No story of transportation along highway 19 would be complete without the story of the mad and magnificent Major Belch.
I was the commander of Det A of the 221st Signal Company pictorial in Anh Khe (referred to as Binh Khe on your map).
About once a month a Maj. Belch who was in charge of highway security for the Transportation Battalion would ask us to come over to Pleiku to photograph one of his inventions. The most famous of these we dubbed Maj. Belch's Bomb Blaster. It was an APC with a dogleg attachment towed behind it. The dogleg was weighted with barrels of sand and towed. The dogleg allowed the APC to stick to the paved highway and the towed device would track on the unpaved shoulder of the road. The theory was that digging mines in the asphalt would leave holes that were easily spotted, so the VC would mine the dirt shoulders where the heavily laden POL trucks would swing wide and detonate the devices.
This was actually one of the Major's best inspirations and one of the few that worked. However, the blast from one of his tests knocked him and one of my photographers on their butts. He would have a bunch of these things welded up each night to have them ready for the next morning's road-clearing operations. As each one was destroyed, he would have a new one towed into place.
One fantastic device that did not work was the giant lawn mower. The Major decided that security would be improved if roadside brush could be cut back on each side of the road. To do this quickly and efficiently Belch had a giant lawn mower made for a recycled truck transmission. We were there for the day of the test. A large blade was affixed to the transmission. As the wheels were towed, the transmission turned and the killer blade went to work. However, the frictional coefficient of wet grass is very small, so as soon as the contraption hit the foliage the wheels skidded and the blade stopped turning. Ah well, no problem the Major always treated us to a good lunch, so it was a success from our perspective.
Another idea that sprang from this fertile and perhaps demented mind was rocket firing trucks. It was probably a life saver that we never got to see those tested. The concept was to take a signal corps man hole, a reinforced concrete dome and mount it on the back of a large flatbed. Then helicopter rocket pods would be mounted on each side so the operator in the manhole could swivel and fire the rockets at the onset of an ambush.
One afternoon, after one of our photo sessions, the loquacious Major wanted to show us something special. I was a little nervous as it was getting late and I wanted make the long drive back to AnKhe before the light started to fade. Of course, the Major always won: one because he was a Major and; two, he was a master story teller. When we went to his office he pulled a chrome plated helmet from under his desk. The helmet had an entry hole the size of my thumb in the rear and the font had a large and ragged exit hole. It turns out that one of the Battalions drivers had responded properly to an ambush by putting the pedal to the metal and driving out the other side. Many of his companions were not so lucky. Scared shitless he just kept going full tilt on down the road. A semi spent heavy machinegun round came through the back of his cab and hit the driver in the helmet. Due to angles of incidence and angles of reflection the path of the round traveled the curve of the inside of the helmet destroying the helmet liner, but leaving the driver with only a crease through the top of his head.
The Major demonstrated by inserting his swagger stick/pointer through the two holes clearly indicating that this lucky driver should have been dead. Major Belch had the helmet chromed in time for the drivers impending release from the hospital. With typical panache this officer had a ceremony planned at Battalion headquarters along with a certificate that the the driver was supposed to give to his grand children when and if he had any.
Great visual and great story, but the day was getting late and I needed to get back to AnKhe. My driver/photographer and I whipped out onto the road with me driving and him riding shot gun in our much abused little jeep. Hoping to quickly catch up to the last returning convoy we paid little attention to anything but keeping the jeep on the road. I wasnt long before it was dusk and I notice candles and kerosene lamps beginning to illuminate the roadside villages. I think top speed for the jeep was forty and I got it up to forty and a half by pushing my foot to the floor. We down shifted as we started up through the infamous Mang Yang in some serious twilight. At this point I was sure we were still alive because Charles was not going to sit by the road all night looking for an idiot lieutenant and a scared shitless E-2 out for a drive in a lone jeep. Oh shit, in the dim light I could see the outline of a jackknifed big rig blocking the road as we approached a point halfway up the pass. Now we were seriously worried.
Rational thought was now out the window and it was beginning to rain. We inched around the truck and proceeded through the pass in darkness and what was now a down pour. I knew we were going to die, but being in charge I needed a plan. The only thing I could think of was stop the jeep and walk out to the middle of a rice paddy and sit in the water for eight hours and wait for morning to come. Even though this might have worked neither one of us thought we could do it so we kept on driving in the dark with the lights out trying to pick out the road in the inky night. As the road flattened on the far side of the pass we coud see a search light on the road. The light came from a fortified bridge held by the ROKS. I thought the Koreans would welcome their comrades in arms. The had a barbed wire blockade set out for the night. I stopped the jeep and yelled for some one to let us in. No response. I put my hands in the air and yelled "American" and slowly walked to the front of the jeep, silouetting my self in the head lights to give them a better view. I don't remember the conversation, but I was cold wet and scared. I guess this eroded my normal charm, but I was getting nowhere and feeling like a duck in a shooting gallery.
It was time to take matters into my own hands. I stepped forward and grabbed the barbed wire between the barbs and started to pull it out of the way. The next thing I heard was KACHING, the metallic sound of belted ammunition being feed into the receiver of a machine gun.
These guys didn't know how much they damage international relations that night, but they probably lived longer by not making foolish exceptions for foolish Americans. I hopped back into the jeep and swung it around back into the dreaded pass. Somewhere we had passed an American signal site and while it didn't seem like it would be comfortable or safe, everything is relative. The Americans being far laxer than the Koreans finally left us in.
I immediately found a corner to hide in, so I wouldn't have to explain or presence at the odd hour. As soon as the road was cleared in the morning, we were out of there and safely completed our journey.
Now this might seem like a tall tale, but ex-army-photographer, Kevin Schlossburg (last seen by me in Laguna Beach 24 years ago) can confirm every detail.
221st Signal Co,
-- Roger Hawkins
Creative Consultant Project Portfolio available at: