|RETURN OF THE RED BARON|
Veteran Vietnam gun-trucker Wayne Dobos is brought face-to-face with a reincarnation of ‘his’ truck, and talks exclusively to John Blackman. Photographs by the author unless otherwise credited
When planning CMV we try to achieve some sort of balance between types of vehicles and eras, and so avoid running features that are, in some respect, similar in content. However, no apologies are offered here for bringing you another one of Rolling Thunder’s gun trucks after having featured the Vietnam War living-history group in CMV 94, just seven months ago. The truck is exceptional enough, but the circumstances surrounding its construction are even more so. Late in 2008, Rolling Thunder’s Roger Jerram and Fred Cornwell were looking for another Reo project. Having heard about a possible candidate, Fred went for a look while Roger was in the States. ‘As soon as I saw the air filter on the wing I realised it was an M54 – not a 2½-tonner – and thought ‘gun truck’. When I phoned Roger he thought the same thing, because no-one had a 5-ton gun truck. Then, while trying to decide which one to build, we both independently came up with The Red Baron.’
‘It’s your lucky day,’ was Wayne’s e-mailed response to Fred, the first of many communications across the Atlantic as the Rolling Thunder team turned a rusty Kaiser-Jeep M54 into a pristine reconstruction of The Red Baron. In that Fred and Roger had found the man to assist with information, it certainly was their lucky day, but every silver lining has a grey cloud wrapped round it and the M54 wasn’t in quite such good condition as they had thought. ‘Seeing as it had stood in a field for four or five years, it looked reasonable,’ said Fred, ‘although I had to drill holes in the cargo bed to drain it of water. After an hour and half of work, we got the engine running, but then we started finding problems. In the past it had been sandblasted and everything we looked at was full of sand. It had just sat there absorbing moisture with the result that there was a lot of rot. There was certainly more work involved in the build than we expected.’
Wayne provided Roger and Fred with invaluable information, photographs and even anecdotes about the original truck, but he also kicked their work schedule into high gear when he announced his intention to come to Britain for the War & Peace Show. Now there was a very tight deadline attached to the project... and a very long ‘to do’ list. Roger turned his attention to the bodywork, friend and Rolling Thunder member Wayne Jenno worked on the engine, and Fred employed his explosives expertise on reproducing the weaponry: two M60 .30cals, two .50cals, all gas-firing, and a minigun.
When asked how much time they’d expended on the project, Fred and Roger gave the impression that they really didn’t know and would rather not think about it. When asked how much the project had cost, it was clear that they certainly did know, but, again, would rather not think about it!
Obviously, since you are looking at photos of The Red Baron taken during War & Peace 2009, you’ll realise that the project deadline was met (bar a few details) and Wayne Dobos was reunited with ‘his’ gun truck. For all concerned it was an emotional moment. ‘I actually handled it better than I thought I would,’ Wayne told me, ‘but I was choked up the whole time. There were so many feelings involved, not only about the actual Red Baron, but that somebody would honour myself and my crew and take the time to make the truck just as it was back then... I’ve got to come to England to get honoured for something I did for the United States; it just doesn’t make sense.’
‘I’ve got to come to England to get honoured for something I did for the United States...’
Wayne enlisted in the US Army rather than waiting to be drafted. ‘I had a low draft number - the lower the number the more chance there was of being drafted – and was classified 1A, which is top of the list. If you enlisted you were guaranteed the training you wanted, so I decided that if I was going to have to go, at least I’d start off with a profession that I had picked.’
Having been to trade school to learn welding, Wayne then enlisted and took the Army’s welding course. He subsequently ended up at a motor pool in Germany where they discovered that he was also an excellent mechanic. ‘When that company disbanded I was sent to another unit where I became assistant motor pool sergeant, but to gain an extra rank I had to change my MOS, military occupational status, to truck driver. That’s when I got E5.’
As a 21-year-old truck driver and sergeant, Wayne was posted to Vietnam where he joined the 444th Transportation Company. ‘I was on a regular 5-ton tractor in the beginning; there were no openings on the gun trucks and you had to prove yourself to get on one anyway. All the tractor drivers could have the opportunity to be on a gun truck – there was no change in your military occupation. As openings came up you told the platoon sergeant you’d like to be on the gun truck and if he felt you were good enough he’d put you on. Then you had to get along and work well with the other crew. With three or four guys on a truck that are dependent upon each other for their lives and everybody in the convoy is also dependent on them, if you can’t work together or your personalities clash, you’re done.’
