Without the U.S. Army Transportation Group, soldiers in the field would have run out of food and bullets and helicopters would not have fuel to support them. From M16 rifles to Huey helicopters, the Vietnam War launched weapons that went on to become legendary. This is the untold story of one such weapon built not by the Pentagon, but by teenage soldiers trying to keep themselves alive: the gun truck. Through interviews and home movies, meet the U.S. Army’s unsung heroes: the self-made, five-ton, moving monsters that defended convoys from enemy attack and went on to influence today’s combat tactics.
During the Vietnam War, it was the mission of the United States Army Transportation Corps to ferry supplies from the coastal ports to inland bases located throughout the country. The logistical requirements of the MACV were huge, and 200-truck convoys were not uncommon. These formations were tempting targets for the Liberation of South Vietnam Viet Cong guerrilla groups, who often sprung ambushes in remote areas.
One unit that often fell victim to such attacks was the 8th Transportation Group, based in Qui Nhon. Two dangerous stretches of Route 19 between Qui Nhon and Pleiku became the enemy’s favorite kill zones, the “Devil’s Hairpin” in An Khe Pass and “Ambush Alley” – incidents occurred there on an almost daily basis.
Providing security for convoys proved virtually impossible, as the United States Army Military Police Corps did not have the manpower or equipment to secure the whole highway.
Other military combat units only controlled the stretch of road within their designated check points and could serve as a reaction force; so for much of the way, it fell onto the transport units to provide their own immediate security. At first they did this with armed Jeeps, but these rapidly proved inadequate, in the face of improved Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army weaponry and tactics.
On September 2, 1967, a particularly devastating attack killed seven drivers, wounded 17 and destroyed or damaged 30 trucks. To remedy the obvious vulnerability of the supply convoys, a “hardened convoy” concept was implemented, protected by a new type of security vehicle. This gun truck, as it became known, was based on the M35 2-1/2 ton cargo truck (Duece and a-half), protected by a barrier of sandbags, and armed with two M60 machine guns. Hardened convoys were smaller than previously, being composed of only 100 trucks, and their security detail was increased until there was one gun truck for every 10 transport trucks.
In the event of an ambush, their role was to drive into the kill zone during the first few minutes of the attack, and saturate the attackers with their firepower. Early designs proved flawed, as the sandbag protections quickly became waterlogged in the frequent rains, weighing down the whole vehicle. They were later replaced with steel armor plating, salvaged from scrap yards. The crew consisted of a driver, two gunners, a non-commissioned officer in charge (NCOIC), and sometimes a grenadier armed with an M79 grenade launcher. In October 1968, the factory-made hardening kits arrived to replace the sandbag and wood gun trucks.
On November 24, 1967, during an engagement in “Ambush Alley”, a group of gun trucks managed to thwart an ambush. The convoy lost six transport trucks and four gun trucks damaged or destroyed, and several drivers were killed and wounded, but the Viet Cong lost 41 Killed in action|KIA]] and were forced to withdraw. This was the first ambush against gun trucks.
Despite the increased security, transportation units still came under attack, forcing the gun truck units to improve the design of their vehicles. The two-and-a-half-ton trucks were underpowered, and the addition of armor and weapons slowed them down, leading to their replacement by five-ton cargo trucks that formed the basis for larger gun trucks. The improvised nature of these vehicles meant they varied considerably in appearance. They were given colorful nicknames such as “Deuce’s Wild,” “Cold Sweat”,” “Iron Butterfly” or “Pandemonium” that were often painted on the sides in large letters.
Their armament consisted of various combinations of weapons including M60s, M2 Browning machine guns, and XM 134 miniguns. Anti-aircraft weapons such as the quadmount .50 cal. machine guns were also used until 1969 when the truck companies had three to six gun trucks each.
The gun truck design evolved with a four-sided gun box bolted on the outside of the truck bed, then an inner steel wall was added, with a space between each layer, to provide protection against anti-tank rockets. Because of the shortage of steel kits, the M113 armored personnel carrier hulls were mounted on the bed of a five-ton truck, thus providing all-round protection for the crew. The last design of gun box had the steel wall mounted inside the bed of the truck instead of outside. Despite their aggressive names, gun trucks were strictly defensive weapons, being used only for convoy escort and perimeter defense duties.
The personal bravery and fighting spirit of the guntruck crews, along with their quick reaction to ambush situations, were no doubt responsible for saving the lives of many truckers. This courage was exemplified by Specialists Dallas Mullins, of the 444th Transportation Company, and Larry A. Dahl, of the 359th Transportation Company. When the driver of Mullins’ guntruck was wounded during a highway ambush, the vehicle became stalled in the center of the enemy kill-zone and subjected to intense small-arms fire. Even though Mullins was also wounded, twice in the arm and once in the leg, he came to the aid of the wounded driver and maneuvered the truck out of the line of fire. During an ambush on Route 19, Dahl jumped on an enemy grenade that had been tossed into the back of his guntruck, saving the lives of the rest of the crew with the sacrifice of his own. For their unselfish acts, Mullins was awarded the Silver Star Medal, and Dahl, posthumously, the Medal of Honor.
In addition to the unusually large number of Bronze Star and Purple Heart Medals awarded within the transportation companies-especially for a noncombat unit-the 8th Group was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. It was also the only transportation group in Vietnam to receive the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
Gun trucks suffered from several drawbacks. The added weight of armor, weapons and ammunition increased fuel consumption, as well as creating maintenance problems and reducing the durability of the truck frames. Also, the personnel assigned as crew to the security vehicles were no longer available for transport duties, thus reducing the lift capacity of each unit. Despite this, they were generally regarded as a success.
In all, an estimated 300 to 400 trucks were transformed in this way. Senior officers saw the 5-ton gun truck as a temporary solution until enough Cadillac Gage Commando|V-100 armored cars arrived. However, by 1970 it became obvious to all – except the Military Police – that the V-100 was a death trap if the armor was penetrated. Furthermore, the V-100 had problems with its power train. So the gun trucks continued to serve until the last American truck company was inactivated in Vietnam in 1972.
With the end of the Vietnam War, the need for such vehicles disappeared and most were either scrapped or returned to cargo carrying. One truck, an M54 (truck) named by its crew “Eve of Destruction (song),” was brought back intact and is on display at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, Virginia.
Please click on this link and watch the short 4-minute video about gun trucks in Vietnam from the Smithsonian Channel:
This is a second video includes home movies and interviews with former truckers and offers a little more insite into this weapon. It is less than ten-minutes and put together by Beth Garrigal who titled it, Heavy Metal Truckers.
Information for this article was obtained from Wikipedia, The Smithsonian Channel, and Army Transportation Association.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Should you have a question or comment about this article, then scroll down to the comment section below to leave your response.
If you want to learn more about the Vietnam War and its Warriors, then subscribe to this blog and get notified by email or your feed reader every time a new story, picture, video or changes occur on this website – the button is located at the top right of this page.
I‘ve also created a poll to help identify my website audience – before leaving, can you please click HERE and choose the one item that best describes you. Thank you in advance!