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538th LC Co. Strips Treacherous An Khe Pass

castleSM.gif (1734 bytes)  Castle Courier   Nov. 15, 1971 castleSM.gif (1734 bytes)

By:  SP5 David Meyers, Staff Correspondent

AN KHE (538th Co)  Almost unknown and unheard of, the small, yet significant 538th Land Clearing Company, 35th Engineer Group, has for the past few years been attacking some of the most treacherous lands throughout Vietnam.  With their large D-7 Rome Plows, they are taming the jungles.

     The most recent operation completed by the 538th, "mountain movers", was in Tam Quan district, near Bong Son.  Requested by the local villagers, the engineers helped destroy the VC hold on the area.  Those living in this area were isolated: they had almost no contact with the government.  The thick jungle growth in the mountains provided unlimited hiding places for the VC, while the countless hedge-rows served as secure avenues of approach and escape.  Mines and booby traps also took their daily toll on units operating in the area
      The only solution was to destroy the enemy's hiding places by transforming the jungle into an almost barren, yet fertile land  and eliminate his movement and to relocate some of the villages which were spread out too far for adequate security.

An Khe Pass is in the foreground while Highway 19 snakes among the hills.
 

     The plows rapidly set to work skimming an area of land, clearing away mines.  This was to be the company's night defensive position (NDP)  Only after the plows arrived at the prospective NDP did the engineers realize they had chosen a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) bunker complex to build their homes.  The enemy soldiers apparently had made a hasty retreat from the area, since fires were still burning, ice was found, and someone's laundry was left to dry.

For these two D-7's, this might indeed be the "unkindest cut of all".

 

    Other items were also found indicating "Charlie" had been there within the last 20 minutes.  During the next 40 days of the operation, hundreds of tunnels and bunkers were found and destroyed. Deciding that if the spot was good enough for the NVA , it was good enough for the engineers, the 538th began destroying the bunkers with the monster-like bulldozers.  Soon, they pushed up a five-foot berm and plowed the inner surface,

"Iowa Dig It" finds the going rough in the sandy soil.

 leveling spots for the tactical operations center (TOC) and mess, commo and maintenance sections.  Finally, they dug slots in the berm for the tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) and smoothed out areas for tents.  Usually, an NDP is completed within half a day and the plows begin clearing approximately 40 surrounding acres for security.

     Knee-deep into their operation, the 538th was informed by Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) personnel, that when they had built their NDP, they buried alive an unknown number of NVA soldiers in tunnels connecting each bunker.  Captured enemy documents supported this.

     During the operation, the land clearers worked closely with the village chiefs and mobile advisory team.  The men were directed to stay away from houses, graves and crops.  If they were not sure about an area they would consult the village chief before proceeding

     The terrain of Bong Son area is rough.  Specialist 4 August Frenzel, of Northolm, Minn., whose family owns a civilian land clearing company, said,  "I thought I had seen some rough terrain in the states, but the operation in Bong Son would have made the others look like Sunday gardening."

     Clearing the land is a dirty and dangerous job.  The work-day is long, beginning with a two-hour maintenance stand down.  Following the stand down is a single file drive to the cut, or job site.  Each man settles down in his cage-like cab, a private world where even his thoughts are drowned out by the roar of the diesel engine.

     The D-7's and their operators may disturb a nest of bees, who usually turn out to be very non-appreciative.  Specialist 5 John Conners, a dozer operator, recently became well aware of bees when he received 96 stings on his head, hospitalizing him for two weeks.

These pictures are of the dozer mentioned to the right in this article.  According to Sgt. Ingram  of the 538th, the cab of the dozer broke off landing upside down with   Sp 5 Morris inside of the cage.

