VIETNAM: US UNIFORMS IN COLOUR PHOTOGRAPHS
Not to be confused with the more conventional Divisional Reconnaissance Battalions, 'Force Recon' was established to provide the Fleet Marine Forces (FMF) with a reconnaissance asset. The 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company was activated in November 1965 and assigned to III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) in Vietnam. Force Recon companies were basically LRRP units, undertaking similar reconnaissance and surveillance missions. Considered an elite within a Corps that already considered itself to be an elite force, Recon team members were additionally trained in amphibious and small boat tactics. All Force Recon Marines were also airborne-qualified (Divisional Recon Battalion personnel were not), and made the first-ever Marine combat jump on 14 June 1966 into the Tri-border area of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Force Recons are also believed to have evaluated sites on the North Vietnamese coastline for possible amphibious assault.
Headgear is a locally-produced short-brim J. A. boonie hat popular with Recon Marines, as were other types of 'soft cover'. Issue boonie hats and utility caps were worn alongside Vietnamese-made examples; occasionally camouflage helmet covers were fashioned into crude berets. A blackened metal Corporal's rank device is pinned to the front of the hat.
The first pattern tropical combat uniform is worn with first pattern tropical boots. The tie-down tapes in the pockets of the trousers are shown here correctly secured around the thighs. The scarf/sweatrag is fashioned from a piece of camouflage parachute silk and was commonly worn to reduce chafing to the neck by a sweat-soaked collar.
Many Marines, especially those in Recon units, were aware of the superiority of the Army's M1956 LCE over their own web gear. Probably the most sought-after item was the H-harness or suspenders and many Marines managed to acquire a set, here supporting an M1961 ammunition belt. On the belt are worn four M1961 ammunition pouches, two M1943 canteen carriers, and a Marine jungle first aid kit centred at the rear of the belt. The olive drab plastic one-quart canteens were also sought-after by Marines and would eventually replace the aluminium type. On the suspender is taped a 'K-Bar' utility/fighting knife in a period dark brown leather sheath. Hung on the side is an AN/M8 signalling grenade, which produced a dense white smoke for signalling and screening.
The 7.62mm M14 rifle has its sling removed and the front swivel taped to ensure silence. Two 20-round magazines are taped end to end so that with a flick of the wrist the second magazine can be loaded - in effect, a 40-round magazine.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade was the first Army ground combat unit deployed to Vietnam. The Brigade's three Battalions arrived in May 1965, initially on a temporary basis until the arrival of the 101st Airborne Division, though the proposed take-over never occured. Known to its paratroopers as 'The Herd', the 173rd would become the Army's longest serving formation in the war. In 1967 the Brigade was to make the only large scale combat jump of the war during Operation 'Junction City'.
The operation, one of the largest of the entire war, was directed against the VC bastion known as War Zone C close to the Cambodian border. On 22 February the 173rd jumped its 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, onto Katum, signalling the start of the operation. After several weeks of hard fighting in the heavy jungle of War Zone C the 'Sky-Troopers' of the 173rd were pulled out, though 'Junction City' would continue until mid-May. 'Junction City' would stand as a hallmark for large-scale US operations, and although War Zone C was not entirely neutralized at least three VC regiments were temporarily destroyed.
The helmet is fitted with an Ml-C parachutist's liner for airborne personnel. The web chin-cup would be fastened during the jump and loosened, as here, or discarded once on the ground.
The tropical combat uniform is shown here in its third version. Fabric and basic design were the same although, starting with the second pattern, all pocket buttons were now covered to prevent snagging on foliage - a problem with the exposed buttons of the first uniforms. In this third variation the shoulder straps, gas flap and side tightening tabs were omitted from the coat. The trousers lost the tie-down tapes in the thigh pockets, and the buttoned tightening tab at the waist was replaced by a metal buckle. Camouflage or 'subdued' insignia were authorized for wear on all work and field uniforms in Vietnam beginning 9 June 1966. The changeover would take some time, and a mixture of full-colour and subdued insignia, as here, was common during this period. Locally-produced subdued insignia were widely available and worn alongside issue types. This Private's chevrons are typical of Vietnamese-made insignia, being black velvet on green twill.
The issue Olive Green Towel was often worn around the neck as shown, so that it could be used to wipe the face free of sweat as well as protecting the neck and shoulders from heavy equipment.
The Lightweight Rucksack was standardized in November 1965 and was issued in Vietnam in the following year to replace the unsatisfactory field pack or 'buttpack'. The water resistant nylon bag and its tubular aluminium frame weighed just three pounds. Featuring one large compartment and three external pockets, the lightweight rucksack offered over twice the carrying capacity of the butt pack. The rucksack was issued as here, fixed to the bottom of the frame, though it could be field modified to hang from the top. Additional items could be attached to the various straps of the frame - here two one-quart and a first pattern two-quart canteen in its nylon carrier.
