Editor’s note: Since this article is talking about gear, we wanted to give a shoutout to The Loadout Room for a great launch. Check them out if you haven’t already!
In the Vietnam war, the most important piece of equipment we carried on missions was the CAR-15. It was the preferred weapon of choice by everyone on ST Idaho. The sling for it would vary: Sometimes I used a cravat or a canvas strap taped tightly to both ends of the weapon for soundless movements. The only exceptions to the CAR-15 were an AK-47 carried by “Son” when he was our point man (he also wore an NVA uniform to complete the look) and an M-79 carried by our grenadier. In November 1968, Henry King carried the experimental pump M-79 weapon on one mission. It held up to five rounds of 40mm high-explosive ammunition. His secondary weapon was the Model 1911 Colt .45. On occasions, Black would carry the M-60 machine gun.
Every American on ST Idaho carried a sawed-off M-79 for additional firepower. We thought of it as our handheld artillery. During a patrol, the Americans would load a special M-79 round with flechettes or double-ought (00) buckshot for close contact. The sawed-off M-79 would be secured either with a canvas or rope lanyard or by using a D-ring that was covered with black electrical tape to prevent any metallic banging. During the fall of 1968, I had a one-of-a-kind sawed-off M-79 holster, which I lost when I was unconscious during a rope extraction in Laos.
I would carry at least 34 20-round magazines for the CAR-15. We only placed 18 rounds in each magazine, which gave me 612 rounds for that weapon, and at least 12 rounds for the M-79. The CAR-15 magazines were placed in ammo pouches or cloth canteen pouches, with the bottoms facing up to prevent debris from getting into the magazine, and all of the rounds pointing away from the body. We taped black electrical tape to the bottom of each magazine to make it easier to grab them out of the pouch during firefights. I also carried 10 to 12 fragmentation grenades, a few of the older M-26 grenades, the newer M-33 “baseball” grenades, and one or two V-22 mini grenades.
For headgear, I only wore a green cravat on missions. It was light, didn’t get caught on jungle branches or knocked off my head by prop wash, and it broke up the color of my blond hair. As a practical matter, it kept the sweat out of my eyes. Hats didn’t do that. I often wore camouflage “paint” on my face. I always wore an extra cravat around my neck.
I wore the traditional Army jungle fatigues because they dried more quickly while on the ground than the camouflage fatigues available at the time. I had the tailor at Phu Bai sew an extra zipped pocket on the upper right and left arm of my fatigue where I carried pens, notebooks, pen flares, one plastic spoon, and my signal mirror. The tailor also sewed zipped pockets between the front top and bottom buttoned pockets, where I’d place maps, morphine syrettes, an extra notebook with any mission-specific notes, and the URC-10 emergency radio.
On my right wrist, I wore a black, self-winding, luminescent Seiko watch, which was so bright at night that I wore it face-down on the bottom of my wrist, under my glove. Thus, even in the pitch-black jungle, I knew when to make communication checks with the airborne command aircraft — usually at midnight or at 2 a.m. Additionally, in the jungle, I always wore black contact gloves for protection against jungle plants, thorns, and insects. I cut the thumb, index, and middle finger off of the right glove down to the first joint for improved grip.
On my left harness strap, I taped my KA-BAR knife, with the handle facing down, then hand grenades, small smoke canisters, and a sterile bandage. On my right harness strap was a strobe light, held in a cloth pouch, more hand grenades, a rappelling D-ring, and a smoke grenade. My preferred web gear was the WWII BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) ammo belt and shoulder straps because five CAR-15 magazines fit snugly into each individual pouch — one pouch would be used for M-79 rounds. A plastic water canteen in a cloth canteen holder fitted onto the belt, as well as one white phosphorous grenade and my survival ax.
