VIETNAM: US UNIFORMS IN COLOUR PHOTOGRAPHS
The role of the pathfinder in Vietnam was adapted to suit a combat environment largely dependent on the use of helicopters. Pathfinders were used to select and establish landing and drop zones, and to provide ground-to-air communications to furnish Army aircraft with ground tactical information. Other jobs undertaken by the pathfinders included rappelling in to clear landing zones, securing downed aircraft and rigging them for extraction, as well as guiding and co-ordinating helicopter and fixed-wing re-supply airdrops.
The organization of pathfinders in Vietnam was flexible, the basis being the four-man team. On average three teams would make up a pathfinder detachment, which would be attached to an aviation unit as needed. Though they had their own designations these detachments were usually known by that of the unit they served - e.g. 1st Aviation Detachment (Pathfinder). The Army ran a five-week course at Fort Benning during which all relevant pathfinder-related techniques were taught. Students were all airborne-qualified volunteers, and would additionally be authorized to wear the distinctive pathfinder qualification pocket patch upon graduation.
On the left sleeve of the ERDL pattern tropical coat is the SSI of the 1st Aviation Brigade together with an airborne qualification tab. The 1st Aviation Brigade was established in 1966 to command all non-divisional aviation units in Vietnam. A locally-made, partly subdued pathfinder pocket patch is just visible on the left breast pocket. An ERDL pattern boonie hat is stuffed into the trouser cargo pocket.
Tropical combat boots are the improved 1966 version which featured a spike-resistant insole and a 'Panama' pattern tread, the latter intended to prevent heavy build-up of mud between cleats.
Personal equipment is the M1956 LCE - belt, suspenders, canteens, and two M16 ammunition cases with M26 fragmentation grenades attached.
A lensatic compass is carried in its case clipped to the left shoulder of the suspenders. A pair of 'sun, wind, dust goggles' are hung from one of the ammunition pouches on the belt.
The PRC-25 radio (1) is being carried on the tubular aluminium frame of the lightweight rucksack (2). The bag containing the spare antenna and handset (3) is attached to the frame, as are a selection of signalling grenades. A butt pack (4) is strapped below the radio, and a five-quart collapsible canteen/bladder (5) is tied to this. The headset with integral boom-type microphone is part of the 'hands-free' system which eliminates the need for a handset. The unit that houses the transmit selection switch (featuring intermittent or continuous 'talk' modes) is suspended on the chest by a neck harness.
The XM177 or CAR-15 (Colt Automatic Rifle) was the sub-machine gun version of the M16. Being shorter and lighter, with a telescopic buttstock, the CAR-15 was favoured by reconnaissance-type personnel. Two 20-round magazines are typically taped end to end for rapid reloading.
Throughout the war MACV furnished US advisors to the ARVN's Ranger units, the Biet Dong Quan (BDQs). From eighty-six companies in 1960 the BDQs were formed into battalions by 1965. By the time the US withdrew in 1972 there were eight regimental-size BDQ Groups with a total of twenty-two battalions. These Ranger Battalions, along with some Airborne units, were considered to be the finest of South Vietnam's troops. The BDQs were organized and operated as light infantry rather than in a true Ranger role; few of the personnel were airborne-qualified.
During the course of the war an estimated 2,000 Ranger-qualified American officers and NCOs served as advisors to these units. Three Ranger training centres were established at Due My, Trung Lap and Tet Son, staffed by US Ranger advisors. Like many US personnel engaged in advisory duties, those attached to BDQ units typically wore ARVN uniforms with US Army insignia.
The BDQs' unique beret was garnet in colour and was worn by US advisors from 1965 onwards. The beret was worn Vietnamese-style, pulled over the left eye, with the Ranger beret badge of a winged arrow within a wreath over the right eye.
The uniform is the late war ARVN camouflage issued to both Ranger and Airborne personnel. Manufactured in lightweight cotton-poplin, the shirt and trousers resembled a US utility uniform and were overprinted with an ERDL camouflage pattern. The shirt also featured shoulder straps and reinforced shoulders, both typical of Vietnamese-made garments. The example shown here is fully 'badged' with a mix of full-colour and subdued insignia. The twin bars of a Captain and the crossed rifles of the Infantry are worn on the collar points, US Army and name tapes above the chest pockets. On the left chest are locally embroidered parachutist's wings and a CIB. On the right chest above the name tape is an embroidered ARVN Ranger qualification badge, honorarily awarded to US advisors.
