The Most Decorated Ammunition Company in Vietnam

by Brigadier General Richard F. Allen, USAR (Ret.)

No ammunition company that served in Vietnam received more recognition for its outstanding performance than the 148th Ordnance Company (Ammunition). Stationed at Vung Tau and Dong Tam during the early years of the war and later posted to Long Binh, the company was awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation three times for superior performance. The first award was one of only three Meritorious Unit Commendations awarded to an ammunition company standing alone, rather than as part of a larger force. The unit received its subsequent awards while serving as part of the 2d Maintenance Battalion and the 3d Ordnance Battalion.

I would like to share the story of that first award, which was bestowed on the company for its diligent service before, during, and after the 1968 Tet offensive. I had the honor and privilege of commanding the 148th from October 1967 until June 1968, so most of what follows is based on first-hand observation.

148th Ordnance Company

I knew the 148th had the potential to be a great unit as soon as the officer I was replacing told me about the men I would be commanding. How so many of the Army's most knowledgeable and experienced ammunition noncommissioned officers (NCO's) wound up in one small unit at the same time I will never know—I was just glad to see them. My two warrant officers also were special. One was a seasoned explosive ordnance disposal sergeant before the war, the other had many years of experience as an ammunition NCO, and both were highly trained and motivated. My two lieutenants, though young and inexperienced, were conscientious and willing to work.

The mission of an ammunition company is to receive, store, and issue to its customers all of the ammunition they need to conduct combat operations. Support generally is provided to all units fighting in a given area, but no unit presenting the proper request is ever refused service if the needed items are on hand. The 148th's support area was the IV Corps Tactical Zone, otherwise known as the Mekong Delta; part of the III Corps Tactical Zone; and the Vung Tau Special Zone, an area lying southeast of Saigon and north of Vung Tau. Our primary customers were the 9th Infantry Division and its "Riverines" based at Dong Tam in the Delta; the 164th Aviation Group, which flew helicopter gunships throughout the Delta; the Australia and New Zealand Task Forces that operated in the Vung Tau Special Zone; and a number of artillery battalions that provided fire support in the area. We also supplied certain munitions to the Air Force and Navy and issued some items to the South Vietnamese Army and their U.S. Army advisors.

A 1967-vintage ammo company's wartime authorized strength was 5 officers and 238 enlisted men. Inexplicably, the 148th was organized at level 3, which usually was a peacetime level. At this level, the unit was authorized 5 officers but only 191 enlisted personnel—and we never had more than 90 percent of that authorized strength.

The company operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in two locations: the main ammunition supply point (ASP) at Vung Tau and a small detachment, usually about 20 men, at a small ASP in support of the 9th Division at its Dong Tam base. A number of soldiers were permanently attached to the base security force, and occasionally we had to furnish troops for special details. Just getting enough people to the ASP's to handle the tremendous tonnages of ammunition required to support wide-ranging combat operations was a constant challenge. Still, when possible, we tried to give every man a half-day off each week, our rationale being that we could get more work out of our troops in 6½ days than we could in 7.

Fortunately, most ammunition arrived in palletized loads and was issued or shipped the same way, or we would have sunk under the work load. Ammunition pallets, of course, are quite heavy. So we were at the mercy of our materials-handling equipment: eight 6,000-pound rough-terrain forklifts and a 20-ton crane. Our continuous operations took a toll on machinery as well as men, and blowing sand, alternating with rain and the hot sun, exacerbated maintenance problems. The maintenance section worked diligently, though often hampered by a scarcity of repair parts, and kept us operating. A day with six operating forklifts was a pleasant rarity; two-forklift days were more common. Sometimes a work shift would start with four or five forklifts up and running, only to have all become deadlined at some point in the day. The 20-ton crane, though slow and cumbersome, was used extensively to handle 8-inch and 155-millimeter howitzer ammunition and 175-millimeter gun projectiles because of their shipping configuration.

Palletized loads, however, were a mixed blessing. So many pallets were damaged in shipment that labor-intensive repalletizing was an ongoing requirement. Both men and steel banding material were always in short supply, and banding machines wore out frequently. Our NCO's requisitioned, then literally begged, borrowed, or stole, what they had to have to get the job done. NCO initiative and leadership has made many officers look good in many wars, and the 148th, too, benefited from NCO competence.

Vung Tau

The town of Vung Tau is located on a narrow, hilly, 10-mile-long peninsula bounded on one side by the South China Sea and on the other by Vinh Ganh Bay. The U.S. logistics complex at Vung Tau began just outside of town, with the airfield occupying most of the usable land, and extended about 2 miles along the southeast side of Highway 15; the port was on the other side of the road. In addition to the airfield and the port, the complex included a hospital, an equipment maintenance facility, the only floating depot-level aircraft maintenance facility in the world (aboard the Corpus Christi Bay, anchored just off shore), a number of storage facilities for nonexplosive supplies, and, of course, the ASP.

