Pork-N-Ator: Robert Givens’ Vietnam Gun Truck Tribute

Backward Glances

Jim AllenAuthor

This story remembers soldiers that don't usually get much attention: truck drivers. Back in the day, they held the MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) of 64A or 64B, and besides having to master the operation of military trucks, at a certain point in the Vietnam War they also had to master solutions to being killed on the job.

By 1967, losses being suffered by the U.S. Army Transportation Corps in Vietnam while transporting supplies via road had reached a deadly milestone. A well-coordinated attack on a 40-truck convoy in September of 1967 damaged or destroyed 30 trucks, killing 7 drivers and wounding 17 others. Even in areas that were reportedly "safe," the Viet Cong, guerrilla troops of the North Vietnamese Army, infiltrated just about everywhere to wreak havoc.

Robert's 5-ton is a '67 M-54A1C built by Kaiser-Jeep. It represents the least aggressive version of a gun truck. Most often the cab was armored, but Robert wanted to be able to drive the truck, and an armored cab would have reduced visibility to a dangerous level. The black paint was common. Plus, it isn't really black but a very, very, very dark shade of OD green just to stay within the regulations.

The fairly remote areas along Route 19 between Qui Nhon and Pleiku became a hot spot, especially An Khe Pass, which soon became known as "Ambush Alley." Truck drivers of the Transportation Corps would not normally expect to operate in areas of high combat risk, but that's how things were for the men of the 8th Transportation Group using Route 19. They were subject to a sudden attack by automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), mines, and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices—this term came later). It was often so sudden that by the time the "cavalry" was called, the attack was over, the enemy had exfiltrated unscathed, and all that was left was to clean up the mess. And it was a mess that usually included American blood. Truck drivers are not normally equipped or trained for heavy combat, but drivers of the 8th Trans Group soon learned and adapted.

The convoys needed protection, but there wasn't much equipment in-country that could both provide protection and be able to keep up with a fast-moving convoy. Higher command authority was having trouble finding effective countermeasures to protect the convoys and their valuable personnel and cargo. What was really needed right away were armored fighting vehicles with sufficient punch and protection that could keep up with the trucks in a fast convoy.

The M-54A1C had a long wheelbase with drop-down sides on the bed. It's plate steel on the side, not armored plate, since he is unlikely to need it to be truly bulletproof. He has rounded up three replica .50 caliber M2s and two 7.62mm M-60 machine guns so far. In the real world, armament was based on what could be borrowed or scrounged. Because the Transportation Corps had limited "official" access to supplies of machine guns, most of what the gun trucks used came from damaged equipment that had been written off. As a result, armament was a mix of types and configurations of stuff sourced from ground and air equipment, and even watercraft. In Robert's case, it's limited to what he could afford. Replica guns are not cheap!

It isn't clear who conceived the first improvised solutions, but it's generally thought that the idea to up-armor trucks came from the ranks of the 8th Trans Group—the guys who were in the line of fire. At first they used everything from smaller vehicles like the M-151 MUTT jeep and 3/4-ton Dodge M-37 to the ubiquitous Deuce-and-a-Half. Along with training and improvised convoy doctrine, the preparation paid off just three months after the September attack. The Viet Cong had prepared an even larger ambush, and while they managed to destroy 14 trucks in a 70-truck convoy and kill two drivers, they left 41 of their own on the field, plus 4 captured. A new 8th Trans Group Commanding Officer, Colonel Joe Bellino, has been credited with moving the new doctrine forward. He encouraged improvisation and field modifications, even though some of it ran against official Army doctrine.

It soon became clear that the lighter trucks, even the 2 1/2-tons, were not big enough to carry the armor and armament necessary for convoy protection. The next step above the Deuce-and-a-Half was the 5-ton. The 5-ton 6x6 had been introduced as a standard Army truck in the 1951 M-39 series trucks, with any division within that including the basic M-54 cargo trucks. With some updates, they morphed into the M-809 series in 1969. Gun trucks could be of either type, but the early models were more common because, for the most part, gun trucks were built from older, junked, or damaged trucks that had been written off. Sometimes they were repowered with engines from newer or more powerful trucks.

The M-54A1C trucks were powered, or repowered during updates, by a Continental LDS-465-1A six-cylinder multifuel. A version of it was also used in 2 1/2-ton 6x6s. Other M-54 variants might have had the larger and more powerful Mack 673ci turbodiesel. The multifuel engines were a neat idea, but they were a bit low-powered compared to a dedicated diesel; 175 hp and 425 lb-ft of torque in this case versus 205 horses and 560 lb-ft for the Mack. The multifuels could run on #1 or # 2 diesel, kerosene, jet fuel, and gasoline under 85 octane. The engine weighed 1,650 pounds.

