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PLOW   POWER

castleSM.gif (1734 bytes)  Typhoon magazine       12/1970 castleSM.gif (1734 bytes)

Story and Photos by SP4  Mike Maatala

     The countryside surrounding the camp had been stripped bare, its rolling surface of trees, brush, and grass peeled like an orange to reveal the red soil beneath.  For almost a month, the engineers of the 538th Land Clearing Company had been cutting their way across Tam Quan District, working down the coast from Snipers Island and then swinging inward near Highway QL-1.  By early October they were at their third campsite of the operation--a small hill at the base of Monster Mountain.  The name of the camp was the same as the previous ones;  it had followed them from site to site like the huge swath of cleared land.  They called it LZ Rome Plow.

     The 538th was sent into Tam Quan District to help destroy the hold the VC had on the area.  The people are isolated;  they have almost no contact with the Government of Vietnam.  The thick jungle growth in the mountains provided unlimited hiding places for the VC, while the countless hedgerows served as secure avenues of approach and escape.  Mines and booby traps took their toll daily on units operating in the area.

The people were safe while they worked in the fields.  But when they returned to their homes at night, the VC came after their rice and young men.  With this lack of security, the villages soon came under heavy VC influence.  "Our  Infantry.  "The kids would run patrols couldn't even go out secretly," said Captain Ralph Bleskan, CO of Alpha Company, 4th Battalion, 503d and tell the  VC where we were, then Charlie would either ambush us or hide.

     The people were safe while they worked in the fields.  But when they returned to their homes at night, the VC came after their rice and young men.  With this lack of security, the villages soon came under heavy VC influence.  "Our patrols couldn't even go out secretly," said Captain Ralph Bleskan, CO of Alpha Company, 4th Battalion, 503d Infantry.  "The kids would run and tell the  VC where we were, then Charlie would either ambush us or hide.

     Increasing US troop concentration in the area would not solve the problem, because the soldiers could not remain there forever.  Something had to be done which would allow the Vietnamese Regional and Popular Forces (RF's and PF's) to aggressively patrol the area with minimum US support.  The likely solution was to destroy Charlie's hiding places and eliminate his avenues of movement.  No unit was better qualified for the job than the 538th.

     Proceeding with the operation was not a simple task.  The land clearing company could not just set up camp and begin knocking down everything in sight.  So before the 538th arrived in Tam Quan District, the 173d Airborne Brigade "prepared"  the area by conducting a concerted psychological (PSYOPs) and pacification program.

     Thousands of leaflets were dropped in the four-hamlet area, telling the Vietnamese that the 538th was coming. Helicopters flew over the villages, broadcasting messages from their chiefs which explained the forthcoming operation.  Some of the villages were spread out too far for good security, so it was decided to relocate the families. Elements of the 173d took their  armored personnel carriers (APC's) to each of these villages, then swept through the area with the chief so he could inform his people of the relocation sites which would be provided for them.

     After three weeks of such preparation, the area was ready for the 538th.  With the 173d providing security, the engineers methodically began working down through the district.  Just after heading west near QL-1, the soldiers relocated an entire village, houses and all, to an area near a US-ARVN command post.  Within three weeks they had almost reached Monster Mountain, located roughly halfway between LZ English and the South China Sea

     For their move to the base of the mountain, the 538th sent four plows ahead to work on the new site, leaving the rest of the company behind to finish the cut and tear down the old camp.  "We don't like to move the whole company in until the site is ready," said Captain Ronald Swann, CO of the 538th from Asheville, N.C.  "All the plows would just get in the way on the hill and they'd also be sitting ducks."

Rome plows from the 538th Land Clearing Company worked both the hills and flat-lands during their month-long operation in Binh Dinh Province, stripping the land to deny the enemy his valuable cover.

     The first plows at the new site set to work skimming the top of the hill to clear away any mines.  Then they pushed up a five-foot berm and plowed the inner surface, leveling spots for the tactical operations center and mess, commo, and maintenance sections.  Finally they dug slots in the berm for the tanks and the APCs and smoothed out places for the tents.  This work took almost the entire day.  When the rest of the company arrived the next day, the plows began clearing the slopes outside the berm

     Plans for clearing the area did not call for the 538th to strip Monster Mountain, a known VC sanctuary, though many of the engineers obviously would have enjoyed tackling the steep slopes with their plows.  Instead the company split up to work the front and back, each group clearing the smaller hills and hedgerows and cutting a 5-meter strip along the base of the mountain.  "Charlie usually stays out of the area when we're around," said Captain Swann.  "But after we leave he'll come back to work.  Then he'll be detected coming out of the mountain because his cover has been destroyed

     During the operation, the engineers worked closely with the village chiefs and mobile advisory team (MAT team) to determine where and what the plows would actually cut.  The men were directed to stay away from the houses, graves, and crops.  If they discovered an abandoned house or weren't sure about an area they consulted the village chief before proceeding, to make sure they wouldn't cause any hard feelings.

