Sept 9, 1965
Franco Sketch

All Ride Shotgun on Highway 19

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Enquirer Military Writer Charles Black has reached Ankhe, the Viet Nam encampment area for Fort Benning the 1st Cavalry Division now en route to the overseas assignment. His series of articles on the Fort Benning unit will continue as he moves with the division to give a first hand account of its activities.)

Enquirer Military Writer

ANKHE - CWO Mike Lowe is a leathery-faced, humorous Army veteran who for almost a year has been adviser to the Vietnamese Army engineer battalion responsible for maintaining Highway 19 between Qui Nhon on the coast and Ankhe, a primitive little village in the highlands about 50 miles from the sea.

The highway is the supply link between the sea and Pleiku and until a few weeks ago had been cut by the Viet Cong. When it was wrested from the Communist guerrillas and hard-core battalions in the area, it was considered a great strategic and psychological victory for Viet Nam and the U. S.

It has assumed new importance because it will be the main line between the 1st Cavalry Division's headquarters base at Ankhe and because it represents one of the major tasks of the division. If it is kept open, the Viet Cong's main strength in the area - the 325th Regiment and three hard-core battalions believed operating here - will have lost the prize of a strategy aimed at cutting Viet Nam in two.

I met Lowe at the headquarters of the 92nd Aviation Company, said goodbye to the pilots and NCOs of that unit from the back seat of a heavily sandbagged jeep, and was introduced by the warrant officer to another engineer adviser, Capt. Emmit Ledbetter.

The highway had been black-topped just before the Viet Cong succeeded in cutting it but Lowe said it was only a 2½-inch coating and that “...keeping it repaired when these big convoys commence really rolling is going to be a huge job.”

The usual stream of black-pajamaed men and women went along each side of the two-lane highway between Qui Nhon and Binh Dinh, 10 miles north. Until the advent of Americans in force, Binh Dinh was a place where any jeep could be a target for an electrically detonated mine or a sniper.

“Ten miles from Qui Nhon and you were in trouble land. Now we figure we can go on hair trigger when we get out of Binh Dinh. We own the road and we are running the country around it, but Victor Charlie (VC) is a real sneaky customer,” Lowe said.

Lowe drove the jeep with a carbine in his lap, Capt. Ledbetter kept his pointed in the other direction with his eyes on the other side of the road and Lowe explained the rules of reconnaissance on Highway 19.

“Everybody is a shotgunner. Put a round in the chamber and watch behind us. If somebody whips a round on us, pour it back and leave the driving to me,” Lowe said.

It is the custom of the country that all people “out in the area” are provided with defensive armament and it is comforting to the cavalrymen.

“The niceties of the situation over here are lost on the Viet Cong, so if we go out, we expect every one aboard to ride shotgun. We keep some spare carbines around for that,” Capt. Ledbetter said as he handed me one and some clips.

We rode east out of Binh Dinh up a valley where rice paddies were green and peasants in coolie hats were working in knee-deep paddy mud on both sides of the road. There were huts scattered on high patches of ground and little villages kept popping up. The road began showing the sign of VC depredation quickly. The blacktop was marked with sand strips where ditches had been filled in by the engineers.

"I know this road from side to side and about three feet down, you might say. They had just plain wrecked it when they got control of it," Lowe said.

Viet Cong Handiwork

Some Viet Cong handiwork came up a few miles from Binh Dinh at a river. Lowe stopped and let me get a look. It was exactly what I had seen on Route 14 outside of Ban Me Thuot a few days earlier. Explosives had smashed the two bank spans and had dumped the entire concrete bridge into the river. A steel Bailey bridge had been laid in place and a cut-off road built. There was a group of soldiers wearing the screaming eagle patch of the 101st Airborne Division in defense around the bridge, mostly with their shirts off. I saw four or five of them doing their laundry upstream from the bridge.

