Dennis Belcastro: Veteran Story

(L to R) Ed Pavlick 669tc. RVN, Dennis Belcastro 669tc. RVN, Walt Roberts 1st Air Cav. RVN.
(L to R) Ed Pavlick 669tc. RVN, Dennis Belcastro 669tc. RVN, Walt Roberts 1st Air Cav. RVN.

1. Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming to observe an exciting tactical demonstration of the United States Army's 54th Transportation Battalion in the Vietnam War.

2. I'm Dennis Belcastro, Vice President of the Army Transportation Association, Vietnam. I served in the Republic Vietnam with the 54th Transportation Battalion, 669th Transportation Company, from September 1966 to June '68. I'm proud to say that I was Non-Commissioned Officer in charge of lead gun truck in the famous December '67 ambush that is the inspiration for today's demonstration.

3. At this time, I take great pleasure in recognizing several very important guests who are with us today. Please let us know where you are 'with a wave of. your hand * First, Colonel Melvin Wolfe and his wife . Colonel Wolfe was the 54th's first battalion commander in Vietnam and went on to serve with the 8th Group staff. * Next, Colonel Joe Bellino and his wife Inez. Colonel Bellino arrived in Vietnam in October 1967 to assume command of the 8th Transportation Group. * Also, Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Maybe was a young Captain with the 54th in Vietnam when he commanded the 523 Transportation Company. (Applause) * Finally, Frank McGrane, an Engineer Captain in Vietnam who has since gone on to become the Curator of the US Army Transportation Museum just 15 miles from here at Fort Eustis. (Applause)

4. May I also ask for a show of hands of others in the audience who served in Vietnam. (Applause) Thank you.

5. Finally, may we have a show of hands from those who — past or present — have served our country in any branch of the United States Armed Forces. (Applause) Thank you.

6. Ladies and Gentlemen, these are the men and women who have bought and paid for the peace, freedom, and economic stability that Americans enjoy today. Thank you for your service to our country and may God bless you all. (Applause)

7. In the next fifteen minutes we will attempt to give you a small idea of what truckers of the 54th and other units in the 8th Transportation Group were faced with as we ran supplies throughout the Central Highlands. We will show you some of the vehicles and weapons that we used to accomplish our mission. Then, we will explain and demonstrate how ambushes sprung by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army Regulars quickly forced radical changes to the way we were running our supply convoys.

8. Please look to your left, to the road at the edge of the fort, as we bring up a great truck that was the workhorse of the Transportation Corps in Vietnam. (Cargo Deuce moves onto the demo field)

9. While it's on the way I will give you some background information. Under command of then (Major) Melvin Wolfe, The 54th arrived in Vietnam in October 1966 and began operations out of the 8th Group's headquarters in the costal city of Qui Nhon, about 270 air miles north-east of Saigon. The 54th was one of three battalions in the 8th Transportation Group, with the responsibility for running supply convoys throughout the Central Highlands of Vietnam. We were delivering ammunition, fuel, food, and other essentials to support combat operations of the famous 1st. Air Cavalry Division and many other American and allied units from the South China Sea to the Cambodian border. (Once truck reaches designated stop front in front of judges, driver shuts off engine. Driver and assistant dismount and stand at the side of the truck facing crowd and judges)

10. Highway 19 was the major East - West road in our Area of Operations, about 100 miles of narrow, twisting and poorly maintained gravel and dirt surface. This is roughly the distance from Richmond to Washington, DC, but let me assure you — Highway 19 wasn't anything like a comfortable 90 minute trip on Interstate 95!

(Driver and Assistant remount and truck drives off)

11. Highway 19 runs from Qui Nhon to Pleiku through two mountain ranges with hairpin turns and no guardrails to stop you from numerous thousand foot drops. Unfortunately, we lost a lot of trucks and men this way.

