The Gun Trucks of Vietnam: How US soldiers transformed cargo vehicles into fighting machines
"For years and years and years people just thought truck driving was driving a truck," said Sammy Seay, a US Army veteran who helped build the Ace of Spades gun truck. "Well normally it is. Not in Vietnam."
On Sept. 2, 1967, 37 cargo trucks from the 8th Transportation Group carried aviation fuel on a supply run from Pleiku through "Ambush Alley" to reach An Khe. While en route, the lead vehicle was disabled and the rest were trapped in the kill zone. The Viet Cong staged a coordinated ambush with land mines, hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and AK-47 rifle fire. The unprepared and largely unarmed force was quickly overwhelmed. In a span of not more than 10 minutes, 31 vehicles were disabled or destroyed and seven American truck drivers were killed.
Truck drivers in Vietnam realized if they were going to return home alive, they needed to upgrade their firepower. The soldiers of the 8th Transport Group who drove in vehicle convoys took readily available deuce-and-a-half cargo trucks and added twin M60 machine guns to create makeshift gun trucks. The back where the troops were typically transported got a gun box, and others carried M79 grenade launchers and M16 rifles.
The Red Baron gun truck seen equipped with an M134 minigun. Photo courtesy of the US Army Transportation Association.
"The transportation companies became rolling combat units because they ran through the combat zone every day," Seay said.
Formerly green cargo trucks were painted black for intimidation and given names painted in big, bold letters on the side. The names were inspired by the pop culture of the time: Canned Heat. The Misfits. King Cobra. The Untouchables. Snoopy. Hallucination. The Piece Maker.
The dirt and paved roads they traveled on were filled with potholes and land mines. Early on, the two-and-a-half-ton cargo trucks had mechanical problems, and within a handful of months they switched to using five-ton trucks. The wooden two-by-fours and sandbags that had initially protected the gunners from incoming bullets and shrapnel were replaced with steel-plated armor.
"There wasn't a gun truck in Vietnam that was authorized by the Army," said Stephen M. Peters, who provided convoy and nighttime security on the gun truck called Brutus during a tour in 1969. "But all of the brass knew we had them."
Gun trucks in Vietnam had their own identities, colorfully painted on black. Pictured are Brutus and Lil' Brutus. Photo courtesy of the 359th Transport Company Association.
The gun truckers were resourceful, scrounging for spare parts, materials, and weapons. The majority of their upgrades came from the Air Force and other service members in Vietnam, looking out for fellow Americans in need. "If a VC was hiding behind a tree and we had an M60, we could pepper the tree and hope he'd step out sooner or later and hit him," Roger Blink, the driver of the gun truck Brutus, told the Smithsonian Channel. "With a M2 .50-caliber machine gun we simply cut the tree down."
The M60s and the M2 Browning machine guns were certainly an asset, because without them, the convoys wouldn't stand a chance. The real game changer came in form of their acquisition through back-end deals of the M134 minigun. The Piece Maker gun truck crew salvaged a minigun from aviation maintenance along with several boxes of ammo; Brutus' crew stole a minigun off one of the Hueys on an airbase.
The dust, the monsoons, and the firefights were relentless. On Feb. 23, 1971, a convoy with three gun trucks was ambushed by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in An Khe. "On the way in, an NVA jumped up in a ditch and fired a B40 rocket right at me," recalled Walter Deeks, who was driving the Playboys gun truck. "It looked about the size of a softball, and it was just a flame you could hear crackling, like a rocket."
The Misfits gun truck in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of the 359th Transport Company Association.
A tank, helicopters, and other gun trucks responded as quick-reaction forces in support.
Specialist 4th Class Larry Dahl, assigned to the 359th Transportation Company, was a gunner on Brutus. Dahl let loose his minigun on several NVA positions, then there was silence. Dahl and another member of the crew worked to get the minigun back into the action. The gunfight raged on until an enemy hand grenade was tossed in the back and plopped into the gun box where Dahl was standing. He made a split-second decision and hurled his body on top of the grenade before warning his teammates of the danger. He sacrificed his life for his fellow gun truckers and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
"Every crew was proud of their truck," said Deeks. "And you loved those guys like brothers. It was a very close camaraderie."
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