     The terrain of Tam Quan District was a combination of almost everything the engineers had ever cleared before.  Even though the mountain was avoided, there were many steep slopes that forced a driver to ride with his feet braced up against the instrument panel to keep from falling out of the cab.  In places the jungle was so dense that only black puffs of diesel smoke were visible as a plow wrestled with the thick growth.

     Hedgerow stretched out in endless lines, full of tall trees to be felled with thunderous crashes.  And there were rolling hills, lightly covered with brush, where a man could plod up and down, scraping away row after row, until the slope was naked.

     Though the name "Rome Plow" is generally used when describing land clearing operations, the engineers actually use two different types of blades on their plows:  the Rome blade and the bull blade.  The latter, which is a normal bulldozer blade, works best in an area where the ground has to be scraped clean because it can dig below the surface.  It is also invaluable for constructing campsites 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.

 

     Clearing land is a dirty and dangerous job.  The work-day is long, beginning with a two-hour stand down every morning while the men perform the necessary maintenance on their plows.  After a single-file drive to the cut, 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.  With flak jacket and steel pot on, he soaks his uniform with sweat when the sun climbs in the sky and shivers miserably when the driving sheets of monsoon rain sweep through the cab.  Even when the weather is tolerable, there are enough ants, bees, and tree snakes around to cause the operator concern.                                

 

A brief respite from working in the thick jungle growth.  Here an engineer plods downhill, making the first of many cuts which will leave the slopes completely barren.

Yet, these are mild irritations compared to the real danger these men face daily.  They always lead the way into an area, exposing themselves to any mines or booby traps.

Even when the land clearing is in process, the APC's and tanks will attempt to follow in the plows' tracks.  The engineers have hit explosive devices ranging from claymores and "Bouncing Betty's" to anti-tank mines.The VC like to place them in areas where the plows are almost sure to travel, such as stream crossings and hedgerows.  The drivers will tell you that they feel safe in the cab, protected in front and beneath by thick metal.  Yet they have seen the harm flying shrapnel can do when a mine is detonated in just the right spot, and you know the fear is there.

     Clearing the ground of its vegetation, the plows naturally uncovered Charlie's hiding places.  The engineers found over 70 tunnels and bunkers in Tam Quan District during the month of September.  But it was too time-consuming for the plows to stop and fill them all in.  They would just call over someone from a nearby tank or APC to check it out and then destroy it.

     When the plows returned in the early evening, you first heard their low rumbling off in the distance, then saw them as black spots crawling across the landscape.  Pulling up inside the berm, the men jumped from the cabs and headed straight for their tents to get a beer or a soda.  Barechested and sweaty, they plopped onto cots, chairs, and footlockers and let themselves unwind for a moment.

     Soon most of the men stripped off the rest of their dirty clothes and walked to the water truck.  Dinner could wait; nothing in the world could feel better at the moment than a cold shower.  The water was sandy as it gushed from the faucets, but no one really complained.  It removed the dirt and sweat of a long day and helped awaken a tired mind.  And that was all that mattered.

     The hot meal went down fast, then it was back to the tents.  The men hooked up the truck headlights which they had hung inside, for it was already getting dark.  Mail was brought in, the first in several days, and they settled down to read the long-awaited letters.  Those who got none  grabbed eagerly for the week-old Stars and Stripes.

     One of the men received a large envelope from his sister--a teacher.  She had enclosed letters from her entire class of 5th grade students.  The engineers gathered around as each was read aloud, bursting into laughter   at the wondrous questions a child could think up to ask a soldier in Vietnam.  The men seemed to make the most of the moment, enjoying the warmth of friendship.  The mood explained a statement which Specialist Four Mike Horowitz, West Lake Village, Calif., had made earlier in the day, "You've only   got a few things to return to after a day out  on the cut--a shower, a hot meal, and your friends.  If you don't enjoy the people here, there's not much left."

An  old man watches in silence as Rome plows clear the hedgerows around his village.  When working near a village, the engineers are careful not to disturb the crops, graves, and houses.

     The tent lights were off by 9:30, most of the men already asleep while turned-down radios droned on and on.  Specialist Horowitz was one of the few still awake, finishing a letter by a flickering lantern.  "You know, our job is funny," he said.  "Most of the engineer units here spend their time constructing things--bridges, highways, houses.  We do just the opposite, stripping the land to help the people."

     It was hard to tell if he was defending his job, or trying to determine for himself what he was accomplishing.  But one thing was certain.  He would have all next day on the cut, and many more after that, to think about it.

Article submitted by: Jim Herman


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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