VIETNAM: US UNIFORMS IN COLOUR PHOTOGRAPHS
Of all the unconventional units that the US military fielded in Vietnam, arguably the most effective were the US Navy SEAL teams. Taking their name from the three elements in which they operated - Sea, Air and Land - the SEALs were the Navy's special warfare experts. Formed in 1962, the SEALs arrived in Vietnam in 1966 to counter the growing VC presence in the Mekong Delta region. The SEAL teams that served in Vietnam were each approximately 200 strong. The principal operational unit of the SEAL team was the three-man fire element, often working alongside SF personnel attached to MACV/SOG.
From their mobile bases in the waterways of the Delta the SEAL teams conducted a variety of hunter-killer and intelligence gathering missions. One of the main tasks entrusted to them was the disruption of the VC infrastructure by eliminating key personnel. SEALs were also trained as combat swimmers and underwater demolition experts. SEALs assigned to SOG were reported to have conducted demolitions operations in Haiphong harbour in North Vietnam. The SEAL teams were withdrawn from Vietnam along with conventional units in late 1972, though it is likely that some SEAL personnel were involved in special operations in support of the South Vietnamese government after this date. The SEAL'S ability to enter an area, kill and withdraw without being detected made them especially feared by the VC and NVA.
In common with other unconventional units SEALs used an enormous variety of uniforms and equipment in order to accomplish an equal variety of missions. Special ERDL camouflage SEAL jackets were issued which incorporated integral floatation bladders for use in inundated areas. The jackets were manufactured in variants designed to meet the needs of rifleman, grenadier and radio operator. SEALs also made use of captured enemy clothing, tiger-stripe shorts, and even civilian denim jeans - sometimes going barefoot to further confuse the enemy.
Headgear here is a triangular bandage worn as a headwrap in typical SEAL fashion. Another item often associated with the SEALs was a camouflage beret, though the usual range of locally-made headgear was also seen. The face and hands are camouflaged with removable pigment in typically thorough SEAL style.
The mixture of two types of camouflage garments was not uncommon. Here an early poplin ERDL tropical coat has been cut down and tucked into a pair of tiger-stripe pattern trousers. The shirt is worn fully buttoned for maximum camouflage, and the trousers are unbloused in order not to trap water.
Equipment is minimal,in keeping with mission requirements such as a 'hit' on a VC courier or tax collector. The web belt holds two M1956 universal pouches at the rear and a pair of canteen covers are being used as ammunition pouches. A locally-made leather holster is also worn on the belt. Captured Communist weapons, here a Soviet AK-47 assault rifle, were often carried because their signature would be confusing to the enemy. Spare magazines are carried in the canteen carriers.
The handgun is a 9mm Smith and Wesson MK.22 Model O silenced pistol, known as the 'Hush Puppy' due to its original function of silencing enemy sentry dogs; in Vietnam this became a generic term for any pistol fitted with a silencer. The silencer was carried separately, being attached to the weapon shortly before the target was engaged.
On the morning of 31 January 1968 NVA and VC troops launched a series of co-ordinated attacks on major cities throughout South Vietnam, precipitating what was to become known as the 'Tet Offensive'. One of the most important of these was the ancient walled city of Hue on the Perfume River. Often called the Imperial City, Hue lay less than thirty miles south of the DMZ but had remained relatively untouched by the war. At 3.30 on that January morning Hue's period of grace came to an abrupt end: by daybreak the blue and red flag of the NLF was flying over the Citadel. Three understrength Marine battalions were given the task of retaking the strategically and symbolically important city.
For the Marines, mostly short-term draftees, it was to be a new kind of war. Used to jungles and rice paddies, they found themselves involved in a vicious house-to-house fight. Areas of the city had to be taken street by street, one room at a time, from a highly motivated, well-entrenched enemy. The young Marines had to learn the lessons of street fighting from scratch; movement was limited to fire-team rushes always preceded by a storm of supporting fire. Initially every effort was made to preserve the beautiful old city, but by the time Hue had been retaken over 40 per cent of the city and its suburbs were in ruins.
The battle for Hue was fought in miserably cold and wet weather, and the Marines broke out a variety of foul-weather clothing. Most of this was organizational property - i.e. issued when needed - though many individuals possessed privately acquired items. The Parka - Wet Weather shown here was a Navy issue item often used by Marines. The parka was of a pullover design with a laced closure at the neck; the hood had an integral peak, and other features included slash side pockets and adjustable cuffs. This example is of 1950s vintage in a heavyweight cotton duck; later types also in use were of lighter rubberized fabric similar to the poncho. Though generously cut, all these types of rain jacket were worn underneath the body armour. Various waterproof trousers were also issued and worn, though often these quickly became shredded on the rubble that littered the streets and consequently were less in evidence than the jackets. Here a pair of third pattern tropical combat trousers are worn unbloused over tropical combat boots.
