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Thursday, April 12, 2012

How to Not Go Down A Hill, Vietnam

     This is the other half of my "How Not To Go Down A Hill Story"  I mentioned it when I was writing my previous story.  So here it is.  Hope you get a laugh from it.  The first couple pictures are of what my regular Army job was.  Father down is a picture of the bridge we had to cross going in and out of Cam Ranh Bay in 1967.  I understand they later made a permanent bridge.  Hope you enjoy the story.

                                          How Not To Go Down A Hill…Vietnam

      This may sound hard to believe.  Hope it is as funny to you, as it is to me in hindsight.  I learned to drive a truck OJT in 1967 in Vietnam. That education went on till I retired in 2004. Over the years I had some, let's say, interesting experiences.  How I even got into trucking is one of them. In Vietnam some units came over as a unit.  At the end of a year everybody left to go back stateside.  Support Group Headquarters still had the duty of supplying troops in the field.  So the way they solved the problem was have each unit under their command send two truck drivers to fill up the empty slots in the company that was losing their people.  A few people had come in over the year as replacements but over a hundred had left all at once. 

       My unit was ordered to send two people to drive trucks.   My unit had several assigned trucks but we did not use them.   We needed something hauled we called a transportation unit.  My company packed parachutes and dropped supplies by parachute. Every unit in the military had a TO&E, which was a Table of Operations and Equipment.  Each person was slotted based on their MOS which is your Military Occupational Specialty.  Well our unit was heavy on riggers ( parachute packers) and so they slotted some of us in the unfilled motor pool slots.  Little did I know I was in one of those slots.  When my unit received the request my CO (commanding officer) looked at the board and said to send me and another guy.  As we were slotted in the motor pool.  Brown and I both explained we knew nothing about driving trucks.  The CO said that was no problem. We could learn.  He needed to keep the couple truck drivers he did have in case he needed them.  

     So off we went.  We arrived late in the day and they assigned us to a tent. The floor of the tent was covered with old pallets and that kept us from walking in the mud.  Kept our feet dry but it made a great home for the rodents, spiders, scorpions and snakes that moved in to keep us company.  The 1st Sgt. briefed us on the “rules” no food in the tents.  We got one day a month off.  If you were on the road on your day off, you would work till your next day off.  We went to bed early as there were no lights in the tents. Next morning we got up at O’Dark thirty in the morning.  Finally got dressed in the dark and wondered to the mess tent.  It was very appropriately named.  Just as it cracked daylight we fell outside.  The 1st Sgt started telling the people who had been there awhile to go to their trucks.  Also which trailer to hook up to.  Where the convoy assembly point was.  Also their position in the convoy.  That done he turned to us newbies.  He asked if there was anyone who did not want to drive a truck.  Several of us raised our hands and he sent us to the tire tent.

      When we got to the Tire Tent a big Scandinavian looking guy with no shirt pointed to a barrel of tools and some bottle jacks.  He told us to go down to where the trailers  were parked and to change any flat tires.  He gave us a two minute explanation/demonstration and sent us to work.  It took us over an hour just to get the tire off the truck.  As the sun got up it got blistering hot.  We had to push the tires uphill by hand to the tire tent to break them down and fix the tire.  Let’s  just say it was hot dirty work and leave it at that.  The Swede, our nick name for the Scandinavian, was built like an inverted pyramid.  He could put a hand on each side, pick up the tire and flip it over like it was nothing.  Over the course of the day I found out he had been in Vietnam almost ten months and had been in the tire shop the whole time.  He made it clear, his reason for being in the tire shop was that he did not get shot at.  When the day was done I had finished three tires.  Brown had finished four.  Mainly cause we helped each other do the first one and he got credit for it.

