Things You Might Not Know About Life in Vietnam

Answer by Arnold Punaro, Author of On War and Politics: The Battlefield Inside Washington’s Beltway, Vietnam War veteran, USMC, former Staff Director of SASC, businessman, on Quora.

What surprised me about Vietnam was how wet and cold you were all the time due to the monsoon rains. My unit operated in the Que Son Mountains and it got very cold at night and we did not have warm enough sleeping gear.

We also were exposed to Agent Orange but did not at the time know what it was or how harmful it would be. I recall on Christmas Even 1969 stopping and digging in for the night on the side of a mountain. Due to the rain and mudslides we ended up sliding down to the bottom of a B-52 bomb crater and the troops asked, “Lt., what is that orange color in the water?” I just thought it was mud making the water orange. It was of course Agent Orange, and we ended up sleeping in it that night. Only later did we realize the harmful effects of Agent Orange. I’ve gone to far too many funerals of fellow troops with Agent Orange-related diseases in recent years, a common problem for Vietnam-era vets.

One of the worst problems we had was with how unreliable resupply was. And some basic items, like dry socks and heat tabs, were never in supply. Most all of our chow was C-rations that came in brown cans and ran from horrible to inedible. Even worse, there were never any heat tabs to warm up the meals, so you had a cold “meat” dish with all the congealed fat and junk. We finally started using pinches of C-4 plastic explosive to heat our food and coffee, but you had to be really careful with that since it was an explosive.

Since resupply never had any dry socks, immersion foot, or “jungle rot,” became a major problem. In some cases, Marines had to be medevac’d for cellulitis. We were issued a truly worthless jungle boot. The boot was heavy: it had a steel plate which was supposed to stop the booby trap pungi sticks (but didn’t). And its “weep holes,” which were supposed to let water drain out got clogged constantly, and with the monsoon rains and trudging through rice paddies, our feet were constantly soaking wet. I had my troops cut holes in the top of their boots so the water would slosh out. Very unsatisfactory.

We really did not have any contact with what we called “the real world” back home. No Internet; no radios for news or music in the jungle; no papers; we lost track of time and the days of the weeks and even months. It’s a very surreal experience to lose track of time like that and just have your platoon, patrolling the jungle, day in and day out.

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Using C-4 to heat food is pretty safe unless the enemy sees the fire, it takes a lot to set C-4 off, but it burns nicely enough.

Yeah, seen it sliced into nice pieces for heating…

It was rumored that if it was burning you couldn’t step on it, or anything, otherwise it will explode, but this was shown to be false. C-4 is so stable that you can do pretty much anything to it while it’s burning, and it won’t detonate. Even Myth Busters did a sequence on it.

Didn’t you have hexamine stoves, like Australian forces had in Vietnam era?

Block of hexamine, like a firelighter (e.g. solid BBQ fuel lighter), sat in the stove and cooked a small food or mess tin above it. Assuming (a) you could actually light the bastard in anything but ideal conditiions; (b) wind didn’t blow the heat away from the tin; (c) you had time to do it.

Some detailed info here:

Contrary to the list in the last link, I’m almost certain that the C ration packs we got in the Vietnam era also had a tube of jam in them as I recall softening the dog biscuits with the condensed milk tube and the jam tube (like little toothpaste tubes), and licking the condensed milk and jam off the dog biscuit so that the top one or two millimetres of the dog biscuit softened enough to eat it without risking a visit to the dentist.

As mentioned in the last link, when we were issued with individual C rations for an excercise they were opened and traded or discarded before setting out so that nobody was lugging weight they weren’t going to use.

A longstanding problem, going back at least to trench foot in WWI and probably before, and made worse by the humidity and various diseases in Vietnam.

The same for Australian forces in Vietnam, although Bob Buick in his book All Guts and No Glory covering his time in Vietnam notes that some Australians worked out the connections through the various levels of the Australian military, Vietnamese, and international telephone systems to the extent that in 1966 diggers in the machine gun pit in 11 Platoon, Delta Company, 6 RAR at Nui Dat were able to call home to Australia, although Buick and others were unaware of this at the time.

