Before 1967, there was no relevant doctrine for
using gun trucks to support convoys. Today, our military
forces in Iraq face an enemy that has chosen to attack soft
targets, just as the enemy did in Vietnam. In Vietnam, soft
targets often were supply convoys traveling with little protection.
Our Soldiers quickly began using gun trucks to protect themselves
and deter attacks. That is the situation our forces are facing
today, and they are repeating many of the lessons of Vietnam.
The Enemy Targets Convoys
In the fall of 1967, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) decided
to sever the lines of communication along Route 19 to the
combat units at An Khe and Pleiku. Route
19—unknown to many U.S. drivers—had a fateful past. Thirteen years
earlier, during the French Indochina War, the Viet Minh completely destroyed
an entire brigade-size French element along the same route. The U.S. forces
were overly dependent on trucks for fuel and supplies, and the enemy commanders
On 2 September 1967, a convoy of almost 40 vehicles from the 8th Transportation
Group was returning from Pleiku. By the time it reached An Khe Pass, the convoy
was split because of mechanical problems with a fuel tanker. It was almost dark
when the lead gun jeep was ambushed. Simultaneously, the rear half of the convoy
was attacked and the rumbling fuel tanker began to burn. Many of the Soldiers
were unprepared and were caught by surprise. Before this ambush, enemy attacks
on U.S. convoys had been minimal and limited to sniper-like attacks. This was
the first major ambush of an American convoy, and it changed the nature of logistics
operations for the rest of the war.
The kill zone was almost 1/2-mile long. Many of the Soldiers
were not trained to react to ambushes, and they depleted
what little ammunition they had. In less
than 10 minutes, the enemy company had damaged or destroyed all but seven
vehicles and killed seven Americans. The ambush was merely
a rehearsal for future attacks
that would be launched to shut down supply lines of communication before
the Tet Offensive of 1968, which was only 5 months away.
U.S. Transporters Develop a Response
Before this ambush, many Soldiers regarded convoy security primarily as a function
of the military police or combat arms. Protection was provided by jeeps or
task vehicles with single machineguns, much as in past wars. The Soldiers of
Transportation Group realized how important dedicated fire-power was to protecting
convoys, so they began to develop the concept of gun trucks and hardened convoys.
gave their gun trucks colorful names, sometimes,
like “Canned Heat,” derived from contemporary
Initially, the Soldiers mounted machineguns on
2 1/2-ton cargo trucks. Some of the companies, under the direction
of the group’s executive officer, constructed sandbag-filled
boxes in the back of cargo trucks to protect an M60 machinegun
and gunner. However, the rain-soaked sandbags proved too cumbersome
for the vehicles. So drivers
began using steel plates to reinforce the vehicles. Precut
steel-plate armor kits designed in the United States also
were fielded for the vehicles. To avoid depleting the tasking
fleet, the companies began using administrative 2 1/2-ton cargo
vehicles as gun trucks. The group commander also decided to
increase the number of gun trucks from 1 to 3 per 30 trucks
in a convoy. The improved gun trucks began to incorporate a
second machinegun for added firepower.
cousin (right) and another Soldier sit in a gun jeep
(with dual M60 machine-guns) on a convoy in the Central
Highlands of Vietnam on the way to Pleiku in 1967.
The next significant step in the evolution of the gun trucks resulted from the
leadership of Colonel Joe Bellino. He assumed command of the 8th Transportation
Group less than a month after the 2 September ambush. Bellino understood the
importance of what the companies were doing to protect the convoys, and he encouraged
his subordinates to experiment with gun trucks and convoy doctrine. He did not
want to rely on military police escorts and increased the number of gun jeeps
for convoy escort. Although trucks with ring-mounted machineguns were used in
World War II and the Korean War, Bellino fostered the idea of the gun truck as
a dedicated fighting platform. By this time, ring mounts finally arrived in Vietnam
and the number of machineguns could be increased to three on each gun truck.
One 8th Group change was to divide convoys into march units that were spaced
at least 5 minutes apart, creating smaller elements that were easier to command
and control. This change is now part of convoy doctrine. Another development
involved communication with the gun trucks. Up to this point, gun trucks did
not have the means to communicate with convoy commanders. Bellino ensured that
all convoys had a radio-equipped gun jeep in the lead, followed by a 2 1/2-ton
gun truck, with a gun truck in the middle and a third gun truck in the rear with
The doctrine for gun truck employment developed as well. Gun truck crews were
trained not to drive into a kill zone to attack the enemy. Instead, they initially
would provide suppressive fire to the enemy flank until a security team could
sweep the enemy from the area. The trucks were well equipped to survive in a
kill zone, but their crews were trained to attack the enemy flanks. Once the
enemy was suppressed, the trucks then would move up to provide covering fire
so the convoy could consolidate and reorganize.