       The next morning the 1st Sgt asked if there was anyone who did not want to drive a truck.  Only one guy put his hand up.  The rest of us were sent to the dispatch tent and they filled out our driver’s license forms.  Then they gave us the road test.  The Sgt. giving the road test asked us if we could drive a stick transmission.  All of us but one could.  The black guy who couldn’t was sent to the tire shop.  The rest of us took turns taking the driving test.  We got in the truck and the Sgt. said to start the truck.  I could not find the key.  He pointed at a switch and said to turn it and push the button next to it.  I did and it started.  Then we went on a short drive of maybe a mile around a big figure eight pattern and back where we started.  He had me shut the truck off and said congratulations.  We had never gone over about ten or twelve miles per hour.  I asked if that was all the faster these trucks went.  He said no and pointed to a lever on the floor and told me to shift it after I went through all the gears and then shift them all again and I would go faster.  I got down out of the truck.  I was now a qualified military truck driver.  I went back in the dispatch tent.  The dispatcher typed me a driver’s license and handed it to me. He then assigned me a truck.  He instructed, which means told me, to go work on it and get it ready to go.  I would be going on a convoy to Nha Trang  in the morning.

       When I got to the truck I met several guys working on their trucks and they explained what to check.  They lent me tools. The afternoon went smooth till I found out I had two flat tires.   Three hours later I finished changing them and went to the evening mess haul.  Then I went to my tent.  I do not even remember laying down.  Suddenly it was morning.  In formation I was assigned a trailer, a convoy position and told to go hook up.  That was something I had never done.  A couple guys showed me how to do it, basically by doing it for me to save time.  After hooking up I killed the engine several times trying to take off.  Finally one of the guys came over an showed me how to release my brakes.  An hour later I was in my line up position.  Another hour and we moved out on the way to Nha Trang.  I had bundles of sandbags on my trailer.  It was an interesting trip.  Every time I missed a gear I had to pull to the shoulder stop and start over.  By the time we got to Nha Trang I could shift gears up.  By the time we got back I could even down shift.  In the next couple trips I even learned to split shift which is fun, once you master it. We went up and back the same day.  Upon our return we fueled our vehicles.  While sitting in line we tightened things that had gotten loose.  Once we got back in the company area we checked our tires, fluid levels and parked on line. This routine went on for three days

     The fourth day my truck was assigned to a one hundred fifty truck convoy going to Tuy Hua  pronounced two-E  wha.  It was an air force base about three hundred miles up the coast.  On this convoy I was hauling 750 pound bombs.   When we got there I was sent to the ammo dump and told to get unloaded.  While there the base came under attack.  We could see they were walking the rounds toward the ammo dump.  The rough terrain fork lift driver told me to back up and drop my trailer.  Unfortunately I had never been taught to do either one.  After several attempts I abandoned the truck and rode the side of the fork lift to the safety of a bunker.  After a while it was all over.  The fork lift unloaded the trailer.  A couple hours or so later I got turned around.  When I got to the assembly area they put me in line.  We made a night run over the mountain to Vung Ro Bay.  We dropped the empty trailers.  Then we hauled a loaded one full of bombs back over the mountain at night with no lights.  We had night lights called Cat’s Eyes.  They are two tiny lights shaped like commas facing each other, hence the nick name.  You are suppose to follow far enough back you can see the lights.  If you get close enough you can see both eyes you are to close.  About four in the morning we finished the job and at seven we lined up to go back to Cam Ranh Bay.  It was a really long day.  We got back in time to fuel up and get ready for the next days run.  

      Several of us were given a day to get our trucks ready for a special convoy.  We were going to go up into the mountains to a town called Bao Loc.  I had somebody explain how to back up to me.  Then I went over the hill into the ammo dump and taught myself to back up.  I kept at it till I could go full speed in reverse and in a straight line. It is not as easy as it sounds.  After the practice I did some maintenance and got my first full night’s sleep in several days.  The next morning we set out for Bao Loc.  I started out as a bobtail (truck with no trailer) but it did not last long.  About noon one of our trucks broke down.  I got lucky.  I got the trailer.  Another driver got to tow the broke down tractor.  It took us two days to get there.  Not that it was that far, but the road had lots of mines and we were constantly stopping so they could clear the mines.  The second day we arrived and started unloading.  It was an all day job.  We spent much of the night flipping trailers to make more bobtails.  It was standard practice to have several bobtails to pull equipment that broke down.  We did not leave anything behind.  Flipping trailers is an interesting experience.  The wreckers would hook chains to one side and lift it up so the trailers would ride floor to floor.  The one on top had the wheels to the front end to ride better.  One empty trailer would haul all the sideboard kits.  About 4 AM we finished the flipping operation and at 7 AM we headed back to Cam Ranh.Bay.   We made really good time going back and rolled into Cam Ranh just as it was getting dark.

