AN UNLIKELY HERO

A CONEX container did a super job and saved lives, too!

BEFORE

Lt Kermit DeVaughn (dec) - before he devised the use of CONEX containers
for a weather-proof, portable and defensible Fire Direction Center.
It is hard to imagine the computation of artillery data in open jungle terrain.

***************************************

AFTER

             Two CONEX containers welded together                                       Fortified with sandbags                                                                  Ready to Operate

There were many heroes in Vietnam, but we think of them in terms of "human" heroes.  Well, this one was made of metal.  In fact, you might say it was nothing but a large box.   And...you would be correct.  But...oh, yes...it saved many lives nonetheless.

According to Lt Gary Dean Springer, it was the brainchild of "A" Battery Fire Direction Officer Lt Kermit DeVaughn (deceased).  You took two (2) CONEX containers, cut off one side of each, and weld them together.

What's a CONEX container?  Well, deciphering military jargon in case is pretty easy.  The "CON" part stands for "container" and the "EX" part stands for "export".   Putting the two together means it is a "container for export".   As the name implies, it is very sturdy.  It is made of heavy sheets of metal in a corrugated design to withstand the bumps and slams it may endure from dock to ship and ship to dock.  Let the longshoremen give it their best shot...no harm will come to the contents.

Lt DeVaughn's idea entailed using two containers, not just one.  That would give you, in essence, the space of a compact mobile trailer.   Then, paint the interior with a bright shade of white paint to reflect the interior lighting.   Cut a few portholes that would provide both venting and viewing of the outside activities.   Weld in some shelving for a PRC-25 radio, weld in a couple of waist-high drafting tables to serve as the base for the firing chart and the "check" chart, and shelves to store records and supplies.   Lastly, provide some seating for the personnel working in the FDC. 

So...what was it's predecessor?  Would you believe...a tent?  A tent subject to be blown away every time a Chinook or SkyCrane came in with a load of ammo or a water trailer?   A tent subject to leaking in a monster monsoon?  A tent that provided little to no protection against enemy action?   Of course, another alternative is to dig a bunker or reinforce many stacks of sandbags to create above-ground protection that must withstand caving or falling down.  But the real detraction of either method is that your FDC is NOT ready to operate.  It is not ready to calculate range, deflection, charge, or quadrant elevation.  To put it another way, your "guns" are sitting outside with the cannoneers and the ammunition standing by...and they cannot provide the vital indirect fire support that is their primary mission.   The action inside a Fire Direction Center includes using pin-plots to determine map position, to use range deflection fans to determine distance and angles, to use charts to determine powder charge, to do mathematical calculations to determine quadrant elevation.  In short, to calculate the firing data given to the guns prior to firing.   Think the accuracy of where the high-explosive rounds land might suffer a little if you are standing outside doing this using a field table in a windy rainstorm?

Last, but not least, the CONEX containers were already fabricated with "lifting hooks".  Just call the helos and have them pick it up.

No one would accuse Lt DeVaughn of charm and good humor; he was difficult to work with.  But, anyone ever assigned to the exacting duties of working inside an FDC owes him a debt of thanks.   His concept of a strong and mobile FDC trailer allowed the near-immediate capability of computing firing data for the guns after landing in a new position.  It was a fantastic idea.   It was a life-saving idea.   Just ask the guys downrange.

Lt Dennis Dauphin
Lt Gary Dean Springer

Footnote: from Lt Gary Dean Springer's diary:
The idea behind this container was Lt Kermit DeVaughn's.  He came up with the idea, mentioned it to Capt Keith Carlton, who went to Bn CO Holbrook about it and it was approved.  This all occurred when I was still XO of "A" battery.  At any rate, it was built and used for awhile and then the battery was to move.  I remember standing there watching them hook it up to a Chinook.  Cargo straps were connected to each of the four corners of the container.  When it was ready, the Chinook lifted off but after getting the container about 50 feet or so off the ground, one of the straps broke way at a corner.  The container shifted of course and was dangling precariously so the Chinook just cut it loose.  It came down with quite a crash and startled the crap out of us.  Holbrook was not a happy camper about this either.  I wasn't aware any more of them were made and used but it was an excellent idea.  

 

Footnote #2: from Sgt Joe Cook's "Tour of Duty / Memories" & his Photo Gallery collection:
(Joe and "B" Battery arrived from Hawaii
in December, 1965.  They set up "Base Camp" near Pleiku in Jan, 1966)

The (first) CONEX was never in the field with us and it was located back at the Base Camp in Pleiku. We buried two (2) CONEX containers, dug in with the help of a bulldozer.  They were face-to-face with each other, dropped into the hole and covered with sandbags.  We built a sandbag staircase to get back to the surface.  Inside, we use red lights for night work and white lights during the day.  We moved our standard field tables in for the charts and put the radios on ammo boxes.  We used it once and in February, we moved to the "boonies" for good.  Our FDC Section never saw Base Camp again.  The Gun Sections would rotate crews to Base Camp and man the gun in Base Camp (5 guns in the field and 1 gun at Base Camp)

 


Ed. note:  It is thus possible that Lt Kermit DeVaughn had heard of this and expanded the idea to a airmobile, one-piece CONEX that became a ready-made, all-weather FDC.  An underground CONEX would require additional logistical assets and may prove problematic during a monsoon season.

 

The "Pink Kitty" FDC, "B" Battery

IN SUMMARY:

Putting all this together, "B" Battery began their FDC operations in January, 1966 with a plywood box mounted on a  3/4 ton brought over from Hawaii.  The interior was painted pink.  Then, two (2) CONEX containers were submerged in the ground with the help of a bulldozer at Base Camp.  Next, "B" Battery's FDC was sent to the "boonies", they left the submerged CONEXs behind,  and they developed the dug-out "horseshoe-shaped FDC" covered with a tent.  Now you can go back to the top of the War Story and probably conclude that the submerged CONEXs were the seedling idea of an above-ground, welded together CONEXs that were now airmobile.  Obviously, a tent-based FDC was going to suffer immeasurably from the elements of weather.

Strangely enough, the Ft Sill faculty never concerned itself with putting an FDC in the jungle.  After all, they had Snow Hall.

 

Lt Dennis Dauphin, Lt Gary Dean Springer, and Sgt Joe Cook

Back