The Enemy Tries Again
It had been less than 90 days since the first large-scale ambush against U.S.
convoys when the enemy made a second coordinated attempt. But in that short
time, the 8th Group’s leaders and drivers had put many of the new gun
trucks and associated doctrine into play. On 24 November 1967, a convoy of
six march units departed with a gun truck leading each one. The total number
of vehicles was almost 70, including 6 gun trucks and 3 gun jeeps. The NVA
opened up with a coordinated attack on the convoy along a 1,000-meter
kill zone. Following the updated doctrine resulted in a severe blow to the
enemy forces. The drivers fought back and held the enemy until mechanized
infantry from the nearby checkpoint moved in to mop up. When it was all over,
the 8th Group had lost 14 trucks with 2 drivers killed. On the other hand,
the enemy lost 41 killed and 4 captured. The new doctrine of the gun truck
had begun to pay big dividends.
Only a week later, a convoy of almost 80 vehicles was ambushed by the Viet Cong.
In less than 15 minutes of battle, the gun trucks broke up the ambush and killed
13 enemy soldiers. The Americans lost one killed in action and six wounded. This
action clearly demonstrated that the updated tactics of the gun truck could reduce
losses significantly while resulting in in-creased damage to the enemy. Lieutenant
General William B. Rosson, the commander of I Field Force, Vietnam, said in a
review of the ambushes, “These 8th Group truckers are the unsung heroes
of this war.” The gun truck, though not authorized on paper, was unofficially
accepted and encouraged at all levels of the U.S. command in Vietnam.
of Destruction," believed to be the only surviving
Vietnam War gun truck, begins its journey home from
Vietnam (above). It is now on display at the Army
Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, Virginia (below).
During the Army’s remaining time in Vietnam, gun trucks
continued to develop into dedicated fighting platforms. Soldiers
were proud to be part of the gun
truck crew. They trained hard, and they showed their extreme pride in the trucks
by personalizing them with names and flamboyant designs. According to Rich
Killblane, the Transportation Corps historian—
There were lots of changes to convoy doctrine in Vietnam. Bellino experimented
with dividing convoy serials into ten trucks with a gun truck.- That was the
organization during the 24 November 1967 ambush.- By the next year, they settled
upon 30 as the optimum number for a serial. There was lots of experimentation
with gun truck designs: quad 50s, APC gun trucks and V–100 armored cars.
The 5-ton with gun box proved the best. As late as 1969, senior leaders thought
the V–100 would replace the gun truck. The drivers did not like the idea
of being buttoned up. The armored car had limited visibility and fire power.
a round penetrated the armor, then it would ricochet around inside. As the
gun truck design improved, the crews gained greater confidence in them. They
began to drive into the kill zone to protect disabled vehicles and rescue drivers.
Unfortunately, the lessons learned in Vietnam were forgotten during the Cold
War. It was not until 1993 in Somalia that the Army once again began to armor
support vehicles. After Somalia, however, the Army focused on building a fleet
and not on protecting it. The initial wake-up call in Iraq came at An Nasariyah
in March 2003 with the heavily reported ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company.
In the following months, the Iraqi insurgency stepped up attacks against the
relatively unprotected logistics convoys leaving Kuwait. The result was that
many students of Vietnam gun trucks and doctrine began to turn to the lessons
of the past. Because of those lessons learned on battlefields almost 40 years
ago, the military was able to quickly adapt Vietnam-era doctrine and int-grate
new techniques to combat the Iraqi insurgency. The result is that logistics
convoys are no longer an easy target and that, if they are engaged, convoy
(as they are now known) can inflict heavy damage on an enemy force.
Many Soldiers’ lives have been saved, both in Vietnam and in Iraq, because
of the gun truck doctrine developed in Vietnam. Convoys cannot be expected
to travel as freely as they once did through the linear battlefields of World
War II, Korea, or even Desert Storm. The enemy knows that it cannot defeat
strength, so it will continue to attack soft targets wherever it can find them.
Thanks to the gun truck, the targets will no longer be our convoys.
Major Dean J. Dominique is the Executive Officer of the 24th Transportation Battalion,
7th Transportation Group, at Fort Eustis, Virginia. He received a B.S degree
from Regis University in Colorado and an M.L.A. degree in military history from
Louisiana State University.
The author would like to thank Rich Killblane, the Transportation Corps historian,
for his assistance in writing this article.
truck is protected by an armor kit developed by Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory.