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The Heroic Efforts of the 'Gun Trucks of Vietnam' on Smithsonian
November 11, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 4 comments
 

The latest of Smithsonian’s documentaries on the Vietnam War contains its usual strong stories of the soldiers, with an undertone that’s anything but usual.

A Martian who came upon Gun Trucks of Vietnam, which premieres on Smithsonian Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, would never know that America ended up on the losing side of that war.

It’s not just that the outcome is never mentioned. The whole tone of the documentary has an almost celebratory aura, the kind we get in documentaries on World War II.

Where yes, war is hell, and there’s terrible suffering, but in the end, we acted bravely, our side won, and the world was better off.

That’s not exactly what happened with Vietnam.

In any case, Gun Trucks doesn’t set out to dissect the war. It aims to chronicle the ingenuity and courage of the soldiers who carried out one of the war’s least noted and most dangerous missions: riding shotgun, figuratively speaking, for the convoys that trucked food, fuel, and other critical materials to U.S. and South Vietnamese airplanes and helicopters.

The biggest military advantage the Americans brought to the war was air power. The enemy, meaning both the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, therefore made it a priority to disrupt the supply lines to the vehicles and their pilots.

Just as convoys of supply ships were accompanied by a ring of protective military vessels in World War II, supply convoys in Vietnam were escorted and protected by what became known as Gun Trucks.

These trucks had machine guns mounted in the rear, which was an effective deterrent to enemy attackers but also left the gunners vulnerable.

Because the Pentagon was deploying its vehicular technology elsewhere, the truck crews began designing improvements themselves.

They begged, borrowed or stole more powerful machine guns, and fortified the sides of the trucks with armor. They also painted the trucks black, a color that seemed more intimidating than standard camo, and gave each truck a name.

Brutus became legendary. So did Eve of Destruction, whose crew chief admits he didn’t realize it referred to an anti-war song. Others had names like King Kong, Big Kahuna, and Cold Sweat. Macho stuff for macho guys who drove macho machines.

Even the armor sometimes wasn’t enough. Jimmy Callison, a kid who was always smiling and laughing, was killed instantly when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded under the driver’s seat. Larry Dahl saw a grenade bouncing around in the back of a Gun Truck and threw himself on it to save his buddies. Several years later he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Because most of Gun Trucks wisely consists of veterans telling the story themselves, accompanied by footage shot on their trucks during the war, soldiers like Callison and Dahl are remembered with visceral and appropriate reverence.

Those who survived, some by almost miraculous luck, talk about how they reconfigured their trucks. Years later they passed those lessons to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, who faced similar challenges in transporting critical supplies.

What the Vietnam Gun Truckers learned about armor and strategy, soldiers say here, saved lives in the next war as well.

More than the creativity or the hell of battle, though, these veterans talk about the camaraderie they developed in their time on the trucks.

Among more than a dozen vets, several say it was the strongest sense of family they ever felt. More than one says it was the best time of his life and that leaving Vietnam, his buddies and his truck was one of the hardest things he ever had to do.

The various mini-reunions filmed for Gun Trucks of Vietnam could be reunions from a fraternity or a sports team that won a championship 50 years ago – except that these guys have literal war stories. The moments of sadness disappear under the memories of the bonding and those good times have become the takeaway.

Strange how people who have suffered together have stronger connections than those who are most content. – Bob Dylan.

Gun Trucks shines an interesting light on a small but fascinating corner of the Vietnam War. To these guys who fought it, the journey resonates far more deeply than the result.

 
 
 
 
 
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4 Comments
 
 
Bruce Bourget Sr.
This was a job that you had to Volunteer to be on a Guntruck, Glad I did, served on the King Cobra Guntruck 597th., trans. 8th Group out of Phutai, been to 3 Gatherings and I Have a Lot of Respect for Everyone and No Regrets.
Nov 22, 2018   |  Reply
 
 
VERY GOOD READING AND WE SURE APPRECIATE YOUR FEELING FOR US. RICH KILLBLANE AND CAPT MCORMICK ARE REALLY BRINGING OUR STORY TO THE PUBLIC. EMAIL ME IF YOU NEED ANY HELP, THATS MY GUNTRUCK SITE.
Nov 19, 2018   |  Reply
 
 
paul peterson
Driving a 5000 gal tanker was no joy to the nerve. But everytime a gun truck passed or followed. That was a relief. Got a reprimand for dressing my 5 ton tracker for safety. But for 66-67 survival persisted.
Nov 19, 2018   |  Reply
 
 
Wayne Dobos
This is a very accurate article, having been a NCIOC of the gun truck The Red Baron I can attest to it. We bonded with each other on those gun trucks and would ride through hell to help out the troops.
Nov 19, 2018   |  Reply
 
Robertgoebel
So true. 71 72 27th tc. sir Charles
Nov 19, 2018
 
 
 
 
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