cranked and cranked but wouldn’t fire off. All we got was more gas fumes. As we’re contemplating our next move, we suddenly heard a truck coming from the opposite direction. It appeared around a bend and it was hauling ass. We flagged down the driver and he skidded to a halt adjacent to our truck. “Hey, could you give us a push?” The driver hesitated for a moment, then agreed. I could understand his hesitation because he had to jockey that big, 5-ton dump truck back and forth on a very narrow dirt road and it was getting late in the day. Once committed, he didn’t waste any time.
His bumper contacted ours and off we went. I put the 3/4 ton in second gear, let out the clutch and held the throttle to the floor. As speed increased, the engine started hitting on one or two cylinders and eventually all six. Saved! I never let my foot off the floored throttle. I put my left foot on the brake pedal and modulated our speed by braking alone. I was not going to give the engine a chance to flood again.
Meanwhile, I kept glancing in the mirror at our hero truck driver. My last image was him jockeying that big dump truck back and forth as we disappeared around a bend. I wish I had that soldiers name. And I hope he made it back to his unit safely. He probably saved our bacon.
Garrett remained uncharacteristically quiet for the remainder of our trip. I could only imagine what was going through his mind. Perhaps it was the telegram that might’ve been sent… “We regret to inform you that your son was killed because the Army was too cheap and too inept to replace a 30-dollar carburetor…”
Short a radar officer. Short an authorized radar backup generator. Plagued with a defective carburetor. And the re-up officer sitting in his nice office back at the base camp had the nerve to ask me to re-enlist. What an idiotic war. FTA.