The amount of water available in the AO would determine how many plastic canteens of water I’d carry to the field. One canteen would have a small bottle of water purification pills taped to it. I used those pills for all water outside of camp. In our AOs, the water was often tainted with the defoliant Agent Orange. We hoped the purification tablets would counteract it. On the right side of my harness, I always carried the Frank & Warren Survival Axe Type II, MIL-S-8642C. I preferred it to the machete because the backside had a nasty, sharp hook that cut through jungle vines on the return swing. I carried my folding compass around my neck, held by a green parachute cord.
I used a cravat as a belt or a cut-down green cargo belt because it was silent. In my right pocket was my Swiss Army knife secured by a green parachute cord to a belt loop on my pants. Because I always wore the bulky gas mask bag on my left side, which held the black M-17 gas mask, I rarely put anything in my upper left pocket. (If the charcoal air filters on the M-17 got wet, they had to be replaced.) In my lower left pant pocket, I carried small and large colored panels to mark our position for Covey and tactical airstrikes.
In my lower right pocket were extra pen flares, a dehydrated Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol Ration (LRP or LRRP, pronounced “LURP”), bug repellant to squirt on leeches, an extra cravat and a sterile bandage. I always carried Swiss rope, too. The 12-foot section of green-colored rope was used as a Swiss seat for extractions by helicopter. We would hook a D-ring through the seat’s rope and onto 150-foot-long pieces of rope that hung from the chopper.
On all missions, I carried the PRC-25, our primary radio contact with the outside world. It took up the most space in my rucksack. Most times, I had the short, flexible antenna screwed into it, which I folded under my right arm and tucked into my jungle fatigue jacket. I did this because the NVA always searched for the radio operator, knowing he was the primary link to U.S. airpower. I carried the long antenna, folded in sections, in my rucksack.
Other items included one can of C-Ration fresh fruit, either peaches or apricots; extra hand grenades; the remainder of my CAR-15 magazines; extra M-79 rounds, including one tear-gas round; an Army long-sleeved sweater; a thin, hooded, waist-length plastic rain jacket; and toilet paper. Both the sweater and rain jacket would be folded under the PRC-25 to buffer where it hit my back. I also carried an extra PRC-25 battery, an extra URC-10 battery, extra smoke grenades, an extra canteen of water if needed, and extra LURPs.
On a few occasions, especially when we ran targets in Cambodia, which was flatter and more wide open, I’d carry a Claymore mine and a few pre-cut fuses — five-second, 10-second, and longer-duration fuses — used to break contact with enemy troops chasing us. On several occasions I carried .22-caliber High Standard semi-automatic pistol with a suppressor for ambushes or to kill enemy tracker dogs. I also carried cough syrup for team interpreter Nguyen Cong Hiep or anyone who coughed at night, cans of black pepper and powdered mace for enemy tracker dogs, and a compact toothbrush.
There were some redundancies, such as bullets, bandages, and smoke grenades, carried in various locations on my body. Each could be crucial to surviving a firefight and successfully directing helicopter gunships, F-4 Phantom jets that delivered ordnance on target faster than the speed of sound, or the old deadly propeller-driven A-1 Skyraiders.
The emphasis was packing firepower for survival. I preferred to go hungry instead of running out of ammo. Comfort items were discarded in favor of carrying an extra grenade or a high-explosive M-79 round.
Because in the Prairie Fire AO, there were several times when we were in contact with NVA troops for two or three hours before making radio contact with Covey or any U.S. aircraft. Then, depending on weather and the status of other teams in the field, there would be further delays in getting air assets on-scene, especially when the team was surrounded and there were no routes for escape and evasion. On most missions, I preferred six-man teams due to helicopter extraction considerations: height, altitude, weight, and weather conditions dictated how many men could board an extraction chopper.
The type of helicopter used for the extraction would either be the old H-34s to Hueys or on rare occasions, the Air Force’s HH-3 Jolly Green Giant a larger and more powerful chopper. On very rare and unique missions, SOG recon and Hatchet Force teams would use the largest helicopter available: the CH-53 Sea Stallions based in Da Nang with the Marine Corps HMH-463 unit. Which one picked up the team, usually under heavy enemy gunfire, made a difference in regards to how many men it could carry. And, to the man, every aircrew SOG team member we worked with was fearless, always willing to put their lives on the line for SOG teams.
