So, you are a US Navy pilot and you find yourself in the unenviable position of having to bail out over enemy territory. Maybe you were shot down, maybe you had mechanical issues, either way, you are about to be in deep trouble.
Luckily when you were preparing for your mission you put on your flight suit which contained a number of compartments. In those compartments are the survival tools that you may need in exactly this situation. Besides a first aid kit and such you have your handy, dandy Barter Kit.
The Barter kit was a small molded rubber case which measures 5 1/2″ by 4″. When opened there are 5 form fitted compartments. Two gold rings, marked as being 100% gold. A small charm with the image of a fish, several links of gold chain and the real beauty, a Swiss made 21 jewel Milus Instant Date watch with a band.
No, this was not a pilot’s early retirement present. In fact, the purpose was to give the downed pilots something of value to trade to either civilian. Or possibly even enemy soldiers to help them get back to their lines and to safety.
The kit above was a variation that was used in the South East Asia theater during the war. Another version used in the Atlantic had three gold rings and a number of gold coins.
If you were down and found yourself on the wrong side of the line, this little kit could very well be the difference between life and death.
In a previous post, we looked at the history of the M60 Patton tank that served the US during the Cold War and beyond. Above is an action shot of an M48 Patton charging off into battle during the Vietnam War.
During the course of the war, there were very few “tank on tank” battles. The tanks served mainly in the role of infantry support. No sight was more welcomed than to see one of these bad boys flying down the road. This variant, used by both the US and South Vietnamese units, provided ample protection for the crew. They were able to win in most engagements against enemy armor. Of course, having the war fought in the jungle and mountains of the region did limit its deployment capabilities.
After the United States pulled out, many of the M48s were turned over to the South Vietnamese. They went to good use in several engagements against their Northern counterparts. However, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Congress began cutting off the military aid to the South and eventually actually passed laws that made the selling of fuel and ammunition to our former allies illegal.
Without that support, the tanks were unable to be put into the field and eventually the South Vietnamese were defeated. A number of the surviving tanks found their way into service with the victors but were soon abandoned in total.
So looking at the picture it is hard to say where that tank was headed, but I for one would not want to be on the other end when it got there.
The F-4 Phantom is one of the most iconic military airplanes in American history. As much as the Huey is seen as a symbol of the Vietnam War, the Phantom has to run a close second.
During the war, it served a number of roles, from the main air superiority fighter to ground attack and close support. Even later in the war, it became an important reconnaissance tool also. Not bad.
It first flew in May 1958 and was introduced into front-line service in 1960. It was manufactured until 1981 and in total, more than 5,000 found their way into service. Officially retired in 1996 by the US military it saw use in foreign services until 2013 (Germany).
Oddly enough it is not in a military role that it has been the most impressive. During the 1960’s, as NASA was working on the technology to take a man to the moon. They needed an aircraft that could be used to film the test launches and provide data to the designers. The F-4 was the only airplane that could keep up. So armed with cameras under its wings, this warbird was instrumental to the space program.
Of course, some would argue that the five years that is served as the primary platform for the US Navy’s Blue Angles (1969-1974) ranks up there as its coolest moment.
The plane in the picture is currently undergoing restoration at the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, MI. It is sort of strange to see such a majestic machine with its guts torn out and sort of empty. It helps to know that after so many years of service though it is somewhere they will take care of it.
Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “An army travels on its stomach.” If any one would know it should be him. During war, sometimes finding time to eat is one of the biggest challenges. The body is an engine and the engine needs fuel.
The picture above shows a meal being served to troops in the field during the Vietnam War. In this case, the food is classified as “B Rations”. These sorts of meals were usually prepared in a field kitchen from non-fresh ingredients, then shipped to the units where they were heated up and served. Not needing to be frozen or refrigerated means that even the guys far from the supply center would have the chance for a hot meal on occasion.
These were usually better than the C Rations or MRE’s that the individual soldier would prepare for themselves. Often from a package, and of dubious quality and taste. However that A Ration is the holy grail. A warm meal, made in a real kitchen, served in a nice safe dining hall.
“We ate when we could and what we could,” Bill Hatfield, who took the picture above, reminisced. “Sometimes we would be out on patrols that lasted longer than we planned and we never had enough of anything. After a couple of days of C-Rats, we didn’t really care how the food at the fire base tasted, just that there was plenty of it.”
