For a moment imagine that you are an American general infantryman – or GI – in the Vietnam War preparing for a combat mission. In addition to your standard M16 rifle (weighing about 7lbs/3kilos even unloaded) you would be putting together a load which usually included the following: between 2 to 8 quarter-litre canteens of water; canned combat C-rations; multiple clips of ammunition, plus flares, smoke and fragmentation grenades, and a Claymore anti-personnel mine with its own carrying bandolier.
There would also be bandages, water-purification tablets and insect repellent; an entrenching tool; a machete or knife; plus a poncho and liner or a half-shelter which doubled as a stretcher or a shroud if you were ‘hit’. All this strength-sapping load weighed between 60 and 80 pounds (between 27 and 36 kilos).
On top of that, radio operators had to carry a PRC-25 field-radio, which weighed 23 pounds (about 9 kilos) with its battery-pack, together with spare batteries (one would only last a day of routine listening and transmission), while mortar crews hauled a firing-tube and base-plate weighing around 40 pounds along with four mortar rounds, which added another 32 pounds to their load.
It is also worth remembering that a good portion of these soldiers were not highly trained professionals, but were conscripts from civilian life with a bit of ‘boot camp’ training lasting no more than 6 months before arriving in Vietnam.
On top of that were the forces of Nature as former Marine John Delezen, painfully recalled in his memoir Eye of the Tiger:
‘The rain comes in sheets all through the night and when I am relieved from sentry-duty I remain standing with the Marine that has relieved me. Soon we realize that nearly the entire team is standing up to escape the flooded ground. As the rain intensifies, I surrender to the cold deluge; wrapping myself into the wet, muddy plastic, I try to sleep. Before daylight, I wake shivering and half submerged in a deep puddle of cold rainwater, the edges of my poncho floating beside me.
I pray that I am dreaming. Leeches cover my legs, their bodies filled to the point of bursting, gorged with type “O” Positive. The crotch of my jungle trousers is caked with blood; a leech has fed on my groin.
My wrinkled fingers struggle with the bottle of insect-repellent and as I squirt it on their membrane-like skin, I vent my rage on them with frantic curses that are filled with disgust. As I watch them fall off in agony, I scratch at the wounds to maintain the flow of rich, clean blood that will hopefully prevent infection; the repellent burns deep into each wound.’
John Delezen also noted how the weather impacted on military activity: ‘There were many days when aircraft could not fly in such all-consuming cloudy conditions. Hence we were not always assured that we would be resupplied, or that we could get choppers in to take out our wounded or dead, and on one occasion we were compelled to sleep with our dead, and then awake in the morning and carry our dead along with us, while waiting for an opportunity to clear an LZ (landing zone) so that choppers could come in and lift our comrades out of the jungle for their final journey home.’
Down on the plains the peaceful-looking paddy-fields were certainly not peaceful, with GI’s constantly exposed to attack, sniper-fire, booby-traps, and of course the power of Nature, as vividly remembered by Robert Tonsetic in his Warriors: an infantryman’s memoir of Vietnam: ‘ We struggled through the sucking mud of the paddies. The banks of the streams were especially treacherous. Each step through the soft muck was torture, and every few steps a man would sink in mud up to his crotch. The gnarled roots of the mangroves could twist an ankle or a knee in a second. The putrid stench of rotting vegetation permeated the stifling humid air, and canteens were emptied quickly’. Jasper Humphreys