All the transportation units had their own gun trucks, usually four per company of around 60 cargo trucks/tractors. Gun trucks came into use during the late ‘sixties (see David Doyle’s features in the January and February 2008 editions of CMV) to combat the increasing number of ambushes on convoys. ‘At first the Military Police tried to protect the convoys,’ Wayne explains. ‘The V-100 armoured car was a mechanical nightmare, they continually broke down so weren’t much help. Jeeps are too open and you can’t put enough firepower on them, so the companies started converting 2½-ton trucks. However, once they’d added all the extra armour plating, weaponry and ammunition, the frames tended to crack. They were good trucks, but not for that purpose. So they then turned to 5-ton trucks; even they suffered.’
Wayne got onto a gun truck, later to become The Red Baron but then named The Saint, in 1970. ’I’m far from a spit and polish person and the guys on my truck weren’t either. The Saint was named after the TV series in which the star was always suited, with a nice tie and perfect hair all the time – far from the image any of us ever created – so we wanted to update it. I’d always admired the ferocity of the actual Red Baron, von Richthofen, plus we already had a gun truck named Snoopy. A lot of the trucks had names that went with songs of era and there was one out called Snoopy versus the Red Baron.
‘So I kind of pushed for The Red Baron and my guys went along with it. I designed the scheme and, because we wanted the best looking truck in Vietnam, I got the best artist/painter around to paint it. He charged me $20 to do the whole truck. We also armed it better than it had been when it was The Saint. The minigun was given an extra ammo box and we moved the existing two .30cals to the front corners. Also, instead of one .50cal mounted at the back in the centre, we put one on each rear corner. I don’t recall where the extra .50cal came from, it just turned up!’
Speaking of weapons ‘just turning up’, Wayne recalls with amusement how he came by a spare minigun – a fearsome multi-barrel machine gun usually installed in helicopter and fixed-wing gun ships. ‘The sky pilot, our chaplain, was a Catholic; he had a good reputation and we got along just fine. Anyway, one day I was told he wanted to see me. So we’re talking and he said to come back tomorrow if I’d like an extra gun for The Red Baron. I went back the next day and sitting on the floor in front of his desk was a crate with a minigun in it. Kind of ironic coming from a chaplain.
‘Now let me clarify one thing, whereas Snoopy and Little Respect were strictly gun trucks, The Red Baron and Frustration were maintenance gun trucks. Hence the tyres on the back and we also we carried a few spares. The other guys used to point out that although we were a maintenance truck, we’d got more firepower than a gun truck. Well, the point was that we had to do the same job as a gun truck plus work on disabled trucks.’
Potentially, that dual role put The Red Baron and Frustration at greater risk. The maintenance gun trucks routinely travelled at the back of the convoy and, when a cargo truck broke down, would stop with the disabled truck moving again while the rest of the convoy disappeared into the distance. If Wayne and his crew could get the truck moving again in half an hour or so, all well and good. If not, each convoy included several tractor units without trailers – called bobtails – and these would be used to recover the disabled truck and its cargo.
‘We were considered an elite and I don’t mind admitting that we pushed that at times. We were risking our lives on a daily basis and, having worked hard, if we got the chance we’d party hard, but only when we got done for the day and everything was in order; that’s when we had good time.’
Of course, that wasn’t always possible. ‘Some convoys would be there and back in a day. Others were known as ROM – remain over night. The convoy would break off lots of times and maybe 20 trucks would go into a firebase or LZ (landing zone) and a gun truck would follow them in. All these places made it a habit to try not to unload the trucks until the next morning. That way they had a gun truck there for a night’s security. While I understood and sympathised with them, at the same time I’d been on the road all day doing my job and I needed to be fresh and alert the next day to do my job again, yet they wanted us to stand guard duty all night. There were times when the convoy commander came back and told them that he’d take the load back rather than leave the gun truck on guard duty.
