On 8 March 1965, about 3,500 US Marines landed near Da Nang in South Vietnam. This marked the point of direct intervention by the United States in the Vietnam War. Eventually, U.S. troop strength in that conflict would exceed 540,000. And as it was common and customary for U.S. troops to customize their equipment and even uniforms with art and graffiti that too became part of the conflict in Vietnam. For Soldiers in the field they found their helmets a handy bill board for them to express their politics, frustrations, humor and even bitter irony in the midst of it all.

Not this this was encouraged or permitted by military regulations which specifically forbid the practice.

Destroying Government Property

Everything soldiers use and wear on the battlefield is considered government property—uniforms, guns, helmets, vehicles, and defacing them are not without consequences. Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 108, also known as the Punitive Articles, has a long list of what are considered as the destruction of government property. Here are the maximum punishments awaiting for someone who would vandalize or damage these properties:

(1) Selling or otherwise disposing of military property.

(a) Of a value of $500.00 or less. Bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowance, and confinement for 1 year.

(b) Of a value of more than $500.00 or any firearm or explosive. Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 10 years.

(2) Through neglect damaging, destroying, or losing, or through neglect suffering to be lost, damaged, destroyed, sold, or wrongfully disposed of, military property.

(a) Of a value or damage of $500.00 or less. Confinement for six months, and forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for six months.

(b) Of a value or damage of more than $500.00. Bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for one year.

(3) Willfully damaging, destroying, or losing, or willfully suffering to be lost, damaged, destroyed, sold, or wrongfully disposed of, military property.

(a) Of a value or damage of $500.00 or less. Bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 1 year.

(b) Of a value or damage of more than $500.00, or of any firearm or explosive. Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 10 years.

At one time, these regulations covered the destruction, damaging, and defacing of government “property” in prohibiting servicemembers’ tattoos and forbidding participation in certain contact sports where an injury could keep a servicemember(the property) from carrying out their duties or deploying. A rather wide discretion was given to commanding officers in enforcement however with the result that graffitti on gear like helmets was strictly enforced in some units while in others it was permitted as a way for the troops to blow off steam. In those days the U.S. military operated under the Draft so most enlistees were compelled rather than volunteer to serve in uniform. As long as the graffiti didn’t disparage the Army, the chain of command, the United States, or was obscene troops were permitted a modest expression of free speech on their gear, usually their helmet covers or field jackets.

Gaining Popularity

173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion member Larry Wayne Chaffin on guard duty at the Phouc Vinh airstrip.
173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion member Larry Wayne Chaffin on guard duty at the Phouc Vinh airstrip. (©Horst Faas, Colorized Photo From famouspictures.org)

This practice drew media attention by June 1965. Horst Faas, a German photo-journalist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was known for his Vietnam War images. One of which was his photo of Larry Wayne Chaffin of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, with a short but powerful line across the bridge of his helmet: “WAR IS HELL.” The image also stirred more anger from anti-war protesters who were outraged against the conflict.

The Short Timer’s Helmet

The usual tour of duty with ground forces in Vietnam was one year.  When you got to your last 100 days in country you became a “Short Timer” and would count down the remaining days saying, “I’ve got forty days and a wake-up left” The troops used their helmet liners as calendars writing down the months of their tour and then crossing them off as time passed, indicating the months they survived. The rest could be devout, rambling, or satirical.

 

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
An Air Assault Trooper from the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) keeps track of the time he has left on his ‘short timer’ helmet while participating in Operation Pershing, near Bong Son. (War History Online)
A soldier wearing his helmet with “Make war not love” (Military.com)
Vietnam Air cavalry soldier, with stars and stripes behind him. Re-enacto
Vietnam Air Cavalry Trooper, with stars and stripes behind him. Re-enactor. And very much out of regs on his facial hair (War History Online)

Today, helmet covers with original art on them from Vietnam are prized by collectors of military memorabilia with prices in the hundreds of dollars for authentic pieces.  By contrast, a vintage M-65 helmet with an unadorned cover would go for about $100-150.

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