This has turned out to be longer then I expected, but I think it’s all good and you’ll like it…
Today, I want to focus on the American “straight leg” infantryman during the Vietnam War. I’m not including Mechanized units, Seals, Special Forces, LRRPs, SOG, Recon, Rangers or similar groups because of their special operations. I welcome all submissions from this group for future publication – contact me via email. What was it like for these young grunts to hump through the countryside carrying a rucksack and other supplies weighing half as much as they did? What all did they carry? Was it more difficult to hump in one area of the country versus another? Did it get easier over time?
First, I want to state that this article is not all-inclusive of every infantryman who fought during the many years of war. This explanation is only from my perspective but will most likely hold true for many who humped in that country with me.
Okay. Most Grunts never had a permanent home and had to carry everything with them out on missions. Most personal items not needed for everyday use were usually left behind in a duffel and stored in the supply room at the unit’s basecamp (civvies for R&R, electronic equipment, suitcase, etc). In my case, Cu Chi in the south and Phu Bai in the north.
Everything else that mattered was lugged inside of a metal ammo can under the rucksack. Letters from home, writing paper and pens, wallet, money, camera, toilet paper, pictures, paperback books, magazines, and diaries are just some examples of what we wanted nearby and protected from the elements.
Our rucksack and ammo can were secured to a curved aluminum frame with quick-release shoulder straps and a wide strap extending across the bottom which rested against the small of our backs.
Everyone carried a green towel draped across their shoulders; it collected sweat from our dripping heads and necks, wiped salty sweat from stinging eyes and used as a cushion under the straps of the ruck frame.
The first day of a mission or after a resupply was a bitch because this is when our equipment weighed the most, then lessened over the remaining days as supplies were expended (mostly just food and water). Resupply in the bush occurred every 3-4 days, but sometimes, had to be extended to 5-6 days because of poor weather or other unforeseen circumstances. Those were the times that we ran out of food and/or water and had to make do with what was available. Everyone shared what collectively remained…nobody bitched about it or hoarded.
C-Ration meals weighed the most; each can was slightly larger than a can of Campbell’s soup or canned vegetables. When you consider eating 9-12 meals, in addition to cans of fruit, crackers, and other snacks, the combined volume and weight forced many of us to skimp on meals (try gathering 15-20 cans together the next time you’re in the supermarket to see what I mean). As a result of this decision, breakfast might only be hot cocoa, coffee or a can of eggs or maybe just pound cake, lunch might be some crackers and peanut butter, fruit cake or a can of fruit, then splurging at dinner with meat, potatoes and desert along with a steaming hot coffee or cocoa. Near the end of my tour, we were introduced to freeze-dried LRRP meals that weighed very little in comparison but required extra water to hydrate and prepare the meals. All in all, LRRP meals offered a nice variety and allowed the grunts a different menu and weight displacement. It should also be noted here that us grunts lost a lot of weight during our year in the war, most of us came home weighing in somewhere between 135# – 165#. I also lost seven inches around my waist.
Now that we have our meal plans decided and food packed away for the next few days, our water needs are next. The summer months, March – October, were difficult for us in that we had to have enough water to last until the next resupply. On average, each man carried (4) quart canteens – 1 or 2 were usually filled with Kool-Aide or Tang orange juice which were plentiful and shared among the troops when packages arrived from home. Those areas of operation that had rivers and streams were also good sources for water, but needed to be purified with iodine tablets first and then wait a couple of hours before drinking. These are the canteens that were usually converted to one of the special drinks as the taste of treated water was terrible…you also have to look past the color of the water as none of these streams and rivers were pure as melted snow on the Rockies – more of an algae green or coffee brown. After purification, the sediment settles on the bottom, and when shaking the canteen or drinking too fast caused spitting episodes when the particles snuck through our gritted teeth. Note that four quarts or water weigh about 8 – 10 lbs.
During the monsoon season, there was ample water no matter where you were in country. Bomb craters were in abundance and usually filled with water that was 10 – 15 ft. deep; we’d designate one for bathing and another for drinking water, banana leaves and ponchos also helped collect rain water during the storms, so we could get by with just 1 or 2 canteens and our canteen cup.