To construct a new bunker after the April 1968 rocket attack on Vung Tau, soldiers made sandbags after completing their daily ASP work. Vietnamese laborers then used the sandbags to build the bunker.

To construct a new bunker after the April 1968 rocket attack on Vung Tau, soldiers made sandbags after completing their daily ASP work. Vietnamese laborers then used the sandbags to build the bunker.

 

An ASP should be large enough to accommodate widely dispersed storage of high explosives, and it should be built with a solid foundation to support heavy truck traffic and extremely heavy stacks of ammunition. The Vung Tau storage facility consisted of 33 storage pads, each about 100 feet wide and 150 feet deep, that were made of pierced steel planking like that used for airfield runway construction. The pads rested on nothing but sand, but they were remarkably stable and withstood not only the heavy weight of the ammunition but also the wear and tear inflicted by the large, heavy forklifts used to stack and retrieve the mostly palletized munitions.

The 600 or so acres set aside for the ASP between the airfield and a swamp were not enough to provide the separation needed for safety requirements, so a causeway had to be built into the swamp to accommodate the last three pads. This was done with considerable effort and skill by Army engineers using the only material readily available—sand. Once finished, however, the pads in the swamp were as functional as those built on the already existing sand piles.

In order to reduce the distance between the storage pads while providing as much safety as possible, berms 12 to 14 feet high were constructed of sand around each pad. As soon as the berms were completed, however, they began to erode. Several methods of erosion control were tried; the most workable solution was to spray the sand with a tar-like substance used to seal roadbeds just before the asphalt is laid. This technique held up well until someone, usually a guard at night, walked on the crusty surface and punched holes in it, allowing rainwater access to begin its destructive work.

The ASP office, which maintained the records showing the quantities and locations of all items and controlled receipts, issues, and inventory, was just outside the only entrance to the ASP. Across the road, and also outside the gate, was the area where inert items returned by customers, such as brass shell casings, were checked to ensure that no explosives were present and then processed for shipment home.

The gate was guarded by the base security force, and several observation towers were manned during the day. At night, the tower guards were reinforced with jeep-mounted patrols and foot patrols with dogs. During my tenure, the ASP was penetrated only twice at night; in both cases, the perpetrators were quickly brought to bay by the dogs. In both instances, the terrified detainees turned out to be teenage boys running away from the South Vietnamese Army's Revolutionary Development School, our neighbor to the north.

The ASP was surrounded by a 10-foot-high, barbed wire fence that was still under construction in late 1967. The portion of the fence on dry land was finished, but the fence ran right through the swamp for about ¾ mile. Being a member of the fence construction crew had to be the worst job in Vung Tau. The four men and their NCO chief worked off a raft they built just for the job, and they spent all day either in the burning sun or in the brackish swamp water (emerging when necessary to remove leeches). The wire was strung underwater to a depth of at least 3 feet. To my amazement, no snakebites were ever reported, and the crew actually seemed disappointed when the job was finished and they had to return to normal guard duty.

Dong Tam

The base for the 9th Infantry Division's Riverine Force was on the north bank of the Mekong River, at a place called Dong Tam, about 45 miles upstream from where the great river emptied into the South China Sea. The 53d General Support Group, of which the 148th Ordnance Company was a part, operated a forward support activity (FSA) there that provided backup logistics support to the division. An FSA was a provisional unit made up of elements of a general supply company, a maintenance company, an ammunition company, and other units as needed; it usually was commanded by a major from the group staff. The 148th supplied a detachment of about 20 men to operate the small ASP at Dong Tam. Dong Tam was hit regularly by rocket and mortar fire. Ground probes by the Viet Cong (VC) were not uncommon. In September 1967, several members of the 148th were wounded in a mortar attack.

There was no easy way to get from Vung Tau to Dong Tam. The most frequently used method was by air, although resupply boats sailed from the Vung Tau port early each morning. On the west side of Dong Tam, a harbor had been dredged to create a port that was safely out of the river's strong current. Next to the harbor near the western perimeter was the Dong Tam "International Airport."

The ASP ran parallel to the northern half of the air strip. This ASP was unsatisfactory in almost every aspect. It was too close to the airstrip and too close to the FSA's living quarters, and its ammo "pads" (nothing more than wood pallets) were too close to each other—all serious safety violations. Earth berms separating the pads were only about 4 feet high and provided no protection at all. A new ASP was under construction across the harbor on a strip of land between the harbor and the river. The new site provided a safe distance between ammunition and living areas and the airfield. It was to be a "modular" ASP, meaning that a number of contiguous pads or modules would be laid out side by side in a straight line separated only by high earthen berms. They were still too close to each other, but ammunition safety requirements had to be sacrificed because of the space restrictions. Later, after the new ASP was completed, one of its modules took a mortar round; the resulting fire skipped from module to module, leaping over the berm as if it didn't exist, and destroyed most of the ammunition on hand.