Having no need for ammunition pouches, this machine gunner has dispensed with any web gear except for an M17 Chemical-Biological Field Mask in its carrier, correctly worn strapped to the left hip. Anti-riot agents were commonly used to clear VC/NVA tunnels and bunker complexes and US troops employed masks as routine protection.
The 7.62mm ammunition for his M60 General Purpose Machine Gun is draped around the torso in belts of disintegrating link. Though exposing the rounds to dirt and corrosion, this was the most common way to carry machine gun ammunition. A 100-round belt is loaded into the feed tray and draped over the left forearm ready for use.
At the start of 1967 the 1st Marine Division was occupying a series of combat bases in the northernmost region of South Vietnam - an area known to the Marines as 'Leatherneck Square'.
These bases - Khe Sanh, The Rockpile, Camp Carroll, Cam Lo and Dong Ha - were strung out along Route 9, which ran parallel to the DMZ, and were positioned to impede NVA infiltration routes to the south. Just two miles south of the DMZ, the forwardmost of these bases was Con Thien, which became the scene of heavy fighting in the summer of 1967.
The Marine garrison at Con Thien was tasked with setting up the first experimental stretch of the so-called 'McNamara Line', which was a proposed fence of surveillance devices running across the width of the country. As Marines began to prepare the ground by building bunkers and stringing wire, the North Vietnamese massed to attack Con Thien. This 'siege' was to last until October, involving hard fighting and high casualties; the Marines came to dub Con Thien 'The Meatgrinder'. In one single day's fighting on 2 July, Company B of the 9th Marines lost all but 27 of its personnel.
The Ml helmet is fitted with one of several types of World War 2/Korean War era covers in 'duck-hunter' pattern camouflage. By the 1960s these covers were exclusive to the Marine Corps, and though never as common as the leaf pattern covers were used widely throughout the war. The rubber helmet band holds a number of regular and magnum load 12-gauge shotgun shells.
Issue of the first pattern tropical combat uniform to the Marine Corps was begun in early 1966, and the changeover from the utility uniform was largely complete by the end of that year. Tropical combat boots were also made available to Marine personnel at about the same time. Unlike all previous Marine Corps utility uniforms, the coat of the tropical uniform did not receive the 'eagle, globe and anchor' stencil on the left pocket. The only insignia sanctioned for wear on the coat were the pin-on metal rank chevrons.
The M1955 Body Armor incorporated a strip of webbing with eyelets around the lower edge of the vest to which items with M1910 type wire hangers could be attached. Though most Marines rarely bothered with this feature some, as here, hung canteens and other items such as the jungle first aid kit directly to the vest, thus eliminating the need for a pistol belt.
A Claymore mine bag contains loose or boxed 12-gauge shells for the Remington Model 870 pump-action shotgun. This civilian weapon was one of a number of short-barrelled types used by US troops in Vietnam.
As the SF role in Vietnam assumed an increasingly aggressive posture the CIDG Camp Forces were expanded into larger mobile reaction units called 'Mike Forces'. Long range reconnaissance patrolling by combined USSF and LLDB units was undertaken as part of 'Project Delta', and an HQ Detachment, B-52, was established. Project Delta operations would continue throughout the war, and included locating enemy formations and installations, special raids and general intelligence gathering. As well as operating throughout Vietnam, some missions were infiltrated covertly into neighbouring countries. By 1967 Project Delta had expanded to sixteen reconnaissance teams (each composed of two USSF and four indigenous personnel), and eight 'Road-runner' teams. The Recon teams were tasked with intelligence gathering and sabotage; the Road-runner teams operated along known enemy trails while wearing enemy uniforms. Project Delta also established the 5th SFGA's Recondo school at Nha Trang to train their own as well as other US reconnaissance personnel.
The tiger-stripe uniform worn here is an example of the type which some collectors refer to as the 'classic' pattern. Basically it is a Vietnamese tailorshop copy of the ARVN Ranger pattern in typically lightweight fabric, and. is a representative private purchase uniform. Whereas garments manufactured in third countries under an MDAP contract were often of a medium to heavyweight fabric, Vietnamese copies were almost exclusively of a thin, lightweight, almost pajama-like cotton. The thin plastic buttons are also an indication of Vietnamese-made garments. The boonie hat illustrated is of the popular short brim style made from a number of off-cuts of tiger-stripe materials and lined with a black silk-like fabric.
Taped to the left shoulder on the M1956 suspenders is an Aircrew Survival Knife, a popular weapon with US elite unit personnel. The knife had a five-inch saw-edged blade, and its own sharpening stone in a pouch on the sheath. On the other shoulder is an issue snap-link for rappelling or river crossing. Instead of an equipment belt and ammunition pouches many SF personnel acquired old M1937 Browning Automatic Rifle Ammunition Belts. Designed to take two BAR magazines in each of its six pockets, the BAR belt could hold at least twice that number of M16 magazines and grenades. An M1942 Field Dressing Pouch is attached to the belt, as is a plastic anglehead flashlight, with its lense taped over to eliminate reflection.