There were at least two missions where, upon ST Idaho getting extracted from the target, I was down to my last CAR-15 magazine, M-26 grenade, and M-79 round. The NVA were relentless and fearless.
We had an intimate knowledge of all the weapons we carried to the field. Not only did we know how they worked, but we could dismantle them and clean them at night — that was mandatory training, not optional. We fired thousands of rounds through our CAR-15s and M-79s during live-fire reaction drills and at static targets. Before we carried any new weapon or device into the field on a mission, we practiced using it for hours in order to gain familiarity with it and to see how it functioned under repeated use. We also trained on enemy weapons we’d encounter on missions: the AK-47, RPD, B-40 grenade launcher, and the older SKS rifle.
With ST Idaho, if the team wasn’t on a mission, we were training on the range or doing local training patrols, which included both silent and live-fire reaction drills.
For wiretaps, ST Idaho Vietnamese team leader Nguyen Van Sau was the quickest team member to climb an NVA telephone pole or tree to install a wiretap. He trained several other men on the team, including Phouc, Hung, Quang, and Son. They had to climb the pole, install the wiretap, and cover the wire, leading from the telephone wire down to our cassette tape recorder, with mud or wood putty in order to hide it from passing enemy troops.
For Bright Light missions, we carried extra rounds, hand grenades, Claymore mines, bandages, medical supplies, and at least one machine gun. We carried one canteen of water, but no food. On a few missions, we carried anti-tank and anti-vehicular mines.
Before going to the field, Black or Shore would spend hours cross-training our Vietnamese team members to ensure they could install the devices as quickly as possible without detection by enemy troops while the remainder of the team provided security for them. On those missions we’d usually carry at least one M-72 Light Antitank Weapon (LAW), but only after the entire team had drilled on them for several days.
For POW snatches, ST Idaho spent hours practicing how to set up a jungle ambush. This entailed each team member quickly placing a Claymore mine in the kill zone and at our flanks, in addition to installing the pre-cut block of plastic explosive that would knock out an enemy soldier. The Claymore mine, officially designated the M-18A1 fragmentation antipersonnel mine, weighed 3.5 pounds and contained 1.5 pounds of plastic explosive, which propelled 700 steel balls in a deadly, killing arc that was dangerous out to 250 meters.
Throughout 1968, there were experimental weapons that S-4 shared with recon men for our assessment of their performance capabilities, such as the Gyrojet rocket pistol that fired a 13mm round similar in gauge but longer than the standard .45 caliber round. There were many variations of silenced weapons such as the M-1 carbine, the old WWII Sten submachine gun, the 9mm Karl Gustav Swedish K submachine gun, and the XM-21 sniper rifle.
We had various night-vision devices, the Starlight scope, and the experimental pump M-79 weapon. The Air Force and the CIA often came to us with experimental explosive devices, communications equipment, and various trail sensors. In the early ’70s, the Air Force used the recon teams’ experiences combating the NVA at night to design complicated enemy-targeting devices, some of which lead to technology that was used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sometimes team members were issued devices that were unknown to me. For example, in 2005, Doug LeTourneau told me about a team perimeter security device that he carried with him on all missions. It was a small box that held a small strand of nylon filament which he placed around the team’s perimeter. He would place the listening device near his ear and if a person or an animal walked through the team’s perimeter, it would sound a barely audible alert signal.
For a short period of time, Black used a seismic alert system made up of four probes, each emitting its own signal. He had a receiver in his breast pocket with an ear jack that allowed him to hear the warning signals from each probe. Unfortunately, if it was used in grassy areas, any wind moving the grass would set off the probes, falsely indicating the team was surrounded. Once we discovered this flaw in the system we scrapped it. Not all technology worked out.
LeTourneau also reminded me that he took “no-shit” pills before a mission, which prevented bowel movements. I didn’t use them. Enough said on that topic.