     After almost two months trucking I was actually beginning to feel like I knew what I was doing.  I was no longer a cherry.  You could tell the cherries pretty quick.  Many of the bridges were in such bad condition that the side walks had broken off.  Some on both sides and on a few bridges they were so narrow the outside tires were hanging in the air. It was a scary experience, but after a while it just came with the job.  Most of the bridges were short and a philosophy developed.  If you crossed the bridge fast enough the tractor would slide across the bridge before you fell off.  So the only thing that would fall would be the trailer.  It was good in theory.  After watching one or two getting set back up on the bridge by a wrecker while waiting for hours in the 110 degree heat with 95% humidity.  Sitting was the last thing you wanted to do.  At least when you were moving the wind felt cool, except when the humidity was down.  Then it was like driving through a blast furnace.  We did get to drive with the tops folded down.  Most of us chose to fold down he windshield also.

     About two months into my experience we were making a run to Tuy Hua.  I got a load of 750 pound bombs.  I also got to be up at the front of the convoy when we started.  There were like a 125 trucks in the convoy.  Things went fine for awhile, but towards noon something happened to my truck.  Suddenly I could not get enough RPM’s to shift to the next higher gear.  If it was flat I could shift and then lug it up to speed for the gear I was in.  However every time I shifted up it was challenge and if any hill at all was involved I could not shift up.  As the day progressed I started falling back. When we started up the mountains just south of Tuy Hoa my truck really started falling out. It finally got to the point I was the last truck in the convoy.  They left one gun jeep with me for security and I kept plugging away.  Most of the way up the mountain I had to pull it in granny.  One thing I did not realize was that I had lost my ability to build air.  Which means I had no brakes at all.  I did not realize this going up the hill. However as I crested the hill it suddenly became painfully clear to me that I had more than a power problem.

