Vietnam: An Ammo Advisor’s Memoir
By Charlie Cutshaw
“Welcome to Saigon and Tan Son Nhut Air Base. We will reach the terminal area in a few minutes. Before you leave your seat, please pull down the window shade, so the interior of the aircraft doesn’t overheat while we are on the ground.” Well, I thought as the plane taxied towards the terminal, THAT is an indication of how hot it gets here. What I was unprepared for was just how hot it really was when I stepped out of the cool interior of the 707 into the January Saigon heat. It felt like a steam bath. We had just spent 19 hours on the plane flying from Hawaii with a short two-hour stopover in Manila for refueling. My khakis, already rumpled from so many hours on a cramped aircraft, immediately began to wilt into a damp mass of wrinkles as we walked to the buses for transportation to MACV Headquarters. I noted that the buses lacked air conditioning, but had wire mesh over the open windows to prevent grenades from being thrown through them. Welcome to the war.
I was a former infantry officer, transferred against my will into ordnance when I applied for a regular army commission. I’d hated ordnance from the start and considered the vast majority of ordnance officers to be little more than bureaucrats in uniform. The sole exception was the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) branch of ordnance, all of whose personnel generally had an outlook like mine. I was to again be disappointed when my application for EOD was turned down due to my rare form of color blindness - both blue green and to some extent red - orange. Although disappointed, I understood that it would probably be a matter of cosmic proportions to cut the red wire instead of the green one. I thus wound up first in nuclear weapons and then, when orders for Vietnam came down, conventional ammunition. Due to my extensive level of training in “nukes” I had travel and assignment restrictions while I was operations officer and later commander of a nuclear weapons company in Germany. These were immediately waived when the need for more fresh meat for the Vietnam grinder was necessary.
When I returned from Germany in mid-1968 I’d been sent to Fort Lee, Virginia for a two month long course in military logistics and then two more weeks studying state of the art computers. This was to prepare me for my ultimate assignment at MACV HQ as a logistics management officer. I had visions of working in air-conditioned comfort rather than sweating in the field. Alas, it was not to be. I made the mistake of contracting pneumonia while on leave prior to my departure for “The Promised Land.” This gross error landed me in Redstone Arsenal Military Hospital for nearly six weeks and then another month of convalescent leave in addition to my authorized 30-day leave enroute to Vietnam. I was told that the pneumonia had almost killed me. The net result was my chances for pulling my tour in Vietnam as a “Saigon Warrior” falling to zero.
Upon my arrival at MACV HQ for in-processing, I was channeled over to a Warrant Officer in charge of officer personnel assignments, who briefly examined my records and then said, well Dai-Uy (Vietnamese for captain.), guess you’re going “up country.” That meant that I was headed north, up into II or III Corps Tactical Zones (CTZ) as an advisor. (Saigon was in IV CTZ.) The warrant told me that there was an ammo advisor slot open on Advisory Team 8, based in Qui Nhon. I asked about the logistics assignment I’d been promised, but he just shrugged - they’d already filled that one with some other warm body. So I was off to the “real” war. I drew my gear — jungle fatigues, boonie hat, field equipment and finally, my M16A1. As I signed the receipt for the rifle, the young Specialist 5 (SP5) behind the counter handed me the rifle and said, “Don’t bet the farm on this thing, Dai-Uy.” “Yeah, I already heard back in CONUS,” I replied.
