03 March 2021
John C. Pursley offers an instructional guide to identifying authentic US Vietnam combat uniforms and equipment collectables.
During WWII, US industry designed and manufactured millions of special purpose uniforms to suit the numerous and diverse theaters of operation. Logistically speaking, it must have been a convoluted nightmare for the military planners, but by the end of the war there were stockpiles of virtually everything. In fact, there was so much surplus, US troops used it for decades. The practice of using surplus or non-upgraded military equipment almost totally succeeded until the 1950 US involvement in Korea when it became evident those old uniforms were not designed to protect personnel in the bone-chilling mountain winter temperatures. Realising the seriousness of the situation, the Government placed production priority on cold weather manufacture, but that didn’t help get through the first winter.
The fighting ceased in 1953 and with peace the pre-Korea casual attitude towards uniforms and equipment returned to the US military, the surplus they had was good enough. Nonetheless in the 1960s came Vietnam and with it, totally different uniform requirements to meet the environmental conditions of that country. The US uniforms worn on-base or in garrisoned units didn’t receive too much attention regarding re-design, but the ones intended for combat were given top priority and quickly developed to be both practical and comfortable when worn in hot and steamy climates.
Three generations of Jungle Fatigues were used during the Vietnam War, all of which shared common core characteristics. The coat had two slant pockets on the chest and two lower bellows pockets about hip-high, each closing with two buttons. It also had a button-closure front. The pants came with optional button or zipper fly and were designed with two single-button closure hip slash pockets and two double-button bellows pockets on the thigh.
Recognising the need for a camouflage version of jungle fatigues, the Engineer Research & Development Laboratories fatigues were first produced in 1967 and issued in both green and brown dominant, depending on the flora in the area it would be worn. Although, the color was eventually standardised to green to reduce supply shortages. Initially they were issued only to the specialised forces, but once in abundant supply, the army shunned the uniform. However, the US marines embraced the ERDL’s uniform and by 1969 the green dominant camouflage jungle fatigue was their standard.
Note for the would-be buyer: It is easy to confuse post-war pants with the real deal, but on Vietnam-era pants there was no double-layer of cloth on the seat or knee areas, there is a small stash pocket located inside the bellows pocket on the left thigh and the hip pockets are single-button.
The Boonie tropical hat came in Olive Drab green and ERDL camouflage pattern, with the latter being used by US Army, ARVN, and Marines. The soft cotton poplin or rip-stop fabric tropical sun hats were authorised for wear by all military personnel in Vietnam when the use of a helmet was not practical for performing missions. These were very comfortable, light, and would fit in a pocket. The chin strap was adjustable, it had sewn-on loops around the crown for placing foliage used for camouflage; ventilation eyelets around the crown and an optional, but seldom used, insect net.
Some soldiers referred to them as a ‘go to hell’ hat, which was, in definition, technically an Australian bush hat worn by aviators, but the term also fit any flat sort of hat. In any event I thought the term was cool, so I used it.
Later versions of Boonie hats did not have square-corner, rectangular-shaped toggles on the chin strap like the authentic one’s do. Post-Vietnam era hats have rounded-corner toggles.
The Fatigue cap was a baseball-style cap that was hated by most Marines for myriad reasons, but mine was because we weren’t allowed to crush the front of the hat down, but instead had to leave it with the big, ugly flat front and peak showing. It wasn’t bad enough we were wearing Olive Drab (OD) shirts and pants, but to top it off with that lame-looking piece of headgear was almost demoralising. It was made of polyester and rayon gabardine cloth dyed OD green. For those wanting to collect this hat for whatever reason, the stitching is the way to tell real from fake. Wartime fatigue caps have two rows of stitching around the visor and cap while the newer version had four rows. You will be pleased to know they are still under $10 on the internet.
Left: Jungle fatigues being worn in-country by US soldiers
The most commonly used fragmentation vest used by US troops in the beginning of the Vietnam was again, something left over from another war, the Korean era M1952A. The vest had no collar, epaulettes on the shoulder and a zipper front with nylon over-flap.
When the design was upgraded for Vietnam they added a collar for more protection and dumped the shoulder epaulettes. This version was specified model 823 and became the iconic Army flak vest you see in most of the Vietnam War combat pictures.
The 122-series fragmentation vest, introduced in 1969 and upgraded in 1970, contained anti-bunching inserts and a Velcro front closure, but looked generally the same. Of course, the US Marines had their own version, the USMC M-55 Fragmentation Vest. Having a zippered front with no pockets, it offered protection by using Doron plates inside a cotton shell. Upgraded versions included the addition of nylon pockets, rope ridges on both shoulders; and the shell material was changed to more durable nylon.
Korean War M-1 helmets were used during the Vietnam era and are pretty much the same type used during WWII except for a slightly lower profile. It was equipped with a seldom-used two-part chin strap, typically tightened up around the back of the helmet.
The easiest way to tell a Korea/Vietnam helmet from a WWII helmet is by the strap which should have a small anchor stamp. Also, the seam on the rim of a WWII helmet is at the front, the one on Korean and Vietnam helmets is at the back.
