Greg Doering driving the M275 Mechanical Mule.

Motor T and the Mule

Lots of guys drove trucks and Jeeps in Vietnam, but how many drove the M274 Mechanical Mule?

Story and photos by Greg Doering

I arrived at Da Nang Airport in Vietnam on April 12, 1968. I was met by Corporal Muir, who I soon nicknamed “Corporal A-Hole,” and taken to Camp Carroll to be a motor pool driver in the grunt battalion of Second Battalion Ninth Marines, Third Marine Division.

It became obvious early on that we had too many drivers for too few jobs. By the latter part of April we learned we were moving to Ca Lu, farther up Highway 9 and closer to the DMZ. The five of us who arrived together were picked to transfer to line companies as replacements. I traveled with the motor pool to help set up at the new location, but was soon told by Corporal A-Hole, “Pack your shit, Doering, you’re headed to Fox Company, up at Ca Lu.” The motor pool had moved to LZ Stud, down Highway 9 that linked the areas of Ca Lu and Stud.

I had to decide which personal belongings I would be able to take with me and which to leave behind. The previous few days had been spent constructing my sleeping area in my new home. I had turned an ammo box into a personal storage container for all the goodies from home I had been receiving, and was sitting on my cot trying to say goodbye to my stuff.

In an uncharacteristic gesture, Corporal Muir gave me helpful instructions about fitting all my needs into a backpack that would become my new downsized personal storage method. I started with things I couldn’t live without: My letter-writing gear, my camera and film, comfort food from home, and C-ration cans of fruit cake and pears, two pairs of extra socks, an extra pair of jungle-utility trousers and shirt, and two pairs of under shorts – my pack was filled to capacity. Beyond my personal needs, I had to shift my focus to self-protection, limited only by what I would be able to carry.

My rifle, flak jacket, and helmet that had been lying under my cot gathering dust were suddenly urgent friends. I had two magazines full of .223 ball ammo and some extra rounds stuffed into a pouch hung on an ammo-utility belt slung over my shoulder as I stepped out the door to meet Lance Corporal Dietz. Dietz, my former student driver, was now my personal chauffeur tasked with running me up to Ca Lu, from the motor pool area now called “LZ Stud.” Dietz handed me a manila packet when I jumped into the Jeep, explaining that he’d already picked up my transfer orders, and would be taking me to Fox
company up at Ca Lu.

We had lost a gunner and an assistant gunner a few weeks ago. I flashed on the life expectancy of an assistant gunner on an M60 in a firefight; from what I could recall, it wasn’t very long.

We rolled up to the Fox Company HQ bunker where Dietz took me inside and presented me to the “six,” popular jargon for the command unit. I was introduced to the company “Gunny” as a replacement transfer, and Dietz stepped outside to bullshit with people he knew and show off his Jeep. Staff Sergeant Klein stepped up to introduce himself, telling me he was the weapons platoon commander. “Hey Gunny, I need a new AG on the machine gun fire team,” he said. We had lost a gunner and an assistant gunner a few weeks ago. I flashed on the life expectancy of an assistant gunner on an M60 in a firefight; from what I could recall, it wasn’t very long. The AG was the guy who pops up his head to see where the enemy is, and tells the gunner which way to direct fire – a fact that had stuck with me from my ITR (Infantry Training Regiment).

The AG was also the one scrambling for more ammo. As I waited for the gunny’s reply, I understood this is where I could have easily been peeing in my pants. I had so much anxiety I couldn’t breathe or track my bodily functions. I wished I could breathe flames. The gunny was thinking as I quickly whipped out my wallet to show him my driver’s license. “Hey, I’m trained to drive up to a 5-ton truck.” The gunny and Staff Sgt. Klein bantered ideas back and forth. “We can make him the C.O.’s Jeep driver,” the gunny said. Klein said there was no way I was taking that job away from his driver with the three Purple Hearts. I was asked to wait outside.

The Jeep driver, Dietz, was sitting in his Jeep. “You’re actually trained to be a truck driver?” Dietz asked.

“Yeah, a truck driver without a truck to drive,” I replied.

“Wow, are you getting the ‘Green Weenie’! Maybe you’ll wind up in a rifle squad.” Dietz tried to console me in my worried frustration.

I was called back in. “OK Doering, you’re going to be attached to the CP’s first platoon mortars and be a Mule driver. Follow me,” Klein said.

I wondered what a Mule was as I grabbed my gear out of the Jeep and followed Klein to my new home. Klein led me up to an area above the bunker the CP (Command Post) was in, and introduced me to Vic, the squad leader for first platoon mortars.

Vic was the first black person I had ever shaken hands with. My upbringing generated internal conflict, but I knew I would have to trust my life to Vic’s experience, and would have to disregard his skin color. Vic portrayed the persona of an officer and a gentleman, with kind eyes that calmed my bias.