The Lightweight Rucksack is shown here attached to the upper portion of the frame, a common field modification which transferred the weight to higher on the back. Units operated in enemy-held territory for weeks at a time, and drinking water was of paramount importance: here four plastic one-quart canteens are hung from the rucksack by a length of nylon paracord. Lashed to the rucksack frame and just visible below the bag is a Case, Medical Instrument and Supply Set, commonly known as a 'unit one medic bag'. This would accomodate enough equipment for the team's medic to carry out most emergency field medical procedures up to and including minor surgery.
The issue plastic wristwatch was worn on a green nylon strap, here with an attached wrist compass.
The M16AI is the later version with 'bird-cage' flash suppressor. Green tape is applied to the plastic furniture in an attempt to break up the weapon's visual outline. A sectional cleaning rod is taped to the forearm, and two 20-round magazines are taped end to end for rapid reloading.
The 716th Military Police Battalion of the 18th MP Brigade was the Army's first ground unit to deploy to South Vietnam in March 1965. Three years later the battalion would find itself at the forefront of the fighting in Saigon as the VC/NVA launched their 1968 'Tet Offensive'. On the night of 30 January 1968 the streets of Saigon were alive with people celebrating the Vietnamese lunar new year - 'Tet Nguyen Dan'. In the early hours of the 31st the VC initiated simultaneous rocket, mortar and ground attacks against major installations throughout the capital; by mixing with civilians the VC had achieved total surprise. The C-10 VC City Sapper Battalion was drawn from the ranks of Saigon taxi and cyclo drivers. Breaching the walls with satchel charges, members of this unit attacked the US Embassy compound until cornered and killed.
The 716th MP Battalion was the anti-terrorist security force for the Saigon area; its main duties included static guard posts, VIP escorts and traffic control. However, on the 31st the Battalion found itself on the front line as the war came to Saigon. The battle raged from street to street, with every supporting asset being brought to bear on the infiltrators. After weeks of fighting, in which the MPs were quickly reinforced by companies of US Infantry and ARVN Airborne and Ranger Battalions, Saigon and its surrounding area was secured and the war reverted to the jungles and paddy fields.
The MPs' distinctive gloss black helmet liner featured 2.25 inch high 'MP' letters on the front and a 1.25 inch band divided white above red. This division signified an Army level unit; other configurations were solid red for Divisional and Brigade units, and blue above red for Field Force and Corps units. On the left side of the liner is the unit's numerical designation, and on the right the insignia of the 18th MP Brigade to which the 716th were subordinate.
The tropical combat uniform is the third pattern in ripstop cotton-poplin, worn here with black leather combat boots (though tropical boots were also worn). The Military Police Brassard was worn with all duty uniforms, and bears the shoulder sleeve insignia of the 18th MP Brigade.
During the Saigon fighting MPs were hurriedly issued with body armour, either the earlier M1952 vest or, as here, the later Body Armor, Fragmentation Protective Vest with Three Quarter Collar, M69. This vest was an upgraded version of the M1952 which derived its protective capabilities from layers of ballistic nylon: twelve layers in the front and upper back, two in the lower back, with an additional two down the length of the spine. The M69 omitted the shoulder straps of the M1952, but incorporated a semi-stiff three-quarter collar with six layers of ballistic filling offering protection to the neck.
In normal duty situations MPs were authorized a set of black leather equipment including belt, cross-belt, nightstick carrier, and cases for handcuffs, first aid dressing and pistol ammunition. These leather items were also compatible with the standard web pistol belt and were often worn in an abbreviated manner, as here. A twin-cell pistol magazine pouch together with a nightstick carrier (minus the stick itself) are worn on the belt, as is a .45 auto pistol in its M1916 holster. An M7 Bayonet for the M16 rifle is also hung from the belt in its M8A1 scabbard.
The so-called 'siege' of Khe Sanh was one of the most controversial battles of the war, and during the early months of 1968 the base and its Marine defenders were the focus of world attention. During the height of the battle President Johnson requested a written guarantee from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Khe Sanh would not fall. Situated on a plateau just fifteen miles south of the DMZ, Khe Sanh sat directly astride Route 9, a major highway into Vietnam from Laos. It was recognized as an important tactical position early in the war, and by January 1968 the Marines were at the combat base in force. An old French airstrip was renovated and lengthened, and a network of bunkers and trenchlines became home for some 6,000 men.
