It was standard practice for the Air Force to destroy abandoned equipment before the enemy could profit from it

Wednesday, November 11th, 2020

One of the persistent myths of American arms in the middle of this century, T. R. Fehrenbach argues (in This Kind of War), is that technicians somehow are not and should not be soldiers, before telling the grim tale of the 9th Infantry’s medics, bringing up the rear as their convoy stopped:

When the regiment debarked at Pusan, the medics were issued rifles. As Schlichter put it later, this caused a certain amount of consternation in the ranks. For here they were told that the North Korean enemy considered any man in uniform fair game, whether he wore medic’s armband or the chaplain’s silver cross, and they should govern themselves accordingly.


Then an officer — for there were young men wearing bars among this convoy who were never soldiers, either — ran along the stalled line of trucks, shouting: “It’s every man for himself! We’re trapped! Get out any way you can!”

Men got down from the trucks and began to run for the circling hills — and the officers and sergeants followed. Here, thought Sergeant Schlichter later, we committed a grievous error. Here we broke faith with our fellow soldiers, and fellow men.

There were 180 wounded men in the trucks, and no one said anything to these men as they were abandoned.


All night the medics, none of whom possessed any infantry training, wandered aimlessly through the hills fringing the road.


Undamaged, the vehicles stood starkly by the road, in column, easily visible from the air. Before Schlichter’s party reached them, Air Force planes screamed out of the south, shooting, bombing. It was standard practice for the Air Force to destroy abandoned equipment before the enemy could profit from it. The pilots could not know what cargo those deserted trucks still held.

Schlichter was too far away to do anything, but close enough to hear the wounded men aboard the vehicles scream. Then the Air Force dropped napalm, the drums bouncing from the frozen ground and engulfing the dusty trucks in flame.


  1. Bruce Purcell says:

    Jerry Pournelle mentioned cases of blowing bridges filled with refuges from Fehrenbach also.

  2. Kirk says:

    This is a perfect illustration of why I’m convinced that the only path is to train every soldier to be an infantryman first and foremost, with specialized training only lavished upon the men and women who survive at least one enlistment in the combat arms. You don’t know when, you don’t know where, ever–The enemy will engage you how, where, and when you are least prepared, and if you focus too much emphasis on specialization, you’ll create the conditions for another 507th Maintenance Company.

    Handwriting was on the wall as far back as WWII, on the Eastern Front. Our battles in Western Europe were fairly linear, and the few guerrilla forces that were there fought on our side. The Germans had to deal with extensive rear-area penetration and interdiction of their lines of communications, with the Soviets pioneering the tactics and operational techniques they later used against Western armies in Korea, Vietnam, and Africa.

    Every man and woman in uniform has to be prepared and equipped to serve as front-line infantry, because there is no “rear area” that they can safely count on being allowed to let others do the “real fighting”. In fact, the enemy is going to avoid the combat troops and go after the logistics bunnies, so you may just find yourself having the “combat only” folks run around looking for contacts they never make.

    It’s an expensive option, but in my book, the only way to go is have your support functions performed only by second-tour veterans of the combat arms, and ensure that once the enemy makes contact with them, if they leave that experience alive, they leave it vowing to never again try to tackle American support troops…

    In WWII, the Army trained its Combat Engineers such that they actually got to become as proficient as infantry at basic combat tasks, and since they were better equipped with vehicles and machine guns, the Germans learned the hard way to leave them the hell alone. COL David Pergrin’s 291st Engineer Battalion was filling a Corps Reserve support role, running sawmills and stockpiling lumber for building winter quarters when Sepp Dietrich and his SS Panzers ran straight into them. The Germans did not enjoy the experience, and that’s the source of Dietrich pounding on his hatch combing and screaming “The damned Engineers…” in frustration, as they blew the only bridge out of the death trap they’d driven into.

    You don’t get to choose when the enemy attacks. Only he does, and you’d better be fully prepared to deal with him aggressively and permanently. Ideally, he hits your support troops, and rues the day he ever thought that was a good idea…

  3. Toddy Cat says:

    You’re absolutely right Kirk. It’s also very interesting to note that, despite the bad rap our men in Vietnam got, the early portion of the Korean War was a clusterf*ck in a way that nothing in Vietnam ever was. As someone noted, though, in Korea the US started with a terrible army, and ended up with a pretty good one – things were reversed in Vietnam.

  4. Kirk says:

    The Army in Vietnam was still in denial about a lot of things; the then-prevalent fantasy was that they were going to fight the “big war” in Europe, so Vietnam was a sideshow of limited importance that they needn’t pay attention to.