Bomb Crater at the beginning of Monsoon season
Bomb crater completely filled during monsoon season
Food and water now taken care of, lets add the supplies needed to fight our little war. Poncho liners (quilted blankets of polyester and cotton) were usually stuffed into our rucks at that point to help keep the C-Ration cans secure and cushioned.
Then we packed (2) trip flares with wire and stakes, (1) Claymore mine, firing device and 50’ of wire with attached blasting cap, and a 100-round link of M60 ammo (some draped the belt of ammo around the outside of the rucksack instead of carrying it inside). Certain individuals also carried rolls of detonation cord and blasting caps in their rucksacks which were used to daisy chain Claymore mines or wrap around a tree to knock it down for a Medivac to land. This was about all we could fit into the bulging ruck; the top of the rucksack had a draw string that when pulled, collapses the top to a smaller diameter. Before securing the straps of the ruck cover, we’d stick (2) signal flares on top and under the straps so they stayed in place when closing up the pack.
Bear in mind, that each of us also had a set of suspenders attached to an ammo belt worn around our waists. This is where we stored extra ammo magazines for our M-16’s, smoke grenades, baseball grenades, first-aid battle dressings and our canteens. This ensemble was all we wore when going out on short patrols; leaving our rucks behind with a small crew to guard them or in a day lager position where we’d spend two nights before moving on to a new destination.
C-Ration tin modified to use as stove for food and hot water.
Heating a meal of spaghetti and meatballs
Each rucksack had three pockets on the side that we used to store a variety of things. Mine held several packs of cigarettes, packages of Kool Aide, coffee, hot cocoa, sugars, powdered cream, salt/pepper, Tobasco sauce, Heinz-57 sauce, heat tabs, lighter fluid, snacks, and my cooking stove (a modified C-Ration biscuit can with holes in its side), foot powder and bug juice.
I’d roll my poncho into a small 12” long cylinder and tie it to the bottom of my ruck – just underneath the ammo can; it was used as a roof during the monsoon season and as my ground cover for sleeping at night.
Morning after the rains – drying out and eating breakfast
Still had to secure a machete and folding shovel to the ruck, and attach either a bayonet or Bowie knife to the ammo belt.
Finally, I’d add (2) cloth bandoleers of 5.56 ammo rounds crisscrossing them across my chest like Poncho Villa did his ammunition. Later in my tour, our Scout went to the local village and purchased hammocks for all of us as trees were plentiful. These were usually balled up and carried in trouser pockets or stuffed into one of the pouches on the rucksack.
Steel pot on my head, ruck on my back and M-16 in hand, we’re ready to go…total weight about 70# which forced us all to walk bent over at the waist to support the heavy load. When stopping for a short break, we’d bend over – almost 90 degrees – and allow the pack to rest on our backs thus giving our shoulders a well deserved reprieve and allow the circulation to return. Rucks were always bobbing and shifting while humping as soldiers tried to redistribute the weight so their arms and shoulders would not go numb from the lack of circulation. If we chose to sit during a longer break then getting back up after with a filled ruck was a comedy of errors. We learned to rely on our buddy and pull each other up or roll onto all fours and use a tree to pull yourself up. There was no easy way to do it!
In addition to those supplies above, (1) M72 LAW (anti-tank disposable missile) and several six-volt batteries, used for mechanical ambushes are also carried by each squad. This responsibility was split between the men and switched out daily.
The grunts below didn’t have to haul around Claymore mines, trip flares, machetes, and signal flares because of the primary weapons they carried:
Radio Telephone Operators (RTO) carried a PRC-25 radio under his rucksack which added another 25#, 2 spare batteries @ 5#, and a long range folding antenna. His total burden was still around 80#.
M60 machine gunners added 26# for the gun and 10# of belted ammo. Usually carried a 45 cal. pistol on his belt with 3 additional magazines. However, most of us carried our “pig” by resting it on a shoulder and holding onto one of the fold down legs – switching back and forth between shoulders when one began to ache.
Assistant gunners carried an additional 300 – 500 rounds of M60 ammo 35# in addition to an M-16 and ammo bandoleers. Some of these guys also carried an extra barrel for the machine gun across the top of their rucksacks..