This picture is from the personal collection of my father, William Hatfield and below is the story that he told me about it. This would have been taken during one of his several tours in Vietnam where he served with the US Navy as a Hospital Corpsman. For those that don’t know the US Marines had no medical corp of its own, so they use Navy Corpsmen as their medics. So my father spent a lot of time in country with the Marines and in the thick of it.
Scattered around the country of Vietnam during our involvement were a number of what were called “Fire Bases“. These bases served as forward positions that were often way out in the boondocks. They served as an extension of the “zone of control” for the US military. They provided the front line troops somewhere to rest. Most importantly they housed much of the heavy artillery that provided support for troops in the field. To the Vietnamese they were huge targets.
Time for a Picture?
The picture above was taken at approximately 2am and captures the opening of an attack on the base by enemy forces. Usually they would start with mortar fire, sometimes heavier ordinance if they had it. Usually once the mortar fire started the enemy positions would be located and devastated with artillery or in most cases troops would be sent to clear out the nests.
Most attacks consisted of the mortars and on occasion enemy troops would try to infiltrate the base. Their goal to kill and destroy as much as possible then disappear in to the night. Sometimes these attacks would occur on subsequent nights. Every now then they would get lucky and a shell would fall on a stash of ammunition or even fuel. When that happened you would end up with an explosion, much like you see above.
And there was William Hatfield, taking time to snap a quick picture before he got to work on the wounded. In the thick of it indeed.
Communication on the battlefield has always been a major concern of armies. In the early days, leaders could shout commands to their troops. Even with a relatively small number of men and close quarters, this became almost impossible.
Some armies developed a system of flags that could be waved during a battle that would pass on the orders of the general to their men. This increased the distance over which the commands could be given. It did rely on the men being able to see the flags. As the size of the battlefields grew the less valuable this method became.
Eventually, music became the standard. Drums and trumpets translated commands down the line and to anyone within earshot. Much more effective than flags, but as the size of armies grew so did the size of battlefields. Battles were being fought over miles now and even relaying orders from the leaders to the men either took too long or were too easily misunderstood.
During the Civil War, the telegraph changed everything. President Lincoln could stand in the War Office in Washington and get real-time updates of a battle in Tennessee. Heck if he wanted (and occasionally he did) he could give orders to Generals commanding on the front lines. (They loooved that.)
Fast forward a hundred years and the advent and proliferation of radios like the one above battles could be fought by men on one side of an ocean commanding men on the other. Today we have satellites and near instantaneous communications with nearly any point on the globe. We’ve come a long way.
During the Vietnam War the United States and her allies faced off primarily against two forces. The People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) which was the regular army of North Vietnam was one of these groups. The other was the National Liberation Front (NLF), also known as the Viet Cong. This was a mostly irregular force that carried out guerrilla campaigns against the United States and South Vietnamese military. That snappy “uniform” above belongs to one of those fighters.
The NLF was a political organization that formed in South Vietnam which had a communist bent. It also had its own army, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam (PLAF). Most of the fighters were from either South Vietnam or Cambodia, which made things very confusing because the South Vietnamese were supposed to on our side.
The PLAF (commonly referred to as the Viet Cong) served both as guerrilla fighters, as mentioned) and served alongside the regular PAVN forces. It was also their job to organize resistance in the South and often they would prepare entire villages for mobilization. Numerous and hard to eradicate they managed to get their own nickname from the Americans, Victor Charlie or V-C based on the letters in the NATO phonetic alphabet.
Where as the PAVN had a hard time in stand up fights against the US, the Viet Cong were able to operate in almost an untouchable fashion. Their greatest operation came in 1968 during what has come to be called the Tet Offensive. In a single stroke the VC carried out coordinated attacks across the South, over 100 including against the US Embassy in Saigon. Eventually defeated the VC were never really able to gather any serious strength again and returned to the guerrilla war. Major offenses after this would be carried out by the regular army. Even in defeat though the found a modicum of victory. The US will to fight in Southeast Asia was dealt a devastating blow. The war would go on, but the focus became not so much winning, but getting out alive. (Open to interpretation, but yeah.)
In 1976 the war officially ended with the North soundly defeating the South. Once the two countries were united the PLAF was officially disbanded. This is just a brief look at the Viet Cong, there is a lot to tell about them, more than can fit here. In total it is estimated that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong war dead totaled close to half a million. Each one of them fighting for a cause they believed in. One theme you should always find in this blog and these articles is to realize that even the people we think of as enemies are fighting for something. Sometimes it never hurts to remember that.
During the Vietnam War, that was the most beautiful thing you can see. Helicopters were the lifeline for the troops out in the bush. They brought you reinforcements, food, water, ammunition, clean socks and eventually they would take you somewhere at least marginally safer than where you were.