To go with helmets there is of course, the iconic covering. The Mitchell Pattern helmet cover with disorderly leaf patterns of spring and summer in green and brown colors, was reversible to exhibit darker colors for fall and winter operations. The cover was outfitted with small reinforced slots where organic materials could be inserted and if additional camouflage was wanted, the elastic helmet band contained loops.
On to boots now and the first US troops deployed to Vietnam wore all-leather combat boots, which were great for rear action areas, but not well suited for jungle operations. Initially, the advisors sent to Vietnam wore, what became known as, the Okinawa Boot named after their departure point. Considered by the Army as contemporary jungle footwear, they were just WWII, double-buckle style boots with canvas upper parts.
As the war progressed, so did the jungle boot evolve to meet the specific needs of the US combat troops. The final style, commencing manufacture in 1967, was the Third Pattern and included a Panama protective sole featuring an all-cotton upper construction, nylon backstay reinforcement and top binding, and a nylon ankle reinforcing band.
These boots were first issued with the same Vibram Sole as the second model jungle boots. Despite the latter being produced for more years, the Panama sole never reached the issue numbers of the Vibram model during the Vietnam War and are thus not as common.
Left: Nurses wore the same jungle fatigues as did the soldiers
These are the weapons that the forces were issued with, starting with the M-14 which was used in the mid-‘60s by some of the first Army units deployed to Vietnam. It was soon replaced on a very limited basis in 1965 by the XM-16E1, which was considerably lighter. This replacement for the M-14 had a solid buttstock with no place to store cleaning items, triangle handguards, three-prong flash suppressor, standard contour barrel, and a straight pistol grip. The first version of the rifle proved to be unreliable in the steamy, wet, and dirty combat environment of Vietnam due to a problem with rounds not chambering properly, resulting in a mis-fire. That problem was fixed by a modification that provided a tear-drop shaped forward assist assembly on the right side of the weapon; chroming of the bore, changing the flash suppressor to a full birdcage to avoid snagging on vegetation, making a trap-door in the butt-stock to hold the four-piece cleaning rod, and installing fencing on the lower receiver around the magazine release button. After these improvements were made, the M-16A1 was officially introduced in 1967 to line infantry units. However, the practice of tapping the butt of the magazine against helmets or a boot heel to make sure the rounds seated correctly before inserting into the rifle carried on for years.
Left: Although better attired for combat than surgery, many nurses in field hospitals near fighting faced the same danger as their male counter-parts
The first attempt at making a compact variety of the M-16 was the CAR-15 Commando, pretty much a cut down version of the combat rifle. The third and final design consisted of an 11.5in barrel, shorter triangular handguards than previous models, a 4in moderator, and a collapsible stock. The project was essentially an M-16A1 with a re-designed two position, collapsible aluminum stock and shortened upper receiver.
For close up action there was the .45 calibre Colt M1911 handgun. This is a weapon that has a reputation the world over. Holding seven rounds in the magazine it was the sidearm of choice for US troops in four wars because of its knock-down power.
On to grenade launchers now and the M-79, which was a single shot, shoulder fired, break-barrel weapon that resembled something between a shotgun and a blunderbuss with a large flip up sight situated half way down the barrel. Commonly known as the Thumper or Blooper, it fired a breech-loaded spherical 40mm grenade, accurate up to 200m. It saw use throughout the Vietnam War but, by 1970, the over and under M-203 Grenade Launcher system mounted on M-16 series of rifles was the standard.
Left: Not a very pretty weapon, but the M-79 Grenade Launder could accurately hurl a grenade much further than a man
For heavier support fire there was the M-60 machine gun. Designated the Pig, the 7.62mm machine gun was air cooled, belt-fed, gas operated, air cooled and equipped with a quick-change barrel to compensate for overheating due to sustained fire. Weighing in at 24lb, it was the main firepower of the infantry and provided an advantage in concentrated firefights. Being a general-purpose weapon, the M-60 could also be seen mounted on all manner of vehicles and in helicopters. While on operations, almost everyone in the squad carried belt-type ammunition to feed the hungry Pig.
M-18 smoke grenades were mostly used by infantry to help helicopter pilots evaluate wind direction and identify enemy or friendly positions for Landing Zone action. Its igniter type fuse had a time delay of two seconds before it emitted 50-90 seconds of red, green, yellow or violet colored smoke.
More lethal was the M61 Fragmentation hand grenade, otherwise known as the M26A1. Shaped like a lemon, made of smooth sheet metal, the M-61 was the standard fragmentation hand grenade used by troops in Vietnam. It contained 5.5oz of explosive material and used a detonator-type fuse. The grenade was olive drab with yellow markings.
Vietnam items are readily available on the internet in these price ranges, starting with what you would pay in the US, and then for the same item from a UK supplier: ERDL coats, $80-$150 (£60-£100); Jungle Fatigue coats, $50-$90 (around £80); new boots, $120 (£30-£80); helmets, $100 (£75); Boonie Hats, $10 (repro £10, authentic £15); and those cool fatigue baseball caps are only $10 (£9 for unissued, up to £50 for worn, period hats). Research what you want to buy, there is a lot of it around and remember, condition is everything.
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