Viet Nam, to the American fighting man here, half a world from home, the name means many things – almost none of them good. It means the farthest place from those he loves. It means the CLOSEST place to death.
It may mean a rice paddy where he lost his best friend. It does mean a war in which he most surely and quickly lost the last remnants of his own boyhood. It would be cruel enough without war.
prehensile jungle vines, bamboo thickets
and 12 foot elephant grass. It is weeks of 120 degree heat and 95% humidity, or drought and monsoon and flood. It is a country of two seasons, hot and dry, and hot and wet. Or mixed, for as one GI complained, “This is the only place in the world where you can be shoulder deep in mud and have dust blowing in your face at the same time”.
It is the residence of the inch long red ant, the Malaria mosquito, the bamboo flea and the bamboo viper, the Russell viper, pit viper, cobra, banded krait, four inch long cockroach and a couple of snakes that perform under the aliases of Mr.Two Foot and One Step Charlie. Needless to say, ALL poisonous.Spiders, lizards, rats, bats, leeches, flies and a million other insects – no two alike, thrive here. So does Malaria, Jungle Rot, Typhus, Fungus, Immersion Foot, Dysentary, Pneumonia, Sunburn, Heat Prostration, Tuberculosis, Leprosy and a couple of Asiatic ailments we haven’t quite put a handle on yet.
They thrive, all of them. But, miraculously, so does the spirit of that amazing being, the American Fighting Man. Every day he meets the challenges of the cruel and agonizing war.
He survives. He even triumphs. And what he has to go through, few civilians know. And NO ONE knows who has not been to Viet Nam. General Eisenhower, in another war, once exploded to a war correspondent, “I get so eternally tired of the lack of understanding of what the infantry soldier endures…..I get so fighting mad because of the general lack of appreciation of real Heroism which is the uncomplaining acceptance of unendurable conditions….” The uncomplaining acceptance of unendurable conditions…… the statement could have waited for a more appropriate war. This one.
The numerous muddy front lines in Viet Nam may complain, but it is the healthy, time-honored fashion of the GI gripe. And the GI here DOES accept the unendurable. He accepts 18 hour workdays with no women, booze or overtime pay.
And he accepts the million other little bitternesses of Viet Nam……the Halozone tablet in a canteen of rice paddy water, the bites and stings of insects, the grime, the dirt, the dust, the mud, the kind of sweat you bleed. He accepts the facts of rotting wrist-watch bands, a “Dear John” letter, reconstituted milk, canned meat, three salt tablets a day,
last choice at the C-rations, and when he can even find it, WARM beer. He hears Hanoi Hannah reading our casualty reports each night over Radio Hanoi. Sees his friends fall in battle, and he endures. And he endures the sight of a mortally wounded child,
the cries of pain and “MEDIC” and “CORPSMAN”,the smell of DEATH and the taste of FEAR, the prospect of the next patrol, the RAWEST emotions of the battle, and his own dreams. For Viet Nam is these.
And, it is mumbled prayers under the sounds of incoming artillery, and learning to laugh at things that aren’t really funny. It is the fears and doubts about yourself in battle, because you know if you stop to think about them during battle it could get you killed. It is wanting a WAR STORY without having to live it, and then living it and not wanting it. It is the PHONY war story every man despises and the war story too TRUE to ever be told. It is the fear of cowardice and fear of courage.
The American Fighting Man endures all of these, and performs everything his country asks of him. For the task, he fuels himself on Courage and Selflessness and Dedication and a Comraderie that no one who shares will EVER really find anywhere else again,
and he gets along on the most simple and pathetic, most God-awful seemingly unimportant pleasures: the sweat wrinkled photograph of a loved one, the sight of a Saffron yellow mail bag and a letter from home – or mail addressed simply to “A fighting man in Viet Nam”,
a clear stream with no leeches, or a nights sleep in a real bed. He cherishes hot chow, cold beer or a cool breeze, or the reminders of home,
a USO show, a circled date on a Short-timer’s calendar, a favorite tune over Armed Forces Radio, or a week old copy of Stars and Stripes reassuring him that America still exists. His satisfactions are a burst of insect repellant on a leech’s back or a dry cigarette.
And there IS humor, even here, not side splitting humor, but humor that fights the grimness and makes it bearable. “Didja’ hear? A couple of mosquitoes landed over at DaNang Air Base the other day and Ground Support pumped 50 gallons of AVGAS into them before they realized they weren’t F-4’s”, or “Hot D*mn! Only 300 days and a wake-up, I’M SHORT”. “It must be Sunday, they’re feedin’ us Malaria pills again”. And humor sprouts in the signs which GI’s brand their whereabouts, “No one would DARE mortar this place and end all the confusion”. On a roadside, “Drive carefully, the life you save may be your replacement”. On the fuselage of an ancient C-47 transport, “Trans Paddy Airways”, or outside a Marine’s tent in Chu-Lai, “Chu-Lai Hilton, VACANCY”, or on the side of a C-123 used to spray defoliant, “Remember, only you can prevent forests”, and a much in evidence bumper sticker, “Support your Fighting Men in Viet Nam”.