We had MRE heating units that essentially boiled the packets:

Our Tanks were issued with a liquid fuel hot plate sort of thing, which usually didn’t work even if fuel was around. The field expedient was to leave the cans one wished to heat (after making a vent hole in the lid) in the cardboard box, and burn the box around them. Worked well enough to make stuff warm. I saved the cigarettes up, and traded them for other stuff I wanted.

Could you have cooked on the engine?

Something that was done in the bush here years ago, and probably still is, based on putting tins or foil wrapped food in the engine bay / on the rocker cover / head / block to get heated as the vehicle rolled along.

I have vague recollections of some attempts at it in the 1960s turning out sort of okay, if you didn’t mind a bit of exhaust smoke / oil flavour rather than hickory smoke.

Fits into real cooking in about the same space as using dishwashers to cook, for those who remember that fad a few decades ago. And, no, I never tried it.

Or you could have cooked on the tank in suitable weather. Plenty of photos from WWII in North Africa with tank crews cooking eggs on sun heated steel.

The Engine/Transmission pack was fully enclosed in a heat shield through which the exhaust diverters protruded. We would have had to unbolt the Grill Doors to get at any of that. When we were allowed to use them, the fuel heater made a good place to heat food, lay a can in the duct, and in a short time, nice and hot. We could use them when in administrative mode, but when out in the woods doing maneuvers ,we were in Tactical mode, and couldn’t use them. Like many things a U.S. soldier encounters, it’s put there so you can’t use it. (Noise, heat, and light discipline, which in a large Armored formation seems more than a bit silly) :slight_smile: Plus they did use a fair amount of fuel.

Fact is, less than 20% of the guys there ever set foot in the bush.
I have heated things usinf C-4. It makes a small intense flame and you got to be careful not o burn stuff.
We had to watch the Montagnards I worked with, they had a tendency to open claymores and take out some of the C4.
I have heard of some bonehead GIs doing that.
The comment on orange colored water is pure BS, as are some of the other stuff in the artical.
It was called Agent Orange because of an orange identifying band around the drums.
The war drug on for near 10 years and policies and methods changed regularly. Not necessarily for the good, but guys from one period would hardly recognize things from another.
I spent 16 months in he bush, 68-70, and call BS on a great deal of that artical in terms of describing the overall situation.
His comments on jungle boots and cutting holes to let out the water is rediculous.
Wet feet were an issue, but if you were constantly in water or mud, they were wet, no matter what. Actually a policy in some places was no socks. Also no underwear.
We did not have a lot of modern efficient stuff-it did not exist. We dealt with that.
I have a friend with a daughter in some far off land-cell phnes and texts everyday.
We had to write letters. Poor us.
Enclosed pic of some delicious water we got one fine day on the Cambodian Border. Any color was from the red Laterite soil. Not Agent Orange.

Web waterhole1.jpg

You quoted comment encouraged me to revisit the original post.

I don’t know what steel plate boots the author is referring to as not stopping punji stakes, but the ‘Boots GP’ issued to Australian troops with the steel plate in the sole were effective against punji stakes.

I can’t think of any punji stake, given that they were usually made of bamboo or timber, that could penetrate our steel plates nor, probably, any other steel plate. I also can’t imagine even a steel punji stake penetrating a steel sole as there just isn’t enough force generated by the falling foot to allow penetration.

As boots need to flex to enable the wearer to move, there couldn’t be a solid steel plate protecting the whole foot, so it was still possible to be injured by a punji stake even with a steel sole.

There was also the problem that punji pits could be made with the spikes facing downwards so that the leg was trapped against any attempt to lift it upwards, so steel soles were useless.

At least you didn’t have your postal service denying you your letters, as happened to Australian forces in Vietnam.

“postie” = postman / mail deliverer

“on RTA” = on return to Australia

Appears that mail deal was a single short peiod event. Doesn’t really qualify as a denial of letters. Sucked while it lasted.
Very shameful event.
We even got free postage.
I don’t recall the details of the steel plates-it was thin if it was common.
I remember some kind of mesh.
Only Punji stakes I saw were in trenches and perimeters and were not designed for stepping on, but falling upon or running into.
I know a guy who jumped into a ditch during an ambush and landed on some placed there for that reason.
He got one stuck in a leg and got infected to the point he was medivacced out of country.