     The steep mountains which the 538th challenged took their toll of men and equipment.  Sharp slopes forced the drivers to ride with feet braced against the instrument panel to prevent falling from the cab.  One D-7, commanded by Specialist 5 Eugene Morris, while clearing a mountainside, hit a bad spot which took both the operator and dozer for an unwanted ride.  The huge machine bounced and banged its way down the mountainside, landing 300 yards from where it started.  The operator jumped from the dozer.  Cut and bruised, the shook-up specialist walked back to the top and was soon carried off by helicopter for medical attention.  The dozer was a total loss.  Though the name "Rome Plow" is general used when describing land clearing operations, the engineers actually use two different types of blades:

 
 

 

the Rome blade and the Bull blade.  The latter, which is a normal bulldozer blade, works best in areas where the ground has to be scraped clean below the surface.  It is also valuable for constructing camp sites and stream crossings.

     The Rome Blade is better suited for the thick jungle.  It has a sharp cutting edge and is canted at a 30 degree angle so debris slides off to the right as the plow moves along.

     The blade is also equipped with a 'stinger', a wedge like projectile mounted on the leading left edge which allows the operator to split larger trees before felling them with the cutting edge.

    The large steel blades have saved many lives on the cut.  The engineers usually lead the way into the area, exposing themselves to mines and booby-traps.  "Most mines hit, will shake up the driver quite a bit, but usually the blade will take most of the blow, sending shrapnel in another direction," stated Specialist Bill Fischer, of Kansas City, MO., a medic.

When land clearing, the APC's and tanks follow in the plows tracks.
    When the plows returned in the early evening, they could be heard from the camp long before they were sighted.  The earth began to shake a little, and the noise grew louder.  The hungry, tired, thirsty, dirty, sweaty, jungle clearers were back.
     Once inside the berm, the men jumped from their cabs and headed straight for tents to get beer or soda.  Covered with dirt, the men stripped off their clothes and headed toward the water truck.  Nothing in the world would feel better at the moment than a cold shower and a hot dinner.
Near the finish of the Bong Son operation, the area was under the control of the Popular and Regional Forces.  The villages lived in relative peace, not fearing the nightly raids of This member of the third herd is pushing its weight around-all 34 tons of it

 the VC which once plagued their homes.  A total of 21 mines were discovered by the 538th. There was one GI killed in action and eight others wounded. 

     An hour and a half drive took the engineers to Cha Rang Valley.  After 45 days in the field, they relaxed, recuperated and repaired any damages to their dozers in preparation for another 45 to 60 days in the field.  As always for the 538th, the main event of the stand down party was the baptisms.  Each man E-5 or above was lifted by approximately six men E-4 and below, immersing them into a large tub of ice water.  Once the person is completely under water, the lowest-ranking person will OK his release.

     "There is never any hard feelings about this tradition," stated Sergeant First Class Lawrence E. Tregoning, "even the commanding officer received this honor."

     Floor Shows brought color to the stand down.  One man said it was like seeing television after the set had been broken for six months.

     Pulling out of Cha Rang Valley, trucks take men and dozers of the 538th to another area.  This time, the location is the treacherous An Khe Pass.

     "Thick vegetation on both sides of National Highway 19, running through the pass, provides good enemy cover and concealment, for sporadic ambushes on U.S. and Vietnamese convoys," said First Lieutenant Sher G. Singh, the acting commander.  "Our job is to clear 200 yards on either side of the highway, thereby forcing the enemy into the open to effectively ambush any traffic on the road.  Also, this operation will eliminate the need for more security in the pass."

     "I think enemy harassment will be a factor in how long the job takes," said First Sergeant Noble Brown, "however, the largest problem I think we will run into will be marshland and quick sand."

     The first day proved the First Sergeant correct, as both soft stream beds and quicksand sank at least fifteen of the 25 dozers.

     From the top of An Khe Pass to Pleiku, 200 yards on both sides of National Highway 19 was to be cleared, close to 80 miles of road.

     This cut is near completion.   More land is stripped of its vegetal skin.  The 538th's mission in Vietnam remains yet unfinished.

 

Article submitted by:  Steve Jones


Published Article Links:

 

538th Come In

Highway  QL-14      '69

Van Canh  '69

Long Binh               '70

Highway QL-19       '70

Tam Quan District

An Khe Pass            '71

Duc My                    '71


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