Apocalypse Now and Then
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- Last updated: 19/12/2016
Following the withdrawal of French troops from Vietnam in October 1954, America pledged support to South Vietnam to help its defence against Communist North Vietnam. The promise included the provision of a small number of military advisers, to help train the forces of the South Vietnamese army. By 1963, there were around 15,000 advisers in the country and the situation in Vietnam was worsening. There were a number of border incidents and incursions, leading to exchanges of fire. In August 1964 two incidents at sea, involving the destroyers USS Maddox and USS C. Turner Joy, where both vessels claimed to have been fired on by torpedo boats of the North Vietnamese Navy.
America responded by deploying more troops to South Vietnam, and in doing so began a military action, which would last almost 10-years. By 1965, there were 181,000 troops American troops engaged in operations against North Vietnamese Communists. The following year, the number of troops deployed to South Vietnam had risen to 385,000 and aircraft were flying bombing missions in support of ground operations. Helicopters were used in many roles such as fire support, casualty evacuation and troop insertion. The roles in which they operated made them indispensable. They could fly over many hundreds of miles of impenetrable jungle to deploy troops rapidly, and with large quantities of equipment, in way not possible with trucks.
Whilst US Marines and Rangers served in Vietnam, the main weight of the forces fighting in the war came from standard infantry units. It was the basic infantry units, which provided the manpower and participated in most missions to capture and destroy enemy forces and equipment. To support them in their mission, helicopters were used to fly the troops into an area but once on the ground each man had to carry everything as a typical infantryman. They were also transported by truck and armoured personnel carriers, such as the M113, but as infantrymen they were expected to walk the ground.
It is now over 40-years since the Vietnam War finished and in commemoration a number of re-enactment groups have been formed to remind people today of the war, which lasted more than 19-years. Some of these groups depict US Marine Corps or Rangers, but, very refreshingly, there are some that depict the ordinary serviceman, to show how they coped during this period. These were ordinary conscripts who came from a variety of backgrounds, just like the men who, today, portray them in re-enactment groups such as the American Infantry Preservation Society (AIPS) and Rolling Thunder, which was formed in 2002.
These groups demonstrate the tactics and range of equipment at events, where the public can watch them in battle scenarios or visit their display stands. The AIPS have specifically established themselves to portray C Company, 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment (Mechanised), 3rd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division, which served in Vietnam between 1966 and 1970. They have a range of vehicles including M113 APCs and M274 ‘Mechanical Mules’, one of which has been fitted with a 106mm RCL just as used in the war. Rolling Thunder is a more generic group and with its range of vehicles including M151A1 Mutts, M35A2 ‘REO’ trucks and other vehicles, along with a 155mm Howitzer, the group can portray a variety of units, from artillery support to motorised convoys. In fact, the two groups often enter the arena together to put on amazing battle scenarios, which includes a ‘wall of flame’ produced by pyrotechnics to simulate a napalm strike.
The groups show US infantrymen of the 1960s wearing uniforms in olive green colour, known as OG107, which included jungle jacket and trousers, shirts and singlet vests that were a similar colour, also. The M1 steel helmet was not that dissimilar to the type worn during WWII, with a detachable nylon liner and a camouflaged cover. Men often put rubber straps around the helmet into which they would insert essentials such as oil for their weapons, insect repellent or a small brush for cleaning weapons. Some infantrymen informally put packs of cigarettes or first aid dressings in these bands ready for immediate use.
The basic webbing included ammunition pouches, water bottle carrier and first aid pouch, but troops often modified this layout by adding extra water bottles or ammunition pouches. During the war the infantry used a range of personal weapons, beginning with the M14 rifle, with a calibre of 7.62mm. This was later replaced by the lighter M16, which fired the smaller 5.56mm calibre, but with a slightly higher cyclic rate of fire.
Further weaponry increased the infantryman’s firepower, such as the belt-fed M60 machine gun capable of firing up to 700 rounds of 7.62mm calibre ammunition per minute.
Special lightweight armour vests, known as flak jackets, were introduced in an effort to reduce wounding effects, by providing protection to the torso to a limited degree.
The most these flak jackets could offer the wearer was to improve his chance of survival if shot. In addition to all this equipment, the infantrymen also had to carry entrenching tools, torch, waterproof capes, spare socks and extra ammunition in bandoliers. Other items were also carried, sometimes for comfort, but extra grenades, demolition charges and LAW66 rocket launchers, which could be used against machine gun positions. The typical US infantryman carried weights which were not much different to that carried by servicemen in earlier wars, where they had earned the nickname of ‘Grunt’. This was due to the fact that the heavy loads had caused them to grunt with exertion when sitting down or standing up.
The length of duty in Vietnam was one full year, during which time a man could experience fire fights. Infantrymen could call on fire support from artillery and air strikes and had vast amounts of technological aid. It is action-packed presentations, which the AIPS and Rolling Thunder recreate during their displays at events. They often combine their resources to show convoys with ‘Gun Trucks’, which fairly bristle with machine guns, artillery support, simulated air strikes and infantry tactics with rifles and machine guns. These displays can equal anything seen in films depicting the war, but with more drama, which only a live battle re-enactment can give. Going into action in an M113 APC is a thrilling experience. The AIPS now have a landing craft in their range of equipment and this expands their range of displays.
