Convoy Mission Overview ~ Vietnam
~ 720th Military Police Battalion Reunion Association ~ Vietnam History Project ~
This Page Last Updated   24 April 2008

"Establishing a routine in the field will get you killed quicker that anything else."
SFC Richard L. DeHart, B Company, 720th MP Battalion, 1967-1968.

18th Bde.

     In a guerilla war with no front lines the enemy hides and observes what you do and capitalizes on your weaknesses. With limited resources the guerilla fighter strikes only when he believes it is to his advantage: when and where he can inflict the most damage and casualties; and only when he can obtain his intended goal with limited losses of men and material to his side.

     With this kind of approach to war the daily convoy supply runs that were always, routine, exposed, slow and cumbersome, became one of his favorite targets of opportunity. Unfortunately for the truckers and MPs who had to work the convoy runs there was no way to eliminate the predictability they presented. The supplies of ammunition, food, fuel and spare parts were needed to carry on the missions, and daily convoy were a critical necessity.

     When I first arrived in Vietnam my platoon sergeant, SFC (MSG Ret.) Richard L. DeHart, told me that the one thing you should never do when working in the field in Vietnam was to establish a routine. He said that it would get you killed quicker than anything else. In reflecting on my tour and what happened to me and those around me, I would said it was the best piece of advise he could have given me. I never worked the convoys but I gained a healthy respect for those MPs and truckers that did. Especially the MPs that would go out every day and night on the roadways of Vietnam, regardless of the weather and road conditions, crawling along at slow speeds with the MP logos prominently displayed on their jeeps, looking like shooting gallery targets.

CPL Thomas T. Watson, Squad Leader, Ambush team #76, B Company, 720th MP Battalion, 89th MP Group, 18th MP Brigade, Vietnam, March 1968 to March 1969.

The Supply Convoy ~ Lifeblood of the Military

     The importance of convoys providing critical supplies in relationship to military engagements could not be more eloquently described than it was over 100 years ago by a young British Army officer. The year was 1900, the battle was the Reconquest of the Sudan, and the young officer was Winston Churchill. His book of the conflict, The River War, first published in 1900, contains this passage....

     “In a tale of war the reader’s mind is filled with the fighting. The battle-with its vivid scenes, its moving incidents, its plain and tremendous results-excites the imagination and command attention.... The long trailing line of of communications is unnoticed.... Victory is the beautiful, bright colored flower. Transport [convoy] is the stem without which it could never have blossomed."

     Although his passage refers to the railway transport of supplies during the Sudanese War, the point he makes could not be missed. Without logistical [supplies] support, which is the lifeblood of any military operation, the war machine would quickly grind to a halt. Churchill’s book dealt with a desert war that took place just before the turn of the 19th century. Vietnam, even with the modern technological advances of 100 years, would present much more of a challenge to logistical supply.

     Vietnam was the first war in which rear areas were exposed to actions similar to those of combat units on a daily basis. The Vietnam War was the first, modern, nonlinear battlefield for the United States military.

     In addition to the usual problems of conducting combat operations, the deployment of US forces to Southeast Asia in the 1960's and early 1970's required superimposing the sophisticated tasks of a modern Army upon an underdeveloped environment and adapting the tasks to the demands of a wide spectrum of conflict. These demands included helping fulfill the basic needs of the agrarian population, the frustrations of dealing with an entrenched, well-organized Viet Cong insurgency, and conducting conventional campaigns against well-trained, well armed and determined North Vietnamese Army regular forces who could retreat to hidden sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia that were off limits to allied forces..

     Mission, enemy, terrain, troops and time available (METT-T) and the supported unit commanders requirements dictated how units were supported. As the war progressed, combat arms units with greater mobility (air cavalry, airmobile infantry, and light artillery) were often supplied entirely by air. Combat forces that moved less frequently were generally supplied by air on initial occupation of a fire base and later by ground, if roads were available and could be cleared of mines and secured.

The Early Years of Convoy Escort In Vietnam

     During the early years of the war, military, and civilian contract logisticians were kept busy delivering supplies and ammunition to combat arms units and providing the required maintenance and security support. During this time and continuing on into the later years the preferred method of supplying combat forces was ground convoy, augmented by aviation support, when available.

     More economical and dependable, ground convoys could move more supplies at one time than fixed wing aircraft, and helicopters. In the pre-buildup years most convoys had to provide their own escort and route security or rely on the ARVN (South Vietnamese Army). With the number of logistical support vehicles already limited, the commanders would have to convert many of their vehicles into armed escort vehicles, reducing those trucks available for hauling the much needed supplies.

     The organic armed vehicles were better know as “Gun Trucks.” Since the fist rule of convoy is to never stop in the kill zone during an ambush, equipping your drivers and their companions with anything but a standard rifle would be futile.
     Thus before the days of coordinated combined air and ground security escorts, the “Gun Trucks,” usually armed with quad (4) 50 caliber machine guns, were your only readily available insurance. That is unless an armored unit was available in your area to provide a tank or several APC's (armored personnel carriers). Remember, in those early days before the U.S. and allied buildup, armored units and fire support bases were far few and in between and it was lonely out on the roadway... especially at night.
Addressing the Convoy Security Concerns

     Since it was determined that truck convoys were the most efficient way of moving thousands of tons of cargo to combat troops and bases daily. Road travel was always hazardous and strict precautions had to be taken to ensure the safety of each convoy so that vital food, ammunition and other supplies got to their destination safely.

     Not all convoys were escorted by Military Police units. In the early years of the force buildup Military Police units were scarce and those that were in the theater were spread thin. As more MP units arrived convoy escort became a very large part of their overall mission. By 1966 most large scale convoys, those from the major ports and logistical supply bases to the main combat bases, were escorted by MP units. Security for further ground transport and distribution of logistical materials from the main combat and support bases to their outlying fire bases and detachments fell upon the divisional MP's when available, or the units themselves provided the needed organic escorts.

