Keith Nightingale offers his interpretation of “the war” in Vietnam as a myriad of boxes that defined the daily evolution of our lives in Vietnam. In his mind, we were all boxes intermingling with other boxes – all were valuable and needed to make it through our tours. An analogy worth reading.
By Keith Nightingale
On Father’s Day, it’s quite common to receive a gift in a box. Boxes serve many purposes—some are gifts and others not.
Virtually every week, a new article, book, or study emerges “describing Vietnam.” Veterans of this war, when interviewed, invariably attempt to describe their war-be it a worldwide media forum or a dinner table conversation with grandchildren. The war in terms of American soldier engagement lasted from roughly 1962 to 1973. Literally, millions of uniformed personnel from all Services were exposed to Vietnam and each has their own internal definition of “Vietnam.” As an Infantry Officer with two tours in the Infantry, in Vietnam, I carry my own interpretation of “the war” honed with time and experience. Simply put, Vietnam was all about boxes.
Boxes define an infantryman’s life. They carry, they feed, they arm, they sustain and they contain. They are composed of all matter of material and in all shapes and sizes but they are always a box. They are a single immutable component of every Vietnam veteran’s life. Boxes defined the daily evolution of our lives in Vietnam.
We departed the States after placing our non-essential clothing and equipment in a box and either mailed it home or stored it a parent’s garage. Upon arrival, we were given a box to carry all the newly issued gear and clothing during in-country in-processing. Our daily life was measured, sustained, and described by a myriad of things in boxes. If we were unlucky, we came home in a box. Vietnam was all about boxes. Two of the more important boxes could be viewed at any port of entry airfield between Saigon and Quang Tri.
Besides the aircraft ramp, there is a freight pallet covered in yellow or red nylon strapping containing the various boxes and material that were loaded either in the aircraft or offloaded from it upon landing. One portion of that load is a stack of silver aluminum rectangular boxes. These are standard military coffins and serially employed. Many had more round trips than the most enthusiastic warrior or Secretary of Defense. If they were inbound from the States and not yet realized for their procured purpose, an investigation would find them packed with mail ranging from letters to packages with Mom’s cookies and wife’s snack packs. This was a very efficient use of space by the freight space bureaucrats and provided a hermetically sealed container for a wet and humid climate.
Going out was the special delivery cargo no one wanted to utilize. Each held the remains of the battlefield-that which could be found -with a Next of Kin address. Neatly packaged under plastic on the top and side was a packet of material. At the very top was the name of the deceased and the delivery address for the local undertaker. Placed visibly at the bottom of the plastic packet for the truly unfortunate cargo might be the phrase in large black letters-NOT SUITABLE FOR VIEWING. It was the duty of the undertaker to transfer the remains, clean the interior and return the box to the system. Return Postage is Guaranteed.
Vietnam required a huge amount of cargo to support the American way of war. It was not only cargo for the fighting elements of all Services, but also for the fighting elements of the South Vietnamese as well as tons of aid and materials for the general population through the complex of aid systems we brought. This stuff required a lot of boxes.
As in all things military or even in bulk shipping, standardization is a required virtue. From this, the Conex Container, a large steel box, was born. The inventors described it upon its production as Container Express-shortened to Conex. It’s now a universal term that has endured well past Vietnam as we knew it. The dictionary describes Conex thusly; Noun. Large, steel-reinforced reusable container for shipping military cargo or, when modified, for use as temporary accommodations.
Note the addition of potential modified use such as accommodations. The steel box could become a bedroom, a morgue, an air transportable TOC or anything else a soldier’s mind or necessity required. There were a lot of Conex’s in country as there were a lot of applications. One occasionally wondered where the new ones were as none seemed to be shipped back. Wherever a uniformed person went in Vietnam, he or she would see Conex containers in all manner of use. They were as ubiquitous as flies and grains of rice. The black market managers particularly liked them as one of the few reasonably secure containers available to store their ill-gotten materials. Behind many units, casualty collection points used a shaded Conex to store the human detritus of the battlefield until a shiny aluminum box became available.
