Jungle Eaters & Rome Plow Companies
Just 20 miles north of Saigon, the ?Iron Triangle? was a near impenetrable guerrilla stronghold where the jungle protected a labyrinth of enemy staging areas and resupply points. Operation Cedar Falls, the first in a series of U.S. offensives in 1967, was about to violate this sanctuary.
After six infantry, armor and cavalry battalions sealed the 40-square-mile area on January 9, 1967, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (11th ACR) attacked west from Ben Cat. Engineers atop unusual-looking bulldozers rode alongside and sometimes preceded the cavalry troops. When the dozers formed into echelons and moved straight into jungle so thick that it could stop a tank without to much difficulty, the cavalrymen?s expressions quickly changed to astonishment.
The specially modified D7E bulldozers were known as Rome Plows, a name borrowed from the special shearing blades they carried.
The process that brought the plows to the Iron Triangle began in September 1965. Having observed the VC tactics for the past year, General William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (USMACV), told his staff to develop options for jungle-clearing to expose VC base camps and infiltration routes. Experience had shown that conventional infantry sweeps merely displaced the enemy temporarily. When the soldiers left, the VC returned. Clearing the jungle would remove the sanctuary. Unfortunately, there was no established doctrine or procedure for doing this.
The search ended when the Department of the Army recommended the Rome Plow, already in use in the United States to cut fire breaks. The system used a D7E, or equivalent heavy bulldozer, fitted with a reinforced cage to protect the operator while heavy tubular steel skeleton extended from the cage to the front of the dozer to shield the engine. The heart of the system, however, was a special oversized blade produced by the Rome Plow Company, originally located in Rome, Georgia, which later moved to Cedertown, Georgia where it remains in operation today.
Rome?s K/G blade was wider than the dozer, nearly as tall as a man, and weighed more than
2 ? tons. Mounted at a 30-degree angle to cast debris aside, the blade rode six inches above ground level to cut trunks but to leave root systems intact to prevent erosion. Besides its extremely sharp slicing edge, the spade curved more than the conventional earth-moving blade and a reinforced steel ?stinger? protruded from its left side. The driver used the stinger to weaken large trees by stabbing them repeatedly and twisting the tractor.
A REPRESENTATIVE FROM THE Rome Plow Company arrived in Saigon with the first six blades in late summer 1966. Units of the 45th and 159th engineer groups trained with the equipment and conducted operational test at Long Binh and Pleiku. Although weather, terrain and ground slope affected cutting, the plows cleared about six acres per hour.
As the number of plows in-country increased, they gained an outstanding reputation, and request soon overwhelmed capacity, everyone needed Rome Plow support. Before years end USMACV ordered 50 more plows.
Forty-five Rome Plows and nearly 500 conventional bulldozers supported Operation Cedar Falls, the two phase, two-division offensive. For three weeks while the cavalry scoured the area, plows destroyed the base camps, tunnels, supplies and VC training camps. Surprised and overwhelmed, the VC generally chose to run, but lost with 700 killed and more than 200 captured before they could disengage.
Cedar Falls provided the opportunity to develop ?dozer-infantry? tactics. The 1st Division and the 79th and 159th Engineer groups established control centers and several clearing teams that operated simultaneously in four separate zones. Each team used two Rome Plows, six bulldozers, and was supported by a platoon of infantry.
The joint teams discovered that the dismounted infantry was unable to keep up with the plows and thus could not provide the Engineers with effective fire support. Mounted infantry, it was discovered, could operate close to the plows and rush immediately to the front or flanks during and engagement. The personnel carriers also protected the infantry from falling trees, anti-personnel mines and snipers. Once dozer-infantry operations were standardized the use of mechanized security forces, casualties among Rome Plow operators from enemy action decreased significantly.
The second and larger phase of the offensive, Operation Junction City, began in War Zone C on February 22 and lasted until mid-April.
Rome Plow support for Junction City closely mimicked that provided during Operation Cedar Falls. The 65th Engineer Brigade conducted combat land-clearing operations, cleared landing zones and three C-130 capable airfields, and established two Special Forces base camps. Following the successful operation, Lt. Gen. Julian J. Ewell, later commander of II Field Force Vietnam (II FFORCEV), called the Rome Plow ?the most powerful tool we have in frustrating and defeating the Communists.?
The arrival of three Rome Plow platoons, or teams, during the summer of 1967 accelerated the rate of landclearing. Each team had one officer and warrant officer, 62 sergeants and enlisted men, and 30 plows. The newly formed 20th Engineer Brigade two of the teams to support the II Field Force. The remaining team went to the 18th Engineer Brigade supporting the I Field Force.
Cutting operations normally followed two-month cycles with 45 days in the field, followed by a 15-day maintenance stand-down. While cutting plows often ran 12 hours a day before retiring to night protective positions shared with security platoons. The base moved every five to seven days.
Tactics evolved throughout 1967. After planning between engineers and the support commander, the area to be cleared was usually prepped by artillery, mortars and tanks before cutting began. Plows and conventional dozers then formed in echelon formation and cut a perimeter around the working area. Keeping the lead plow on a correct course in the jungle was a problem until the teams incorporated radio contact between on orbiting helicopter and the lead plow.