The Perfect Convoy ?

The perfect convoy would have... a 20 truck limit; radio communication in each truck and escort vehicle; an allied outpost at each bridge; road shoulders cleared of jungle for 100 meters on each side; engineer mine sweep teams just ahead of the convoy; route security by allied units posted along the entire length; allied fire bases for artillery support within reach along the entire length; armored and infantry reaction forces within minutes response time; full gunship air cover; armored cavalry escorts; clear and dry weather on paved roads; daylight operations only....

.... only in your dreams! In Vietnam you would consider yourself damn lucky if you were able to put together any two of the above choices during your convoy escort run.

Escort Concerns... The View of the MP

There were three primary concerns as an MP riding escort on a convoy.

First... The threat of ambush. This threat was first and foremost because it was the job of the MP to rush into the enemy “kill zone,” confront the attacking enemy positions by pouring heavy fire into them to suppress their firing to allow the convoy supply vehicles to pass through safely.

     The enemy would build a roadblock or target several large trucks to block the roadway and stop the convoy. They then targeted the MP gun jeeps and convoy command jeeps to eliminate their ready firepower and radios. This wasn't very hard to do because the MP jeeps were all clearly marked and the command jeeps also had the long whip antennas. The antenna's marked them as priority targets. This would lessen the MP escorts ability to suppress enemy fire, and hamper their coordination and communications ability with the reaction forces and artillery support on standby to assist them. With MP escorts eliminated the enemy attackers could then close in on and destroy more critical [fuel and ammunition] supply vehicles.

Second... "Land Mines!” There was no defense against a land mine except a sharp eye and lady luck. Your only hope was that if they were there, that they would be run over by someone else in a heavier and larger vehicle like a truck, rather than a small gun jeep... or you drove over them fast enough that you would be out of the cone of the explosion.

     Land mines were equal opportunity killers. Since very few were command detonated, they never discriminated between U.S. and Vietnamese vehicles. Whoever was unfortunate enough to get to the land mine first suffered its wrath.
     Most major allied military convoys were restricted until road clearing operations permitted them to continue on. Unfortunately Vietnamese civilian vehicles were not. With the local rural Vietnamese economy running on the motto "first come first sold," the civilian vehicles regularly put being first over safety, and often paid the price with their lives.
Third... Not to be behind one of those large “fuel laden tank trucks” when it was hit by an enemy armored piercing rocket propelled grenade (RPG). Several thousand gallons of burning gasoline or jet fuel would turn the highway into the entrance to hell.
Escort Concerns... The View of the Truck Driver

     The convoy truck drivers and their shotgun riding helpers also had three primary concerns. Some may disagree with the order but none the less, they were definitely primary concerns.

First... Being the driver of a “large fuel tanker or fire cracker,” which seemed to be the enemies favorite vehicle to shoot at with rocket propelled grenades (RPG’s). The exploding fuel tank and its burning cargo would block both lanes of any roadway stopping the other vehicles in their tracks for the kill. The fuel tankers would create an instant inferno unlike an ammunition truck that would burn then cook off the cargo with secondary explosions.

Second... Having whatever truck you were in become disabled in the kill zone of an ambush. No matter what your truck carried, you couldn’t hide anywhere but under it and there was nowhere to run. Who wants to hide under a truck load of gasoline or bombs.

Third... Driving over a “land mine,” no matter how big your truck was. Truck drivers always hoped that the lead MP “Scout” jeep would find the land mines the engineers missed, before their truck did.

Road Mine Security Precautions
        In Vietnam, three techniques were used for road mine clearing for convoys, unfortunately not all the time. Not because they didn’t want to, but because resources and time did not always allow for it. They were: the deliberate sweep; hasty sweep; mine reconnaissance.

1-Deliberate Sweep could clear a route at the rate of .25 kilometers (km) per hour with a company team of infantry. Typical task organization for a deliberate sweep was an infantry company with an attached mine roller-equipped tank platoon, an engineer platoon, supported by preplanned artillery and attack helicopters.

2-Hasty Sweep was an alternative conducted daily before the beginning of convoy operations when it was urgent that traffic use the road. Mine detector operators walked at a normal pace, sweeping back and forth. The hasty sweep would cover one to three kilometers per hour.

3-Mine Reconnaissance (most common) was used in place of a hasty sweep in some situations. Before opening the supply route to daily traffic, an engineer team would drive over the route, looking for any visual evidence of mining activity on the road. This team would thoroughly sweep any suspicious areas and would cover approximately 15 km per hour. All three techniques were used with varying degrees of success throughout the Vietnam war.

Types of Convoy Security Operations

1-Route Security force operates on the two sides of a designated roadway. The security operations are defensive in nature and unlike guard operations [fixed or static positions], are terrain oriented. A route security force conducts moving reconnaissance, sets up screens in high risk enemy areas, attacks enemy observed in the area, defends convoys under attack, and occupies key locations along the route to prevent an enemy force from impeding, harassing, containing, seizing, or destroying civilian or military convoy traffic along the roadway.

2-Area Security operations are conducted to deny the enemy the ability to influence friendly actions in a specific area or to deny the enemy use of an area for his own purpose. This may involve occupying and securing an area before the enemy can, or taking actions to destroy the enemy forces already present in the area.

3-Convoy Security operations are conducted when insufficient friendly forces are available to continuously secure a roadway in an area of operations. They may also be conducted combined with roadway security operations. A convoy security force operates to the front, sides, and rear of a convoy moving along a designated roadway. Convoy security operations are offensive in nature and center on the convoy being protected.

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