Once joining a unit, an infantryman was again deluged with things in boxes. His rifle and pistol ammo was issued in small waxed cardboard boxes-they coming from a larger box.
The M60 machine gun ammo was issued from snap-top metal boxes which were great for storing cleaning equipment or perishable material such as stationery, cookies, paperbacks, and Playboy. His grenades came packed tightly in round black tarred cardboard containers-they also emanating from a larger similar box.
So too did the smoke grenades, essential for establishing close in support. Empty grenade containers made excellent candle holders or could be used to store urine in a night defensive position when no movement was allowed.
Mortar ammo came likewise encased but packed three or four apiece in a large wooden box. These boxes could also serve as external bunker walls when filled with dirt or stripped, served as flooring, roofing, or material for rural furniture handicrafts. Generals to privates often used an ammo box table for daily needs. 105 mm artillery ammo was similarly packed and issued.
The lumber from these boxes was highly prized as the slats were larger and longer than the mortar boxes. Some ammo was shipped in large green steel canisters. These boxes were ideally employed as field urinals uprighted into the ground and scattered throughout the firebase. Frequently, both wooden box sizes were used to construct the latrine housing on fire bases. It was not uncommon for newly opened fire bases to announce their presence with a sustained period of firing-often primarily to make sufficient wood available to meet the needs of the immediate infrastructure. Other reasons were proffered at the evening brief.
Inside the bunkers, available empty wooden boxes served several utilitarian purposes. Usually arranged next to each firing aperture was an empty box on each side. It would be stacked with loaded M16 magazines and several hand grenades for easy access in times of need. In the center of some apertures was an empty box with lid open to the aperture. Arranged along the lid would be numbered wires draped across a small nail, each connecting to a Claymore deployed to the front and the fougas container. Dangling in the box at the end of each wire, was the triggering clacker for each device with an assigned number. Usually, a small map of the immediate front was drawn on an empty C ration box and tacked to the lid showing the Claymore positioning to the immediate front and the fougas barrel. Not infrequently, the box would also hold several flares to be ignited and tossed out if other illumination failed. In some bunkers, those with the M79 or M203 grenade launchers, the 40mm grenades would be neatly stacked vertically in a row to the rear of the box in whatever sequence the gunner liked-HE, canister, illumination. Boxes organized life in the home away from home.
Rations were particularly box-centric. A soldier’s primary source of sustenance was the Ration, C. It came in a rectangular box of heavy cardboard and weighed about 13 pounds. To get to the 12 meals inside, arranged in smaller individual meal boxes labeled from B1 to B3, the two external enclosing wires had to break. The early issue M16’s with open flash suppressor were ideal for the task. By inserting the open flash suppressor on a wire and rendering a half-turn twist, the wire snapped. Repeat step. Next was to remove the enclosing cardboard sleeve revealing the inner contents. 12 meals ranging from OK to awful. A wise NCO would invert the case so soldiers could not pick by label but make a blind choice followed by appropriate comments. This was one of the most important boxes.
The now empty ration box had additional utilitarian value. The outer cardboard sleeve collapsed, made an excellent insert on the rucksack frame providing some minor relief from the manufactured edges digging into the soldier’s back. These lasted about a month when they would be eroded to uselessness by a combination of sweat, rain and bodily abrasion.
Other uses also applied. The only limitation being the congruence between availability, necessity and imagination. On some fire bases. under constant heavy NVA artillery and mortar fire, a bunker might use an empty C Ration box as a hasty latrine in lieu of going above ground for the formal structure. The contents could be closed within the box, the sleeve reattached and tossed out of the bunker to be managed at an All Clear.
Empty ration boxes were ideal for delivering mail or other items to a unit in the deep jungle simply by kicking them out over the canopy and letting them freefall to the unit below. The thick cardboard was somewhat waterproof and quite strong.