12. Despite the awful roads, heat, humidity, mud from torrential rains or clouds of choking dust, 8th Group convoys of as many as 100 trucks soon began routinely moving some 3,000 tons of supplies every day and running up a collective total of a million miles a month.

13. Although the 8th operated many different types of trucks including tractor-trailer rigs, the M35 two and a half ton 6x6 cargo truck was certainly the best known and most versatile. This is the famous "Deuce and a Half," a workhorse of the Vietnam War and — remarkably — still in service today throughout the US Armed Forces.

14. Two and a half tons is — obviously — not the weight of the truck, but the official cargo capacity for off road operation. Believe me, we almost always filled these trucks with a lot more than that.

15. With a gross weight of 12,500 pounds, the M35A2 '"Deuce" is powered by a six cylinder diesel engine producing 427 horsepower with a cruising speed of some 50 miles per hour on hard surface roads. It has all wheel drive and high road clearance for mobility over very rough terrain. Although it has an automatic transmission, lack of power steering makes it a real bear to drive.

16. Notice also, that this truck is built from ordinary sheet metal over a steel box beam frame. Bullets — ladies and gentlemen — will go right through the doors to wound or kill the driver and passenger. Also, even a relatively small land mine will instantly disable or destroy the vehicle and kill the crewmen. (cue the land mine pyro)

17. The truck crew's only protection comes from piling sandbags on the floorboards against mine blast and from their M16 rifles carried in the truck cab. (Assistant steps forward with M16)

18. The M16Al assault rifle was the standard issue American shoulder arm for most of the Vietnam War. Equipped with a detachable 20 round box magazine for quick reloading, it fires 5.56mm cartridges in both semiautomatic (fires semi) and fully automatic (fires a burst) . Its effective range is in excess of 400 meters.

19. Although there had been numerous incidents of sniping and land mine encounters almost from the time of their arrival in South Vietnam, the 8th Group got hit with its first big ambush on September 2nd, 1967. A convoy of 39 vehicles was about six miles West of An Khe when it was suddenly and savagely attacked by a company sized enemy unit. More than thirty Americans were killed or wounded, and 34 trucks were damaged or destroyed.

20. Convoy protection at this time was provided by gun jeeps but these were in short supply and only two were part of the convoy that was hit on September 2nd. Please direct your attention again to the road at the end of the fort. (Gun Jeep drives up. All remain in the vehicle. They gesture with weapons and equipment as these are mentioned in narration)

21. The M151 quarter ton utility truck is officially nicknamed the '"Mutt" and was the most commonly used Jeep-type vehicle in the Vietnam War. This was usually the vehicle of choice for the officer assigned as convoy commander. Off-road rated at one quarter ton carrying capacity — folks, that's just 500 pounds -the "Mutt" Gun Jeep was almost always badly overloaded with a three man crew, M60 machine gun with plenty of ammunition, VHE tactical radios, and sandbags for antimine protection.

22. In addition to their standard issue M16 rifles, they often carried an M79 40mm grenade launcher and M1911 .45 caliber pistols. Also, centrally mounted on a handy pedestal is the fast firing and powerful M60 machine gun. The "60" — sometimes called "The Pig" by GI's — fires a 7.62 x 51 mm cartridge that is harder-hitting, and with longer range than that of both the American M16 and the enemy AK-47

23. The M60 machine gun fires at a rate of about 600 rounds per minute — that's ten rounds per second — and is very effective out to more than 600 meters. (fires a burst)

24. Although armed with a formidable mix of weapons, it should be obvious how vulnerable these men are to enemy fire. Their steel helmets and M1952 body armor vests are capable of stopping only relatively small and slow movinq shell and grenade fragments. They definitely won't stop a bullet from an AK-47. This is not a comforting thought when your job is to speed forward to the point of ambush and begin shooting back at the enemy hiding in the woodline. Clearly, there had to be a better answer to the problem of convoy protection.... (Gun Jeep drives away. At the same time, two NVA/VC walk up in front of the crowd and stop in front of the judges. 6 to 8 additional enemy soldiers move directly into their ambush positions)