I visited Dong Tam regularly to let the troops know that their mission was important and they were still a part of the 148th. The officer and senior NCO we dispatched to Dong Tam after my first trip reorganized the detachment, cleaned up the ASP, and generally improved the operation and the condition of the men, who rotated in and out every 6 weeks.

Tet 1968

In late January 1968, I was at the Saigon Support Command at Long Binh to meet with the ammunition staff to discuss the disposition of unserviceable ammo that had been accumulating at the ASP. Everything from small arms ammo to such high-explosive items as 81-millimeter mortars, Bangalore torpedoes, and antitank mines needed to be destroyed or shipped to Long Binh for demolition. I convinced the staff that my demolition-trained magazine platoon leader, Chief Warrant Officer John Warren, was perfectly capable of safely destroying anything on hand. We planned to burn the small arms ammunition in an old French coastal artillery bunker. Demolition of the high-explosive items would be done safely on one of the uninhabited islands in Vinh Ganh Bay. It was agreed that we could start immediately.

After the meeting, the officers I was visiting told me that there had been a general lull in combat activity initiated by the enemy. The feeling at II Field Force Headquarters was that the VC were beaten and that the war would be over soon.

Back in Vung Tau, we heard on Armed Forces Radio that the South Vietnamese Government and the VC had agreed to a 3-day truce beginning on 30 January. There had been truces before, and any violations usually were relatively minor. About half of the Vietnamese Army was given leave, and the 53d General Support Group issued instructions in Vung Tau for our soldiers to be careful in town and not interfere with the Lunar New Year celebration.

A typical scene in the marketplace in Vung Tau.

A typical scene in the marketplace in Vung Tau.

 

On Monday, 29 January, I received a call from Captain Cary King, an old friend from my days in the artillery in Europe who was with the 1st Infantry Division, telling me that, because of the lull, he had been given a 3-day pass. On the afternoon of 30 January, I picked him up at the airfield and took him to the Pacific Hotel. We agreed to meet for dinner later. After an excellent meal, we walked back to the hotel, which was the transient bachelor officers quarters for Vung Tau. It was still early, but the malaria pill I had taken the day before was causing more problems than usual, so I decided to turn in for the night. I was soon asleep, despite the incessant rattle of firecrackers. When the alarm clock went off the next morning, I felt so bad that I called company headquarters and left word for the first sergeant that I might be in later, depending on how I felt.

At about 0830, there was a knock at my door, and when I opened it, there, to my surprise, stood Cary. He had just stopped by on his way to the airfield to say goodbye. Laughing, he told me that at 0330 he had been awakened by the club officer, dressed in civilian clothes but wearing a steel helmet and a flack jacket and carrying a double-barreled shotgun. The club officer told him that the VC were attacking all over the place and that an attack on the officers' club could occur at any time. Cary, who had seen plenty of combat, just said, "Right," and went back to sleep. When he went down for breakfast, however, there was still much excitement, so he called his unit. He was told that all hell had broken loose and he was to get back ASAP! As bad as I felt, I quickly dressed and went to work. I was not sure what was happening, but I was not going to miss it because of illness!

When I got to the company, the situation was still far from clear. All we knew at first was that we were getting a lot of requests for ammunition. At about noon, I was summoned to battalion headquarters for a commander's call. The battalion commander told us about the same thing Cary had told me. The area was on heightened alert, but we were to continue to perform our missions as usual. As more information became available, they would let us know. There was no need to man the perimeter at this time, but no passes were authorized and town was off limits except for those who lived there.

Back at the ASP, business was booming (no pun intended). Units from the Baria area brought news of VC attacks in several nearby locations and reported that the town itself had been shot up pretty badly. The tone of the requests for ammo support was becoming increasingly urgent, and the shipping priorities being assigned, such as "combat essential," "emergency," and "tactical emergency," reflected the seriousness of the developing situation. Men and equipment were strained almost to the limit to make sure no request went unfilled and no shipments to the airfield were late.

As the afternoon of 30 January wore on, rumors were rampant. There were reports of large numbers of VC soldiers seen south of Baria heading our way, but still no alert order came down. I took my officers and the first sergeant to inspect the perimeter of the ASP to make sure we knew where we would position our men and machineguns and to identify on the ground where we would link up with units on our left and right. We were to occupy the northeast quadrant of the ASP boundary overlooking the swamp.