I spent the night on a cot in an officer barracks and the next morning hopped a C-130 headed for Qui Nhon. Qui Nhon is a seacoast city and at the time I arrived in late January 1969 was one of the Army’s major Vietnam ports. Yes, Army. The Army Transportation Corps runs port facilities. Vast quantities of war materials passed through Qui Nhon each day, destined for US, Vietnamese and Korean combat units which included the US 4th Infantry Division based in Pleiku, the 173rd Airborne Brigade at An Khe, the Vietnamese (RVN) 22nd Infantry Division and 46th Regiment. Also operating in our area of operations (AO) in the II CTZ was the Korean (ROK) “Tiger” Division. The latter division was one of the toughest and most capable in Vietnam and along with its sister “Capital Division” in III CTZ, had a reputation for sheer brutality and ruthlessness that made LT Calley’s atrocities pale to insignificance in comparison. If the Koreans drew fire from a village, the village was destroyed - as simple as that. Every man, woman and child was killed and the village burned to the ground. I witnessed the results of a couple of ROK massacres and it was pretty grim, but their operations were the essence of guerrilla war - no quarter given or asked. Of course, the media never reported this. If the US reporters had “blown the whistle on the ROKs, whoever did it would have been a “casualty” the next time they accompanied the ROKs in the field. NOBODY gave the ROKs any crap!
Qui Nhon would have been a beautiful city in peacetime, but the war had taken its toll. When I arrived, Qui Nhon was still showing the effects of war and in fact was never repaired during my tour of duty. It had been a major target during Tet ’68 and many of the buildings had yet to be repaired when I arrived nearly a year later. The city was also overrun with refugees from the countryside, where American, Korean, and RVN forces operated and battled it out against Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese over who was to ultimately possess the “turf” in question. As a result, many villages had been destroyed or their inhabitants relocated. The abject poverty and crude hovels in which these people lived has to be seen to be understood. What passed for peasant houses in the wartime destruction generally consisted of hovels made from the detritus of war — corrugated steel sheets, plastic, pierced steel planking (PSP), scrap plywood and just about anything else that could be scrounged or stolen. There were few toilet facilities for the lowest classes. Most of the refugees relieved themselves into the surf at “Shit Beach,” so-called by the Americans because that was what the Vietnamese peasants did there in full public view from the heavily traveled road that ran nearby. Children stood alongside the streets and roads used most by the American Military, waiting for the inevitable traffic backup that would give them a chance to beg for food and small change from Americans. No Oriental gave these kids the time of day - only the American GIs gave them handouts. Dozens of peasants also waited at the American trash dump just outside town. They literally fought over the garbage thrown off the back of American trucks. Americans particularly didn’t like to stop in heavily crowded areas of town, because one never knew when a VC would toss a grenade into the jeep or truck you were driving. Of course, one never left a vehicle unattended - not if one wished to see the next day. Unattended vehicles of any type were fair game for VC. The usual method of sabotage was a grenade of some sort, rigged in any one of several ways to explode when the vehicle was moved. Another method was a grenade with the pin pulled, the safety lever taped over and dropped in the gas tank. The gas would eventually dissolve the tape and release the lever, but the vehicle might be unattended when the explosion occurred. You just never knew.... As one wag pointed out, just doing nothing could get you killed.
Within a day or so of my arrival, I ran into an old infantry special forces friend who was headed home, but who still had his “Swedish K” (Carl Gustav) 9mm Submachine gun. The Swedish K was widely used in RVN by CIA types and by Special Forces. Usually, accountability for these very desirable weapons had long ago been lost and they were sold or passed on to someone else by departing operators. In my case, I bought the weapon from my old bud for the princely sum of $50. The price included ten magazines and a couple thousand rounds of ammo. Since I was in the ammo business, 9mm ammo was not a problem. Unlike the M16A1, the Swedish K was utterly reliable and very effective for short-range engagements. I later scrounged an M79 to use as my personal artillery for those rare instances when things went really bad. I also had a World War II vintage M1911A1. By the time I’d been “in country” for a couple of weeks, I was satisfied about my personal defense weaponry. When I processed out of Saigon a year after my arrival, I turned in my M16 unfired. It sat in a locker in my “hootch” for my entire tour.