25. Now, it didn't take long for the enemy to recognize these supply truck convoys as an inviting target. These men are portraying two distinct types of enemy soldiers regularly encountered in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. The first is a Viet Cong Main Force soldier. He is well trained, well equipped and experienced in hit and run guerrilla warfare. He is armed with a PRC Type 56 Assault Rifle, a Chinese-made version of the infamous Soviet AK-47. This weapon features a thirty round detachable box magazine for quick reloading and fires a 7.62 x 39 millimeter cartridge. It can shoot in both semiautomatic (demonstrates semi) and fully automatic (demonstrates full auto).

26. Our second enemy infantryman is a North Vietnamese Army Regular. He and his unit have infiltrated down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and — together with local Viet Cong units — are beginning a well organized and effective campaign against the 8th Transportation Group's supply truck convoys.

27. He is armed with the extremely effective and very versatile Rocket Propelled Grenade Launcher, another Chinese-made weapon that is copied from the Soviet RPG-7. This weapon fires a rocket carrying a high explosive warhead that makes short work of American trucks. It is also deadly against heavily sandbagged bunkers and will even knock out a tank if hit in a vulnerable point. It has an effective range of about meters against stationary targets. Because of its dangerous rocket backblast, we won't fire this weapon until the final part of our demonstration. (Two enemy soldiers begin to walk off to join others in ambush positions)

28. Ladies and gentlemen, as our formidable adversaries take up an ambush position, please imagine that it is almost zero-Eight Fifteen Hours (that's eight fifteen in the morning) on December the 4th, 1967. A 77 truck convoy of the 54th Transportation Battalion is making the usual run west to Plieku on Highway 19. Keeping in mind the increasing intensity of recent enemy action, we are proceeding cautiously at a moderate speed.

29. A company sized unit of — about 90 men — has moved into position last night. They have prepared an ambush with a kill zone along 3000 meters of the roadside — roughly the equivalent of 30 football fields. They are very well armed with both light and heavy weapons and have rigged several anti-vehicle mines. There is no doubt that they are expecting to inflict a tremendous amount of damage with relatively little danger to themselves.

30. What they probably don't know is that our tactics and our trucks have recently undergone a radical change based on hard lessons learned since the September 2nd convoy massacre. Recognizing that ordinary trucks and open gun jeeps aren't up to the job, those of us in the 54th have a nasty surprise for the VC. They don't know that they're about to come face to face with an armored gun truck.

31. We've bolted and welded sheets of 1/4 inch. steel armor plate on some of our Deuces to protect both the driver compartment and load area. We've also put on extra machine guns, adding to the already heavy firepower from ring-mounted .50 caliber M2's.

32. There were six gun trucks spaced throughout the convoy and mine was right out front when we rounded a bend in the road and entered the kill zone. Now, what you are about see is a simulation based on the actual event. However, I caution that there is no way the intensity and horror of this ambush can be effectively portrayed here today. Please direct your attention to the left once again as our lead gun truck comes into view. (GRIM REAPER comes into sight)

33. At the head of a 77 vehicle convoy, 21 year old Buck Sergeant Dennis Belcastro and three other crewmen in our Gun Truck are already well into the kill zone when the enemy set off a command-detonated mine to halt the convoy. (Mine blast)

34. A plank rigged with additional high explosive charges was then pulled across the road, ready to be detonated under any vehicle that tries to escape the kill zone. (Plank is pulled)

35. We slammed on the brakes to avoid the explosives and almost immediately got hit by a rocket propelled grenade through the windshield, instantly killing Harold Cummings, our driver. (VC RPG gunner fires and Gun Truck Driver detonates pyro on side of door. Also, he drops a Red Smoke grenade on the ground beside the truck cab)

