541st and 88th TRANSPORTATION 1970-71
CENTRAL HIGHLANDS DURING THE DRAWDOWN
By Cpt. Richard Roney email@example.com
The 2nd platoon of the 88th Transportation Co. had a sign on its billet that read, “WE HAVE DONE SO MUCH FOR SO LONG WITH SO LITTLE - THAT NOW THEY THINK WE CAN DO ANYTHING WITH NOTHING”. That was life for the units in Viet Nam during the drawdown. This is a tribute to the men that served in the 541st Transportation Company and the 88th Transportation Company during the drawdown.
I transferred to Viet Nam from Germany where I was the Commanding Officer (CO) of the 76th Transportation Co. that was part of the 53rd Transportation Battalion. The 76th’s main responsibility was transporting nuclear weapons throughout Germany. I arrived in Pleiku in late February 1970 and assumed command of the 541st Trans. Co. (light truck) and remained the CO until approximately August 1970. In late June 1970 at An Khe I assumed command of the 88th Trans. Co. (medium truck), a Trailer Terminal and Maintenance Platoon, and a Signal Squad responsible for logistic communication for QL-19 from the An Kke Pass to Pleiku. In late January of 1971 the 88th moved to Cha Rang and I left Viet Nam and the army in late February 1971.
QL-19 from Qui Nhon to Pleiku was paved with road security at risk points along the road but mostly between the An Khe Pass and the top of the Mang Yang Pass. QL-14
north of Pleiku was paved to Dak To and Rte. 512 West to Ben Het was also paved. As I recall, road security began around Kontum and continued into Ben Het. Road security consisted of a tank and APC or 2 APCs every kilometer. QL-19 west of Pleiku was not paved and did not have road security. QL 14 south of Pleiku was not paved and did not have road security.
The 541st primary mission was resupply support for the Artillery Fire Bases and Special Forces camps along the Cambodian and Laotian border in Kontum and Pleiku Provences from the Ia Drang Valley area in the south to the Ben Het Special Forces Camp and Artillery Firebase in the north, support for the Mike Forces (the Special Force assault/mobile infantry regiment), and local resupply in Pleiku. They also ran occasional resupply to Ban Me Thuot and Cheo Reo in Darlac Province.
Both the 541st and the 88th had ½ inch armor plating in the vehicle doors and most if not all of the gun trucks had 2 walls of armor plating separated by approximately 1-½ inches. The ½ inch armor stopped AK-47 rounds at close range whereas ⅜ inch armor did not. The double walled armor plating on the gun trucks could stop anti-tank rockets. The gun trucks main weapon was one or two 50 cal machine guns (MG) (Royal Flush had a mini-gun as the primary weapon) and secondary weapons of 2 each M60 MG. The 541st carried LAW anti-tank rockets and also grenades to use against back side attacks during ambushes.
The maintenance platoons did a wonderful job of welding and rewelding the support columns in the trucks which were trashed by the weight of the ½ inch armor plating and maintaining the vehicles with the additional weight of the armored plating and at least 3 layers of sand bags on the floor boards and in the beds of the gun trucks. The maintenance platoon deserves all of our respect for keeping the vehicles running and up-armored.
The Pleiku and Kontum Provinces were significantly different from the coastal plain, and much of III and IV Corp areas. There were two towns in this area; Pleiku and Kontum. Both towns had very distinct boundaries with South Vietnamese populations and there was nothing in between. Most of the population in these Provinces was Montagnards and they lived in well-defined villages. The Montagnards made up the fighting force for the Special Force units and were pro-American. Most of this area was not inhabited and much of the border region was mountainous and covered with triple canopy jungle. The NVA had major base camps across the border in Laos and northern Cambodia. This made it a perfect location to infiltrate major NVA units and this is why so many of the major battles in Viet Nam were fought in this region. The other area that shared these characteristics was the Northern Highlands in I Corp.