Unlike the US “regular” troops in line units such as the 4th Infantry Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade, advisors, like special forces, generally armed themselves with whatever they pleased and were allowed a lot of latitude in uniform and equipment. Members of our advisory team carried a surprising variety of small arms. I had the only Swedish K on the team, but other submachine guns that team members chose included weapons ranging from German MP40s, French MAT-49s, US M3/M3A1 “Grease Guns,” and the occasional M1 Thompson. About half way through my tour, I swapped my Swedish K for one of the latter so that my pistol and “long gun” ammo matched. The Thompson was less popular than other weapons due to its weight, but that didn’t much bother me. (I’m 6’2” and was pretty “lean and mean” at the time.) There were several M2 carbines on the team, some with folding paratrooper stocks. Several of us, myself included, also had AK-47s or Chinese Type 56 assault rifles that we had taken from dead or wounded VC. We never used them operationally, as the AK has a distinct sound that tends to attract unwanted hostile attention from friendly forces, but we did shoot the weapons in our spare time to get a “feel” for them. Most of us were very favorably impressed with the AK’s reliability and ruggedness.
The reader will note that virtually nobody on these teams used his M16. We had a choice, and exercised it. Although the ammunition problem that led to the M16A1’s notorious lack of reliability had been solved by 1969, the rifle still had a universal bad name and few had any confidence in it. Some of the advisors who never got out into the field kept their M16s and armed themselves with the rifle during alerts, but none of us who traveled into “Indian country” used an M16 to the best of my recollection. The M16 took a lot of maintenance to keep it operating and most of us didn’t want to be bothered with it. My weapons never failed me, and all I gave them was a wipe-down and very light coat of oil on the working parts about three times a week. Northern II Corps, especially up in the Central Highlands was very dusty and oil becomes a “dust magnet” under such conditions.
My Vietnamese counterpart was commander of the ARVN 524th General Support Ammunition Depot, located just outside Qui Nhon. Adjacent was the ARVN 55th Base Depot. The 55th was the main depot through which all ammunition in Northern II Corps passed. There were three general support depots - one in Qui Nhon, one south of Qui Nhon in Tuy Hoa, and another in Pleiku up in the highlands. Each of the three depots was supposed to have an American captain as advisor, but there were only two captains, so the smallest depot, Tuy Hoa, had a sergeant. The advisor for the 55th was a US major, my boss, who was “Senior Ammunition Advisor” for the region. My ARVN counterpart, Major Nguyen Than Thanh, turned out to be one of the most competent and aggressive officers with whom I have ever had the pleasure to serve. Thanh was also a former infantry officer and we hit it off immediately. Unlike the other depot commanders, Thanh gathered his own intel on VC activities, found out when his depot was likely to be hit and then laid ambushes on the probable avenues of approach. We ran many such operations against the VC while I was with Thanh and killed enough of the enemy that I used to wonder why they just didn’t give it up. They never got through to our ammo depot as long as Thanh was in command. He would lay the dead bodies out alongside the road that ran by the depot gate the morning after and then wait to see who came to claim them. Needless to say, those who wanted to take the body for burial got a pretty thorough grilling. Proper burial is very important in the Vietnamese culture and even though the families of the dead VC knew that they were going to get a hard time, they inevitably came for the bodies. By the same token, the VC kept trying to hit us, almost certainly knowing that we were going to be waiting for them, but they always were driven off with severe casualties. Thanh was very aggressive in his pursuit of the VC.
The same cannot be said for the commander of the 55th Base Depot, which got hit during Tet 1969. The 55th started exploding at about midnight and kept on exploding for nearly 12 hours. The “next door” 524th went unscathed, except for a lot of unexploded ordnance lying about and holes in the corrugated steel sheet roofs that protected some of the sensitive ammo from the sun. Thanh had the place cleaned out and back into full operation within a week. Not so the 55th, which was being cleared at an agonizing slow pace. About six weeks after Tet, my boss took some fragments in his gluteus maximus (in the butt) and was medevaced to Japan. He told me as he was put onto the medevac chopper that he would not be back and that I was now senior ammo advisor. Swell.... The 524th was running fine, but was falling behind because of the lackadaisical commander of the 55th. Not only was the 524th having to do its work, but that of the 55th, as well. It was clear that my first order of business as senior advisor was to get the 55th up and running again. There were other problems, as well.
