Everyone who was sent to Vietnam War, or in any other war in that sense, expected that they would be facing a huge amount of danger, if not death itself. In fact, according to the reports of US Wings, 9,087,000 military personnel served on active duty during the official Vietnam era. Among them, “58,148 were killed in Vietnam, 75,000 severely disabled, 23,214 were 100% disabled, 5,283 lost limbs and 1,081 sustained multiple amputations.” As for the radiomen on the battlefield, the odds were even more against them that their life expectancy in the field was a grim five seconds, and it was not even some scare tactic or careless expectation. It was a reality.

Vietnam War

There were common beliefs that the conflict during the Vietnam War was not as intense as it was in World War II. That was far from being true. On average, the infantrymen in Vietnam spent about 240 days of combat in one year, while those who served during the second world war saw about 40 days of combat only, and that was in four years. A total of 2.7 million Americans served in the Vietnam war, and one out of every 10 of them was a casualty. As mentioned above, 58,148 died while 304,000 were wounded. Because of the number of wounded soldiers, MEDEVAC helicopters had to fly around 500,000 missions, airlifting roughly 900,000 patients who were mostly American. On the other hand, more or less two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed.

Life of Radiomen

Now, going back to the five-second life expectation of the commo guys, you’ll have to know their situation once they’re dropped off on the battlefield in order to understand this seemingly and outrageously pessimistic conclusion.

An Iowan radio operator named Paul Dwyer shared his experiences in the Vietnam War when he joined the Marine Corps in 1967. He said,

The very first day I walk into the communications building that they were having the training in and as I’m walking in the instructors up on this little stage were writing this big number 5 on the blackboard. He says, ‘Welcome to field radio operator school.’ He said, ‘That number up on the board, that is your life expectancy in a fire fight in seconds.’ And we all look at one another like, did he just say seconds? He says, ‘Yes, I said five seconds. So listen up and you might learn some things that will keep you alive.

Challenges

Once deployed in the warzone, these radiomen would wear their radios on their backs like a backpack, and because of this, they couldn’t really control the volume as they couldn’t reach the knob. The radio chatter, of course, would give away their positions. Add the fact that these radios and their additional gears were pretty heavy. For instance, the PRC-77 radio system weighed 13.5 pounds with the batteries taken out. Add those batteries and some spare ones, and the large compatible, tactical, wideband secure voice system used for encryption called NESTOR. The combined weight of these things was around 54 pounds of burden and hot metal that they had to carry on their backs in combat. Not only that, but they also had to bring with them their weapon system so they could fight as needed.

Soldier using the KY38 “Manpack,” part of the NESTOR system. (US. National Security Agency, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Now, for the radio to work, it would need an antenna. Not that it’s a heavy addition, but it’s like a hand waving to the enemies with a long stick poking out on your back. The three-foot version was not much of a nuisance and didn’t stand out as much, but the thick jungles of Vietnam were a dead place for signal reception. Thus, the radio operator needed to extend the antenna to ten feet, turning them into a walking bullseye.

The Viet Cong were aware that these walking antennas were means for the enemies to call in air support, and taking out down meant potentially stopping airstrikes, artillery, and American reinforcements making it to the fight. Oh, and expectedly, wherever there was a radio operator, they could expect a sizable American force would be present as well. For this reason, radio operators were often isolated from the rest of the troops, because lose your comms and you could very well lose your whole unit too.

Up a Tree: Communications are ‘up a tree’ with the 5th Marines. Lance Corporal Larry N. Fuller, 20 (Port Moline, Illinois), secures a long-range radio antenna to a tree near the unit’s command post southwest of Da Nang. (USMC Archives from Quantico, USACC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

To be fair, other operators would only strap their radios on whenever needed, and they could take them off to help in the combat. Regardless, five seconds was terrifyingly short, but these men still took the job and went into the combat zone anyway. So was it really five seconds or just a trick of using clever math?  We may never really know but in combat, five seconds can certainly seem like a lifetime.

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