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Good Morning Vietnam

Good Morning Vietnam

It is now almost 50 years since the last American service personnel were withdrawn from Vietnam, bringing to an end America’s involvement with one of the country’s most protracted postwar conflicts. During the intervening years, there have been numerous documentaries and enough books written to fill a specialist library on the subject. Some of the personal accounts of war have been turned into successful films, such as ‘Born of the Fourth of July’ (1989) and ‘We Were Soldiers’ (2002), which have fuelled an interest in the war, which is only exceeded by WWII and includes militaria collectors, reenactors and military vehicle enthusiasts.


America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was a gradual process that began in April 1956 with the deployment of non-combatant ‘military advisors’ as part of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). Their role was to train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). The situation continued to worsen and in March 1965 the first US Marine infantry battalion arrived in South Vietnam. By 1967, there were 486,000 troops serving in the country and by the time the last of the American troops were withdrawn in March 1973, some 2.6 million service personnel had completed tours of duty.

All these troops had to be equipped and armed with weapons, along with the ARVN. That meant supplying millions of rifles, pistols and machine guns, in addition to artillery. Then there was the specialist weaponry, such as the M-79 ‘Blooper gun’ (grenade launcher) as well as sniper rifles and recoilless rifles.

In the early stages of the conflict, much of the equipment was of the type used during the Korean War, but over time military technology advanced and new weaponry replaced the older equipment. The infantry began to receive the M16 rifle from 1964, which replaced the M14 from the early years of the war, while the M60 general-purpose machine gun was used throughout. The M16 rifle, and its counterpart, the Soviet-designed AK-47, would both become iconic symbols of the war.


The M60 entered service in 1959 and it proved to be a versatile weapon capable of being mounted on helicopters and vehicles. This machine gun and the heavy .50 calibre Browning were mounted on trucks, such as the Diamond T M54, to create what became known as ‘gun trucks’, developed ‘in country’ to protect convoys. These have been recreated by some re-enactment groups depicting the period of the Vietnam War, with names such as ‘Iron Butterfly’ and ‘Highland Raiders’ painted on the side of the vehicles, to take part in mobility scenarios.

Other new vehicles used during the war as weapon platforms included the M50 ‘Ontos’, which was armed with 6x M40 106mm recoilless rifles (RCL). These more often than not operated in the fire support role as opposed to the anti-tank role. The M551 ‘Sheridan’ was deployed to Vietnam in 1969 and its 152mm gun fired high explosive and canister ammunition to provide fire support, also.

The RCL proved a useful weapon during the war and was mounted on a range of vehicles, from the M113 APC down to the half-ton M274 Utility Platform Truck, examples of which are owned by re-enactment groups and used in displays. Inert examples of the ammunition used in these combinations are displayed at shows by collectors for the interest of fellow enthusiasts.


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Vehicle owners and re-enactors combine their mutual interest in collecting militaria to put on static displays showing personal kit, weapons and equipment used by the troops, along with examples of ammunition fired by the RCLs. These displays are the result of many years of dedicated collecting and show what kind of magazines were being read by the soldiers, the food they ate and what they drank. It is surprising how familiar some of these items are with their brand names. However, this is lightweight stuff when compared to what some members of groups set their minds to obtain for the sake of putting on a great display.

Sitting at the other end of the collecting scale is the heavyweight stuff, such as artillery, which comes into a category all its own. This is specialist collecting and requires ample facilities to keep it stored and the vehicles to move it to shows.

There are several excellent UK-based reenactment groups depicting Vietnam which have used the M101A1 105mm gun, weighing around two tons, to recreate a firebase, complete with mortars to show how these locations operated. Arena displays have also seen the even larger, M114 155mm howitzer in action, firing blank charges in displays that visitors are not likely to forget.

Something a little different

Just when you think that collecting has reached its pinnacle, a surprise is unveiled which is really stunning. Groups such as the American Infantry Preservation Society (AIPS) can be found on Facebook, and Rolling Thunder (www. rolling-thunder.org.uk) have both put on displays using Huey helicopters. Whilst not in a flying state, these large pieces of equipment allow a range of scenarios to be presented, from door gunners to medical evacuation, or just to demonstrate how troops were flown into combat. If you think that’s great, Max Levell, a member of the AIPS, topped everything several years ago when he acquired a landing craft as used in the period of the Vietnam War.

Knowing how interested I am in all things to do with military history, Max kept me informed as to how things were progressing with his landing craft project. Finally, after months of waiting, I received news that things were ready and we should meet at a boatyard on the River Dart just outside Dartmouth. When I arrived, the group was in uniform preparing to load an M274 UPT with an RCL mounted on the rear deck, which set the scene for a Vietnam War scenario. It was a cold, wet day but that did not matter and the experience was unique and unforgettable.

The groups re-enacting the period of the Vietnam War have put on a variety of displays at public shows, including a wooden tower built to train ‘rappelling’ techniques, a method of descending from helicopters, which is also known as ‘abseiling’. Dogs have also been brought into displays to demonstrate how US forces used them to sniff out weapon caches and guard perimeter cordons, just as for real. The UK-based companies of Epic Militaria (www.epicmilitaria. com) and Soldier of Fortune (www.sofmilitary.co.uk), both specialise in supplying a full range of reproduction uniforms and equipment for re-enactment groups depicting the Vietnam War.


The length of the war, the vast range of equipment, weapons and other kit, makes this period of history a fascinating subject for non-re-enacting collectors. For them, it is the badges of the units which took part in the war, the personal items, such as private photographs, along with other ephemera. Then there are the medals for serving in the theatre and for acts of bravery, such as Silver Stars. These medals were awarded to all branches of the armed forces, including the US Navy, US Marine Corps and the Air Force, such as the Bronze Star, DFC, Navy Cross and the Purple Heart. The armed forces of other countries, like New Zealand, Australia and South Korea, were also awarded medals. In fact, the Victoria Cross was awarded to Australian troops on four occasions.

For the more adventurous, Vietnam now has a thriving tourist industry and local guides will escort visitors to the sites of battles, such as Khe Sanh, the tunnels at Cu Chi and the la Drang Valley, where the 1/7th Cavalry fought a fierce three-day battle in November 1965. Such diversity is more usually attached to the world wars, but Vietnam proves the exception. When such a strong interest develops in a period of history, it tends to grow and attracts more enthusiasts. The Vietnam War has joined the list, which includes the Napoleonic Wars and American Civil War, and will continue to fascinate for many more years to come.