EOD operations are part of the ammunition branch of ordnance and EOD advisors came under my purview in our AO. I got hold of Tom, my senior EOD advisor, a Master Sergeant who had been in RVN since 1963, and we went out to survey the area. The ARVN EOD troops were supervising peasant laborers who were throwing unexploded, fuzed mortar bombs and 105mm shells up into the backs of trucks to be moved for demolition. After watching this for several minutes, we both just turned away in dismay and decided to think things through as to how to get the job done more efficiently and safely. We had no sooner turned the corner out of the 55th, than we herd the unmistakable “whumph” of a mortar round exploding. We went back to find one of the ARVN EOD NCOs lying on the ground minus his right arm, his right leg above the knee and his left leg below the knee. An 81mm mortar bomb had gone off in his hand. Amazingly, he was still conscious. The other ARVNs just stood there looking at him in stunned silence. Tom and I got the wounded ARVN some emergency first aid and the nearby 524th, efficient as ever, called in an ARVN medevac chopper to pick him up. He eventually died. The upshot was that clearing operations came to a standstill, as nobody would touch a single round of artillery or mortar ammunition. The lack of ammunition was beginning to affect the prosecution of the war in II CTZ, as most all ammunition, US included, passed through the 55th. My new boss, a crusty full colonel, made it clear that he was holding me personally responsible for clearing up the mess out there and getting the ARVNs off the dime.
I called in all my EOD advisors for an emergency meeting to discuss the problem, and in good NCO fashion, one of them came up with what sounded like the best solution. We Americans would all go out and start clearing the 55th. The ARVNs would see us, would lose beaucoup “face” because we were doing their job for them and would eventually come back to work. It took us about a week, but the ploy worked and once we showed the ARVN soldiers and the laborers how to safely handle much of the unexploded ordnance, things proceeded quickly. Some of the unexploded rounds, however, were so sensitive that we simply blew them in place. We got the 55th back in operation within about a month.
But that was not the end of our problems. Ammo is consumed in vast quantities in combat and any ammo unit worth its salt is not going to wait to be asked, but is going to “push” the needed ammo forward to the troops. This unfortunately means going out very close to the “pointy end of the stick” where the grunts live and die. The ARVN solution to forward delivery and offloading of ammunition was to drop the tailgate of the truck, get it up to about 20 mph in reverse and then hit the brakes, causing the entire load to slide off into a huge heap so they could “Di-Di” (get the hell away from there) as quickly as possible. Not only was this cowardly, but worse, damaged the ammunition. The ARVN drivers would not do this if the American advisors were present, though, so shortly after I became senior ammo advisor, I made it a policy that one of the officers, myself included, would be present at every forward ammo delivery. My guys had no problem with the policy, as they understood why it was necessary. The Boss wasn’t especially pleased at first, but saw that it was necessary and went along with it. At the beginning, though, he insisted that we travel with convoys. Not a good idea, I told him and explained why. He was unmoved, however, so we tried it. It didn’t take too long to convince him of the folly of convoy travel, and we soon went back to traveling alone. (See below.) There were a couple of craven officers on my team who railed at me for unnecessarily exposing my personnel to combat. My response was to ask them why the hell they were in the Army. We called these cowards “REMFs,” which stood for “Rear Echelon Mother —ers.” There was one ordnance (maintenance) major who was particularly obnoxious. I finally shut him up by telling him that if he weren’t such a “no balls” REMF, he’d accompany one of us out in the field sometime and see what the war was all about. He shut up, but never volunteered to go out on an ammo delivery mission.