The Pleiku and Kontum Provinces were seeing the full impact of the draw down in 1970. By the third week of March the 4th Division with supporting armor units were relocated from the border areas to An Khe with operational responsibility for the area between the top of the An Khe Pass to the top of the Mang Yang Pass. The Pleiku and Kontum Provinces were defended by Special Forces Camps and Artillery Firebases along the border, SOG units, a regiment of ARVN Rangers, a regiment of Mike Forces, and an ARVN division (I think it was the 5th ARVN Division). This area had seen some of the most brutal combat with the NVA since 1965 and was the area of operation of French Mobil 100 which was all but wiped out in 1954.
NVA SPRING OFFENSIVE
At midnight of March 31, 1970 while walking up to my billet I heard a barrage of 122mm Katyusha rockets overhead and then the rockets started impacting in the southern part of our compound (Camp Wilson) and the Northern part of the MP and MACV compound. Thus began the NVA’s major offensive in the spring of 1970. A week earlier I had heard that the NVA’s 325th or 353rd Division had crossed the border and entered our area of operation. I think this Division was operating in the Dak To area and have since read that elements of the NVA’s 304th Division was attacking the Special Forces Camps that were located on a line 10 kilometers apart north of Ben Het and fortified Montagnard villages in this area.
On April 3rd, the 541st’s mission was to run a major resupply convoy to the firebase and Special Forces Camp at Ben Het. Ben Het had been the target of continuous shelling and an NVA assault by 10+ Russian tanks/APCs and infantry units during March of 1969. The defenders of Ben Het had repulsed the attack and had knocked out a number of tanks and APCs. One of the earliest photos I had seen upon arriving at Pleiku was destroyed Russian tanks on lowboys in the 27th Trans. Battalion’s trailer terminal yard. The firebase at Ben Het was a strategic position that had to be over run or neutralized for the NVA offensive to succeed. The firebase could lay down sustained heavy artillery fire in support of the entire region.
On April 1st and 2nd I remember seeing multiple flights with 4 Cobra Gunships per flight pass over Camp Wilson in the morning on the way to the Dak To and Ben Het area. There were also continuous flights of Phantom and A-1 Skyraiders all day. In the evening, 2 and sometimes 3 Cobras per group would return but I don’t recall seeing flights of 4. The ARVN Rangers had been deployed west of Dak To and were heavily engaged and the Special Forces Camps north of Ben Het were under siege.
I was sure that we were going to be hit hard and possibly multiple times on the way to Ben Het. Fifty vehicles from the 541st were loaded with pallets of 105mm and 155mm artillery shell, 500-gallon POL bladders, and other misc. supplies. The convoy also included 8 each 5 ton medium tractor trailers from either the 64th or 359th Trans. Co. loaded with 175mm artillery shells. The convoy was protected by all of our gun trucks (Royal Flush, Deuce Wild, and Kings of the Road), our maintenance truck (Love and Peace), and our gun jeep in addition to a number of gun trucks from the 64th/359th Trans. Co.. The convoy also had a Forward Air Controller (FAC) in a Bird Dog flying cover. The convoy commander was Lt. Ebert, the 541st XO. Lt Ebert was professional, highly experienced with almost 1 year in country, calm under pressure, and decisive. The perfect convoy commander for what appeared to be an extremely hazardous convoy.
We pulled out of Pleiku and had proceeded approximately 1 mile north of Artillery Hill when we saw extending for hundreds of meters on both sides of the road ARVN tanks and APCs with tarps tied to them as shelters. This extended for miles. I was amazed that they had brought up a major ARVN unit as reinforcement in such a short period of time. As we passed through Kontum and proceeded toward Dak To we saw that there was no road security and the strong points in the city and at the bridges had been abandoned. The ARVN unit we passed had abandoned the entire region from just north of Pleiku to the northern extent of II Corp. It struck me that if the NVA blew-up a bridge with the convoy on both sides, I could lose my entire company
NVA Offensive April 1970 and 541st and 88th Area of Operation
NVA Offensive April 1970 and 541st and 88th Area of Operation
We continued north to Dak To and turned west for the remaining 10 kilometers on Rte. 512 to Ben Het. Dak To was approximately 10 miles from the border and major elements of an NVA division were in the area west of Dak To. We wound along Rte. 512 to Ben Het that was about 1 mile East of the Laotian border. The convoy arrived at Ben Het without being ambushed. As we arrived 2 C-130’s flew over the Special Forces camp. One of the C-130s flew over the convoy and approached the landing strip at an extremely steep angle. I remember a platoon of soldiers from the firebase running flat out toward the landing strip with a 2 ½ truck following.
