4. Training the Vietnamese Army was a problem for the Americans throughout the war
The first Americans sent to Vietnam were military advisors, dispatched to train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to defend themselves against the North Vietnamese Army and the insurgents it supplied. After the Gulf of Tonkin incident, combat troops were sent to join them, but the advisory role remained significant throughout American involvement. It was largely a failure, and the likelihood of its failure was known by senior officers as early as the autumn of 1964. Advisers who had been to Vietnam and returned knew of the difficulties, not only in battling the enemy but in training their supposed ally. The South Vietnamese Army’s officer corps was corrupt, nepotism was rife, and sympathizers with the communists were rampant.
The advisors were also aware of problems within the US military, whose senior officers were veterans of World War II and Korea. They were not trained in the fighting of an insurgency, in a conflict in which there were no established battle lines. Beginning in 1955 and through the period of American involvement, ARVN was organized along the lines of the US Army, trained and equipped to stop an invasion of the South across the Demilitarized Zone. ARVN officers quickly exhibited a distaste for fighting against the insurgents which proliferated in South Vietnam. President Kennedy urged the American Army to alter its approach in Vietnam, using Army Special Forces, which he expanded – the Green Berets – for that reason, but the training of ARVN to fight the insurgency remained a problem throughout American involvement in the war.
5. The US Army resisted changes in training to match conditions throughout the 1960s
During the period of American presence in Vietnam prior to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, cases of counter-insurgencies conducted by other armies were studied. The British had experienced an insurgency in Malaya which it fought to a standstill from 1948 to 1960. Sir Robert G. K. Thompson, a British expert on fighting organized guerilla insurgency, was brought in as a consultant to senior American civilian and military personnel on the situation in Vietnam before American combat troops were committed. At his suggestion, counterinsurgency techniques were introduced into American military training schools. Basic infantry training however continued to focus on conventional tactics.
Such tactics were those provided to ARVN, and the officers of that organization preferred long-range bombardment of enemy locations rather than close in patrolling to protect (and educate) the civilian population. Viet Cong tactics had ARVN on the verge of defeat by early 1965, threatening to topple the government in Saigon, and Lyndon Johnson made the decision to escalate the American military presence with the addition of more combat troops. They entered a war in which their nearly defeated ally had been using the same battlefield tactics in which they had been trained, for the most part. For the rest of the decade, American tactics centered on engaging the enemy and achieving high body counts as the measure of success.
6. The Army needed trained helicopter pilots on a scale never before encountered
Vietnam was the first helicopter war, despite their extensive use as air ambulances in Korea. They performed that role in Vietnam too, but they were also used to enhance the mobility of troops, to carry supplies and weapons, and as attack weapons themselves. The primary US Army helicopter was the Bell UH-1, called the Huey, and about 7,000 saw service in Vietnam. All other branches of the US military deployed helicopters as well. Obviously, training pilots for helicopters became a priority for the United States. Huey’s were expensive, as well as expensive to operate, and most Army helicopter pilots received their training on other models, the vast majority of them at the Primary Helicopter School at Fort Wolters in Texas.
The average trainee was in his early twenties, though there were some older veterans who applied for the training and qualified. They first learned to fly helicopters in an 8-week school – visual flight rules only – called Primary I. Those who passed entered another eight-week school called Primary II. Graduates were sent to advanced training at Fort Rucker, Alabama, where they learned to fly in formation, combat tactics, flying by instruments, and other skills. From the time they entered the Army to completion of training at Rucker and eligibility to fly in Vietnam, was just under one year.
7. Helicopter training was both dangerous and prestigious
A candidate to enter helicopter pilot training in the Army could be a commissioned officer with combat experience, or a fixed-wing pilot, or a newly graduated high school student who completed boot camp. Most students who entered the program only to fail (about 15%) did so early in the program. One reason for failing out early was the length of the program, each accomplished week represented an increase in the investment the Army had made in the trainee. Remedial training was an alternative for pilots not making the grade at later stages in the program, which lengthened their stay, but gave the Army a return on its investment.