Thumpers or grenadiers carried a M79 grenade launcher – 10# and wore a vest holding thirty mixed rounds (High explosive (HE), White Phosphorus (WP), beehive (shotgun shells) and CS gas – estimated at 25#. Additional rounds were tucked away inside of the rucksack.
Medics and corpsmen carried field bags filled with creams, ointments, pills, 2 IV bottles and syringes, sterile bandages, powders, foot powder, salt pills, malaria pills for ever person (1 white for daily and 1 orange for Mondays). I’ve seen some carry no weapon with them to the field (Conscientious Objectors) and others who carried pistols instead of M-16’s.
The S-shaped country of Vietnam has a north-to-south distance of 1,650 kilometers and is about 50 kilometers wide at the narrowest point. With a coastline of 3,260 kilometers. Vietnam was divided into four zones during the war: I Corps: the northernmost area bordering Laos and the DMZ; II Corps: included the Central Highlands, sandy beaches and plateau’s filled with rice paddies which bordered Laos and Cambodia; III Corps: comprised of gentle rolling hills and wide open areas, large urban areas, rubber plantations and thick jungles that boarder the well-stocked Cambodian sanctuaries. This area also included a lone mountain which could be seen for miles in all directions (Nui Ba Den or Black Virgin Mountain); and IV Corps: a river delta laced with rivers and canals, often impassable for vehicles, soldiers used special shallow draft gun boats, floating artillery and armored transports to seek out and locate the enemy.
So now that the soldier was loaded up to seek out the enemy, this is what he faced…
I Corps encompassed a narrow portion of the country (10,000 sq. miles) and favored the enemy. The western portion of the zone was filled with rugged jungle covered mountains that hid enemy supply bases and camps, east of the mountains, a narrow rolling piedmont quickly gives way to a flat, wet coastal plain much of which is covered by rice paddies and beyond which lie beaches of the South China Sea.
The western mountains were enemy strongholds for much of the war and Americans and their allies fought pitched battles against a trained military forces from the north – The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) who could use artillery against the Americans from both Laos and North Vietnam. Major battles include Khe Sahn, Battle of Hue during the Tet Offensive, Hamburger Hill and the Ashau Valley among others. These mountains were treacherous and, at times, took days to climb – I remember having to tie myself to trees at night so I wouldn’t roll downhill. Climbing also took its toll on the soldiers ranging from heat stroke and exhaustion to sprains and back injuries from falls.
II Corps encompasses rugged mountains with dense forests that are broken by a rolling plateau from Pleiku to Ban Me Thuot. Tracked vehicle movement and helicopter landings here were severely limited. Poor weather and the great distance from supply centers were important limiting factors. Enemy forces in the highlands were mainly regular units of the North Vietnamese Army. Noted major battles included Dak To, An Khe, Happy Valley, Pleiku and Firebase MaryAnn to name a few.
III Corps included Saigon and a dense countryside that was riddled with many supply routes from the Ho Chi Minh trail and staging areas in Cambodia. It is also an area filled with hundreds of miles of tunnels, underground hospitals and enemy staging areas.
In fact, the 25th Division main basecamp, Cu Chi, sat atop one of the most infamous tunnel complexes of the war – not discovered until after the war ended. Usually, Americans fought pitched battles against the VC and local militia fighters who blended in with farmers during the day or worked in the large cities, towns or even in the military basecamps. After the 1968 TET offensive, VC units within this area were almost decimated and NVA soldiers soon began filling in the ranks on many of the units operating here. some major battles occurred in the Iron Triangle, Tay Ninh, An Loc, Michelin Rubber Plantation, Hobo Woods, and on Nui Ba Den.
War Zone III was well suited for tracked vehicle movement, and resulted in many main force battles.
IV Corps: The Mekong Delta, covering about 40,000 square kilometers, is a low-level plain not more than three meters above sea level at any point and is crisscrossed by a maze of canals and rivers.
Arms and supplies were ferried to entrenched VC soldiers via sampans and other small boats.
I don’t know much about this area and welcome articles or commentary from those of you who lived and fought through this area. This includes Army as well as Navy brown water forces and PBR crews.
The heat, humidity, monsoonal rain and groundwater meant that uniformed GIs were almost constantly drenched with water or sweat.