Back at the company area, I issued orders for everyone to draw weapons and put our basic load of ammo on trucks. The night crew went to work, and the day crew nervously waited for something to happen. Finally, just as it was getting dark, full alert status was announced, and we dashed to the ASP. As I walked the perimeter checking on my men and verifying their fields of fire, I could almost feel the presence of the enemy in the swamp. Some of my men were sure they could see movement or subdued lights among the lizards and lily pads.

While the day crew manned the perimeter, the night crew continued to operate the ASP, although under blackout conditions. This made their work, which even in good light was dangerous, downright hazardous. Regardless of the risk, we had ammo that had to be delivered to the port, where it would be loaded on "mike boats" (landing craft, medium) in time for their dawn departure for Dong Tam to resupply the 9th Infantry Division. At about midnight, much to everyone's surprise, we received the order to stand down. The day crew went to bed, the night crew finished the night's work, and we didn't get to see how the unit would react to a ground attack. But there were no complaints.

I spent the night in my office, just in case something unexpected happened. At about 0100, the ASP office called to ask what they should do about shipping documents that were to be delivered to group headquarters. Orders had been issued earlier in the evening directing everyone to stay off the roads since the presence of small enemy units or individual infiltrators had not been ruled out. If orders were going to be violated, I decided I should be the one to violate them. So I got a driver and another man for security, and, despite a spooky trip, we delivered the documents to group headquarters without incident.

The next morning, my lieutenants and I drove into town to clean up. Our usual route took us on a dirt road that ran between the ASP and the back side of the airfield. As we passed the airfield, we gained a greater appreciation of how widespread the VC attacks really were and how safe Vung Tau was. Just about every square inch of space on the airfield was occupied by some kind of airplane! It looked as if every C-130 transport and every helicopter in Vietnam had been flown down to Vung Tau for safekeeping. Within a few days, however, all the planes were gone. That's when I knew we had won the battle. The Army never would have risked moving all those planes if the situation had not stabilized.

Weeks of hard fighting and mopping up still lay ahead, and the ammo mission would continue to be intense, but the Tet offensive had been a military defeat for the enemy. Little did we know then what a political and propaganda victory they had achieved back home.

In early April 1968, five 122-millimeter rockets slammed into Vung Tau. One struck a barracks a few yards from the 148th, injuring several men in the adjacent unit. One hit just outside the ASP and threw up a lot of sand, but it did no damage. The other three hit the port, the airfield, and the town, killing several civilians and destroying one airplane. The rockets were fired from the same island in the bay we used for destroying unserviceable high explosives. A sweep of the island by South Vietnamese troops turned up nothing, so we continued to detonate material there. But we took more care with security from then on.

The story of the 148th Ordnance Company is not the story of larger-than-life men doing heroic deeds. Rather, it's about ordinary soldiers at the small unit level going to extraordinary lengths to support the war effort. The unit's work was hard and its triumphs relatively small, but it is the cumulative effort of many small units like the 148th, working hard and accomplishing missions, that enables our Army to do great deeds.

The citation accompanying the first award of the Meritorious Unit Commendation to the 148th records the facts, if not the tension and frantic pace of the effort. It summarizes the unit's contributions as well as I could—

The 148th Ordnance Company (Ammunition) distinguished itself in support of military operations in the Republic of Vietnam during the period 1 April 1967 to 30 April 1968. Demonstrating professional competence and determination, the company's members accomplished their vital mission of providing ammunition support to the entire IV Corps Tactical Zone, part of the III Corps Tactical Zone and the Vung Tau Special Zone in a truly outstanding manner. They effectively handled more than 240,000 short tons of ammunition, overcoming numerous difficulties in order to ensure that there was never a serious ammunition shortage in their area of responsibility. While operating the ammunition supply point at Dong Tam, members of the 148th Ordnance Company (Ammunition) were continually exposed to enemy rocket and mortar attack, but suffered no reduction in efficiency or mission output. Their singular performance during the enemy's TET offensive reflected accurately upon their technical proficiency and perseverance. During the weeks following TET, the men handled more than twenty-seven thousand tons of ammunition, responding flawlessly to four emergency resupply demands, one tactical emergency and thirty-one combat essential resupply demands. Because of their willingness to work long and arduous hours, no requests went unfilled. Through their initiative, resourcefulness and dedication, the company's men contributed immeasurably to the United States effort in the Republic of Vietnam. The remarkable proficiency and devotion to duty displayed by the members of the 148th Ordnance Company (Ammunition) are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect distinct credit upon themselves and the Armed Forces of the United States.

Brigadier General Richard F. Allen, USAR (Ret.), is the Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army for Alabama.