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KHE SANH, Vietnam — Every day the drivers rev up their two-and-a-half-ton M49C tank trucks loaded with aviation fuel at Fire Support Base Vandegrift and roar out onto the road to Khe Sanh that has already claimed 13 of their vehicles.

The twisting road with its narrow bridges is usually slick with mud. Long stretches run along the edges of deep ravines. There are no guard rails. If it is not raining, Route 9 is likely to be a ribbon of choking, blinding dust. The men argue about which is worse, the mud or the dust, but it is certain that they will drive in one or the other — and sometimes both.

Enemy soldiers regularly ambush convoys on the road. Eight of the unit's 13 lost vehicles were the targets of Red gunners. Route 9 is littered with vehicles burnt out and shot up or overturned in ravines along the road. Cases of artillery ammunition are scattered where they have fallen from bouncing, sliding trucks.

Elephant grass and brush line the road along most of its length and often there is high ground on both sides. Every section of the route is susceptible to ambush. The unit has been lucky. Their commander said they had not lost a man since the unit was formed at the start of the operation. GIs came to the company from 23 units in Vietnam, he said.

Until about a week ago the drivers made a run to Khe Sanh every day and night, they said. They have since made just one round trip a day. One of the last night runs was ambushed about three miles east of Khe Sanh.

Pfc. Thomas A. Love was driving, about midway in the convoy as it moved slowly up the hill toward Khe Sanh when the shooting started. "The first thing I saw was Red tracers," Love said. The enemy soldiers were on both sides of the road. The tanker ahead of his was hit in the side with a rocket propelled .grenade, and then an AK47 round came through Love's windshield and grazed his head.

"It felt like getting a knuckle sandwich from King Kong, and it bounced me this high off the seat," Love said, holding one hand about two feet off the floor. He displayed his Boonie hat Dick Tracy style, a finger through each bullet hole.

Love drove around the burning truck and stopped to pick up its driver. The GI jumped on the running board and Love sped from the area. "They had an awfully big kill zone," he said.

When the men are not on the road they still have to contend with enemy troops around Vandegrift. The fire base has been taking rockets daily, the GIs reported.

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