The "buildsheet" of a gun truck was limited only by the scrounging skills of those building the trucks. Until right at the very end, the armor and armament came "unofficially" from wherever it could be obtained. Though they often followed a common theme of form following function, no two gun trucks were the same. A 5-ton truck is pretty tough, but it's not bulletproof. Typically, plate steel or armor plate (armor plate is hardened steel) was added to the sides of the trucks, sometimes backed up by a layer of sandbags and another layer of steel. The cab would be armored as best as could be, though some early cabs look unarmored. When available, bulletproof glass was used for vision ports, but often they just had a vision port torched through the plate. In some cases, the hulls of the aluminum-armored M-113 APC (Armored Personnel Carriers) were mounted to the 5-ton truck chassis. Small arms are fairly easy to protect against, but not so the deadly RPG, which has a shaped charge and armor-piercing capability.

Armament varied but usually included one to four .50 caliber M-2 machine guns, two to four 7.62 mm M-60 machine guns (often called "sweepers" for when the bad guys got close), grenade launchers, the occasional minigun, and even claymore mines hung on the sides of the trucks. The gun trucks were interspersed among the convoy. In an attack, they would rush up, return fire (which attracts fire), rescue truck crews, defend repair crews or tow truck crews, and protect the convoy as it exited the area. They soon became "bullet magnets," and it didn't take long for the Viet Cong to figure out that if they took out the gun trucks, the rest of the trucks were easy pickin's. That wasn't always so easy, and the gun truck crews lived a more exciting life than their truck driver MOS would normally offer. Gun truck crews were selected from the smartest, toughest, and most steady of the bunch.

Your typical GI utilitarian interior. The M-60 "sweeper" gave the passenger a little something to do when needed. Again, it was more typical for the cabs of gun trucks to be fully armored, but some weren't—especially early on.

By now you are wondering why the US of A couldn't come up with anything better than up-armored cargo trucks. They did, but it didn't work out as planned. Development of an armored car designed especially for convoy protection had started in 1963 in the form of the Cadillac-Gage V-100 armored cars. They were becoming available in large numbers by the time this story was unfolding but proved to be less stellar than anticipated. They were less tough than a well-done 5-ton gun truck, less reliable (axle problems), significantly less armed (only two MGs at most), and were considered a death trap by those manning them. As a result, they don't have a large part in the story.

The gun truck played an important part in the logistics of the Vietnam War all the way to the end of American involvement. Only one actual Vietnam gun truck is known to survive, the Eve of Destruction, which is on display at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum in Fort Eustis, Virginia.

Vietnam-era veterans remember this saying, especially those who were on the front lines. When faced with situations beyond explanation or endurance, "It don't mean nothin'" kind of summed it up for those guys. After watching half your buddies get mowed down, "It don't mean nothin'" was about all you could say. That got you by the moment, but of course the feelings come back later and demand to be dealt with. Such is the nature of PTSD.

If you're thinking that this sounds familiar, you're remembering the IEDs that remain a problem for those driving the roads of Afghanistan and Iraq. The parallel is very close, and the solutions discovered in Vietnam provided a "roadmap" (pun intended) for our forces early in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, where improvised gun trucks again provided convoy protection until better equipment could be developed and deployed.

Robert "Pork" Givens built a tribute gun truck to celebrate those times when American ingenuity and determination came to the fore. Rather than being a clone of a gun truck that existed, it's a composite of all of them, and to Robert, it represents and honors all of them.

Typically, the armor had two layers, an outer layer of plate (as thick as could be found), and then an inner layer. This protected against RPGs, which had a shaped charge. Early on, they piled sandbags between the layers, but they tended to get wet and added weight to the truck. Often, a communications system was added, usually scrounged from a tank or APC. That way, the commander could direct fire or the driver.
Every gun truck had a name. Robert was not sure what to call his until a buddy took his nickname, "Pork," and gave it a more sinister connotation. Good enough!
The only known surviving Vietnam gun truck is the Eve of Destruction. In 1971, as America's combat role was declining there, one was brought back for posterity and enshrined in the U.S. Army Transportation Museum (transportation.army.mil/museum). It's an M-54A1C like Robert's but has a fully armored cab. It's been repainted a glossy black, which is not correct. The Eve mounted a twin .50 caliber mount, which is said to have come from an Army LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized). Note how the floor is lined with ammo cans.

The Details
Vehicle: '67 M-54A1C Kaiser-Jeep
Owner: Robert "Pork" Givens
Estimated value: $20,000
Engine: 478ci, 6-cyl multifuel, Continental LDS-465-1A
Power (hp @ rpm): 175 @ 2,600 (all fuels)
Torque (lb-ft @ rpm): 425 @ 2,000
Bore & stroke (in): 4.56 x 4.87
Comp. ratio: 22:1
Transmission: Spicer 6453 5-spd
Transfer Case: Rockwell T138 (2.02:1 low) 2-spd
Axle ratio: 6.44:1
Tires: 11-20
Wheelbase (in): 179
GVW (lb): 29,945 off-road, 39,945 on-road
Curb weight (lb): 19,945
Fuel capacity (gal): 78

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