This page is dedicated to all who spent time in the jungle and swamps of Viet Nam.
I wanted to take my camera with me on at least one patrol... to document some of the hardships that were your constant companions while
on patrol. I was reluctant to do so because I thought the camera would get broken. I was right... it did. But not before I snapped some
pictures that (I hope) will give you an idea of what it was like 'in the boonies'.
The patrol photos still give me goose-bumps. You will find the photos in the A-103 section -- a trip to the boonies.
Most of our patrols were intelligence-gathering missions. We were to survey the patrol area for signs of enemy activity. On some occasions we were sent into 'Arc Light' areas -- areas that had been hit by B-52 strikes. Sometimes we were sent in to assess the effectiveness of our H & I (Harassment and Interdiction) fire missions. Patrols typically lasted four to eight days.
Special Forces patrols, based out of the A-teams, were comprised of two Americans, approximately thirty Vietnamese, and (usually) no interpreter. The Americans, who were markedly taller than the Vietnamese, also carried the M-16. Both of these characteristics made it easy to spot the Americans -- distinctions that often made you the first or primary targets in an ambush or a firefight.
20 to 25 clips of ammunition, 6 or 8 grenades, six days of canned food (if you had some!), MREs (short for Meal - Ready to Eat) for 3 or 4 days, hammock, 3 or 4 pairs of socks, canteen, water purifying tablets, M-16, maps, insect repellent (2 small plastic bottles), floppy camouflage hat, the fatigues you wore, and no identification
6 to 10 clips of ammunition, NO grenades, very little canned food (if you had any), MREs for 6 or 8 days, bouillon cubes, hammock, 3 or 4 pairs of socks, canteen, water purifying tablets, M-16, maps, insect repellent (8 small plastic bottles), C-4 plastic explosive, floppy camouflage hat, gloves, the fatigues you wore (including long-sleeve shirt), and no identification
The answer is simple: you learned! Let me explain. You carry 20 to 25 clips of ammo and you get really tired. The clips get heavy after a while. You also learned that, while firing a weapon in fully automatic mode looks really cool in the movies, this uses a lot of ammo! With semi-automatic fire, you didn't need to carry as much ammunition. The grenades looked really cool... hanging from you web straps that way. Sorta like John Wayne... But the jungle has all sorts of vines, branches, and trees in a very dense environment. It was very easy for a branch or vine to snag one of the grenades 'pins' and pull it without your knowledge. Eight seconds later -- Boom! End of mission... end of life.
'Jungle savvy' was learned. As the FNG, you learned by watching the guys who had been in-country longer than you. You asked questions. You listened
to the stories. One of the stories (AKA 'lessons') passed down to each new FNG went like this:
"I let the slopes carry the grenades. I heard of one patrol... they were going through some thick shit. As they were making their way through the jungle, the commo guy noticed a grenade pin hanging on one of the trees. He didn't even have time to look around when the damn grenade went off! The pin musta gotten snagged as one of the gooks in front of him went by the tree. He was lucky!!"
If you've ever seen pictures of our CIDG, chances are they all have five or six grenades clipped on the front of their backpack webbing. Guess they saw the same John Wayne movies I did.
Canned food is very heavy. And what do you do with the empty cans? It wasn't a matter of liter control. You didn't want anyone to know you had passed through the area. They may be waiting for you on the next trip! Our MREs usually had dehydrated rice in them and were relatively light-weight.
Standard MRE procedure was to put water in the rice bag, seal it, and let the rice absorb the water. After thirty minutes you were ready to eat.
That's what we ate on patrol... rice in the morning, maybe some rice in the afternoon, and rice in the evening -- for four to eight days.
It helped to heat the water before putting it in the rice bag. It was difficult to find dry wood in the jungle. Virtually everything was wet, green, or both. That means you couldn't have a fire because the smoke from the fire would mark your location -- a dangerous thing to do in 'Nam. Eventually you learned that C-4, a powerful plastic-like explosive, burned with a hot flame and no smoke. So many of us carried C-4 -- not for its explosive characteristics, but to use as fuel for a fire. That way, we could heat up water (or food) while on patrol. The Vietnamese on the patrol would frequently ask the Americans for [say bon] -- French for C 4. However, we would not/could not give them any. They could easily use some and save some. Over the course of time they would have accummulated enough C-4 to setup a booby trap or bomb that might kill you.
Eventually I learned to put bouillon cubes in the bag with the water to try and give the rice some flavor. I'm not sure if my mother knows why I asked her to send bouillon cubes.
After I returned from Viet Nam, it was five years before I could eat any rice!
The hammock kept you off the ground for sleeping. Obviously, you tied each end to a tree and tried to sleep. Unfortunately, when it rained, the water would run down the tree. When the water encountered the strings securing the hammock to the tree, at least a portion of this water would follow the strings down to your hammock. You would wake up in the morning in a hammock filled with water. As you became 'jungle savvy', you learned to tie pieces of string to the hammock's support strings. In this way (at least some of the) water following the support strings would be diverted and fall to the ground.
The insect repellent was one of the most effective -- and most needed -- items we used for Vietnam jungle patrols. Let me explain why. Leeches were everywhere in Viet Nam! They were on the ground; they were in the trees! They sensed the heat from your body. If you stopped along a trail to eat or to rest, you could see the leeches inching their way toward you. So on patrol you took great pains to protect yourself from the leeches. Even though it was 90-something degrees, I wore long sleeve camouflage fatigues with the collar turned up and all buttons buttoned! I pulled my floppy hat down (to deflect leeches dropping off the vegetation/trees) and 'bloused' my jungle boots. After doing these things, I soaked my clothes where clothing layers changed (like where your fatigue pants tucked inside your jungle boots) or where skin was exposed. This kept me fairly 'leech-free'.
Even in the middle of the summer heat, I wore gloves. Sometimes the thick jungle growth would change to 'elephant grass'. Elephant grass grew to six or eight feet in height. As you tried to walk through it, you had to push it out of the way... to 'part' it, so to speak. Being right-handed I did this mainly with my left hand. As my hand/arm would sweep or push the elephant grass aside, the long stalks of the grass would slide down my arm. I quickly discovered that the edges of this grass were sharp and would cut you like small knives. I began to wear gloves to prevent cuts on my wrists and hands from the elephant grass.
This picture is deceiving. I am six feet tall. Notice how the grass obstructs the view. That is because the elephant grass can (and frequently does!) grow to eight
feet tall. Also, notice how thick the grass was. It made travel very difficult -- if not impossible. Hopefully the picture definition is
sufficient for you to see the edges of the grass. The grass was strong. That is, it did not yield easily. As you brushed the grass aside with
your hand and/or arm, the grass would slide down your arm. If your skin was exposed, it could (and would) cut you. Ten years after my return
from RVN, you could still see the small, long scars on my wrists and arms... a legacy created by the sharp edges of the elephant grass while
on patrol. Even though the long-sleeved shirt and gloves reduced these cuts, it was impossible to eliminate them entirely.
The cuts I mentioned above were not deep. However, they exposed you to one of the biggest problems in Viet Nam: infection. Viet Nam was, in general, an unsanitary place. (More about these types of conditions on another page.) You had to be careful to prevent infection.