The entire training program, through Wolters and then Rucker, produced a helicopter pilot with about 200 hours of flight time in his log. After graduation from Rucker some were sent directly to Vietnam, others to stateside locations for additional training, and some remained behind for a time as instructors themselves. The majority went to Vietnam. Approximately 40,000 helicopter pilots served in the Vietnam War, and of those 2,202 were killed in the conflict, many of them barely out of their teens. About half of those losses were in Hueys operated by the US Army.
On December 18, 1965, the United States Navy initiated what was called Operation Game Warden, creating a brown water Navy to interdict traffic on Vietnamese waterways in the Mekong Delta. The only training they had for such operations at the time was from the study of history, it was the first such operation by the Navy since the American Civil War. Most of the boats used in the operation were American-built vessels which had been sent to the French as military aid under Truman and Eisenhower, left behind when the French withdrew. The naval patrols of the delta and associated waterways were supported by attack helicopters.
By March 1966, the ancient craft were being replaced by PBRs (Patrol Boat, River) which were fast, nimble, and rigid-hulled. They typically carried a crew of four, all enlisted men, and all of them cross-trained in each other’s jobs. The boat commander was usually a first-class petty officer. The boats were designed to operate in pairs and usually did, with an officer on board one of them, in command of the operation. By 1966 training for PBR crewmen was formalized in the United States, where sailors in the rates required to man them encountered conditions similar to those in Vietnam. The training areas were in Coronado and Mare Island and in Sonoma Marsh, California.
The United States Navy was not trained for combat operations along inland waterways at the beginning of the Vietnam War. Though naval advisers had been supporting South Vietnamese units prior to the formal beginning of Operation Game Warden. They became the primary source of knowledge to prepare the riverine forces of the US Navy prior to their deployment. Besides training in small boat operation and maintenance, the sailors were trained in the use of the boat’s weapons, small arms, radio communication and signaling, visual signaling (semaphore and light), and other related disciplines. This was in addition to the training they had already received as part of their individual job disciplines, called rates in the Navy.
All members of the riverine crews endured a program called Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training (SERE). Originally developed by the US Air Force after World War II from techniques learned from Britain’s MI9, the Navy and Marines adopted the program during the Vietnam War. SERE training helped the brown water crews learn to survive on the land while evading capture by the enemy, eventually escaping back to a safe haven. The training was grueling. It lasted several days at a time in multiple phases. It also required the trainee to be able to survive by eating local grasses and weeds, berries, leaves, rats, snakes, insects, and whatever else could be obtained.
10. US Army Advanced Infantry Training simulated the landscape in Vietnam
Army Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) was the destination of those recruits designated to be assigned to the infantry after completion of boot camp. One such destination was Fort Polk, Louisiana, which upon the recommendations of advisers to Vietnamese troops was designated as a training area which simulated conditions in Vietnam in 1962. There the soldiers encountered Tiger Land, a simulated Vietnamese village covering about four acres of ground. There were other villages in the Fort Polk facility, and the defenses the advisers had seen in Vietnam were created in an attempt at realism. They included tiger traps, sharpened bamboo stakes, and various forms of traps designed to cripple or kill.
Infantrymen were trained to search the villages for supplies and weapons caches, with role players present representing villagers. Secured villages were prepared to be defended, with fox holes and other defensive positions established and manned. Other role players, representing Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army troops, would reconnoiter the area at night. Over the course of American involvement in Vietnam, approximately 1 million US Army infantrymen were trained at Tiger Land, helping prepare them for the conditions they would encounter and the duties they were expected to perform in Vietnam.