There is a slang in his speech. Lots, every other word sometimes. His dangerous, merciless adversary, the Viet-cong (VC or Victor Charlie in military phonetics) becomes simply CHARLIE or OLD CHARLIE.
And every little Vietnamese street urchin becomes CHARLIE-SAN; though they usually rate the affectionate GI pat on the head with the term, unless one has just run by and stolen your wrist-watch. Then, you grab them by the neck.
Even though billets, hootches and tents are papered with Playboy foldouts, the memory of America and womanhood is distant in his mind; to be referred to as Round Eye, Smooth Legged Woman who exists in the Land of the Big PX is about all that is spoken.
Air mattresses become rubber ladies, Piasters become “P’Z”,Military Payment Certificates become Funny Money,
Replacements become Turtles (because they take FOREVER to get here),
and an enemy infested jungle becomes “VC National Forest”.
Fighting Men are, Jet Jockeys, Groundpounders, Grunts, Snuffies, River Rats, Stump Jumpers, Straightlegs and Saigon Warriors depending on their unit, rating and/or assignment.Vietnamese become Slopes, Gooks, Dinks and other assorted epithets. Montagnard Tribesmen become Yards, and the enemy becomes (besides Charlie), Congs, Gooneys, Ho’s Boys or simply “The Bad Guys”, and Charlie gets either Greased, Zapped, Zonked, Massaged or simply Blown-away. Jets are referred to as Birds, Prop airplanes as Spads, Scooters or Tinkertoys. Snakes are Mr. No Shoulders.
And there is the Thousand Yard Stare in a Ten Foot Room and the Million Dollar Wound (just serious enough to earn a ride Stateside). There is, too, a less imaginative Alphabet Soup of letter abbreviations that lubricates the Language and Paperwork. Samples: WIA (Wounded In Action), DMZ (De-Militarized Zone), LZ (Landing Zone), FAC (Forward Air Controller), and so on….through VC, K’S, PAVN’S, ARVN, MACV, TAOR, MPC’S, and a thousand OTHER combinations and alphabetum. The war has a favorite phrase, in Vietnamese “Xin Loi”; which means “Sorry ’bout that”. It is employed for every stumble, oversight, injustice, burp, blister or disaster. “Xin Loi”, may be the LAST words Charlie ever hears. And finally, everything succumbs to a GI rating system of Number ONE (Satisfactory) and Number TEN (UN-Satisfactory). There are no numbers in between. No GI wants any. In a GRAY, confusing WAR – a Number TEN War – It’s nice to deal in BLACKS and WHITES again.
So, WHO is this remarkable American our country has sent to Viet Nam? Who IS this guy we pay the lavish sum of $65.00 extra a month and even forgive the trouble of filling out Income Tax forms, for what can only be the most underpaid work in the world? He is, of course, many men, many types, he is the Cool, Mature, Professional Officer and he is the BATTLEWISE Non-Com on his second tour of his third WAR.
But MOSTLY, he’s a YOUNG American (some COMBAT UNITS average 18? years of age), who would prefer to be back home doing other things, but who by chance of history is here.
He VOLUNTEERED or by lack of a deferment was DRAFTED, but he is here because he LOVES his Country. By all accounts and opinions, he is the SMARTEST, STRONGEST, BEST TRAINED, MOST SPIRITED and COMPETENT Fighting Man our Country has ever sent to war ANYWHERE.
He is YOUNG but he is OLD beyond his years because this war is a CRAM COURSE in Maturity and Survival. Experts marvel at him. “In 60 years of Soldiering and watching Soldiers”, writes Military Affairs specialist S.L.A. Marshall, “I have never seen higher morale than that of the U.S. men in Viet Nam…The American fighter here can outwit, out-move and out-game anyone thus far thrown against him. Their main gripe is that the enemy is loath to come out of hiding. Their aggressiveness arises from pride in unit. The bond with their buddies.
A wish to get the job over…and an unfaltering belief in the rightness of their task” General William C. Westmoreland, Commander of American Forces in Viet Nam, calls him flatly, “The finest fighting man our country has ever produced”. There is a Sacred Brotherhood among Combat Vets.
There does not have to bespeaking or organized gatherings, there is merely that look when eyes meet and you just KNOW. Understand and LOVE your Viet Nam Vet…after what he has been through, he needs that above all else.
Article written by Mike RICE RM Dong Ha River Security Grp NSAD Cua Viet (June 1967) / photos by me
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