Klein introduced me to Lucky, standing next to Vic. Lucky was a curly blond-headed surfer type from California. Lucky stood about five-foot ten, with a brawny build, almost muscle-bound upper shoulders and biceps from carrying the mortar base plate as “B-Gunner-Ammo Humper.” Lucky extended a handshake, while keeping his left hand twirling his heavily waxed handlebar mustache.

“He’s all yours!” Klein said, laughing.

The bunker where the guys slept was elevated slightly above an 8-inch gun artillery pit, in the general area of my first Ca Lu perimeter-watch experience.

“You’re not going to sleep very well. That shit next door goes all night for H&I fire missions,” Vic said, in a lazy southern drawl. Even though I didn’t understand that meant Harassment and Interdiction, I nodded my head as if I understood what he was saying.

One by one, the other guys came out from their sleepy fortress. Tom, who was hardly five-foot six, and skinny as a rail, talked slow like he had marbles in his mouth. He gave a big “spit-too” on the ground from a big wad of chewing “tobacky” in his mouth, cleared his throat, and in a deep, raspy voice, said “Howdy, I am Tom, Ammo-Humper.” Tom shook my hand, crunching my fingers, then removed his thick, black-frame military-issue glasses, and taking a lick of spit on his finger, rubbed the dust around, and stuck his glasses back on.

“What’s your name?” Tom asked.

“Greg,” I said.

“Nah, nah, we don’t want your first name. Too many of us have the same first name. What’s your last name?”

“OK, it’s Private Doering,” I said.

Tom said, “That’s better. No one else around here with that name. Guys with the same last name usually get nicknames around here. Welcome aboard!”

The last guy wandered out, or more like floated out, with a sweet burnt-toast smell around him. He was tall, with wire-rimmed civilian-issue glasses, a fuzzy mustache, sideburns, with his hair standing up in a long crew cut.

“What was that thing that just went over my head? Did we get hit?”

“Far out man, you’re a truck driver?” He seemed to fade off somewhere else in his mind, like he was trying to remember his name, and like I was no longer there.

“Oh, yeah, man, my name’s BB Meyer, man.”

Our introductions were cut short by what sounded like a jet flying over, like it was breaking the sound barrier. By the time I figured out what was going on, everyone was in the bunker. I stuck my head through the narrow opening inside the main door to hear, “Sorry man, it’s full in here.” I dove face-down behind the sandbags, in the mortar pit just outside the door, thinking maybe that was the thing to do. I could see everyone inside, as I shouted a question.

“What was that thing that just went over my head? Did we get hit?”

“No, you don’t hear the one that gets you, that incoming was the big shit.” Lucky said.

Again, in the distance, I heard another sound – maybe that’s incoming? Yup! Everyone dove back into the bunker, and at least I was allowed in this time. It was so quiet inside. With his jaw clenched, Vic just gave me a blank stare. I felt I didn’t belong, and looked around for more welcoming signs of any kind. “Do you want me to go back outside?” I asked. Everyone was looking for an answer from Vic. As I began to crawl back outside, Vic grabbed my foot.

“Get your dumb ass back in here, Private Shit For Brains!” Nothing more had to be said, there was just a feeling of being adopted into the squad. As fast as the volley of artillery had hit us, it was over.

“They’re just dialing us in for the next time, and they have to quit before we get a fix on their location,” Lucky said.


Greg Doering with artillery shells.
The 8-inch gun pit behind our hooch. Its projectiles put our 60mm mortars into perspective.

Everyone joined in, saying it’s going to get noisy now. We all scrambled outside. Holy shit! All five gun batteries started working out, followed by a resounding, “Get some!” – the payback phrase shouted by everyone, like a cheering section. Everyone was jumping up and down in fits of joy. I definitely felt my first taste of revenge against the fucking gooks, especially after the word had been passed really fast that the 175-artillery battery just down the road from us had taken a couple of direct hits. The A Gunner at the artillery pit had the misfortune to be standing to load, and had been decapitated by a huge piece of shrapnel that flew over the sand bags. The word was they couldn’t find his head.

The Fox Company driver came up to our area with instructions to take me back down to the LZ Stud motor pool, to pick up a Mule. I was really excited to drive past the swimming hole next to the bridge on Highway 9, halfway between LZ Stud and Ca Lu. The swimming hole was just a naturally occurring deep area of the river we could jump into from the bridge. Dietz took a detour when we got close to the motor pool to show me the ammo dump.

“You’ll be glad you’re not in the motor pool anymore after you see this shit!” Dietz said. I had never seen an ammo dump before, and was very impressed with the tons and tons of different kinds of ammunition storage. The ammo dump, or depot, was the length of two football fields, with storage on either side of a road running through the middle. The storage areas were compartments dug into the side of a hill, with dirt walls left between them, so one side blowing up from artillery and rocket attacks couldn’t blow up the other. The dirt dug out to make the compartments was piled into walls for compartments on the other side of the dividing road, for small-arms weaponry.

There was a row of what was left of three 5-ton trucks that were in the ammo dump during the recent attack. We had seen the pink, blue, and white smoke from up at Ca Lu, but I had no idea what it was. Dietz said one truck took a direct hit, and the loader, its operator, and two other drivers were wasted by the explosions.