The gun truck that I was in stopped on a ridge overlooking the firebase. The firebase was loaded with 105mm and 155mm howitzers and with 175mm self-propelled guns (Long Toms). The firebase had Dusters to bolster perimeter security. We went down to the firebase to get a close look at the unloading operation. It was a thing of beauty. A traffic manager was bringing the loaded trucks on a wide swing to end in a line of 5 trucks facing away from the firebase. A number of soldiers from the firebase were at the side of this line and on a signal from the traffic manager they ran out and dropped the tailgates on the trucks and then ran back to the side. On signal the traffic manager pumped his arm and the 2 ½’s floored their vehicles in reverse until the traffic manager gave the signal to lock them up. The cargo came flying out of the trucks. The drivers then floored the vehicles and returned to the ridge to line up for the return trip. I suspect that at least half of the convoy was unloaded before the last vehicle of the convoy arrived. The 5 ton tractors dropped their trailers and lined up for the return. The convoy departed and returned to Pleiku without incident.
It occurred to me later that the only reason to resupply Ben Het from the air was if they were concerned that our convoy would not complete the resupply. Ben Het had to be resupplied. I still don’t understand why we weren’t hit hard on the road into Ben Het and can only attribute it to the NVA being tied down by the ARVN Rangers. Thank God we weren’t hit.
A few days later the 541st picked-up 4 companies of Mike Forces and transported them to Dak To in support of the ARVN Rangers who were locked in heavy combat. Upon arriving at the drop-off point at Dak To the convoy was mortared while dropping them off. The Mike Forces formed up and moved out at a run toward the sound of the rounds leaving the tubes. Less than a week later the 541st mission was to transport the remaining 3 companies of Mike Forces to Dak To. The companies were in formation when the convoy arrived and after a brief argument all three companies threw down their weapons, ruck sacks, and stripped out of their uniforms and headed for the gate. The leaders of the Mike Forces closed the gates and told them the mission was cancelled. I gather that reports had gotten back to this group about the meat grinder that they were going to face at Dak To. Their action is amazing since the Mike Forces had been fighting the NVA in pitched battles along the border since before 1965.
The Northern portion of the Central Highlands held but at a heavy price. The 23rd Battalion of the 2nd Ranger Group deployed west of Dak To with 473 men at the beginning of April. After 4 days of combat a corridor was opened to the battalion and 44 wounded rangers escaped. SSG Littrell, an advisor to this battalion, received the Medal of Honor for his action during this battle. I had met 6 Ranger officers that were advisors to the ARVN Rangers a few weeks earlier and heard in early April that none of them survived the first few days of battle. I hope that wasn’t accurate. One of the Special Forces camps north of Ben Het along with a fortified village was over-run but later retaken with the help of 2 companies of Mike Forces. I did not hear the level of casualties to the other ARVN Ranger battalions nor to the Mike Forces that we transported into Dak To. From what was reported, the NVA remained in this area and kept the Special Forces camps under siege until the beginning of the Cambodian Invasion.
The 541st was part of the units directly responsible for holding the northern portion of the Central Highlands. Ben Het would have been hard pressed without the resupply in early April and that would have jeopardized the entire area. The Mike Forces delivered to Dak To helped stabilize the area. The men of the 541st never let down a unit in the field regardless of the risk. After I had seen them perform at Ben Het and had in an earlier convoy seen the gun trucks respond to a “Contact! Contact! Contact!” by flooring the truck and charging the ambush site, I was convinced that these men were as good as it gets. They didn’t want to be there and were operating at a time when a significant portion of the public back home despised them for being in Viet Nam. In spite of this they never let their friends down nor the men they were supporting. These men were as good as any that put on the uniform in our country’s history.