We went over three more bridges like that. At the last one before we got into a flat, muddy valley which lies at the foot of the towering hill which is the last barrier between the coastal lowlands and the plateau country, the bridge demolition teams of the Viet Cong had done themselves especially proud. Lowe stopped the jeep again here and we walked under the Bailey bridge on the shattered slab of the concrete span which the VC had dropped into a fast moving stream.

The slab of the bridge had bent in the middle but was otherwise intact, the water gurgled under either side There were the remnants of the twisted beams of a Bailey bridge installed by the engineers littering the span and visible under the water.

How It Happened

“I got rather war-torn on this one. They blew the concrete bridge and we fixed it. Then they blew it again, rather permanently. We whipped a prefabricated Bailey bridge on them. Then they took control of the road and they blew up the Bailey bridge. We took it back and we put in this Bailey. They overran the security, it was Arvin then, and they burned the planks on the floor. Now we have it back. I hope to heck I don't have to fix this one again, I'm tired of it. I just have 22 days left to do and I'd rather spend them doing something else,” Lowe said.

He went under the bridge, testing steel connecting rods and eyeing a piling in the center, talked with a Vietnamese officer and then drove the jeep up to where a member of an American engineer company was using a truck.

“Son, I hate to tell you, but the bypass road is going to wash out. You haven't got enough culvert under it for the water. The monsoon is coming and I’ve seen water in here over your head,” Mike said with the fatherly air elderly warrant officers sometimes use with young second lieutenants.

Truck Wreckage Found

I left them in a technical discussion about culverts and went to look at a grim pile of rusty, torn metal in the elephant grass 50 yards from the bridge. It was a 2½-ton truck of the kind used in Vietnamese convoys. The truck was a rusted hulk of shattered metal, victim of a mine explosion.

“They bury a 105mm artillery shell in the road and they use a battery and wire. When a convoy comes they zap the lead and end and loot the others after they overrun the people. They lost a convoy here just before the VC took over the area. That was probably the lead vehicle. It hasn't been policed up yet,” Lowe said.

The explosives job was artistic, as all of the eight blown bridges had been. Lowe showed me where the explosives were applied and made technical comments.

Don't Waste Explosives

"They don't waste it. They go to a good school. They dump the span right from the bank land piers. We put in the Bailey and if they have good control of the area they just burn the planks. That lets the peasants walk along the edge. If they think we're going to push them out, they dump the whole bridge. It has been quite a war up here on 19. I am sure glad to see us securing the route. It may make it easier on the next engineer,” Lowe said.

He got back into the jeep and ran down the road to Banh Khe, a village just before the valley which led up to the Ankhe pass.

“I heard about that run you and Wilson made through here," said Capt. Ledbetter, a visiting expert from Qui Nhon Support Command which has been here 10 months.

“He’s talking about Roy Wilson. We came barreling through here about 45 knots an hour and some guy shot at us. I looked and there was Viet Cong flag flying from the pole in front of the city hall. They had occupied the thing. Wilson cut loose and hollered ‘Scat, damn it, scat!’ You think I didn’t scat? They cut up the lead vehicle behind us. We just barrelled right on up to the Special Forces Camp at Ankhe by ourselves. Hairiest day of my life,” Lowe said.

The hairy day had come just four months ago and the Vietnamese children waved at us and shouted "Cha Ong My," as we went through. (Hello, Mr. American.)

We went through without any other incident. A beautiful valley filled with rice paddies rolled by the side of the jeep and then the sight of a big American camp on the left of a deserted village made me think of any day in any boondocks on any maneuver except the men here had live ammunition.

"That is Task Force Panther, the only outfit like it in Viet Nam. It is made up of 101st Airborne, 327th Engineers and First Infantry Division people. The cavalry troops and reconnaissance platoons have all been pulled together into a real whippy strike force and they are operating here to secure the pass. End of the line, 45 uneventful miles and they could have been fatal. Those guys will get you over the pass to Ankhe, up where your buddies in the First Air Cavalry are clearing brush,” Lowe said.

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