On the left shoulder is worn the SSI of MACV, to which all advisors were attached; above this is the scroll of the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion. These scrolls were only worn by US advisors to the BDQ and were generally full colour as here, though sometimes embroidered on ERDL camouflage. The panther's head motif of the BDQs is that organization's SSI, worn by US advisors as a pocket patch.
The .45 auto in its holster and twin-cell magazine pouch are worn on a pistol belt. The weapon is worn as much for effect as for protection - the Vietnamese considered sidearms to be a mark of authority.
In 1970 the activities of US forces in Vietnam were geared toward 'Vietnamization' - handing over control of the war effort to the South Vietnamese. Even during the continued programme of US troop withdrawals major offensive operations were still staged, including the incursion into Cambodia. The main goal of this joint US/ARVN operation was the elimination of NVA/VC sanctuaries within that country's borders. The operation caused an outcry in the USA amongst an angry public, who saw the Cambodian adventure as an unnecessary escalation of a war which was already as good as over. From a military standpoint, however, the attacks into Cambodia netted an enormous amount of enemy equipment destined for use in South Vietnam. When the 1st Cavalry Division air-assaulted two battalions near Bu Dop, engineers had to construct a road before the captured equipment could be moved. This single supply area, deep within the Cambodian jungle, was nicknamed 'Rock Island', and took nine full days to empty.
The Cavalry troopers who took part in the Cambodian operation were benefitting from five years of tropical uniform and equipment research and development. By 1970 almost everything the soldier wore or carried had been modified or redesigned based on the combat experience and recommendations of his predecessors.
The helmet with its reversible camouflage cover remained unchanged, though the additions of beads and 'peace button' were typical of individualization by 1970. Such non-military adornments were largely tolerated, and were an indication of the changing nature of the draftee soldier's perception of the war and his role in it. The soldier's boonie hat (1) sits on top of the rucksack, secured around the neck by the chin strap for convenience.
On the left sleeve of the tropical coat is a US-made subdued SSI of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). The trouser cargo pockets typically bulge with gear, and are bound around the lower leg with bootlaces to prevent the material snagging on foliage.
By 1970 the M1967 Modernized Load Carrying Equipment (MLCE) designed especially for Vietnam use was introduced, though it was issued on a limited basis and would never replace the M1956 web gear. M1967 MLCE items were essentially the same as the M1956 set but substituted nylon for canvas, and plastic for metal fittings, wherever possible. Nylon was chosen because it was strong yet lightweight, fast drying and not affected by mildew. The M1967 MLCE was never issued as a complete set; items were issued and worn alongside M1956 web gear, with which they were fully compatible. Here two M1967 ammunition pouches are worn on a web equipment belt fitted with a quick-release 'Davis' buckle. The ammunition pouches can be seen to attach to the M1967 suspenders in the same manner as the M1956 system. An M1967 Self Sharpening Machete Sheath is additionally worn on the belt.
The nylon Tropical Rucksack (2), based on the ARVN rucksack, was introduced for US troops in late 1968. The rucksack copied the X-frame of the ARVN pack but its larger size enabled a third external pocket to be added. The nylon bag itself was similar to that of the lightweight rucksack, with a variety of attachment points for other items of equipment. On one side of the bag is a one-quart canteen (3), on the other a late pattern two-quart in its pile-lined nylon cover (4). A 66mm M72 Light Assault Anti-tank Weapon (LAAW) is carried beneath the pack flap (5). This one-shot disposable weapon was often used against entrenched enemy and bunker complexes such as those encountered in Cambodia. Also attached to the rucksack is the Lightweight Entrenching Tool in its M1967 nylon carrier (6). The tri-fold shove! was a significant improvement on the old wooden-helved entrenching tool, and began to appear in Vietnam in mid-1969.
The Marine divisional reconnaissance battalions differed from Force Recon units in that they were tasked with missions in direct support of their particular parent division. Like Force Recon the battalions operated much the same as Army LRRP units, with intelligence gathering as their primary function. Marine recons were extensively trained in all aspects of special operations such as helicopter, small boat and scuba insertions. During the early part of the war the typical recon unit consisted of between twelve and twenty Marines, but by 1969/70 the Army-style LRRP team of four to six men was found to be more efficient. Though classed as 'deep reconnaissance' troops the divisional recon battalion typically operated closer to their assigned unit than did their Force Recon or Army LRP counterparts. The 1st Reconnaissance Battalion left Vietnam in March 1971 along with the 1st Marine Division. Some Marine recon personnel who were attached to the 'Maritime Studies Group' of MACV/SOG (Studies and Observation Group) may well have remained in-country for another year or longer.
