Ambush At An Khe Pass

 

On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek

 

Ambush At An Khe Pass

 

Most of the sagas about the Viet Nam War are about military operations and men in uniform, but civilian contractors in Viet Nam were not always safe.  This short chronicle is a long repressed memoir about one of the more vivid recollections of a civilian Footloose Forester on the edges of a Viet Cong ambush in the An Khe Pass.

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Present-day and former flag flying over Qui Nhon and An Khe

Non-military support for American forces during the Viet Nam War was a massive effort carried out by civilian companies that were contracted to build and maintain facilities in behalf of their military clients, including tiny fire bases and remote posts. Building mess halls, installing power stations, latrines, clean water sources, field hospitals and air strips; and all the maintenance functions that went with them, were all in the master contracts.  Keeping dust out of hospitals and reducing mud on access roads and in military compounds were also included.  As the Land Management Agronomist with Pacific Architects & Engineers (PA&E), the Footloose Forester developed a country-wide dust and erosion control program that included An Khe, in the Central Highlands on the other side of the mountain pass from the coastal city of Qui Nhon.  

When a fellow PA&E employee stationed in Qui Nhon planned to drive over the mountains into An Khe, he offered a ride to Footloose Forester, but with the cautious note that the trip would be in an open jeep and without military escort.  The man was a rugged, fearless type who said that he had made the trip before, even knowing that An Khe Pass was a site where ambushes had taken place before. The Footloose Forester agreed to go, and we set out the next day.

Everything was fine until we got to the place where the road started to climb upward toward an uninhabited area in the vicinity of An Khe Pass, only about 10 miles from our destination. As we rounded the last switchback bending toward the entrance of the pass, we encountered a US Army jeep with an armed MP who told us to wait in the switchback until it was safe to proceed.  An ambush was taking place inside the pass. It may have been a half-hour or so before he gave us the signal to proceed. When we got into An Khe Pass and along a flat stretch of road that was clearly visible from the hills on both sides, we were stunned to see an entire convey of American supply trucks burning. 

Except for the rear and lead jeeps that accompanied that Army supply convey, every single one of the ten cargo vans was ablaze. From the appearance of the large holes nearly centered into the sides of the vans, it would appear that rocket propelled grenades were aimed at the largest target areas on the vans, to do maximum damage with the least chance of missing the targets. If there were American casualties at the site, they might have already been airlifted out with helicopters; because all we saw were the glassy-eyed drivers and MPs who remained near their trucks until they could themselves be evacuated.

The PA&E man realized that we could not help, so he sped thought the pass at high speed to avoid making us an easy target, just in case there were more ambushers in the area. We did not talk much after that, but heaved our own sighs of relief when we entered the village of An Khe, without further incident.

I knew him for only a few hours, but his strength ...
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