TRUCKING IN VIETNAM, Part 2
|from Fred Probst
Fred Probst Website
566th Transportation Company
I'm not sure what woke me up, but as I looked around I saw that the lights in the hooch were on, the other drivers were crawling out of bed, and it was still dark outside. Not the kind of dark that precedes dawn, but middle of the night dark. What was wrong I wondered? Were we being put on alert? Had VC been seen in the area?
Not knowing what was going on, I made a quick scan of the other people in the hooch. I saw that as they were getting out of bed, they were scratching and yawning. Scratching and yawning is good I thought. Running and yelling on the other hand would have been bad. Their behavior was normal for people getting up to go to work. But this was the middle of the night! I followed suit, climbed out of bed and started scratching and yawning along with the rest of them.
Another normal action I found, was to brush sand off of yourself when you got up. The sand in Cam Ranh Bay had a tendency to get everywhere. Even when you put on a freshly laundered set of fatigues you could feel the sand of CRB rubbing against your skin. I often suspected the sand in my clothes was purposely put there by Mama-san when she did my laundry but could never prove it. I grabbed my newly acquired wash bowl and headed to the water truck. After washing, brushing and shaving, we headed to the mess hall.
The conversation during breakfast seemed to be normal. No talk of VC in the area. Nobody seemed to be discussing anything unusual. Although I wanted to ask what was going on, and why we were up in the middle of the night, I thought it would be better if I just sat there and listened. After all, getting a newbie title to wear off was hard enough. No sense in opening my mouth and reminding everyone of the fact. After breakfast we returned to our hooch, grabbed our gear, and headed to the arms room.
Usually you could spend 30 minutes waiting in line to draw your weapon. But not here. The operation ran smoothly and the whole process of getting in line, working your way to the issue window, and drawing your weapon only took a couple of minutes. In fact, if it hadn't been for me, the process would have gone faster. But this was another learning experience for the newbie, and I was caught off guard when in addition to being handed my weapon, I was also given several magazines of ammo.
Up until this point in my army career, ammo pouches were used for everything else but ammo, and right now mine were full of cigarettes, a lighter, and some snacks. I quickly found the fender of a truck to use as a table while I got my priorities in their proper order. After all, who ever heard of issuing ammunition with a weapon. That was something you did at the range after a 30 minute safety briefing. Did I hear someone mention Seaweed?
Once everyone drew their weapons, we loaded into the back end of some deuce and a halves and headed towards the motor pool, which was a couple of miles, more or less, from our living area. We came to a bouncing halt in the motor pool, climbed out of the trucks, and made our way to a van that was set up to maintain our log books. As we filed by the van, you called your truck number out, and someone would toss you your log book. From there you walked to the paved roadway that ran in front of the motor pool, where a line of tractor trailers sat waiting for their drivers. At this point you would walk down the line of trucks looking at the bumper numbers, trying to locate your assigned truck.
As I made my way down the long line of trucks, looking for the bumper number of my assigned truck, the vision of a multi-truck pileup on a freeway ran through my mind. Instead of looking at a line of spit and polished army trucks, I was looking at something you were more likely to find in a wrecking yard. Truck after truck looked as it was on its last leg. Bumpers and fenders were bent, cab tops were missing, windshields were cracked, door glass was missing, mirrors were missing or bent, tires were close to being bald, door handles were dangling, headlights were broken or missing, and the list goes on. The trailers were in no better condition. I noticed that some of the trucks had either chains or steel rods welded from the door post to the front fenders, to keep the fenders from falling off.
I finally located the bumper number my truck, where it sat in line patiently waiting for its driver to show up. All things considered, it was in fairly good shape. Stateside it would have been deadlined, but here it was looking pretty good. It had a broken headlight, cracked windshield, a dangling door handle, and a few bad tires, but all in all, good shape. When the day was out I would be able to recognize my truck by its characteristics, rather than its bumper number.
As I neatly arraigned my helmet and other gear on the passenger seat, I noticed other drivers opening the passenger doors of their trucks and just throwing their equipment in on the floor board. Some people just don't want to take care of their equipment I thought. That thought would stay with me for about the first mile into the convoy.
The hoods on the trucks started going up and I followed suit, raising my hood in order to check the water and oil, although it was still dark and you couldn't see much under there. I would learn later, when we stopped for our lunch break, that while I was checking my oil and water, everyone else was placing a can of their C-rations on the truck's manifold, so they would have a hot meal for lunch. So what's wrong with a can of cold Ham & Lima Beans once in awhile. We got the signal to mount up and the trucks started to roar to life, although sputter to life would be a better term for a couple of them. The lead truck pulled out and the rest of us followed. We didn't go far until we pulled to the side of the road and stopped. I was far enough towards the back of the convoy that I couldn't see what was going on up ahead. The drivers climbed back out of the trucks and started gathering in small groups. I tried to see if any of them had grabbed their weapons and it appeared that they were empty handed, so I left my rifle in the cab and joined one of the groups. "What's the problem?", I asked. "Daylight.", was the reply. Huh?