Dietz couldn’t miss an opportunity to tease me, “Are you sure you still want to be a truck driver, Doering?” We took off up the road to the motor pool. Before we made the left turn into the motor pool, Dietz pulled over to point out what the Seabees were building just up the hill, right across from the motor pool. “See them big black things? That’s fuel bladders for diesel and JP-4 aviation fuel – and the semi-truck tank is a gasoline tanker, parked in its own dug-out compartment. Am I glad I don’t have to work in the motor pool,” Dietz said, with a shit-eating grin.

“I think I get the picture,” I said.

We rolled into the motor pool, and were greeted by Corporal A-Hole Muir, who greeted me with his long, clever, drawn-out phrase, “What’s goe-oo-inginginng-on Doering-inginging?” At least he was a familiar a-hole. He seemed to be even slightly hospitable toward me, and took time to show me the Mule he had picked out for me.

“This one’s a good one; we just unloaded it from coming back from Dong Ha – it’s got a new engine and tranny.” Muir was outwardly concerned – whether more about the Mule or me, I couldn’t tell.

I got a quick review of how to operate and care for an M274 Mechanical Mule, and got a run-through on how to drive the all-wheel drive, three-speed manual shift, with reverse, and split-shift transfer case, capable of hauling a half ton of cargo. It was basically a large go-kart with a flatbed, for hauling whatever you could pile on to it.

Muir barked an emphatic order, “This is your vehicle, Doering – and no one else drives it but you, or you get your ass court martialed!”

“Yes Corporal,” almost calling him A-Hole Muir. I followed Dietz back to Ca Lu, eating his dust most of the way, but stopping for a swim, of course.


Ammo dump explosion.
LZ Stud ammo dump explodes – viewed from Ca Lu.

My first assignment was to go get some blue-tip tracer rounds for the mortar. I bounced around with Lucky and Tom riding along, driving to different locations, with each person I asked sending me to another location. At the last destination, up a long, winding road, I left Tom and Lucky sitting on the Mule, while I went up to a supply sergeant. The sergeant was a really nice guy – and looking up at me, he couldn’t keep a straight face, and said, “Marine, these guys are really fucking with you. There are no blue-tip tracers for mortars.”

It was really hot, not a great day for driving all over for nothing. “Hey Lucky, you guys are really funny, not funny, ha ha!” I appreciated their shoulder punches, and the “Three Stooges” type of humor that followed. On the way back down the hill I deliberately hit some bone-jarring potholes that kept Lucky and Tom hanging on for dear life, using the excuse that I was still learning how to drive the Mule.

I passed my new-guy acceptance training, and became the local “milk-run” driver, with instant friends who needed rides, feasible as long as we attached believable purposes to a destination. Tom and Lucky were regular passengers, enjoying the thrill of pot-hole dodging, while BB would be on the bed of the Mule, hanging on as tight as he could.

One day, I was being adventurous, and drove perpendicularly on the side of a steep hill, causing Tom and BB to jump off, messing up the balance of weight distribution. Events in time seemed to turn in slow motion, as Lucky scrambled to my uphill side of the Mule, and leaned way out to balance like he was on a surfboard, as I quickly turned downhill to a safe position, and stopped. We looked at each other as Lucky leaped off, with a back-flip roll into Tom and BB acting as his safety net.

“Wow man, I would have been really messed up with this Mule rolling over me.”

“I know,” said Lucky.

“What can I say? Thanks, man!”

“Do you know where you are dumb ass? You’re in the middle of an old French minefield!”

I stopped to collect my thoughts as a gust of wind blew my new bush hat into a wired-off area with funny red triangles hanging on the wire, located just above the hill. Lucky and Tom were making sure BB was okay, while I walked into the fenced area to get my hat.

“Stop, Motor T!” Lucky yelled. I didn’t recognize the name Lucky was yelling, and turned around to see what all the noise was about. Lucky came to the edge of the wire as he yelled again. “Do you know where you are dumb ass? You’re in the middle of an old French minefield!”

“Uh-oh!” I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. By this time I had drawn a crowd, with an officer screaming at me.

“Turn around, Marine, and put your foot back into every step you took to get where the fuck you are!”

“Okay,” I said. I grabbed my hat and took a very long five minutes to carefully retrace each step to safety.

The officer read me the riot act, and showed me a map of all of the mine fields, and how to recognize them. “Do you understand, Marine?”

“Yes sir! Thank you sir!”

Lucky, Tom, and BB had a good laugh. “Hey, you called me Motor T. I have a nickname now,” I said to Lucky.

“Well, I couldn’t remember your fucking name.”

“I’m happy being called Motor T, if you want to,” I said.

 

Greg DoeringGreg Doering is a Vietnam veteran who served in Vietnam with the U.S. Marine Corps, 1968-69. He is a retired dental technician, and is the author of an unpublished memoir, Honor and Indignity, Diary of
a Marine 1967-69.