      When I finally hit the mountain crest I was really happy.  It was all down hill the rest of the way into Tuy Hoa.  That happiness was very short lived.  As I started down the hill I started grabbing gears.  When I got to a speed I was comfortable with I tried to slow down.  This was when I learned I had a major problem.  I had just started down a fairly steep about three mile or so down hill grade and I had no brakes. NADA, ZIP, SQUAT.  
Well I knew what to do.  I would just down shift and slow down.  Well I kicked it out of gear okay and revved it up but I missed the gear.  I tried two or three times but my speed was building quickly.   This was not exactly a pleasant situation to be in.  I pondered jumping but it was about a 200 foot drop off on the driver’s side.  Then I realized, how far would I have to jump to get far enough away way from the 50+ bombs I was hauling that weighted 750 pounds each.  On top of this about three quarters of a mile down the hill in front of me the road made a 180% hairpin turn to the left.  I looked at the situation.  I saw only one way out of it.  The engineers had blasted the wall on the right side to make the road wide enough to handle the Army trucks. The wall on that side was vertical right down to the edge of the road.  What did I have to loose.  If it did not work I would hit a 15 MPH hairpin turn at a 60+ MPH which would not work. I started driving into the wall and could feel it trying to push me away, but the speed started dropping and I thought I had a hope.  Then I looked down the mountain to the hairpin turn.  On the inside of the turn a military dump truck was parked.  This was not good.  There was not room in that turn for two vehicles.  Even if I was clear over to the wall.  The guys in the dump truck were out of the truck and saw me coming.  They did all they had time to do. They ran up the hill towards the direction I was coming from and got clear of their truck.  
      I turned into the wall even harder.  It helped I was at a speed I thought I could steer around the corner.  The only problem was the dump truck.  As I started around the hairpin I heard an awful crash and looked back in my mirror.  The bed of the dump truck was peeling off the metal uprights on my side boards and the boards were falling out.  Suddenly I heard a metal on metal crash.  I looked back just in time to see the right rear tandem of the dump truck go over the edge.  The impact bled off enough speed I finally got my truck back in gear.  Only another couple miles to go.  Fortunately there were no more sharp curves.  I looked back again and saw the dump truck teetering on it’s right front wheel and it’s left rear wheels.  It was a short glimpse cause I had to pay attention to where I was going.  One glance in my driver’s side mirror told me all the side boards were gone.  I could see the bombs sitting on my trailer.  The RPM started building and I had to make a decision.  Try to shift up a gear or leave it where it was at?  My decision was not hard to make at all.  I left it where it was at.  The engine was screaming like crazy and I fully expected it to come apart.  Generally the top RPM was about 2500 and the shift speed was about 2100, but my truck for some reason would not rev up above 1900 RPM. 
At one point I looked at the Tachometer which peaked at 5000 and my needles was about where 6000 should be.  However I knew one thing it would have to come apart cause it was not coming out of gear.  Finally I hit the bottom of the mountain and out on to the wide flat gravel road.  The ground was suddenly flat with rice paddies on both sides of the road.  I kept down shifting till I could get the vehicle to stop.  When it did I got down and my knees really were shaking.  I did not care.  I was alive.  About this time the gun jeep with the driver, mechanic on the machine gun and my Platoon SGT pulled up.  The Platoon Sgt. went ballistic on me.  He asked me what happened and I told him and the mechanic I had no clue.  I just had no air and no brakes.  The mechanic checked it out and it was because of a mechanical failure of some part that had to do with the air.

(If anybody is mechanically inclined I would appreciate some feed back as to what could cause this.  On trucks today the brakes will lock up if you loose your air pressure.  The trucks we were driving had the buttons on the dash.  So how or why did my brakes not lock up?)

     After a few minutes the Platoon Sgt. told me to follow him into the base which was just a few miles away.   He took off and I got back into my truck.  I had just gotten up to speed when I saw the Commanding Officer’s jeep coming toward us.  Suddenly they pulled up next to each other and started talking.  I could not believe it.  He knew I had no brakes.  I also had no horn.  I was down shifting for all I was worth.   Suddenly the mechanic looked back and saw me coming.  He jumped over the side of the jeep and ran out into the rice paddy and screamed for the driver to move.  The driver reached to put the jeep in gear just as I hit the trailer they were pulling.   The impact flipped the Platoon SGT. over the windshield and off the front of the hood.  The trailer flipped up in the air and over on top to the machine gun bending it in half.  The jeep lunged forward and barely hit the Platoon SGT.  The impact killed what speed I had left.  The Platoon SGT was fit to be tied.   He was ranting and raving and swearing he would have me court-martialed if it was the last thing he ever did.  The CO was doing everything he could do to keep his composure.  The mechanic had been talking to the CO and checking my truck while the Platoon SGT ranted.  Finally the decision was made. The mechanic would drive my truck  the rest of the way in.  I would ride in the jeep an man the broken machine gun.

     When we got to the base the CO came over and the Platoon SGT started in on me again.  The mechanic finally showed up in my truck and came over and started talking to the CO.   The CO nodded a few times and then came over to us.  He said, “Based on what my mechanic just told me.  The fact you got that truck down off that mountain without wrecking it and loosing the load you were hauling.  I am considering putting you in for an Army Commendation Medal.”  This really set the Platoon SGT to sputtering.  The CO told him to consider the circumstances and he would see that he was making the right decision.  With that the Platoon SGT bit his lip and walked away, but he was not finished with me.  Not till the day I left.  He gave me every bad job and detail he could dream up.  I never did get the Commendation Medal, but I did not get court-martialed either, which was good as far as I was concerned.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed the story sounds like it could have turned out much worse. Most of my Vietnam travel was by Huey.