    Which showed in so many ways–My least-favorite example is the approach Big Army took to dealing with the mine/IED issues. Where Rhodesia and South Africa dealt with their near-identical problems by developing the road clearance and mine-resistant vehicles that we saw come into use only during the latter phases of Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Army basically just kept on keeping on with the WWII-era solution set, and threw some more draftees onto the bonfire.

    There’s a whole untold story about the route clearance campaign in Vietnam, one that doesn’t get mentioned an awful lot. This is a mistake, because an honest self-examination would highlight a lot of the problems we have with regards to how we approach war here in the US.

    From about ’69 until 2005-ish, the whole issue of rear-area battle and route clearance was hand-waved away. This is why things like the 507th Maintenance Company happened in Iraq during the invasion–It was too much trouble, too expensive, to acknowledge the fact that there was a need to get realistic combat training out to the “rear echelon” support troops. During WWII, a unit like the 507th could have counted on operating in a benign environment, unless they belonged to the Wehrmacht and were on the Eastern Front. Because that mentality is still prevalent, you’re going to see similar things to the 507th’s adventures in Nasiriyah continue to happen.

    There are no “safe rear areas”, even stateside. My heartfelt (and, horrified…) belief is that the next time there’s a well-organized enemy on the other side we’re facing, we’re going to see things like the off-base housing for drone operators attacked in cities like Las Vegas. It’s an inevitability, and anyone who expects that such attacks won’t be directed at those key and critical personnel in their own homes here in the US is purely delusional.

    The major drone operation center for the Air Force ought not be at Nellis, next door to a major city with international traffic, but somewhere out in the hinterlands like Mountain Home AFB in Idaho, where a bunch of Arab or Asian foreigners would stick out like sore thumbs.

    Our military, however, is way too overconfident and far too unimaginative to either grasp these facts or do anything about them in time to prevent it from happening.

    Frankly, either all the drone operators ought to be living on post in secured/defended compounds, or they ought to be trained/equipped to deal with actual assaults on their homes. As in, the Air Force really ought to be hardening those guys and their families up, or taking actual protective measures.

    As well, the incident with that nutbar Major at Fort Hood points up the need for the troops to be armed at all times, stateside and overseas. The era when you could count on “safe areas” even existing is gone. It’s far past time to actually acknowledge that, and address the issues.

  5. Sam J. says:

    The Army in Vietnam gets a totally undeserved rap that in no way responds to reality. They said they were going to shoot the living hell out of the commies until they were done with fighting and I say they did exactly that. They blew the living hell out of those commies. They completely destroyed the Viet Cong and almost, damn near almost, killed off the NVA.

    From Pournelle,”And in Viet Nam the North sent 150,000 men south with as much armor as the Wehrmacht had in many WW II engagements. That was in 1973, and of that 150,000 fewer than 50,000 men and no armor returned to the North, at a cost of under 1,000 American casualties. Most would count that an outstanding victory. (Alas, in 1975 North Viet Nam had another army of over 100,000 and sent it South; the Democratic Congress voted our South Vietnamese 20 cartridges and 2 hand grenades per man, but refused naval and air support; Saigon predictably became Ho Chi Minh city as we pushed helicopters off the decks of out carriers in our frantic evacuation; but that is hardly the fault of the US military).”

    The reason they were successful in taking the South was solely and 100% due to the Democrat Congress that had been saying over and over and over and over that we could never win the Vietnam war so when they got in power they made damn sure we didn’t.

    Any fool can see the final dash in 75′ could have been totally crushed with a massive defeat for the commies. They would have been crushed and humiliated to such an extent that maybe, just maybe the soldiers of the North would have realized that fighting the South with US backing was futile. Even to the extent that they would have shot their commie officers in order to surrender. There was only a couple usable roads to move the seriously large amount of armor and troops they were invading with. It could have been a bloodbath. There were people flying over the invasion, I can’t remember who, I think it was in the book “A BRIGHT SHINING LIE JOHN PAUL VANN AND AMERICA IN VIET NAM”, who said that they had been spending decades looking for the enemy to fight and here they were and we were giving up.

    Commies or not there is some level of destruction to where the North would not have been able to form units to attack. We could have met or been damn close to that level in 75 with attacks on them coming down the country. In those days we even still had battleships that could pound them from the sea with vast amounts of gunfire. With enough ammo and moving artillery around by air the North could have been cut off and annihilated. A total turkey shoot and the Democrats blew it. Ruined the Armies reputation, plunged our allies into despair and showed us to be faithless allies.

    You could criticize the Army for allowing lower intelligence people into the military but in reality that was political. They were forced to fight with what they could get. You also could criticize some of the tactics of the Army and the South but in all fairness until we stopped supporting the South they were prevailing. Slowly but the North never was able to take the South and anytime they came out to fight in the open, as they had to to win, they were crushed.

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