Recon Marines were not required to wear the steel helmet and, as in other non-conventional units, a wide range of headgear proliferated. Locally-produced boonie hats, utility covers and even black berets were all sported, though by 1970 the most commonly seen headgear was the ERDL camouflage boonie.
Likewise Recon Marines were allowed a degree of personal choice in their field uniforms though, again, by 1970 the ERDL tropical combat uniform predominated. This uniform proved so popular that by 1969/70 it had almost entirely replaced the various indigenous patterns that had been a trademark of special units.
By 1969/70 most Marines, especially those in Recon units, were equipped with M1956 LCE. M26 fragmentation grenades are carried externally on the universal pouches; an M18 coloured smoke grenade and a snap-link for rappelling are attached to the suspenders. The only item of equipment that marks him as a Marine is the K-Bar knife taped upside-down to the harness.
The ARVN rucksack was used alongside other available US Army types. The two-quart canteens attached to the sides of the rucksack are the collapsible plastic type introduced in late 1968. The canteen itself was manufactured from olive coloured ethylene-vinyl acetate and featured a cap identical to that of the one-quart plastic canteen. The cover was a water-repellent nylon duck which featured a plastic snap-closure and a small Velcro-closed pocket for water purification tablets. The canteen could be slung from its own shoulder strap or attached by slide-keepers on the rear of the cover.
The number of US Army helicopters in Vietnam reached its peak in March 1970 with a total of 3,926 aircraft in-country. The dispersal of these aircraft amongst aviation assets varied from division to division. The most common type of aviation unit, upon which the concept of airmobility was based, was the Assault Helicopter Company (AHC). A typical AHC of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) would comprise 24 to 27 aircraft in three Platoons: two lift or ' slick' platoons - so called because the outline of the aircraft was 'clean' and unencumbered by the various protruding pods and rigs which characterised the gunships - flying UH-1 Hueys, and one gunship platoon of either Hueys or AH-1 Cobras. Throughout the war the Army's aviation school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, was tasked with training the maximum number of pilots for Vietnam duty. Pilot shortages would be a constant problem, and early in the war a programme was started whereby soldiers graduating in the upper portions of specialist non-aviation courses were asked if they wished to take flight training. Those that accepted, some as young as eighteen, were confirmed as Warrant Officers and would fly alongside commissioned pilots in Vietnam. From 1961 to 1973 a total of 1,045 Army aviators were killed during flying operations in the Republic of Vietnam.
The 'baseball' utility cap was the most common form of non-flight headgear, the example shown being a Vietnamese-made private purchase item. Embroidered Captain's bars and aviator's wings are fixed to the front.
The Shirt and Trousers, Flying, Hot Weather Fire Resistant were introduced for Army aviation personnel in 1969. The two-piece uniform was manufactured in a 4.4 oz Nomex, a fire resistant synthetic. The shirt featured two chest pockets and a pen pocket on the upper left sleeve. The trousers also had large thigh pockets for maps, etc.; Velcro tabs at both wrists and ankles enabled the uniform to be fastened for maximum fire protection. To this end trousers were designed to be unbloused and shirt sleeves rolled down, though these directives were often ignored. On the shirt are worn subdued rank and branch collar insignia, US Army and nametapes, as well as the wings of an Army aviator. On the left arm is the SSI of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile); that on the right sleeve indicates a previous combat posting to the 25th Infantry Division. On the right chest pocket is the insignia of Company B, 227th Aviation Battalion (Assault Helicopter). These locally-made unofficial insignia usually took the form of an embroidered pocket patch and were typically in full colour, though subdued examples existed.
Flight personnel were warned to avoid the use of nylon clothing as these garments would melt onto the body in the event of an aircraft fire. For this reason some pilots flew in leather boots, as here, in preference to tropical combat boots which were nylon-reinforced. The cowboy-style leather belt rig for the .45 auto pistol is a typical affectation of aviation personnel. This Vietnamese-made example has bullet loops on the belt, a twin magazine pouch, and an additional magazine pocket on the holster itself.