It turns out that we were not allowed to leave the cantonment area until daylight and that we had gone as far as we could in the dark, which was the approach to a bridge which would carry us out of Cam Ranh Bay and into the general population of Vietnam. I also learned, to my dismay, that getting up in the middle of the night was going to be a routine reoccurrence so that we could reach the bridge by dawn. I looked around and saw that daylight was finally breaking. How long have we been up already? This was going to be hard for a night owl to adjust to.
Once it was light enough to leave, we mounted up and started out. At least I went far enough to almost reach second gear when we stopped again. We went through a stop and go process until we finally reached the bridge. The bridge I discovered was a one lane pontoon bridge which floated on the surface of the water. At the entrance to the bridge stood a soldier that was spacing the trucks out, in order to get a proper weight distribution on the bridge. I was finally waved onto the bridge and started across. It appeared that there was a hill just in front of my truck, but I could never reach it. The weight of the truck caused the bridge to sink a few feet, and as the truck proceeded forward it pushed the hill ahead of it until reaching the other side.
After reaching the other side we continued to crawl along at a snails pace in order to allow the rest of the convoy to clear the bridge. Once the trail vehicle cleared the bridge our pace picked up and I was finally able to get into a higher gear. Within the first mile I hit a good sized pothole and all the equipment that I had placed neatly on the seat, ended up in a heap on the floorboard. My rifle however stayed put, only because before departing, an old-timer had shown me how to hang it upside down on the thumb screw for the windshield hinge, where it still hung in its place.
Our destination was Nah Trang, which is located south of CRB. Nah Trang was considered a milk run because we could make the trip down there without a break, unload, and return to CRB before dark. Piece of cake I thought, but discovered that is was going to be a dry crusty piece of cake. As far as convoys in Nam go, this was going to be an uneventful trip. But it was my first, and there was a lot I would learn by the time we were back in CRB that evening.
I bounced and jumped in that truck just about all the way to Nah Trang back. My back muscles were killing me, my butt was numb, and I wasn't too sure that I hadn't broken something. The dust got so thick you couldn't see at times. The sun would not go away. It just kept beating down and the day got hotter and hotter. Everything in Nam seemed to be a trade off. If we slowed down, you got a break from the dust that kept boiling into the cab of the trucks, but you lost the breeze that came with it, and sweat would start running down your face and stinging your eyes. When our speed increased we would get our breeze back, but the bone jarring crunch you received when hitting a potholes intensified. The water in my canteen was gone before I reached Nah Trang and I didn't think I could ever be this thirsty again, but that was the newbie in me talking.
Once reaching Nah Trang I thought, Thank God, now I can get some rest and get something to drink. But again that was the newbie coming out. As soon as we entered the compound, we were taken to different areas, depending on what type of supplies we had on our trailers, to be unloaded. As I came to a stop at my unloading point and turned the truck off, I spotted a shady spot and immediately headed for it, where I folded into a heap. As I sat there in the shade with my mouth open, wondering why it was still hot in the shade, I heard someone yell, "Hey driver, let's get those sideboards off!"
The sideboards manufactured for army trailers are well designed, line up perfectly with the stake pockets made to hold them, and slide in and out of those pockets easily. It's just too bad that we didn't have those sideboards in Nam. Although I'm sure that the trailers arrived with the proper sideboards on them, over a period of time they became bent, broken, or lost. And the trailer side rails which the sideboards slid into also became bent. So now instead of lifting the sideboard up and sitting it to the side, you had to wiggle, force, beat and pry the side boards out. By the time I managed to get the sideboards out and set aside, my back and arms were in agony, my hands were cut and had splinters in them. I climbed off the trailer, found my hot shady spot, and dropped. I was wringing wet. I couldn't have gotten any wetter if I had fallen into a pool. I sat there panting while I watched those guys on the forklifts attack the cargo on my trailer. In less than five minutes my trailer was empty, and I heard, "Hey driver, move it out!"
"%^%$##&)*&^%$." I'm not one for cussing, but give me a break. I'm so hot I think I'm going to be a victim of spontaneous combustion and they want me to go back to work. I climbed back on the trailer, and with the aid of a broken two by four, beat the sideboards back into their stake pockets. Where is the air I wondered as sweat continued to pour off of me and I beat the sideboards back into place. There is no breeze, no fresh air, just a hot sun beating down. Once I had replaced the sideboards I was told where the staging area was and headed that way.
There were a couple of other trucks from our unit already at the staging area when I arrived. I parked in line, turned the truck off, and climbed out. I learned that this was our break time, and it wasn't a minute too soon. I found the water truck and put just enough water in my canteen for a good sized swallow and drank it. God, that was good. I did that a couple more times then filled my canteen. I drank about half of the water in my canteen and poured the rest of it over my head, and filled the canteen again. I may just survive I thought, and headed back to my truck.