The helicopter above is a CH-47 Chinook, a very big brother to the classic Huey that was the face of the war. The CH-47 entered service in 1962 and amazingly are still being produced and are in service today. Sixteen countries have these in their arsenal. Including Iran who purchased a large number from us in the 70’s and still have many in service today.
It can reach a top speed of 196 mph, has a range of 450 miles and can lift approximately 28,000 pounds of cargo, if arranged properly.
Originally used in some of the roles mentioned above supply and troop transport. Eventually it became an invaluable tool for the artillery section. Its enormous lifting capability meant that it could take big guns and there crews up into the mountains faster, easier and safer than transporting them overland. Once established the Chinook could keep the fire bases supplied with massive amounts of ammunition. This allowed them to function for extended periods of time. Having these artillery emplacements in strategic locations were vital to war effort. They could provide support to forces in the field at a much greater capacity.
During the war, nearly 750 of these big birds were in service with almost 200 lost to combat or accidents. Pretty high percentage. I can guarantee you that if you were out in the field and saw one of these flying overhead, your heart skipped a beat.
The Vietnam War was fought in every nook and cranny of the country, from the mountains to the cities and most especially on the rivers. The waterways that spread across the country served as highways for the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet-Cong. They could use the ships to move men and supplies faster and quieter than over land. In response to this the United States dusted off a concept that had seen little use since the Civil War. The brown-water navy. These were Naval ships designed to operate on the rivers and along the coasts that would extend the reach of the US Navy where ever it was needed.
The concept of the brown-water navy came into its own during the Civil War when the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and other major rivers became the fronts in the conflict and the entire coast of the Confederacy became fair game. Outside of the river and coastal regions, the “blue-water” navy ruled supreme.
The boats in the picture above are PFC (Patrol Craft Fast) class Swift Boats. 50 feet long and made of aluminum these boats formed the base of the brown-water navy in Vietnam. This was a joint venture between the US Army and Navy. It operated in groups of three to five boats. Their missions consisted of patrols, interdiction and inserting special operation forces into their target areas.
Towards the end the focus of the war shifted as the United States military looked to get out. The South Vietnamese military was to take on the bulk of the fighting. Besides training and land based equipment, this also included the transfer of several Swift Boats. With the fall of the south many of the surviving boats ended up in the service of the communist regime.
Good Morning Vietnam was one of the big hits of 1987, 4th highest grossing film of that year. It starred Robin Williams and allowed him to lay it all on the line in what some consider the best role of his career. He even earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor that year.
The film is set in Saigon in 1965 during the early days of our involvement in Vietnam. Williams plays Adrian Cronauer an Armed Forces radio DJ that doesn’t care much for the chain of command, less for the war going on, and who uses his sense of humor to bring a little lightness to the growing conflict. In the movie Cronauer has just as much to fear from the higher-ups in his command as he does the Viet Cong and in the end he is forced off the air, more disillusioned than ever.
A couple of quick things. The real Adrian Cronauer starting pitching a TV series on his time in Vietnam to the TV networks, who passed because the did not believe that “war could be funny”. This was while M*A*S*H was on the air so, yeah. they may have missed a boat or two. Cronauer then morphed his pitch to a movie of the week which got the attention of Robin Williams and the rest is history. (Williams and Cronauer did not meet until the premier as the director was worried Williams would end up trying to imitate Cronauer instead of doing his own interpretation.)
Certainly one of the classic comedies of the 80’s and Williams did not let any one down. I personally still quote this movie twice a day on a slow day. How does it work as a war movie though?
There is very little combat seen in it, but there is a lot of after effects seen. Though Cronauer in the movie called out some of hypocrisy of our involvement there was still a sense of optimism in 1965, that would fade quickly as time drew on. The soldiers that he meets and those in enjoying his broadcasts in the inter cut scenes of his bits are far from the war-weary, soldiers that they would become later.
The true emotional impact of this movie is with the civilians that Cronauer interacts with during the film. During the third act you can feel his heart-break when the truth of the matter is spelled out plain, to most of the people in Vietnam the US was just another invader in a long line of invaders. All the fun and games of movie evaporate in an instant as the cost of war is driven home. So is this a good war movie? No, not really. But it is movie that drives home the cost of war on those fighting and those just trying to live through it.
Worth it? Oh yes. And you can get the Blue Ray by clicking on the movie image above.
People, Places and Things from US Military History