‘Similarly, when we were staying overnight on big bases like Pleiku there were times when we got woken up by the MPs or APs (air police) halfway through the night. They’d heard some noise on the perimeter and wanted us to go out and spray the area. if Charlie happened to be there, fine. If not, it would scare him into not being there. Particularly if you had a minigun... everybody wanted to see the minigun fire except Charlie! We’d always get an audience.
‘Before leaving on a convoy the trucks met up at a place we called the Ponderosa after the ranch in the TV cowboy series Bonanza. There we would be told where we were going. Of course, you could stop on the road and ask any local where you were going and they’d tell you: they knew before we did most of the time. At the Ponderosa was an enormous hill of soft clay and that’s where we’d test fired the weapons. But it was more than that... a crew would go out and fire then we’d say “you think that’s good? Wait until you see...” and so on. We were showing off, pounding our chests a little as well as giving the truck drivers reassurance.’
The gun truck’s colourful markings could be seen as an extension of the same bravado.
‘The idea was to draw attention to yourselves; I guess to show that we were fearless... here we are Charlie, come get us. And then we found out that there was supposedly a $10,000 bounty out on us for the complete annihilation of a gun truck. I mean, you want to pound your chest and say “we’re bad and they really want to get us”, but at the same time was it really true that the VC were more interested in destroying a gun truck than in stopping the convoy?
‘Sometimes you have to live through an experience and then look back before you realise how certain things happen. It dawned on me on several occasions that the bounty story seemed to be true. Going down the road, truck drivers are pretty much helpless so why, when an ambush started, would the middle of the kill zone be where the gun truck was? Several times I thought what’s wrong with you people; Charlie is supposed to be smart, so why start the ambush when there’s a gun truck right there? That’s when I started to believe the things we’d heard.
‘After the ‘Triple 4’ broke up late 1971, they sent the gun trucks to other units. The Red Baron and Little Respect, which were both in excellent shape, went to the 359th, a tanker company, and that’s the last I know of it. I was told that all the gun trucks were either scrapped or turned back into cargo trucks, with the exception of Eve of Destruction, which is now in Fort Eustis Museum.
‘I was there from August 1970 to February 1971 and have always looked at that time with pride, although being the way the US was for years, outside of a few friends I didn’t talk about it. Then, maybe six or seven years ago, I was looking through Hemmings Motor News – I’m into old cars – and saw an advert for a 5-ton cargo truck that suggested it would be ideal as the basis for a replica of a Vietnam-era gun truck as in the book by James Lyle, The Hard Ride. That was the first time in my life that I had seen anything written about gun trucks, and it just evolved from there. I went to my first gathering cum ATAV (Army Transportation Association Vietnam) meet in 2003.
Although aware of a certain level of interest in the US, Wayne couldn’t have imagined that the same thing existed in the UK, and was therefore ‘floored’ when he received an e-mail from Fred Cornwell saying that he and Roger wanted to recreate The Red Baron.
‘It was such an unexpected honour. Although the American attitude to Vietnam has changed quite a bit since, when we came back from Vietnam through civilian airports we were advised to wear civilian clothes. That was a shock. We knew that people were not happy about what was going on in Vietnam, but had never believed that anybody would harass the returning soldiers. A point I make to several of my fellow gun truckers is that every generation makes sacrifices so that the next generation has it better. Maybe our contribution was to show that this generation’s soldiers shouldn’t be treated like they treated us. Now that soldiers are coming back from Iraq maybe the people who don’t agree with the politics of it will realise that the soldiers were only carrying out their duty. They’re not making policy; they’re the ones that have to enforce it.
‘This isn’t an original of mine but I’m going to use it... you can walk down the street and ask someone if they were a Vietnam veteran and they’ll say yes I was. Ask them whether they were a peace demonstrator that spat on a Vietnam veteran and see if they admit to that. I feel justified, vindicated, whatever the term might be.’
Wayne stayed with The Red Baron crew and Rolling Thunder throughout most of War & Peace 2009. ‘It was an experience I'll never forget,’ he told me. Particularly, if I’m any judge, when taking the ‘new’ Red Baron out on the road. That evoked a few memories, and there could have been no-one better qualified to take the wheel than Wayne himself.