Living conditions in Vietnam depended on the individual’s military branch and Military Occupational Specialty – the job they held.
For some, living conditions were not dramatically different than at any military base in the United States. These included suitable barracks, shower facilities, hot meals, entertainment, and many comforts of home. An Army lawyer who served in Saigon recalls the conflicted feelings he experienced one evening as he enjoyed a fresh cooked meal and a glass of wine on the roof of the Rex Hotel knowing that men were fighting and dying just a few miles away.
For others, the only comforts of home might be the letters they received when helicopters were able to resupply their units in the jungle. Instead of a cot in the barracks, they dug foxholes and suspended their poncho liners between trees in unsuccessful efforts to stay dry. Instead of hot meals, they ignited a pinch of C-4 explosive to heat C-rations. One Army platoon leader recalls monkeys throwing rocks and fruit at his unit as they paused to rest in the jungle. Another Army platoon leader recalls the day most of his men contracted dysentery from a contaminated Army water bladder.
Regardless of where and how they served, the war in which they were engaged was dangerous. No place and no job was safe.
Featured image: 1st Cavalry Troops Relaxing Over a Card Game, South Vietnam, James H. Holcombe Jr., photographer, circa 1970, Gift of James H. Holcombe Jr., 2017
Although there were many kinds of helicopters used during the Vietnam War, the iconic Bell UH-1 Iroquois, or Huey, is probably the most familiar.
Designed initially to transport wounded, it was modified to be used as both a weapon and as a means of transporting troops, food, mail, ammunition, water, civilians, and nearly anything required to support military forces on the ground. The distinctive whup-whup-whup of the Huey’s rotor blades is easily recognized and can still be a source of post-traumatic stress for some veterans. Philip Smith, U.S. Army, 1970-1971 explains, “The Huey is the symbol of Vietnam. … The guys that flew the Huey …they were just fantastic. … They were an angel to these guys on the ground. … They went down, not knowing if they’d get back – odds stacked against them. … It makes you proud that you were associated with guys like that.”
Armed with a box of C-rations (individual, canned, precooked meals) and a “P-38” can opener, meals in the field were simple and quick.
Each C-ration contained one canned meat item, one canned fruit, bread or dessert item; one B unit (in this case, crackers, cocoa, and beverage powder); an accessory packet containing cigarettes, matches, chewing gum, toilet paper, coffee, cream, sugar, and salt; and a spoon. The daily ration of three C-ration meals provided approximately 3600 calories, considered adequate sustenance for troops in combat conditions. Although the meat item in C-rations could be eaten cold, most veterans used a pinch of C-4 explosive to heat their meals.
Known as “Kit Carson” scouts, these men were Việt Cộng or North Vietnamese army combatants who defected, often in response to Chiêu Hồi (roughly translated as “Open Arms”) pamphlets distributed by plane over enemy-controlled areas. Initially trained by U.S. Marine Corps forces, they provided assistance to U.S. units in the field. Their knowledge of enemy tactics and local terrain proved invaluable in identifying booby traps, caves, tunnels, and caches of enemy weapons.
Jim Holcombe, U.S. Army, 1969-1970 recalls, “It [the monsoon season] changed the way we operated. During the dry season, when we encamped at night, you just threw down your poncho and slept on the ground. During monsoon season, you’d fashion a hammock, or you’d buy one, and you’d sleep in a hammock up off the ground. … Everybody competed about how they can design the best sleeping arrangements.”
The Department of Defense desegregated the Armed Forces in the early 1950s. African Americans served with distinction in Vietnam, in numbers roughly proportional to their percentage of the overall population.
Nevertheless, they faced significant discrimination, particularly in training, promotions, assignments, and administration of military justice. Civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., condemned the use of black troops to “guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” Men depended on each other in the field where troops had less motivation to engage in racist practices or political disputes.
Vietnam veteran General Colin Powell recalled that, “Our men in the field, trudging through elephant grass under hostile fire, did not have time to be hostile toward each other. But bases … were increasingly divided by the same racial polarization that had begun to plague America.”
Oliver Murray, U.S. Army, 1965-1966 and 1968-1969 explains, “We looked forward to going into the service because there were very few things that a black person could do in South Carolina in 1962. … As far as [military] jobs were concerned, black folks still got jobs that were not the ones that you get in order to advance.”
We looked forward to going into the service because there were very few things that a black person could do in South Carolina in 1962.
Mail was the only connection between many service members in Vietnam and home.