The base was surrounded and under enemy pressure from late January to early April - mainly from North Vietnamese artillery and rocket bombardment, though a massed infantry attack was always expected. Life for the Marines inside the perimeter was akin to that of the inhabitants of World War 1 trenches. On some days over a thousand enemy rounds landed in the base, while living conditions worsened as a lack of water and an abundance of rats added to the Marines' misery. Marine artillery from Khe Sanh hit back at the NVA in the surrounding hills with 130mm and 152mm guns; airpower, too, was a major contributing factor in keeping the encircling enemy at a distance.
Though the combat base was certainly surrounded and had to be resupplied entirely by air, the Marine defenders never considered themselves under siege because of the massive supporting assets at their disposal. The Marines' initiative in controlling the surrounding hills was another reason why Khe Sanh never became a second Dien Bien Phu. In early April, Operation 'Pegasus' was mounted to finally clear the Khe Sanh area, though most of the NVA had already departed. The Marines lost a total of 199 men killed and a further 830 seriously wounded in the defence of the base; and when, in June, Khe Sanh was abandoned a public furore questioned the reasons for holding it in the first instance.
In late March the previously dank weather lifted and most Marines took the opportunity to strip off filthy utilities; flak vests and helmets, however, were worn at all times when moving above ground. The helmet cover is another World War 2 type of lightweight 'duck-hunter' pattern fabric. An integral sniper/mosquito net which encased the head and neck when in use was usually tucked up inside the helmet between shell and liner. Unlike some older types, these covers were non-reversible, and featured a permanently fixed cotton foliage band.
Trousers were often rolled above the boot to increase air circulation. The Marine Corps trouser belt was of 2 inch wide light khaki webbing with a simple open frame brass buckle. Worn on the trouser belt is the ubiquitous K-Bar utility/fighting knife in a dark brown leather sheath.
The M1955 body armor is of a type introduced in late 1967 which featured additional lower cargo pockets. These pockets were made of a heavy nylon fabric, though the vest itself was still cotton duck. Some later vests had the rope ridge on both shoulders, and were manufactured entirely in waterproof nylon.
The 9th Infantry Division was activated, equipped and trained for operations in the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam. The Division's 2nd Brigade provided the ground forces for the Mobile Riverine Force whose area of operations was in the swamps and waterways of the delta. The 9th was a solid regular Army formation whose octofoil shoulder insignia represented the heraldic symbol of the ninth son; the new generation of soldiers who wore the patch in Vietnam referred to it as the 'Psychedelic Cookie'. The Mobile Riverine Force (MRF) was a joint services project that brought together the infantry assets of the 9th Division with the various riverine craft of the Navy's Task Force 117. Housed in barracks ships, the troops would be transported up river in armoured troop carrier (ATC) vessels to conduct 'search and destroy' operations in much the same way as their colleagues further north were deployed by helicopter. With the mobility and firepower that the naval back-up provided, the MRF was successful in reducing the infiltration of Communist forces in both the Mekong Delta and the Rung Sat Special Zone to a minimum.
On the left shoulder of the third pattern tropical coat is worn the shoulder sleeve insignia of the 9th Infantry Division. By 1968 US-issued subdued insignia were widely available, though locally manufactured examples were still common. The US-made examples were simplified versions of the full-colour types, using black embroidery on a green twill patch. All shoulder sleeve insignia, rank and qualification badges were subdued in this way. The 9th Division SSI shown here is a US twill example; that of the 196th Infantry Brigade (Light) on the right shoulder indicates a previous combat posting to that unit. Full-size sleeve rank was worn until the introduction of pin-on collar rank in July 1968. Enlisted rank was available in US-made subdued twill though, as with SSIs, better quality locally-made examples were popular. This Sergeant's chevrons are Vietnamese-made black velvet on green twill.
The Body Armour, Small Arms Protective, Ground Troops, Front-Back Plate with Vest was introduced in late 1968. More commonly known as 'Variable Body Armour', the vest was an attempt to provide some degree of protection from small arms fire, something that the M1952 and M69 vests were not capable of offering. It consisted of a flexible shell of ballistic nylon felt, together with pockets on both front and rear which accomodated anatomically curved ceramic composite armour plates. These plates had integral webbing straps allowing them to be worn independently of the vest if desired. Similarly, the vest could be worn without the plates, giving protection against fragments only. Thus the 'variable' nature of the vest offered different levels of protection at weights ranging from 5lbs 4oz to the full 22lbs 3oz. Because of this weight the variable armour was eventually relegated to motorized, boat and stationary units.
To the frame of the lightweight rucksack is attached a Five Quart Flotation Bladder Assembly. Introduced in 1968, this bladder/canteen consisted of a clear, collapsible vinyl bladder carried in a nylon cover. The bladder had a canteen-like cap with a removable filter; the cover featured tie-down cords and had instructional diagrams printed on both sides.
Magazines for the M16 rifle are carried in the seven-pocket cotton bandoliers worn belt-style around the waist.