By Rodney H. George
Vietnam has two seasons: wet and dry. During the dry season tracked combat vehicles can negotiate about 70% of the countryside, but during the rainy season only perhaps a third of the area can be crossed in a tank, slightly more in a personnel carrier. It is difficult to describe the misery of life in the field in a combat vehicle in the rainy season. Tracked vehicles churn the ground into a thick muddy slop. If you try to walk from one tank to another, a person may sink into the mud for several feet. Walking is a laborious process of pulling one foot out of the mud, then taking a step with ten pounds of mud cling to that boot, then repeating the process. Wherever tracks had been moving we began to think of the vehicles like boats at sea - if you needed to move to another vehicle, often driving up beside the other vehicle and jumping across was the only practical way of moving. If you had to dismount, slow deliberate movements like a swimmer entering cold water avoided getting stuck in the thick mud - sometimes. Most new replacements made the mistake of jumping off the tank fender into mud once, and finding themselves trapped in the goo until pulled out, sometimes with the hoist from the tank recovery vehicle. We enforced strict rules prohibiting tracked vehicle movement within the center area of the circular Night Defensive Position. If only the perimeter is churned up, walking remains barely possible in the center of the position, often in only a few inches of mud. We occupied a new NDP each night, in part to confuse Charlie's mortar registration and attack planning, but also for the advantage of undisturbed ground around the command and mortar tracks.
Living constantly in mud, skin assumes a dark chocolate color and uniform clothing literally rots off of your body. One of the most prized possessions in my platoon was an Australian shower - a canvas bucket with a zinc showerhead on the bottom. Filled with a gallon of clean drinking water and hung from a gun tube, a shower naked under the bucket left you feeling if not cleaner, at least cooler for a few minutes. You don't want to use untreated local water even for washing if you can avoid it. Luxury consists of a show, followed by new clothing. No one wore uniform insignia in the field. Partially to avoid snipers picking out officers, but largely because new unmarked jungle fatigues were issued weekly to replace rotting clothing. Underwear was mostly unavailable, but we never wore it in any case as in the rain it only encouraged fungus infections.
Even by 1969 standards, the M48 tanks in my platoon were hardly high tech. Designed shortly after W.W.II and put in service just after Korea, they were simple and rugged. Yet the rain attacked even this level of technology. The communication switch boxes at each crew station seldom worked. In the rain I kept a simple hand microphone and speaker plugged into the face of the radio, bypassing the turret wiring connecting my helmet to the radio. In combat, the radio is your most important weapon; with a working radio, you can call for artillery or air support, talk to the mortar crew, and yell for help from a sister platoon. An electrical short in the turret wiring can literally leave you on your own. The rain also caused the precision optics of the fire control system to mist over, so most engagements involved firing by eye from the tank commander's position. Sort of literally shooting from the hip. With engagement ranges of from ten feet to a hundred yards, optical sights were not really needed in any case. With the gunner blind if left in the turret, he usually rode instead in the open on the rear deck of the tank armed with an M16 rifle to provide close in protection from dug in infantry. Even the firing circuit of the main gun would fail in the rain, so most TC's became expert at firing by kicking the manual plunger on the gun breech with the left foot. Mud made even routine maintenance a misery. Broken torsion bars were common on the tanks as we normally operated at over the tank's design weight and at high speed on rough terrain. And of course any mine detonation would usually break both the track and torsion bars.. A torsion bar for an M48 road wheel weighs ninety pounds. To change one requires releasing the track tension, picking up the side of the tank with the M88 hoist, unbolting the road arm, driving the broken bar segment out with a sledge hammer, sliding the new bar in and reassembling the road wheel and track. A nasty, heavy job in an asphalt parking lot, but pure misery working in three feet of soft mud.
Crews on the ACAV's lived in somewhat greater comfort that tank crews. The M113 personnel carrier provides a relatively flat interior populated only by ammo cans, rations, and all the other hard angular obstructions needed on the floor of a combat vehicle. The cargo and track commander's hatches normally stay open, but that still leaves a relatively dry area on either side of the TC's station that can be used for sleeping. Certainly dryer than sleeping on the rear deck of a tank under a poncho. In the field the only comfortable place to sleep is in the M577 command track or the M88 recovery vehicle. With the canvas extensions up, there is room in the M577 for four people to know the exquisite joy of sleeping out of the rain on a cot above the mud. The first sergeant and RTO regard the M577 as theirs and guard this space jealously. Occasionally on quite nights the CO can sleep on a cot there, but a myriad of demands usually keep him out in the mud.
Hot food usually came to the field once a day in insulated mermite cans. At least it was presumably hot when placed in the can, but after a helicopter flight at altitude in a chopper with the doors removed, it was seldom hot on arrival. Somehow the shipping contrived to make the usual breakfast consist of absolutely limp bacon, dry toast that shattered on the first bite, scrambled eggs that had separated back to their constituent powder and water, and warm milk smelling like the powdered milk from which it was reconstituted. Enjoyed in a pounding rain sitting in the hatch of a combat vehicle while watching the fog roll through the trees, it did at least make a change from the usual C rations.
Whenever someone asks me which of the popular films on Vietnam I find most realistic, I have to say "none of them." Films are made to entertain, not to convey reality. The reality of life in the field in Vietnam was one of continuous misery, fear and brutal hard work, interspersed by episodes of terror. But it did have the compensation that mostly no one screwed with you. No one would be interested in paying to see a film about the "real" war, not even those who lived it. Films need a beginning, a moral conflict and a resolution. War in Vietnam just went on and on, day after day. In the last scene of the movie Platoon Charlie Sheen is being medivaced with a minor wound after his platoon was overrun. In the movie his war is over; in real life he'd have spent a day at a field hospital and be back in the field in a week.