Mail-call in many units was sporadic, but that made it even more anticipated. Receiving a letter from home meant seeing a mother or father’s familiar handwriting or smelling the perfume of a wife or girlfriend. It could also mean difficult news such as the loss of a family member or the break-up of a marriage. Not getting a letter was a big disappointment and the recipient never knew if the lack of mail meant letters were not being sent or that letters had been misdirected.
Terry Turner, U.S. Army, 1969-1970 recalls, “On one occasion my wife, Susan, sent me a letter that …bounced around all over Vietnam without ever finding me. Months later, the letter found its way back to her. I, of course, never knew of the letter, but you can imagine the concern of a wife when the postal service returned it, basically saying her husband in Vietnam could not be found.”
Personal hygiene was a challenge for military personnel serving away from base.
While those serving in the Navy and Air Force might have access to shower facilities, water was problematic in the field. It was heavy to carry and water for drinking was the highest priority. Shaving and bathing were often postponed until supply days when water became available. In particular, shaving was postponed because there was great risk of a shaving nick becoming infected.
When water was readily available in the field, men would improvise a shower using whatever materials were at hand. Nathan Crutchfield, U.S. Army, 1969-1970 remembers, “I got sent down to fly with the [Air Force] 8th Tactical Bomber Squadron. … See what the Air Force did for a couple of days. … They live well. In fact, when we got there, myself and this other lieutenant got to their headquarters, this colonel invited us in, thanked us for being there, welcomed us, turned to a sergeant, said, “Sergeant, take these men out where they can get a good bath and freshen up.” I remember Jerry, the other lieutenant, looking at me and saying, “You know, I thought we were clean.”
On Christmas Day, 1970, each of the four squadrons in the Air Force 483rd Tactical Airlift Wing painted the nose of their aircraft to resemble a Santa Claus face.
They spent the day bringing Christmas cheer to a series of forward fire bases (temporary bases to provide artillery support to infantry units). Red Cross Donut Dollies were on board with punch, Christmas goodies, and a generous dose of holiday spirit. Known as Donut Dollies after their World War II counterparts, women selected for this Red Cross initiative were required to have a college degree. They served at recreational centers throughout Vietnam and traveled by helicopter, truck, and jeep to units in the field to provide homemade entertainment programs and snacks for the troops. Nearly 630 women served in the program between 1965 and 1972. Three were killed in Vietnam.
Camilla Meyerson, American Red Cross Donut Dolly, 1967, recalls, “We would go out in helicopters to land – at their surprise – in all of these way out places and just serve them some Kool-Aid and talk to them and play a silly game or something with them. … It was very exhausting … but the interaction with the men always gave you energy because they were wonderful. … They were the best of America.”
The United Service Organizations (USO) has provided entertainment for military personnel in the U.S. and around the world since 1941.
Entertainer Bob Hope was a tireless performer for the USO, beginning with his first World War II show in 1941 in Riverside, California. His final USO tour was in 1990 to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. His variety shows provided a welcome respite for troops – a reminder, in Hope’s words, “of what they were fighting for.”
Chaplains provided counseling and comfort to military personnel in Vietnam. They also served the Vietnamese by assisting in raising funds and providing materials for schools, orphanages, and medical facilities.
Chaplains generally wore the uniform of their respective military branch and only wore clerical attire while performing religious services. Thirteen chaplains were killed in action during the Vietnam War.
Rabbi Jeffery Feinstein, U.S. Army, 1967-1968 remembers, “Most of the counseling involved a couple of general recurring themes. The most important recurring theme is, “I gotta get out of here. You gotta help me get out of here.” … The second, and probably the most disturbing, was those people who were in the LBJ, the Long Bình Jail. I remember counseling one … E-2 or an E-3 … ground pounder [enlisted member of the ground forces] and he was in the jail because someone said he shot his commanding officer. And in a private room and of course nothing can be shared so he opened up and talked to me freely, I asked him, I said, “Did you do it?” and he said, “Hell yes I did, he was going to get us killed. … If I didn’t do it, someone else would have, but they’ll never know it was my bullet that did it. And they’ll never prove it.” And they never did.”
A tour of duty in Vietnam for most ground forces lasted one year. Becoming “short” by having less than 100 days left in a tour of duty was a cause for celebration.
It also required a countdown calendar on which each day was crossed off until only the “wake-up” – the last morning in Vietnam – remained. Countdown calendars could be creative. Service members used helmet covers or other objects in addition to paper to craft their own. Many veterans remember being convinced at the beginning of their tour that they could not survive a year in Vietnam.
Once they reached “short” status, they often became overly cautious, avoiding unnecessary risks, and otherwise modifying their behavior to ensure survival.
For the U.S., the mandate was clear: limit Soviet power in Southeast Asia and halt the spread of communism.