11. All branches of the service relied heavily on training films
Since the Second World War, the US military used films as a major part of its training programs, including an extensive reliance on cartoons. The films were professionally produced to cover a wide variety of topics. Some used to motivate soldiers, some to instill a sense of pride. Some even introduced specific military traditions and history. Others shaped political positions. Some were presented in an amusing manner while others, such as the Navy film of the Forrestal disaster, were deadly serious. There were films used which were of World War II vintage, while others were produced to reflect the conditions and dangers to be found in Vietnam.
Military trainees viewed films which demonstrated how to brush their teeth, protect their paychecks, and prevent the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases. They saw films which presented the maintenance of weapons, the prevention of foot problems, and the use of firefighting equipment. They also were presented with films which depicted the history and glorious record of the branch of service represented by the uniform they wore. Other films presented their enemy and what could be expected from them, as well as the dangers of the political system they were fighting for. Training films were presented early in the recruiting process, and continued throughout the career, as they continue to do today.
12. Training to handle chemical weapons was extensive and often ineffective
Operation Ranch Hand was a largely US Air Force program which began in 1962. It was developed by the US military upon the advice of British consultants who had used similar operations battling insurgents in Malaya, and consisted of the use of herbicides and other chemicals to defoliate large swathes of Vietnam’s forests and jungles. The notorious Agent Orange was one such chemical, though it was but one of many used by American forces. Roughly 95% of the toxic defoliants sprayed on Vietnamese lands were deposited by the US Air Force, supported by personnel trained in the use and handling of the herbicides.
At the time the chemical defoliants used for Ranch Hand were considered safe as regards exposure to humans, and Air Force personnel tasked with the maintenance of the aircraft used for spraying did not receive special training regarding safety precautions. Instead, Air Force personnel were trained to accept that the chemicals, particularly Agent Orange, were safe and that there was no risk inherent with exposure to the herbicides. Fifty years later the truth over Agent Orange and the other chemicals used during the defoliation operations is still hotly debated. But military training regarding chemical handling in all branches of the service has changed to include precautions to be taken by personnel with any risk of exposure, either by contact or inhalation.
13. Marine basic training changed during the course of the war
In 1964, the United States Marine Corps operated two recruit training depots. New recruits who enlisted in locations west of the Mississippi River (with some exceptions based on location) were sent to San Diego. The rest went to Parris Island, near Beaufort, South Carolina. In 1964, just prior to the escalation of American troop levels in Vietnam, both depots adopted the same training programs. In the early 1960s, the length of basic training was 13 weeks, three of which were concentrated on marksmanship training, using the venerable M-14 rifle. Later in the Vietnam era, it was shortened to 9 weeks, and the M-14 was gradually replaced with the M-16, the main infantry rifle in the war zone.
In March 1966, Parris Island alone was populated with over 10,000 new Marines. Over 200,000 graduated from the recruit depot over the course of American involvement in Vietnam. In 1971, as American troop levels deployed in Vietnam were steadily decreasing, Individual Combat Training (ICT) was added to the curriculum, and recruits were shipped to Camp Lejeune for field training. Recruits were trained to bivouac in the field, techniques of infantry combat, concealment, and other skills which were required for survival in the field.
14. Training often did not reflect the reality of conditions in Vietnam
In all branches of the military, stateside training included the spit and polish of military life. Uniforms were meticulously maintained and worn with precise correctness. Badges of rank and awards were conspicuously displayed. What was meant to be shiny was shined to a glimmering sheen. Non-authorized items were not displayed on the uniform or the person. All forms of military courtesy were scrupulously followed, both in uniform while on duty and when in mufti when not. Little prepared a new recruit for the changes which would follow when arriving in Vietnam if the recruit was bound for an assignment in or near combat.
New assignees to infantry units were quickly taught not to salute their officers, and newly arrived officers were just as quickly taught to make their rank and presence inconspicuous. This was to prevent them from being identified and targeted by enemy snipers. What was carried on patrols was less what was prescribed in field manuals and more based on conditions to be expected based on experience in the field. Unauthorized items of wear were common, as were decorations which were not strictly military in nature, at least while in country, as the expression went. Military decorum remained in place at bases and facilities not in direct contact with the enemy, for the most part.