Sometimes the groups are fortunate enough to receive special invitations to take part in unique presentations, which can include flights in helicopters of the type used during the war. This happened recently to members of the Rolling Thunder group, when they were invited by members of the ‘No Slack’ group to join them at the Lytham Multi-Period event near Blackpool in Lancashire. The invitation meant an opportunity to fly in Huey and Loach helicopters, which were used in Vietnam. Without hesitation, the offer was accepted.
The result was an unforgettable flight of a lifetime for those members of the group lucky enough to go airborne in these historic aircraft. It was the closest thing to realism that could happen. After a comprehensive flight safety briefing and pre-flight checks, came ‘lift-off’. Over the weekend, visitors to the show were treated to a full on Vietnam experience with vehicles, weapons and the helicopters completing the scenario. It really does not come better than that.
At events such as War & Peace Revival and Military Odyssey, groups depicting the Vietnam War set-up camp using authentic tents and other equipment. The static display created by Rolling Thunder is called ‘The Vietnam Experience’ and people are encouraged to walk through the camp. Stacking ammunition boxes and sandbags helps create the impression of a firebase, complete with mortars, machine guns and artillery. The size of the shells fired by the 155mm Howitzer never fails to impress visitors. The groups also set up areas where they can relax in authentic style, sit and drink Coke Cola and coffee and get something to eat. Even working showers have been built, just like the real thing using canvas screens, to show how men kept clean in camp. With music of the period being played, these areas look just like the real thing and the impression is complete.
Both groups park their vehicles on their display areas, which encourage people to visit and take photographs and ask questions. The AIPS open up the rear of their M113 APCs to allow people to look inside and Rolling Thunder has M151A1 ‘Mutts’, M37 Dodge and M715 Kaiser trucks and the M35A2 ‘REO’, which are huge machines and together show what was in use in Vietnam. These displays are created by members of the groups, many of whom have travelled to Vietnam to visit the battlegrounds, using extensive research. They have also met many veterans from the war and they have given advice to the groups. Some veterans have visited the displays and approve greatly of the results.
I have been privileged to be allowed into battle re-enactment scenarios with the AIPS and Rolling Thunder and I can personally vouch for how thrilling the experience is. Seeing the action from the crowd line is exciting, but to be part of it is another thing altogether. That is when you get to see what it must have been like. The drivers, the gunners and the infantry all have that certain look, which evokes all the photographs ever seen in books.
Vietnam was the first so-called ‘television war’, with newsreel footage being broadcast on evening news reports. Newspapers and magazines were full of news of the war and many images have become iconic, in the same way as many photographs from WWII and for the same reason. Together with the AIPS and Rolling Thunder we have recreated some of these images. For example, recently we staged the image showing a soldier firing an M60 machine gun whilst it rested on a table-top. Even going on foot patrol during training weekends evokes the period and produces some memorable moments.
Sitting in vehicles whilst waiting to go into the arena gives time to take photographs of portraits similar to those taken by the photographers at the time. The expression is the same and the ages and backgrounds of the re-enactors are like those of the men who served in the war. After the display, everybody is tired but they still make time for the authentic photograph to be staged. At this year’s W&PR Stuart Beeney of Rolling Thunder was just sat wearing his helmet and holding an M14 rifle. Between us we remembered a famous photograph and the effect was dramatic. The image was taken by one of the greatest ever war photographers, Don McCullin, and shows a man staring blankly ahead at nothing in particular. Now, I am not putting myself in the same class as Don McCullin, but the result was passable.
The Vietnam period is one which is growing and developing, with more depictions emerging. We are used to seeing US Marines and Rangers as well as the ordinary infantryman, but now groups are beginning to put on displays showing the involvement of the New Zealand and Australian armies. They deployed troops to the war along with heavy equipment including artillery and tanks. Although the war did not involve Britain directly, the actions of four Australian soldiers resulted in the awarding of the Victoria Cross. This chapter of history is now being told in displays and reminding people of the heroism of ordinary men. I have also seen displays, which involve dogs to show how they were used during the war. This is another aspect not many people realise happened. That is why the research completed by members of the AIPS and Rolling Thunder is so important.
Prospective recruits can make enquiries of members about joining the group and advice is offered on where to get equipment.
They can attend training events and become part of the display at events. The equipment and uniforms can be obtained from a range of suppliers and even reproduction kit is now available from suppliers such as Epic Militaria (www.epicmilitaria.com) and Soldier of Fortune (www.sofmilitary.co.uk) and members of groups sometimes have spare kit. Weapons of the period can be obtained from various suppliers, the details of which can be found by looking through the adverts in the pages of Gun Mart. If you should be interested in becoming a re-enactor to portray the Vietnam War speak to members of a group at an event or contact the AIPS on Facebook. Rolling Thunder can be contacted through their Website, which has links to other groups, by ‘logging on’ to: www.rolling-thunder.org.uk.
I would like to thank Craig Savage and the rest of Rolling Thunder for supplying additional reporting for this feature.