As a footnote, I read the Stars & Stripes account of the NVA offensive sometime around mid-April. They stated that a major enemy offensive had begun in the Central Highlands and that the “valiant” 5th ARVN Division was tied down in heavy combat between Pleiku and Kontum. That was the end of the write-up. I never read another Stars & Stripes. To be fair, I never saw nor heard of anyone that saw a correspondent along the border region of the Central Highlands. This was probably some PR move to build up the confidence of the ARVN troops. Stealing valor from the ARVN Rangers and Mike Forces that fought and died in this battle for a PR move is as low as it gets.
The afternoon prior to the Cambodian invasion a convoy of approximately 40 trucks of the 541st were awaiting a late afternoon departure. The convoy was loaded with 500-gallon JP4 bladders and with ammunition. We stopped by the Special Forces camp in Pleiku for additional cargo and the convoy kicked late in the afternoon. As everyone in the Highlands knew, you did not run this type of mission in low risk areas. Running a convoy at this time of day towards the border and into an area that had been pretty much abandoned by regular army units was a highly risky mission. One of my platoon sergeants was the convoy commander. Our destination was the Plei Me Special Forces Camp, which is located WSW of Pleiku and was about 10 miles east of the Cambodian border. This camp was set up as a trip wire to monitor the 1st NVA Division whose base camp had been in the Chu Pong Massif/Ia Drang Valley area of Cambodia since at least the early 1960’s and probably since the 1950’s.
The trip to Plei Me was uneventful. The convoy arrived at Plei Me at dusk and off-loaded the fuel bladders along side of the runway. We spent the night in the Special Forces Camp, which was a rather impressive earthen fort. It was an interesting experience to see how the Montagnards lived in the camps and how the camps were designed.
Shortly after dawn the Cobra ground crew helicoptered in and we off-loaded the refueling pumps. At this time there were already 6 to 8 Cobra gunships on the ground to refuel and another 6 to 8 hovering overhead. After off-loading the remaining cargo the convoy headed back to Pleiku. We passed convoys of ARVN
units deploying west in support of the Cambodian Invasion. A short time later 3 to 4
C130’s flew over the Chu Pong Massif and dropped 10,000-pound fuel air bombs with parachutes attached. These bombs made instant landing zones and clearings for firebases. The bombs are known today as Daisy Cutters and this was probably the first time they were used in combat.
The elements of the 4th Division helicoptered in for one last battle with the NVA in the border area. As was the case every time the US met the NVA in a major battle, the fighting was bitter and the NVA fought and died and only gave ground when forced out. The 541st along with other companies of the 8th Group convoyed supplies to the Plei Me or Duc Co. Special Forces camps to resupply the 4th Division. After less than 2 weeks the 4th Division withdrew from Cambodia and returned to An Khe.
The 4th Division had spent most of their time in Viet Nam fighting along the border in the Central Highlands. They stayed in this area whereas other units such as the 1st Air Cav., 173 Airborne Brigade, 101st Airborne, and other units were withdrawn and were initially sent to less intense areas after a period of significant battles. The 4th Div. has a proud history and their battles in the Central Highlands is part of that heritage.
After the lack of reporting on the An Khe/Ben Het battle it is not surprising that the Cambodian Invasion in the Central Highlands was not reported. To this day you will be hard pressed to find any reference to it. This doesn’t diminish what the 541st and other companies in the 8th Trans. Group did in support of the Cambodian Invasion.
Montagnard village and ARVN units deploying
The 541st occasionally ran resupply convoys to Ban Me Thuot and Cheo Reo in Darlac Province. These are interesting because they are so different from other convoys. Sometime in June we left Pleiku with about 40 trucks and all of our gun trucks, maintenance truck, and gun jeep. A FAC in a Bird Dog flew cover for us. QL-14 south of Pleiku is not paved and it was extremely dusty. There were no combat units along the route; we were on our own.