The sundry box was one of the most anticipated boxes in a field soldier’s life. It held an array of “almost home” stuff. Cigarettes of several varieties and in full cartons, pipe tobacco, rolling papers and matches. It contained paperback books and occasional magazines. Writing stationary and pens. Candy, candy bars, suckies and gum. M&M were highly sought, as they didn’t melt. Unfortunately. the cardboard was thin and had only a one-time use as a flattened buffer between a soldier and the ground in the night defensive position. But, this was a highly appreciated box regardless.
Boxes were not confined to the infantry but were ubiquitous to any Service, Branch or task. Aviators, usually door gunners, had a plastic dairy box under their seat. It could hold extra ammo, unboxed, an oil can and field dressing to swab the gun barrel when it got hot, various aviation manuals and maintenance papers, mixed C ration cans, a canteen and rotating magazines and paperbacks. All within easy reach. Toward the rear of the helicopter there was usually another box, this filled with quart cans of hydraulic fluid-the blood plasma of the engine.
The mech and armor units also made prodigious use of boxes. In most cases, for purposes of necessity and weight bearing, their boxes tended to be of heavier material. The most obvious “box” was the M113 track carrier or APC with its ACAV and Recovery variants.
This box held the lives inside and was packed with other boxes, food, sundries and ammunition. This was a moving box and like the turtle’s shell, the home of the occupants. Boxes of ammo were arranged as flooring with strategic sandbags for standing. In the best case, the ammo was readily at hand just by reaching down. In the worst case, the sandbags and ammo boxes provided some degree of protection between an ignited road mine and the occupants. Under the track commander’s position, also the .50 cal primary machine gun location, was usually another box similar to the helicopter door gunner. This would have an empty metal machine gun ammo box. Inside would be the .50 Cal timing keys, a large railroad oil can and several thick cotton towels. These would be used routinely to cool and wipe the machine gun. It might also have several bottles of mosquito repellant. Just next to it, on a small metal shelf, would be an open box of pressurized OD colored Pyritherin insect spray bottles. These would be grabbed by any occupant to assault the tree ants and scorpions that the APC may have shaken down from passing trees.
The tankers had much the same arrangement with boxes but with some important variants. Crucial was a C ration box holding the coax link chutes-the device that fed out the expended coax gun links and brass. These had been carefully selected by the senior NCO over time and accompanied him wherever he went. A functioning link chute was a prize possession. Also internal to the tank was usually a plastic dairy box. This would be filled with cans of hydraulic fluid for the Main Gun system. Constant battering of the long barrel would often rupture the hydraulics rendering the gun useless to twist and flop at an angle against the frontal glacis. More fluid could mean more gun.
Regardless of unit, if it was in contact, boxes again became important. Boxes of ammo, batteries, hand grenades and smoke grenades would be kicked out over the conflicted element. If things got truly difficult and prolonged, morphine surettes would be packed in their small cardboard box and placed in an empty metal machine gun ammo box, a smoke grenade attached and kicked out overhead. Ringer’s 5%,’the solution of choice for combat medics, arrived in a .50 cal ammo box tightly packed with towels, rags or a now unneeded bloody uniform part to cushion the shock. A Stokes litter, a box by another name, would be lowered through the canopy by a medevac helo to extract the critically wounded. Boxes and their use defined the day’s events.
When a Service member’s tour was over. boxes again became a common part of life. Old unneeded materials which had been boxed and stored on initial arrival would be unboxed and examined for utilitarian value. Some items such as a Class A uniform might be extracted and cleaned for the return. Other items as well as souvenirs and bulky materials such as PX purchases of audio or video devices, clothing or PACEX catalogue gifts would be boxed, addressed and shipped by the local Army Postal Organization to Home-wherever that might be.