15. Military trainees had to learn a new language, regardless of their branch of service
During the Vietnam era, troops and sailors developed their own language, some of it based on military acronyms, and some from other sources. Charlie was the military phonetic version of the letter C, but it also referred to the Viet Cong. Cherry referred to a virgin, and was applied to all new recruits arriving in theater. French was common in Vietnam, and some of it was adopted and adapted for American use with beaucoup Americanized to boocoo, meaning too much. Some arrivals became acquainted with an APL, which was a ship serving as a barracks.
Ghosting, goldbricking, and sandbagging were all terms referring to someone shirking their duty, or otherwise taking time off from work. Of course, military personnel from one service often were confused by the dialect commonly used by other branches. Air Force personnel directed to look for a ladder when given directions by a sailor were likely to walk right by the stairs to which the word referred. Humping was marching, sometimes after being inserted, or deployed, usually via helicopter. Sometimes while humping soldiers encountered a hooch, a Vietnamese dwelling or other small building. New replacements for units in-country were referred to as turtles due to the long time it seemingly took for them to arrive.
16. Air losses to American forces altered the training of pilots
Operation Rolling Thunder was the sustained bombing campaign launched by American and South Vietnamese Air Forces against the North Vietnamese. It began on March 2, 1965, and from the first day, American military and civilian leaders were stunned at the losses of aircraft. By Christmas Eve of that year, when a temporary cease-fire was declared, 170 American aircraft had been shot down by the North Vietnamese. The bombing campaign continued through November of 1968, with more bomb tonnage dropped on North Vietnamese positions than had been dropped in the entire Pacific theater during World War 2. It failed to meet any of its strategic objectives, and cost over 900 aircraft, 416 of them from the Navy and Marine Corps.
The Air Force chose to pursue technological changes in order to address the loss of airplanes in air-to-air combat. The Navy decided the loss of Navy and Marine Corps airplanes reflected a degradation of pilot skills and created a new school to address the deficiency. In March 1969, the Navy opened its Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar, near San Diego. It became famous under the name of Topgun. The program was designed so that pilots graduating at Miramar could return to their units and train the rest of their squadron in the skills and techniques acquired in the school. Before Topgun, the Navy destroyed an average of just less than 4 MIGs for every aircraft lost. After Topgun the ratio exceeded 13:1.
17. The Navy implemented racial awareness training during the Vietnam era
The Vietnam War was not the only issue which divided the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Racial tensions led to unrest and riots in several American cities. The same tensions were felt in the military. In the fall of 1972, tensions between black and white sailors assigned to USS Kitty Hawk erupted in violence in sections of Olangapo, Subic Bay, in the Philippines. A barroom brawl involving more than two dozen members of the crew and numerous shore patrols was broken up by US Marines. Two days later, as Kitty Hawk was operating off the coast of Vietnam, violence broke out aboard the ship, with multiple racially motivated attacks on both white and black sailors.
The Navy designated the event as a race riot in its investigation and aftermath, which included 27 courts-martial. Following the incident (and similar events on other ships and shore facilities) it instituted for the first time in its history racial awareness training. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, concluded that “racism was endemic in the entire structure of the Navy”. Equal opportunity awareness training and a series of programs and initiatives were included at all levels of the Navy’s training system, as well as became a part of operations.
18. Test results determined the military training to be made available to all enlistees and draftees
In 1950, the four branches of the military adopted a single standard for testing and evaluating new recruits. The Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) was used to evaluate new recruits and determine which military specialties they were best qualified to enter for training. It remained in use throughout the period of American combat operations in Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, the Army faced competition for highly qualified applicants from the Air Force and Navy, often preferred by enlistees because they were less likely to be involved in combat. Both services offered a sort of refuge from the draft.