Lest the reader think me rash or even somewhat heroic, I am far from it. Like most soldiers in Vietnam, I did what I had to do to get the mission accomplished. Also like most soldiers, I didn’t think too much about it at the time; we did what we thought to be the right thing under the circumstances. In Vietnam, traveling alone in an unmarked jeep with ARVN bumper numbers was just good sense. There was a price on the heads of advisors and groups of soldiers invited unwanted attention from the VC, so we almost always traveled alone - just like any other ARVN. At first blush, traveling with convoys (safety in numbers) may seem like a good idea, but convoys were a major VC target. The VC especially liked to hit convoys where QL (Hwy) 19 wound through the An Khe Pass and further up towards Pleiku at the Mang Yang Pass. The ravines at the bottom of these passes were littered with hundreds of trucks and other vehicles that didn’t make it. When a vehicle was hit, the only thing to do was push it off the road so others could pass. On one side of the road was a vertical cliff rising perhaps 200 feet. On the other was a sheer drop of approximately the same distance. No place to go but down.
In my mind the Transportation Corps drivers and their security are among the unsung heroes of the Vietnam war. Much has been written of long range reconnaissance patrols (LRRPS), SOG, Delta, green berets and other elite units, but the truck drivers faced a dedicated enemy bent on their destruction virtually every time they hit the road from Qui Nhon to Pleiku and from Pleiku to Kontum and points north. The “gun trucks” that these units used for convoy security are themselves a testimonial to the ingenuity of the American GI. Moreover, those guys drove that road two or three times a week, knowing full well that they were probably going to get hit with no place to hide. And those 2 1/2 and five ton trucks make very large targets. The first and only time I ever traveled with a convoy per my orders, it got hit and I swore that if I got out of that mess, I’d never do it again! Later, the Boss had a similar experience while traveling with a convoy and learned the hard way why that was a very bad idea. But those young GIs who drove the trucks had no choice; it was their job day in and day out they were very close to sitting ducks as the trucks ground their way up the switchbacks in the passes.
As I look back over this narrative, I note that I have rambled a bit and perhaps have gone on for far too long, but it turned out to be one of things where one experience led to another thought process. In truth, I could tell many other tales of “my war.” I could talk about the Leper Colony, “12 Mile Island” just offshore from Qui Nhon that had one of the most beautiful reefs and crystal clear water I have ever seen. I might relate my experiences with a 12-man Australian Special Forces team up in the highlands that received an entire CONEX container of Victoria Bitter Beer each month. (Not even the Aussies could drink that much!) I could tell you about our work with the Montagnards (“Yards” as we called them, who were collectively some of the bravest people I ever saw.) There was the local Qui Nhon CIA Station Chief, who had been an advisor to Ho Chi Minh during World War II. Another memory is the hitchhiking LRRP sergeant I picked up at Kontum one day who told me that I was “... crazy” to be driving up and down the roads by myself. Then there was the local SEAL detachment that scrounged CS powder from us to make coastal caves unusable by the VC. Those guys pulled my bacon out of a very nasty situation with the local Vietnamese cops one time. There was the New Zealand Surgical Team that saved many lives. I now realize that there was so much to tell about and so little space in which to do it. Maybe some day I’ll write a book...
I saw a lot of Northern II Corps during my tour, most of it on the ground, because my duty demanded it. I ranged down the coast as far south as Tuy Hoa and into the Central Highlands as far north as the Tri-Border Area where Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia come together. In writing this I have come to realize that my tour in Vietnam was an unusual, rewarding and perhaps interesting one because I was able to do and see so much that many others missed. I was never in a pitched battle, although I was caught in and initiated a couple of ambushes. Snipers also shot me at on a few occasions. Despite this, I do not consider myself to be a true combat veteran. There are too many real combat veterans out there for me to claim that honor. But I believe that I saw a side of the Vietnam War that few had the privilege of observing. In closing, I hope that this little narrative was an enjoyable “read” and that it conveys the flavor of what it was like to be an ammunition advisor in Vietnam so many years ago. I look at the calendar and realize that it now is over 30 years in the past, but to me and many others, Vietnam was the defining moment of our lives and even now seems as if it were just yesterday.
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To the Ammo Adviser
WRITE YOUR BOOK! We want to read it, you never know it might be used in Ordnance Ammo or EOD training as lessons learned. (but forgotten).
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