As was the case when running on an unpaved road all of the vehicles ran in the tracks of the vehicle in front of them. About 10 miles south of Pleiku the vehicle behind the gun truck I was in hit an anti-tank mine and flipped over on its side. The FAC did a wing over and flew almost directly over us at a few hundred feet and fired a WP rocket at the most likely location for an ambush. The driver of the truck was injured but not critically. The sand bags on the floor of his vehicle probably saved him. We left the maintenance vehicle with him until the medevac arrived and radioed battalion to send out a wrecker to retrieve the truck. We slowed the convoy until the maintenance truck rejoined the convoy.
We proceeded south on Ql-14 and then SE on another road into Cheo Reo. Two things struck me about this mission. First, I don’t recall any other vehicles on the road. Second, we drove through a mountain pass that looked like the ambush site that you had seen in every movie growing up. The road in the pass snaked back and forth through huge boulders that were right up to the edge of the road. The boulders towered over the road and the vehicles.
We arrived at Cheo Reo without further incidents. We delivered the cargo and spent the night there and then headed back the next day. The security of missions in Darlac Province relied on their random and infrequent scheduling and that NVA would not bother to set an ambush and wait for a convoy. That works on the trip to the destination but they know you are returning the next day. Luck was with us and we returned safely to Pleiku.
541st to An Khe
Some time during June the 541st was broken up. One of the platoons was sent to the Mekong Delta, one was reassigned to the 64th Trans. Co. that remained in Pleiku, and the remaining line platoon, HQ, and maintenance platoons were moved to An Khe. The platoon sent to the Mekong Delta was reunited with the company in January of 1971. One of the drivers told me that when someone in the Delta saw the gun truck and the condition of the vehicle and the ½ inch armor plating in the door, he was asked if he thought he was John Wayne. NO! John Wayne was an actor portraying men like them.
This was a sad fate for a first class company that deserved much better. These men were as good as it gets and continuously went above and beyond. I turned over command of the 541st about a month and a half after arriving in An Khe.
88th Transportation Company
On or about the end of June 1970 at An Khe I assumed command of the 88th Trans. Co., a Trailer Terminal operation, and a Signal Squad responsible for the communication link along QL-19. The 88th’s senior NCO was First Sergeant Watkins. This command along with the 541st Trans. Co. was detached from the battalion HQ that was located in the same base camp as the 8th Trans. Group. The battalion commander was Lt Col Daniels. I was comfortable with having a command operating independent of the battalion as that was the situation with the 76th Trans. Co. I commanded in Germany.
Trailer Transfer and Maintenance Yard at An Khe
The 88th Trans. Co. was a medium truck (5 ton tractor/trailer) company with line haul responsibilities for POL and general cargo along QL-19 from Qui Nhon to Pleiku. This company shared the same “long hard ride” and ambush experiences that have been recounted extensively. As I was the only officer in this command for an extended period of time I pretty much stayed in An Khe. I missed riding with the convoys but was confident in the professionalism of the men in the trucks and gun trucks as well as the convoy commanders. At least once a month I would travel to battalion HQ for meetings and on rare occasions I went to Pleiku
Communication base on mountain in 4th Div. Base Camp. This area was fortified against attack with bunkers, concertina, Claymores, etc
I thought that the 88th was relatively secure in An Khe as
long as the 4th Division was there and that the convoys would only be hit with
harassing ambushes until the NVA had time to regroup after the Cambodian
Invasion. Two men in the 88th died on convoys during this time; one a gunner in
a gun truck and the other a driver. Other men were wounded and medevac’d. As was
standard in Viet Nam we didn’t hear any more about them once they were
transferred to a hospital. If they stayed local we would visit them in the
The Korean White Horse Division was responsible for the area from Qui Nhon to the top of the An Khe Pass. These troops were first class and I was confident that if convoys were hit that they would be there in support. I was convinced that after a lull we were going to be hit hard as the NVA moved to fill the vacuum as the US combat divisions withdrew. The battle for Dak To severely weakened the only units
along the border that were willing to fight. The Special Forces were turning the border camps over to the ARVN and the Special Forces would be substantially out of country by December 1970. The Mike Forces had been turned over to mercenaries that I suspect were being run by the CIA. The SOG units remained.
