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Steering from boyhood to Vietnam — in jeeps

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Wayne Colton wasn’t quite old enough to drive the day he posed behind the wheel of the Virginia Electric and Power Company jeep as his dad, Harry, took his photo.

Wayne was just a kid in rural Spotsylvania County when the camera captured the moment in the late 1940s or early 1950s.

His time to drive would come in the next decade, when he would drive a jeep as an Air Force captain in Vietnam.

It was his dad, Harry B. Colton, who drove the VEPCO jeep. The Colton family lived on State Route 3, just west of Fredericksburg, next to a farm where Spotsylvania Towne Centre now stands.

VEPCO provided electricity to the region, and Harry Colton was one of the employees responsible for reading outdoor meters that measured monthly electricity use at every home and business.

The miles of country and private roads—occasionally unpaved—made for some rough traveling, so VEPCO invested in a fleet of jeeps so meter-readers could traverse their remote routes.

Every so often, Harry Colton’s assigned route passed near his home and he would stop for lunch. It was on one of those occasions that he suggested his son sit in the jeep as though he were driving it.

The younger Colton—already thinking about a military career—was happy to sit in the same type of vehicle that had become so well-known as the “workhorse” of the U.S. military during World War II.

In writing his recollections to share with the Free Lance-Star's Flashback column, Colton said, “This initial experience stuck in my mind, partially because it seemed the entire country had developed a great fondness for this precursor to the all-terrain vehicle. I would later grow even fonder of the jeep when, as a captain in the Air Force serving in Vietnam in 1966–67, I recognized the importance of having adequate available transport to enable me to get around the country.

“I was extremely lucky to have a jeep assigned to me. In Saigon, most personnel had to buy Lambretta motor scooters or take a pedicab or taxi to get anywhere.”

Colton was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon as a member of the Headquarters Air Force Advisory Group. The unit was charged with assisting the Vietnamese Air Force in learning and developing skills and technology to enhance its effectiveness in combating their mutual enemies, the North Vietnamese Army and the terrorist component known as the Viet Cong.

While he spent most of his time in Saigon, Colton would occasionally have reason to drive or fly to more remote air bases. Those trips involved added danger from Viet Cong guerrillas, who would sometimes set up an ambush or string a nearly invisible steel wire across the roadway to snag an unsuspecting jeep driver across the throat, causing serious injury or even decapitation.

That was not the only danger. Colton, billeted in downtown Saigon, drove more than 8 miles one way each day through the very congested city to get to the Air Base. He always endeavored to find other military personnel to ride with him to discourage the Viet Cong from riding by on their motor scooters and placing grenades in the jeep while he, as the driver, was distracted.

The jeep proved invaluable in many ways, he wrote. When a North Vietnamese Army regiment successfully infiltrated Saigon in late 1966, the local populace alerted members of the South Vietnamese Air Force Intelligence component to warn them of an impending attack on the sprawling Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the prize of the U.S. and Allied Air arm because of the number and diversity of military and civilian aircraft it controlled and maintained.

Because of his knowledge of the Vietnamese language, Colton was contacted immediately and briefed by his South Vietnamese counterparts on the impending attack planned for that evening. The picture (with his jeep in the background) shows the locale where the South Vietnamese Intelligence component was located, adjacent to the residence and offices of then South Vietnam’s Premier Nguyen Cao Ky.

Colton’s faithful jeep then provided transportation back to headquarters, where he briefed the commander and staff on the impending attack. Gen. William W. “Spike” Momeyer immediately directed all offensive assets and security personnel be placed on maximum alert to thwart the attack.

“Tan Son Nhut was lighted up more than New York’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve that evening because of the flares, floodlights and pyrotechnics employed by the defenders,” Colton recalled. “Nothing could move without being instantly illuminated and identified. I don’t think even a mosquito ventured out. There were AC–130 gunships, helicopters armed with .50 caliber machine guns and reconnaissance aircraft with infrared capability flying all over and around the city of Saigon, plus hugely reinforced ground security forces.”

Because of the intensive security preparations, the attack never took place. Based on his role in thwarting the potential onslaught, Colton was later awarded the Vietnamese Medal of Honor and the Bronze Star.

The jeep continued to serve in other ways, he noted. During his off-duty hours, Colton taught English to Vietnamese government workers attending night school at the Vietnamese–American Association in downtown Saigon. Again, he needed handy, reliable transportation to get to the classrooms.

“All in all, I had an ongoing love affair with the jeep throughout my stay in Vietnam,” wrote Colton, who now lives in Fredericksburg. “It was a faithful companion through some very tough times.”

jstrobel@freelancestar.com
 

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