Vietnam’s wildlife posed its own dangers. American soldiers encountered malarial mosquitoes, leeches, ticks, fire ants and 30 different kinds of venomous snake. One historian estimates between 150 and 300 US personnel died in Vietnam from the effects of snakebite.
I was bitten by a Banded Krait and wouldn’t have survived had I not been pulled out the jungle by a Medivac and rushed to the 93rd Evac. In Long Binh.
Annual rainfall is substantial in all regions and torrential in some, ranging from 47.2 to 118.1 in. Nearly 90% of the precipitation occurs during the summer. The average annual temperature is generally higher in the plains than in the mountains and plateaus. Temperatures range from a low of 41 °F in December and January, the coolest months, to more than 98.6 °F in August, the hottest month. Humidity is always high and near 100%.
Jungle terrain is extremely difficult to hump through. Foliage grows so close together and thick that point men exhaust themselves by cutting a small corridor through the dense vegetation for those following. When cutting trails, point was rotated every half hour between 3 or 4 men; it was also a time when that soldier was most vulnerable. His entire focus was in clearing a path and not looking for enemy soldiers. You already know that they are carrying a lot of weight and have to bulldoze their way through the bush.
Wait-a-minute vines with thick thorns latched onto rucksacks or around outstretched arms requiring the soldier to stop and have the guy behind him unsnag him so the column could continue. Exposed roots stuck out of the ground and caused soldiers to trip and sustain ankle or foot injuries. Sometimes, the hedgerows and bamboo thickets were so thick, only a small crawl space could be created. Soldiers removed their rucks and either pushed or pulled them through while crawling on their bellies. Now keep in mind that enemy soldiers are everywhere, booby traps are plentiful – even in the most obscure of areas, and insects are feasting on the sweaty, moving bounty. Oh, I forgot, some of this thick jungle terrain covers the mountains, so in addition to hacking a path, each soldier had to climb and then help pull up the man behind him.
Humping through rice paddies is an experience in itself. They are filled with water and human waste to fertilize the rice stalks. Stepping through the thigh-high water in ankle deep muck is extremely difficult. The muddy bottom sucks on the boots making it very hard to pull them up and clear to move another step. This continues until they’re back on solid ground…I’ve heard of soldiers humping through paddies for entire days at a time. The main danger to soldiers is that they remain exposed during this time with the only protection being the surrounding dikes, which might not be nearby if fired upon. VC snipers often harassed patrols from the nearby wood line which caused further hardship to the soldier who had to dive into the much for cover. It’s an extreme cardio workout!
Open flat areas and valleys usually have head-high elephant grass growing wild everywhere which also conceals anyone moving about. This stuff is similar to the palm fronds we get at Easter. This grass is almost the same texture except for the edges which are razor sharp and have small thorns. They’ll bend and move with the flow, but leave cuts on all exposed skin that are prone to serious infection.
Humping through the Delta area meant that soldiers trudged through water and swamps for most of their day. I do know that World War II landing crafts transported patrols along the waterways to some solid ground to search for the enemy. It is also said that 40% of the country’s population resides in the Delta area. Homes and villages are built on stilts and line the ever present waterways.
In closing, I have to say that humping was a real challenge no matter where in country you happen to be following the guy in front of you. No one area was more favorable than the other and each offered these young soldiers opportunities to see nature at its best. In I Corps, we came upon huge caves and many waterfalls, old church ruins in the middle of nowhere, and the ancient city of Hue. In III Corps, we discovered tunnel complexes and underground hospitals that took our breath away, discovered beaches with pristine sand and emerald water (Vung Tau), and witnessed the oddity of the Black Virgin Mountain on the landscape.
Did it get easier over time? Some say it did while others say no. I can attest that the first several weeks were the most difficult of my life in Vietnam. If you saw the movie, Platoon, remember Charlie Sheen’s character who passed out on his first patrol? It was like that everyday! We were all on a quest to reach our destination without passing out! If the word “Zombie” would have existed back then, it may have been used to describe us at the end of the day. If we ran into the enemy…well, that’s another story for another time.
Looking back, I’m amazed that we were able to do what we did. In fact, I can also say most honestly that I was in the best physical condition of my life during that year in Vietnam. No Regerts! I’d do it again if I were forty years younger. What about you other grunts – did I nail it?
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