The base camp at An Khe was the target of sapper attacks for most of the time that I was there. For most of the time the sappers were after the Hueys. Toward the end of 1970 the 4th Division was rotating back to the States. This left a huge gap in the base camp that had a 26 mile perimeter. The base camp became a ghost town and now the sapper attacks were aimed at the individual company billets. We had a perimeter around the company that was manned at night. We were not hit but other companies had their billets blown up by sapper attacks during this period.
Billets destroyed by sapper attack, lower slopes of mountain inside Base Camp in background. Sappers attacked from the mountain inside the Base Camp
The other unique aspect about the 88th Trans. Co. at An Khe was the rapid response to ambushes along QL-19 from the An Khe Pass to the Mang Yang Pass. If a gun truck (Pandemonium, Satisfaction, or ?) was not committed or if they had returned from their convoy then they were on-call to respond to any ambush. The image of these men responding to an ambush is reminiscent of the pilots of the RAF scrambling to
meet the Nazi planes in the Battle of Britain. One minute total calm and the next men were running and grabbing flak jackets and steel pots as they scrambled into the gun trucks and floored it to support the ambushed convoy. If you were out there in an ambush you knew that the 88th was all in.
Sometime in the last few months of 1970 the NVA had moved down to An Khe and after mortaring our convoy they ambushed a mechanized company from the 4th Division that was sent out to clear the area. This was the beginning of a battle that lasted for about a week during which QL-19 at the An Khe Pass was closed. A relatively short time after this the 4th Division left for home. Some time in January of 1971 the 88th moved down to Cha Rang and occupied the billets vacated by the 523rd Trans. Co. that had relocated to I Corp in support of the ARVN’s invasion of Laos (Lam Son 719).
Prior to leaving Viet Nam in late February 1971 I had an opportunity to spend a few days in Pleiku. I was glad for the opportunity to see Pleiku one last time before leaving. The day I was leaving there was radio traffic of a major ambush in the An Khe Pass and the gun trucks were pulling out of the base camp to support the ambushed convoy. This was the ambush during which Medal of Honor recipient Larry Dahl was killed. By that evening I was in Cam Ran Bay and the next morning I was on a flight to the US. I was out of the army the following day and put Viet Nam out of my mind for the next 35 years and have only recently pulled back some of the memories.
My underlying conviction in every company I commanded in Germany and Viet Nam was that the company was what it did on the road. If you weren’t on the road, your only reason to exist was to support the men that were on the road. This was my approach also in interactions with the battalion HQ and staff. The maintenance platoons, trailer transfer and maintenance platoon, signal squad, and the HQ platoon did an outstanding job of supporting our mission. The major risk, however, was borne by the men in the line platoons, gun truck crews, and crews of the maintenance vehicles in the convoys.
The 1970 and 71 period was a period of increasing isolation. Much of the public and most of the media/movies were against the soldiers that fought in Viet Nam. I remain convinced that much of this was from the “men” that would have been subject to the draft if they weren’t hiding in colleges (This was the genesis of the “Me Generation” which accurately described them). They hid behind the men from families that could not afford college. The drawdown also resulted in a growing sense of isolation as the politicians and some of the military leadership was more concerned with their advancement than with the soldiers in the field. Winning was no longer even a consideration. The reality of isolation struck home as the combat units departed. Equally as difficult was the period after Viet Nam in the corrosive atmosphere that existed. We all were scarred from that experience.
I am glad that I had the great privilege of commanding units with the brave men that were in Viet Nam. In our generation’s time of great conflict when men were called upon to stand and be counted …. you answered the call. It was all the more difficult because of what was happening around you. You never let down your fellow soldiers in the field and you were always there for each other. You are the best of our generation and you are as good as any that came before or have stood up since. I am proud to have served with you.
Note: Thank you to my daughter MK Roney for developing the map, editing, and technical support with the pictures.