The rubber retaining band of the helmet holds a plastic bottle of Lubricant Small Arms (LSA) and a toothbrush for cleaning the M60.
Machine gunners were issued a .45 auto pistol, worn here in an M1916 black leather holster on the M1961 pistol belt. The method of wearing the K-Bar knife wedged between the belt and the holster was a peculiarity of Marine M60 gunners. The fighting for Hue included the use of a number of riot control agents such as the E-8 tear gas launcher, and the Marines found it necessary to wear their M17 protective masks, here carried in the correct manner on the left hip.
The Marine M1941 haversack is worn with an M1943 'E-tool' carrier attached to the flap. The helve of the tool itself is secured to the bottom of the pack by a buckled strap.
The 7.62mm ammunition for the M60 is carried in two ways. The cotton bandolier hung from the shoulder holds a waxed cardboard box containing 100 linked rounds. A further 200 rounds are worn as belts of disintegrating link draped around the torso.
The 199th Infantry Brigade (Light) was formed in the hectic summer of 1966 expressly for Vietnam duty. The Brigade was rushed through a period of simultaneously activating, equipping and training at Fort Benning, Georgia, arriving at Long Binh at the end of the year. Despite the fact that the Brigade's heavy equipment was still in transit its Battalions were immediately deployed in Operation 'Union Town' in War Zone D. In early 1967 the Brigade was tasked with the security of the countryside around Saigon. During this period the 'Redcatchers' of the 199th were teamed with ARVN units in one of the first experiments in what would later be termed 'Vietnamization'. This initial concept, dubbed 'The Double Force', meant that for every US unit engaged in operations a similarly sized ARVN unit would be attached. The main objective of this plan - to enable the South Vietnamese to protect their own capital - was never fully attained.
On the left shoulder of the third pattern tropical coat is the Brigade's flaming spear SSI - here a locally-produced subdued example. US Army and name tapes are worn parallel to the ground, as was typical until a 1969 directive ordered them sewn parallel to the top of the slanting pockets. The single chevron and rocker of a Private First Class are worn on both sleeves.
Web gear is M1956 LCE configured to accomodate the Electrical Equipment Harness - the carrying frame for the AN/PRC-25 radio. On the belt are worn two Small Arms Ammunitions Case, M16A1 20 round. Introduced in 1968 especially for the M16's 20-round magazine, these were shorter versions of the universal pouch which had been designed for the larger M14 magazine. The combination entrenching tool with attached M7 bayonet is also worn on the right rear of the belt.
The radio's carrying harness is shown here correctly assembled to the equipment belt; this enabled the radio to be carried as an integral part of the LCE. The shoulder harness of the carrier doubles as field suspenders, with the ammunition pouches attaching in the usual manner.
The butt pack, here an improved M1961 Combat Field Pack, is hooked to the frame below the radio. The M1961 was a slightly larger version of the M1956 butt pack which featured an expanding rubberized collar around the opening.
Also carried on the radio are several signalling grenades, and an XM28 Lightweight Protective Mask in its nylon case to the right of the grenades. These masks reached Vietnam in late 1968 and replaced the bulkier M17.
The AN/PRC-25 was a 'short range man pack portable, frequency modulated (FM) receiver/transmitter'. Weighing over 24 pounds with battery, the 'Prick-25' used dry-cell batteries which had an average life of twenty hours. Maximum recommended range was from 5km with the short tape antenna up to 8km with the seven-section long range ('fish-pole') antenna. The PRC-25 was part valve/part transistor and had 920 channels, two of which were pre-set. From mid-1968 the PRC-25 was gradually replaced by the modified PRC-77, which was fully transistorized and more reliable, though externally identical. The headset shown being worn on the helmet could be used in conjunction with a handset, as here, or independently with an integral boom-type microphone. The Spares Bag attached to the left of the radio contains the sectional long range antenna with its flexible base, and a spare handset.
The 4th Infantry Division arrived in Vietnam by Brigades during 1966 and were assigned the security of the Central Highlands. This jungle wilderness around Pleiku had been the responsibility of a single Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division until it was realized that the presence of a full Division was needed to subdue this, one of the most inhospitable of Vietnam's regions. From the Division's original base camp at Dragon Mountain, the 4th Infantry Division would remain in the Highlands for the rest of the war.
The young soldiers of the 12th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division were representative of the front line units at the cutting edge of the American military effort in Vietnam. Of the many hundreds of thousands of troops 'in country' by 1968 only relatively few were actually assigned to line units such as the 12th Infantry. These 'grunts' or 'boonie-rats' (as they called themselves), black, white and Hispanic, were fully aware of their exclusive status, and were openly scornful of anyone who did not share the hardship, fear and misery of their day-to-day existence.
On the third pattern tropical combat coat is worn a subdued twill SSI of the 4th Infantry Division; the patch was of World War I design and featured four ivy leaves.
