Photo above is of Stanley Kober with RTO, John Scheur. Both served in A 2/18 1st Infantry Division 

Life expectancies of some jobs during the Vietnam War were measured in seconds, minutes, hours, and days. Were they the most dangerous? How was this data gathered and calculated? Here’s my take on it all.

A friend recently sent me the link to an article claiming that the life expectancy of a radio operator in the Vietnam War was only 5 seconds. As I carried a PRC25 radio for over seven-months in the Nam, I was curious to find out what I did RIGHT to survive and exceed the expectations for the position. In it, the author wrote how dangerous the position was and all the duties he was tasked with. There was no mention regarding how the number was reached or even what data was considered.

So, I decided to scour the internet for more information and came across other articles that cited the life expectancies of soldiers by assignment during the war. Here’s what I found so far: helicopter pilots: 45 minutes; door gunners: 6-minutes; infantry 1st and 2nd lieutenants: 16 minutes; and M-60 machine gunners: 2 minutes.   

What I failed to see in any of these articles or fact sheets was how the rates were determined. Did life expectancy mean death or wounded (taken out of action)? Was the total time used in the equasion an accumulation of actual combat time? Who added up the minutes and hours? At what point did somebody begin keeping tabs on the exact time that one of these positions dropped out? Is any of this even possible to determine? One article showed math formulas for mean and median determinations – work that would make Einstein proud. But, it didn’t tell me much.

The United States suffered a little over 58,000 KIA and 304,000 WIA during the war. Here’s the breakdown:  

Cause Of Casualty Hostile & Non-hostile (Percentage):

Gunshot or small arms fire —- 31.8

Multiple frag wounds grenades, mines, bombs, booby traps — 27.4

Aircraft crashes ———- 14.7

Arty or rocket fire ——– 8.4

Drowning and burns ———- 3.0

Misadventure (Friendly fire) — 2.3

Vehicle crashes ———— 2.0

Illness, also malaria, hepatitis, heart attack, stroke — 1.6

Suicide —————- 0.7

Accidental self-destruction, intentional homicide, accidental homicide, other accidents. — 5.8

Other, unknown, not reported — 2.0

Data compiled by William F. Abbott from figures obtained shortly after the construction of the Vietnam War Memorial

In total, there were around 2.5 million Americans who served in-country during the Vietnam War. They were not only soldiers but also officers, advisors, nurses, doctors and other units that supported the Republic of Vietnam.

2.2% of the 2.5 million died in the war – 12.2% of those served were wounded.

So let’s take a look at why the survival rates may be low for some of those jobs indicated above.

Radio Operator: His radio was the lifeline of the unit on the ground and its termination would effectively eliminate air and artillery support as well as disrupt internal company communications during combat. Out in the open, a radio would be difficult to hide and the enemy knew that the soldier moving before or after the RTO was bound to be either an officer or an NCO. Thus an opportunity to cut off the head of the snake at the same time. When moving, the antenna is like a periscope in the ocean – a huge plus for an enemy sniper. At night, the radio is normally posted in the center of the perimeter where the RTO and leader sleep, it’s also the location where other soldiers share radio watches. Sound travels far in the jungle, and carelessness in using the radio during watches could help the enemy pinpoint that location for a mortar attack.

Infantry 1st & 2nd lieutenants: They are the battle coordinators who try to manage the fight on the ground and direct overhead support. It is rare that they sit still during an ambush and are always on the move to oversee the fight; his RTO, joined at the hip. When marching in a single file, he was usually in the middle of the pack with his RTO. Snipers sought out those individuals with a folded map sticking out of his trouser pocket, grease pencils poking from shirt pockets, and a compass/lanyard hanging from his neck. Many officers were excellent leaders, but there were some that shouldn’t have been in those positions. Their shortcomings, sometimes, caused death to themselves or a fellow soldier.


Helicopter pilot:  These guys flew many different aircraft, their jobs at the time determined the risk. I would say that Medivac crews were most at risk since their arrival often occurred while the fighting was still taking place. The door gunners (trained medics) were usually busy stabilizing patients, thus leaving the ship undefended – a sitting duck while in range of enemy weapons. I’d consider the next risky group to be the Loach pilots. These cowboys flew around at treetop level looking for the enemy and then daring them to fire at them. Success would bring down hellfire from circling cobras and gunships. Slick drivers were next. They were the birds that brought in the troops to landing zones and were most vulnerable during hot insertions and pick-ups.

Huey Door gunners:  Sitting in an open doorway of a helicopter and wearing only a flack jacket, made him the most exposed member of the crew. During a hot landing or extraction, when taking him out, the ship was left undefended from that side.

M-60 machine gunner: Every weapon had a distinct sound and soldiers on the ground (both sides) could identify it by its sound. In most ambushes, the enemy blended in with the jungle and was difficult to spot – their locations determined by flashing and sound. When a machine gun opened up, it became a bullet magnet. They were dangerous weapons, created severe damage, and had to be taken out quickly.   

You’re probably asking, what about medics or corpsmen, point men, fuel haulers, armor, Recon & SOG, Rome Plow crews, etc.? I’m quite certain there are many more examples of jobs held during the Vietnam War that had extremely low life expectancies and welcome your feedback in the comment section below. Thanks for your support!

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Should you have a question or comment about this article, then scroll down to the comment section below to leave your response.

If you want to learn more about the Vietnam War and its Warriors, then subscribe to this blog and get notified by email or your feed reader every time a new story, picture, video or changes occur on this website – the button is located at the top right of this page.

I‘ve also created a poll to help identify my website audience – before leaving, can you please click HERE and choose the one item that best describes you. Thank you in advance!