Every time we stopped for a break, and at the end of the day, we had to check our tires for flats. Thank goodness I didn't have any, I don't think I had enough strength left to bust the lug nuts loose. I gathered my C's (C-rations) from the floor board of my truck, crawled underneath a trailer where some of the other drivers had gone to get out of the sun, and started working on a can with my P-38 (Can Opener). Although C's are designed to be eaten cold, I was envious of the drivers that were retrieving their heated C's from the manifolds of their trucks. However, as I ate my cold C's, I noticed two drivers changing a flat tires. And, all things considered, I'd rather be eating cold C's.
A couple of the drivers had 5 gallon water cans on their trucks which they had put ice into prior to leaving CRB, and then filled up with beer and soda. During these breaks they would sell it to the drivers or other folks that wanted a cold drink. I don't believe they ever had to worry about returning to CRB with unsold cans. In those days the cans were made with steel and everyone carried a Church Key (Beer Can Opener) with them, which I put on my list for my next trip to the PX.
The return trip to CRB was about the same as the one going to Nah Trang, except the pot holes felt worse since our trailers were now empty. As the pontoon bridge that would take us back to CRB came into view I finished off the water in my canteen, which I had learned to ration, and started thinking about tonight's shower. As we made the approach to the bridge we came to a stop. We had to wait for vehicles coming from CRB to start their way slowly across the bridge. There were different priorities set up for who had the right of way on the bridge, and the priorities changed depending on time of day, direction of travel, military or civilian vehicles, and types of cargo.
Even though it was late afternoon, the sun was still there, beating down on us, and I was wishing that I hadn't chug-a-lugged the last of my water. We finally crawled over bridge and made our way back to our motor pool. As we pulled to a stop I started to anticipate the ride to company area and the shower I was going to get. Anticipation is a word I would soon remove from my vocabulary.
Instead of everyone bailing out of their trucks for the ride to the company area, we just sat there. Then we started another stop and go routine. I discovered we were in line that passed by a fuel tanker, where we topped our fuel tanks off. Afterwards everyone circled their trucks back around and parked side by side. In doing so you had to drive through some soft sand where you had a chance of becoming stuck. But everyone made it, with a fair amount of wheel spinning, and managed to park their trucks without the need for a muscle (wrecker). I allowed myself to start thinking about the shower again, but it was still a long ways off.
After fueling and parking our trucks, we then hauled out air lines, which were part of our OVM (Tool Kit), and hooked them up to air valves which were mounted under the passenger's dashboard. We then removed the truck's air filters out of their housings, which were mounted on the fenders, and used the air hoses to blow all the dust out of them. I have to admit that there was an impressive amount of dust that bellowed into the air, and I wondered just how much dust I had breathed in on the trip.
Again we checked our tires for flats. Anyone with a flat had to change the tire prior to going to the unit, and there were several trucks a day that came in with flats. My luck in this area was still holding, for as I went around my truck thumping tires, I discovered that they were all holding air. Once we completed the rest of our motor stables (Maintenance), which included checking water, oil, hoses, etc., we filled out our log books, recording the days mileage, and amount of fuel and oil used. We also filled out a daily inspection sheet, recording any deficiencies found on the truck. Prior to Nam you would record such things as; "4 inch scratch near right headlight.", or "Crack in left tail light lens." In Nam these things aren't even noticed. Here you recorded things like, "Right fender falling off" or "Spring hanger broken."
After completing the paper work, we turned our logbooks back in at the van where we had picked them up earlier in the morning. This morning! It felt like that it was a week ago when we were here last. As I climbed into the rear of a deuce and a half, to be hauled back to the company area, I observed a couple guys in the motor pool changing the flat tires on their trucks. Thank you Lord, I don't think I could have handled a flat tire today.
It was dusk as we unloaded in the company area and headed back to our hooch. Walking back towards the hooch, I started forgetting about my shower, and thinking more about just laying down on my cot and sleeping for a couple of days. What day is it anyway? Days of the week don't come into play much over here. As I dropped my gear onto my cot and started through what was to become a ritual of cleaning my rifle, I got to wondering, how do these guys do this day after day? Thirty minutes later found me sitting at the same table in the mess hall that I had been sitting at 48 hours ago. Only now, instead of sitting there in my Class A uniform, with a puzzled look on my face, I was wearing jungle fatigues that were covered in a chalky white dust, and the puzzled look on my face had been replaced by one of fatigue. And although I took part in the conversation at the table, I was no longer the center of attention. All the news from home had been covered, and everyone knew where I was from.
There is a math problem that everyone in Nam takes part of on a daily basis. You take 365, subtract the number of days you've been here, and that tells you how long you have to go before you go home. Three hundred and sixty one days is the answer I came up with as I drifted off to sleep that night.
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