Arriving at the Freedom Bird processing center, a returnee would note the last box in his Vietnam experience, an amnesty box at the foot of the portable staircase leading into the aircraft. Not everything a person possessed would necessarily come from a box. There were several of these boxes in the processing area and terminal, but this was the last of his Vietnam boxes. Perhaps not. Aligned on a pallet, just under the aircraft, were stacks of silver rectangular boxes. These were full of people who could no longer use the other boxes.
Keith Nightingale is a former US Army Colonel and served in Vietnam with the 1/502nd Screaming Eagles and the 75th Ranger Battalion. He has submitted several other articles for this website. If you are interested in reading more of his work, use the direct links which are provided below:
NOTE: To return to this page after reading an article, please use the “back arrow” at the upper left of this page.
The Cherry: https://cherrieswriter.com/2019/06/04/the-cherry/
Hill of Angels: https://cherrieswriter.com/2022/03/26/hill-of-angels/
The Perimeter: https://cherrieswriter.com/2018/09/11/the-perimeter-guest-post/
Fort Benning during the Battle of the Ia Drang: https://cherrieswriter.com/2018/10/29/fort-benning-during-battles-in-the-ia-drang-guest-blog/
A Night in the Jungle: https://cherrieswriter.com/2021/02/27/a-night-in-the-jungle/
The Bush: https://cherrieswriter.com/2019/05/13/the-bush/
A Day Trip to the Ville: https://cherrieswriter.com/2022/11/26/a-day-trip-to-the-ville/
First Daze in Vietnam: https://cherrieswriter.com/2022/12/17/first-daze-in-vietnam/
The Day Begins: https://cherrieswriter.com/2023/02/04/the-day-begins/
My book review of his published book, “Just Another Day in Vietnam”: https://cherrieswriter.com/book-reviews-titles-i-m/#s6
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Sent from my iPhone
Dear Keith, great piece on the “boxes” of Vietnam! I served in the 101st at Bien How and then Phu Bai, so i saw my fill of Conex boxes. They were invented by Sealand for Nam logistics. Here is an interesting sidebar story. While I was Chairman of the New Jersey Agent Orange Commission, I was invited by their 10/80 Commission to make a return visit to Vietnam. My 16day return trip was in 1994 and it worked out very well, including a long research partnership between our two commissions. For my return trip to Nam I hit up my friends (clients at Sealand for a new state-of-the-art laptop. I then ,loaded it up with all the latest software at Montclair State University, including SPSS statistical software. I took this as a goodwill gift for Dr./Madam Phong in Saigon. She and her staff were very excited to have the latest software and hardware for their AO research and this helped establish a long, productive partnership. BTW, we at NJAC literally invented the protocol for finding TCDD/dioxin in ersons years after their exposures. We did it on a $300,000 budget while DOD, CDC and the VA literally missed away $60,000,000 and then told Congress it couldn/t be done!
Paul A. Scipione, Ph.D.
Canandaigua, NY 14424
Google “A Nation of Numbers”.
Interestingly structured , and very informative. Thank you Colonel!
C 5/7 1st Cav, 1970-’71.
Gary iPhone 320-212-6460
Love your articles Colonel! Thank You for writing them!
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One of the best articles I have read in some time. Thanks for the memories.
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Wonderful article. I never thought about so many boxes before, but as an Infantry officer myself, I encountered so many of these during my tour. I must add to boxes the importance of waterproof bags where we stored our personal possessions while in the field and making it easy to return them in the case of WIAs and KIAs. Also have to add ponchos. As a platoon leader, it was my job to fill out a death card, attach it to the man’s boot along with a dog tag. I wrapped the man’s poncho around him and tied it off with cord I carried for this purpose. Too many ponchos, too many bodies wrapped in them and then sent in boxes for the long, sad journey home. It was the worst job of my life and haunts me to this day.
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Your article was very real life! I know I lived out of back pack for 10 1/2 months.
C 1/ 11 5TH. Infantry 1970
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