• Weird History

What It Was Like Training For The Vietnam War

During America's long involvement in the Vietnam conflict, from 1965 to 1973, tens of thousands of young men and women were recruited and drafted into the ranks of the US armed forces. They were sent overseas to fight on the battlefield or help in various support capacities. However, whether you were conscripted involuntarily or joined up to dictate your own career path, you had to undergo training, and that was one painfully unforgettable experience.

Officially, the basic training program during the Vietnam era called for 352 total hours of instruction - 44 hours a week for eight weeks. However, trainees who underwent the program recall that the instruction, the physical and emotional challenges, and the lessons accounted for far more time than what was officially mandated. This was followed by another eight weeks of advanced training before recruits were shipped out to the front lines or on to whatever position for which they were eventually selected. From hand-to-hand combat and bayonet training, to running miles every day in full gear, to hitting the firing range, here's a look at what it was like to undergo basic training for Vietnam from the recollections and accounts of veterans who actually made it through the experience.

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  • You Hit The Horizontal Ladder Before Every Meal

    Running wasn't the only exercise and endurance test that recruits would face before getting to chow down. In some training camps, recruits were forced to repeatedly cross the horizontal ladder, colloquially known as monkey bars, before each and every meal. It was a tough order, and one that could take a serious toll on your hands, according to Larry Lettie, who belonged to the Signal Corps from 1971-74.

    One ritual was that we had to complete 88 bars on the horizontal ladder before each and every meal. Those without calloused hands had problems there. Some real tough guys from the streets of Baltimore and Detroit left a lot of their blood on those bars until they developed the necessary callouses.

  • You Were Taught Educational Lessons Along With Combat Training

    Photo: US military personnel / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In between the hours upon hours of physical training, officially referred to as PT for short, new recruits were also taught the basic lessons they'd need in order to serve in the American armed forces. This training included lessons on conduct, behavior, basic medical knowledge, and other non-physical lessons. As veteran Jerry Prater explained, "During our first two weeks of basic training, we were taught all aspects of military courtesy, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, hygiene, first aid, treatment of wounds, character guidance [and] proper marching procedures."

    This education apparently didn't include much in the way of preparing them to spend several years in Vietnam. Veteran Mike Page recalled his own basic training before being sent to Vietnam:

    The Army opted to economize on individual training - to save money and to invest as little as possible in soldiers that would be gone within two years. Consequently, there was little formal training, if any, to prepare them for dealing with the Asian population... language, customs, traditions, and psychology. So, a soldier might have received excellent hands-on training at assorted military skills. Yet, he would still be ill-prepared to confront a skillful, determined... enemy in the context of mountain warfare, jungle warfare, combat in cities, etc.

  • You Hit The Firing Range

    Photo: United States Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Nearly every day, recruits would have to march out to the firing range, which, at some forts, was very far from the rest of the training grounds or barracks. Sometimes the ranges would be on the beach, and sometimes recruits would have to camp out, meaning they would often be required to bring all their gear. However, according to Dennis Mulgannon, who was in the Special Forces during the Vietnam era, they often trained with models they didn't even end up using:

    By the time I got to Vietnam, most of the bugs had been worked out of the M-16. BUT, the problem was not with the weapon itself, in my opinion. The problem was that none of us had even held one until arriving in Vietnam, so we had zero experience. We were all experts in our knowledge and experience with the M-14, but that is a far different animal than the weapon actually being used in the war. Many of us could strip and reassemble the M-14 blindfolded. I never had formal hands-on training with the M-16. The first time I stripped one, the bolt went flying because I pulled too hard on the actuating lever. Good thing I was just cleaning it.

  • You Took Hand-To-Hand Combat Training, Which Included Bayonets

    Eight hours of recruits' total time in basic training was dedicated to learning hand-to-hand combat, largely with the intent of building up confidence in their abilities when they entered a close-quarters fighting situation. This included grappling, pugil stick exercises, and bayonet training.

    While bayonet training has largely been replaced by calisthenics and various other forms of physical fitness regimens in modern basic training, it was a large part of the drills for recruits during Vietnam. The last time US armed forces led a bayonet charge was during the Korean conflict in 1951, but that didn't mean bayonets weren't still used in interpersonal combat situations. According to Vietnam veteran Fred Childs, the drill instructors really hammered home the importance of becoming skilled, efficient combatants while they all trained and practiced with their bayonets.

    Our DI would ask us, "What are the two types of soldiers?" We would respond, "The quick and the dead, drill sergeant..." He would then say, "What kind of soldier are you?" and we would respond, "The quick, drill sergeant, the quick."