The Army was the first to offer choices of career paths in military specialties, such as communications, at the time of enlistment. Training was offered based on length of initial enlistment, and a new recruit could if qualified in terms of test results, physical fitness, and education, select the career path he would follow while in the service. Enlistees who did not specify a military specialty were assigned to one based on the needs of the service that matched with his test scores. Draftees were also assigned a career based on the needs of the Army, and replacing the troops rotated out of Vietnam, in a variety of job specialties, was its highest priority until the US began its withdrawal from Southeast Asia.
19. Dogs and handlers were trained to serve in Vietnam by the US military
Just under 5,000 dogs were trained by all four branches of the US military to serve in the war in Vietnam. The majority of them were German Shepherds, though Labradors were often the breed of choice for use by the Navy and Marines. Prior to the Tet Offensive of 1968, records of the dogs were not kept by the military, and how many were lost in combat operations is unknown, but only about 200 returned to the United States. Dogs and their handlers were trained to perform a variety of duties in the war, and about ten thousand dog handlers served. The Army and Air Force used about 90% of the dogs sent to Vietnam, with the Army having the most by a wide margin.
Dogs to be used as scouts were trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, learning to detect tripwires, weapons caches, and other items. Tracker dogs were trained to track based on blood trails, odors, and other evidence of someone having passed. Sentry dogs were used on the perimeter of military installations, and most were trained for the task at Lackland Air Force Base. Other dogs were trained to crawl into spider holes and tunnels in search of mines, trip wires, and other booby traps, prior to the tunnel being cleared by combat engineers. The majority of the dogs left behind after the American withdrawal from Vietnam were assigned new handlers with the ARVN. What eventually became of them is unknown.
20. Military training invoked hatred against the Vietnamese people
As America’s engagement in Vietnam lengthened in time and the numbers of casualties rose, training of new recruits began to be imbued with racial hatred against the enemy known as Charlie. Overall, Asians became known as “gooks” in military parlance, including in training situations and classrooms. Advanced Infantry training included the dehumanization of the enemy which had been a hallmark of American military training of the men who fought in the Pacific during World War II. During bayonet training, for example, trainees were exhorted to kill the gook by the drill instructors, many of whom had prior service in Vietnam.
For most people not killing another human being is instinctive. It has to be taught. Drill instructors of the Army and Marines were tasked with preparing men to kill on the most personal level, in order to protect themselves and the other members of their unit. Brutalization and desensitizing the individual were necessary to overcome the instinct not to kill and they were applied from the moment a new recruit arrived at boot camp through the rest of his training. During the Second World War, it was revealed that only about 20% of the men who fought in combat in Europe fired at an exposed enemy. Instead, they simply fired at nothing. By the end of the Vietnam War, that number had increased, in the US Army, to 90%.
21. The US Coast Guard provided over 8,000 personnel for service in Vietnam
One of the least-known stories of the American involvement in the Vietnam War, the US Coast Guard provided ships and patrol boats, manned long-range aids to navigation stations after they built them, and supported the American war effort with aviators for patrols and air and sea rescue details. Fifty-six Coast Guard cutters supported the effort to prevent Vietnamese waterways from being used to supply and reinforce the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops in the south. When the policy of Vietnamization was announced and the American withdrawal began, 30 of the cutters were delivered to the South Vietnamese.
They didn’t know how to operate the cutters, nor most of the equipment on them, nor how to maintain them in the harsh climate, where maintenance was critical. The Coast Guard established training schools which were extensions of those in which they had themselves been trained. The training provided by the Coast Guard, as well as the cutters, provided the nucleus of the South Vietnamese Navy for the duration of the war. All members of Coast Guard cutter crews and support personnel were also given a one-day survival training course, conducted in the Philippines, prior to deployment in South Vietnam.
