H.V. Traywick, Jr.’s Road Gang: A Memoir of Engineer Service in Vietnam (Dementi Milestone Publishing, 218 pp., $20, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a classy book. Traywick ranks as a four-star raconteur. His self-deprecating sense of humor enlivens his story.
Traywick sets the stage by writing about arriving in Vietnam, then smoothly flashes back to his life at Virginia Military Institute and his training as a Ranger and parachutist. He arrived in-country in 1969 as a captain and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Phu Loc. When the 82nd rotated home, he transferred to the 34th Engineer Battalion at Phouc Vinh.
Because he had a degree in Civil Engineering, Traywick was given command of a road construction company, the “Dusty Delta Road Gang.” His primary mission was to rebuild Highways 1A and 2A to an all-weather capacity. The roads were critical to supplying units along the eastern edge of the Iron Triangle, north of Saigon. The task had to be accomplished within the six-month dry season.
At that point, the book almost becomes an engineering text. In detail, Traywick describes how his unit built Fire Base Lobo, including its berms and bunkers, along with roads and culverts outside the wire. He explains the use of Rome Plows, sheep’s foot rollers, Clark 290 scrapers, graders, and D7E Caterpillar bulldozers. He also names seemingly every man who worked for him.
Later, when the VC sprang a mid-day attack on the Road Gang, Traywick rushed to the scene. His instincts told him “to do like Stonewall Jackson did at Cedar Mountain, and not shilly-shally around.”
The greatest danger to his men were mines and booby traps hidden in construction sites at night by the VC.Traywick did everything possible to protect his men, even when he was criticized for overreacting. When things went wrong, Traywick accepted the blame.
The book’s finest lessons are accounts of decision-making incidents that showed the dynamic differences between management and leadership. Zealous to meet deadlines, Traywick found flaws in a construction plan. Consequently, to save their reputations, at least two senior officers betrayed him. He was unaware of their treachery. As a result, Traywick’s battalion commander publicly insulted him and took away his command. “At this date I look back in wonder at how innocent of guile I was,” he says. The episode still rankles him.
Following a rotation of leadership, working for a new battalion commander, Traywick redeemed himself and earned a Bronze Star. Nevertheless, he was disillusioned by the doubts surrounding his honor, and resigned his commission upon returning to the United States.
Throughout the book, Traywick repeatedly questions the norm. He is a man of traditional values predicated on a strong Southern background. He talks about seeing a staged version of the rock musical Hair while on R&R in Australia. That triggered him to discuss “freedom versus responsibility” and “self-denial as opposed to self-indulgence” for several pages. He also says: “No one in his right mind can advocate mixing men and women in the same military unit—unless his agenda is to undermine and demoralize it.”
Often while reading his book, I felt that Traywick would have been a most-perfect soldier in World War II—or, perhaps, in a war against Union aggression.