36. Bullets started hitting our Gun Truck and we returned fire with our machine guns and M79 grenade launcher. The convoy commander was right behind us in a gun jeep and they started shooting back at the enemy with their machine gun, M79, and M16. We also fired a red star flare to alert cargo trucks in the convoy that didn't have radios. (Flare)

37. Several of the trucks behind us were also caught in the kill zone and their drivers jumped out and began returning fire with M16 's. (Additional rifle fire alongside James Fort from riflemen hidden from the crowd)

38. We called out on the radio "AMBUSH - AMBUSH - AMBUSH" the prearranged signal to the other five radio-equipped gun trucks in our convoy. This radio call also alerted a quick-reaction force of helicopter gunships and volunteers from an artillery fire base several kilometers away.

39. Disregarding his own safety, Lieutenant Todd, our convoy commander, bravely moved among the ambushed vehicles, encouraging his men and coordinating their small arms fire. Those of us in the gun truck poured it on with our machine guns and rifles. Our buddies in the five other gun trucks behind us came speeding up into the kill zone, adding their considerable amount of firepower. (grenade simulators thrown between truck and VC into ditch area for safety)

40. Our convoy's quick and decisive action was part of the nasty surprise we had for the VC, who were expecting their ambush to be as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.

41. Gradually, the amount of incoming small arms fire began to taper off as we wounded and killed more of the enemy or forced them to keep their heads down or to run for their lives.

42. It took about twelve minutes for the helicopter gunships to arrive and their rockets and machine gun fire added to the enemy's woes. Several minutes later, the first of two reaction forces arrived with additional manpower and firepower and we all could begin to breathe again.

43. For me and probably for the rest of the 54th's solders on the convoy that morning, this was the longest thirty minutes that I had ever experienced....

44. When the dust and smoke cleared we confirmed 13 enemy Killed in Action and took 1 prisoner. American casualties were one killed — my friend Harry Cummings driving our gun truck — and six others wounded including my two machine gunners and myself. Lieutenant Todd's gun jeep and four trucks were damaged, and our gun truck was pretty much a total loss. (firefight participants begin to clean up and vehicles move forward to exit point but do not clear out)

45. Compare this with the 34 Americans killed or wounded and 34 trucks destroyed just three months before. Clearly, the armored Gun Truck concept had been validated.

46. However, our determined enemy did not stop hitting our supply convoys. They just got more wiley, used more troops with heavier weaponry, and increased their use of mines.

47. Over the next 6 years of 8th Group convoy operations in Vietnam, the Gun Truck Concept was refined and upgraded. Adding more armor and machine guns required the use of bigger M54 five ton trucks. Perhaps the best known of these 5 ton Gun Trucks is EVE OF DESTRUCTION, which served with distinction right up until June of 1971. EVE OF DESTRUCTION is the only surviving example of an actual Vietnam Gun Truck and now enjoys an honored place inside the US Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis — just 20 miles from here off Interstate 64 near Newport News.

48. The Army also began to buy quantities of a specially built armored car. Please look to your left as we bring on a VlOO COMMANDO Armored Car. (V-1OO drives up)

49. This tough four wheel drive vehicle was built by the famous Cadillac Gage Company. Featuring thick, well sloped steel armor, it provides superior protection against mine blast and small arms fire. Powered by a 361 Chrysler engine and often fitted with a power operated armored gun turret , the COMMANDO was an excellent companion to our Gun Trucks.

50. Ladies and Gentlemen, a big hand please for the 54th Transportation Battalion! (Applause)

51. As we clear the demonstration field, I urge you to visit EVE OF DESTRUCTION, the only surviving Vietnam Gun Truck. And, while you're at the Transportation Museum, please consider the role that EVE and other Gun trucks played in the success of the Army Transportation Corps' extremely demanding mission in the Vietnam War. Information brochures are available right up the hill at our encampment and in the Jamestown lobby here where you purchased your ticket.

52. Thank you...

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