22. Lessons learned were included in training as American commitment to the war waned
The Navy’s Top Gun School was formed as an effort to learn from the mistakes made in combat in Vietnam and was highly successful at correcting them. But it was an effort which improved only the Navy and Marines’ efforts in the war. The Air Force continued to rely on technological improvements, as well as a strategy which clearly failed to produce the desired results. The same was true throughout the services, in some areas lessons learned in combat were included in training programs while others were ignored by a hidebound command system, both military and civilian. Some of the training received by new recruits in the United States was immediately overturned by local junior officers and senior non-commissioned officers in Vietnam.
American doctors learned to carry sidearms while conducting Medical Civil Action Programs (MEDCAP) which provided medicine and examinations to villages and hamlets. American medical professionals also led a drive to identify all prostitutes, giving them identification cards with photographs. If an American serviceman came down with a sexually transmitted disease, its source could then be identified and treated. The developments of medical care trauma teams in Vietnam – the MASH units – were studied and applied to civilian emergency care, after a 1966 report described the subject, and led to the development of emergency medical technicians in the United States.
23. Early military training was often the toughest part of service life
For enlistees and draftees, the first stop of military service was boot camp, and for many, it remained the toughest stop of the military career. Boot camp in all branches was designed to eliminate all individuality of civilian life. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines were made to look the same, dress the same, and sound the same. Every day began before sunrise, sometimes before 5 in the morning, and seldom if ever later. Every minute of the ensuing day was scheduled. The trainees wore what they were told to wear, carried what they were told to carry, and ate what was served to them, whether they wanted it or not.
Even the length of time a trainee spent in the shower was predetermined, as was the method of showering, though it varied from service to service. Individual physical fitness was of little concern to the drill instructors. Trainees ran until they completed the length they were assigned, or until they dropped. Those who dropped were expected to complete the distance after brief recovery. The whole purpose of basic training was to deliver to the ensuing schools or assignments a military machine in a human body, ready to be shaped by additional training into a valuable asset for the branch of service represented by the uniform it was wearing.
24. Early training included the rules of military life in the form of the Uniform Code of Military Justice
The Uniform Code of Military Justice, known to all who served in the military as the UCMJ was (and is) a concise listing of military law, passed by Congress and signed by President Truman in 1950. Its edicts apply to all members of the military no matter where they are stationed or physically placed anywhere in the world. Early in basic training, the trainees were familiarized with the UCMJ and continually reminded of it during their time in the service. Copies were prominently displayed on barracks walls, in Navy heads and Army latrines, in mess halls, classrooms, and the training documents issued to every service member.
Along with the UCMJ, trainees were quickly indoctrinated in the Code of Conduct, indeed, to the point of memorizing it and reciting it to the satisfaction of their drill instructor. The Code was established by Executive Order of President Eisenhower. It contained (and still does) six articles. Within one week of arriving at basic training most recruits were expected to recite verbatim any of the articles upon the demand of a drill instructor, often made with his face less than an inch from that of the recruit. The price of failure was often physical pain, inflicted in a variety of ways.
25. Memorization was often a necessary part of military training
The ability to give a correct answer to a question through memorization of the answer, rather than comprehension of the subject, was a valuable trait during military training. One of the first requirements of recruits was to learn the General Orders of a Sentry. During the Vietnam era, all branches of the military used the same orders, as did the Coast Guard. Their authorship is unknown, they appeared in the Navy Sailor’s bible, The Bluejacket’s Manual, in 1902. Some have ascribed their authorship to George Washington in the Continental Army’s encampment in Cambridge in 1775. The eleven orders were, like the Code of Conduct, expected to be known verbatim by anyone wearing a military uniform.
The Navy version differed from that of its land-based compatriots (who don’t generally have an Officer of the Deck to report to) but the differences during the Vietnam War were minor in nature. A common scenario in basic training was a recruit dropping in utter exhaustion following a five-mile run while carrying up to forty pounds of equipment, only to hear the voice of his drill instructor demanding to know the fifth general order of a sentry. Woe betide the unfortunate trainee who did not leap to attention and respond, “Sir, the fifth general order is Sir, ‘To quit my post only when properly relieved’, Sir”.
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