Because the frame of the lightweight rucksack prevented items being worn on the pistol belt some individuals dispensed with web gear entirely. Ammunition was carried instead in cotton bandoliers draped over the shoulders and around the waist. By 1968 these bandoliers had become the most common way of carrying rifle ammunition, holding seven of the 20-round M16 magazines apiece; in the four bandoliers worn here a total of 28 magazines (560 rounds) could thus be carried in relative comfort.
The other items that would normally be worn on the web gear could be attached to either the bag or the frame of the rucksack. Here an M18 Claymore mine in its bag (I) is strapped to the frame. A second pattern Two Quart Collapsible Canteen (2) is attached by a snap-link, minus its nylon carrier. The M1956 carrier for the entrenching tool (3) is fixed upside-down to an attachment tab on the rucksack; the handle of the 'E-tool' itself is tied by paracord to the frame. An M1942 Machete (4) is carried in its flexible plastic sheath tucked between the bag and an external pocket. The camouflage poncho liner (5) is loosely rolled and secured under the pack flap. A common way of carrying individual C-ration cans was to load them into boot socks (6), which could then be tied onto the rucksack as here.
The 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry was one of the first units to be issued with the AN/PRR-9 Helmet Mounted Radio Receiver and its AN/PRT-4 Hand Held Transmitter. This system, used for providing short range communications between squad and platoon leaders, was available in Vietnam by late 1968. The receiver clipped to the helmet and was secured by a lanyard, its wire antenna often bent into the helmet band to prevent it catching on foliage. The transmitter could be attached to the harness of the web gear or carried in an ammunition pouch or coat pocket. The operational range of the set fell below acceptable levels in most terrain. The system was also found to be inoperable due to helmets (and therefore the receiver element) being lost during firefights. Within a few months of its introduction the radio's shortcomings led to its being relegated to static defensive positions.
In 1969 the Marine Corps was in a transitional state and the professional fervour of earlier years was beginning to wear thin. Few Marines still regarded the war as a crusade against Communism; rather it was a job to be done until the date of their 'Deros' date of estimated return from overseas. Officers and senior NCOs coming back to Vietnam for second or third tours saw a difference in the young troops. There was racial tension unknown in 1965/6, and drugs had become cheap and plentiful.
On a tactical level the Marine Corps was fighting the war as effectively as ever, engaging the NVA in several major battles in 1969. The field uniform and equipment issued to Marines contrasted sharply with that worn during the first years of the war. By 1969, then, the Marine still slogging through the steaming jungles of the A Shau Valley had little in common with his counterpart who landed at Danang four years previously.
The Marine Corps began to issue the camouflage tropical combat uniform to all its personnel in late 1968. This camouflage version of the uniform was re-classified as Coat/Trousers, Man's, Camouflage Cotton, Wind Resistant Poplin, Class 2. The four-colour pattern was first developed in 1948 by the Army's Engineer Research and Development Laboratories and was referred to as the 'ERDL' camouflage. The camouflage uniform was styled identically to the third pattern tropical combat uniform and included all the same design features. Introduced into Vietnam by the Army, originally for reconnaissance-type troops, the ERDL pattern quickly gained a very high field acceptability. Its camouflage properties were so effective that helicopter crews often could not locate personnel dressed in the uniform. The first ERDL uniforms were manufactured in cotton-poplin, but this was soon changed to rip-stop cotton-poplin as illustrated.
The Marine's utility cap was not manufactured in the ERDL material, though some individuals purchased locally-made examples, as here. Note that the Vietnamese maker has not the facilities for printing the 'eagle, globe and anchor' design on the front of the cap.
Later style M1955 body armour has the nylon cargo pockets - this type was becoming predominant by 1969. On the M1961 belt are a jungle first aid kit, a K-Bar knife, two canteens, and two M1956 universal pouches - these latter typical of the many items that Marines were acquiring from Army and ARVN sources. Also on the belt, on the left hip, is the case for the M16's XM3 Bipod. The case also features a smaller zipped pouch containing the weapon's cleaning kit-rod, bore-brushes, etc.
Slung from the shoulder is the Charge Assembly Demolitions Bag M-183, commonly called a 'demo bag' and used in much the same way as the M18 Claymore mine bag. Originally issued to carry the various explosive charges and accessories of the demolitions kit, the empty bags were also handy for rifle magazines, grenades and personal effects.
The restricted capacity of the M1941 haversack led many Marines to acquire superior Army or ARVN types; even captured NVA rucksacks were preferred. The ARVN rucksack (1) worn here was the most popular of these and its use by Marines was widespread. The folding E-tool in its M1943 cover (2) is attached to the rucksack, as are a number of nylon sandbags (3) which would be used to reinforce the Marine's field accomodation or 'hooch'.
The helmet hanging from the rucksack has an Army issue elasticated foliage band, available to Marines in mid-1969. Graffiti on helmet covers were universal, becoming a means of expressing identity and opinion.