The Protector was the gun truck ridden by Charles Soule when he was killed in Vietnam on Feb. 8, 1971. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Channel

Five months into his tour of Vietnam, Charles Soule of Lewiston volunteered to ride on a gun truck, one of three that was guarding a convoy of about 20 tankers, each filled with 5,000 gallons of fuel to supply a base near the Laos border.

Assigned to the 57th Transportation Company, Soule was a heavy-truck operator for the maintenance battalion but was not a crew member of a gun truck.

According to his sister, Soule switched his assignment to join a friend on the gun truck, “The Protector.”

Charles Soule

The Feb. 8, 1971, mission was especially dangerous because the convoy was riding on a narrow, unfamiliar road at night, which prevented it from receiving air support. The road, wide enough for one vehicle, was flanked with elephant grass on one side, allowing the North Vietnamese Army a place to lie hidden.

When the convoy drove into the ambush. a rocket or mortar struck The Protector, killing Soule, destroying the gun truck and blowing the rest of the crew out the back. Four of the tankers were also disabled.

The two other gun trucks in the convoy responded and helped minimize the damage. Soule was the lone fatality. Eight others soldiers were wounded, including a lieutenant who was blinded in the attack.

Reports of the incident indicate that the gun trucks never made another night run on that narrow roadway.

With gun trucks being so rare and valuable, The Protector was recovered, repaired and renamed the Executioner.

The war would continue for another four years, but Charles Soule, 19, was the last serviceman from Lewiston-Auburn to die in the Vietnam War.

Midnight requisition

The ambush and Soule’s death are described midway through the Smithsonian Channel program “Gun Trucks of Vietnam,” which premiered last fall and will be rebroadcast at 1 p.m. on Memorial Day.

Like most people, executive producer Bill Hunt was unfamiliar with the gun trucks saga when someone approached his film company with the idea.

“This is a story that many people have never heard of,” Hunt said from New York. “So much has been done on the Vietnam War with news, videos and all that. Many people, even those that were very knowledgeable about the Vietnam War did not know about this.”

That is not surprising, said Richard Killblane, an author and retired military historian at the U.S. Army Transportation School at Fort Lee in Virginia.

“No one paid attention to it,” Killblane said in a telephone interview last week. “Logistics is not sexy. Most stories are about combat operations. They don’t think of this as a combat operation.”

The gun trucks were developed and built by young American soldiers in the field to protect the convoys carrying fuel and supplies, which became increasingly vulnerable to enemy attack.

The first major ambush by the North Vietnamese targeting truck drivers came in 1967 and destroyed 31 of 37 trucks in the convoy, killed seven drivers and injured 17, Killblane said.

With truck drivers now targets, the enterprising young soldiers built a new weapon on their own with no blueprints. The gun truck was born.

The trucks evolved to 5-ton vehicles with steel gun boxes. The trucks were generally armed with a pair of M-60 machine guns on each side and an M-2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun in the back. The trucks were generally manned by a team of four to five soldiers.

Instead of Army green, the trucks were painted black with colorful names painted on the sides, such as Assassins, Eve of Destruction, Brutus and The Protector.

“Every single truck was different,” Hunt said. “A different armor. Different configuration, and that was all due to whatever they could find, what they could use. The powers that be, I guess, said, ‘We don’t have a better solution. We’re going to let these men create their own war machines.'”

The soldiers scrounged for scrap metal, begged, borrowed, swapped and even stole to get the needed supplies. Hunt said some soldiers referred to the practice as “midnight requisition.”

Hunt and Killblane are proud that the program showed the connection between the Vietnam gun truck crews and the Iraq and Afghanistan crews who reached out for help with their gun trucks.

“It’s not just a historic story,” Hunt said. “There was a direct connection to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. A contemporary story with an organic contemporary angle.”

Camp Soule

In an interview four years ago, Soule’s sister, Linda Nadeau, described him as a quiet and shy boy who dropped out of school after attending Jordan Junior High School in Lewiston. After getting in some trouble, authorities offered him a deal to go into the service. He joined the Army in June 1968 and re-enlisted two years later.

“He went to Germany first and did very well,” Nadeau said. “When he was sent to Vietnam, he was glad to go. He wanted to go. He was searching for who he was. That generation, we all were.”

Before he went to Vietnam, Soule had the wherewithal to take out a life insurance policy on himself and give it to his parents.

“He did tell my parents before he left that ‘the chances are, I won’t come back. I want you to have this.’ They bought a home with the money.”

After he was killed, Soule’s fellow soldiers named their battalion base Camp Soule, Nadeau said.

A military funeral was held in Lewiston a few weeks later. A military escort from Fort Devens in Massachusetts and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware led a procession up Main Street to Riverside Cemetery, where he is buried.

 

The side of the gun truck, The Protector, with its name painted on the gun box. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Channel


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