With a defined perimeter protected by security forces, the helicopter departed and the Rome Plows cut concentric paths toward the center of the area. While they worked other bulldozers pushed the debris, or slash, aside so that the mounted infantry could maintain contact with the plows.
Rome Plows used three basic types of cuts: area, road and tactical. Area cuts were directed at known or suspected enemy locations, with the primary aim to expose guerrillas to observation and interdiction. After plows slashed broad swaths across infiltration routs, electronic sensors and aerial observation harassed the VC.
Road cuts eliminated likely ambush sites by clearing 100 to 300 meter tracts of jungle that ran close to highways. While less than exotic than other missions, road cuts were particularly important since they enabled commerce to increase and provide greater mobility to the larger truck-oriented Vietnamese Army. This method saw wide application in Military Region I in the north, where 75 percent of the cleared land became farms.
Lastly, Rome Plows used tactical cuts to support combat operations. This mission included clearing landing zones, base camps and security zones around villages and forts, and often involved elements of both area and road cuts. The tactical cut, not surprisingly, was the most hazardous operation for Rome Plow operators.
Although Engineers solved many problems during 1967, two significant impediments hindered land-clearing operations, natural obstacles and maintenance. In addition to snipers, mines, collapsed tunnels and hidden bomb craters, drivers faced the daily challenge of the jungle itself. Mahogany trees 200 feet tall fell on top of the tractors, branches penetrated protective cabs, and there was always mud or dust and temperatures that could exceed 130 degrees.
Then there were the snakes, insects and, worst of all, bees that often brought cutting to a halt. Many operators became causalities before crews discovered that green smoke helped disperse the swarms. Other varieties of smoke were ineffective. Bees produced one third greater number of casualties among Rome Plow units following mines and night mortar attacks.
USMACV reorganized the teams into land-clearing companies late in 1968, each with 163 men and a maintenance platoon. Despite this, operators still performed most in-field maintenance and showed a remarkable ability to keep the machines running. Their effectiveness resulted in the formation of the Army?s first land-clearing Battalion in January 1969, the 62nd Engineer Battalion (Land-Clearing). Based at Long Binh, the battalion absorbed the 27th and 86th land-clearing companies into the 60th and the 501st companies and formed a third dozer company, the 984th. The battalion also had an all-important heavy maintenance company. Assigned the mission to support II FFORCEV, the battalion allocated one company per combat division.
In I FFORCEV, the 18th Engineer Brigade organized its Rome Plows differently to deal with more restricted terrain and unreliable road network. Instead of a battalion, the 18th deployed one of its three land-clearing companies to each of its three engineer groups.
In mid-April 1970, Rome Plows led American and Vietnamese units into Cambodia. The dozers opened roads, cleared airfields and bases, and uncovered enemy camps and facilities on both sides of the border. When President Nixon ordered their withdrawal on June 30, Rome Plows had already cleared 1,700 acres of jungle, performed numerous mine-clearing operations, and destroyed more than 1,000 VC structures.
Meanwhile several land-clearing companies were standing down as the number of U.S. personnel in Vietnam decreased. As each company deactivated, its equipment went to a Vietnamese engineer unit.
?Vietnamization? of the land-clearing war had begun in January 1969 when USMACV commander General Creighton W. Abrams approved the buddy system to place ARVN units under U.S. sponsorship for Rome Plow training. The 62nd Engineer Battalion incorporated 75 members of the newly formed Vietnamese 318th Land-Clearing Company on December 15, 1969, for intensified, one-on-one training. Despite language and experience problems, the Vietnamese showed exceptional aptitude with the powerful bulldozers.
One month later, Vietnamese operators undertook missions north of Tay Ninh with U.S. engineers riding on special ?buddy seats? in the plow cabs. After conducting ARVN-only operations in May and receiving more equipment, the Vietnamese 318th Land-Clearing Company became operational on July 1, 1970, under Captain Nguyen Van Tich, a graduate of the U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
The 62nd Engineers also trained the ARVN 218th and 118th land-clearing companies. One company was assigned to support each of Vietnam?s three military regions. Vietnamese operators gradually relieved the U.S. land-clearing units until December 1971 when the last U.S. Rome Plow Company deactivated.
The men who operated and maintained the plows, as much as the equipment?s design, gave the Rome Plow it?s well-deserved reputation as one of the most innovative and effective weapons in Vietnam. These dedicated soldiers daily faced the dangers of combat and refused to yield to snipers, mines, exhausting temperatures or grueling hours fighting jungle tree by tree. They also suffered extremely high casualties, two of every three men assigned to a Rome Plow Company became casualties. Despite these adversities, or perhaps because of them, Rome Plow crews consistently had the higher rate of voluntary extension in Vietnam of any group of Engineers. These were the men who made the Rome Plow synonymous with Land-Clearing and Jungle-Busting.
Written by: Lawrence M. Greenberg and published in the magazine "VIETNAM" February 1991
May 12 2000 08:41:52:000AM