Vietnam War gun truck Eve of Destruction is Army transportation museum's crown jewel
By MIKE HOLTZCLAW | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: November 10, 2018
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Bill Hunt read about gun trucks. He talked to the soldiers who built them and rode in them. He has photos and even some video footage.
But he never actually saw one until he came to Fort Eustis.
Hunt is the executive producer of “Gun Trucks of Vietnam,” a documentary that premieres Sunday on the Smithsonian Channel. And in the course of filming, he came to the Army Transportation Museum at Eustis, which is home to the only gun truck brought back to America from Vietnam.
“It makes it real,” Hunt said. “You can read about something and see pictures in books, especially when you’re dealing with history, but it’s hard to understand the scale until you actually see the real thing — touch it, climb on top of it. There are plenty of replicas, but this one is the real thing.”
The soldiers who built it called it Eve of Destruction, and it is featured — albeit briefly — in the documentary, which tells the story of the giant trucks that soldiers built up with makeshift armor to craft a highly effective weapon that was not officially approved by the Pentagon.
Richard Killibane, historian at the U.S. Army Transportation School in Fort Lee, consulted on the film and is a key resource for Hunt’s story. He said the gun trucks — constructed mostly by young American soldiers in Vietnam — particularly came into use after a North Vietnamese ambush on Sept. 2, 1967, killed seven and wounded 17 more in an American supply convoy.
The war trucks were developed — with sandbags for protection and two M-60 machine guns for firepower — to provide security for those convoys. At first the soldiers worked with 2-ton trucks, but eventually moved up to enormous 5-ton trucks with large enough engines to maintain a decent speed.
Just like the B-29 bombers in World War II, the trucks were given names.
“At first the commanders did not authorize elaborate artwork,” Killibane said. “The names could only be stenciled, and they had to be (olive drab) green. But when they built Eve of Destruction, they did this elaborate lettering, like Old English, and they secretly got away with it. Then they started mixing paint and varnish to get a darker hue until finally they started painting them black.”
When the war ended, most of the hulking gun trucks were left behind, but the decision was made to bring one home and preserve it for historical purposes. That’s how Eve of Destruction ended up at the Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis.
Asked if it is difficult to transport a gun truck that weighs perhaps 7 tons across the ocean, Killibane laughs. “Oh, hell no, that’s what we do,” he said. “We move stuff. We just put it on board with the rest of the stuff.”
Today Eve of Destruction is displayed in a Vietnam-themed diorama at the museum. It is one of the most popular artifacts at the museum, placed near the back so that guests looking for it will pass by other displays on their way.
“I think it is our No. 1 draw, the jewel in our crown,” museum director Alisha Hamel said. “There are people who come just to see Eve of Destruction. They’re entranced by it. We get a lot of Vietnam veterans, some of whom interacted with a gun truck and want to show it off and tell stories to their kids and their grandkids.”
Hamel hopes the exposure in the Smithsonian Channel documentary will increase interest in Eve of Destruction and in the museum as a whole.
“It’s always great to have publicity, because it’s really important that we are able to tell our transportation corps’ history,” she said. “If people come here specifically to see the gun truck, we’re going to make sure they see all the other really cool exhibits we have.”
Hunt, the documentary’s producer, said he would never forget seeing Eve of Destruction up close.
“When you touch that piece of history, it becomes something of a time machine, transporting you back to that time and place,” he said. “The gun trucks were pivotal during the Vietnam War, but very few people — even those who might be considered experts — really understand the role they played and how they evolved.
“They had their own names and personalities. The trucks were very much a member of the crew, and there was this real bond between the trucks and these men who were like 18, 19, 20 years old,” Hunt said. “They did what they had to do to protect themselves. That’s the story you learn when you go to see Eve of Destruction.”
About Eve of Destruction
Eve of Destruction is the only Vietnam gun truck brought back to the U.S. after the war. It is housed at the Army Transportation Museum on the grounds of Fort Eustis in Newport News. For information, call 757-878-1109.
The truck will be featured as part of “Gun Trucks of Vietnam,” a documentary that premieres on the Smithsonian Channel at 9 p.m. Sunday and then airs again at midnight. It will have more broadcasts on the Smithsonian Channel throughout the month.
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