Webster

The Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions." --American Statesman Daniel Webster (1782-1852)


Saturday, May 25, 2019

Helmet Art from Vietnam

I have blogged before about Helmets and "Lucky Talismans" and helmets in general.  I remembered when I first got my helmet at my first dury station in Germany I immediately stuck my "LPS" bottle in the band around the helmet like I remembered seeing all the GI's doing during Vietnam.


 My squad leader told me "You can't do that crap any more".  So I had to take it out.  Oh well...



The Vietnam War tested the United States in new and horrid ways. Unprepared for guerilla tactics, dense jungles, and unwilling to interpret their foes’ actions as anything other than the working of Moscow’s efforts to expand Communism, the nation spent years in a conflict with no seeming end in sight.


1st Lieutenant Thomas K. Holland, Troop D, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, Vietnam.Date between 1966 and 1971
1st Lieutenant Thomas K. Holland, Troop D, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, Vietnam.
Date between 1966 and 1971
Conscripted troops were constantly cycled through the war to prepare a generation for World War III, while politicians and commanders continually failed to understand the lessons learned in America’s previous guerilla campaigns.


For the troops on the ground, Vietnam was a humid hell filled with enemies and a people barely considered human. Part of any soldier’s equipment at the time included a helmet, called a steel pot by the troops and officially known as the M-1 helmet.


U.S. soldiers in 1972 wearing M1 helmets
U.S. soldiers in 1972 wearing M1 helmets
The soldiers of Vietnam, being products of a time when the nation’s youth struggled to assert their individuality, started doodling on their helmets to express themselves.


Such antics were not new, as handfuls of soldiers did something similar during World War II. During Vietnam their work grew more prominent and noticeable. It also garnered more attention as outrage against the conflict, both among the troops and at home, increased.


LT James F. Gregory, Platoon leader takes his men into a northern village, Company B, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 501st Inf., 101st Airborne. Division, Vietnam.
LT James F. Gregory, Platoon leader takes his men into a northern village, Company B, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 501st Inf., 101st Airborne. Division, Vietnam.
Such artwork drew media attention as early as June 18, 1965. Appearing in an Associated Press article by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Horst Faas, the photo caption noted Larry Wayne Chaffin of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, sporting a simple line across the bridge of his helmet: “WAR IS HELL.”


Vietnam Helmet “Born to Breed”. Photo: Lemsipmatt CC BY 2.0
Vietnam Helmet “Born to Breed”.
 
Simple calendars were a popular doodle, with soldiers jotting down the months of their tour and then crossing them off as time passed and they managed to live another thirty days. Such “short-timer” calendars were common among conscripts as they waited out their tours of duty.
Sergeant Gerald Laird firing a machine gun, Company A, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, Vietnam.
Sergeant Gerald Laird firing a machine gun, Company A, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, Vietnam.
The media, latching on to the potential anti-war messages of such art, made sure to showcase it as the conflict continued. 
 
 
One photograph from 1966 showed John Wayne signing a soldier’s helmet. Many photos recorded phrases and remarks written on soldier’s helmets, ranging from mottos such as “In God We Trust” to satirical musings like “Born to Kill Die.”
Vietnam….A Sky Trooper from the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) keeps track of the time he has left on his ‘short time’ helmet, while participating in Operation Pershing, near Bong Son.
Vietnam….A Sky Trooper from the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) keeps track of the time he has left on his ‘short time’ helmet, while participating in Operation Pershing, near Bong Son.
Not all such writings made it to the news. Years later on a web forum, one veteran told the story of his art:
“My personal helmet ‘graffiti’ was the moniker ‘Teenage Killer.’ As a recruit in Marine boot camp, we were repeatedly told a story of Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly telling someone she had found Marines to be “over-sexed, under-paid, teenage killers.”
SSGT Russell C. Fordham, D Trp., 1st Sqdn., 9th Cav., Vietnam.
SSGT Russell C. Fordham, D Trp., 1st Sqdn., 9th Cav., Vietnam.
“One night, outside Da Nang, after imbibing a bottle of ‘Panther piss’, the phrase popped into my head and was promptly Magic-Markered onto the side of my ‘piss-pot’.
Vietnam Aircavalry soldier ,with stars and stripes behindhim.Re-enactor.
Vietnam Aircavalry soldier ,with stars and stripes 
 
“It was greeted with mixed reviews by the higher-ups and I was ‘asked’ to make myself scarce when photographers were in the area. Sometime later, I was ordered to remove the ‘offensive’ phrase from my helmet cover. This was accompanied by a new helmet cover.
Troopers on patrol in Vietnam; radioing for communication.
Troopers on patrol in Vietnam; radioing for communication.
“I ignored the order, and the new cover, and was given an Article 15. With a grin, the 1st Sgt replaced my ‘salty’ with a new greenie.”
From what I can tell, this happened after Vietnam because the mural is based on the movie "Apocalypse Now" was made in 1979.  I thought it was pretty cool art work.

Whether considered graffiti, artwork, or simply bored doodlings of young men forced to be soldiers in a land far from home, a soldier’s helmet was as much his life as his rifle.

Whether their writings veered toward the crude, satirical, devout, or rambling, such works allowed them to express themselves as they fought a conflict for motivations more than likely lost on a bunch of overgrown kids stuck in the jungle.
The turkey that found its way by helicopter to the 9th Infantry Division was destined for the nearby Bear Cat base camp. It was one of 57,000 sent in to provide as many as possible of the half-million Americans in Vietnam with the traditional holiday feast. Note Radio in Helmet band.
The turkey that found its way by helicopter to the 9th Infantry Division was destined for the nearby Bear Cat base camp. It was one of 57,000 sent in to provide as many as possible of the half-million Americans in Vietnam with the traditional holiday feast. Note Radio in Helmet band.

 Helmets were something personal for each solder, and especially in Vietnam the Helmet art became famous.

2 comments:

  1. And was always illegal... :-)

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  2. An old family friend told me that tucking a white bottle in the helmet band was lethal. It gave a highly visible target of your head in the jungle. As he was a Commando Sniper (Australian Army) in Vietnam, I tend to believe him. This was one of the few things he spoke about of his time in Vietnam triggered by watching an episode of China beach.

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